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Spring fever: Arab writers reflect on a tumultuous year

Staff Reporter

A year after it began, eight Arab writers reflect on what became known as the Arab Spring.

On January 14 last year Tunisian president
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to step down. Then on January 25 millions of Egyptians took to the streets. Here eight Arab writers reflect on what became known as the Arab Spring

Tamim al-Barghouti
In a piece I wrote for the Guardian, published on January 27 last year, only two days after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution, I said: “Now the wave is coming. I will venture to say that the Egyptian regime has already fallen: it might take some time, but the fear, the perception that the regime is invincible, has gone once and for all.”

I also said: “Revolutions travel, and in the Arab world they travel faster — Tunisia sent out the message that client regimes fall—that if we can drive the empires out, we will surely be able to drive out their vassals.” Both predictions came true—Mubarak’s regime fell and revolutions spread across the Arab world.

But I also made a third prediction. I said: “Cairo knows and Cairo moves. Ramallah worries that an empowered Cairo means an empowered Gaza, and Tel Aviv and Washington know that, instead of just Iran, they will now have to worry about Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine all at once.”

This one has yet to come true—my argument here is that it will.

On the first anniversary of the Egypt uprising, the M&G takes a look at the iconic moment in the country’s history that led to the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak.
In Egypt power went from Mubarak to his generals. But they are incompetent and weak. Seeing how their commander-in-chief was abandoned by his old allies, they have little faith in American support. They also know they can’t shoot at large crowds. They do order their troops to shoot but only at small demonstrations. When, in retaliation for such killings, the squares fill up, the generals back down and offer concessions.

These are usually not enough, which results in another round of small demonstrations, killings, million-man marches and then concessions again.

Despite the casualties, Tahrir Square has been ruling Egypt almost as much as the generals. If Egypt is bound eventually to break away from the grip of the military, the United States will have lost a strategic ally that it can compensate for only by establishing a friendly regime in Syria. But American support for the Syrian opposition is more harmful than useful, as it allows the Damascus regime to portray the opposition as an American pawn. This, coupled with fear of a sectarian civil war between the Sunnis and the Alawites, is keeping people in Damascus and Aleppo at home.

In addition, even to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who are most sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, a civil war in Syria or a pro-American regime that would relieve Israel from Hezbollah’s pressure to the north is a direct threat to Cairo’s national interests. A free Cairo will maintain an anti-Israeli Damascus. If the Syrian foreign alliances are maintained, an Egyptian-Syrian-Lebanese, Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi alliance in the Middle East will emerge that is strong enough to counter, and even threaten, American influence in the region and dictate the outcome of any settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In short, the entire region will achieve independence. It might take some time, maybe years, but freedom from colonialism and neocolonialism is inevitable.

Tamim al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet. He is a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies

Laila Lalami
What I will always treasure about 2011 is the taste of freedom. Having grown up in a dictatorship, I relished the sight of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali squirming in his seat last January, clearly at a loss for words, unsure what he should do to stem the tide of change in Tunisia.

I knew right away that the Tunisian revolution would inspire democracy activists in North Africa and the Middle East.

In my country, Morocco, it led to the birth of the February 20 Movement, a coalition of young activists of diverse and even divergent political convictions, but who share the same goal: turning Morocco into a parliamentary monarchy, where the king reigns but does not govern. Almost immediately, the regime pushed back against the movement by calling its members atheists, separatists, Islamists, agents provocateurs funded by the West and other sobriquets designed to isolate them from the mainstream.

But on February 20, co-ordinated marches took place in 57 cities and towns throughout the kingdom. They were well organised and well attended and represented enough of a threat that, on March 9, only 17 days later, King Mohammad announced that he planned to reform the Constitution.

I couldn’t help but notice that the Mennouni Commission, which was set up to draft a new Constitution, was appointed directly by the king and accountable only to him. How could a fundamentally non-demo-cratic entity deliver democratic change? Yet the king’s announcement immediately garnered him wide praise in the West, particularly in France and the US, with the result that world media attention shifted to bloodier and more chaotic uprisings elsewhere in North Africa. They made for better television.

Although Morocco’s new Constitution recognises the language of the indigenous Amazigh people as an official language and gives the winning party in legislative elections the right to form a government, it does not limit the powers of the monarch. The king can still dissolve Parliament at will; he chooses all provincial governors and the heads of national companies; and he is still the decider in military and religious affairs. In addition, his person is considered “inviolable”, a stipulation that stifles any criticism of him or his policies.

