By: Robin Yassin-Kassa
In January 2011, days after the first uprising in Tunisia and the protests in Tahrir Square, the Guardian invited leading writers from across the Arab world to reflect on the revolutionary fervour sweeping the region.
Then, they expressed great optimism for the future. Here, they revisit their responses and ask, is there still room for hope?
After Tunisia: Mourid Barghouti (Palestinian poet) on Palestine in 2011
In 2012 I wrote:“The setbacks are numerous. 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; misinformation and disinformation and the threat of conservative forces taking over have materialised. Revolution might be seen as a total failure and a sad event. But a revolution is not an event. Revolution is a process – a lengthy, laborious and demanding one. It has its ups and downs and its many surprises too.”
That was the situation in Egypt under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) and then the Muslim Brotherhood. It is still the same under the military rule of General Sisi.
The catastrophe goes back to the moment when the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists maliciously imposed the issue of “identity” on the people’s revolution. “Vote for Islam” was the order of the day, thus shifting the conflict; it was no longer the people against the regime, but rather the people against one another. The battle line of the revolution, which was about the people’s “physical” needs, was replaced with a “metaphysical” one. The Muslim Brotherhood took the new presidency and the new parliament and Mohamed Morsi chose Saudi Arabia of all countries for his first visit as the revolution’s president!
The Muslim Brotherhood connived with Scaf against all secular revolutionary powers. This caused a detrimental split among the anti-Mubarak opposition front. The split allowed the military and the old regime to survive and win by allying themselves with one side then with the other, before getting rid of both. Morsi crowned the military and security generals with medals and praise but this did not prevent them from toppling him, making use of the real popular outrage against his performance.
I was very wrong, however, when I stated: “Arabs are leaving behind a repeated practice of coups that tainted their modern history with illegitimate and ruthless military rulers.”
I did not expect the trajectory of the revolution to reach these lows and to take us back full circle to a triumphant and vengeful counter-revolution. I never had any trust in the Muslim Brotherhood nor believed their slogans, but I did not expect them to choose political suicide.
Today, many see “hope” and “optimism” as obscene words. But there are two reasons to feel encouraged. One: the physical causes of the revolution on 25 January 2011 – corruption, tyranny and poverty – still exist, and have an uglier face. The situation is so dire that it is not sustainable; the revolution is still possible because nothing else is. Two: for the millions of Egyptians who experienced that glorious moment and passed through its pain and joy, the discovery of their potential, self-esteem and courage will not be easily lost – the fact that they did it once is proof that they can do it again.
After Tunisia: Laila Lalami (Moroccan writer) on Morocco in 2011
Morocco is often touted as the exception to the turbulence that the Arab spring has brought to North Africa and the Middle East. While the region was plunged into political unrest, sectarian infighting and even civil war, Morocco remained relatively calm. This is because, only a few weeks after popular protests took place in the kingdom, a new constitution was drafted and legislative elections were held.
But what do these reforms mean for Moroccans? Little, if one measures change by how the state – in the form of a police officer or a government official – interacts with the average citizen. Earlier this month, for example, trainee teachers took to the streets in Casablanca, Tangier, Fes, Marrakesh and Inezgane to protest new government measures that drastically cut their scholarships and take away job guarantees. They were met by police forces, and were brutally beaten. Later, the interior ministry released a statement suggesting that some of them had faked their injuries.
Furthermore, the Moroccan government continues to harass independent journalists who dare to cross its famous red lines: Islam, the king and the nation. Criticism of any part of this trinity is liable to land reporters in jail, often on charges that have nothing to do with journalism. Take, for instance, the case of Ali Anouzla, who had previously written critically about the monarchy, and who was accused in September 2013 of providing assistance to terrorists when he posted a link to an El País story about a propaganda video by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. He spent five weeks in prison before he was granted a conditional release. In this context, it is perhaps no surprise that the 2015 world press freedom index ranks Morocco at 130, below Afghanistan, South Sudan and Colombia.
