No happy ending for a failed love

No happy ending for a failed love
6 min read
31 Dec, 2014
After the rebellion of Arab youth, there can be no return to the era of tyranny. Yet just as failed romances do not have a happy ending, we cannot expect bloodthirsty regimes to have a happy ending.
Many of the achievements of the Arab Spring have since been undermined [Getty]

A number of important Arab countries were witness to mass popular mobilisations aimed at the overthrow of tyranny between 2011 and 2012.

The calls for the overthrow of the regimes also communicated calls for freedom, dignity and social justice. Any mass mobilisation that begins outside of the confines of the ruling regime and aims to change it is by definition a revolution, and these are distinct from coups de etat from within the regime by virtue of their popular character.

They go beyond other types of popular protest in that they question the very system of governance. While some intellectuals may opt for a more detailed definition of "revolution", the fact is that it is not a scientific term the meaning of which is to be debated.

In fact, many of the events which are termed "revolutions" by historians - Spartacus' Slave Revolt; the Zanj Rebellion; the Iranian, latterly Islamic, Revolution; the Bolsheviks' October Revolution; and the French Revolution - began without a concrete, detailed political programme.

Some were only uprisings of rage, others progressed gradually from unplanned protest movements into overthrows of a ruling regime. Some would ultimately transform into totalitarian, oppressive regimes.

Intellectual values

The masses who led the French Revolution, the world's most significant and emblematic revolution, did not necessarily adopt the values later attributed to them and to their revolt; these would later be formulated by the intellectuals of that Revolution.

Initially, the French revolutionaries failed to install a new system of government, leading to the Reign of Terror, followed by a Convention and a revived French Empire; there would be two separate dynastic periods of rule before the Third Republic came to power, roughly one hundred years after the beginning of the French Revolution. Even today, the democracy of France's Republic continues to evolve and grow.

     The Arab mass uprisings of 2011 can rightfully claim the title 'revolutions', because [they] questioned the over-arching regimes.

The Arab mass uprisings of 2011 can rightfully claim the title "revolutions", because these unplanned popular movements questioned the over-arching regimes. In addition, they were not restricted to compartmentalised demands which could be addressed within the framework of the prevailing systems of government such as would be the case with protest movements. I would add also that these revolutions conveyed desire and longing for freedom, human dignity, citizens' rights and for an end to the arbitrary rule of tyrants made them truly democratic in spirit. The revolutionary youth of the public squares of 2011 yearned for democracy.

A number of factors lie behind the problems that continue to plague the Arab revolutions. These include the fact that the regimes which the revolutionaries rebelled against were either Deep States that were left unshaken by the removal of a titular president, or so fragile that the absence of authoritarianism threatens the very collapse of the state.

Moreover, those politically organised and regimented revolutionary blocs that were democratic in nature remained comparatively weak, and the only political parties that had managed to survive and grow in the shadow of tyranny and coexist with it were not democratic forces.

These same undemocratic political parties brought their jealousies, resentments and divisions along with them - jealousies and resentments that had been enflamed by their countries' security apparatus during the period of tyranny - to the phase of democratic revolution.

They acted as if they were contending elections to a Bar Association or a university student union, and failed to rise to the national challenges presented by the democratic transition, which presupposes a battle for the seizure of power from the ancien regime and an agreement on the principles of democratic governance.

Growing frustrations

All of those are prerequisites to the beginning of electoral competition. Ultimately, however, the political parties began to bicker and disagree without having attained power, and before constitutional principles could be enshrined. These political forces had frustrated the democratic dreams of the youth who rebelled, and with them the aspirations of the peoples who had invested so much in the dreams of those youth in 2011; they sacrificed all of these on the altar of their vindictive bickering.

The forces of the counter-revolution in turn exacerbated this violence and chaos, conspiring from the outset to foil the democratic transition.

Using previously established client networks, military officers together with elements of the state apparatus were able to ally with reactionary forces across the region and to present themselves as guarantors of a plan for stability, at the very least.

These manoeuvres defined the limits of what has become the first wave of a revolution, with the end results being clear today. Any first wave is followed by later waves, however, and this is what the forces of the counter-revolution are now trying to stall and suffocate. In all events, however, everything to come after this first phase will be different from what came before it.

Transcending borders

Now, the spirit of democracy floats across the region without respect for borders. The Arab peoples as well have destroyed the barrier of fear and become players in the public sphere. Most importantly, the democratic forces within the revolution have come to understand that they can no longer resign their fate to undemocratic forces. From today onwards, they must be regimented and organised, no longer will spontaneity make do.

     The spirit of democracy floats across the region without respect for borders.

Focusing on the Arab Levant in particular, events have corroborated what I have previously stated elsewhere - that the major obstacle facing democracy there is the frailty of the state and the conceptual ambiguity in the relationship between the state and the nation.

This has led to the replacement of the struggle against tyranny and of competition between political forces by the struggle between identity groups. Similar struggles were faced by European peoples several centuries ago, whence after bloody conflict the lesson was learned that nation-state sovereignty provides the solution to sectarianism. They also learned that democracy, in its social and political forms, provides a framework to resolve the tension between unbridled state sovereignty on the one hand, and the relativity and limitations of government, on the other.

Given the present-day communications revolution, it would not seem that the Arab peoples would require centuries to learn these lessons, but it seems that peoples learn mainly from their own experiences, and not those of other nations.

Whatever it is, the Arab youth have left the reign of despotism and slammed the door in a way that brings to mind the scene from Ibsen's A Doll House where Nora shuts the door behind her on her departure from a failed marriage, signifying the end of an entire era of European history.

An era of Arab history is similarly coming to an end, and we are all today living the protracted and difficult birth pangs of a new age. Following the waves of rebelling of Arab youth from the Atlas Mountains to the Gulf, there will be no return to the era of tyranny. Yet, just as there can never be a happy ending to a failed romance, we must not expect such vile and bloodthirsty regimes will come to a happy ending.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.