Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Abdelmajid Hannoum on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt



Photo: Abdelmajid Hannoum

In the first of our commissioned commentaries on the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Abdelmajid Hannoum considers what is at stake for the region.

In 'Revolutions Signées Arabes', he comments on the differences between the two revolutions, the 21st Century use of peaceful protest and absence of ideology, and the consequences for Egypt's relations with Israel and the US.




The year 2011 is a revolutionary one for Arabs. In two consecutive months, Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew two dictatorial regimes—vassals of the Empire—with peaceful popular protests. In doing so, they also overthrew an entire system of ideas, prejudices and stereotypes about a people who were believed to be passive, undemocratic, and fit only for tyrannical rule. Change was never part of this vocabulary: if they ever would change, it will be only from a secular dictatorial rule to a religious dictatorial rule. Better to keep the first and even support it!

The massive popular protest for democracy that sprung from Cairo on January 25th  continued through its third week and ended on February 11 with a spectacular victory, thus fulfilling its promises.  Throughout, it showed no sign of weakness or of waning despite the fact that the regime against which it was protesting deployed all possible means of repression from security police to the infamous baltagiya (thugs), and added the politics of hiwâr (negotiation) that aimed at the very least to break the protests into pieces, if not end them entirely. But nothing worked.  As the protests continued unabated in Egyptian cities, other protests joined them in many world capitals, but also on the pages of Facebook and through feeds on Twitter, where thousands of members from all parts of the world were mobilized for marches thanks to the power of social media. As these protests continued, political maneuvers in Cairo, Washington D.C. and European capitals attempted to control the events, contain them, and decide their future directions. All of that was interrupted by conflicting briefings that struggled not to contradict or deviate from the well-known democratic values that few wars have been waged on their name, in their defense—or so we were told over and again. The strong European and American support of protesters for freedom and change in China, Eastern Europe and, most recently in Iran, was not reproduced in Egypt by diplomats and politicians. Nor was it reproduced by intellectuals who usually, with great eloquence and passion, demonstrate their commitment to the defense of democracy and human rights. This is not happening because there is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is because what is happening in Egypt does not have the same or similar consequences to the world order—its consequences are different. What is at stake, then, in the battle that started in Tunisia and has been decided in Cairo?

Unlike the situation in Tunisia, which was surprisingly fragile behind its façade of police oppression, the situation in Egypt seemed for three weeks to be surprisingly solid despite impressively strong, organized, and determined mass protests which all political parties, organizations, and an overwhelming majority of intellectuals, academics, journalists, magistrates, and artists wholeheartedly supported. The Moubarak regime did not show the same palpitations we saw in the case of Tunis and refused to immediately give in, and one may wonder why.

The fact that the Revolution that spread from Tunisia to Egypt—and that it was not the work of Islamists—makes it difficult to think about and manage. Who are those millions of young people who descended the streets, seemingly spontaneously, not with ideological slogans, but with demands that are clear and determined, legitimate and natural?  They wanted the departure of Moubarak, the end of his regime, and the building of a democratic society. They expressed this in Arabic,  irhal” (go away!) and in English, “go, go, Moubarak has to go” and “yes, we can, too.” The first is addressed to Moubarak and his regime, the second is to the rest of the world, but more specifically, to Washington: it is an echo of American people using Obama’s own slogan against the Bush regime. A great cause to support. Yet, the unfolding events are uniquely alarming for the same leaders who once talked about bringing democracy to the Middle East. They aren’t alarming because the leaders are “friends” with Moubarak or that there is a fear of the unknown or even a slide into oligarchy and a reproduction of another Iran. Rather, what is alarming is exactly the opposite: what is known. The myth of the “Islamist danger” is now shattered into pieces. Like everybody else, the Muslim Brotherhood were taken by surprise and like all political parties, they joined the protests relatively late and they seek nothing but a place within this massive uprising for democracy and human dignity. From the beginning, the protesters sent a clear and firm message to all political parties, that “anyone who attempts to appropriate the Revolution is a traitor to Egypt.”  A new political culture has been introduced to Egypt, one marked by popular solidarity and peaceful massive protests, yet devoid of ideology. What awaits, now that the Revolution has happened, is a life of democracy and dignity. What will likely be renewed is a life of national freedom, one which Egypt lost with the passing away in 1970 of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose portrait was frequently seen during these protests and during the celebrations of the Revolution.

