Lately, many people have become afraid of using words like “revolution”, “change” or “historical transition” in regards to the events, developments, and conditions that the Arab world has been witnessing since December 2010.
The frightened people I am referring to are those with good intentions, because those with bad intentions, or those with interests associated with the old Arab regimes, never hesitated since the very beginning to use such descriptions as “Middle Eastern chaos”, “conspiracy” or “political Islam threatens stability” to express their position towards the transitional process underway in the Arab world. However, the fear of sympathisers might have been justified. In a number of Arab countries, such as Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the revolutionary movement could not completely overthrow the old regime, and the ruling, political, financial, and economic class. In Libya, Gaddafi’s state was overthrown, but the heavy legacy of the former regime put the country in a state of relative chaos and anxiety. In Syria, the regional and sectarian considerations, as well as the brutal and oppressive policies of the regime, helped drive the country to a state of civil war. More importantly, the official Arab organisations, despite hiding behind the idea of unity and solidarity, realised a long time ago the deep ties and mutual influence amongst the people, and have worked to either restrict the movements for change or eliminate them.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult for many people to accept that there is a revolutionary movement or that things are actual changing in the Arab world. Some say that while there are popular outbursts, there remains a limited desire for change within some groups, thus the Arabs are still far from experiencing a revolutionary moment such as the French Revolution.
As we know, the French Revolution was accompanied by deep social changes in the structure of the economy and society, particularly in Western Europe, after decades of imperialism, naval activity, increasing economic development, industrialisation, the growth of cities, and the spread of education. However, the old political system was unable to respond to these economic and social changes, either on the level of governance or on the level of citizenship and the legal system. The revolution was sparked because the regime did not meet the expectations of the French people who provided the backbone of the productive and military components of France and the growing influence of the imperial project overseas. These expectations were neither sudden nor surprising, since eighteenth century Europe, and particularly France, witnessed one of the largest intellectual movements in its history, which the world would come to know as the Age of Enlightenment, and these expectations were put up for public debate, for the first time in European history. Most of the issues were related to the political system, representation, the involvement of the Church in the state, rights, freedoms and the constitution. If the old French regime had been flexible enough, rational enough, and prioritised the interests and privileges of the country, then it may have seen the importance and significance of that intellectual debate and launched a political reform movement to prevent the revolution. However, it did not, and therefore it had to face the storm of the revolution from 1789 to 1792, reaching its climax when the king was sent to the guillotine. The old European monarchies were thought to represent the sacred link between the Creator and His creation, and by beheading the king, France had decided to send their sacred link to the grave.
In this sense, the French Revolution was an enormous event that transformed the relationship between classes, as well as between the church and state, re-defining the parish in a political system of citizenship and establishing a legal system based on more rational and objective concepts. The idea of the people as a nation was born from the revolution. However, the problem is that many also forget that the French Revolution did not accomplish systemic change during its first three years and that it took many decades before a new France was created and stability was established, not to mention its impact felt on Europe and the world. Moreover, after the revolution, France lived through long, bloody, and sometimes destructive times. Major transformations in the lives of nations and their people do not follow a linear framework and have no manual or road map, thus they need time before the results settle on the ground and their roots are spread.
Over the next decade following the birth of the revolution, the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the first French Republic in 1804, the French population lived through years of violence, unrest, and internal conflicts among the leaders of the revolution and the republic, accompanied by other conflicts in the European arena and overseas. The first republic established the empire led by Napoleon Bonaparte, an army officer who was both a genius and an ambitious adventurer. However, Napoleon’s ambitions for the empire were soon broken due to the opposing alliance of European monarchies, who felt, as many Arab countries feel today, that the French Revolution was trying not only to establish an imperial Europe, led by Bonaparte, but even worse, to spread the revolution to the old regimes throughout Europe. In 1815, Napoleon’s army fought in the critical Battle of Waterloo and was ultimately defeated by the European alliance, which led to Napoleon stepping down. Although Napoleon once again named his son as the Emperor of France, his son did not have the opportunity to be crowned, as the Allied troops entered Paris and overthrew the Bonaparte regime and restored the Bourbon family to power. With the return of the monarchy, it seemed for a moment that the European response to the French revolution had succeeded, and the hopes of the revolution had been lost forever. However, in 1830 the people revolted against the monarchy once again, this time for the sake of popular sovereignty in place of a hereditary monarchy, and a king from the Orleans family sat on the throne until the regime was overthrown by the 1848 revolution, continuing the wave of a revolutionary storm that ultimately affected dozens of European kingdoms and empires.
