Five years on: Why the Arab Spring is here to stay — and win

Despite highly destructive counter-revolutionary forces like a-Sisi in Egypt and ISIL in Iraq and Syria, there are grassroots movements across the region demanding governments that serve the people — all of the people.

By Yoav Haifawi*

Protests in Lebanon demanding that the government resume trash collection in Beirut, August 29, 2015. (Joelle Hatem /CC 2.0) Demonstrators have also begun to demand an end to the sectarian nature of their government.
Protests in Lebanon demanding that the government resume trash collection in Beirut, August 29, 2015. (Joelle Hatem /CC 2.0) Demonstrators have also begun to demand an end to the sectarian nature of their government.

On Friday, August 28, 2015, demonstrators in southern and central Iraq (those parts of the country not under “Islamic State” control) held their fifth consecutive “Friday protests” against government corruption, lack of basic services and the sectarian structure of power sharing.

On Saturday, August 29, Lebanon’s “You Stink” movement held its largest demonstration yet in “Martyrs’ Square” in the middle of Beirut – undeterred by the security forces’ violent response to its previous, mostly-peaceful protest. The movement raised the political barrier of its slogans from concentrating on the trash collection crisis to outright calls for toppling the sectarian regime and the establishment of a secular state.

This new wave of demonstrations is a good time to look back and see where the Arab Spring has brought us so far, almost five years after its eruption. After such a long period of struggle, we should already understand why it is not going away in spite of the enormously murderous and destructive force of the counter-revolution.

The expected and the extraordinary

I was not surprised when the Arab Spring broke out at the beginning of 2011. It had already been in the air for at least 10 years.

How long could more than 300 million Arabs be robbed, humiliated, oppressed and kept quite under imperialist hegemony, Zionist colonialism and local Arab tyrants? While the rest of the world was rapidly changing, the system of control in the Arab World froze in the 1970s and remained still for 40 years.

The population became more educated and sophisticated, the economy was modernizing, and the spirit of the era spoke about democracy and human rights. The various regimes were out of step with their peoples. Oil money was being used to defend the interests of ever-smaller elites.

So, back in the winter and spring of 2011, when the masses of protesters poured into the streets and squares of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, it only seemed natural.

But after almost five years of bloody battles, looking at the new wave of peaceful mass struggles evolving in Lebanon and Iraq today, I’m filled with new admiration for the Arab masses and new hope and optimism about the fate of the revolution. The masses that fill now the squares of Beirut and of many cities in southern and central Iraq are challenging the local regimes, not in the name of one interest group or one party, not asking for the promotion of any specific religion or race, but speak in the name of the people, all the people, for their right to have a regime that will serve it and not any special interest or group.

They do it through large grassroots organizations challenging political elites of all sorts, and forcing a new political agenda.

In Beirut it is taking place after a painful 15-year civil war, Israeli occupation and bombardment campaigns, and decades of oppression by the Syrian regime. Even as more than a million refugees from the Syrian civil war have come to compromise nearly a quarter of the country’s population, they don’t blame the refugees but their own government for their hardship — a good lesson for people in many richer countries with a fraction of the refugee burden.

In Iraq people are coming out against their government just as their country is torn apart by a bloody civil war. Fighting the savagery of the “Islamic State” can’t be justification for corruption and sectarianism. Building a new political order that will equally serve the entire Iraqi people is key to any real solution.

Revolutionary romanticism meets harsh reality

Egyptian protesters march from Tahrir Square to the country’s High Court on June 2, 2012. (Al Hussainy Mohamed / CC BY-NC 2.0)
Egyptian protesters march from Tahrir Square to the country’s High Court on June 2, 2012. (Al Hussainy Mohamed / CC BY-NC 2.0)

When Ben Ali, Tunisia’s strongman, fled the country after 28 days of mass protests, we celebrated all over the region. When on February 11, after just 18 days of multi-million strong demonstrations, Egypt’s dictator Mubarak was removed from power – it looked like the inevitable march of the revolution from victory to victory. But this romantic naivety of the first days of the revolution was not a good guide for things to come.