The originality of this Revolution is not only the fact that it does not have an ideology, that it uses the most sophisticated means of communication, it connects via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter nationally and internationally but also that the participants, both young and old, have been able to make a clear distinction between the state and the government. They wanted the departure of the latter, but they wanted to preserve the first, including the institution of the army. They know well that the state is not the enemy, but the national means by which to establish their ultimate goal: the founding of a democratic society, governed by law, and not by corrupt leaders who treat the nation as a property and its people as a herd.  Immediately after the outbreak of the protests, something of significance was achieved. In addition to the fact that they showed to the world the ugly face of the Moubarak regime, exposing its corruption, its jails some of which are reminiscent of the dreadful Abu Ghraib, the revolution also demonstrated that the days of governments oppressing its people with impunity are gone. From now on, private information even about the bank accounts of the leaders, the presidential theft of royal palaces that belong to the nation, no matter how secretive, can end up in the first pages of newspapers, in the pages of Wikileaks, and debated openly on Al Jazeera television programs. But for the Egyptian streets, this was not enough. The uprising aimed to end the regime and found a new elected one. In other words, they did not want reform, they wanted a Revolution, not in the sense of the 20th century:  to take over the state by violent means, in the service of an ideology, by a party or a movement with its own predetermined leader. Instead, this new revolution for the 21st century would be more civilized, characterized by peaceful yet massive protests, well organized and focused yet leaderless. 

What is happening in Egypt goes beyond Egypt and the region itself. If the Tunisian Revolution inspired Egyptians, one can only wonder what the Egyptian Revolution could do for the rest of the region. The Tunisian Revolution took everybody by surprise, of course, including maybe even the people who participated in it. Tunisia, however, is a small country, with a population of only 10 million people. Even geopolitically, it is not a big player in Middle Eastern politics. Tunisia is poorer, too, and more dependent on tourism for its economy. Egypt is the largest Arab country in terms of demography, with 85 million people, comfortably located between the Maghreb and the so-called Middle East. The main difference is not only the strategic location of Egypt, but also its tremendous political and symbolic significance in the Arab imagination. Egypt has a culture that is impressively creative and alive, and remained so even during dictatorial rule. Its culture is not only accepted and recognized, it is even proudly celebrated by all Arabs. One can only walk in any Arab city to hear the voice of Egypt echoed in the songs of Oum Kalthoum, Mohamed Abdelwahhab, Abdel Halim Hafiz, and many others.

Its cultural impact remained significant, but its political role has undoubtedly diminished since the 1980s. In the time of Nasser, Egypt led anti-colonial movements and championed the Palestinian cause. Egypt went so far as to call for Arab unity, and even achieved it symbolically. When Egypt, under Anwar Sadat and then under Moubarak, changed camps, almost all of the Arab regimes followed suit. Egypt sways with it, left and right, Arab politics, Arab regimes, and not just Arab streets. Egypt’s importance is such that a rising Egypt signals a rising Arab society as a whole, indicated by the overwhelming enthusiasm for the Revolution by people in the streets of Arab cities. It is not only a matter of brotherly solidarity, but also a matter of destiny. “They are there, and we are here standing with them; we don’t sleep, we can’t sleep,” a 75-year-old Moroccan woman told me in her apartment in Tangiers, as we were waiting for the second speech of Moubarak on the evening of February 10th.

What is happening in Egypt is felt and understood as vitally important to the daily lives of people who believe that the victory will open up the whole area, signaling an Arab Renaissance; a life of democracy and dignity. The Revolution already demonstrated that no matter how strong the police state, it is nothing in the face of a unified will of its citizens. The people are no longer alone, face to face with a brutal, ruthless regime, but part of a collective that not only includes people in other Middle Eastern societies, but supporters from all parts of the globe who marched with them and now celebrate with them by millions through Facebook and Twitter. The Egyptian Revolution demonstrated that human aspiration for liberty and freedom are indeed universals. 

