Reflections on Tunisia and Egypt

Reflections on the revolutions
in Tunisia and Egypt

Rashid Khalidi
Foreign Policy
February 24, 2011


This is above all a moment of new possibilities in the Arab world, and
indeed in the entire Middle East. We have not witnessed such a turning point
for a very long time. Suddenly, once insuperable obstacles seem
surmountable. Despotic regimes that have been entrenched across the Arab
world for two full generations are suddenly vulnerable. Two of the most
formidable among them — in Tunis and Cairo — have crumbled before our eyes
in a matter of a few weeks. Another in Tripoli, one of the most brutal and
repressive, is tottering at this moment. The old men who dominate so many of
these countries suddenly look their age, and the distance between the rulers
and the vast majorities of their populations born 40 or 50 or 60 years after
them has never been greater. An apparently frozen political and social
situation has melted almost overnight in the heat of the popular upsurge
that took over the towns and cities first of Tunisia and then of Egypt, and
which is now spreading to other Arab countries. We are privileged to be
experiencing what may well be a world historical moment, when what once
seemed to be fixed verities vanish and new potentials and forces emerge.

The same mainstream Western media that habitually conveys a picture of a
region peopled almost exclusively by enraged, bearded terrorist fanatics who
"hate our freedom" has begun to show images of ordinary people peacefully
making eminently reasonable demands for freedom, dignity, social justice,
accountability, the rule of law, and democracy. Arab youth at the end of the
day have been shown to have hopes and ideals not that different from those
of the young people who helped bring about democratic transitions in Eastern
Europe, Latin America, and South, Southeast, and East Asia.

These young voices have been a revelation only to those deluded by this
media's obsessive focus on Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism whenever it
turns its attention to the Middle East. This is thus a supremely important
moment not only in the Arab world, but also for how Arabs are perceived by
others. A people that has been systematically and habitually maligned —
probably more than any other in recent decades — are for the first time
being shown in a new, and largely positive, light.

The most difficult tasks are yet to come. It was not easy to overthrow an
out-of-touch tyrant and his greedy family, whether in Tunis or Cairo, and it
is proving very hard in Tripoli. Building a working democratic system will
be much harder. It will be harder still to ensure that a democratic system,
if one can be established, is not dominated by the plutocrats who abound in
the Arab world and by entrenched, powerful interests like the military.
Finally, it will be a daunting task for any new popular democratic regime to
achieve the social justice and the rapid economic growth that will be
necessary to provide good jobs, decent housing, quality education,
much-needed infrastructure, and equal opportunity. These are the very things
that the old regimes failed to provide and whose absence triggered the youth
revolution now sweeping the region. Failure at any of these daunting tasks
could well lead to an attempted comeback for the forces of reaction and
repression. It could also unleash those extreme, violent, minority trends
that prosper in circumstances of chaos and disorder, such as were created by
the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the attendant destruction
of the Iraqi state. And we must never forget that this is the Middle East,
which is the most coveted region of the world and the most penetrated by
foreign interests. It is thus vulnerable, as it has been throughout its history, to
external intervention that could easily divert or distort outcomes.

Nevertheless, what has happened in Tunisia and Cairo has opened up horizons
that have long been closed. The energy, dynamism, and intelligence of the
younger generation in the Arab world have been unleashed after being dammed
up by a system that treated the younger generation and its aspirations with
contempt and that concentrated power mainly in the hands of a much older
generation. Seemingly out of nowhere, young people in the Arab world have
gained a confidence, an assurance, and a courage which have made fearsome
police-state regimes that once looked invincible tremble and lose their
nerve. Watching young Tunisians and Egyptians speak on Arab satellite TV
stations was a revelation to many in the West. These young people were
articulate, they were smart, and they were determined. Al Jazeera took much
of the credit for relaying news about events to the Arab world and beyond,
especially in Tunisia, where it was way ahead of other media in perceiving
the importance of what was happening, but also in Egypt and now Libya,
among others. However, other Arab TV stations played a major role, including
Egyptian stations, once the fear of repression had ebbed and the spirit of
revolution had spread.