It reminds me of John Reed’s book Ten Days that Shook the World, about the October 1917 communist revolution in Russia. Some romantic leftists thought it proved that the greatest revolution in modern history happened with almost no blood spilled. This a-historic optimism ignores the years of civil war that followed before the Soviets really ruled Russia (and only a small fraction of the working class survived this period as workers), and decades of internal and external struggles later on.

Naturally, after the initial advance of the Arab Spring, other dictators were alerted and decided to fight back, with different levels of success. The bloodiest of them all, Bashar Al-Assad, inflicted such a high toll in the blood of the Syrian people and the flattening down of Syria’s cities that other peoples in the region congratulated themselves for not starting a revolution.

And where the revolution “won” – it became clear that toppling the head of the regime doesn’t guarantee real change.

In Egypt we have seen the full rage of the counter-revolution unleashed since the coup led by General a-Sisi, the local Pinochet. But even in Tunisia, where a new, more-or-less democratic order was established, the forces of the old regime and the bourgeois elite regrouped and regained much of their previous power.

The counter revolutionary surge doesn’t mean that the old order was restored. There are good reasons to believe that it will never be. While the revolution, by wrecking established regimes, created some level of chaos, the counter-revolution — by fighting and annihilating the people — created much deeper chaos.

Now the contest is not only about a struggle for power but also about who can provide a new basis for the development of the country and the livelihood of the people.

The revolution between craziness and normality

ISIS conducting a mass execution in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria.
ISIS conducting a mass execution in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria.

It would be too easy to pretend that the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (ISIL) is some sort of invasion by aliens, foreign intervention, imperialist plot or a stooge of the Syrian or Turkish regimes. Yes, many sides try to use ISIL to beat their enemies, or use the horror that it spreads to justify their own atrocities. But we should admit that the “Islamic State” is basically a case of “the revolution going crazy” under the harsh conditions of bloody conflict.

This is not a new phenomenon in history. It happened with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which started as a pretty traditional communist party, but later came to the idea that Cambodia’s cities are all corrupt and the population should return to its original pure way of life in the villages. The attempt to implement this “purist” ideology claimed millions of Cambodian lives.

As long as the local corrupt ruling classes are confronting any demand of the masses by bloody oppression they push more and more people to look for the most extreme ways to fight back. In Iraq, where ISIL was born, the protest of the (Sunni) people of north-west Iraq started with months of peaceful demonstrations asking for equality and civil rights. Only after the army was sent in, and towns were put under military siege and bombed, ISIL extremism acquired its mass appeal.

In Syria, when ISIL first took power in Raqqa, unsympathetic observers mentioned that it was less corrupt and restored some level of basic services which other militias failed to provide.

The inflation of ISIL power, in Syria and Iraq and all over the region, in spite of having no direct allies and arousing antagonism from all directions, proves the huge vacuum that still dominates the region’s politics and the slow progress of the reformist and revolutionary forces.

At the same time as the atrocities of ISIL against women, minorities and whoever disobeys it should be rejected on principle. It is the task of sane revolutionaries everywhere to prove that they can wage and win the battle for democracy and care for the basic needs of the masses at the same time.

Pluralist, democratic and social agenda

After five years of the Arab Spring, the center of the political agenda is shifting from the toppling of old powers to the character of the new regime that should be established. The new mass movements in Iraq and Lebanon are good signs.

The old regimes survive by incitement of sectarian hatred and conflict. Now it is the task of the popular forces of the Arab Spring to rebuild the region on new foundations of dignity and fulfilling the needs of the people. Only a pluralist democracy that respects everybody’s human rights, traditions and beliefs can enable the peoples of the region, with all their ethnic, national and religious diversity, to live peacefully together. At the same time, the social content of the new regime is just as essential: it should provide and care for the welfare of all sections of the population equally.

This is the answer to the constant effort of the reactionary forces from all sides to draw the region into a bloody conflict between Shias and Sunnis, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This is the right answer to the religious and ethnic persecution of IS. More than ever, the program of one democratic state in Palestine is an integral part of the vital revolutionary democratic agenda for the whole region.

Yoav Haifawi is the pen name of a Haifa-based activist. He maintains the Free Haifa blogs (in English,Arabic & Hebrew). A version of this article first appeared on Free Haifa English.

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