What was at stake in these popular protests in Egypt was not the future of a very old man with serious and frequent health problems, nor that of his vice president; very old, too, but with serious reputation problems. The prospect of drastic change that awaits Egypt itself, the Arab world, the region, and its relations with the United States, Europe, and the world community—all of that is at stake. This change will mean a transition from dictatorial rule to democracy; from post-colonial dependency to global independence and connectivity; from cleptocracy to a regime of transparency and accountability; from servitude to freedom. This life of freedom will undoubtedly significantly limit, and ultimately altogether end American political hegemony in the region. It will surely prevent the U.S. from striking the region, invading parts as it pleases under false pretenses, such as “weapons of mass destruction,”  “Al Qaeda’s plots” or “dictatorship.” It will, of course, also prevent it from lynching an Arab president on the very holy day of Sacrifice or on any other day; events that happened within the last decade and that greatly contributed to the deep sense of dismay, bitterness, and humiliation of Arab citizens in Egypt and everywhere. 

Arab governments will no longer rule against the interests of their own people. They now know that their power lies not in Washington, London, or Paris, but in the hands of their own people. That is where they must invest from now on or else the fate of a Ben Ali or a Moubarak awaits them, as surely as night awaits the dawn. As protests erupted, there was already a palpable anxiety and fear visible through Facebook and Twitter exchanges. Calls for protests in this or that Arab country started, and calls for anti-protests by the same government or its police were also produced. There has been a call for protests in Algeria on February 12; for Morocco on February 20;  Iraq on February 25th , to end US occupation; and Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen have been the most prominent stage for popular protests. Governments in Yemen, Algeria, Kuwait, Libya, and Morocco, fearing the wave of revolution, already announced “reforms” and some of them even gave “incentives” to their population to avoid the fate of Ben Ali and Moubarak.  Undoubtedly, calls for protests will increase and they will likely bring change in other Arab countries, and in other non-Arab countries with dictatorial rule. The Revolution will be exported, not through ideological pamphlets, but through images on You Tube, Al Jazeera, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth.

For once, the citizen in the region is feared and the ruler is fearful. Fear of a large number of citizens with real power coming from “acting in concert,” to use the expression of Hannah Arendt, by the violent small number who monopolize “implements of violence.” Hence, the strong support, expressed and unexpressed, of Arab government to the regime of Moubarak, some publically including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Libya; the rest behind doors. Now that the Revolution has happened, everybody asks: who is next? To find out, look at Facebook, responded Wael Ghonim, one of the young organizers—and he was not joking.

With few exceptions, Western intellectuals have been by turns silent, reluctant, or ambiguous about the Egyptian Revolution because, according to the French newspaper Le Monde, they are concerned about Israel. Israel’s leadership itself expressed anxiety and even fear, showing strong support for the Moubarak regime and exhorting Western countries to do the same. The Egyptian Revolution, however, does not have enemies, it calls for the death of no one, and does not shoot slogans against the U.S. or Israel. Yet it is perceived as a danger because a democratic regime will undoubtedly redefine the relationship between Egypt and  Israel. No one expects a war with Israel and most likely the Camp David Accords with Israel will hold. But surely the Palestinian cause enjoys tremendous support among Arab masses. One of the many reasons the Moubarak regime was so unpopular stemmed from his support for Israeli actions against Palestinians. This is something crucially important that will change. Israel cannot expect a democratic regime to support its embargo against Palestinians in Gaza, its strikes against Hamas. Nor will it expect such a regime to press the PLO to accept more concessions in exchange of another round of negotiations that end like the previous one. It will not be able to buy gas at a great discount not even available to the Egyptian citizen. Israel perceives all of these as challenges. Seen from a different angle, however, a Revolution in Egypt will not necessarily mean a relationship of hostility and war, but a great opportunity to balance the relationship, one which may be a prerequisite for a lasting peace with people, not with unelected leaders that came and went, for good.   

