The Arab Revolution. The Lessons From The Democratic Uprising
The Arab Revolution. The Lessons From The Democratic Uprising,
by Jean-Pierre Filiu, London: Hurst and Co.
Paperback, ISBN 978-1-84904-159-1, 195 pages
Published in Times Higher Education Supplement 29 September 2011-10-21
It may be premature to draw lessons from the on-going Arab revolutions but Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on the politics of the region, identifies ten such lessons before the dust has settled. As such, the analysis is swift, relying on the author’s previous knowledge of the region and observations of current events. There is no grand theoretical framework to understand the uprisings, nor an attempt to see them through the prism of long duree historical process. As a result, the book is a cross between a sophisticated journalistic account and policy recommendations.
Filiu deconstructs existing narratives about the Arab world and explains why so far only two Arab autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt have been successfully overthrown under the pressure of peaceful uprisings, and with relatively little bloodshed. Other more violent cases from Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain are discussed but without clear conclusions. Countries that have experienced minor protest such as Saudi Arabia and others that have remained immune, for example Algeria, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are mentioned in passing. Two monarchies in Morocco and Jordan are currently under pressure but Filiu thinks that they will eventually succumb to pressure and move towards more constitutionalism that will limit the monarchs’ power. The mix of local trajectories and outcomes over the last six months make the ‘Arab’ title of the book highly controversial.
The chapters reflect the ten lessons to be drawn from revolutions that many scholars of the Arab world have failed to predict. Most of Filiu’s lessons state the obvious as he debunks obsolete myths that have been disregarded by all serious scholars of the region with the exception of die hard orientalists and their patrons among policy makers. He argues that Arabs desire democracy like other nations and their religion cannot explain the previous stagnation of their political life. He invites policy makers to watch the angry unemployed youth who have dominated the protest movement. Young Arabs will remain volatile and agitated lest new economic opportunities are created. The facebook generation, assisted by its counterparts in the diaspora, created webs of social networks that drove millions into the streets of Arab capitals. Lacking central charismatic revolutionary figures, a collective youth movement put unprecedented pressure on aging but powerful autocratic presidents. Its youth and anger may well create perpetual revolutionary momentum, not so conducive to stable democratic evolution. If democracy is delayed, then chaos will follow. To mitigate against this chaos, the largest and most organised Islamist movement, known as the Muslim Brotherhood with its many branches in the Arab world, must seize the opportunity and accept to share power with other secular and liberal political forces. The peaceful protest made the violent Jihadi trend obsolete.
Finally, the Arab revolutions will not generate a domino effect. So far only an Arab public sphere longing for greater freedoms, economic opportunities, and respect for civil and human rights has emerged across borders inherited from the colonial era. These borders proved to be resilient and are unlikely to be redrawn as a result of the spirit of democracy sweeping across the region.
Rich Gulf monarchies, mainly Saudi Arabia, stand as safety nets. This seems a naïve reading of the role that conservative and oppressive monarchies can play to thwart democratic change in the region. One wonders how an oppressive regime with vast oil revenues could be a safety net in a volatile region when its ultimate concern is to maintain the status quo in order to escape the very domino effect that Filiu dismisses?
It is astonishing that Filiu’s ten lessons do not include a serious assessment of Western support for Arab dictators over the last five decades. This support was perhaps the main difference between Eastern Europe where the West sided with the people against archaic communist regimes and the Arab world, where Western governments supported the autocrats themselves. If there is a lesson to draw, policy makers must conclude that they may continue to support dictatorships but cannot rescue autocrats at their darkest moment. The powerful slogan of the revolutionaries ‘the people want the downfall of the regime’ was a symbol of an unstoppable mass movement. Another shortcoming is Filiu’s failure to assess the long-term consequences of Nato’s bombing of Libya in support of armed rebels. The prospect of civil war, partition, sectarian and ethnic cleansing loom large in the hot spots.
This book is a premature account of a complex unfinished historical moment.
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