The Arab Spring Gave Us a Tantalizing Glimpse of Political Revolution - When Will Our Dreams Come True?
The following is an excerpt from Vijay Prashad's new book, The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press and LeftWord Books, 2016).
Popular rebellions reflect the urges of a people, but the people are themselves not always capable of victory. If the structure of social order in a particular formation is weakened by war or by economic turmoil, the popular rebellions might be able to move history forward. Even here, the record shows that unless there is an organized force that is ready to seize the day, historical motion can falter. Older, dominant social classes that have a monopoly over violence hastily enter the fray to their advantage. Human history is littered with failed uprisings. They are the norm. Success is the exception. But neither failure nor success holds back the frequency of revolts. These are in the nature of human desire: the march toward freedom.
The Arab Spring was defeated neither in the byways of Tahrir Square nor in the souk of Aleppo. It was defeated roundly in the palaces of Riyadh, Doha, and Ankara as well as in Washington, Paris, Tehran, and Moscow. From there came the petrodollars and arms to scuttle the ambitions of the people. Tunisia was saved because it has a strong trade union. Otherwise the Saudis and ErdogÌ†an’s regime—with Western support of various enthusiasms—have laid waste to the Arab world. What began as great hope has now reached a point of great disappointment. Embers of the future remain burning—but only here and there.
On a September day in 2013, the novelist and journalist Sahar Mandour and I are sitting in the outdoor section of Beirut’s T-Marbouta—the restaurant and cafÃ© that gathers Beirut’s intellectuals and artists. Mandour is the editor of the Palestine supplement of as-Sa r, one of the Arab world’s ne newspapers. We are talking about the war in Syria and the political morbidity in Egypt. But as we sit here in Lebanon, other premonitions hang over us. Almost a million Syrian refugees had already come to Lebanon. That number would only grow in the years that followed. On the pavements of Hamra, outside the cafÃ©, young Syrian children—refugees in Beirut—earned meager amounts of money selling flowers (girls) or polishing shoes (boys). The Lebanese state has been weakened by the long civil war (1975–90), the Israeli occupation (1982–2000), and the constant threat of the return of both. “There is always that shadow,” says Mandour. A former chief of police in Beirut during the civil war tells me that the civil war never ended; it is merely now “at halftime.” Like many Lebanese writers, Mandour cannot escape from the civil war. She writes of the mundane existence of ordinary Beirutis who struggle to find their place in the moral and sexual economy of our age. Her novel 32, for instance, is about five young women whose transit to adulthood is blocked by various anxieties—each one rooted in the legacies of the civil war but refracted in the present.
We are not talking about Lebanon alone. We are talking about the region and the sense of gloom that has descended with the dampening of the Tahrir dynamic. Mandour’s father is Egyptian and her mother is Lebanese. One eye is focused on Cairo, the other on the Levant. Around the time that we sat in that cafÃ©, Sahar wrote a surreal essay on Egypt’s revolution and its stasis. She quotes a song sung by Umm Kulthum, and then writes, “Yesterday was love. Yesterday was also the break-up. And today is but one moment in a succession of stories which were born and grew out of another point in time, and which will continue on into other points in time.” This is cryptic. But it anticipates this: “For hope, like despair, is but a passing emotion in the mood of human life.” Over her coffee, she bemoans the complexity of our time. “During the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003,” she says, “we took a clear position against war and against dictatorships: la li-al-harb la-al-dictatoriyat. Today, no such simple slogan is possible. That slogan is old. We need new positions, new slogans. We need to find our way out of the confusion of today.” The general mood among intellectuals of Mandour’s generation, those who came of political age with the Bush war on Iraq, is somber and introspective. The “confusion of today” is the best description of the situation. It is where the Arab Spring has brought them. They are nonetheless eager to go elsewhere. Somewhere beyond the obituary, to what comes next.