It is perhaps a sign of these uncertain times that our perception of the Arab uprisings has been accompanied by a deep sense of anxiety. While the uprisings provided the most inspiring examples of political change we have witnessed for a long time, they have also been perceived from the beginning as fragile revolutions. This apparent contradiction fits with the wider political context that the uprisings were born into and that impacts on how outside observers and the Arab people demanding change perceive them. This is the paradox of the Arab uprisings: the apparent resurgence of political agency in an era in which the nature of that agency is understood primarily through its limitations.
Let’s be clear about the context of those uprisings. What we are witnessing is the collapse of the old order not the birth of a new one. This collapse represents the loss of legitimacy of long-standing authoritarian regimes that have become utterly vacuous. It comes as a consequence of their failure to introduce democracy and development. Simultaneously, it is indicative of the weakening of the role that they have played as part of the post-cold war American order and the decline of that regional arrangement. The collapse of the post-colonial order has revealed a political void which the various uprisings are attempting to fill, yet they appear to be unable to summon the authority to do that conclusively despite the courage exhibited by protestors in countries like Syria and Yemen.
In a manifestation of the paradoxical nature of the Arab uprisings, their three most widely celebrated aspects now prevent them from making any further progress. Those three aspects are that the uprisings are leaderless and organic, that they do not adhere to any conventional political platform and lastly that they are peaceful. While there are exceptions within the different countries, for example the Egyptian uprising was far more organised than it was assumed and Libya quickly turned into an armed rebellion, they do broadly represent common aspects of the uprisings.
Those three aspects combined represent an internal limitation and they impact on the uprisings’ chances of success and ability to dismantle the old regimes and replace them with democratic systems. The lack of strong and authoritative leaderships has weakened the uprisings’ ability to produce coherent demands and mounting serious bids for power. Nowhere is this clearer than in Syria where opposition leaders have made a virtue of their reluctance to assume control. The lack of clear political objectives and ideas has also acted as a barrier to the spread of the uprisings and to encouraging more people to join up. The lack of vision is the strongest barrier for the spread of the popular discontent, as many still perceive the uprisings as a leap in the dark. This is true of Syria as it is of several other countries that haven’t witnessed significant protest movements, as political discontent remains unarticulated. Thirdly, the emphasis on non-violence ignores the role that coercion plays in sustaining the regimes in power, a situation that will not change while the state maintains its monopoly on violence.
The ‘template’ established early on in Tunisia and Egypt gave the impression that such peaceful change is possible, but as it has become quite clear both Ben Ali and Mubarak was pushed out by the military establishments in order to preserve the status quo. Furthermore, the military’s continuing willingness to repress demonstrations violently in both countries is a clear indication of the difficulties that still lie ahead. What is happening in parallel is a form of transfer of responsibility for the uprisings epitomised by the demand ‘the world must do something’. Both in Bahrain and in Syria for example, a sense of grievance and frustration developed when this outside help failed to materialise, epitomised by the slogan ‘your silence is killing us’, revealing a mental barrier that the uprisings had prescribed for themselves. But such thinking runs contrary to the revolutionary spirit which is an expression of popular will not external agency. It is again worth emphasising that this is not because of the lack of courage but the lack of self-confidence and assertiveness for the popular uprisings to drive change autonomously.
Against this backdrop and the protracted stalemates that appear to be prevailing, recent developments are being misinterpreted to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the uprisings and the genuine popular will for change that drives them. The recent Islamist victory in the Tunisian elections, the vacuous speech that the NTC leader gave on liberation day with its ‘Islamic tinge’, and the attacks on the Coptic rally in Cairo are perceived as derailments of the uprisings. They have been seen as signs either of the hidden hand of the Islamists or in some instances interpreted, absurdly, as evidence of collusion between the West and Islamists. Such interpretations are nonsensical and they fail to understand the dynamics of the uprisings. In one way or another, all are symptoms of the failure of the uprisings to produce a coherent narrative and to take control of fluid transitional situations.
It is likely that in the absence of the political clarity and the competent leaderships emerging, the uprisings will carry on at a slow and protracted pace and they will face many setbacks along the way. What we are witnessing is a failure to transform the ‘raw revolutionary matter’, the individual sacrifices and acts of bravery, into a political force for change. What is urgently needed to put the uprisings on the right track is a realisation that acts of revolutionary change can only be meaningful if carried out autonomously and in pursuit of self-determination. It is time to claim back the responsibility for the uprisings.
*Karl Sharro is an architect and writer based in London. This article originally appeared on his blog Karl reMarks.