by Guest Contributor Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie*
There is little doubt that we are witnessing a profound transformation of the political realities in the Arab world. At the same time, these changes are occurring during a remarkable historical moment. The global economy is more fragile than it has been for generations. The US Empire is in a state of partial withdrawal due to over-extension, growing anti-war sentiment domestically, and the adverse effects of the Great Recession. Unrest is not sporadic, isolated, and local, but rather continuous, widespread, and global. What is the nature of the Arab Revolution? Why did it start and where is it headed? Most important, what is the potential for the emergence of new forms of political democracy, social equality, and regional autonomy in the Arab world? Let me introduce my position by stating what the Arab Revolution is not.

First, this isn’t an “Arab Spring.” Countless journalists, commentators, and twitters have used the phrase, but it is wrong. 2011 is neither 2005 Iraq—when US commentators spoke of a regional transformation spearheaded by the successful overthrow of the Hussein regime—nor is it 1968 or 1848 Europe, the locus classicus of the springtime metaphor for people’s liberation. It is misleading in several ways. The Arab street has not been dormant for ages after which it suddenly awakens and springs to life. The region’s people have resisted Ottoman, British, French, and Israeli colonization, as well as homegrown dictators, for a very long time. This incorrect view of an Arab awakening is analogous to delinking the 1790s Haitian Revolution from a tradition of slave resistance; or ignoring the protest tradition in southern black communities before Rosa Parks’ courageous actions in 1955. Furthermore, this is not springtime because of the implication that it is an interlude that quickly ends—both the 1848 and 1968 European uprisings failed—to be replaced by a new season. Finally, activists and participants reject labels like spring and uprising. I recall my earlier preference for intifada (Arab: uprising) and being admonished by one young Egyptian activist that this was their revolution.

Second, the Arab Revolution is NOT concatenation—a linked series of events. In an editorial for the spring 2011 edition of the influential Marxist journal New Left Review, historian Perry Anderson argues that 2011 represents a “concatenation” occurring on only three prior occasions: the fall of the Soviet bloc regimes, 1989-1991, the European Revolutions, 1848-49, and the Spanish American Wars of Liberation, 1810-1825. The historical analogy is inaccurate. All three previous outbreaks did not share the cultural commonalties of the Arab world. Although Islam is diverse (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali schools of law in Sunni Islam; sectarian dissenters like Shi’a, Sufi, Druze etc), and each nation-state reflects its local particularities as exemplified by football clashes between Egypt and Algeria during 2011 World Cup qualification, none the less a mostly Arab-speaking and Muslim majority world has created a region unified by basic cultural realities. In addition, while Europe and Spanish America faced oppressive systems, the Arab street shared a common struggle against generational geriatric autocracies (Gaddafi, Ali Saleh, Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, etc.) and successor dynasties (Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria). The flight of Ben Ali from Tunisia and the resignation of Mubarak in Egypt were the consequence of successful protest actions not simply concatenation. Most important, the Arab street has been waiting collectively to explode. The spark was the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, followed by the “Revolution Day” in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. As Slim Amamou, the Tunisian Minister of Youth and Sport in early 2011 put it: the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were both one: “One world, one revolution.” The present opposition against the Assad regime in Syria is part of this revolution, not the latest in a linked series.

Third, 2011 is not a social media event: the so-called “twitter” or “Facebook” revolution. An early February 2012 Newsweek article on 30-year old Egyptian Wael Ghonim told readers in gushingly dramatic terms that Ghonim’s “day job was at Google, but at night he was organizing a revolution.” Media outlets favor such explanations because—surprise, surprise—these reflect the media favorably! There is no doubt that social media has played an influential role in the Arab revolt. Just compare the largely traditional forms of media—print, radio, television—that communicated the 1989-91 fall of the Soviet Empire or the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement in the US from the 1950s though 1970s. In 2011, Qatar-based Al Jazeera, Dubai-based Al-Arabiyya, western media outlets like the BBC, CNN, Reuters, etc, along with instant messaging played a crucial role in both revealing state-sponsored violence as well as mobilizing mass protest. It is the roles of Facebook and Twitter that have been grossly exaggerated. Many of the region’s 300+ million people are not personally wired because they live in the poor world. Most young Arabs do not tote Blackberries, but visit Internet cafes or access various dial-up accounts. In addition, it is clear that social media had more of an impact in Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution (where the revolution is live and televised in contrast to Gil Scott Heron’s great song!) than it did in either the eight-month war in Libya—where a poorer population not only had less access to social media but ultimately relied on a more conventional military technology to win their struggle—or on Syria’s bloody streets today.

So, if it is not spring, not concatenation, and not social media, then WHAT is the Arab Revolution? Let us take three of its central characteristics—youth, anti-Jihadi, and global—in turn.