The Makhzen (as the Moroccan state apparatus is traditionally referred to inside the country) is also particularly sensitive to criticism when it comes in the form of arts and culture. Last year, Nabil Ayouch’s movie Much Loved, which takes a close look at prostitution in Marrakech, was censored in the kingdom. This was certainly not the first film to touch on the subject of prostitution, and it seems likely that at least some part of the reaction to the movie has its roots in its depiction of wealthy Gulf tourists as the principal customers of Moroccan sex workers. But for daring to show international audiences at Cannes and elsewhere what everyone in Morocco well knows, Ayouch was accused of damaging Morocco’s image, and his movie was banned. Could there be anything more damaging to Morocco than people who prefer to live with their eyes closed, their ears stuffed and their mouths endlessly repeating that Morocco is “the exception”?
There are signs, however, that the “20 February movement” has served a larger purpose: it has demonstrated that popular pressure can force political change. In March 2012, 16-year-old Amina Filali killed herself after being pressured by her parents and a local judge into marrying her rapist. The marriage was made possible because of Article 475, a remnant of the French colonial code, which allows men to avoid statutory rape charges if they marry the minor with whom they are involved. The death of Filali sparked street demonstrations that ultimately led the Moroccan parliament, in a unanimous vote, to repeal Article 475 of the penal code.
So the 20 February movement may have failed in its immediate goals, but in showing Moroccans that sustained popular pressure can work its legacy cannot be discounted.
Laila Lalami’s most recent novel, The Moor’s Account, is published by Periscope.
After Tunisia: Raja Shehadeh (Palestinian lawyer and writer) on Palestine in 2011
Five years ago I watched the inspiring and creative ways in which the Syrian people expressed their rebellion against the Assad regime, sometimes with dance, songs, graffiti and cartoons. I thought then that when a people rise up against oppression they are bound ultimately to win. I was wrong. In today’s world, no people, certainly not in the contemporary Middle East region, can act independently, however creative the means they employ. The conflicting interests of the various powers surrounding and beyond the region all played their part in thwarting what began as a peaceful revolution against the longstanding oppressive and anti-democratic regime of the Assad dynasty. This was also true of Egypt, where the most oppressive and rich country in the region, Saudi Arabia, rallied with others to restore the ancien régime. In the case of Palestine it was the unflinching US support of Israel that enabled an increasingly rightwing government to thwart the enduring struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination. And Syria now is a cruel battleground of contending forces with almost 3 million refugees and an unimaginable quarter of a million dead.
There has long been talk, especially by the neoconservatives, of a new Middle East fragmented not into the multi-confessional states that arose after the first world war but rather reduced to fragments on ethno/religious grounds. Instead of an Iraq there would be three statelets: one Sunni, one Shia and one Kurdish. And likewise with Syria and Lebanon. In this exclusivist Middle East, Israel as a Jewish state would not stand out as the only state organised on religious grounds.
There is no doubt that many among those now fighting in the Middle East deploy terror with devastating consequences for civilians. But the failure to distinguish between the freedom fighter, with a legitimate cause who should be supported by those countries claiming to support democracy, and the criminal terrorist has resulted in deepening the chaos in the region. US law gives terrorism too wide a definition, rendering legitimate resistance to occupation and oppression illegal. The same goes for many other western powers whose laws also prejudice the cause of law whether municipal or international, as a vehicle for peaceful change and transformation. The criminalisation of any contact with groups incorrectly described as terrorists often made potentially useful negotiations illegal.
Paying lip service to democracy yet failing to support those who seek it, as the west has repeatedly been guilty of doing, has encouraged many among the disenfranchised to become cynical and desperate, and encouraged some to rally behind those who are the true terrorists.
If those who failed to support the legitimate struggle of the Arab masses that began five years ago believed that this would bring about peace in the region, time has only shown how mistaken they were. The need for a resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is recognised by most countries and could serve as a catalyst for the pacification of the Middle East region. The question is: why is no one is doing it?