The new Constitution isn’t so much a step towards democracy as a slight shift from autocracy to lighter autocracy.

In November legislative elections brought an Islamist party, the pro-royalist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), to power. The success of the PJD in the elections was no doubt owed to the fact that it was untested and, therefore, untainted by the corruption, for which parties already in power were notorious.

In accordance with the new Constitution, the PJD’s leader Abdelilah Benkiarne, was named prime minister and charged with forming a government. However, three recent developments cast doubt on the ability of the regime to reform. In early December the king appointed Fouad Ali el-Himma, the bête noire of the February 20 movement, to the post of royal adviser. Himma is a former classmate of the king who has risen to become one of the most powerful and least popular political figures in the country. This is a clear signal that the opinions of democracy activists and Moroccan voters alike do not count. (Himma’s party had a poor showing in the elections.)

Also in December the king named 28 new ambassadors without consulting the prime minister or the Cabinet, as required by the Constitution. In January he finally appointed the new Cabinet, chosen by Benkirane, but forced several of his close allies into key ministries.

The past year has made patently clear that no Arab regime will reform unless it is pressured to do so by the people and that that pressure must be maintained. In the case of Morocco the new Constitution, however imperfect, would not have been possible without the February 20 Movement.

But the movement, however well intentioned it is, has failed to put sufficient pressure on the regime.

Still, it cannot be written off. As I write, democracy marches are still being held every week in Morocco and their slogans now include something no one would have dared say a year ago in this monarchy: “Long live the people.”

Laila Lalami is a Moroccan-born writer and critic, and associate professor at the University of California, Riverside

Alaa Abd el-Fattah

I think we were all surprised by the speed with which Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fell. We defeated the security establishment in one day, the thug militia in another and found that the ruling National Democratic Party was made of straw.

In a way, the battle we’re engaged in now is the battle we would have expected to fight against Mubarak, but instead we’re fighting it against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

And it’s also surprising that the council should have revealed its true face so early. It would have made more sense for its members, because they presented themselves as protectors of the revolution, to allow at least some reforms. We expected them to keep hold of foreign affairs, and the whole varied security system, as well as military affairs of course, but allow reforms and so invest in the popularity of the ­military as an institution.

This would have allowed them to remain kingmakers and to intervene in the economy at critical moments to protect their interests. We thought they would basically try quietly to protect the interests of the US and Israel and keep their influence on politics and the economy, but drop the more flagrant manifestations of the regime that had angered people so much.

And, frankly, we thought it would be very difficult for us to expose this and deal with it effectively. But the council absolutely insisted on maintaining the corruption of the old regime and continuing the regime’s attempts to corrupt and manipulate the judiciary; it seems heavily invested in maintaining the shape of the old regime. The effect of this has been that the revolution continues—against the council.

In the 18 days from January 25 to February 11 it seemed that the people did not want to destroy the state; they wanted to rescue it. The actions of the council, however, have in a sense clarified the situation. Although many people still pay lip service to the importance of the state and the armed forces as a pillar of it, what is happening on the ground is an insistence on achieving the goals of the revolution. This is what the workers’, farmers’, students’ and civil servants’ strikes and industrial actions are all about.

People are not looking for good governance any more but for a more profound change. There is a fundamental questioning—at the level of action—of what the state is or should be. The problem is that we have the actions but we have not developed the discourse to match them. Our actions are ahead of our discourse.

I’m optimistic. I believe our revolution will continue.

In the elections the people elected the revolution whenever they found someone who really represented it—otherwise they went to what they knew. We have a huge amount of work to do. But I believe that in this coming year the people will corner Parliament into becoming loyal to the people and acting in response to their demands, not to whatever it thinks it has scripted.

The revolution will not seize power but will push those in power towards its aims.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah is an Egyptian blogger. He was jailed for 56 days for refusing to recognise the authority of the military prosecutor. He was released on December 25. Four thousand young Egyptian civilians are serving military jail sentences

Mourid Barghouti
Optimism or pessimism is the question a year after the Arab revolutions. Having in mind all the setbacks, which have been many, I am optimistic.

The revolutionary forces are still being demonised, killed, tortured or kidnapped and sent to military trials. Justice is still far away and has not been done yet—killers of the demonstrators are still at large and are being protected, the official media is still the same box of lies and misinformation and disinformation and the threat of conservative forces taking over has materialised.

