24 Dec The Arab Uprisings Aren’t a Repeat of the French Revolution: an interview with Yousef Al-Naimi, Sasapost, 24 December 2019
Professor John Keane, The University of Sydney
Yousef Al-Naimi: Tell us about the year 2011, and the emerging of the Arab Spring; what was your first reaction? And what was your ambition for the region? What were your reflections on what has happened?
John Keane: My first reaction was one of surprise. Surprise is a rather underestimated phenomenon in the field of politics and human affairs. When the events in Tunisia quickly cascaded across the region, the most striking developments were the occupations of public squares. Within weeks we had a large symposium in Sydney, where I delivered my first reflections on how to make sense of these uprisings that were seemingly contagious.
Equally striking was the self-discipline of the resistances not to use violence, and their insistence on using slogans of peace, freedom, and justice, all in a context of heavily-armed surveillance police states. I immediately used the term ‘refolution’ to describe these uprisings, because these were not early-stage ‘Revolutions’ in the early modern European sense. Classically, the French Revolution, unlike the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989-1991, was an attempt by organized groups to capture state power and, if necessary, to use violence to capture state power.
Equally important was the commitment to building and experiencing public space. According to the philosopher Hannah Arendt and other republican thinkers in the European tradition, democracy minimally requires a formation of ‘publics’ — large numbers of people who gather and feel bounded even though they don’t know one another personally. This feeling of togetherness gives them a strong sense of power; that all of them are committed to non-violence, and to liberation. They are all watching performances of music, poetry, and plays that describe the sort of future they want. This period expressed the spirit of these refolutions.
A striking moment was in Alexandria, where a very large public watched themselves live on satellite televisions. This was a remarkable symbol of the way the resistance and uprisings were mediated using those most advanced tools of the communication revolution.
The absence of nationalism was striking as well. Instead, there was an establishment of connected networks in which language and poetry spread across borders; Tahrir Square became connected to the events in Tunisia, to Pearl square in Bahrain.
Finally, it was in this period that I coined the phrase of ’Religious Secularity’. This is probably impossible to translate into Arabic. During this period, I was in close contact with Rached Ghannouchi; he was a mentor and friend who had been exiled for many years in London. When he returned to Tunisia, he issued a statement articulating his vision of Tunisia as a country where no woman was forced to wear the headscarf, but where the right to wear a headscarf was unconditional. His contribution was small but publicly significant. These uprisings created a space which enabled the resurfacing of a people’s sense of being good Muslims that was different to the Iranian path which was to be avoided.
These, briefly put, were my reflections around those early weeks. I was excited, puzzled and trying to find a language to make sense of their complexity and their historic significance.
YN: After seven years, we are witnessing a second wave of the Arab Spring, and as we’re speaking now there is an election going on in Algeria, the Freedom and Chance Forces are leading a transitional government in Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq are witnessing massive protests. How do you evaluate these seven years? What was the development? What are people learning from what happened during the first wave?
JK: François Furet, one of the greatest historians of the French Revolution, remarked that it never came to an end until the late 20th Century. The point here is that major uprisings of this kind can be temporarily crushed, as happened with the military coup in Egypt for example. However, Furet is warning us not to draw premature conclusions, but to pay attention to the long-term dynamics, to look at the sources of stability and weakness. Amid the dysfunctions of the regimes that try to clamp down on these uprisings, we witness what’s now been called the ‘Second Spring’ — a second wave of the refolutions that erupted in the early months of 2019.
I read this second wave as a renewal of those original demands of the first refolutions by people, including young people, who barely remember the first events, who are dissatisfied with the way things are and dissatisfied with poverty, and with the bullying of the state.
YN: What, in your view, do these protests or refolutions have in common?
JK: They have all been triggered by some mistake made by those who rule. An example is the foolish decision to impose a WhatsApp tax in Lebanon, where the youth believe in the free movement of information without restriction. They also have in common the rebirth of civil society against the heavily-armed corrupt police state. By civil society, I do not mean simply the philanthropic sector, often called the ‘third sector’, nor the nice NGOs, typically funded by foreign (especially American) interests. By civil society I rather mean the networks of organizing, and the initiatives in which there is a robust pluralism, where the civil society wants to keep the state at arm’s length. It comprises independent universities, mosques, free trade unions, environmental groups, women’s support networks, and local businesses.
