Two Years to the Arab Spring Analysis |

Arab Democracy Looks Different

Underlying the upheavals in Arab countries is a revolution of consciousness, with citizens recognizing their role in the running of their states. But the West misread the map if it expected to see U.S.-style democracies there.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The second anniversary of the revolution in Egypt will be marked next month. That revolution had been preceded by Tunisia's, which broke out on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young university graduate, set himself on fire after municipal officials confiscated the vegetable cart with which he earned a meager living. After that would come the long and bloody revolutions.

On January 27, 2011, two days after the huge demonstrations in Cairo, the mass rioting in Yemen began. On September 15, 2011, there was a mass demonstration that marked the beginning of the civil war in Libya. It was only in March, 2012, that Syria joined the countries of revolt. In reality, however, the exact date of revolutions have only symbolic value. None really began on one, specific date. Alienation and estrangement between the public and the regimes ripened over many years, before the feeling of "we have nothing to lose" overcame fear of the regime.

In Cairo, less than 200 meters separate a Kentucky Fried Chicken branch from the building of the Egyptian Parliament's upper house on Kasr Al Aini Street . This is a route that traverses Tahrir Square, goes past the American University building and overlooks the headquarters of the Mugamma - the intimidating Interior Ministry that symbolized former President Hosni Mubarak's regime of fear.

On a hot and sultry day in August 2008, an ordinary day choked with cars and pedestrians ignoring the traffic lights, the sidewalks suddenly filled with a tremendous crowd swelling near the Parliament building. Many pulled out mobile phones and began filming the flames and thick smoke rising from the building. At a snail's pace, a number of small fire engines showed up and began uselessly spraying water from a distance.

"An electrical short circuit," the authorities explained to the journalists, who wrote that down assiduously. "How can it be that the government can't put out a fire in a building that belongs to it?" asked a passerby. "It's not that it can't put out the fire - it's the government that ignited it," said another. "All the evidence about the corruption has gone up in flames there. An electrical short circuit - ha!"

The next day, the government announced a commission of inquiry and President Hosni Mubarak's commitment to repair the building during his term of office.

Four months prior to that fire, there was a mass demonstration in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra, where factory workers marched against employers who had not kept a promise to share profits with them. On that day - April 6, 2008 - the employees won tremendous support from a group of young people who called upon all Egyptians to strike in solidarity with the workers.

This was an original type of strike: "Wear black clothes and don't go to work," the activists' message urged on websites and blogs. "There is no point in taking to the streets and entering into confrontation with the army, which will no doubt be stronger than we are.”

The call to participate, which won a relatively large response, laid the cornerstone for the April 6 movement, which would three years later initiate the great demonstration on January 25, 2011, in Tahrir Square, marking the start of the revolution.

One week before the Parliament fire in Cairo, the independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm published an article by then-editor-in-chief Magdy el-Galad, headed “A problem of national security.” In the article, Galad described a meeting he’d had with three educated young men: one was a graduate of the pharmacy faculty; the second a law school graduate; the third a student of commerce. They related that, in a conversation among themselves, a probing question came up: “What would happen if Israel occupied Sinai again? Would you go to fight and defend the homeland?” One of the young men immediately replied: “Yes, of course.” The second, with the same alacrity, replied in the negative. And the third said, “I have to think about it. Maybe not.”

“I asked the one who had replied in the negative to explain what he had said,” wrote Galad, “and he replied that a person goes out to defend a homeland when he feels it is his. Land he feels belongs to him. A state that affords him warmth and security. A government that brings about justice and equality.”

Belated understanding

“Now I understand what you want,” promised Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in one of his last speeches before he fled with his family. His was a belated and mendacious understanding: Ben Ali knew full well what the public wanted and, therefore, for many years imposed strict censorship on the press and the Internet, forcibly repressed any attempt to demonstrate and rigged elections.

For his part, Mubarak was not that heavy-handed. In his day, mostly during the last of his three decades in power, there was a flourishing (albeit illegal) press . The Internet also served as a platform for sophisticated public discourse, and directed most of its struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, while in Egypt the dictatorship masqueraded as a constitutional regime, Libya, Yemen and Syria did not make such a pretense. If in Tunisia and Egypt the demand to “topple the regime” referred both to the head of state and the system and mechanisms that had given rise to them in Yemen and Libya the struggle was far more personal.

