Was the Arab Spring Worth It?

By Charles Kurzman

You risked your life for freedom, dignity, justice, and equality. You took days and weeks from other responsibilities – from your family, your school, your work — in order to serve your nation. You convinced yourself that you were building a better future. Now you ask yourself, was it worth it?

Many comrades died. Thousands were arrested and tortured. Some betrayed the ideals of the revolution.

Today, reactionaries are ascendant. Thugs rule the streets, and their gangster bosses run the government ministries.

Many of the sites of the bravest activism are now the sites of the worst suffering. Egypt overthrew the malevolent General Mubarak only to wind up with the clownishly malevolent General El-Sisi. Libya, Syria, and Yemen fell into devastating civil wars. Only Tunisia staggers forward, bearing the weight of the region’s aspirations.

Meanwhile, the countries where uprisings were repressed or diverted are faring – relatively – better. Their regimes are still repressive, but at least they function.

You are not alone in asking whether activism was worth bothering. The question has haunted generations of activists.

There was similar despair in Egypt in 1882, when new democratic institutions were suppressed by the khedive and his foreign allies. One activist, in prison, “seemed crushed beyond hope of recovery by the cruel reaction born of shipwrecked hopes and the agony of despair,” according to his attorney. In exile the following year, he blamed so-called allies who “adopted our manner of calling for liberty … but followed the methods of tyrants.”

In the Ottoman Empire, after a coup undermined a nascent democracy in 1909, one writer suggested that they had been fooling themselves to think things might have turned out otherwise:

Enough with the blame! Blame belongs to nobody, or everybody… The blame belongs to you, me, and them… Come close, I want to entrust you with a secret, and then I’ll be quiet: My friend, sometimes there are surroundings that are ill-omened, like a graveyard. No intelligence, no wisdom, no talent can live there. There the living lie and the dead wander about.

Akram al-Hourani, a leader in the Syrian constitutional movement that was subverted in 1953, found solace in sacred verses that “urged the faithful to be patient, and vowed that tyrants will come to a bad end.”

Yours is not the first wave of disillusionment in the region. These waves are an integral part of a long heritage of activism, which is reviewed in Elizabeth Thompson’s Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East (2013) and John Chalcraft’s Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (2016).

The long view offers solace. As sociologist Mohammed Bamyeh notes:

Those who join revolutions suddenly and in large numbers tend to expect them to be short episodes that will deliver utopian results. In reality, revolutions tend to become long processes with increasing complexity. These developments make revolutions always seem disappointing, especially given that they are unleashed by expectations of quick deliverance, and an ideology of simple, evident truth.

This frantic era of immediate gratification may be especially prone to such unreasonable expectations. Electronic communication makes it almost too easy to coordinate massive protests, skipping the time-consuming organization- and trust-building needed for sustained collective action. This is the argument in Zeynep Tufekci’s new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (2017).

Every wave of protest may leave some residue. “The image of Mubarak behind bars, for example, overthrew the aura of veneration and exaltation,” according to Yemeni writer Gamal al-Moliky. “The idea of holiness surrounding the ruler has fallen.” The new consciousness may survive even if dictatorship has returned.

But the residue only remains if it is tended and maintained. If you allow it to fade, the next uprisings may think they are “the first time that the voice of the masses has generated such an echo” – which is how al-Moliky describes the Arab Spring, overlooking past Arab liberation movements.

The value of your accomplishments lies not just in their immediate aftermath, but in the legacy that you build for future generations. Your work is not done. Even if the means of mobilization seem out of reach at the moment, the means of narration remain.

Please tell your stories. Record your triumphs and your grief. Contribute source material for the chapter entitled “The Arab Spring” that will be written in future history books, inspiring future generations.

You won’t know whether the Arab Spring was worth it until then.

 

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