To begin with, it is being driven by the shebab (Arab: youth). Young folks spearheaded the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. It is unlikely, for instance, that the January 25th demonstration in Cairo would have occurred without the organization provided by the April 6th Youth Movement (Arab: Harket Shabab 6 April) begun in 2008 to support striking industrial workers. Young protesters organized many of the street demonstrations in the region. Young fighters spearheaded the armed struggle against Gaddafi much like Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the ANC) militarily opposed the South African Apartheid system; while the fighters on Syria’s streets today are mostly young males. Young men and women led the two Palestinian intifadas including Marwan Barghouti, leader of Tanzim and currently a political prisoner in Israel. He has recently called upon young Palestinians to lead a 3rd non-violent intifada in emulation of the spirit of the Arab Revolution. Moreover, it is the youth who have largely borne the cost of this Revolution. By December 2011, the death-count exceeded 20,000, ranging from 46 in Bahrain to 15,000 in Libya. Four months later in the spring of 2012, the human toll in Syria is approaching 10,000, many of them young militants and civilians. The reasons for the shebab’s leadership include long-term unemployment rates between 20 and 30 percent, a youthful generation alienated from older post WW2 national liberation struggles against European colonial powers, and new forms of telecommunications (social media, news outlets, etc.) more readily utilized by young activists.

Along with being youthful, the Arab Revolution ends the cycle begun by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Jihadis aimed to transform the Arab world by undermining existing nation-states and establishing radical Islamic theocracies all over the region. This era is over. During the last eighteen months, the Arab street has rejected religiously inspired revolutionary violence for alternative political transformations. The discussion today is about the creation of new political institutions and the rule of law, the end of corrupt and despotic regimes, and how to meet the major social and economic crises facing these socially unequal nations. This, I think, explains the nature of two reactions to the events in 2011. Many western pundits could not understand why this was not an Islamic revolution because their Islamophobia blinded them to unfolding realities. The Jihadis remained virtually silent amidst these remarkable events in contrast to a decade of social media propaganda. Indeed, the most powerful expression of political Islam in the region today is not radical but moderate Islam. Early post-tyranny regime election results suggest a regional pivot toward the center: the Ennahda Party in Tunisia; and, the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt. They imply a rejection of both secular nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Their emergence also suggests that the moderate Islamic state of Turkey is destined to play a much greater role in the region. On the other hand, we should be sanguine. How will moderate Islam treat women’s rights and their struggles for gender equality? Will the Jihadis’ appeal wax should the region return to the status quo ante?

The Arab Revolution’s third reality is its beacon of public outrage inspiring protest globally. Popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt inspired Wisconsinites to seize back their state from a corrupt and deceitful governor and his cronies in February 2011. Fueled by a 45 percent unemployment rate for youth, the massive occupation of Madrid Square, Spain, in May 2011, was patterned on the Arab Revolution. Some historical analogies to this international beacon include the 1790s Haitian Revolution that inspired slaves, abolitionists, and free blacks in the western hemisphere for generations; the Civil Rights Movement that inspired a Catholic minority in their fight for civic equality in a protestant-dominated Northern Ireland during the late 1960s; and the Black Power Movement’s influence on the development of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa during the 1970s. Furthermore, one of the major characteristics of the Arab Revolution is the occupation of public spaces. Squares, highways, and streets have been taken over as a powerful tactic to maintain pressure on the political authorities as well as galvanizing popular support both within particular nations as well as regionally. This contrasts to older tactics of marches and parades that came, passed, and were mostly forgotten. Finally, there is little doubt that public occupations in Arab cities have encouraged political mobilization for social justice around the globe from the state capitol of Wisconsin to the financial hubs of Wall Street and the City of London to the streets of Athens, Greece, to smaller demonstrations in Australia. The African world is the hub of global activism in a way not last seen since Ghana won independence in 1957.

The Arab Revolution, then, is young, trashes the Jihadis (into the dustbin of history as the Marxists would say), and inspires protest globally. Let us conclude with what it could become. In other words, what has been accomplished, and what needs to be done. This can be divided into three parts: democratization; socio-economic equality; and, regional autonomy.

The Arab Revolution promises new democratic forms of governance in the region. Tunisia’s president Ben Ali went into exile in early 2011, after being in power since 1987. A month later, president Mubarak resigned his leadership of the Arab world’s most powerful nation after thirty years. In July, Moroccans voted in a referendum for a new national constitution. On October 20, Colonel Gaddafi—who had ruled Libya since 1969—was killed after an eight-month bloody war. A month later, president Ali Abdallah Salih who ruled Yemen for 33 years was forced to resign. On the other hand, the forces of reaction are mobilizing. The generals still rule in Cairo; the Assad clan clings ruthlessly to power in Damascus; and, dynasties perpetuate in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. The Bahrain government went ahead with the Formula One Grand Prix at Manama in late April 2012 despite protests and calls for a boycott. In the short term, the military class in Egypt can only be made accountable through continued occupation of public space. The only hope for the democratization of Egypt’s political system is this daily/weekly public occupation of Tahrir Square. (To paraphrase Bob Marley: “Get Up, Stand Up, Occupy for Your Rights”). The reality in Syria is very different: Assad can only be removed by armed struggle. Neither sanctions nor the UN Security Council’s unanimous decision in late April 2012 to deploy 300 special envoys over a three-month period will suffice. Assad is killing Syrians to protect his power; Syrians need to fight back if they want to overthrow his regime. We should never forget Nelson Mandela’s aphorism: it is the oppressor that dictates the nature of the resistance. In the long term, the rule of law, separation of state and the judiciary, and independent assemblies accountable to men and women citizens are the ultimate aim of this process of democratization. This democratization must also insist on the equal and fair participation of women as legitimate political actors. For instance, in the fall elections held in Oman, it was reported that none of the 20 female candidates were chosen.

