Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on the Arab Spring

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“It is empirically necessary to recognize the singularity of the revolution and to liberate it from the constraints of universalist narratives […] to save the integrity of the revolutionary movement from its later outcomes.”

— Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 75.

A central tension animating the discussion at Uprising 3/13: Arab Spring was the struggle to relate the political economy of local protest and the popular roots of mass mobilization to the broader global dimensions of military intervention, international interference, and imperialism that have ravaged the Middle East. This tension was immediately evident in the sharp contrast between, on the one hand, Soha Bayoumi’s focus on the grassroot protest of ordinary citizens who filled Tahrir Square, from seasoned protesters to non-political actor such as many of the doctors who got swept into the protest movement as a result of their sense of neutrality and duty, and on the other hand, Nada Moumtaz’s focus on the US anti-imperialist left and their inconsistencies regarding their support or opposition to massive US and foreign military intervention in Kobani (to protect the Kurdish fighters of Rojava in 2015) versus elsewhere in Syria, for instance, after the Ghouta chemical attack in the outskirts of Damascus in 2013.

The intense conversation at the seminar negotiated this tension, while scrupulously trying to avoid judgment by outcome. Most of the interventions interrogated different ways to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable gulf, while eschewing universalist narratives and the tendency to praise or damn the uprisings on the basis of subsequent historical events.

Safwan Masri drew on the history of the region and the individualized context of the different Arab nations to suggest that the long history of Tunisian reform (itself tied to the legacy of colonialism and imperialism) and the ways that Tunisians shaped their own demos, helps explain in large part how the mass mobilizations arose and how they led there to the first democratically-elected president. In other words, it is in the longue durée that we might find mediating agents in the relation between the local and the global. Along these lines, for Masri, the Tunisian revolution may end up fitting within the model of the modern concept of revolution, insofar as it comprised a social revolution affecting women’s rights, religious freedom, and other liberties of a social dimension. The Jasmine Revolution, Masri maintained, was not just a political revolution, but a social revolution.

Paradoxically, Tariq Ali’s position could also be interpreted as mediating the two poles. On a first reading, of course, both Tariq Ali and Perry Anderson place themselves at the most global and perhaps universal level, focusing as they do on the long history of US imperialism in the Middle East. But when we focus on the resistance, what we encounter perhaps is a mixed theory that navigates between the actors on the ground, internationalist movements, and higher order anti-imperialism.

When we asked Tariq Ali for the “one or two seminal texts you would like to discuss regarding the Arab Spring and its relation to forms of uprising,” Ali immediately responded: “Will have a think. Lenin’s April Theses immediately comes to mind.” Of course, what Lenin’s April Theses did, delivered as they were between the first revolution of February 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, was to connect the popular mobilization to the broader goals of the international worker’s movement. In other words, it was a specific attempt to infuse the local mobilization with a larger political movement, and tie together the activism on the ground to broader theoretical ideas and histories. As Ali emphasizes in his book, The Dilemmas of Lenin (2017), this represented an “explosive” call to local mobilization to get beyond that first stage of a more “bourgeois” political revolution, to get to what Lenin referred to as the “second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants. As Ali writes, “Unlike all previous revolutions in history, this was a fully conscious, carefully considered call to arms.” (164)

For Ali, I surmise, Lenin’s April Theses were precisely what was missing from the mobilization at Tahrir Square in February 2011—and in other squares and parks, such as, a few months later, at Zuccotti Park at Occupy Wall Street in October 2011. Again, the prescription works at multiple levels bridging the mass mobilization and the broader horizon of anti-imperialism.

Several other incisive interventions negotiated this space between the mobilizations on the ground and broader forces. Lojain Hussain Alyamani turned our attention to the mediating role of traditional political institutions and actors versus the ongoing politicization of syndicate, unions, and other associations that did not have such a politically charged history. Nadia Urbinati drew our attention to the similarities with 1848 in Europe, and the internationalization of these revolutionary sentiments, how they spread as in 1848, but similarly how they often led to dictatorial outcomes—but asking us to explore specifically whether there have been lasting underground movements in the Arab world, as there were in Europe. Rosalind Morris discussed the importance of the shift from earlier cellphone-based uprisings to these social-media based mobilizations, suggesting how that might have transformed the temporality of the events.

Etienne Balibar questioned the very meaning of the term “Arab” in “Arab Spring,” pointing out the way in which our discussion had excluded any mention of the Gezi Park and Taksim Square occupations in Istanbul, and suggesting that, more than anything, the use of the term Arab Spring served more to create a new identity of “Arab” than to describe a region. Reinhold Martin suggested that the real revolution, perhaps, was the prior revolution represented by neoliberalism, which had such significant effects on the subjectivies of the protesters and populations. Michael Harris suggested that the PLO and the First Intifada may have served as a mediating force, both inspiring and fueling the mobilizations.

