In the Midst of Chaos, an Invincible Arab Spring
Protesters are back on the streets across the Arab and Muslim world, in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Sudan, crying out the famous slogan of the Arab Spring: “Al-shab yurid isqat al- nizam!” (The people want the fall of the regime!) The protesters who have taken to the streets this year—including thousands who have been injured recently in Iraq—still aspire to achieve freedom (hurryia) and dignity (karama). The failure of previous revolts has led many to predict the death of this ongoing movement. But the emergence of a new wave of uprisings every few months is further proof that what started in Tunisia in 2010 was only the beginning of a process that could continue for generations to come. In Syria this month, protesters against the Assad regime marched holding signs that said, “Syria—Egypt—Iraq: You’ve revived the spirit of the Arab people, from the [Atlantic] Ocean to the [Persian] Gulf!”
The Arab Spring was never going to be a single event, a single attempt to topple one particular ruler or replace one regime with another. As Columbia University Iranian Studies professor Hamid Dabashi notes in his 2012 book The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism, the movement is an “open-ended” work that marks a “new language of revolt.” Through direct action and civil disobedience, many nations in the region have seen a shift from the long-entrenched politics of fear and obedience to one of resistance. Despite its failure to fulfill protesters’ aspirations for functioning democracy, the movement that began in 2010 profoundly changed the political consciousness of the region. The revolts have enabled their participants to not only dismantle a deeply embedded system of political fear, but also to gain political maturity and faith in their own ability to make change. They have also reshaped citizens’ relationship with the sovereign, setting a crucial precedent for challenging the persistence of authoritarianism.
As citizens of the Arab world, we had long been taught to blindly obey the leader and never dare challenge authority. Prior to 2010, politics was, for many of us, a red line that we were unwilling to cross. This fear of dissent had been instilled in us by the ruthless actions of our rulers—such as the 1982 Hama massacre in Syria, in which President Hafez al-Assad ordered a military assault on protesters that killed up to 40,000 people and decimated entire neighborhoods. We had become too afraid to express our resentment, voice our opinions, or protest against injustice.
The Arab Spring was a massive shift, one that has thus far resulted in military and political regimes’ continued use of violence to crush the ambitions of protesters and teach them the consequences of resisting the status quo. One might expect that this would destroy any hope for change—especially in Syria, where, as George Washington University professor Marc Lynch noted in 2013, “The promise of the Arab Spring [gave] way to Syria’s highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.”
Syrians and their brethren elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world are fighting persistent, deeply rooted dictatorships dating back to the 1950s and ’60s; these postcolonial regimes are “all part and parcel of a colonial geography we…inherited,” as Dabashi notes. They have been propped up by complex networks of national and international alliances that have shaped the face of Middle Eastern and North African politics for the last four decades. It may be years before any of these dictatorships can be uprooted completely.
But the people have not given up. Even in Syria, protesters in Deir al-Zor have returned to the streets, demanding the withdrawal of Iranian-backed militias and the right to return to their home villages; in Idlib, the last opposition-held Syrian province, protesters stormed a Turkish border post, then later marched in solidarity with protesters in Egypt and Iraq. These actions prove that even ruthless repression and tyranny cannot deter the resistance.
Indeed, the fact that citizens of the Arab world have already made such great sacrifices in their fight against “internal occupiers” could inspire them to continue, notes Syrian intellectual Burhan Ghalioun, a longtime critic of the Assads who was the head of Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, between 2011 and 2012. “No one now can stop the people from participating in politics and taking to the streets to assert, through peaceful protests, their existence, opinions, and interests, and to fight for their rights,” wrote Ghalioun earlier this year. “And no ruling elites from now on can enforce security and stability, and stay in power, without taking into consideration the opinion of the public and their interests and existence.”
Perhaps the Arab Spring is better understood as a series of waves. The first wave, which started in 2010, has set a solid ground for revolution and resistance, diminishing the initial psychological barriers to protest and announcing the arrival of a new era. The second wave marks the revival of the spirit of resistance and hope in the region—starting with the Sudanese protests that began December 2018, followed by the Algerian protests in February, and then, in September and October, another round of protests in Egypt and Iraq. People from across the Arab world were gladdened by these new upheavals, which showed that the revolutionary spirit had not waned, and that all the attempts of counter-revolution forces to scare them had proved futile.
Of course, the fate of this second wave of unfolding protests remains uncertain. In Sudan, demonstrations resulted in the toppling of the dictator Omar al-Bashir in April; in Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted that same month. But protests continue in both countries, as their residents continue to push back against recalcitrant military and political regimes. In Egypt, thousands of people have been rounded up by authorities in a massive crackdown on protests over the last few weeks. And across Iraq, security forces have responded to this past week’s demonstrations decrying unemployment, corruption, and poor public services with tear gas and live ammunition. Over 150 Iraqis have been killed so far, and more than 6,000 have been injured—a casualty count that has forced the country’s prime minister to admit on Monday, October 7, that the military had been using excessive force against demonstrators.
Despite the devastating violence of the Iraqi protests, political awareness is continuing to build across the Arab world—and that gives us reason to be hopeful. Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, a prominent 19th-century Syrian intellectual, noted in his 1902 book The Characteristics of Despotism and Deaths of Enslavement that liberation from oppression and tyranny begins with knowledge, political awareness, and the realization of the public’s power—for nothing frightens tyrants more than an educated public who recognize their own capacities. It is true that the people of the Arab world have not yet won. But their resilience proves that they haven’t lost, either!
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions…
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation
That will overcome defeat.
—Nizar Qabbani, “Footnotes to the Book of the Setback,” 1967