Protests on Tahrir Square (photo: AP)
Critical Reflections on the Arab Revolutions

Profiteers from Authoritarian Decay

Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian political scientist at Durham University in England, laments in his essay that, after the fall of the autocratic rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, sweeping social change has yet to come about, as the political realm is still dominated by the same old men

"I once walked with a friend through a working-class neighbourhood in Manchester and spoke with him about the atrocious conditions there. I told him that I had never seen such a poorly built city. The man replied: 'And yet, there is a great deal of money made here'."

This excerpt from Friedrich Engels’s famous book "The Condition of the Working Class in England" (1844) describes well the situation of the current revolutions and uprisings in the Arab world. The revolutions are instigated by the poor and the weak, and their fruits are then reaped by the rich and the strong.

The aim of a revolution is not only to do away with an autocratic regime, but also to set up an alternative order in which the dignity of the individual is respected and his freedoms protected. Were this not the case, our understanding of revolutions would be fundamentally mistaken.

No good news from the "Arab Spring"

What is currently happening in the Arab world can therefore best be described as "minimal revolutions", because they have indeed fulfilled the first half of this definition, which is to lead to the downfall of autocratic regimes. But the second part still remains to be tackled as the acid test.

Writing on the wall of Tunisia's prime minister, reading "Revolution" (photo: AP)
Khalil al-Anani underscores that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have left the cornerstones of society untouched and have not been able to infiltrate its life's blood in order to transform the political revolution into a social one as well

​​Without wishing to deny the dead and wounded the recognition they deserve, the avant-garde of the people and its roses that bloomed, after decades of debasement and humiliation, in the gardens of freedom and human dignity, we are yet forced to conclude that what is happening today does not give rise to any good news of an "Arab Spring" that might lead to a firmly rooted democracy.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt did not alone pursue the purpose of getting rid of regimes led by men who had grown old, whose roots had long since dried up and whose overthrow had become the individual duty of every free and capable citizen – no, the purpose was also to build a new society that would guarantee that despotic mechanisms and cultures would never again be able to flourish.

What we are experiencing in these two countries today conveys the impression that the revolutions there have up to now merely scratched the surface of society but not yet penetrated into its innermost essence. The youth struggled to bring about "white revolutions" that have led in both countries to the downfall of the head of state.

This revolutionary wave has however not yet seeped into the deepest levels of society. The traditional powers-that-be, the parties and political and religious groupings, the moneyed and entrepreneurial classes, as well as the bureaucratic institutions, all still feed on the authoritarian "decay" left behind by the repressive and degrading regimes.

No turnaround in mindset

It thus comes as no surprise that we are now witnessing conflicts and infighting amongst the various groupings and the political and religious forces in both countries, because they have neither themselves changed, nor has their way of thinking and acting undergone any kind of transformation, believing as they did that merely toppling the existing order was sufficient to complete a revolution.

If you were to travel now to the "marginal areas" where the revolution got its start, to Sidi Bouzid, to the suburbs of Cairo, Suez, Beni Suef and El-Mahalla, you would find everything there just as it was before, perhaps even worse than before the revolution.

Children in an Egypt slum (photo: AP)
Before the revolution is after the revolution: the abject social conditions on the Nile have changed little, still affecting the poorest income levels the most

​​At the market in Sidi Bouzid you would see the vegetable cart behind which Mohamed Bouazizi was standing before he set himself on fire, fanning the flames of the revolutions of the "Arab Spring", and you would see a Bouazizi look-alike standing there looking every bit as ragged as the original.

In the suburbs of Cairo and Suez you would stumble around amongst the corrugated-metal sheds in the slums of El Arbaeen, where the first people lost their lives as victims of the Egyptian revolution. You would find there the same destitute families, the same miserable faces that sparked the fire of revolution; their poverty and fears have only grown worse now that the streets are no longer safe due to roaming crowds of rowdies and rising crime – as if nothing had ever changed.

Venturing into the "centre" of Tunis or Cairo on the other hand, you would encounter faces, persons and anodyne structures that hid themselves away during the course of the revolution and only dared surface again after the head of the regime had been toppled. Now they are trying to gather the fruits of the revolution by stepping in to replace the defunct order.

No real dialogue

In Cairo it's enough to simply make two loud pronouncements on Tahrir Square and to issue two statements to the TV stations roaming the nighttime scene in order to stand out overnight from the masses and be invited to take part in national dialogue sessions.