Thus, the demand for democracy was interpreted differently in each of the countries. The composition of each population such as the gap between the respective residents of Benghazi and Tripoli and the western part of the country (in the case of Libya), or the rivalry between southerners and northerners and among various tribes (in the case of Yemen) defined the results that were hoped for in each of the countries.

Within these definitions lies the frustration of the people who coined the term “Arab Spring” in the West (by the way, the revolutions, it is worth noting, began in the winter, Syria excepted), who envisioned a pan-Arab revolution that would give rise to American-style democracy. The ambitions of the revolutionaries in the Arab countries, who know better than anyone else which democracy is best suited to them, are more specific.

“Arab Spring” rests on a collective Western memory formed on the 1848 “Spring of Nations” that began to shape and define national perceptions in Europe. Its continuation was a cold colonialist winter in which Arab and other countries were occupied.

The Arab states of 2011 did not wake up to a national revolution. They had already implemented that in the previous century.

Possibly it would be more accurate to define the current revolutions as a critical transitional stage from alienation to citizens’ identification with their countries. Not wars of independence being fought against colonial occupation, but rather an effort to assume ownership over the countries left by colonialists and their successors, and by dictators that were later deposed.

The term “Arab” in the phrase “Arab Spring” is also far from precise. Four Arab countries Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen experienced the toppling of a regime. One country, Syria, is still struggling against its regime. In Bahrain there were indeed demonstrations, but no regime change. Iraq went through a revolution of governance thanks to the American occupation. The other Arab countries have remained in the position of onlookers.

It would, however, be a mistake to examine the effect of the revolutions only through the narrow lens of the changes or non-changes in each of the countries. The consciousness of an “eternity of the regime,” as had been instilled in most of the Arab countries, is what has dissipated. Dynastic regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Qatar, are now aware of the dangerous potential in the power of the people. Some of them have hastened to adopt reforms or to buy quiet with a lot of money. The “democracy” in those countries has garbed itself in a different cloth; now the patronage cannot stop at only ensuring an income and a better distribution of the oil money among the public.

The concept of “people’s representation” has increasingly entered the lexicon of public discourse. The revolutions, then, cannot be examined only by the quality of democracy to which they have given rise, nor by the crushing of the fear-inducing regime.

A number of years ago, Farida al-Naqqash editor of the oppositionist, leftist Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahali wrote that “the security of the regime is well preserved; the crisis now is in the faith in the homeland. This regime can do nothing but preserve itself, its people and their wealth which is deposited outside the country. In this way, the deep gap has been created between the public and the regime.”

This is a crisis of identity and hence a crisis of identification with one’s country. “When a pen or one’s chewing gum is produced in China, and when the young man wears a shirt on which the American flag is printed, and when he has his hair cut like European stars why demand of him that he be an Egyptian and feel he belongs to this country?” wondered veteran actor Hamdi Ahmed a while ago. “The absence of an identity is turning the country into a supermarket. Is it possible to expect anyone to sacrifice his life for a supermarket? After all, your entire relationship with a supermarket is that you purchase some products there that you could buy anywhere else.”

Tomorrow, the second stage of the Egyptian referendum on the new constitution will end. The sharp and sometimes violent struggle between opponents of the proposed formulation and its supporters only testifies to the great importance most of the public attributes to the image of the state in which it lives.

In contrast to the indifference and even hatred felt by the Egyptian public toward the legislative institution only four years ago, this time the public sees Parliament as an integral part of itself, not as property of the regime. In addition to a feeling that every vote has real significance this time which illustrates the difference between the past two years and the previous 60 there is the feeling of belonging and state identification that has germinated and bloomed in those two years.

For now, Tunisia is still in turmoil and examining the content of its future constitution. In Libya the process of formulating a constitution has not yet begun, and this is also the case in Yemen.

The revolution of consciousness will no doubt also have many implications for the foreign policy of those countries, inter-Arab relations and relations with the West in general and the United States in particular. This change in consciousness is already bringing about a new perception in the West: It is beginning to recognize that alliances between its governments and Arab rulers will henceforth have to rely on that gigantic unknown called public opinion.

Demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square against President Morsi this week. The Egyptian public attributes great importance to the image of its state.Credit: AFP

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