The Revolution Turns Five: Faculty reflections on the fifth anniversary of the Arab uprisings

Graffiti from Cairo. Translation: “No to Harassment” Photo Credit: Rochelle Davis

Graffiti from Cairo. Translation: “No to Harassment.” Photo Credit: Rochelle Davis

“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change”

Fida Adely

In this fifth year anniversary of the Arab revolts or “Arab Spring,” we might ask ourselves “what has changed in the region?” Given the conflicts raging in the Arab world as we speak, many have concluded that the revolts failed, or that rather than bringing “progress” they have pushed us back—entrenching authoritarianism, displacing millions, exacerbating sectarian differences, etc. But such conclusions reflect a short view of history and a truncated understanding of change. More troublesome, they can fuel a view of the region as unchanging, stagnant, and even backward.

To paraphrase Heraclitus’ famous adage quoted in the title above, change in the region (as elsewhere) is the norm rather than the exception. What was exceptional is the explosive kind of change we witnessed in Tunisia and in Tahrir Square in 2011 or in Dara’a and Damascus. These were indisputably rare events—revolutions ripe with hope and a desire for justice. But stepping away from those dramatic events and their cascading effects, it behooves us to recall that change is typically much more banal—small, gradual and constant. Nowhere are the limits of our change paradigms more apparent to me than in thinking about gender roles and ideologies. In the wake of the Arab Spring, many asked how these dramatic political events would change women’s roles, while others claimed that women’s roles had already changed dramatically via participation in revolutionary action. However, as a scholar of women, gender and development in the region, I am keenly aware that the gendered contours of daily life in the Arab world today have been shaped through centuries of socio-economic and political transformations. From colonialism, to the spread of bourgeoisie liberalism and Islamic reformisms, to deepening entanglements with a global capitalist system and the adoption of new technologies of the recent centuries, the world men and women live in has changed dramatically. Yet the ways in which it has changed, through the slow unfolding of history, may be imperceptible to those looking only at the surface.

Fida Adely is Associate Professor of Anthropology at CCAS, the Clovis and Hala Salaam Maksoud Chair in Arab Studies, and Academic Director of the Master of Arts in Arab Studies program.

Rising or Falling? The Crisis of the Arab State

Michael Hudson

The death of Gamal Abdul-Nasser in 1970 marked a turning point in Arab politics, which had previously been characterized by revolutionary populism and unpredictable regime changes, and ushered in an era of rapid expansion of the bureaucracies that comprised the state, as well as acceptance of the state as the framework for conducting political life. Stability came not only through threat and coercion, but also through “legitimacy cocktails” of nationalism, patrimonialism, and a social contract between citizens and the state. With time, however, the salience of these principles eroded, culminating in the uprisings of 2011 that dramatically revealed the weakness of the Arab state.

Among the uprising states, those with a claim to more historical continuity and cultural coherence—Tunisia and Egypt—came closest to a democratic transition. Egypt might have been considered ready for such a transition, but the opposition, overshadowed by the Muslim Brotherhood, proved incapable of effectively organizing broad-based support and unwilling to promote pluralism during its brief window of opportunity. Libya and Yemen—the weakest states of the lot—sank into near-anarchy, at least for the short term. The Bahraini state became an even more dependent client of Saudi Arabia. In two of the “fiercest” states—Iraq and Syria—the hollowness of the edifice has been exposed. Iraq had its regime change in 2003 with the US-led invasion and occupation. The occupiers systematically dismantled the state and were unable to replace it with a stable order. And the Syrian regime, when challenged by ordinary citizens, reacted with a paroxysm of violence, polarizing the situation and setting off a civil war.

In Egypt, layered graffiti like this example from American University of Cairo at Tahrir Square can be read as “palimpsest commentary on the unfolding events of the revolution,” writes Rochelle Davis. Photo Credit: Rochelle Davis

In Egypt, layered graffiti like this example from American University of Cairo at Tahrir Square can be read as “palimpsest commentary on the unfolding events of the revolution,” writes Rochelle Davis. Photo Credit: Rochelle Davis

Perhaps it is not surprising that a non-state (indeed anti-state) movement like the Islamic State (ISIS or Da’ish) has emerged as a state-in-waiting. Offering up a completely different ideology from the old nationalism and patrimonialism of the established states, it aims to erase old boundaries. Having made its violent appearance in Iraq and Syria, it also has a presence in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Algeria. The existing Arab state system is firmly bolstered by American and European power—military, political and economic—so the weakness of particular Arab states might not be fatal in confrontation with what ISIS has to offer. But the emergence of this movement alone indicates that the Arab state as we have come to know it is indeed a flawed creation. Arab states (and regimes) still struggle for legitimacy and the key to that legitimacy may be the establishment of genuinely participatory institutions. Clearly, this is not an easy task.

