Rethinking the Arab Spring ‘Revolution’

Almost two years after Mohammed-Tarek Bou Azizi’s slap on the face ignited a “Jasmin revolution,” Arab public opinion remains divided over the reasons, methods and outcomes of what has been called the “Arab Spring.”

arab-revolutionThis unexpected uprising in a region where everything, including the regimes, seemed to be set in stone has been perceived and interpreted in many, often delusive ways. While the most optimistic forecasts imagine a happy end following a transition phase, skeptics in the region are already cursing another set of “coups d’état set up by some regional powers.” In between, you would find all sorts of scenarios, theories and polarized interpretations.

If there is one sure thing about the “Arab Spring,” it is definitely the visible concrete outcomes so far are not encouraging. Except the killing, hibernation or imprisonment of some dictators, there is a prevailing impression that the constituents, underlying mentalities, processes and procedures of the toppled regimes are still there, as they were or slightly mutated to fit the new landscape.

The proponents of this theory think that the remnants of the past era are not on their way out. In some cases, they might have been strengthened actually. What is meant here are not the faces themselves but rather how “things were done” before 2011 and how “they are done” now. So it is more about the approach and mentalities rather than the persons. At that level, there seems to be very little progress to be reported.

While it is unrealistic to expect quick and radical changes in just a couple of years, the worrying indicator is whether a real transition process has started or not

In some circles, analogies are drawn between the current changes in the Arab region and the transition of the East European countries in the nineties after the dislocation of the Soviet Empire. In most of these countries, the transition was long and painful with some security problems in few cases.

In comparison with today’s context in the Arab region, two major differences can be highlighted. The first one has to do with the low-level of violence witnessed in the Eastern European countries despite a high political tension. This also included very controversial and complicated issues such as forced demographic changes (by the Soviets), handling the minorities’ cases, challenges related to transitional justice, rebuilding economies, reforming state institutions including the military.

The second difference is the palpable progress that people felt as they progressed in the transition, sometimes only within a period of months or few years. The most noticeable one is the radical change in how State affairs were dealt with; an element that the Arab societies did not see happening yet.

Despite the important historical milestone of the Jasmin revolution in Tunisia, this latter was not the first transition happening in an Arab State. Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003 and Iraq went into a transitional phase that was characterized by a civil war. Most importantly, State affairs were handled almost the same way as pre-2003.

Although elections took place, the successive “elected” prime ministers tried to assert their power in a way that is little different from what Saddam has done in the 1980’s. The Baath security apparatus was completely dismantled in 2003 and a brand new one put in place. However this did not change the behavior of the newly formed security bodies nor did it change how they are perceived by the population. State agents used the same “black bags” to cover the faces of the persons they went to arrest arbitrarily, torture and detain in secret prison and/or inhumane conditions.

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In 2005, Lebanon moved from the Pax Syriana era to a new one characterized by a civic awakening after the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri. Eight years later, the Lebanese still suffer from the same problems. Nothing has improved and most of the bad practices including corruption, discrimination, torture, illegal detention, absence of social policies, political feudalism, social violence, flawed and politicized judiciary, tampering with constitutional deadline and processes — then attributed to Syria’s hegemony — proliferated in a worrying manner. Lebanese feel they are back to square one.

Many examples can also be cited in Libya such as assassinations, new forms of despotism and corruption. Moreover, Egypt’s use of the military to protect the ruler than the system, corruption, discrimination against minorities, low level of tolerance, influence of the military over civilian and State Affairs, attempts to curb down the legislative and judiciary power. It seems obvious that what is happening is more about the overthrow of regimes but not existing social orders.

Dare we call this a revolution?

A revolution by definition goes beyond the change of the ruling elite to reach out to the social order and social organization; two aspects that are still missing in the current uprisings. It must be coupled by a change in the social behavior and lead to an “evolution” of the social paradigms. This cannot be achieved without the involvement of all social structures not only in public actions (demonstrations, sit-ins, protests, marches) but most importantly through the generation of a new social order and a reform of the underlying structures.

This means that the social constituents have to revisit their norms, change their behavior and reform all the components of the ecosystem. Changing a regime by a “violent,” “corrupt” or “intolerant” society will surely lead to the rebirth of the same attitudes and behaviors within the power structures; a phenomenon that Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are now witnessing.

Genuinely supporting the current uprisings involves reminding the active forces in the society that the focus has to be put on their own constituencies, not on this president or that minister. Failing to trigger a renewal process at grass root level will lead to the same end product that everyone is complaining about: new dictatorships. Thus the layers and targets of the revolution need to be revisited and the focus reconsidered.

Dr. Elie Abouaoun joined the Arab Human Rights Fund as Executive Director in December 2011. Previously, he worked as a senior Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), program manager for the Iraq program of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and program coordinator for Ockenden International-Iraq. Elie regularly writes articles for the French-speaking Lebanese daily newspaper L’Orient le Jour. He is also a visiting lecturer at Notre Dame University-Lebanon and at Saint Joseph University- Lebanon. Read other articles by Elie.