by Sari Hanafi, American University of Beirut, ISA Executive Committee
Over the last four months political earthquakes have shaken the Arab World. These revolutions have toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and are making their way to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Jordan and Syria. No matter how one defines the success of these uprisings, it is clear that they are forcing dictatorial regimes toward political reform.
The importance of these revolutions resides in the meeting of social and democratic demands. We should remember, for example, that the Tunisian uprising had its beginnings in Gafsa, two years ago, in a protest over bread and unemployment. Dissident bloggers and Facebook users in the Tunisian city of Jarjis, demanded the release of political prisoners and freedom of expression. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the revolutions were initiated by young, unemployed university graduates and the working class, and, again, they were marked by the call for both social and democratic reform.
The protestors’ sensitivity to unemployment and their hostility to the neoliberal and neo-patrimonial regimes are linked to their sense of justice, dignity and freedom: freedom to join political groups and parties, freedom of expression, freedom of religious practice, freedom to write about corrupt people in the government. We shouldn’t forget that the so-called ‘Tunisian economic miracle’ is in the capital and northern coastal cities but not in the interior of Tunisia or in the south. The Arab youth felt that they had become a homo sacer, in the sense of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, meaning that this was the revolt of ‘bare lives’, of defenceless hungry bodies that the regime has stripped of political identity and the right to belong to such groups as the Islamic Renaissance Movement al-Nahda, the Tunisian Communist Labor Party and the Muslim brotherhood.
When the two presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, Ben Ali and Mubarak, became sovereigns making the ultimate decision over whether to enact a law or to suspend it, whether to ‘take life or let live’, they violated Egyptian and Tunisian rights – arresting, torturing, murdering and economically ruining their countries.
In a book that I edited last year called The State of Exception and Resistance in the Arab World, the Tunisian sociologist Mohsen Bouazizi wrote about the silent expressions of opposition among the Tunisian youth and how indifference and carelessness are deployed against the regime. But what Mohsen Bouazizi didn’t see then is how a figure such as Mohamed Bouazizi, who is from the same city as Mohsen – Sidi Bouzid –, could become so alienated from the social life as to become, echoing Touraine’s words, a subject: the driving force of a social movement.
Mohamed’s body, like that of other young Tunisians, was a target for the oppressive regime and its disciplinary authority, which aimed to strip it of its political identity. Thus, by committing protest-suicide, Mohamed created a pattern of resistance whose effectiveness is achieved at the moment of the body’s self-immolation. As the Palestinian researcher May Jayussi put it, we are at a moment similar to when the Palestinians in the occupied territories challenged the sovereign authority that sought to turn them into humiliated subjects – subjects who could be killed without any recognition, i.e. death without value. Mohamed Bouazizi and his fellows, who died by committing suicide, became actors who deliberately sacrificed themselves and by that act, inverted the relationship with the sovereign authority.
However, despite all the oppression of Ben Ali’s regime and the use of a permanent state of exception, this regime was not a total institution, controlling everything. After all, it is often the case that oppression is a sign of weakness rather than strength, as we saw when the ‘mighty’ regime of Ben Ali could not get the army to follow the oppressive rule of the police. The system also failed to silence the opposition, especially in the diaspora. This offers a ray of hope to all those struggling for democratization – to learn how to use the regimes’ weaknesses to produce change in the order.
Indeed, the symbolic dimension of these Arab revolutions is remarkable. In Egypt, the revolutionary youth are educated individuals – men and women, Muslim and Christian –who use mobiles and laptops to communicate their revolution while, at the same time, carrying handmade signs. This revolution is fully indigenous. There are no USAID or other international agencies funding glossy placards and brochures or workshops in five-star hotels. In complete contrast, the supporters of the calcified regime came with their horses and their camels, bricks, knives and sticks.
In the Arab revolutions, the Arab-Israeli conflict was not absent. Both Egyptian and Tunisian regimes, being part of what is called the ‘axis of moderation’, had a political discourse that was deeply at odds with popular feelings, which saw their regimes’ moderation as a green light for Israel’s colonial project and the siege of Gaza. I was surprised to see that even in a pro-government newspaper like al-Ahram, there was criticism of Mubarak for having received Netanyahu on January 4, the day after Israeli demolished four houses in East Jerusalem and after the bombing of Gaza in which three Palestinians were killed.