All of Egypt, and much of the rest of the world, were transfixed by the
interview on Dream TV with Wael Ghonim immediately after his release from
12 days of captivity, especially given his mix of clarity and rationality on
the one hand, with profound emotion on the other. And the fact that he was a
Google executive obviously played especially well with Westerners. But other
young Egyptians that few people outside Egypt have ever heard of have been
even more impressive, like the blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, a leader of the new
revolutionary movement whose persuasive and forceful video blog helped
incite the Jan. 25 protest, or Nawara Negm, a journalist, activist, and
leader of the movement (and daughter of one of Egypt's most revered popular
poets of the 1960s and 1970s, Ahmed Fouad Negm, and the renowned feminist
Safinaz Kazim). A Dream TV interview with Negm gave a clear sense of the
strategic clarity of the leaders of the protests — although she protested
that she was not a leader, saying: "We do not need leaders. We do not need
zaims [strong men]. That stage in our history is over." Responding to a
question about what the movement would do if the military did not keep its
promises, she responded matter-of-factly and utterly convincingly: "We know
the way back to the [Tahrir] Square." These young women, and hundreds of
other women and men like them, in 18 days managed to produce a movement
that toppled a pharaoh who had been in power for 30 years.

It once looked as if the Arab countries would continue indefinitely to be an
exception to the wave of liberation from authoritarianism which has swept
other regions of the world over the past few decades. Suddenly, the younger
generations of Arabs have proven that they are no different than anyone
else. They have shown that they have been following events elsewhere and
watching carefully the examples of others outside their region. They have
learned amply from the mistakes of their elders, and they are far more
technologically savvy than the police state with its unlimited resources,
top-of-the-line equipment, and extensive training in the best facilities the
United States and Europe could provide.

This last point raises embarrassing questions. Why were American tear gas
canisters used copiously against peaceful protesters in Tunis and Cairo, as
they have been systematically used for years against Palestinians and a few
Israeli and foreign activists demonstrating at villages like Bil'in in the
occupied West Bank? Why were the goons and thugs of Ben ‘Ali and Mubarak
on such good terms with the intelligence services of the United States, France
and other European countries? Why was support for "stability" (which really
meant support for repression, corruption, the frustration of popular
demands, and the subversion of democracy) in practice the main, and indeed
the only, policy of the United States and the European Union in most parts
of the Arab world?

These may be questions which policymakers prefer not to answer in
Washington, Paris, London and Bonn. But they are on the minds of smart
young people all over the Arab world who follow the Western and other
international media, and are aware of what is happening in the rest of the
world — much more aware than those who have repressed them for so long.
Like people in the non-Western world going back to the eras of Lord
Palmerston and Woodrow Wilson, this generation of young Arabs has also
become aware of the long-standing gap between the proclaimed ideals of the
great Western democracies and their cynical realpolitik policies. Because of
the existence of this awareness, it would be a welcome change if American
and European officials would refrain from preaching either to those in
Tunisia and Egypt who have already engineered striking revolutionary change,
or to others in the Arab world who are trying to do the same. Clearly, these
young revolutionaries know better what they need to do to achieve democracy
and social justice than those who until literally a couple of weeks ago were
the closest friends of dictators in Tunis and Cairo, and are still intimately
linked to the rest of the Arab despots.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions raise many questions. After liberation
from Western colonialism, failed experiments with radical populism, Arab
nationalism and state-led economic development in the 1950s and 1960s gave
way to the stagnation and repression of dictatorships and absolute
monarchies. During the decades since the 1960s, sclerotic authoritarian
regimes have controlled every Arab country, with the (partial) exceptions of
Lebanon and Kuwait. This has been a night seemingly without end, going back
as long as most Arabs, born in the 1970s and afterward, can remember. Most
people in this very young population, over two-thirds of whom are under 30,
know no time when they were not governed by either aging ex-military
officers or absolute hereditary rulers, or by their chosen heirs.

