Image Credit: Abdel-krim kallouche/Gulf News
Coming soon. Read an excerpt :
Nobody seemed to expect them, many hesitated on how to call them. When the popular protests began in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on 17 December 2010, numerous interpretations emerged as to the nature of the events. The wares of a young street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, had been confiscated and he had set himself on fire in protest. His act could be explained by such factors as an unbearable economic situation, poverty, unemployment, police repression and authoritarian rule. The following weeks were to bring dramatic change to the Middle-East, North Africa and the world. On 14 January 2011, dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left Tunisia and sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. On 27 February, a new government took office after a series of events : two months had changed the face of Tunisia. Chanting “Get out” to the despot, his family and his regime, the people had had the better of dictatorship. Meanwhile, the world looked on in surprise as the phenomenon gathered momentum. Egyptians followed Tunisians, starting 25 January 2011, and through impressive mobilizations on the now-famous Liberation Square (Midan at-Tahrir) they in turn toppled President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. Things moved fast, very fast. In Algeria, attempted mobilizations failed while Morocco saw a series of impressive protests focused around 20 February 2011 (giving rise to the 20 February Movement) : reforms were imperative. The domino effect particularly intensified in the Middle East : the King of Jordan dismissed his Prime Minister (1 February 2011) and promised social reforms to contain the protests. The Libyan people rebelled despite fierce, insane repression, and on 15 February 2011 a National Transitional Council was set up, leading to a full-scale civil war with the support of the West and NATO. Massive protests began in Bahrain on 14 February 2011, and demonstrations even took place in Saudi Arabia in March 2011, meeting particularly fierce repression. The wave of protests engulfed Yemen starting 27 January 2011, a few weeks after two men had set themselves on fire following the Tunisian example. In Syria, a few sporadic protests began on 26 January 2011. They gave way to more organized uprisings as of 15 March 2011 in spite of very harsh repression and of isolation due to impossible media coverage and the hesitations of the international community.
From December 2010 through March 2011 to the summer 2011, protests never stopped, spreading through the Middle East and North Africa. All those mass movements share common characteristics (protests against social and economic conditions, refusal of dictatorship, fight against corruption, etc.) but each also has very specific features requiring individual analysis. Thus, the first challenge has been to name and qualify the phenomenon, both in its inception and expansion : were these revolutions, uprisings, popular protests, or even ‘intifadas’ (uprisings) as was initially suggested in Tunisia to recall the Arabic word now linked to Palestinian resistance ? Was this an “Arab spring” like the European revolutions of the recent past ? Were these “Jasmine Revolutions” or “Dignity Revolutions” ? The names and interpretations are very different whether one considers the phenomenon with more or less optimism. Some see this as the birth of a new era, a radical turning-point between past and future, and boldly speak of revolutions. Others are more cautious and say that “popular uprisings” are changing the political setups of North Africa and the Middle East, though it is too early to say whether this is actually a renewal. Others see them as revolts or popular mobilizations, unable so far to trigger off reforms which may not, after all, change the political and economic power relations in the Arab world. Lastly, others just refuse to believe it : those mass movements are controlled from abroad – had not President George W. Bush announced a democratization movement ? – and they are but a transition towards a new type of Western control and domination. There is a broad spectrum of interpretations, then, from a “spring of the peoples” to a new expression of the “disguised cynicism of power-mongers” : how should we understand all this ? How should we name it ?
Analysis suggests that the term “revolution” is somewhat excessive. Can we really call this a revolution, either from the perspective of political order or of the economic balance of powers ? Are those popular movements over and have they reached their objectives ? Clearly not, and it is far too early for us to say that they will. Yet, the extreme position that sees the absolute, all-knowing hand of the Western powers behind those mass mobilizations seems just as excessive. Obviously, from Tunisia to Syria through Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, Western allies have played a part and tried to control or chart the course of events, but their having planned the revolts seems impossible. Midway between incomplete revolutions and conspiracy theories, we prefer to use the term “uprisings” to describe the common character of the mass movements in Arab countries. Thus, women and men of all religions and social backgrounds took to the streets, without violence and without attacking the West, to demand the end of dictatorship, of economic corruption and of peoples being denied respect. According to the useful categories defined by Jean-Paul Sartre, uprising lies between revolution and revolt, and becomes revolution once it is carried to its full extent and brings down the existing system (both political rule and the economic structure). On the other hand, if it is incomplete or manipulated, or if it fails, it becomes a revolt in history, expressing the peoples’ aspirations without concretizing their hopes. The term “uprisings” thus conveys cautious optimism and the idea that those revolts are already facts while the revolutions so far remain hopes, in all Arab countries without exception (…)