An Arab Crisis?

I published a very revised version of this article in The Water Tower.

Two long years ago, on February 11th, 2011, after a Tunisian fruit vendor’s public self-immolation in late 2010 sparked protests that forced Tunisia’s President Zine Ben Ali to give up his twenty-four-year rule, after a million Egyptians tingling with the zeal of revolution protested for change in Tahrir Square (“Liberation Square”) for eighteen straight days, after Egyptian security forces refused to keep firing on their Egyptian brothers, after the whole world tuned in and eager journalists already began coining the term “Arab Spring,” the corrupt and tyrannical Hosni Mubarak gave up his thirty-year rule over his country’s eighty million citizens. Shockwaves echoed across the Middle East; the seeds of mass upheaval had been sown, and the world celebrated the successive revolutions in Morocco, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria as the expansion of our democratized, modern world.

Two years later, on February 11th, 2013, Egyptians protesting the president they elected last summer–Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi–were chased away from his palace with water canons and tear gas. This kind of brutality has become characteristic of Morsi lately, whose strategy for quieting dissent has grown from stubborn and assertive to megalomaniacal and murderous, most notably in Port Said, an Egyptian city along the Suez Canal whose declaration of independence from Morsi’s government last month triggered bloody clashes between civilians and police forces, leaving over fifty dead. On the same day, the Syrian National Coalition–the loose alliance of rebel factions, composed of everyday Syrian citizens hardened and unified by their common contempt for President Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to step down and the resulting civil war that has by now claimed 70,000 lives and displaced over a million more–captured the country’s largest hydroelectric plant, another chapter in a gory stalemate that shows no signs of stopping. And still on the same day, Iran celebrated the 34th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution, and both in Iran and across the Middle East, the many supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini drowned out activists in Morocco and Libya, whose revolutions bore little fruit, and in Gulf States, where calls for revolution were silenced before they could take hold. We are not at the place where we were told we’d be by now, and regardless of how up-to-date we are on Arab issues, the confusion of this moment will inevitably push us to ponder this important question:

What the fuck is going on?

There have been many days when Arab nations (excluding Syria) have appeared calm, settled, and in the stages of revolutionary recovery. There are other days when the same countries still look very much in the midst of their revolutions, and even in places like Egypt where a parliament, president, and constitution have already been voted on, the amount of anti-government dissent and violent protest makes the country look just as unstable as it was in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation. So are we witnessing the rocky beginning of democratization, or the first chapter of much longer revolutions, or the establishment of regimes that are no less corrupt and hated than the ones they replaced? Only time will answer these questions.

But it’s important to note that it’s up to the people of the Middle East to decide these. In an enlightening Al Jazeera America op-ed titled “Wresting Islam from Islamists,” Prof. Hamid Dabashi describes the Arab Spring as “the end of post-colonialism,” meant to draw a stark contrast between Arab Spring revolutions and the 20th century struggles by African and Arab colonies to gain independence from their Western colonizers. Post-independent disillusionment plagued these nascent nations, as their new leaders, sometimes elected by popular vote, but more commonly handed power by the former colonizers or self-appointed after a military coup, adopted the corrupt habits of their predecessors and did nothing to heal the economic, environmental, and cultural damage left by brutal colonialism. But the Arab Spring is a different story. While I think (and Dabashi would probably agree) that “the end of post-colonialism” is too forgiving of Western colonialism, whose devastation continues to harm former colonies, Arab Spring revolutions took place in countries that have tried legislating themselves and forging their own national and cultural identities for several decades. So even two years into the Arab Spring, revolutionaries have not lost sight of their goal to build self-sustaining governments based on a modern Arab identity. Dabashi says it well: “Muslims have entered a world historic moment when neither domestic tyranny, nor vulgar militant Islamism, nor vicious Islamophobia, nor indeed racist imperial hubris prevents them from rethinking their collective faith, and reasserting their collective identity in a vastly different world their parental generations had bequeathed to them.”

So to answer our big what-the-fuck-is-going-on, I must be honest and say I have no fucking idea. Anything’s possible: Egypt could fall back into violent revolution and spark revolutions against governments that survived the first two years of the Arab Spring, like Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, or even Iran. Or Morsi could hold onto power and become the next Ayatollah Khomeini, Assad could gain an upper hand agains the rebels and become the next Saddam Hussein, and the entire Arab world could become a battleground between minority extremist factions. Or Egyptian democracy could proceed as planned until 2016, when Morsi’s term is up, Assad has been ousted, violence has diminished, and Egyptians are ready to elect a liberal voice of the revolution, a champion of 21st century Arab national and religious identity. But whatever happens, it’s in Arab hands, and I can only pray that the West maintains its policy of keeping its big fat nose out of the Arab Spring, alhamdulillah.

The political fate of not only Egypt, but many other Arab states, remains to be determined. Credit:



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