Hence, the Israeli phobia of these revolutions is well grounded. The new Arab regimes will have popular legitimacy, not requiring a Western power to support them. Most probably, Egypt will restore its position as a leading force of Pan-Arabism, strengthening the will of the Palestinian people to resist Israel’s colonial project. In interviews, protestors repeatedly used the word ‘dignity’, something they had been denied by the ousted regimes. These Arab revolutions give us food for thought about what kind of social movements are emerging in the Arab world and the interplay of internal and external actors.
Actors of the Social Movement
Two groups of actors played a crucial role in these revolutions. First, the educated non-affiliated youths deftly combined with political parties and unions that traditionally give such movements the needed momentum and mobilization. Second, there was the working class, whether members of unions or not. Many analysts, deliberately or not, miss the importance of the latter group and mythically present the youth as classless and non-ideological. In reality, these revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt represent emerging social movements that combine the classical form based on social class with a new form in which the struggle for civil rights prevails. In addition to working-class identity, the individuals construct themselves in the space between social integration and disintegration, what Touraine calls commitment and non-commitment, armed with the power of reflexivity. For instance, some activists from the 6th of April Movement are members of the Muslim brotherhood, but they also criticized the Brotherhood’s actions and how quickly it entered into dialogue with the old regime.
In Tunisia, Mohamed Bouaziz’s act sparked an uprising which began as an unorganized and spontaneous event but which was soon taken over by labor unions. The General Union of Tunisian Workers was masterful in dealing with the regime: In Northern Tunisia, especially in the capital, the leaders of the union were negotiating with the regime while their counterparts in the south were opposing it. The Bar Association also played an important role in expanding the protestors from youth to all ages, and from the regions to the capital, Tunis. One might note the prominent place of lawyers, and even judges, in social movements across the Arab and Islamic world, from Egypt to Pakistan.
As for Egypt, the revolution was started by the 6th of April Movement as a youth movement in solidarity with the labor strikes in Al-Mahalla al-Kubra. They used Facebook, Twitter and SMS, to mobilize thousands of demonstrators on January 25, and, with the help of the political opposition they reached millions of protestors in al-Tahrir Square in Cairo, Alexandria, Swiss (where workers demonstrations were prominent), Zakazik, Mansoura, etc. Each demonstrator became a ‘journalist’ carrying a mobile phone and filming state repression, thereby bypassing the official media. Indeed, we are in a period of revolutions where political and civil rights supersede ideological claims. Arab regimes as well as some Arab and western scholars and journalists thought that the Arab street could only be mobilized by political Islam. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian cases show that although Islamic movements are important, by themselves they cannot succeed, rather there is a need for alliances with other oppositional groups. The strength of Islamic movements resides in going beyond simplistic slogan “Islam is the solution” toward freedom and democracy – joining forces with other oppositional parties.
But what about human rights associations and civil and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? Many donors and international organizations limit their view of civil society to these ‘depoliticized’ associations, thinking they would be the ones to carry the winds of change. These associations played an auxiliary role in relation to the syndicates and opposition parties, disseminating information about casualties and death tolls, urging international powers, at both official and unofficial levels, to take firm positions against the regime. Therefore, one of the most important features of civil society was the synergy between syndicates and parties and NGOs. It is time for donors who focus only on NGOs to extend their support to all those institutions not only to avoid the inflation of NGOs, but to strengthen the syndicates and parties which will, in turn, feed the NGOs with fresh talent.
In contrast with the Eastern and Central Europe revolutions, these two revolutions do not have a unified opposition leadership. Rather, we witness revolutions without leaders, fragmentation without organization, although over time this has improved. Mass media, although less important, nonetheless did inform people of what is going on, especially when the national Tunisian and Egyptian TV stations were completely misinforming their publics. On January 26th, Egyptian TV showed a cooking program, as if nothing was happening in the streets. Channels such as Al Jazeera, BBC Arabic and France 24 transmitted images sent to them from the mobiles of the activists, providing information and analysis. I should stress that Al Jazeera turned from the ‘principal of non-interference’ in internal Arab affairs to a stance of ‘solidarity’ with Arab public grievances.
Finally, we can only hope that this wonderful uprising is a starting point for a process of democratization – a process that will be full of minefields. Whatever else, people will no longer be convinced that the only choice is between the stability and security of a dictator and the danger of Islamic extremism. Mao Zedong’s old motto is pertinent: “There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent.” For the immediate future we should expect many difficult moments and a lot of negotiation with the Army that has taken power in both Tunisia and Egypt.