One of the worst things about this pan-Arab patchwork of authoritarian
regimes was the contempt the rulers showed for their peoples. In their view,
the people were too immature to make decisions, to choose their own
representatives, or to allocate societal surpluses or foreign aid. These things
and much else were done for them by their betters, their rulers. Anyone
who challenged the lines drawn by those with power, whether by the
ruler or by the policeman in the street, risked being subjected to unlimited
brutality. This was the lesson of the fate of Khalid Said, the young
Alexandrian blogger who videotaped police corruption in June 2010, and was
beaten to death in broad daylight by the crooked cops he had reported on
(ironically, the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said" was one of the many
triggers of the Egyptian Revolution). These incessant infringements on the
common dignity of nearly every Arab citizen, and the constant affirmations
of their worthlessness, were eventually internalized and produced a
pervasive self-loathing and an ulcerous social malaise. This manifested
itself, among other things, in sectarian tensions, frequent sexual harassment
of women, criminality, drug use, and a corrosive incivility and lack of
public spirit. All of these phenomena appeared to confirm the dim view
held by those in power of their subjects.

It was only after the shocking spark of the self-immolation of a young
vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, had started
a chain reaction as people first in Tunisia and then in Egypt organized and
realized their ability to confront the regimes in power, that it became possible
to overcome some of these deep traumas bred by decades of oppression.
Multiple reports indicated that in the Cairo protests, for example, people
brought food to each other in Tahrir Square; sexual harassment dropped off
noticeably; Muslims guarded Christians while they prayed in public and vice
versa; and young Egyptians voluntarily swept the streets and picked up the
trash. The millennium had not come, of course. It was simply that standing
up to those who had denied their dignity and their rights gave the people in
the streets of Tunis, Cairo and dozens of other cities and towns the sense
that they were masters of their own fate, that they had dignity, and that they
were not simply miserable, abject near-slaves of their lofty masters who ruled
them from their palaces and villas.

It is impossible to say whether this spirit of liberation can be sustained,
whether other Arab revolutions underway will help to keep it alive, or even
if this spirit can be sustained sufficiently to surmount the daunting
structural problems of a country like Egypt. We cannot know whether these
upheavals will amount to real regime change, and whether Tunisians and
Egyptians will succeed in establishing fundamentally new political systems,
or will just end up with Ben Ali-lite and Mubarakism without Mubarak. The
elites in both countries, whether the influential military in Egypt or the
entrenched upper classes in both countries, will not easily cede their
power, even if they have been willing to sacrifice Ben Ali and Mubarak and
some of their closest collaborators. (They have not sacrificed them all:
Mohammad Ghannouchi, the interim Tunisian prime minister, was a minister
in Ben Ali's government, while Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the
Egyptian junta, was Mubarak's defense minister and crony.)

Nevertheless, for the first time in two generations there is hope among the
people of Tunisia and Egypt that they can aspire to a better life, to greater
dignity and to more control over their lives. The youth of these countries
have found out how to harness popular discontent and turn it into a force
against the status quo. They know their way back to the street, if
foot-dragging by those in charge necessitates it. This spirit in turn has
clearly inspired people in many other Arab countries to fight against the
pervasive hopelessness and despair that are essential if despotism is to be

Another major question is whether what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt,
and what appears to be happening in Libya, marks the beginning of a real
Arab revolutionary wave. So far the demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan,
Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, and Iraq are no more than a potent expression of
universal dissatisfaction with a rotten status quo. Although they are a
powerful echo of events in Tunisia and Egypt which have been amplified by
the media, there is no indication yet that any of them — with the possible
exception of Libya — has the potential to overthrow those in power in these
countries. For all the similarities between their regimes, each of these
countries is very different from the others and from Tunisia and Egypt. The
populations of several of them, notably Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain and Iraq,
are less demographically homogenous than Egypt or Tunisia, with significant
ethnic, regional or religious cleavages that rulers can always exploit to
divide and rule. And in some cases, notably Algeria, Iraq, and Jordan, there
is memory of bloody strife that recently or not so recently tore apart these
societies, and may make people hesitant about protesting. Nevertheless, a
new spirit seems to be abroad in the Arab world, and there has certainly
been a contagious effect of the spirit of protest, and of demands for
democracy, that started in Tunisia and Egypt. Just watching Arab satellite
TV and listening to radio accounts of the protests, one is struck by the
ubiquity wherever Arabic is spoken, from Morocco to Bahrain, of the slogan
raised first by the Tunisian revolutionaries and then by their sisters and
brothers in Egypt: "Al-sha'b yurid isqat al-nizam" ("The people want the
fall of the regime)."

