On Revolution and Counterrevolution
“In the Middle East the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm,” William Dalrymple wrote in From The Holy Mountain, back in the twilight of the old century.
He was on a mission then to capture the last breath of Christianity where it took its first, but his march was inevitably through what felt like a dying Eastern expanse, anguished landscapes that are as lush with color as they are soaked-wet with tears.
The implication of Dalrymple’s panoramas was damning: catastrophe in the Arab world, though real enough, is the flipside of stasis. Excusable. Nineteen ninety-four was not a time of revolution. Dalrymple was not issuing forth on the meaning and possibilities of uprisings, but on those of chronic violence in a place whose stubborn fundamental flaws belied the onrush of change.
We are, however, in revolutionary times today. Not surprisingly, the skeptics are many and talk of counterrevolution is rampant, as well it should be. But in warning against hostile forces, some observers are not just drawing on the example of revolutions old (French) and new (Iranian), they are invoking variations of Dalrymple’s verdict: try as we might, we Arabs are just not in the business of serious change. Our democratic pulse is dangerously faint, our attachment to civil rights is selective and self-serving, our politics is captive to the dictates of religion, our militaries are loath to cede power, our rulers are too brutal, our societies are convulsed by warring sectarian identities, our foreign enemies are many, our history is practically devoid of a single hint that we know how to turn a promising moment into a lived one…
The challenge, really, is too herculean and our will is pint-sized.
Understandably absent from this argument is the inconvenient fact that these were the reasons cited against the probability of an uprising in the first place. Barely, three months ago, most experts were agreeing that Arab regimes had perfected the art of survival, domesticating a once threatening Islamism and securing a whole people’s subservience through a potent mix of terror and bribery.
And yet, here we are in the midst of galling winds that have wiped clean heretofore unshakable vistas from this East.
In the end, all these tremors may amount to nothing more than “surface impressions of cataclysm.” After all, a quick run through a stack of chronological postcards is all one needs to take in the full panoramic measure of the devastation wrought by our enduring defects.
But this tumult already is different from all others that came before it in this sorry pocket of our history. The fury was not decreed by fiat and did not come courtesy of coup d’etat or foreign invasion. It was not hammered out in secret, smoke-filled rooms. It did not choose to express itself through “Islam is the solution.” It did not reflexively reach for the gun, even in now very bloody Libya.
The walls have not crumbled, it is true, but huge slabs are lying in tiny pieces around them. The once impregnable fear barriers have given way everywhere, even in still fearsome Syria. More than this, defunct formulas have been laid to rest and loathsome quid pro quos have been sorely tested. “Resistance” against Israel was for the longest time a pass for savagery against one’s own people, now it has become the very argument against it. If in doubt, ask al Akhbar’s Ibrahim Amin about it. Taboos have become run-of-the mill conversation, as talk of constitutional monarchy in Jordan finally establishes firm anchor.
The whole question of regime legitimacy and what sustains it is now in search of new answers. Paradoxically, for revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries alike, this has become the inescapable point of departure for those looking to shape the future in their favor, the US and the West included.
So, I suppose, in the presence of the evidence before us so far, it might not be such a bad idea to second-guess conventional wisdom and resist groupthink as we try to assess the prospect of our uprisings. It’s an even better idea to remember that today’s events are not devoid of history; they are in fact carrying within them the full weight and meaning of a fraught 20th century, even as they deploy and put into play the telltale signs of the 21st.
Take Tunisia and Egypt. Practically everything Tunisians and Egyptians did (and are still doing) since they first rebelled—their stubborn presence on the ground, the sophistication of their tactics, the energy in their demands, the absence of one party and one champion guiding them towards the light…--has a history laden with disappointments and betrayals written all over it. Mythical men and the junkyards overflowing with their broken promises appear to have been left behind in now obsolete times. When “sane” voices pressed for an early compromise, a deep memory and still open wounds counseled otherwise.
This is how Ben Ali fell. This is how Mubarak did not last till September and Suleiman never got to be president. This is how Shafic went the way of Suleiman, and Sherif, Sourour and Azmi, three main enablers of Mubarak’s rule, have fallen one by one.
Most likely, this is also why, much to the chagrin of the army and many besides, “Tahriris” are refusing to let go of their Square, lest acquiescence signal that they have moved on. If Egypt’s Military Council is looking to recalibrate its performance, and if indeed it means to help the country transition to a democracy, it would do well to register the toll decades of deception have taken on the people.
But if the Council and the Muslim Brothers seem at times clumsy and downright crude in their actions, it’s because the new climate is as unfamiliar to them as it is to the “Tahriris” themselves, who could well be very close to overplaying their hand. Politics has just received the kiss of life. True, the military and their Brothers did well in the March 19 constitutional referendum, but the vote was not extraordinary for confirming the obvious—residual trust in the army and the organizational skills of the Islamists--but for laying bare, and so early, the boorish orientation and method of the MB which they’ve been trying so hard to hide. That the give and take is reaching deep into their rank and file and leadership cadre is in itself a significant response to this new age of people power.
None of this says that the revolution is sure to reach safe harbor. Economies are reeling, testing people’s nerves and patience. More ominously, counterrevolution, in Egypt and elsewhere, won’t take no for an answer. It still has a strong reserve of good will in the West, its allies in the region are many, changing sides and positions depending on the country. And needless to say, nothing in these uprisings is the least bit attractive to a very conservative, Shi’it-allergic, cash rich, miffed Gulf region.
But in contemplating what is yet to come, we do need to remember that Bouazizi did not kill himself for spite, Jan 25 did not just happen asudden and from both issued a pretty powerful contagion.
Perhaps the most important hallmark of the past decade in Egypt has been the reinvigoration of three different trends—professional, associational and workforce—within civil society that finally converged and brought the immovable Mubarak down. In “The Paraxis of the Egyptian Revolution,” a MERIP article teeming with superb insight and razor-sharp analysis, Mona al Ghobashy shows how these three trends had years of street and civic action before reaching Tahrir Square on Jan 25.
There was sweat and blood and sacrifice for years before 2011’s face-offs. This is a dynamic that is already grown up and well out of the cradle. Strangling it is not impossible, but it will be very costly and far from easy.