This is an excerpt from a presentation Michael C. Hudson, Professor Emeritus at CCAS, delivered in January, 2016 at the conference “The Arab Revolutions, Five Years On: Consequences of Arduous Democratic Transformation” held at the American University of Beirut and organized by the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, and the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha.

Economic Conditions in the Post-uprising Arab World

Joseph Sassoon

Five years after the uprising in 2011, it is hard to argue that the economic conditions in the region have improved. In fact, the countries that witnessed the Arab spring (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen) are facing particular difficulties. Tourism to Tunisia and Egypt has dropped dramatically, even at a time when the two countries are in greater need of foreign exchange. The Egyptian Pound has depreciated by roughly 50 percent in the past five years, forcing the Egyptian government to impose restrictions to reduce its imports and ensure that inflation does not threaten the economy. In Tunisia, which maintained more stability and is the only country still undergoing a transition from authoritarianism to post-authoritarianism, unemployment, particularly among the youth, has increased and foreign investments have dropped due to instability along the borders.

The collapse of oil prices in the last couple of years has added to the challenges facing many of the countries in the region. Oil prices continue to be the lead driver of export structures, investments, and macroeconomic performance. Countries blessed with vast resources of oil, such as Iraq, did not manage to take advantage of the rising oil prices that dominated the markets a few years ago due to the prevalence of corruption and the mismanagement of the economies in these countries. Now, with oil prices hovering around $45, Iraq is facing serious financial difficulties, particularly given the increase in military expenditures in response to the advance of ISIL into Iraqi territories.

The protracted civil war in Syria, which has led to vast numbers of refugees, the total chaos in Libya due to its lack of a central government, and the war raging in Yemen with its many civilian casualties are all impacting the economic conditions of the region and creating an atmosphere of instability that is unconducive to investment and long-term planning. Five years after the revolutions, much of the region still needs to make fundamental changes to its socio-economic policies in order to provide employment and economic security for the peoples of these countries who have already suffered decades of tyranny and inequality.

Joseph Sassoon is Associate Professor of Political Economy and Sheikh Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah Chair at CCAS. 

The Lost Voice of Tunisia’s Youth

Noureddine Jebnoun

Five years after the popular Tunisian uprising, the new-old country’s political elite (both the current president and head of the government that once served the now-fallen regime in different capacities) has failed to address the legitimate grievances that led youth to take to the streets against the deposed and exiled autocratic ruler Ben Ali in 2011. Although the 2014 Constitution solemnly acknowledges the youth as an “active force in building the nation” and directs the state “to extend and generalize their participation in social, economic, cultural and political development,” the barriers to the political and economic inclusion of youth are more salient than ever. The rate of unemployment remains excessively high among youth, including university graduates: 37.6% in 2014, as compared with the country’s overall unemployment rate of 15.2%.

As seven governments and three presidents have succeeded to power since 2011, the continued absence of a socio-economic vision for Tunisia, both for society as a whole and for the youth in particular, has weakened the former and further marginalized the latter. The strengthening of neo-liberal policies in the post-uprising era has negatively impacted job creation, and aggravated social inequality and lack of government transparency and accountability. The continued inability of public authorities to conceive of an achievable development model beyond the neo-liberal box would likely expose the country to more riots similar to those that erupted in Kasserine, spreading to 16 of the 24 governorates across the country in January 2016.

