Refusing to forget a revolution: The Arab Spring

Tahrir Square, Cairo

It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many, the world over, feel the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.

Albert Camus

The political accountants – political scientists, sociologists, media commentators, politicians -submitted their balance sheets some years ago, so that by now, ten years on, it sounds like a tired refrain: the “Arab spring” ended in a tragic winter, a political Thermidor, a series of failed revolutions for which the people of the “Arab world” are only worse off today for their effort.

It is an anniversary no one is eager to mark. The numbers boggle the mind: half a million people dead; another 16m displaced from states no longer recognisable. There are the individual stories too, of dreams dashed and hopes shattered. One former activist, who long since gave up on the politics of his native Egypt, scrolls through the contacts on his phone, stopping now and then to list his friends’ fates: exiled, disappeared, dead.

Ten years have passed since Muhammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian street peddler, set himself ablaze to protest against the corrupt police who confiscated his wares. His self-immolation, on December 17th, is widely seen as the spark that ignited the Arab spring, a wave of revolutionary protest that swept across the region. Those early days were a time of unbridled optimism. Dictators who had looked invulnerable fell, one after the other—in Tunisia, Egypt and, later, Libya and Yemen.

But revolution soon gave way to a sort of Thermidorian reaction. Egypt’s brief experiment with democracy failed. Libya, Syria and Yemen plunged into civil war and became playgrounds for foreign powers. Wealthy Gulf states spent heavily to placate their own people and bolster anti-democratic forces elsewhere. The region is less free than it was in 2010—and worse off by most other measures, too.

The Economist, 16/12/2020 (1)

In its worse form, the refrain smells of ethnocentrism, naturalising and racialising complex events: a “Spring” is always followed by a “Fall” and “Winter” (and therefore “revolutions” always end in misfortune), and “Arabs” and “Muslims” (the two are supposed to be identical, and presumably no other people or religions exist in the Middle East) are simply not prepared or fit for democracy. For “(neo)liberal democrats”, the rebellions lacked political direction, leadership, organisational form, and thus could offer nothing beyond the overthrow of the tyrants. From the “left”, similar strains could be heard (absence of leadership, a party, a clear ideology),(2) with the additional repertoire of the rebellions’ failure to move beyond street protests and the occupation of public squares to gain the support of the “working class”, and for the latter to collectively coalesce around a common revolutionary politics.

… because the poor and the working class didn’t have the structural leverage to organize collectively and conceive of themselves as a class, they instead conceived of themselves differently — say, as Muslims against these more elite figures who don’t represent Islam.

“Why the Arab Spring Failed; Interview with Anand Gopal”, Jacobin Magazine, 23/11/2020(3)

More “geopolitical” readings of the events added a further dismal layer to the picture.

Uprisings in North Africa ended with the return of the generals (as in Egypt), the destruction of states (as in Libya), and the assertion of the Arab monarchies (from Morocco to Saudi Arabia).

Finally, President Donald Trump carved the obituary on the tombstone of that “Arab Spring” rebellion when he used the immensity of US power to strengthen America’s allies, such as the Arab monarchies and Israel, to the detriment of the people of the region.

What remains of the Arab Spring is a distant memory of the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square; a more typical image of the present is that of the monarchs of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates kissing up to Israel to please the United States.

“Ten years on, hopes of ‘Arab Spring’ snuffed out”, Vijay Prashad, Z-Net, 19/12/2020 (4)

The causes and consequences of the “Arab Spring” may be disputed and debated for years to come, but whatever the interpretation, it will never allow anyone to say convincingly what caused the events or that they were a success or failure. Any judgement of the kind will always remain external to the events: the judgement can neither explain them (the latter defy circumstances) nor evaluate them “objectively” (any evaluation will depend upon ideological lenses). An event, a revolution, is neither objectively caused so as to be explained, nor subjectively undertaken under some calculus of rational self-interest susceptible to an evaluation based on the success or failure of meeting the chosen ends. A revolution, as an event, such as we hold the “Arab Spring” to have been, “is an opening onto the possible.” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, May ’68 Did Not Take Place); a possible that persists beyond the specific time and place of the events, a possible that remains virtually present. Or, in the words of Alain Badiou, the “event is the sudden creation, not of a new reality, but of a myriad of new possibilities.” (“Tunisie, Egypte : quand un vent d’est balaie l’arrogance de l’Occident”, Le Monde, 18/02/2020)(5)

And to echo Deleuze and Guattari again, the “Arab Spring” was not born of or as a reaction to a crisis. It is the opposite. The “Arab World” is presently in crisis because of its inability to assimilate the “Arab Spring”. “[Arab] … society never came up with anything for the people: nothing at school, nothing at work. Everything that was new was marginalized or reduces into caricature. … Every collective enunciation by a new existence, by a new collective subjectivity, was crushed in advance by the reaction against [the “Arab Spring”, on the left almost as much as on the right. … Each time it appeared, the possible was closed off.” (Ibid.)

