The Arab Revolutions: Dreams and Reality

Article Summary
In a broad analysis of the nature of popular revolutions throughout time and around the world, Fawwaz Traboulsi offers his insights into where the Arab Spring is three years later and where it might be headed.

The great French novelist and writer Jean Genet wrote that "trying to think the revolution is like waking up and trying to see the logic in a dream" (Prisoner of Love). It may be that Genet's inspiring and mysterious text wants us to look for the illogical and for the roots of the dream in revolutions.

Now that the Arab revolutions have entered their third year, it is worth giving this a try. Precision in naming and thought aims at understanding the shifting paths of our lives and attempting to control them through intelligence and will.

Revolutions erupt when rulers can no longer stay in office and when the ruled can no longer bear their rulers. Three to four decades of stagnation have made this perfectly obvious. People resort to revolution when reform proves impossible, or when it fails. Revolutions would not have taken place had civil society succeeded, with their tyrannical interpretations of neoliberalism and the structural adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a quarter of a century to achieve serious reforms with Arab rulers and in the Arab community.

The Arab revolutions themselves reveal the depth of the crisis that made these revolutions inevitable. Contributing factors included unemployment, corruption, tyranny, poverty, no hope for young people, disdain for individuals and disrespect of their human worth. The Arab revolutions express their objectives through a common slogan: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity. This slogan, in turn, sets a condition for achieving these revolutionary goals: replace the current regimes.

Also read

One essential peculiarity differentiates revolutions from coups: their broad and deep popular representation, and the fact that they resort to the people to achieve their objectives. In other words, the people constitute a major force and critical player in the conflict over power and the balance of social forces. By people I do not mean the population, but a bloc of different social groups gathered by a common historical mission.

It is worth noting that no revolution succeeds entirely. History is riddled with revolutions that have failed. Even when a revolution fails, it sparks other revolutions or causes deep reforms to fully come to fruition, including radical changes in all aspects of people’s lives.

In Egypt, the "people" included everyone from marginalized capitalists and large segments of the middle classes shocked by the lack of job opportunities and social mobility, to broad masses of the unemployed, marginalized and poor urban and rural slum dwellers and others.

However, the political representation of this "people" has been varied and even contradictory. On the one hand, there are civil modernist forces seeking to overcome the authoritarian regime and to build a pluralistic and democratic state that includes economic development and social justice. On the other, there are other Islamist movements, which share a desire to dismantle the authoritarian regimes by rejecting the modern and civil elements and institutions in the Arab state, and to replace them with principles of Islamic law — including laws that distinguish between citizens based on their religious and sectarian affiliation and between men and women.

Oddly enough, the Arab revolutions were compared to all revolutions around the world, except to the closest and most similar one: the Iranian revolution. This revolution consisted of liberals, democrats and leftists on the one hand, including Marxist organizations which worked to overthrow the regime through armed struggle. On the other hand, it included Islamists seeking to reject the shah's modernist projects, especially in rural areas, and to replace the shah with a republic theocracy under the banners of Velayat-e Faqih.

This brings us to the issue of peaceful actions during revolutions. The Arab revolutions embraced force and violence. The “people” of the Arab uprisings pressured authorities to achieve reform, make change and then resorted to the use of force and violence to overthrow regimes and rulers.

The people imposed their will by occupying public squares and staging mass demonstrations and sit-ins. Trade unions went on strikes. People broke curfews and went into the streets. Protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails, while the authorities hit back by firing tear gas and bullets. They even ran over people with tanks to disperse the crowds out of the squares of action and influence.

The people's message to the rulers was loud and clear: there are no prisons that can accommodate an entire people. You will not be able to annihilate all of us.

The revolution's inclination towards armed violence came in response to the authorities' actions toward the people. Revolutionaries used the power of mass mobilization to impose their demands. In Egypt, facing the power of the people, the army was left with two options: either resort to violence with unmeasured consequences, or take off the head of the regime to salvage the system's basic components. There seemed to be an end in sight, as the president stepped downed and transferred powers to his deputy. Talks among academic and media circles began to rise about a post-revolution period following the fall of Hosni Mubarak. However, popular pressure foiled attempts to rescue the regime at the hands of the military establishment. The US changed its attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power during the transitional period as result of elections — the results of which were barely legitimate — and the support of Saudi and Qatari money.

The stage was perfectly set for the Muslim Brotherhood to win people over. The Muslim Brothers espoused a social conservatism and a cultural and religious perspective. They managed to present themselves to the world as "moderate" on Palestine, through the Israeli war on Gaza and the Western "global war against terrorism." They adopted a moderate version of Islam in the face of Islamic jihadism. This is not to mention their unbridled neoliberal economic choices, as they rushed to accept a loan by the International Monetary Fund and its conditions, and proceeded to adjust trade unions' freedoms.

During the past year, the Islamic coup d'état and monopoly of power moved front and center on the world stage. The third year of revolution will witness an uprising against this "coup d'état" and there will be a relentless struggle between two options.

In Egypt, a core group of the Egyptian people opposes the Islamist monopoly of power and a regime backed by Saudi and Qatari money and US sponsorship. This is the most obvious answer to those who claim that Arab revolutions are nothing but US, Saudi and Qatari conspiracies to disseminate the Islamist model.

Those who oppose the Islamists' monopoly of power and the options provided by the Brotherhood, Salafists and jihadists have the opportunity to take part in this struggle. They can tip the balance in favor of the demands of the people of Cairo, Alexandria, and the cities of Suez, who express their views with anger, defiance and blood.

However, those who support the outcomes of the revolutions without considering the cost of their options relinquish the dream of change. Those who expect to make political change without heeding the power of majority will only be met with defeat. Those who oppose the "political" revolutions on the grounds that they must be comprehensive and cultural will end up supporting the existing regimes.

Only revolution itself can the save the dream of the revolution from logic — and from failure.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:

  • The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
  • Archived articles
  • Exclusive events
  • The Week in Review
  • Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly
Found in: first anniversary tunisian revolution, egyptian revolution, arab
Next for you

The website uses cookies and similar technologies to track browsing behavior for adapting the website to the user, for delivering our services, for market research, and for advertising. Detailed information, including the right to withdraw consent, can be found in our Privacy Policy. To view our Privacy Policy in full, click here. By using our site, you agree to these terms.