The rise in violence in post-uprising Tunisia has further hindered the situation for youth. The involvement of some youth in attacks on tourist facilities and security and military infrastructures, as well as the presence of young Tunisians among the Islamic State’s militants in Syria, Iraq, and Libya has progressively tarnished any positive image gained by youth for their role in the popular uprising that led to the demise of the dictatorship and the liberation of Tunisians from their police state. Today, the trend among the political elite, backed by sensationalist media, is to depict youth as a security threat for the country’s stability— one that should be addressed through security means. Victims of a failed socio-economic system, youth have become the scapegoat of the country’s bankrupted political actors who, once again, are using the wrong diagnosis to “cure” decades of oppression, marginalization, archaic bureaucracy, widespread corruption and old-fashioned paternalism. Sadly, the situation of Tunisian youth is not unique; low youth participation, lack of representation, and neglect of youth voices are problems prevalent in all Arab countries. This trend is not likely to change as long as resources and financial assets continue to be monopolized by economic and political elites at the detriment of democratic governance, social justice, and willingness to address the widespread grievances of the youngest generations.

Noureddine Jebnoun is Adjunct Assistant Professor at CCAS.

Seeing the Syrian Crisis through Distorted Lenses

Marwa Daoudy

Five years after the first uprisings, Syrians continue to be victims of barrel bombs, torture, sieges and mass displacement despite the “cessation of hostilities.” Part of the reason their suffering has gone on so long, and has seemed to matter so little, is because four prevalent—but false—assumptions have led to a distorted approach to the Syrian crisis.

Graffiti from Syria. Translation: "We will cover the earth with flowers. The revolution continues. 2011-2016." Photo Credit: The Revolutionary Movement Action Team in the Revolutionary Spring Collective

Graffiti from Syria. Translation: “We will cover the earth with flowers. The revolution continues. 2011-2016.” Photo Credit: The Revolutionary Movement Action Team in the Revolutionary Spring Collective

1. It’s a religious war.
A popular misconception about the Syrian uprisings is that Sunnis were fighting Alawites to establish a Sunni fiefdom in Syria. But as was the case in post-2003 Iraq, sectarian strife in Syria was a result, rather than a cause, of war. In reality, Assad pitted Alawites against Sunnis to spread insecurity and ensure the regime’s survival. Outside interests and powers aggravated these divisions. Iran supported the Alawite regime to preserve a political ally in its confrontation with the US and Israel (and not in solidarity with its Shi’a brethren), while the predominantly Sunni Arab Gulf states found a golden opportunity in the Syrian quagmire to weaken Iran.

2. The choice is between Assad and ISIS.
This false binary choice ignores viable long-term contenders for political power inside and outside Syria. Political representatives of the opposition have struggled for five years to claim their rightful place at the Geneva negotiations, which have failed to include representatives of civil society—even democratically-elected local councils. Though ostensibly opposing forces, regime officials have also actively pursued and reached agreements with the Islamic State over the distribution of water and oil resources under Islamic State control.

3. Refugees are a security threat.
The Islamic State is seen as a threat mainly to Europeans and Americans, but the primary targets of the Islamic State are Syrians. Even so, Syrians seeking refuge in Europe are not only viewed as a burden but also collectively suspected of allegiance to the Islamic State.

4. Partition is a viable solution for Syria.
The majority of Syrians do not want a partitioned country and are not the ones who stand to gain from such a “solution.” The regime would be well served by a resource-rich Alawite enclave, and the Islamic State and radical Islamist groups sponsored by foreign actors would also benefit.

In order to correct these false assumptions, representation and accountability are critical issues that must be addressed in future negotiations. Opposition groups demand the return to Syria’s 1950 parliamentary system to ensure equal representation, while regime representatives uphold a version of the current president-centered constitution with minor amendments. In order to find a sustainable political solution in Syria, these negotiations must strive for a settlement that preserves Syrian lives and unity, and a new constitution that fully acknowledges their suffering, resilience, and struggle over the past five long and costly years.

Marwa Daoudy is Assistant Professor of International Relations at CCAS. This is an excerpt of Dr. Daoudy’s article “Syrian Lives Matter,” published in Open Democracy in April 2016.

Egypt’s Revolution Turned on its Head

Emad Shahin

The revolutionary euphoria that Egypt witnessed in 2011 has given way to increasing doubts about the possibility of change. Popular hopes for a democratic state that respects the rule of law and human rights have been replaced with resignation and a growing willingness to accept autocracy. Although thousands are still protesting and being arrested, the regime is gaining international support. The revolution has been turned on its head, and average citizens are experiencing a counterrevolution that is charting an uncertain course for the country.