As I watch the region fall into greater chaos and the people’s suffering worsening, only one thing gives me hope. After the first world war when the European powers fashioned the Middle East region in the manner they thought served their best interests, the woes of the people of the region did not spread to western countries. The Middle East suffered as Europe prospered from cheap oil and an unrivalled market for its military and other products. This time it is different. Not only are large numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Europe but terrorism is no longer a plight that only disrupts the life of the people of the region. The theatre of conflict has no borders, it is spreading into Europe. Perhaps this might motivate western powers who directly or through their surrogates have the means to take positive action to begin to work diligently and honestly to help bring an end to the wars raging in the Middle East, and enable democracy to take root.
Khaled Mattawa – Libyan poet and translator
The road to Benghazi begins at Labraq airport with its drafty barracks where luggage is delivered on a train of carts that passengers have to rummage through to retrieve their belongings. The 230km ride is interrupted by numerous checkpoints, which provide a sense of security, and dozens of vigilantes’ speed bumps that make the ride twice as long as it should be. This time of year the Green Mountains of Cyrenaica are extravagantly beautiful with lush grass plains and dramatic skies.
My companion on the trip home is Ashraf Khalil, assistant professor and head of the electric engineering department at the University of Benghazi. He is a displaced refugee, having fled his house near the university back in October 2014 when the fighting forced it to close and made the western half of the city, controlled by Ansar al-Sharia and Isis, beyond the reach of its citizens.
Taking several shortcuts through bumpy side roads, we finally make it to the Al-Noor elementary school. We stand in a parking area that has huge engine oil-stains waiting for the children to clear out. At 1pm, Al-Noor becomes the University of Benghazi’s College of Engineering. Inside, young men and women gather in groups chatting and sipping macchiatos as they wait for class. We hear a warplane flying over, and the students tell me that the explosions are probably from the Al-Sabri and Souk al-Hout front.
From the college I head to the Huna Benghazi (Here Is Benghazi!) festival. I arrive during the lunch break and find hundreds of people milling about waiting for the closing session, with dozen more streaming in as I talk to the organizers and catch up with friends. The weeklong celebration includes new plays, several concerts, poetry and fiction readings, a book fair and an arts exhibition. The mood is jubilant, but the chaos is palpable. Explosions again, probably from the Al‑Lethe front. Cigarette butts are everywhere; the wastebaskets are filled with discarded paper cups and spilling.
I leave the festival to visit the group of artists who run Tanarout, a new arts organisation. Tanarout screen European films almost exclusively in their tiny hall where they also hold creative writing and visual arts workshops for children and young artists. The power goes out as we talk. They turn on the generator briefly to make coffee. Briefly because gas and gas canisters are in short supply. The group is working with very little support and facing tremendous challenges for their selective approach. I salute them and we make plans to work together in the future.
It is early evening when I leave Tanarout. As I walk to the house where my displaced relatives are staying, I have to skip over piles of garbage oozing their now familiar smell. A nearby gas station has a long line of cars waiting to fill up. I hear explosions again, further away, perhaps from Beloun or El‑Hawwari.
Benghazi is a besieged, traumatised city fighting terrorism with a beleaguered military and a total lack of local leadership. My fellow Benghazians are also fighting a legacy of brutality, corruption and ineptitude, always with great spirit and too often with the same habits and tools. I have no doubt that Benghazi, seat of the Libyan revolution, will defeat terrorism and extremism, but it will take even more effort and numerous changes to undo all the damage the Gaddafi regime and the effort to replace him have wrought on the city’s body and spirit. The revolution is not finished, and perhaps it has just begun.
After Tunisia: Tamim Al-Barghouti (Palestinian poet) on Palestine in 2011
Reading what we all wrote in 2011 and 2012, one cannot but feel pain and anger, yet surprisingly, not despair. Due to a series of fatal mistakes, the route just got longer, but the destination remained unchanged, and the journey inevitable.