It was this opening that political ambitions destroyed through police violence, terror, torture, war, and exile. The concentrated repressive violence, of varying scales, that was brought to bear on what were originally street protests is unparalleled in recent history, as was the “Arab Spring”. From Tunisia to Egypt, and then onto Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria (and it continues), the revolutions were swept away with the aim of eradicating not only those active in the events, but the memory of the events themselves.(6) Dictators and governments were toppled in days or weeks; this memory, as a permanent possibility, must be erased. And even more pressing, what the occupied streets and squares revealed, the opening, must be entombed and passed over in silence, as something unknown.

Alain Badiou, writing of the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, and above all, of the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, described those in the square as the incarnation of the people, not just a few Egyptians, but the Egyptian people transforming itself into an agent of universal history. For Badiou, the popular uprising that found a space and a voice in Tahrir was an expression of communism in its purest form, that is, the “common creation of a collective destiny” freed of all specific, social-political identities and thereby capable of surpassing the contradictions or fetishised social relations of capitalist society.(Note 5)

The opening that we speak of however is not the emergence of a new subject born in and through the advent of a new history, a new truth. Tahrir was rather a disruption, a fissure, a shattering, of the time and space of managed and controlled authority and the flows of meaning, information, command and commodities. The square of Tahrir as an infrastructural-communication nexus became useless, even an obstacle. The space’s planned functionality vanished. And with this, time stopped; linear, measurable, progressive, lucrative time. The present expanded and pushed back the horizon of time, taking into itself multiple pasts, pushing away determined futures. The impossible became real, and something opened up in the existence of those present: that they were, that they were as such, and that this matters, and that from this they can become and become anew, become differently, what they desired. This is not a subject charting a new history, but the simple reality of being there, of wanting to be there.

Those in Tahrir, or in the many other occupied squares that would follow, were often criticised for expressing no demands, of possessing no organisation, of seeking nothing concrete (beyond the removal of the dictator). But it is precisely these things (demands, organisations, goals) that condemned so many earlier revolutions and it is precisely their absence that rendered the occupied squares so threatening, that made of them forms of being to be destroyed. As Giorgio Agamben wrote of an earlier occupied square, Tiananmen:

Whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belonging itself, its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, is the principal enemy of the State. Wherever these singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear.

The Coming Community (1990)

The erasure of revolution, physically and psychically, can only be violent. To then reduce the “Arab Spring” to the failed desire of wanting to be like the “West” is to strike out, again, at the great many who lived and died just to be, to be present, and to create together their world.

1. See also, among so many other examples, the series of articles from the Guardian newspaper dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring: 14/12/2020, 16/12/2020, 17/12/2020, 21/12/2020

2. “… the question of the movement and the question of the power was in dissymmetry. Yet, there’s something paradoxical in the result of the movement, in the form of the Muslim Brothers taking the power. It’s a very sad thing because it’s a question of organization. After all, it is a historic lesson. When we have no new form of organization, if the movement cannot create some new form of organization at the level of the state power, the result is that something which is an organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, finally takes the power. And after that we have the return to the old situation. For the military camp [this] is a lesson too: never again should something like that happen [again]!” Alain Badiou, “Alain Badiou on the Egyptian revolution: questions of the movement and its vision”, Open Democracy, 24/01/2018.

3. See also: Assef Bayat, “Revolutions of Wrong Times”, an online excerpt from Revolution Without Revolutionaries, Stanford University Press, 2017; “A diez años de la Primavera Árabe: revolución, contrarrevolución y revueltas en Medio Oriente y norte de África”, Salvador Soler and Omar Floyd, Ideas de izquierda, 21/06/2020. For an “anarchist” reading of the “Arab Spring”, the reflections of Mohammed Bamyeh are of interest. See: “Anarchist, Liberal and Authoritarian Enlightenments: Notes From the Arab Spring”, Anarchist Library; “Talking Anarchism and the Arab Uprisings with Mohammed Bamyeh”, Global Info., 27/02/2013.

4. See also: “The Arab Uprisings Never Ended; The Enduring Struggle to Remake the Middle East”, Marc Lynch, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2021; “Le ‘grand jeu’ de l’Arabie saoudite pour étouffer les ‘printemps arabes'”, Le Monde, 13/01/2014.

5. An English language translation of the same text is available at the Verso Books Blog.

6. A chronicle and chronology of these different movements are available here: “Arab Spring: Pro-democracy Protests”, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

A portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi in his home town of Sidi Bouzid. Photograph: Ons Abid/Guardian
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