As we speak, I think what is happening in Lebanon is the most vibrant example of the commitment to non-violence, the commitment to a measure of self-reflexivity, of sharing information, of recognizing difference and accepting differences with a measure of fun and purpose. On display is a commitment to the reversal of growing social inequalities, and to the end of the confessional system. All these themes bind the civil society together. I think, for the moment, it’s the richest example and model of this second wave of the new refolutions.
YN:If I may bring the Arab uprisings into focus: In the first wave of the uprisings we saw the slogan of democracy being raised. However, it’s disappeared from the second wave where we see more specific demands: mainly social justice and anti-sectarianism. Even in Tunisia, which is considered the most successful experience of the Arab uprisings to date, we see people questioning democracy as an idea, as an end in itself. Do you have anything to say to Tunisians or to the rest of the Arab world going through this transformative period?
JK: First of all, I think the way we define democracy is very fundamental. Because of historical reasons we are living in an era where elections are of declining significance. Certainly without free and fair elections which are uncorrupted by money or violence, all citizens are weakened, because elections are the channel through which governments are formed and state resources allocated. However, under these regional conditions of corrupt autocratic states, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which cooperate with one another and support someone like Sisi, elections typically produce disappointments and become less meaningful.
I’m arguing that since the end of the 1940s, democracy has come to mean nothing more than free and fair elections. But it means much more, especially the protection of people from corruption and the abuse of power. This is what I call ‘monitory democracy’, a new kind of democracy which requires watchdogs and barking dog institutions, independent courts, human rights networks that blow the whistle on governments and corporations, truth commissions, and integrity bodies structured into the institutions of governments. Democracy is about all of that, in addition to free and fair elections.
This whole idea of monitory democracy is surely alive in the second wave of uprisings, because of the frustration with elections felt by many who think elections are not the heart and soul of democracy. The most advanced case in the region is surely Tunisia, which had — and still does — a truth commission, where there is a reinvigoration of the power of parliament under Rached Ghannouchi, who is currently the Speaker of the Parliament.
I think the qualities of monitory democracy, which is certainly not a western ‘liberal’ idea but a global one, are much alive in the Tunisian case. My hope is that the experiment there survives and thrives, and that it serves as a model for the rest of a region under these inauspicious geopolitical circumstances.
YN: How do you see the regional geopolitical constraints for the future of the uprisings?
JK: I’m about to publish a 1,000-page history of democracy in Arabic. Among the many lessons that come from looking at the history of democracy in all its forms is that power-sharing monitory democracy with the rule of law, an active civil society, and free and fair elections, typically happens in clusters. It happens when a number of states simultaneously manage to pull off the miracle of democratization, so rendering the chances of survival much higher.
This implies the need for regional protection. The fact is the regional setting is feeding hungry wolves, like Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Erdogan’s Turkey. None of those forces has any particular interest in the democratization of the region, and that continues to hamper the second wave as it did the first, especially with the United States actively withdrawing from the region.
YN: With this in mind, may you give a hopeful message to the Arab youth trying to move forward and lead this democratization process?
JK: We know from global history that no political form survives forever, and no state has a historical guarantee. In the end, they collapse, or are politically defeated. That rule certainly applies to this region, as hopeless as things may seem. This second wave shows again that these regimes are neither durable nor sustainable. Sisi can build a new capital city, which is close to the country’s largest military base, in the northwest of Egypt, and can even license the building of a new Disney World. But this is not a solution to the long-term problem of the injustices experienced by many suffering millions of pulverized Egyptians, who feel that the regime doesn’t protect them, that they are too-heavily policed, that they suffer humiliation on a daily basis. The whole region is full of such sentiments. It’s that dynamic of humiliation, it seems to me, that is bound to, and is already producing, hope.
What is hope? Hope is the wish, the belief that it’s possible to live better tomorrow than today by using resources that are currently available. Hope is pragmatic; it’s bold and not passive, and it can be lived personally. We hope that our children will complete school or go to university, we hope that we continue working in this job, or find another job that pays a living wage, and we hope that we will be married, or live a happy life. These little hopes are the way that we live our life in any context. It’s the way people live their lives in this region.
Hope is a condition of possibility of being human, and hope also can become contagious. It can crystallize in public form, which is what we are witnessing now in the second wave, and what happened in the early months of 2011, when millions realized that their own particular hopes are strengthened by a collective sharing of these hopes for a better future.
The dynamic seems to me a warning to all the despots of the region, that the people of the region do have hopes, and that they won’t simply give up and be subservient and collaborate with despots. Personally, this gives me hope for the region.
 “العلمانية الدينية”
Image: Protest in Sanaa, Yemen (February 3, 2011) ©calliopejen1
Arabic version can be found here