Revolt in the Middle East: An Interview with Benoit Challand
In this interview, Benoit Challand, a visiting professor from the New School for Social Research, outlines the landscape created by the recent revolts that rocked the Arabic world. He points out that potential crises, such as in Syria or Iran, could put a full halt to any regional democratization, and comments about the misinterpreted role of the youth in the Middle East.
Can you give a general overview of the Arab Spring, one year later?
Over a year later, the dissatisfaction on the ground is still very vivid, especially in Egypt and Yemen. No one is lured into believing things have changed because of the departure of their president and they still expect a lot of reform in the political and economic structures of their countries. Even in Tunisia, people still expect economic changes, despite a successful election of the constitutional assembly.
On the international level, it seems that, after the Libyan victory, things have stalled: the Syrian rebels face enormous difficulties in uniting their ranks against Bashar al-Assad, while the potential crisis with Iran could deal a serious blow to the people’s aspiration to change peacefully their political system. Yet,the momentum remains, by and large, with the people: their expectations, especially that of the youth and new activists, remain with calls for a better redistribution of resources, real access to justice, and equal rights.
So far, we can say there are two types of results obtained. The first is positive, and it deals with Tunisia: there, you have people running an open electoral campaign for the new parliament in charge of drafting a new constitution. The electoral process was owned by the parties themselves and managed to avoid recycling the old political elite. There is now a coalition of three parties sharing power, while a new constitution, so far preserving the secular nature of the Tunisian state, is being written by the Parliament. Significantly, a totally new political leadership emerged after the January 2011 revolution.
[pullquote]If there are any regional conflicts that explode now, it will give an excuse for those autocratic and military regimes reassert their hold and their power, even in countries where the revolts have been successful.[/pullquote]
At the other end of the spectrum, you have Egypt, where the military doesn’t want to depart from power and where civil rights are still severely curtailed. Promises of real political change have yet to be fulfilled there, as in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, or Morocco. Yemen and Bahrain are rocked by violent protests, while Syria is in a state of quasi civil war.
Libya stands in the middle. The popular revolt turned out to be successful because of NATO’s support. Now, the new leadership needs to unite the different armed groups into a new army and a regular police force, as well as organize elections that have never taken place on the national level.
One thing we should keep in mind is that any successful transition post-dictatorship requires a thorough rewriting of the constitution (or at least the removal of federal states of exception – emergency laws have been in place in Egypt since 1981, in Syria since the 1960s, and in Algeria since 1991). Tunisia stands as the exemplary model for the Middle East, and it is hoped that the neighboring countries will follow similar paths. In that sense, they are really the positive leaders of the post-revolt Arab world.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how a regional crisis could affect the rest of the Arab Spring? For example, what should happen if Syria continues being run by Assad, or if war should start with Iran?
Let’s say we are in a watershed period: things can go one way or another, especially with a crisis over Iran.
If we have something happening in Iran, such as an attack from Israel into Iran, this will cause mayhem again in the Middle East. We’d return to the Middle East as a region ridden with conflict. This would completely shut the door on the prospect for more democratic change. We shouldn’t forget that the existence of so many violent conflicts in the past has given an excuse for autocratic regimes to stay in power, to defend against “external threats.” If there are any regional conflicts that explode now, it will give an excuse for those autocratic and military regimes reassert their hold and their power, even in countries where the revolts have been successful.
In Syria, the rebellion to topple Bashar al-Assad is running into huge organizational difficulties, while the Syrian opposition, in exile, is fractured. The fighting in the last weeks in Damascus itself could be a significant development towards bringing Assad’s end. However, the Syrian president and his armed branches (some being irregular troops of thugs) have not hesitated to used the most violent repression against the population. I am rather skeptical that the talks in the last week, such as Kofi Annan’s plan, will end the hostilities or change the facts on the ground: the regime has used previous diplomatic initiatives (the Arab League’s monitors sent in the country last November) to appear as a partner for dialogue while in reality organizing even harsher repression.
But to be clear: some dictatorships will still exist in tomorrow’s Arab world. But, I believe it is just a question of time for the Syrian opposition (like the Iranian one) to get rid of the dictatorial yoke.
The military has always had a large role in politics and revolutions, especially in the Middle East: Syria, Turkey, Libya, and Egypt all come to mind. How do we reconcile the role of the military with the role of the people in the Arab Spring?
The main problem in terms of military presence is in Egypt, because it’s connected to the peace treaty with Israel. Therefore, the international community, the USA in primis, is aware that the military in Egypt is needed in terms of maintaining stability. The military controls a vast quantity of economic resources in Egypt, and it has a vested interest in continuing cooperation with Israel. This is a significant problem in regards to reforming the Egyptian economy and respond to the people’s requests [for political change].
A year ago, there was a lot of positive expectation from the military on the side of the population. It was seen as the guarantor of the Egyptian nation and the leading revolutionary force in 1952. It had forced Mubarak out of office, and so it had huge popular support. Now, people have understood that the military is not going to let go, and therefore they have a lot of animosity towards the military.
Yemen (and to a lesser extent Libya) is, in part, in similar situation. There, armed forces have significant political leverage and the challenge is to find a way to break down their monopoly over the use of violence, and to find political agreements in defending political pluralism and the respect of civil rights.
In a recent article, you mention that these revolutions or revolts happened despite Western aid [incidentally, you point out that most of the Western aid was military aid, as opposed to civil society aid]. How should we think about the recent NGO trials in Egypt then, and especially the U.S. reaction to withhold aid?
