Let us not get into the semantics of whether what happened in Tunisia was a revolution and what is happening in Egypt and Yemen is a revolt or uprising. It is liberation from the native masters who cast themselves in the role of nationalist reformers to revive Arab national identity, provide freedom and space for self-expression, along with social reconstruction and economic development.
In many parts of the post-colonial world, the nationalist revivalists didn’t keep the promise of national liberation. Using popular idiom of nationalism, they imposed personalised authoritarian rule or, at best, one-party rule supported by the military. The Arab people suffered the most at the hands of their nationalist liberators, most of them, in fact, were coup makers who ousted weaker monarchs and established themselves as new voices for the masses. The Egyptian state and powerful elite — and many others from Iraq to Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — presented themselves as representatives of the masses, mixing strands of socialism and Arab nationalism. In the international polarisation between the superpowers, they plunged themselves into the Soviet camp because the western option was either not available or American and British role in the establishment of Israel and their continued backing of Israel made it impossible for them to look in that direction.
Egypt under Anwar Sadat had a volte-face, realising that it couldn’t get back what it had lost in the 1967 war, although its military was able to retake a big chunk of the lost territory in the war of 1973 war. Simply, the Americans wouldn’t allow Israel to stand defeated. Egypt broke the ranks with the confrontational Arab states, made peace with Israel and ever since lived happily in the American camp, receiving the largest amount of economic and military assistance after Israel.
From the very beginning of nationalist revolutions in the Arab world, authoritarian rulers took over the state. They cultivated supportive elite networks using resources of the state and established ruling family dynasties that were no different in essence from the traditional monarchies of the region. They applied fascistic means against the opposition elements, both Islamists and modernist liberals, suppressed dissent and ruled by using fear and intimidation. Never was the consent of the Arab people of any value, or the common Arab man of any real importance to them. Instead of sinking roots in society through liberal politics of rights, equality and justice for all, they relied on use of force, manipulation and state violence against every individual and group that dared to question their authority or right to rule.
They used some instruments of democracy, like elections, but they were single horse races, and obviously a big political fraud. In many ways, the Arab authoritarianism is no different than European fascism of the 1920s and 30s. They have used emotion, political rhetoric and control over the media and the political process to demonise opposition and destroy it in the name of state, nation and public interest.
The emerging revolutionary situation in some Arab countries, Egypt being the focal point, reflects the ethos of a new generation of Arabs. This new generation is not willing to be humiliated. The new Arab wants to recover lost dignity, national self-respect and political rights. The authoritarian model of the Arab state has served the interests of the ruling classes and their foreign backers. The developing revolutions represent the sentiment of true liberation. The Middle East is not going to be the same as we have known it, and ripple effects may touch the political soul of countries as far as Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2011.