The revolution might be seen as a total failure and a sad event. But a revolution is not an event; it is a process—a lengthy, laborious and demanding one. It has its ups and downs and its many surprises too. A coup d’état is an event with immediate, obvious and decisive results. The good thing is that Arabs are leaving behind a repeated practice of coups that tainted their modern history with illegitimate and ruthless military rulers. These rulers’ most treacherous crime was the killing of political life in their countries, where a Parliament is not a Parliament, a party is not a party, opposition is not opposition and laws are not laws.

The past year has seen millions of Arabs discussing political issues. They are the guardians of their own dream, regardless of any official arrangements, including the election results. The banned Islamist groups, the only well-organised groups and the clear winners in ballot boxes, are now under public scrutiny.

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian An-Nahda party, gave in Tunis a simple answer to a journalist who asked him whether his promises were genuine: “If we don’t fulfil our promises we’ll hear it again: Irhal! [Leave!]”

If a single scene could summarise the current historic moment in the Arab world, it would be that horizontal image of Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, lying helplessly and with half-closed eyes on a stretcher behind the court bars juxtaposed with the vertical, flying image of Ahmad el-Shahat, the young Egyptian who climbed the 21 floors to the top of Israel’s embassy in Cairo to rip down its flag. The future is coming.

Mourid Barghouti is a Palestinian poet

Raja Shehadeh
Palestine was never going to have an Arab Spring, not as long as it remained occupied. But the uprisings taking place in Arab countries give us hope.

Before January 2011 the Palestinian predicament seemed desperate. Israel had a free hand build settlements and was refusing even to halt its colonial activities pending the negotiations with the Palestinians. All we got from our “Arab brethren” was advice that our leaders are better off doing Israel’s bidding.

It was difficult then to conceive of an improvement in our lot and the possibility of ever mustering the power to bring to an end the occupation and the establishment of a ­Palestinian state.

Then, when we least expected it, uprisings began in Tunis and spread to Egypt and Syria. Regimes that effectively protected Israel and stood silent in the face of its policies of oppressing and colonising the Palestinians were falling. This was no less true of countries that did not have peace agreements with Israel, such as Syria, as it was of Egypt.

By entering into the 1978 Camp David treaty with Israel, Egypt gave the illusion that peace would be possible without justice to the Palestinians. The late president Anwar Sadat effectively traded Sinai for Israel to have a free hand in the West Bank, where the pace of settling Israeli Jews began to increase and has never abated.

Ironically, in so doing, Sadat might have been ushering in the eventual undoing of the Israel its founders envisioned.

The rise of democracy in Arab countries helps defeat one of the major arguments employed by Israel in the psychological warfare it wages against us—its argument, which many a Palestinian has accepted, that we would not be better off in an Arab country. The treatment Palestinians received at points of entry to Arab countries bore this out.

Until recently Israel could boast that it was the only country in the Middle East where the president and high officials could be put on trial. But now that Mubarak is on trial, this is no longer the case. With democracy on the rise, the will of the people is more likely to be respected and there is no doubt where their sympathies lie.

With the Arab Spring, one political lesson can be learned from observing political developments—real change happens slowly. Whoever expected that the Arab Spring would create immediate revolutionary change was dreaming. Yet where would we be without our dreams?

Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer and writer in Ramallah and is the author of
Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, which won the Orwell prize in 2008. His new book, Occupation Diaries, will be published later this year

Nouri Gana
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Yemen’s Abdullah Saleh continue to prove that dictators die hard; the counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt and Tunisia continue to prove that dictatorships die even harder.

After Tunisia had kick-started the Arab uprisings of 2011, it is now on the uncharted road of democratisation, pluralism and coexistence in a world braced for economic and financial crisis. In the same manner that thousands of protesters flocked to Avenue Bourguiba on January 14 to prompt the unceremonious exit of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, thousands of voters flocked to polling booths on October 23 and queued for hours to cast their vote in Tunisia’s historic constituent assembly elections.

Despite the more than 100 parties and hundreds of independents who took part in the elections, Tunisians voted in the greatest numbers for the parties and political leaders who have a long history of resisting and opposing former president Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

Tunisians dealt a sobering blow to the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime and to the old and new parties that based their entire electoral campaign on the denigration of the Islamic party, Ennahda. By voting for the three parties that now form the coalition government—Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol—Tunisians wanted, in part, also to correct the incalculable wrongs (exile, imprisonment and torture, for example) that were inflicted on the militants of these parties under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

There have been, and continue to be, fears that Tunisia might slide into a theocracy one day but these fears are unrealistic given the liveliness of public debate and the irrevocable rights of speech and protest that Tunisians have earned. The challenge for post-revolutionary Tunisia is rather to stay clear of interest- and identity-based politics, which continue to fuel debate and appropriate attention away from the more urgent questions of creating jobs, offering reparations to the families of the martyrs and bringing the members of the old regime to justice.

