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Revolution in Arabic: Staging Collective Will

Revolution in Arabic: Staging Collective Will

Revolución en árabe: la voluntad colectiva en escena

Muhsin al-Musawi

Satellite publics became aware of Arab popular revolutions only after the rise of the Egyptian youth against the senile autocracy of Hosni Mubarak on the 24th of January 2011. There were many geopolitical reasons for this attention which was not accorded to the first popular revolutionary model in Tunisia. There, workers and students in particular staged protests, strikes and demonstrations despite the nation states’ methods of surveillance, censorship, coercion, and brutality. January was the lucky month for the model when Ben Ali decided to flee the country after receiving word from the military and secret security apparatus against further killing of peaceful demonstrators .Part of a relatively educated society, and characterized by an impressive political consciousness and respect for institutional life, the Tunisian is the closest to the Egyptian. There is also the old emotive link that brought the Fatimids from the Tunisian Mahdiyyah and Qairawan to the newly established dynasty of the Fatimids in Egypt, with its center in the newly named Cairo, al-Qahira al-Mahrusah, the victorious and guarded by God. The model has the features of protest, resistance, perseverance, patience, and mass anger, features that can achieve revolutionary change of the ‘system’, not only the regime. This model is one that will continue to inspire other revolutions as an intelligent non-abating popular insurrection; but in the face of bloody regimes this model has to undergo serious revisions, as was the case with the Libyan popular revolution of February, 17, 2011.

The Tunisian model had nevertheless all the components of a popular revolution. Many before Mohamed Bouazizi (d. Jan. 4, 2011), especially from among political groups, put an end to their lives as the only way to protect their families from further harassment. But Bouezzizi chose the right moment (December 17th, 2010) to express his anger at and defiance of a system mired in corruption, brutality and utter indifference to its people. As an unemployed graduate and fruit vendor in his own hometown of Sidi Bouzeid, he chose the place most natural to his self-employment, the street, facing in particular the city hall. Setting himself ablaze, he allowed enough time for Youtube fans to capture the moment on film while he demonstrated to his fellow citizens a challenge that was aimed not only at the regime, but also at their submissiveness and inertness. The youth picked up the message and began staging unabated shows of solidarity.

Although some youth were already versed in social media, this was not the only reason for the spread of these popular movements. Political consciousness is as widespread as the competing security apparatus that used to occupy every public space, including cafes, baths, restaurants, street corners, offices, schools, university and college campuses and tourist hangouts. Unions suffered but they persisted in resistance and organization. They were latecomers to the popular revolution scene, but were the first to join the demonstrating peaceful youth. Apart from the socio-political and economic facts behind this popular upsurge, the ensuing formational process has some distinct features which helped to consolidate a collective presence, raise the levels of social integration and bring about a feeling of newfound rapprochement among different groups and professions. Old but existing divides were put aside, and a nation led by youth was reborn, not behind the closed doors of the bourgeoisie or the state sector, but in a street fueled by poetry and songs, especially those of the rapper Hamada Ben Amor. Making use of poetry and song in popular movements is not new, but what is new is the seemingly spontaneous use of the national flag. Spreading it like a cover over their heads or holding it like a banner or as a cap, the flag functions as signifier, signified and message. Tunisia, symbolized by the flag, stands there challenging every police force or security officer. To shoot a demonstrator you shoot at the flag first. Holding all symbolic power in a nutshell, the youth forced the military to stand aside, while implicating the police in treason: to kill demonstrators is to kill the nation. In other words, we are in the presence of an unfolding formational process whereby a revolutionary discourse unfolds as a combination of linguistic and iconic signs and figures, including synecdoche. But, we need also to understand this register and grammar as heavily rooted in popular genius. Perhaps unwittingly, its users accumulate signs and syntax in a register that happens to provide revolutionary ammunition to nascent popular uprisings elsewhere. Indeed, on the day of Mubarak’s longwaited for resignation, 11 February 2011, the young Egyptian activist, Nawarah Najm shouted in response to al-Jazeera Satellite’ question in exuberance and joy, “ thanks to al-Jazeera, and thanks to Tunisia; there won’t be oppression anymore , there won’t be fear anymore.” Perhaps this sounds too utopian, but the street is set forward to challenge authority in an unprecedented manner throughout the Middle East. The double acclamation of al-Jazeera and Tunisia is of great significance, as al-Jazeera was able to disseminate information and disclose details that could have been lost otherwise. It conveyed Statist hackneyed dealings, the awkward use of camels and horses in a modern metropolis and the vulgar resort to thugs against peaceful demonstrators. Depicted in this manner, the regime had no claims to legitimacy.

