Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Real Arab Revolution

Now, where do we stand with the so called Arab revolutions? So called, because revolutions haven't really taken place. Except in Tunisia maybe, where dictatorship was replaced by anarchy, according to a Tunisian talking to the French newspaper Le Figaro last Monday. People in Tunisia are still waiting to reap the benefits of their courageous struggle back in January of 2011. 

But elsewhere? In Egypt the revolution was in fact the masking of a coup inside the army, getting rid of Mubarak who had become too greedy for his own officers. Last Friday, 20'000 something protesters gathered on Tahrir Square again, asking for real reforms in an military led Egypt. This might seem like a high number of men and women, 20'000 on Tahrir, but in a country of 80 million people, this only constitutes 0.025% of the entire population. We are nowhere near the numbers of the Iranian revolution back in 1979 where millions got the Shah to leave power and the country. And with long standing shadow politician Amre Moussa geared to be the next Egyptian president, by the grace of his army, I can't see any new ideas determining the political agenda of Egypt. 

In Libya, the revolution is stuck between myth and mess. The NATO forces are now considering to use bunker busting bombs to bust Ghaddafi and bunk the revolution once and for all. The people of Benghazi will have to live with a revolution made by NATO and pay a price not yet established for this.

And Syria, Bahrain, Yemen? The bullets are flying, death penalties are handed down and Al Qaeda militants were taking over a Yemeni coastal town last weekend. President Saleh is repeating the same tactics the US was using 30 years ago in Afghanistan: using Islamist militants for his own egoistic goals. But as we all have learned in the meantime: once the cat has left the bag, there is no control over where she might roam. 

Now here is a thought I had the other day. It was said that the "Arab Revolutions" were made on and by Facebook and Twitter. I think this is wrong, because revolutions happen on the streets, dodging bullets, waving flags, and not online. And they happen, as in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, when the military and the police leave their posts and join the protesters. This didn't happen in Syria until now. 

But then again: social media is the Real Arab Revolution of 2011! More people in the Arab world are in touch with people from European and American societies than ever before. They are friends on Facebook, they are followers on Twitter. They chat and they exchange ideas. They even meet offline after having first met online, as I have done myself just recently. They are opening themselves up to ideas coming from different cultures and societies. They are considering these ideas, play with them, interpret them and maybe put them into action in their own societies. 

Or at least they are asking for action. They might not have an immediate positive response with their revolutionary demands but we shouldn't look at short term successes of ideas only. Vincent van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime. Of course the flow of ideas is not a one way street only: just as in medieval times, when Arabs were populating what we now call Spain, ideas and philosophies are making their way from Arab countries to European houses. The al-Kindi and al-Khwarizmi of yesterday are @Sandmonkey and @Ghonim of today! And Spain again is taking up Arab models, staging their own protests in recent weeks.

a real revolution: Social Media

When I argue my case, I'm aware of the fact that there is not only one Arab society. The Arab world is as colorful as the European carpet of cultures. Finland is not the same as Greece. The Real Arab Revolution will mostly affect and change rural, traditional Arab societies. It will change Saudi Arabia more than Lebanon. Lebanon is a people of merchants, living by the sea, forever trading - goods, ideas - with the outside world. Saudi Arabia is a desert people, where much of the culture ("how things are done") is due to the harsh climate and the life threatening conditions of the environment. Life in the desert is about resources, it is about preserving and protecting, and it shows in Saudi society. 

The Real Arab Revolution will mostly affect women, not men, and alter their minds and their lifestyles. The introduction of mobile phones already was a first big step - finally one could have some privacy in families set up for control. But social media is a breakthrough. In a society such as Saudi Arabia, where women and men are physically and even visually separated, the fact that you can talk to men online, that you can exchange thoughts and pictures, seems to me like a sociological tsunami. How long can you demand that women get the approval of men to travel abroad, when their friends online can travel freely? How long can you demand that women are depending on men to get around, not being allowed to drive cars themselves? How long can you demand that women shouldn't become doctors or exercise any other time consuming job because it would leave them with too little time for raising the kids and taking care of their husbands? How long can you hold up the fake image of a society where women's souls are pure and their minds untouched by the festering ideas of self determination? Social media and the possibilities social media offers will inevitably lead to a development of new values and to an erosion of traditional values that these societies preserve so desperately and protect so tightly. 

The Arab Revolution will be slower than you had hoped but more effective than you had expected. 

I can hear you. You say that social media is an American invention - it is - and thus yet another devious attempt to shape the world the way the Americans want it. You might have a point, but then: it is not the hammer and the nail that make the world, it is how you use them.


  1. Although I agree with most of what you said ... I don't share the same perspective on the Future.
    1. Why It will take time (Tunisia, Egypt) :

    If we take the example of the French Revolution, the easiest part was to topple the King and cut off his head. Reaching an almost stable state took centuries during which a lot of slaughtering, Terror, new Dictators happened. And quite frankly, i'm not sure Revolution ended yet
    2. Why failure to launch is bad news(Bahrein,Saudi):

    What can be learned from "Pragua Spring"(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague_Spring), is that when a revolution is successfully crushed by military action, it creates a trauma that will need decades and a whole new (external) revolutionary impulse to restart. It was proven again at the end of the 1980's when Berlin wall was broken. The Soviet republic that didn't manage to topple their dictators during that era still keep them until today (Bielorussia ..). So social media or not, if you manage to crush people's spirit, you won yourself an extra 20 or 30 years of unchallenged power.

  2. Hey Anonymous - thanks for comment - You are actually very right - it takes years for a system, for minds, to change. Belarus is a good example of a dictatorship that is "hard to kill".

    Thanks always for your comments (provided Anonymous is always the same "anonymous").

  3. An enlightening read, especially so with the luxury of almost one year's time of reflection. So many excellent points made concerning where the revolutions came and where they might go.

    I appreciate how geography has helped shape over time the remarkably different cultures of both Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Due the virtual landscape of the Internet, I'm fortunate to enjoy friendships of those in both countries. Those friendships have inspired a revolution within me, politically and personally.

    I see now as you, "The Arab Revolution will be slower than you had hoped but more effective than you had expected." It makes sense as with friendships. These aren't forged over a fortnight but develop continually, so the revolution[s].

    Lastly, your point about women doesn't go unnoticed. "The Real Arab Revolution will mostly affect women, not men, and alter their minds and their lifestyles." Indeed. I have heard and seen the voices of women reverberate through many different mediums, in many different contexts. In the current debate sparked by Eltahawy's article, I noticed it's mostly women who have come out strong, both for and against. Whether we agree or disagree with her opinions is of little consequence. I think all might agree however, "The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man [...] but they will be finished by Arab women."