I think there is a lot of hypocrisy from the U.S. in saying “we’re going to hold aid” or “we’re going to withdraw our package of aid,” because it is against the interests of the United States to stop supplying aid to Egypt; the United States needs the military in Egypt to be a stabilizing factor and adapter of the continuity of the regional peace with Israel. Not to mention that a lot of the U.S. aid actually stays in America (mostly going to the weapon industry). So it’s a double hypocrisy.
The NGO trial itself is a disgrace to the international community sought an escape by paying this bailout of those people able to leave Egypt, because apparently no one has done anything wrong. They should have stayed for trial and fought it, saying that “we didn’t do anything wrong” and make a case about new extended freedoms post-Mubarak. Paying a bailout and running away sent the wrong signals to Egyptian politicians and the population at large — So I think this is a disgrace for the international community because it would have been an excellent way to demonstrate that the military are actually perpetuating the same practices than under Mubarak (intimidation of civil society).
The trial actually evokes an old line of defense by Mubarak: that the NGOs are part of a foreign plot. All the people in the region who want to keep the old status quo say that these revolts were organized by external actors. You have that in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, and Egypt. Of course, that doesn’t make any sense, because we know these are genuine revolts. But the point is that there still exists an old guard and it still has a lot of power. This is exemplified in the Minister of International Cooperation, Faiza Abu al-Naga, who was extremely close to Mubarak and who took a leading role in selling the NGO trial as a matter of national pride.… so in other words, this is a leftover of the former regime.
The second dimension has to do with the fact that the military are trying to crack down on dissident groups, and so are using this as pressure on any NGO/civil society activist groups to say “be careful, we’re watching you, and if necessary, we can challenge you.” This part is in relation to the new situation, where the current government is sending a clear message, calling for activists to be more careful about what they are saying: if you want to be critical, you will pay a price.
What is the relationship between state and citizenship in the Middle East?
The relationship between citizen and state has been very fractured and occasionally nonexistent. Mainly, there was top-down leadership: autocratic, military, or with a tiny group controlling the state. There was little sense of popular participation or effective citizenship. The Arab revolt signifies a turning point in renewing the “social contract”: people have shown their ability and willingness to do politics, to take things into their own hands in a constructive and pluralistic manner. The Arab revolt showed an emerging sense of citizenship, of belonging to the state, being part of it; it was a very patriotic movement in the sense that people were claiming their role as citizens. It has potential, but we don’t know if this potential will be fulfilled.
Can you elaborate on what you call the new political imagination?
[pullquote]It’s not just youth who entered the streets… You have to think of revolutionary moments as a composite of different class groups, different social backgrounds, different age groups.[/pullquote]
I think the political imagination has come out of those symbolic moments in the protests: think of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who immolated himself in Tunisia… the idea that the person will not accept to be relegated to doing small jobs, unrewarding, and having to fight the bureaucracy. This is symbolic to the Tunisia youth, to say, “I want a proper job.” Think of the image of Tahrir square, people flocking into the center of Cairo and unwilling to leave this highly symbolic space (in the heart of the city) unless Mubarak was stepping down.
So those are two instances which have become part of the people’s horizon, their mobilizing repertoire. They can say, “We can go back into Tahrir anytime.” The people now have a new sense of active political assertion, of affirmation. There is this notion that sums up in a sentence the whole Arab revolts: “we are not fearful anymore, we are not afraid of the regimes.” And this imaginary is about having gone to naught on this issue in saying “we can sacrifice ourselves.” It is an important point about the Arab Revolt, that the people will never come back to a pre-December 2010 situation.
Can you talk about leadership in the Arab spring? Considering the revolutionary role of regional youth—you mention the average age in urban centers of the Middle East is the mid-twenties—where are they now, and what effect will this have on civil society moving forward?
Journalists and student activists have a lot of ideas, as well as emerging ways to disseminate those ideas. Then there is also this sociological factor, which is that about half of the [Arab] population is young, and hasn’t seen other political regimes. They are fed up with having a high level of study but no jobs, and there is an impatience from the youth.
They have played their role, but it’s not just youth who entered the streets and have become the leaders in the protests. You have to think of revolts and revolutionary moments as composite moments with different class groups, different social backgrounds, different age groups. Young people have contributed a certain mobilizing reservoir and access to certain modern techniques. As has been pointed out, technology has been a trigger in these revolts, but not the all-encompassing element. Furthermore, without the role of older activists, some professional, who built up cahiers de doléance in the last ten years or so, the Arab revolts would have probably never taken place.
What is the emerging political leadership like? Is it youth-driven?
The youth have disappeared politically through the parliamentary election. In Egypt and Tunisia, you have some youth coalitions. In Egypt, you have a lot of political parties that were created out of the activist networks, but those did not do very well–they got only a couple of seats of the 400 that the parliament elected to its lower half. So the youth has not been able to enter Egypt’s politics. The Muslim Brothers, with their huge mobilization capacity, have swept the elections.
The youth are slightly better represented in Tunisia. This is because their electoral laws have been changed; they introduced a quota for youth, namely that in each electoral list, there should be somebody below the age of 30. That makes the current Tunisia parliament a rather young one, and more representative of the population at large.
Benoit Challand is lecturer at the University of Bologna and a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research. He has previously taught at the universities of Fribourg, Pavia, Pisa and Bethlehem. His work focuses on questions of democracy and civil society in the Middle East. Most recently, he wrote “The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations” and edited “The Politics of Imagination.”
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