Like all major revolutions in modern history, 2011 can perhaps be described as a conflict between two ideas, two very different views of human freedom and forms of political organisation; Arab states; colonially imposed hierarchical centralised structures based on coercion and obedience, adorned with flags, anthems, borders, barbed wire and all the other trinkets of nationalism, were challenged by non-hierarchical network-based, narrative-led movements. For a moment in 2011, narrative replaced structure, conviction overcame coercion, volunteers defeated conscripts, massive decentralised leaderless networks of protesters following an idea, overwhelmed centralised hierarchies of soldiers, policemen or bureaucrats following orders.
In 2011, the narrative was anti-state, anti-police, anti-colonial, anti-Zionist and anti-capitalist. It was also pro-regional unity, be it Arab or Islamic, pro-democracy or pro‑social justice. Disagreements were manageable, because there was no hierarchy and, therefore, no coercion.
This narrative was betrayed by the Egyptian political elite, first by the Islamists then by the secularists. They agreed to a two-pronged unwritten compromise with the old regime. First, domestically, power was to be shared with the US’s main client in Egypt, the American-armed, American-trained and American-funded Egyptian military. Second, regionally, there was to be no breakup of the strategic alliance with the US, no rethinking of the peace terms with Israel, relations were to remain very friendly with Saudi Arabia and hostile to Iran. The use of sectarianism to sustain such a policy was allowed, and even encouraged. Those who rejected the deal while in opposition agreed to it once in power.
This caused the consensus-generating narrative whose mobilising ability was evident in Tahrir Square to be replaced with warring identities: Islamic versus secular in Egypt and Sunni versus Shia in the region. The US’s interests, Israel and oil, were thus preserved, and the major pan-Arab revolution(s) of 2011 turned into a series of civil conflicts with varying degrees of devastation.
The Egyptian military played both sides of the domestic divide and it now rules alone. In August 2013 the massacre it committed was the largest in the history of Cairo since the French invasion of 1798. The undead Draculas that are the Arab regimes knew they could not face a large mass of unarmed individuals, so they chose to kill children in order to turn large peaceful masses into small armed cells, and then cry terrorism. This, of course, only created a large mass of small armed cells that tore the whole system down. We are now witnessing a meltdown in the political order south of the Mediterranean and, in places, a meltdown of the social order as well.
Yet there is no room for despair. It got violent, but the demographic bulge that produced these unprecedented numbers of Arab youth, and the technological advancement that gave them an unprecedented ability to intercommunicate has made them uncontainable. States are failing and societies will have to manage without them. But societies are better equipped now to do so than ever before.
After Tunisia: Nouri Gana (Tunisian writer) on Tunisia in 2011
Over the last five years, Tunisia’s image in national and international media has changed dramatically from being the cradle of the Arab spring to becoming the Arab spring’s last hope. The disastrous degeneration of the popular uprisings into civil war (in Syria and Libya) or military rule (in Egypt) gradually consolidated Tunisia’s positioning at the centre of an emerging narrative of exception. Yet, while this may point to the nonviolent achievements of the Tunisian revolution, it simultaneously sharpens the awareness of the enormity of the country’s ongoing hardships.
No wonder the successive post-revolutionary governments have routinely pointed to the catastrophic turmoil in neighbouring Libya, not to mention the wars in Syria and Yemen, to distract from their leadership failures.
The failures of Tunisia’s democratically elected officials are too numerous to enumerate – suffice it to mention their overall failure to fulfil the central promises of the revolution as summed up in its defining slogan: “Shughl, hurriya, karama wataniyya”, that is, “Employment, freedom and citizenly dignity”. The two terrorist attacks that targeted tourists inside the Bardo National Museum on 18 March 2015 and on the sandy beach of a Sousse hotel on 26 June 2015 have decimated the tourism industry, and left thousands of families without income. The clampdown on irregular migration to Europe and the ongoing civil war in Libya further exacerbated job losses and made an already bad situation even worse.
