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.”
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, there’s good reason to hope that the Arab Awakening can help put to rest some of the most persistent Western stereotypes about the Levant: that Arabs are, somehow, incapable of or uninterested in democracy; that Islam can only be a force for repression and terror (as if Christianity and Judaism were free of the same); and that the Arab and Muslim world needs or wants the paternal assistance, at gunpoint if necessary, of America and Europe.
On the first point, the courage of peaceful demonstrators in Tunis, Tahrir Square and Pearl Square in January and February, and in Homs and Hama and Tripoli today, should silence the know-nothings. On the second, the revolutions should make clear that, just as in Madison and Madrid, piety in the Arab world does not preclude a desire for, indeed an insistence upon, democracy and a government that is accountable to its citizenry. As Stephen Glain’s report on Egypt’s fracturing Muslim Brotherhood reveals, there are as many different brands of Islam, and its relation to politics, as of Christianity; and while Salafi fundamentalists continue to push their baleful vision, the ideal of a liberal, open Islam is flourishing as never before in the Arab and Muslim world.
And on the third point, the Awakening should make clear that the Arab world rarely wants, or needs, the interventions—“humanitarian,” neoliberal or otherwise—of Washington or the IMF. The devastation wreaked on Iraq by the US sanctions regime and military invasion is incalculable, and while there is currently much talk about the “success” of NATO’s military intervention in Libya, the battle for stability and democracy in that country is just beginning. We hold to the argument we made in the spring, when the no-fly zone was first being debated: the Arab Awakening presents the United States with an opportunity to cast aside the mindset that associates our foreign policy with heroic military crusades. We should instead end our support for dictators and align our interests with democratic change and autonomous economic development. And if we really open our eyes, and listen, we might be able to learn from our courageous brothers and sisters in the Arab world, and bring a bit of Tahrir Square to Toledo, Tucson and Tallahassee.