In 1852, the second French republic was born, which lasted until 1870, and consisted of what was known as the second empire headed by Napoleon III, ending with the defeat of France at the hands of the German coalition. The domestic reactions led to the birth of the short-lived Paris Commune. The idea of a republic in France was not really established until the Third Republic, which lasted from 1870 until the German army entered Paris in 1940.
What the Arab world is witnessing today is similar to the French situation at the end of the eighteenth century, in spite of the different contexts, forces, and circumstances. There is a large group of people who feel, now more than ever, that they really are a united nation bound together by common culture, concerns, fates, obligations, and responsibilities. However one part of the Arab world is extremely rich in terms of resources and the other is less so, and yet the Arabs do not feel a common right to the wealth and also suffer from high levels of disappointed expectations. After nearly a century since the establishment of the modern eastern nation, following the collapse of the Ottoman and Western imperialist empires, the independent Arab states have not achieved any of their people’s aspirations for welfare, independence, or protection from the dangers of foreign countries. Worse still, the new-born regimes led by social or sectarian minorities have become, over time, more closed off and controlling of the capabilities of their nations’ power and wealth.
On the other hand, the spread of mass education over the last century has helped develop the awareness of individuals and raised their ambitions, and this level of education is sufficient enough to spark an atmosphere of creativity and sophistication. However this has happened without accompanying political and economic developments to accommodate these educated individuals and provide a decent life for them. Moreover, the rapid development in the means of communication has given space for the exchange of information and a wider window to the world, while Arab citizens are living in what seems to be a big prison where the state’s lack of transparency and its failure to meet its most minimal responsibilities towards its people and their right to hold the state accountable.
In an atmosphere of repression, limited freedom and a declining standard of education, the ruling class has taken control of the reins of both power and wealth, and corruption has turned into an established tradition amongst the ruling institutions and class. Moreover, the growth rates have deteriorated enormously, not only in comparison to countries that began the process of development relatively late, such as Korea, Malaysia and India, but also even compared to a growing number of countries in Africa and Latin America. Above all, the limits of national independence are steadily receding, and the resistance of the Arab countries in the face of the Jewish state are collapsing one after the other. Arab revolutionary movements starting in 2010-2011 were, in this sense, a reflection of the inability of the old Arab regimes to continue and an expression of the growing sense among the Arab citizenry that the current situation cannot go on. In other words, the old Arab regimes have now reached a historical deadlock that they can no longer manoeuvre out of, like they have done in the past, when they escaped their greatest failures at the end of the forties and early fifties, as well as at the end of the sixties, and in the beginning of this century.
There is no single party or ideological organisation that stands behind the revolution, but rather a set of values and concepts that not only represent the common goal of all the different ideologies, but that have also come to be an integral part of the general culture over the past decade or two. Perhaps we can say that the essence of the process of change is a matter for all matters, i.e. putting an end to a century of social, political, or sectarian minority rule and restoring the people’s will. However, as in the French experience during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the process of major change cannot be realised or even reach the point of no return in a quick and easy manner, or along a path with clear parameters. Firstly, because the Arab people have been divided amongst themselves for decades; secondly, because the old regime was not born yesterday and possesses enough strength and power to respond to the movement of revolution and change; and thirdly, because the Arab regimes have quickly and easily spotted the danger and threats posed by the process of revolutionary change on their regimes and have worked, like the European alliance in Waterloo, against the revolution, change, and the forces that support this movement.
This is a battle for change that may be long, but we should not doubt that the battle is not only consistent with historical conditions, but is also imposed by the historical moment.
This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Quds Al Arabi Newspaper on 6 November, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.