Tunisia’s successive post-revolutionary governments have failed more drastically when it comes to the issues of freedom and dignity, even though Tunisia boasts one of the more progressive constitutions in the world, adopted on 26 January 2014. Nonviolent demonstrations have routinely been curbed violently, while police brutality and torture of detainees continue to be practised widely in prisons across the country, fuelling endless debates about the return of the authoritarian state. Civil liberties were dealt their worst blow, though, on 25 July 2015 when the Tunisian parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of an anti-terrorism law that endorses capital punishment, and so vaguely defines terrorism that ordinary protesters such as those who once brought down Ben Ali’s regime could now face terrorist charges. Meanwhile, the Islamist-secularist polarisation of the public sphere resulted in so many seductive but unproductive debates about Tunisia’s national identity, the future of Islam and the Arabic language, all of which exerted an increasing pressure on religious, linguistic, racial and sexual minorities.
Ironically, the very engineers of those debates – namely, the leaders and supporters of the Ennahda (Renaissance) and Nidaa Tounes (The Call of Tunisia) parties – formed a coalition government after the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. The marriage of convenience between these two old foes has been seen by some as another example of the politics of concession, moderation and consensus building, which has recently earned the Tunisian Quartet the 2015 Nobel prize for peace; but others are less than enthralled, given that such an alliance practically ends with the system of checks and balances, and reduces to irrelevance the role of the opposition.
It may be hard in the end to speculate on the future of the Tunisian revolution, especially with a widening narrative of national dissatisfaction that goes as far as to call for the return of Ben Ali, on the one hand, and, on the other, the continued global perception of Tunisia as a country capable of containing its internal political disputes peacefully. A lot needs to be done lest the future of the Tunisian exception should quickly become synonymous with the future of an illusion.
After Tunisia: Joumana Haddad (Lebanese writer) on Lebanon in 2011
What do you say to foreign friends who ask you if it is safe to visit Lebanon these days? Do you enlighten them about the exciting nightlife in Beirut, or do you discuss the dangerous implications of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria? Do you tell them that Chanel and Louboutin are on sale here, or that we are drowning in dumps (literally)? Do you inform them that they can “swim in the morning and ski in the afternoon”, or that our deputies still haven’t been able to elect a president? Do you go into raptures about how proud you are to be Lebanese, or do you tell them that you always spend your mornings preparing a plan B in case war breaks out all over again?
A Lebanese revolution, you say? We urgently need one, that’s for sure. But it’s not going to happen any time soon, because we are the heroes of denial: many Lebanese praise this as a survival instinct, but it is actually killing us, step by step, lie after lie. People who criticise this country’s decay are seen as discouraging the tourists with their pessimism. But this has nothing to do with pessimism: it is called facing the ugly truth.
How many more times will people in the Arab world be forced to choose between one monster and another?
We are the collateral damage of the so-called revolutions nearby. Specifically, the Syrian revolution. It is enough to read some of the graffiti on Beirut’s walls, which varies between anti-regime and pro-Assad slogans, in order to assess the weight of the situation in Syria on Lebanon’s destiny. Almost all Lebanese know that the war could at any moment be imported to Beirut. The real disaster in Syria today is humanitarian: washing blood off the streets has become routine. The smell of death is everywhere, and Syrians die by the second. People are being murdered like worthless flies because, on one hand, a criminal dictator doesn’t want to relinquish power and is committing mass murder because of that; while on the other hand, religious extremists, who are taking us 500 years backwards, are being heavily armed by regional allies who are willing to destroy the world in the name of Islam. How many more times must this pattern be repeated in the Arab world? How many more times will the people be forced to choose between one monster and another? And who are the real victims of this mayhem?
We all know them: the real victims are the civilians. We had them here, in Lebanon, not long ago. They are mere “casualties” who cease to have names, identities, dreams or lovers. They are simply a “necessary price” that has to be paid in order to nourish the “holy cause”. And the dead all look alike in the painful, deafening silence of their bodies.
In case you are wondering, what I said above was not a figure of speech; I do indeed spend my mornings preparing a plan B in case war breaks out in Lebanon all over again; a plan that involves a foreign country, a little bit of luck and a great deal of adaptability. Because I know that in Lebanon, as the French writer Jean Giraudoux so intelligently put it, peace is “just an interval between two wars”. How is that for a revolution?