Whatever the result, these events are a spectacular confirmation not only of
the common aspirations for freedom and dignity of an entire generation of
young Arabs, but of the existence of a common Arab public sphere. Although
this owes much to modern media, including satellite TV, it is a mistake to
focus excessively on the specifics of the technology. Such a common public
sphere existed in the past, relying on earlier forms of technology, whether
the printing press or radio. The importance of Al Jazeera in particular has
been misunderstood. In the early days of satellite television it was certainly
crucial in breaking the monopoly of the state broadcasting systems,
and in introducing competition which forced even the Saudi-owned Al
Arabiya and other stations to cover a great deal of news simply to avoid
losing viewers. During the uprising in Tunisia and later during the Egyptian
events, Al Jazeera riveted viewers all over the Arab world and in the Arab
diaspora. But the insidious Islamist bent of its coverage is not reflective
either of the protests themselves or of a large segment of its viewership.
This bent was noticeable in its constant favoritism towards Hamas in
covering Palestinian events, and during the Tunisian and Egyptian
revolutions in its intensive coverage of the return to Tunis of the Tunisian
Islamist Rashed al-Ghannouchi, or the prominence it has given to Egyptian
Islamists in the wake of the fall of the Mubarak regime. Similarly, Al Jazeera
highlighted the participation in the Algiers demonstration of February 13
of a leading Algerian Islamist, Ali Belhadj, but not the fact that many in the
crowd called him an assassin. The point is that Al Jazeera is followed by
Arab viewers for its gripping and often daring news footage, but not
necessarily in the political line its executives push. As most of the coverage
of the Arab uprisings so far has shown, there is nothing specifically Islamist
about most of those participating, nor about their demands for dignity,
freedom, democracy and social justice.

The last question these Arab revolutions raise is that of the role of the
United States and its European partners in upholding the rotten Arab status
quo which seems to be crumbling before our eyes. The United States is always
torn in its Middle East foreign policy between its principles, including
support for democracy, and its interests, including upholding dictators who
do what is wanted of them. When there is little public scrutiny, the latter
impulse almost always predominates in U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Today, with the American media featuring stories of charismatic young Arabs
bringing down hated dictators and calling for democracy in perfectly
comprehensible English, the public is watching, and Washington has responded
by tepidly supporting a democratic transition, and calling for restraint by
its other Arab clients in repressing their peoples. One can only wonder what
will happen when the attention of the American public wanders from the Arab
world, as it inevitably will.

In any case, this new moment in the Middle East will make the old business
as usual approach in Washington much harder. The dictators and absolute
monarchs, even if they stay in power, have been placed on notice that they
cannot any longer ignore their peoples, as they have done before in making
policy. Whether this meant submissively following Washington's lead in its
Cold War against Iran, or in protecting Israel from any pressure as it colonized
Palestinian land and entrenched its occupation, these highly unpopular
policies of most Arab governments are no longer tenable. Much remains to
be decided in the Arab world, and a real input of public opinion into the
making of foreign policy there is still in the future. But the day when a Sadat
or a King Hussein could ignore domestic and Arab public opinion and make
peace with Israel while it brutalized the Palestinians may well be past.

Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan will most probably survive,
even if there are real democratic transitions in the entire Arab world. But no
one in Washington can rely on the complaisance and submissiveness towards
Israel and the United States that was one of the features of the stagnant
Arab order that is being challenged in the streets all over the region. What
will replace it is unknown. It will largely be determined in these streets,
as well as in the internet cafes, and in the union halls, newspaper offices,
women's groups and private homes of millions of young Arabs who have
served notice as publicly as possible that they will no longer tolerate being
treated with the contempt and disrespect their governments have shown them
for their entire lives. They have put us all on notice with their slogan:
"The people want the fall of the regime." They are not only referring to
their corrupt governments; they also mean the old regime that has prevailed
for decades in the entire Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia
University, editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, and author of Sowing
Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East
. A version of
this article will be published in Spanish in Vanguardia.

Posted in Militarism and Foreign Policy