At what point did the revolution in Egypt go off the rails? This was the question my friends and I spent most of our time discussing in smoke-filled rooms in Cairo in the years following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Islamists swept the elections; protests turned into clashes and massacres; jails filled with young men and women; an avuncular, menacing general took over. And the uprisings that had erupted in Syria, Yemen and Libya degenerated into brutal civil wars. Had it been a revolution after all?In July, Amnesty International reported on the Egyptian security forces’ practice of ‘disappearing’ civilians; hundreds have been kidnapped, held in secret locations, and tortured into giving false confessions. This summer in Syria, the rebel-held sector of Aleppo was finally cut off by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces who, with Russian assistance, have bombed relentlessly (hospitals are a particular target). Residents must choose between starvation and handing themselves over to government soldiers.
Tag Archives: Arab Spring
Five years ago the Guardian asked me to evaluate the effects of the Tunisian uprising on the rest of the Arab world, and specifically Syria. I recognised the country was “by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society”, but nevertheless argued that “in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge”.
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That was published on 28 January 2011. On the same day a Syrian called Hasan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Akleh’s act went largely unremarked, but on 17 February tradesmen at Hareeqa in Damascus responded to police brutality by gathering in their thousands to chant “The Syrian people won’t be humiliated”. This was unprecedented. Soon afterwards, the Deraa schoolboys were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. When their relatives protested on 18 March, and at least four were killed, the spiralling cycle of funerals, protests and gunfire was unleashed. In 2011, I wrote that Assad personally was popular, and so he remained until his 30 March speech to the ill-named People’s Assembly. Very many had suspended judgment until that moment, expecting an apology for the killings and an announcement of serious reforms. Instead, Assad threatened, indulged in conspiracy theories, and, worse, giggled repeatedly.
There are times in the Middle East when nightmares and delusions take the place of the real and growing tragedy which is consuming the Arab lands. More and more earnest are the calls for peace as more and more nations launch more and more air raids, from Kabul to the Mediterranean, and down through Sinai and Yemen and across to Libya. The bloodbath is real, yet no one plans for a future – for “Life after Isis”. By my reckoning, there are now 11 different national air forces bombing five different Muslim countries to “degrade and destroy” their enemies. But what comes afterwards?
When the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East five years ago, progress seemed inevitable and the contagion unstoppable. But then everything started to regress and now looks destined to go from bad to worse unless we identify why and how something so divine turned so ugly so fast.
Unfortunately, the most peddled answers one hears nowadays are also the most flawed.
In the Middle East, the conspiracy theorists blame the West’s intervention and manipulation of a misguided Arab youth who bought into its subversive ideas. And in the West, smug, told-you-so cynics repeat the same derisive cliches: the Arabs are hopeless; Islam is incompatible with democracy.
A cinque anni dalle rivoluzioni arabe, in molti parlano di arretramento e di peggioramento nei due paesi faro delle “primavere”, l’Egitto e la Tunisia. Ma se l’oggi è peggiore di ieri, di quale ieri stiamo parlando? E se tutto fosse colpa non delle rivoluzioni ma del fatto che non sono state ancora portate a termine? I rivoluzionari sono disperati ed esausti ma allo stesso tempo parlano della prossima rivoluzione.
Hosni Kaliya pulls a cigarette out of his pack with his mouth. When he poured gasoline on his body and set himself on fire, most of his right hand was consumed by the flames and all that remains is a stump without fingers. He still has four fingers on his left hand, but they jut out like claws, burned, stiff and contorted. His fingernails are curled. He wears black wool gloves with the fingertips cut off, so that they won’t dangle emptily. A knit cap protects Kaliya’s head, where his hair was burned off, and his unusually small ears. But the disfigured face, the work of doctors using old and new skin, how could he hide that?
Molti analisti questa settimana hanno ricordato i cinque anni dalla caduta dell’ex presidente tunisino Zein el Abideen Ben Ali, il primo di numerosi dittatori arabi cacciati da manifestazioni spontanee. Un esame retrospettivo che è utile per capire se esiste la possibilità di altre rivolte e perché quella del 2011 abbia perso posizioni negli ultimi anni.
Le ragioni alla base delle rivolte e delle rivoluzioni del 2011 – lo stato autocratico e il malcontento popolare – sono più forti che mai in gran parte del mondo arabo. Fanno eccezione la gran parte degli stati del Golfo, ricchi grazie alle riserve energetiche, e le piccole sacche di ricchezza in gran parte delle capitali arabe, tenute a galla dai finanziamenti provenienti dal Golfo e dal sostegno politico e militare occidentale.
Questa settimana si commemora il giorno in cui, cinque anni fa, Mohamed Bouazizi si diede fuoco in una cittadina nel sudovest della Tunisia, dando avvio alle rivolte del mondo arabo. Ma la commemorazione offre solo una prospettiva limitata sulla più complessa e importante storia delle rivoluzioni (ancora in corso) e, più in generale, sulla storia del mondo arabo moderno.
In molti nel mondo, tanto per ingenuità politica quanto per motivazioni più oscure, deplorano le violenze che hanno seguito le rivolte e si chiedono perché le insurrezioni popolari non abbiano prodotto transizioni democratiche al di fuori della Tunisia. Più utile e sensato sarebbe invece analizzare il turbolento mondo arabo non limitandosi agli ultimi cinque anni bensì prendendo in considerazione tutto il secolo scorso, dal 1915 a oggi. Per due motivi fondamentali.
To outsiders, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object—a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loath and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has become futile: what is there to say that they do not already know? The ideals and hopes we could once believe in have disintegrated as a bewildering array of players wrought destruction, seemingly teaming up in the region’s devastation rather than fighting each other as they claim—let alone seeking solutions.
With suffering and complexity relentlessly on the uptick, even well-intentioned observers are tempted to simplify what we cannot fully understand, focusing excessively on the distraction of daily news and drifting toward some convenient intellectual extreme. It is a constant struggle to rebalance one’s positions, resume analysis of meaningful, underlying trends, and attempt to contribute responsibly. At the heart of this ambition is a need for honesty and humility rather than partisan hackery and hubris—acknowledging our failures and our limitations and our inability to fully comprehend, let alone effectively correct, the course of events in the Middle East. From there we may step back and appraise how best to play a positive rather than destructive role in shaping the region’s trajectory.
Overthrow a dictator in the Arab world today and you’re far more likely to spark civil war than a liberal democracy. So the West shouldn’t be militarily engaged at all, says Michael Walzer. For it cannot create democratic polities where there is no social or cultural basis for democracy.