The revolutionary youth are only vaguely discernible these days. Their identity is unknown to us, and we have no idea who and what they actually are. The old warhorses of the revolution are suffering from political puberty. In the meantime, three dialogue events have been held in Egypt, each claiming to alone embody the knowledge and skills needed to debate the affairs of the country.

They all speak in the name of the revolutionary masses and their young people, but are in fact led by what's left of the generation active in the revolutions of 1919 and 1952. The first of these conferences bore the title "National Dialogue" and was conducted by Abd El Aziz Hegazy (born 1923 and hence 88 years old), who was Egypt's prime minister 40 years ago. The way he led the talks smacked of idle family chatter.

The second conference, called "National Accord", was hosted by the current Deputy Prime Minister Yahia El Gamal (born in 1930, i.e. 81 years old), who was minister of state under Mubarak in charge of the affairs of the Council of Ministers. He geared the discussions to his own interests and conducted them from the top down, so that there was no room for true dialogue.

One of the two hosts, Hegazy, claimed to have taken part in the revolution from the window of his home, because he had a view from there of the Qasr el Nil Bridge and Tahrir Square.

The third conference was titled "First Egyptian Conference". It was led by the engineer Mamdouh Hamza (born in 1947and hence 64 years old), who hosted the dialogue according to a method that might go by the description of "leisure-time entertainment".

The same old faces

Those participating in the talks were the same old faces that had stepped down from the stages on Tahrir Square, although some of them had also been retrieved by the revolution from the dark corridors of oblivion, and other names were familiar only from reports on TV. All that has changed are the names and faces, but not the way participants are selected and not their recommendations or political approach.

photo: AP
Vested with far-reaching authority: Tunisia's aging transition president Mebazaa is entitled to issue laws by decree until the election of the Constitutional Council in October

​​In Tunisia the 78-year-old Fouad Mebazaa is in fact still president, while the office of prime minister is being executed by 85-year-old Beji Caid el Sebsi. Both are throwbacks to colonial days. To date, there have been no real changes in Tunisia that would allow the goals of the revolution to become reality.

Not even the minimum demands of the revolutionaries have been met, namely to bring the symbolic figures of the old days, in particular Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his family members, to court for their crimes during the past decades. At the same time, the question of the country's identity and its future political order is causing polarisation and impatience amongst the Islamists and secularists – just as though nothing had ever happened.

Nor are the political forces in Egypt yet capable at this point of coming together and reaching a national consensus on the establishment of a roadmap for democratic restructuring, while the Military Council seems to be acting as mere guardian of those in power – evidently in constant fear that the latter are pulling away or are in danger of being co-opted by others.

"Logic of minimalism"

The mindset of everyone involved seems to be dominated by the patterns that prevailed before the revolution of 25 January, namely the "logic of minimalism". What is lacking are revolutionary ideas, revolutionary values and revolutionary thinking. What's there is nothing but old faces, worn ideas and outdated visions.

The Muslim Brothers, who have not changed one iota, are preparing to reap the fruits of the revolution. Their statements and actions are dominated in a fatal way by a striving for strength and dominance, while the "paper parties" only pretend to be vying for their piece of the pie. And the political and intellectual elites are evidently busy securing their own personal interests.

photo: AP
Driven by the urge for strength and dominance in government and society: Muslim Brotherhood activists (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) in front of their party headquarters in Cairo's inner city

​​In Tunisia the traditional groups and faces are still jockeying for position, trying to reserve a seat in the Constitutional Assembly that was originally supposed to have convened on 24 July but has now been postponed until 16 October. Serious talks have yet to be held between the political forces geared toward reaching agreement on the principles of the new constitution.

The Tunisian revolution has moreover failed to end decades of mutual mistrust, so that the Islamists, who once offered repeated reassurances that they would respect the civic character of the state, have now lapsed into anxious hyperactivity.

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia left the cornerstones of society intact and did not manage to infiltrate its life's blood in order to transition from a political revolution aimed at overthrowing the head of the regime and his followers to a social revolution capable of ridding itself of the legacy of the regime – a legacy which with its culture, social structures and canon of values has frozen society into a state of rigor mortis, unable to think or act.

The only option left is thus to complete these revolutions, which can only be done by knocking on all the doors, breathing down the neck of each and every citizen, and making sure that new values (freedom, dignity and social justice) replace the empty canon left over from long years of repression and despotism.

Khalil al-Anani

© Qantara.de 2011

Translation: Jennifer Taylor

Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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