The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is creating an intellectual divide that threatens any sensible understanding of the turmoil engulfing several Arab countries.
While it is widely understood that revolutions endeavor to overthrow political structures and aim to change the social order and power paradigm within any given society, there is still no single, inclusive understanding of what actually constitutes a revolution. Nor is there any consensus as to exactly what a revolution is supposed to achieve.
An ordinary Egyptian is likely to determine his/her take on revolution from various angles: measurable economic advancement – or lack thereof; the ability to voice an opinion without fear of censorship or retaliation; the right to participate in collective action, and influence the overall direction of his/her country.
A revolution can also delve into the realm of self-definition. Some Arab collectives have redefined themselves along religious, nationalistic, or ideological lines – by re-coloring a flag or rewording a national anthem – in the hope that this would allow them to cement political change through a collective psychological departure from one era into another.
While conceptual depictions of major phenomena may be achievable, their practical application can be elusive. On January 14, just days after the ousting of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, I warned of the failure to appreciate the unique circumstances of the Tunisian revolution, and the distinctiveness of Tunisian society as a whole:
“There is no harm in expanding a popular experience to understand the world at large and its conflicts. But in the case of Tunisia, it seems that the country is largely understood within a multilayer of contexts, thus becoming devoid of any political, cultural or socio-economic uniqueness. Understanding Tunisia as just another ‘Arab regime’, another possible podium for al-Qaeda’s violence, is convenient but also unhelpful to any cohesive understanding of the situation there and the events that are likely to follow.”
The article was a response to the media frenzy which placed all Arab societies into one category. But this failure of distinction cannot be attributed merely to the overriding ignorance of the Western media and intellectuals in their understanding of Arabs, nor of Western governments’ opportunistic relationship to the ‘Arab world’. Analogous generalizations were also being employed by the Arab media and intellectuals, and even the rebelling masses themselves.
There seemed little harm in Yemeni activists relating to the Egyptian revolutionary experience, or Syrians and Libyans borrowing each other’s slogans. After all, there is an unmistakable cultural and historical bond between various Arab societies, and they are rife with overlapping experiences of colonization, foreign occupation, dictatorship and popular uprisings. But what was meant to inspire a sense of shared values and experiences quickly became a fault line, exploited by those who wanted to ensure the failure of Arab uprisings, or to direct their outcomes.
It was no surprise that the Arab uprisings did not remain the business of the Arabs alone. Even before the governments of France and the United Kingdom signed their infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 – dividing Arab provinces (then part of the Ottoman Empire) into spheres of influence – the fate of the region had already been determined by outside powers. And unlike common myths associated with the ‘Arab Spring’, Arab nations have repeatedly rebelled against foreign colonizers and their own despots.
The belated Western response to the Tunisian revolution – and the incoherent reaction to the Egyptian revolution in January 25 – served as a wakeup call to those who inherited the legacy of François Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes. Indeed, past encounters continue to define the Western countries’ ties to the ‘Middle East region’, which is appreciated for its many economic spoils and unmatched strategic importance.
“Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya, now free of four decades of dictatorship,” wrote Scott Shane in the New York Times (October 28, 2011).
This short sentence truly sums up the motives of Western intervention, and the West’s overall attitude towards its former colonies. However, there is a strange resolve among many players in the ‘Arab Spring’ – including in Arab media – that discount or ignore the foreign element whenever Arab uprisings are discussed. This tendency is not only intellectually dishonest and perceptibly ahistorical, it is also highly suspicious. Amid the purposeful silence regarding the self-serving and destructive role played by foreign powers, plots are being hatched against various countries under the very pretexts that led to the destruction of Iraq, Libya, and even Lebanon. Yes, in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, it used the concept of democracy as part of its justification.
However, being fully appreciative of the disparaging and exploitative role of foreign powers shouldn’t allow one to turn into an apologist for dictatorship either. A more somber reading of history shows the unshakable bond between dictators and their foreign benefactors – at the expense of the oppressed masses, who are now revolting to reset the course of history on a more equitable route.
True, a revolution can be polarizing for those who are projected to either win or lose once its final outcome is determined. But intellectuals have a historic responsibility to remain vigilant of the uniqueness of each and every collective experience, and to place it within accurate historical contexts. They should not omit inconvenient truths when such omissions are deemed convenient.
This is not moral neutrality, a notion that has been articulated by South African anti-Apartheid leader Desmond Tutu in his iconic statement: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” It is rather the responsibility of the intellectual to question what is taken for granted. Edward Said claimed that the ideal intellectual should be seen as an “exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.”
Speaking truth to power is still possible, and is more urgent than ever. The fate of a nation, any nation, cannot be polarized to the terrible extent that the Arab uprisings have. On both sides of the divide, some are cheering for foreign intervention, while others are justifying the senseless murder of innocent people by dictators.
There is possibly a fine line between the divides, and it is the responsibility of the intellectual to trace this line, and remain steadfast there. He may consequently find himself marginalized and exiled, but at least he will maintain his integrity.