In addition, we should not forget that building democracies takes time. Writing for the London Review of Books in January 2012, Adam Schatz concluded that “the heady days of the Arab Spring have come to an end.” I would counter that we are in the early stages. It took a civil war in the mid-1600’s, three parliamentary reform Acts in the nineteenth century, and the enfranchisement of women voters in the early twentieth century for the UK to become a democracy. In the US, it took a bloody civil war during the 1860s, a federal constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920, and the Civil Rights Movement. Ordinary folk in African, Asian, and Caribbean nations are still struggling to make political elites accountable two generations after winning independence from former colonial powers. The establishment of democracy in the region will take time—two generations, two centuries, four centuries—and must be seen in terms of what the French Annales School of historical writing called the longue duree (long lasting).

The Arab Revolution could be egalitarian. The region continues to suffer from problems of youthful unemployment, lack of education, economic underdevelopment, and general poverty. To paraphrase Tunisian rapper El General (nee Hamada Ben Aoun) in his ‘Rais le Bled’ (Leader of the Country), “we are living like dogs, half of the people living in filth, and drinking from the cup of despair.” But the wealth exists. Libya’s former ruler no longer lavishes oil revenue on his hometown of Sirte, but the new government must ensure that petroleum profits benefit Libya’s 6.2 million people in terms of better health-care, improved education, and employment opportunities. Bashir Saleh Bashir, a former aide to Gaddafi, oversaw some $7 billion in national accounts and investments. He is currently on the run and reputed to be hiding in France, with perhaps French official complicity because of fears that he might spill the beans on the former French president’s cosy relationship with the former Libyan dictator. Once found, this money should be invested in the new citizenry. The Egyptian state under Mubarak used to get nearly $2 billion from the US annually, most of which went to the military. If the US is serious about supporting social equality—or preventing destabilization which is in its national interest—then it should insist that continued financial support be contingent upon public investment through educational expansion, economic start-ups, improved health-care facilities etc. This is especially urgent given the expected state deficit of $24 billion combined with shrinking revenues from reduced tourism and foreign investment. (One negative sign has been the recent renewal of US arms sales to the Bahrain government during that regime’s continued suppression of dissent.) More generally, the argument that 2011 will not be a revolution until governments and laws ensure greater gender equality is a reasonable one and demands much greater action. Contrary to sensationalist press coverage of women’s rape in Libya, virginity tests in Egypt, and the absence of women from the public sphere, many more women have marched, occupied, and died alongside men during this Arab Revolution. Women continue to work in unskilled and low-wage labor markets contributing to the global trend of the feminization of poverty. This gender discrimination must be reversed if the region is to assume greater egalitarianism.

Historical analogies are again apt. If democracies take a while, it can take even longer for egalitarianism. The US remains socially unequal as reflected in the 99 percent Occupy Movement, federal census returns reporting racial disparities in wealth-accumulation, health and well being, employment etc., as well as the egregious murder of black Americans recently demonstrated in Sanford, Florida, White Plains, New York, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Britain remains a very unequal society as evidenced by the London riots in August 2011. France’s ideological adherence to equality has been undermined by centuries of harsh colonial rule in Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. The ugly face of continued racial inequality was briefly revealed in the 18 percent of votes cast for the anti-immigrant National Front Party (re: keep France white vote) in the first round of the French presidential elections this May.

The Arab Revolution has the potential for realizing regional autonomy. For too long, ageing autocracies were supported by Washington, London, Paris, Brussels etc. The Arab Revolution has transformed this situation to the point that western governments remain uneasy with the existing situation and its potential challenge to their previous hegemony. Recent events have also rendered redundant regional bodies like the Arab League and the African Union. The former continues to flounder in Syria; while the latter’s support for Gaddafi against the popular wishes of the Libyans and their supporters delegitimized that organization in the eyes of many Arabs, Africans, and others. One positive outcome could be the emergence of new forms of regional solidarity drawing from the revolution itself beyond incestuous relations of autocracies. An independent and viable Palestinian state is more certain with democratic governments in Cairo, Damascus, and Amman. The most important long-term objective is the establishment of a regional autonomy in which Arab nation-states act primarily in the interests of their citizens rather than as satellites for their elites’ or western interests.

In conclusion, until democratization is consolidated, egalitarianism pursued throughout all levels of society, and regional independence established, the Arab Revolution remains unfinished.

* Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie is an associate professor of history at Howard University. He teaches, researches, and publishes on slavery, emancipation, and the African Diaspora. His political writings cover social protest movements, Anglo-American relations, and human rights in the modern world. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Manning Marable Memorial Conference at Columbia University, April 28, 2012.

Photo credits: Mohamad El-Hadidi.