Last week, The New York Times Magazine devoted a special issue to a report on the historic tumult and turmoil in the Middle East. Here, three Arab writers respond, and reflect on the legacy of the Arab Spring revolutions.
VOICES FOR FREEDOM.
It isn’t very smart to be smart after the fact, and perhaps it isn’t very smart to judge the course of the Arab world’s revolutions when I’m sitting in an air-conditioned room not in the Middle East but in the American Midwest. The last boat I sailed in with my family was a pirate ship in an amusement park, not a dinghy full of refugees endangering their lives and those of their families in the hope that their children will one day savor the taste of freedom.
“Freedom” was the word that emerged from the throats of the young that heralded the Arab Spring in 2011. Freedom was the value that reverberated in the streets of Tunis and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “Freedom,” the demonstrators shouted, surprising themselves with their own forcefulness, feeling like a people in the true nationalist sense of the word, a nation that could determine its fate, and not be just a “nation” in the slogans of tyrants.
Of course, the politics, history and social relations in every country are different. Tunisia is not the same as Libya; Egypt is not the same as Syria. And yet there are patterns: The results of the uprisings in most of the countries Arab are seen today as devastating. The Arab world is, indeed, a “fractured land,” as Scott Anderson describes it. It may be that if the revolutionaries had foreseen the fate of their countries, they would not have gone into the streets.
Yet despite the devastation and the pervasive feeling of failure, those days of rebellion constituted a rare signpost for the entire Arab world. They posed a first, perfect opportunity for the establishment of true states whose function would be to protect citizens, their freedoms and rights — not artificial states in which the regime functioned only to protect itself from its citizens.
States where the regime and its rulers see the people as their enemies don’t allow for reform. Popular uprisings were necessary to bring about change, since no reform was possible, but some of the revolutionaries failed to shape events after the regimes fell. They hurried to hold elections before there was agreement on a constitution, or on the nature of the state they wanted to establish. Maybe in some countries, where the rulers were ousted, the revolutionaries should have been more determined to take the reins of power, and defend themselves from counterrevolution. In Syria and Libya, what began as a quiet popular protest encountered cruel violence from the regime, and turned into armed resistance and later to civil war, tribal war — and regional proxy war.
The Arab revolutions were noble because they reflected the people’s desire for freedom. Those great early days silenced the fundamentalist movements and cast aside foreign interests. They heralded a new age in which the state would fulfill its function, in which conflicts and schisms, whether religious, ethnic or tribal, would dissolve.
Tyrants will point to the revolutions’ aftermath and say to their subjects: “See! Is this the devastation you wished for?” And it may be that oppressed people have lost hope in the face of their rulers, on one hand, and the terrorists on the other. But the same cry of “freedom” continues to resound in their hearts and will return to echo in the Arab world’s streets and squares again, in the hope that the next generation will learn from the mistakes of its predecessors, and know how to better estimate the cruelty of its enemies.
Sayed Kashua is a columnist for Haaretz and the author, most recently, of Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life. This essay was translated from the Hebrew by Lisa Katz.
There is a lucidity to hindsight. Should Egypt have followed a more revolutionary path? A complete overhaul of the state would have meant its collapse as we know it. With a population of nearly 90 million, about seven million of them civil servants, that would have meant chaos, in particular in the absence of a viable alternative plan. We took to the streets in January 2011 with a single concrete demand: the departure of President Hosni Mubarak. We returned in the months that followed with equally singular and idealistic demands: for change. In some ways, nothing would have satisfied the calls of Tahrir Square.
Having been a part of it all in the day to day, I can now look back and identify the missteps and lost opportunities. In the first interim cabinet after Mr. Mubarak stepped down, young activists and seasoned political agents alike were invited to take positions in government. They refused on the grounds that to be a part of a government is to validate it. A middle ground might have yielded results: demanding a reformist agenda, taking positions offered to effect change from within the system, instituting accountability. But at the time, and for legitimate reasons, there was mistrust in that system and the deep state it depended on, and so this kind of revolutionary-reformist position and agenda didn’t seem viable. This was a populace that had no history of effecting change, and the faith in it, when it came, was tenuous unless absolute.
After millions recognizing the improvident and heedless choice of electing Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist president who served simply as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, not only did millions of Egyptians call for early elections, but they also called for the military to step in. Some say this was a mistake, others see it as an informed choice of the lesser of two evils. In the next five years, hindsight might offer an alternative reading.
History is cyclical, and revolutions, even messy ones, take decades. The current state of both Egypt and the region can’t be reduced to one or two significant causal events. Economic conditions, in both the wealthy and poor states, are a critical factor in the upheaval we’re seeing, as is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the residual repercussions of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the resurrected idea of the Islamic caliphate. Not to mention the underlying colonial legacy, which we have struggled to build on and shed. It’s seductive to try to identify the underlying ailment and prescribe a cure, but the situation is infinitely more complicated than one or two points in history and a revolutionary path gone wrong.
Yasmine El Rashidi is the author of the novel Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt.
CRACKS IN THE WALLS
Scott Anderson’s account of the Arab unraveling raises a question that he does not address: Could anyone in the business of carving up the post-Ottoman Middle East have understood the complicated tribal, religious and sectarian networks at play centuries before modern European nation states even existed? And if by some miracle all that complexity was knowable, would it have made a difference to the stories of the men and women Mr. Anderson writes about?
The coherence of nation states is largely a matter of politics, not sociology. Think of Israel. Without a leader of the stature of David Ben-Gurion, would it have been born? Or think of two of the most illogical, artificial and yet nationally coherent (at least until today) Arab states bordering the collapsing states of Iraq and Syria: Kuwait and Jordan. The first is a British afterthought, and the second an indispensable British ally. Not a single Arab outside Kuwait would have said it had a coherent national identity until the day Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990, only to discover a Kuwaiti patriotic resistance to his occupation. And where would Jordan be today, buffeted as it has been for decades by the storms of Arabism and Islamism, without the political genius of King Hussein, some of whose gifts he may have passed on to his son and successor, Abdullah?
It was not written into the genes of the different peoples of Iraq and Syria that they would descend into anarchy because Britain and France had so botched the job of creating them in the first place. Politics in the shape of extreme dictatorships, which when they crumble give rise to hardened sectarians, layered onto decades of wars and revolutions, took the Arab peoples down today’s ghastly road.
That kind of politics was not always there; it came into being after the great Arab defeat of June 1967, with the rise of regimes that legitimized themselves on the basis of denial, rejection and blame directed at everyone but themselves. Take any collective of millions of people ruled by the iron grip of that kind of politics, subject them for decades to grievous abuse in a concentration camp called a country; then knock down from the outside, or chip away from the inside at the walls. Surely, with Arab leaders like ours, it is not surprising that the hounds of hell will be unleashed.
But should the West not have knocked down these walls, as it did in Iraq, or help in chipping them away from the inside, as it is failing to do, in Syria? Can we afford not to reach out with arms opened wide to those struggling to be free, or to be safe? Is that even a choice for a civilized human being whose own country is brimming with wealth? Perhaps we should ask Arabs to chip away more slowly at the walls of their prisons, and choose the path of gradual reform? Politics, alas, is unknowable. But we can ask: Why and when and how did Arab politics take such a bad turn as to make the outcome of the Arab Spring of 2011 turn out so bleakly? We Arabs have not asked, much less answered, those questions yet.
Kanan Makiya is a professor at Brandeis University and the author, most recently, of the novel The Rope.