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The Arab Autumn recanters - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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When the popular uprisings first erupted in the Arab world, intellectuals and writers were initially engulfed in a state of shock and amazement; they could never have expected or imagined what happened. However, when it seemed that the moment of change had occurred; those intellectuals changed their view and declared their support for the mass revolutions. Some went even further and began theorizing and participating in the demonstrations – although they lacked leadership – and the uprisings, although they did not have any political project other than the overthrow of the regime, and did not provide any values or clear demands for the model that should succeed it.

The Egyptian parliamentary Dr. Amr Hamzawy said in an interview with BBC Arabic, a few days before the Egyptian revolution, that what happened in Tunisia was the result of the anger emanating from the Tunisian secular middle class, in solidarity with the army, and ruled out that the Egyptians would revolt against the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, because Egyptian society is different to its Tunisian counterpart. A year before the revolution, the novelist Alaa al-Aswany published a book entitled “Why Don’t Egyptians Revolt?” (2010), arguing that the Egyptian intellectual elite was corrupt and disinclined to take risks, and that it had become settled in this reality for decades, despite the inherent disadvantages and contradictions.

After the revolution all this language changed, and the same individuals began to theorize about the revolution that they had previously believed would never occur. Other writers – Arab and foreign – filled the arena with statements, articles and books claiming to know the realities of the “Arab Spring” countries, presenting a barrage of justifications and interpretations to explain the current changes, and putting forward their visions for the interim period. However, not one of these writers recognized their mistake, or the failure of their vision with regards to the reality on the ground. Of course, there were a few writers in this newspaper who warned of the dangers of what was happening and urged the general public not to get carried away by the street and the slogans of the angry crowds, but these voices were blocked by a surge of Arab and Western voices blessing what they believed to be an awakening or a resurgence of the people of the region.

Interestingly, those intellectuals who welcomed, and in some cases even adopted, these uprisings have now begun to retract their positions, with some choosing to criticize and cast doubt over the future of these revolutions. Yet few of them have acknowledged the failure in their vision, or are deliberately forgetting their role in promoting the sentiments of the rebelling street. Today, some are writing explicitly – or indirectly – about their fears regarding the results of the ongoing transformations. The main reason for this is that the results of the democratic elections that they preached for have paved the way for religious parties and forces that are far from the values of democracy, civility and human rights, thus reflecting the fickle attitude of the intellectual elite.

It is possible to look back on the statements and comments that are now skeptical of the results of the “Arab Spring”, and their impact on the future of freedoms and rights in those countries. The advocates of “civil society” and human rights have become aware that the principles and dreams that they clung to have turned into a nightmare because of the rise of radical Islamists to power.

This scene is not new; advocates of independence in the 1940s preached the dream of the nation state, then soon many of them fled or were held under house arrest, not to mention the assassinations and plots against them. Also, advocates of nationalism and later Baathism in the 1960s and 1970s turned their emerging countries into totalitarian regimes, as yesterday’s “comrades” sacrificed each other by marginalizing institutions and tampering with constitutions. Even the Islamists have battled amongst themselves, denouncing each other as infidels with regards to matters of the emirate, earthly spoils, and the experiences of Iran, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen, which continue to be pertinent today. Today, the advocates of civil society, calling themselves names such as “human rights activists” or “reformists”, are facing the same fate. They offer a revolutionary or coup-like discourse that justifies civil disobedience and inciting violent protests, even jeopardizing the interests of the country and its people; even after the ballot boxes said what they said, some are still trying to change the reality by force, under the pretext of peaceful demonstrations.

Here we must return to a bit of history. Twenty years ago, the “liberal left” (which included a mix of leftists and Islamist converts) in the Arab world adopted the “civil society” discourse in a dogmatic manner, preaching absolute slogans of freedom, democracy and human rights, and in doing so promoting a new side to the equation of opposition and power. Over time, this trend became a prisoner of its idealist vision, separate from reality, and when I say idealist I mean it was not connected to the social and political reality of the countries that it was being promoted in. In fact, it seemed closer to an imported discourse – although there is nothing wrong with that – than an original one. Consider for example the slogans of the Tahrir Square youths and the intellectuals participating in their revolution, and you would find that they are close to the slogans of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in New York, or the protests in London’s financial district, rather than resonating with Cairo’s neighborhoods of Abbasiya or Imbaba. Perhaps this explains how the Tahrir Square youth lost out with their Western slogans, and how others such as the Salafi al-Noor party won, because the latter was closer to the social and religious reality. Therefore it is not out of the question that these Tahrir Square youth will be subject to marginalization and exclusion in the coming stage, because they lack an awareness or expertise in administering the state and its economy. Those who call for demonstrations every day in order to achieve the demands of the revolution are deluding themselves, and they appear – in the eyes of many of their fellow citizens – as people who are not concerned about the daily economic situation of millions of people.

Faced with this scene, we can record two basic observations about this phenomenon of recanting [support for the Arab Spring]: the first observation is that these intellectuals and writers have gone through what some socio-political scientists call “revolutionary romanticism”, a state of emotional glorification of a radical transformation, and then when signs of failure and disarray appear, these same people move into a state of denial, accusing remnants of the former regime of trying to sabotage the revolution. However, when other revolutionary forces are able to make gains or monopolize power, the same people began to justify or repudiate the failure of the revolution, under the pretext that it had been hijacked by radical forces and currents, whether leftist or Islamic.

The second observation about this phenomenon is that the political and cultural elite at the beginning of the revolution opted to downplay the value of the human and material losses resulting from the chaos of change, saying that a revolution necessitates sacrifice, and it will be successful in the end no matter how long the period of change, or chaos. However, after a short period of time, this same elite found itself lamenting these losses, or even washing its hands of them, whenever it felt that the results were not in its favor, and then justified its recanting of support of the revolution under the pretext that the revolution had begun to affect innocent people, or that it had turned towards violence and revenge, even amongst its original participants. This is perhaps most evident in the stance of the revolutionaries towards the emergency laws, or the use of excessive force against protests or instances of civil disobedience by those individuals or parties that have reached power.

The purpose here is not to criticize the revolution or to rebuke the revolutionaries, but rather it is a call to correct its path. The regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak were corrupt and full of negative aspects, but there were also positive aspects, good projects, and functioning institutions, albeit weak ones. Because of this it was necessary following the departure of the president for the country to move gradually towards a democratic transition without disrupting the economic wheel or damaging state institutions and their prestige. Trying to perform a radical change in societies that are not yet capable of this will lead to disaster. The Egyptian case is clear, the suspension of work on the constitution has led the revolutionary forces to conflict, and this comes at the expense of the economic and security stability of the citizens.

What could a Swiss or Scandinavian constitution do in a failed state like Somalia or Afghanistan? What would change if the US legal system was imposed upon a poor and destitute country such as Yemen or Sudan?

Nothing! The citizen is the one who gives laws and regulations their value, not vice versa. It may be possible to overthrow the president and his men and call this a revolution, it may be possible to change the constitution and the regulations, but you cannot change people’s lives for the better if it is at the expense of their security and livelihoods.

Such words were written at the beginning of the uprisings, but few paid any attention to this.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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