Graffiti from Cairo, 2012. Translation: “I love my country.” Photo Credit: Rochelle Davis

Graffiti from Cairo, 2012. Translation: “I love my country.” Photo Credit: Rochelle Davis

Events taking place on such a large scale must be understood as the responsibility of many players, each with contradictory approaches to steering Egypt’s transition. Having been successful in the first election after the uprising, the Muslim Brothers and Salafis wanted to expedite the transition, even at the risk of writing a new constitution and holding presidential and parliamentary elections before securing a consensus. Revolutionary youth aspired to dismantle old institutions before constructing new ones and insisted on writing a new constitution before holding elections. The old state—at its core, the military, security, political, and business interests that were part of the former regime—worked relentlessly to stall the transition and spoil any meaningful progress until they were able to make a comeback. Islamists and liberals both turned their political disputes into identity conflicts and existential dilemmas. Civilians failed to solidify a broad coalition with unified goals and a firm stance against the potential return of military hegemony. In addition, a hostile regional environment and unsupportive international actors had a hand in reducing the transition’s chances of success. Deteriorating economic conditions further alienated large segments of the population from the revolution, raising concerns that working for change might be futile and instilling in many Egyptians a desire for the return of stability, despite continued calls for change.

For the past four years, the state and media have managed to shape the mindsets of large portions of society, alter their perceptions about the revolution, and subdue their hopes for the future. As a result, many Egyptians now share a feeling that the military’s intervention has prevented an imminent civil war. In this new era of populism, the state’s guiding narrative is no longer about remaking the 2011 revolution but about the revolution’s failed transitions. These transitions, Sisi’s included, have undermined the country’s stability, economic health, youth, and human rights—the very same factors that mobilized millions of Egyptians to call for democracy and social justice nearly five years ago.

Emad Shahin is Hasib Sabbagh Distinguished Visiting Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at CCAS. This is an excerpt of Dr. Shahin’s article, “Egypt’s Revolution Turned on its Head,” published in Current History in December 2015.

Culture and Art Unleashed by the Uprisings

Rochelle Davis

Five years ago, the uprisings ushered in new mediums and messages expressed in art and cultural and social activism. In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and beyond, people held up signs, chanted slogans, wrote and sang songs, painted street art, and created cartoons, puppet shows, videos, and artwork with messages that commented on events and inspired new visions. They used these forms to question authority, to commemorate those hurt or killed by regime violence, to communicate values and beliefs, and to express pride in who they are. These works reflected people’s creativity, senses of humor, and longing for a different political system, often in expressions that were also deeply nationalists (See above image). We chose to focus on graffiti for the artwork to accompany this newsletter as it provides a window onto the public debates and messages of those without access to official media.

Graffiti and stencils addressed both political and social issues and served as a way to communicate outside of official channels. Egypt’s walls could be read as a palimpsest commentary on the unfolding events of the revolution. (See image on page 13). Artists also addressed the widespread problem of harassment of women in Egypt (See image on page 10). In Syria, graffiti artists communicated messages that were anti-sectarian, anti-regime, and anti-Islamist, often using the same walls that the regime had painted with pro-Asad and pro-Ba’th party messages over the decades. Used in this way, graffiti challenges the power of officials, including the state run media, and instead puts messaging in the hands of, most often, young men who are willing to spend many hours on the streets painting or who are able to sneak around in the dark and defy police. While artists, as well as singers and poets, in these countries seized 2011 as an opportunity to express themselves publicly in new forms, they have been and continue to be, detained, arrested, shot, and disappeared.

Oftentimes the regime’s potential and willingness to use violence against these cultural commentators and activists meant that many of their contributions remain anonymous, at least for those remaining inside their countries. Web-based projects, such as The Lens of a Young Syrian and Creative Memory, have emerged to chronicle the cultural and activist events of the Syrian uprising. All of the various forums provide artists with platforms for sharing their work and the public an opportunity to understand the ways that Arabs today are commenting on the politics of the uprising, the rise of Islamist movements, ideologies they struggle with, and societal issues. Despite that the political visions and dreams of those who participated in the initial uprisings has yet to be fully materialized, or has been brutally suppressed, the cultural and artistic expressions of those visions and dreams continues to flourish.

Rochelle Davis is Associate Professor of Anthropology at CCAS.

This article first appeared in the CCAS Spring/Summer 2016 Newsmagazine.