The other questions of Gaspard de Monclin, focusing on the other aspirations (perhaps for a more spiritual leadership or more authentic identity, rather than anti-imperialism); of Palvasha Shahab, drawing our attention to the metaphor of “Spring” used; of Jim Dingeman, focusing on the military as the mediating force; and others, like Haris Durrani and others, added perspectives to the question whether it is possible to reconcile these different dimensions of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The temporal dimension and repression

Another way to bridge the tension is to explore the temporal dimension of the protests, which originated with local protest and mass mobilization at the grassroots, but then got used both by internal forces, like the military in Egypt, and external forces, such as US and European military interventions. The risk, of course, is to replicate the myth of the stolen revolution, which was so prevalent in analyses of the Iranian Revolution (see Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran, p. 75) and which we will certainly come back to at Uprising 6/13 on Foucault and Iran. The puzzle or challenge here is whether it is possible to pay attention to the episodes of revolution without falling into the trap of the “hijacking” narrative, and whether it is indeed possible to judge the uprisings of the Arab Spring “on their own.”

This raises the broader question whether it is ever possible to focus in isolation on an uprising as a form of revolt, or whether it must always relate back to its outcomes. Can we evaluate Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation on December 17, 2010—an act that triggered the Tunisian Revolution and perhaps the following Arab Spring—separately from what ensued thereafter? How do we assess Tahrir Square when we think of the casualties – or today, the over 60,000 political prisoners in President el-Sisi’s prisons?

It also raises the question how to think about these uprisings in relation to that active repression. The uprisings were violently repressed from the start—how do we incorporate the counterrevolutions?  The non-violent occupation of Tahrir Square began on January 25th 2011, and during the 18 days of upheaval in Cairo and around Egypt, over 800 persons were killed and thousands (about 6,400) injured, following lengthy violent street battles with the forces of order and disorder. By about November 2011—ten months into the Arab Spring—the UN and other human rights groups had estimated that there were as many as 30,000 deaths in Libya, 3,500 Syrian casualties from at the time peaceful protests (and that was before the civil war and the quasi-complete annihilation of the country), about 300 killed in Tunisia, about 250 casualties in Yemen, about 30 deaths by government forces in Bahrain.

Is the violent repression something that must be “discounted” in order to get at the real rate or the real essence of the uprising? And how would we accomplish that? Asef Bayat refers us, as Soha Bayoumi reminded us, to those “assemblages of citizens,” those assemblages of ordinary persons on the street who evoke a political, progressive, emancipatory agenda in a form of “non-movements.” According to Bayat’s earlier book, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford, 2nd edition, 2013, p. 20), social non-movements are composed of “non-collective actors” pursuing “collective action” on behalf of the marginalized. Could it be, though, that they are only passive in these ways because of the repression, as a product of the grave risks in authoritarian contexts? Was the non-ideological nature of these uprisings, observed there—and elsewhere, for instance at Zuccotti Park—something that could or should be discounted? (Perhaps we should seek guidance in Leo Strauss)

The digital age and social media

Rosalind Morris, Jesús Velasco, and Aurelie Vialette raised the additional role of social media both in renewing the political discourse at the ground level and in creating international networks. Notice the several possible interrelated dimensions: the effects of social media on the political discourse of the protesters on the ground, but also the way the media then encouraged international networks of support and exchange, and also may have influenced other movements around the world, including the global Occupy movement that erupted only eight months after Tahrir Square. Is it possible that the use of media during the Arab Spring could contribute to a new modality of uprising?

Moseb Zeiton weighed in on this question, emphasizing the equally important role of the TV media network Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, originally founded in 1996, now sits uncomfortably in the middle of the Qatar crisis, with several Arab states led by Saudi Arabia demanding its shut-down as a condition for lifting the sanctions against Qatar, which owns the network. Moseb Zeiton’s point was that the network has always been willing to show images of authoritarianism, torture, and protest in the region that were censored elsewhere, and as a result, may have contributed to the popular unrest, perhaps more effectively than social media.

[It was particularly thrilling to listen and learn from Moseb Zeiton given his difficulties in obtaining a J-1 visa to pursue his graduate studies at SIPA at Columbia University, which were the result, I believe, of the Muslim Ban’s ripple effects and its extension even beyond the strict language of the executive order. A warm thank you to our 1L Legal Methods students at Columbia Law School for helping Moseb Zeiton get to Columbia University!]

Some suggested that the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 was the first time that social media was used to generate this kind of a movement; and we will need to study that as well. But clearly, the Arab Spring was a testing ground for the use of social media by protesters, and counter-resistance by the state and military. Did it change the form of protest? Does it represent a new model of uprising or new model of networks? Does it change the moment of mobilization or affect the later internationalization of the protest or repression?

This is, of course, the perfect segway to our next seminar Uprising 4/13 on #BlackLivesMatter, and we hope that you will join us for that conversation as well on November 9, 2017—with readings here.  The connections are everywhere—and at times, even, unexpected.

“Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy.”

— Lenin’s April Theses (1917)