Democracy is on the march in Tunisia, but let’s hope responsibility is not on the wane. Tunisia’s obligation to the Arab world—indeed, to the world—is not to let the democratising process fail and to continue to inspire insurrection and revolt, and, at the same time, bring economic stability.

Tunisia will be praiseworthy if it succeeds, but the international community will be blameworthy if it fails to help the country to fulfil its obligations.

Nouri Gana is a Tunisian writer and assistant professor of comparative literature and near-Eastern languages and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles

Joumana Haddad
Are the revolts that occurred and that are occurring in the Arab world real revolutions? Are they also women’s revolutions? The prognostics of the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan revolutions are not promising, to say the least, and we are still far from being rid of the patriarchal monopolisation of private and public life. One form of dictatorship seems to be getting replaced with another form: religious integralism.

What kind of revolts are these if women are content to be just pawns “mobilised” at will and neglected when decisions should be made? What if these revolutions did not turn the tables of patriarchy on the heads of those oppressors and if they will bring forth only a new form of backwardness and subjugation?

In view of the rotten Arab regimes (those that have fallen and those that undoubtedly will) that specialise in ignoring women’s rights and debasing them, when will women in the Arab world move from the cry of “give me my rights” to the cry of “I will take my rights with my own hands”?

When will the Arab woman believe that she was not born just to be married, bear children, obey, hide, be sold by and serve the men of her family? When will she realise that all talk of democracy is bullshit without equality with men? And that all talk of change and modernisation is bullshit, if her situation and position are not re-evaluated?

When will she become furious over the gross insults that she is subjected to and aim at erasing her daily, in all fields? When will she stop participating in the fortification of the patriarchal system with its stale values and barbed wires?

When will the “bomb” of Arab women explode? I am speaking here of the bomb of her ability, ambition, liberty, strength and rights. The bomb of her anger at what is imposed on her and which she mostly accepts uncritically.

The bomb of her self-confidence. That is the revolution we need. And that is the revolution we deserve.

Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese writer and journalist, author of I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, published by Saqi Books

Samar Yazbek
It’s not easy to describe exactly how I feel about what’s going on in Syria. It’s like talking about a Surrealist painting where I’m both the artist and the colours; or I might even go so far as to say it’s like seeing my own heart suspended in front of me and I’m supposed to talk about it somehow, like a scene from some fantasy movie: a beating heart running away as its body chases after it.

In Syria great truths overturn history; they are products of the impossible. Simple and ordinary folk are the stuff of proverbs and epics in demanding their freedom and dignity in the face of the killing machine and in spite of all the mechanisms of media deception practised by the regime.

Here is a new history on which the whole world must concentrate. The people’s revolution has been defined by two pillars that embodied the moral foundation of the intifada: dignity and non-violence. Individual autonomy is the most important human right one can ask for, through a commitment to the culture of life and peace, even when confronted with the barbarism of a military-security killing machine that has been in power for more than 40 years.

Those shouts for freedom and dignity rang out from the most impoverished and marginalised and miserable cities and small towns, before engulfing all of Syria. Despite all the attempts on the part of the regime to force the intifada into the furnace of a civil war and to encourage people to take up arms to strangle the essence of the uprising, it remains unable to turn this revolution into a guerrilla war fought by the citizens of our united country.

A danger looms on the horizon in the form of distractions arising from the regional, Arab and international situations. But the tricks concocted by the regime and implemented by the security apparatus and the pro-regime thugs, shabiha, against the people of our united country have been unmasked.

The real fear now is for the scorched-earth policy pursued by the regime in those cities that have risen up against besiegement, starvation and bombardment, risen up against those who would redirect the intifada away from its moral and nonviolent course in such a way that people would have to take up arms to defend themselves. But weapons are the opposite of freedom’s essence.

The heroism displayed by the Syrian people allows me to be optimistic. Their path of resistance makes me ever more certain that this intifada is destined to become a precedent for the whole world. The pure meaning of courage is to stand unarmed and alone in the face of murder and all the firepower that can be mustered by cowardly oppression. (Translated by Mas Weiss)

Samar Yazbek is a Syrian writer and journalist. On August 2 last year she wrote about her experience of being detained after a demonstration. She is one of the Beirut 39 authors

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