Revolutions always bring comprehensive changes, and not only in politics. The Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are no exception. Academic discourse about the Middle East was hit hard when  the Islamic Revolution in Iran erupted, not only because it failed to predict it, but because we were told over and again that Muslims simply did not revolt. From 1979 on, the academic discourse on Islam changed to develop the ideas that not only Islam revolts, that it is associated with violence (and for some it is even inherently violent), that Islam is in search of power, and that any change of status quo of the stability of the region, will be led by Islamists.  Hence, we can understand the intense interest in Islam by both Europe and the U.S.  Scholarly and unscholarly work proliferated and gave birth to a real Islam industry, with bestsellers and false experts who pontificate on jihad, on Al-Qaeda, the Islamic state, and so forth. Highly respected departments and programs as well as publishing houses were transformed to become what one may call Jihadi studies.

The Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt plainly demonstrated that the societal change is created by the energy and ideas of young people, with connections not in Tora Bora, but everywhere in the world, because of the reach of social media. About the astonishingly new cultures, ideas, hopes, aspirations, life experiences of these youth, who for the most were part born in the 1980s and some of them even in the 1990s and who are the real makers of its history, there is almost nothing. None of the so-called specialists on Islam or the Middle East have anything to say about them, either.

Yet as the Revolution interrupted op-eds about the events, the discourse of Islamism has not given up. Read, for example, what Gilles Kepel, Fareed Zakaria, and Abdelwahab Meddeb, to mention just the most mediatic ones in France and in the U.S., were saying while the Revolutions were happening. These media experts on Islam had nothing to say about its makers; they just reiterated a few ideas about the lack of democracy in the Arab world, the danger of Ennahda and Muslim Brotherhood who are next in line to take over Tunisia and Egypt, and the specter of another Iran. The discourse on the Islamist danger persists, but this is unsurprising. It is virtually impossible to build a work on the idea of “dangerous Islam,” make a career and a name out of it, and then expect it to change overnight.

While we are on the topic of Islamists, let us say a word about them. The percentage of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—a heterogeneous religious movement anyway—is estimated between 20 and 30 per cent. But what exactly does this percentage mean? How can one decide between affiliation out of political conviction and sympathy for them out of dislike of the regime? What does that percentage tell in a context of dictatorial rule where political alternatives have been  more than limited?

Not only may the Muslim Brotherhood represent a smaller segment of society, but the protests showed that they are now in a different boat—small and left behind, as the early events of the Revolutions showed. Consider the following. While the youth in Tahrir Square continued protesting, the only movement present on February 6th at the negotiation table with the government was the Muslim Brotherhood. The protesters immediately reminded them that they could not speak for them , let alone negotiate on their behalf. Put back quickly in their place, the Muslim Brotherhood responded almost apologetically: we only wanted to know what the government thinks. Muslim Brotherhood, along with Ennahda, learned from this Revolution as they previously learned from the experience of Islamists in Turkey.  If the latter work effectively in a secular society, why is it not possible for the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ennahda?

Lastly, the Revolution in both Tunisia and Egypt shows also that Arabs, like everybody else, aspire to democracy and freedom, that they resent oppression, and fight it when time is ripe—peacefully and intelligently. They created their own modes of uprising and they did it willingly and passionately, in a technologically forward thinking manner that is also absent of ideology, despite ferocious attempts from inside and out to suppress and abort their revolution. This is a thawra, not an excitation of a crowd; like that of a camel, it creates dust and then it clears, as an old Orientalist definition has it. It is a thawra, a Revolution: comprehensive and decidedly peaceful, erupting, cleansing, and transforming. Against tyranny and dictatorial rule, the Arab Egyptians, too, met the challenge. They said, “Yes, We Can, Too,” and did it, too.



Abdelmajid Hannoum is a Professor of Anthropology and African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He completed his PhD in Arabic and Comparative Literature at the University of Sorbonne, Paris III, in 1991, and his PhD in Near Eastern Studies and Anthropology at Princeton University in 1996. His research interests include Islamic social and political movements, comparative historiography and (post)colonial cultures in North Africa and the Middle East. Professor Hannoum is the author of Colonial Histories, Postcolonial Memories: the Legend of the Kahina, a North African Heroine and Violent Modernity: France in Algeria.


TCS and B & S are published by SAGE.

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