Tunisia is the model that invites further exploration. Its network veterans might have been sharp enough to strike links with their Arab colleagues, but the staging of the popular revolution reached the outside world through both satellite TV and the internet. More importantly, the model consists first of human agency itself as comprising youth who were later joined by others in increasing numbers that were staggering to the police. Apart from the Tunisian flag, there is their poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi(1909-1934), who died prematurely after writing some poems that have become ever since among the most popular ones in revolutionary discourse. Al-Shabbi’s poem, “The Will for Life” gained momentum at the very instance it answered the boiling cauldron onto which Tunisian youth found itself. ” If one day the people should choose life,/fate is bound to favorably respond./ Night will surely retreat,/ and fetters be broken.” The poem has recovered its potential as a rallying song in Tunisia, as it is in Egypt and Yemen or Libya. The song is of great significance because of its specific emphasis on ‘people.’ Its retention in current Arabic lexicon displaces other words like ‘nation’ or publics and masses. The word can evoke specific national belonging depending on the user: for the Tunisian it denotes the people of Tunisia; for the Egyptians the people of Egypt, etc. Indeed, al-Jazeera broadcasted well-selected clips and preludes show one Tunisian standing in the middle of a large street, shouting on the eve of Ben Ali’s departure; calling on the “great Tunisian people” to be aware that Ben Ali (degagé) , departed and left, a word that soon caught the attention of Arab publics who called on their self-proclaimed presidents or leaders to “irhal” or depart. ”People” resonates with power emanating from a group larger than a family, class, locale, or profession. No wonder that along with al-Shabbi’s verse, demonstrators came up with their most widespread slogan: “ The people want the fall of the regime.” In other words, ‘people’ have claimed the street as the stage where they become the actors and the audience. Depriving the old system of any nation-space and hence any legitimacy, the ‘people’ on the stage of life cling to dignified living against death in life. The regime, physically and symbolically, is given the attributes of excrement and death.

The Egyptians used the flag, the song, and the slogan to cement their legitimacy. They accelerated this use through more variations that build on but do not negate or displace the source, Tunisia. In Yemen, these same mechanics of organization, mobilization and linguistic and iconic signs are in use, as they are in Libya. The revolution negated Qaddafi’s green flag and in a transformative symbolic gesture retained the 1951 independence flag. The brutality of Qaddafi’s regime and its God-Given acclaim to power have led the people to expand their register and improve on their early peaceful demonstrations to protect themselves from a brutal and ruthlessly violent regime. Demonstrators in Tripoli also demanded the fall of the regime. Employing al-Shabbi’s verse, they referred to themselves as potential Bouazizi, and began to rally behind what they thought might frighten the regime: “ God is One, Qaddafiis his enemy.” They were also shot at and many, more than in any other country, were murdered. In other words, we have a number of models that may agree on basic parameters: emphasis on the leadership of youth, ‘shabab,’ as the less implicated in power relations and hence the most disinterested; the need to replace the regime and the mechanisms of the old system, especially its security apparatus; the creation of a new system of equal opportunity, human respect, free expression and common welfare. In spite of this, ruthless and bloody systems, like Qaddafi’s regime that negates people as mere ‘rats’, could halt the revolutionary process. Qaddafi’s money and longtime reliance on mercenaries and experts from non-Arab regional regimes have been causing enormous destruction to humans and cities. Using mercenaries automatically negates ‘people’. People’s thundering song or chant cannot reach the ears of somebody who is already self-styled as the giver of life. Hence, Libyan youth accepted to work with notables and dignitaries to stand up to this unimaginable brutality.

Revolutionary formation processes could face some other form of trouble as in Yemen, but as long as tribes are rallying behind youth, the regime there has to accept the predictable end, departure, and the sooner the better. Other systems, in Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have to come up with more open style democratization processes, for the notion of a one-party or family-led system cannot work anymore. Constitutionalized monarchies and democratized systems that are on par with people’s demands are not necessarily available elsewhere, but the Tunisians have set the exemplary model of open discussion and communicative action which cannot be overturned or halted.

Some concluding remarks are in order. While the dictatorial regimes were copying each other in replicating promises, changing cabinets, providing some raise in salaries, and ending up with thugs, snipers and open military confrontation with demonstrators, they tend to miss the ongoing educational experience people are passing through. There is first an insurrectional ethic that explodes forever patriarchy and systems of subordination. Fearless people fight for their freedom. There is also the fact that people undergo transformation in this boiling cauldron to become more socially responsible, politically conscious, ethically committed, and communally integrated. Notwithstanding the possibility of some infiltration among crowds to implant seeds of turmoil, the unfolding experience is a new dynamic ‘classroom’ lesson to all nations and peoples to enforce change peacefully, no matter how cruel regimes or political systems may be.

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