Shifting Priorities: The Rise and Fall of Arab
By Ramzy Baroud
August 14, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "PalestineChronicle"
- Strange how intellectual discussion
concerning the so-called “Arab Spring” has almost entirely shifted
in recent years – from one concerning freedom, justice, democracy
and rights in general, into a political wrangle between various
The people, who revolted across various Arab
countries are now marginalized in this discussion, and are only used
as fodders – killers and victims – in a war seemingly without end.
But how did it all go so wrong?
There was once a time when things were so simple,
so easy to understand and explain: People, who were long oppressed,
revolted against their oppressors (Arab regimes) and benefactors
Unable to effect change using peaceful channels –
for Arab civil societies either did not exist or were tightly
controlled – Arab masses took to the streets, each nation with a
unique struggle of its own yet united around a set of basic demands.
In fact, in the early months of 2011, Arabs united
briefly. A sense of nationhood emerged, from the blood and dust of
revolutions, where Arab masses attempted, at least symbolically, to
define who they are as nations first, and then their larger identity
It all started with “Al-Shaab yurid isqat
al-nitham” – ‘the people want the overthrow of the regime!’ That
much was clear. Hate for oppressive, authoritarian regimes that
stifled freedoms and deprived the people from their countries’
wealth and natural resources was the unmistakable priority, which
was often reduced to the term ‘Irhall’, meaning ‘Leave.’
‘Irhall’ was beyond empowering. Imagine, millions
of poor people standing in the main squares of their cities, some in
tattered clothes, others hungry, fatigued, teetering between hope
and despair, all chanting at once in a thundering voice: “Irahal!” –
just ‘Leave’. And they, the dictators, began leaving, one after the
Emboldened by their ability to effect real change,
narrative of the Arab revolutions evolved and matured. Symbols
of Arab unity – attempting to unify a common Arab goal – began
taking shape, where Tunisia, Cairo and Sana’a raised the same flags
and articulated, more or less the same demands.
Symbols of unity between Christians and Muslims
also began to transpire, despite attempts by regimes to sow the
seeds of division. This was demonstrated more in Egypt, but other
societies reflected on their unity as well, challenging tribalism,
regionalism, sectarianism, and all the divisive ‘isms’ that crippled
Arab nations for generations.
With time, other narratives also came to the fore,
expressing deep-seated grievances and injustices, ranging from
women’s rights to access to education and the equal distribution of
The ultimate evolution of popular Arab
revolutionary narrative was accentuated in the Egyptian slogan:
‘khubz, hurriyah, ‘adala igtimayiah’ – ‘Bread, Freedom, Social
Through that phase of the “Arab Spring”,
television debates, newspaper articles and social media discussions
labored to match the narratives imposed by the Arab collective, who
chanted and protested long enough to place their agenda on everyone
one. And the media took notice, as its own narrative also evolved
from ‘regime change’, to general references to ‘freedom’,
‘democracy’ and finally to ‘development‘
– all becoming Arabic buzzwords throughout national and pan-Arab
Things were rather simple then, if not a tad
naïve, as well. The general assumption was that, once Egypt’s Tahrir
Square was cleared of the evidence of revolution and Libya was
cleansed of the war machinery and ordnances (for, thanks to NATO, a
regional uprising in Libya morphed into a most deadly war), the
countdown for a lasting democracy and economic development would
begin to take shape.
Of course, history is not shaped by wishful
thinking or even good intentions. It would take much more than a
chant, no matter how powerful, or a slogan, no matter how
expressive, to reverse vicious cycles of corruption, poverty and
authoritarian rules that have lasted the entirety of modern history.
In almost every single post-Arab revolt scenario,
the responsibility of guiding these nations back to the path,
political and economic recovery was handed back to the very elites
that either previously ruled or co-existed and benefited from the
very dictators who were, supposedly, overthrown.
It was an interesting and strange spectacle to see
the revolutionary momentum in each rebelling Arab country coming to
a sudden halt, or change directions all together. Egypt was a prime
example of these contradictions. It was not the lack of fervor or
passion about these revolutions but rather the innocent and naive
assumption that the ruling elites would design a system of equitable
economic opportunity and economic transparency, all on their own.
The flimsy transitions that defined every Arab
revolutionary experience were all that the old regimes and their
benefactors needed to regain initiative and reverse the gains,
however symbolic of the Arab masses. It was telling that
British Prime Minister, David Cameron was the first foreign Head
of State to visit Egypt after the January 25 Revolution (only ten
days after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown), since he was also joined
by representatives of major arms dealers and military contractors.
He came to offer weapons to Egypt’s military rulers, which was the
last thing that poor Egypt needed at the time.
It is also quite rational to also read recent
headlines such as ‘Kerry Sees Improved Egypt Ties Despite Human
Rights Tensions’, as
Bloomberg reported on US Secretary of State, John Kerry’s visit
to Cairo on August 2, also offering fighter jets and other weapons.
The “Arab Spring” has not, as of yet, achieved any
of its objectives, for neither bread is available in abundance, nor
is freedom any closer, nor is social justice at hand. It did,
however, energize Arab elites, armies and regimes, which became more
aware than ever before of their own vulnerabilities.
Fear is now gripping most Arab countries which
once thought of themselves as invincible and of their own people as
forever docile. That realization has resulted in a massive regional
conflict and political realignments, which has turned every single
Arab popular revolt into a regional conflict or war that crossed
borders, inspiring extremist groups and inviting yet more western
intervention and war.
The Arab world, and the Middle East, in general,
has not experienced such a major geopolitical upheaval since the
early 20th Century, when Ottoman territories were divided among old
colonial European powers, all the way to War World II. The outcome
of this upheaval is likely to be as earth shattering as these past
experiences, if not more, due to the popular element in these
But one of the most defining shifts of “Arab
Spring” priorities is the reversal of the narrative from its basic,
innocent, unifying, empowering and popular articulation, into a
complicated, cunning, disuniting, disempowering and elitist one,
where the people do not matter, in the least.
Language is an essential tool, if one aims to
understand political priorities of any historical phase situated in
time and place. The language at work in the Middle East is one that
speaks of a conflict between regional rivals, utilizing sects,
tribes and religions to achieve political objectives. As for the
people, they are increasingly pushed back to the margins, only to
emerge briefly when state ceremonies compel them to wave flags that
long ceased to hold much national meaning, and posters of rulers –
smiling, triumphant and, as ever, brutal.
– Dr Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the
Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated
columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the
founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was
a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London). His
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