July 2011


Waleed Aly

After spring

Protestors call Hosni Mubarak to account in Cairo, 8 April 2011. © Misam Saleh/AFP/Getty Images

The struggle for liberation in the Middle East

Na’m li Mubarak boomed the billboard. Like so many public spaces around Cairo, it was adorned with a monstrously large photograph of President Hosni Mubarak. This was Egypt in election mode in the 1990s at the height of Mubarak’s power. My cousin explained: “You can’t vote for anyone else. You just vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for Mubarak.”

“What happens if you vote no?” I ask.

“Nothing. There is no one else.”

So, na’m, urged the billboard: yes! This had nothing to do with winning votes, which, after all, are delivered by the forfeiture of democracy. It was an exercise in the most transparent form of self-aggrandising propaganda – a shameless attempt to create the illusion of popularity and legitimacy. Official figures typically put Mubarak’s vote well above 80%.

This was customary in the sham elections with which Egyptians had become so familiar. But there were other customs, too. Like the ritual arrest of opposition figures, which fits the legal category ‘arbitrary detention’ despite being completely calculated and systematic. Such customs create an aura of political strength but are in fact a sign of the opposite. They prove what they try to mask: hollowness, illegitimacy and, ultimately, fragility.

Still, before they fall, dictatorships tend to look invincible. They have to, because they can only survive for as long as the population believes the situation is hopeless and change is unachievable. Popular uprisings are signs that fear is waning and that the innate weakness of authoritarianism is in the process of being exposed.

Last year, as Egypt prepared itself for more sham elections, the logic of dictatorial weakness had begun to catch up. The parliamentary election was even more depraved than usual. So small were the numbers of opposition elected that most of them were too embarrassed to take their seats. Plenty of commentary, Egyptian and otherwise, suggested revolution was in the air. People had long known the system was rotten but now, it seemed, the regime was rubbing their noses in its decay. People were fed up and began to believe they could do something about it. Six months prior to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, one of Egypt’s most prominent novelists and public intellectuals, Alaa Al Aswany, declared it “a turning point in Egyptian history”, and claimed: “We are in a very similar moment to 1949.” That was the eve of Egypt’s last revolution, which drove King Farouk into exile, abolished the constitutional monarchy and established a republic. Perhaps Al Aswany was being conservative; the last revolution proper took place in 1952, some three years after the pivotal moment he identified. Mubarak’s departure was achieved only a matter of months after Aswany’s observation.

Amid the inspiring turn of events in Egypt, it is easy to forget that in several respects the country has been there before. The 1952 revolution – the very revolution that wound its way to the Mubarak presidency – was initially very popular. It ushered in great promise and hope, railing against the corruption of the ruling class, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and promising better economic conditions for the masses: jobs in state enterprise, free education, free health care and independence from a once mighty imperial power, Britain. It also set something of a trend, inspiring a wave of pan-Arab nationalism, and revolutions in Iraq, Libya (some time later) and – with direct Egyptian involvement – Yemen. It bears recollection that the Arab republics presently confronting revolutionary protests are themselves revolutionary regimes.

Understandably, much public discussion has fixated on who might ultimately rise to power in place of the fallen presidents, and how many other regimes are yet to tumble. These questions are important but, as the world’s gaze turns to identifying the next domino, it risks overlooking the fact that the earlier dominoes have not necessarily toppled. Especially in Egypt, the revolution is far from complete. The regime has changed but the system it put in place has not. Cairo is still witnessing large revolutionary protests where the population is expressing dissatisfaction with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is overseeing the country. For those returning to Tahrir Square the revolution does not end with Mubarak’s removal. They want to see justice done for past crimes and will not ignore new ones, even if committed by a military so recently lauded as heroes of the revolution. The grievances are familiar – corruption, unaccountability of the political elite, excessive state force – and they are not without merit. Amnesty International has accused the military of torturing detainees with beatings and electric shocks, and performing strip searches on female protestors, well after Mubarak’s demise. Mubarak himself was fined in late May for shutting down the internet during the uprising. He is now under house arrest facing murder charges for the violence he unleashed in those weeks – but not for his actions over three repressive decades.

The Egyptian uprising was a genuinely broad popular uprising, quite independent from any of the established opposition groups and without any clearly discernible ideology. It was so grassroots it did not even have a leadership. This made it irresistible and profoundly resilient while it was in protest mode. Now, with Mubarak gone, it is causing all sorts of difficulties as the ambiguities of the protests begin announcing themselves. What were they ultimately about? Removing Mubarak? Regime change? Major political reform? Complete revolution? In truth, the protests were about all of these things, depending on whom you asked. Beyond the removal of Mubarak there was no consensus, which didn’t matter while Mubarak remained defiant. But now there are many competing visions of what should happen next, and many jostling visionaries – not a clear revolutionary leadership – presenting themselves to articulate the requirements of the protestors.

