In July 1789, when news of the Paris disturbances reached him in Versailles, Louis XVI is said to have exclaimed to his trusted adviser, the Duke de Liancourt, “Why, it is a revolt!” “No, sire,” responded the duke. “It is not a revolt. It is a revolution.”
One could say the same about the cataclysmic events covered by this special issue of The Nation. The word perhaps most commonly used by those engaged directly in the Arab liberation struggle is revolution (thawra), but also frequently heard are uprising (intifada), renaissance (nahda) and awakening (sahwa), which we use on our cover and which echoes the title of the classic 1938 text on Arab nationalism by Lebanese scholar George Antonius.
The phrase Arab Spring, which quickly gained prominence in Western media, nicely evokes flowering and rebirth but is less often heard in the region, perhaps a reflection of the hesitancy of people to have their freedom struggle reduced to the vagaries of a season, with its quick passing and absence of human agency. And “spring” hardly conveys the savage repression now imposed in Syria and Bahrain, as Patrick Seale and Scheherezade Faramarzi make clear, or the gilded, police-state cage of Saudi Arabia described by Toby Jones. Nor does it capture the seesaw armed struggle in Libya, now reaching its chaotic climax in Tripoli as we go to press.
No single word can fully convey the complexity and disparate development of the uprisings stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean to Bahrain on the Persian Gulf, from Syria on the Mediterranean to Yemen on the Arabian Sea. But as Rami Khouri points out, one commonality is the demand for democracy and open government, and for an end to the corruption and brutal humiliations of autocracy. The rise in civic engagement and hunger for a new kind of politics is reflected in Alia Malek’s report on the Egyptian Democratic Academy. But as Graham Usher and Joel Beinin point out in their profiles of the continuing struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, if the region’s dire poverty and unemployment are not addressed, the promise of democracy may quickly wither. Egypt’s new free labor federation made that clear in February, when it declared, “If this revolution does not lead to the fair distribution of wealth, it is not worth anything.”