Has the Arab Spring Already Forgotten Its Mission?

Article Summary
The Arab revolutions have consistently espoused slogans such as “freedom” and “democracy.” However, without a solid understanding of what these terms really mean, the Arab Spring may end up recreating the old despotic order, writes Karam Helou.

The Arab Spring movement has reached an impasse. Given the failures that followed the revolutions, some are questioning the assumptions upon which the revolutions were based. This is not what the revolutionaries predicted. The fear that characterized the relationship between government and society during the dictatorial regimes has returned, worse than before. In Egypt, it seems that Mubarak’s methods are still in effect and that freedom still has not blossomed in the way that the thousands of young people, who have risked their lives or even died, dreamed that it would. Libya is in chaos with civil, tribal, regional and ethnic conflicts. Yemen is threatened with partition due to conflicts between the north, the south, gangs and tribes. Syria appears to be sliding into a civil war that may fragment it into religious, sectarian and ethnic groups.

In our opinion, all of this is because the Arab revolutions, which arose under the slogans of revolutionary liberalism, did not have an attendant liberal revolutionary vision upon which a new Arab world could be established. The revolutions are still held captive by the same ideological logic that they sought to bring down. The Arab uprisings do not possess a liberal vision toward the state, citizenship, change, freedom, democracy or society — not to mention communities, women or human rights. Because of this confusion, it was only natural that the Arab revolutions reproduce the same kind of authoritarian and destructive mentality that has infringed upon religious and ethnic minority rights, and has exposed these minorities to the dangers of displacement. It was also natural that oppressive views and backward practices toward women would remain. There have been calls to exclude women and deny them normal lives and their human rights even in Tunis, which was a pioneer in the reformist discourse on women. Under such circumstances, the decline of the nationalist discourse was not surprising, nor was the increase in radicalism that existed before nationalism. As a result, ethnic, sectarian and regional ties reappeared, replacing national and Pan-Arab ties. Even democracy was rejected, since it was viewed as a threat to identity, heritage, tradition and values. So, in our opinion, a critical assessment of the Arab revolutions’ slogans is crucial.

The “change” slogan that dominated the revolutions implied that the Arab world has turned or is turning toward a new and different world. But the world that seemed to be fading has fully reappeared with all its components, dashing all hopes. Change and revolution will not happen if these terms only mean overthrowing the regimes without also overthrowing the mindset upon which the regimes were founded and which sustained them all this time. A real revolution cannot be produced without a deep and serious change in priorities.

The term “government” was confused with an authoritarian regime, so its downfall was legitimized without realizing that the focal point of nationalism in the Arab world is the government. Therefore, bringing down the government would also bring down national unity, causing everyone to revert to tribal and sectarian ties. If bringing down authoritarian regimes is legitimate and even obligatory, then it is also obligatory not to undermine the state, nor its legitimacy and unity. Doing so would mean regressing to a backward era when there were no states.

The “democracy” slogan was emptied of its liberal content and turned into a mechanism for a new despotism. True democracy contains liberal notions that cannot be compromised: individual freedom of opinion, belief and expression, and full equality among people, as well as between men and women so that women are represented politically and socially. Democracy also means having a civil society, a social contract and unalienable human rights.

The notion of “society,” with its apparent and hidden crises, was misunderstood. There is no successful revolution or change movement that does not address the challenges of unemployment, illiteracy, deteriorating scientific and cultural advances, stagnant development and irrationality. Without a vision to confront these challenges, Arab societies will remain subjected to conflicts that may lead to chaos or civil war.

In our opinion, this is the vision that will transform the Arab revolutions into true revolutions. Otherwise, we will keep waiting for an Arab Spring that may never come.

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