This has left the military to decide, more or less, how to run the transition and what its destination will be. Do they pursue former officials or not? Do they prosecute Mubarak? Or do they simply move on in the hope that the past can be left to itself? Presently the answer seems to be that they pursue those they don’t like (such as associates of Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal), and only go after others when failure to do so generates popular anger. The military will always ensure its own interests in the regime are preserved, which may well limit the kind of structural reform that is possible in Egypt. And without a clear, revolutionary leadership, who has the authority to intervene?

This matters. To the extent that Egypt has inspired the Arab Spring, failure at the last hurdle will be a major symbolic blow to the region. Colonel Gaddafi’s horrific stubbornness in Libya is already deflating. So too the lack of progress in Bahrain and the absence of western interest or a clear avenue to success in Syria.

It’s a pivotal moment. The uprisings in Egypt were of vital importance because they sold a powerful set of ideas: change is possible; it is within the reach of ordinary people; it can be achieved locally and without resort to political violence; and, in this way, the dignity, honour and esteem of a people can be reclaimed. In the context of the Middle East, those thoughts alone are revolutionary. They are also precious because the alternative is potentially catastrophic.

Consider another – now fading – presence in the region: Al Qaeda. Its relevance and popularity in the Middle East has been in steady decline for years. Even so, the Arab Spring has dealt it a significant blow because the movement proceeded with very little Islamist activity and virtually no Islamist inspiration. Here was the Arab world moving to liberate itself without Al Qaeda’s help, and in total contravention of Al Qaeda’s program of change through political mass violence. This hurts because Al Qaeda is, at bottom, a liberation organisation. It sells the promise of a Muslim world that is finally free from the restraints of colonial domination. For Al Qaeda, that domination merely changed forms with the official end of colonialism. Today’s Arab despots, it maintains, are simply puppets of new, distant colonial masters – most particularly, the United States. Clearly, it is a narrative that has its limits. It is not really true of Gaddafi, and doesn’t describe Syria’s relationship with the West, but it had a profound ring of veracity for the Mubarak regime, as it does for the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and for the Yemeni government.

There are many in the Middle East who broadly agree with that analysis but views diverge over Al Qaeda’s assertion that, since the dictators of the Middle East – which it calls the “near enemy” – are not the root of the problem, they cannot be defeated directly. You can assassinate as many of them as you like, but you are destined to fail because the problem is systemic. One oppressor (say, Anwar Sadat) will be replaced with another (say, Hosni Mubarak). For Al Qaeda, the solution is not merely militant Islamism, but global militant Islamism. In order to strike the Arab regimes, it was necessary to strike the true hegemon. The “far enemy”. The United States.

Al Qaedaism, then, is in some senses the product of a series of failures in Middle Eastern politics. Secular Arab nationalism (married with socialism) failed because it delivered economic torpor and humiliating military defeat at the hands of Israel. By the 1970s it was finished, which gave an opening to Islamism, represented at the extreme end by nationally focused terrorist groups such as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad in Egypt. When these groups failed to achieve change in their national theatres, Al Qaeda’s globalist narrative explained that failure compellingly, while still legitimating militant struggle.

All over the region we are witnessing not simply movements seeking political power, but attempts to realise the vision of nations that, after so much colonial domination, are finally free to be themselves on their own terms. Neither the Arab Spring nor Al Qaedaism can be understood in isolation from the ongoing quest for liberation that so dominates post-colonial societies, including the Middle East. Al Qaeda has always had only minority appeal but at times it appeared to offer a powerful narrative.

Al Qaeda has been left dumbstruck by this year’s events. It is compelled to celebrate the fall of Arab dictators, but clearly has nothing to contribute. The most it can muster is the odd declaration that the revolution will free its people to carry out more attacks. But Al Qaeda only really works as an idea. Its sympathisers must surely know this idea is struggling.

It’s not finished just yet, though. Nothing would assist the cause more than the failure of the Arab Spring. If Gaddafi holds on, or leaves Libya as an irreparable mess; if the Egyptian revolution never really comes to pass; if the result in Syria is simply an even more repressive state, then Al Qaedaism may get its lifeline. Al Qaeda suddenly has an ironic ally in the Saudi regime, which, mainly out of self-preservation, is never supportive of revolutions in the region. It has encouraged every Arab ruler not to capitulate to popular demands for reform or abdication and continues to do all it can to prop up their besieged regimes.

The Arab world’s twentieth-century liberation projects – Arab nationalism and Islamism – have largely failed. Now it seems the first great liberation project of the twenty-first century is upon us and much rests on its fate. Western analysts are presently focused on who might be delivered to power in the short term, a concern largely driven by anxiety that the outcomes may heavily damage western interests. But the more important, enduring question is whether or not the Arab Spring will finally give ordinary people in the region a sense of their own autonomy and liberation. They need something to which they can finally and genuinely say: na’m.

Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is a writer, broadcaster and academic.

Cover: July 2011
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