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The changing landscape of Arab revolutions Open in fullscreen

Hamid Dabashi

The changing landscape of Arab revolutions

Islamic State group fighters have staged scenes for maximum impact in Western media [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 December, 2014

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The dreams of millions who gathered peacefully to overthrow tyrants have been turned into nightmares for the West by criminal gangs attempting to establish a "caliphate".

The staggering number of Syrian refugees continues to alarm the world at large. 

"Twenty-eight countries," we read in the news, "have agreed to take in more than 100,000 refugees from Syria, doubling the number of migrants to whom they were initially offering asylum, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has said."

According to one report, "an estimated nine million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighboring countries or within Syria itself". 

The entire population of Syria is just under 23 million, based on a 2013 estimate. 

The ruling regime in Syria and its Frankenstein doppelganger that calls itself the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) seem successfully to have altered not just the face of Syria but the very landscape of the Arab revolutions - from cities, urbanities, magnificent rallies, rhythmic and musical chants, songs, and songs echoing widely in spacious boulevards and iconic architectural monuments to empty deserts, desolate refugee camps, bare tents, and deserted and barren hopes.

Or have they? 

City squares

Try to remember - and if you cannot, just Google it and you will see - endless pictures of Tahrir Square in Cairo just a mere three years ago when the Arab revolutionaries were celebrating their proverbial Spring. Masses of millions of people - urbane, civilised, peaceful, determined, hopeful, and jubilant - pouring into streets, alleys and squares of their cities demanding a brighter future. 

From Morocco to Syria, from Egypt to Bahrain to Yemen, millions of people had become the foreground of their urban landscape, their public squares, their wide and inviting boulevards, and their old and modern art and architecture. 

The people themselves - men, women, and children, old and young - had become mobile monuments, definitive to the landscape they projected. 

These were and they will remain urban revolutions. Labour unionists, women's rights organisations, student assemblies, community activists, all gathering in their mosques, universities and cafes - public spaces were abuzz with a new sense of city life, from Casablanca to Cairo, from Damascus to Manama to Sanaa. 

Al-shab yurid isqat al-nizam ["The people demand the overthrow of the regime"] - the chief slogan of the Arab revolutions - was, and remains, cosmopolitan in nature, character, disposition, as was the political project that it entailed. 

     Those pictures now look like a dream. What has succeeded them? A nightmare.


Those pictures now look like a dream. What has succeeded them? A nightmare. Mostly desert landscapes somewhere in Iraq or in Syria - where the international mercenary gang calling themselves the Islamic State group are brandishing the most modern weaponry and yet calling for the establishment of a delusional chimera they call a "caliphate".

For much of the world at the receiving end of North American and Western European news organisations, the horrifying pictures of a tall black-clad man standing over a kneeling victim in orange against the background of a cloudless blue sky and a sandy desert is the definition of this nightmare. 

It is impossible to watch these photos and not realise that they are murderously staged for maximum visual effect, invoking a "Lawrence of Arabia" visual registry, straight out of David Lean's 1962 classic, and thus specifically targeting the Orientalist fantasies of their European and American audiences. 

Proof: When they murder their Arab or Kurdish victims scarce anybody notices the crime, for it lacks the same visual currency. 

Roundabout revolutions

When, in November 2013, I was part of the Gwangju Folly II project, jointly sponsored by the Gwangju Metropolitan City, South Korea, and the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, the primary point of interest my colleagues and I shared was the urbanity of these revolutions engulfing the planet from the Arab world to Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the US. 

Even before we had convened in Gwangju, in an essay on Cairo's Roundabout Revolution, Nezar Alsayyed, a professor of architecture, planning and urban history at the University of California, Berkeley, had demonstrated the historical layers at the roots of these urban revolutions. 

"Tahrir Square's rise to prominence," Alsayyed suggested, "is a testament to how place and history can come together unexpectedly. Although its Arabic name means 'liberation', and although it is one of the oldest squares in modern Cairo, Tahrir never carried much meaning for Cairenes until recently."

That recent meaning was invested in Tahrir by the living monuments, the Egyptians, who had populated their public space, claimed and recodified it.  

In Gwangju, Eyal Weizman and Samaneh Moafi had expanded on this idea of "roundabout revolutions" and spatially superimposed the Tahrir and other Arab and Iranian squares on a major traffic intersection in the heart of Gwangju. Their project, as they put it, "establishes a relation between Gwangju in 1980 and the turmoil, civil strife, and revolutions that have shaken the Middle East since the Arab Spring". 

How were the South Koreans to read their folly?

"The parallel uniting many of these uprisings being that they all took place in and around traffic circles. The folly draws a line from roundabout revolution to post-revolutionary round table politics," the architects explained in their notes.

The urbanity of that revolutionary momentum was frightful to the status quo, to the ruling elite - the counter-revolutionary forces ranging from the Egyptian military to the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey - all the way to Israel and the US. 

In her book, On Revolution, Hannah Arendt fully recognised the centrality of this public gathering, or what she called public happiness, in the making of the practice of freedom to participate - and not just liberty from tyranny - possible.

"The Americans knew," she proposed, "that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else."

Turning back the clock? 

Flashback to three years ago, when, from Tahrir Square to every other major Arab town centre, masses of millions of people had gathered, and Israeli Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu would not have dared to do in Gaza what he did this past July. 

He and his generals first had to be assured of the military coup in Egypt, of the carnage on Syria, of the collapse of the dysfunctional Iraqi state, of the suppression of the Gezi Park uprising in Turkey, of the Saudi invasion of Bahrain, of the carnage in Libya and in Yemen, and of the rise of the IS group and the changing landscape of Arab revolutions before he could do to Palestinians in Gaza what he dared to do. 

It is against this changing landscape that neoconservative operators such as Dennis Ross can come back to the surface and recommend that the US and Israel once again "go to the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments in Egypt and Algeria, and secular reformers" and build coalitions that will further Israeli and US interests at the expense of Arab democratic aspirations. 

It is also against the background of this changing landscape that other notorious Islamophobes can tell President Obama: "Sorry, Mr President, [the IS group] is 100 percent Islamic."

As a murderous gang of counter-revolutionaries emerge in the context of the US destruction of Iraq and Bashar al-Assad's bloody suppression of democratic Syrian aspirations, the "Islamic State" group is the defining moment and the agent provocateur of this changing landscape. 

As Marwan Bishara puts it: "The Islamic State [group] is the gift that keeps on giving. Lacking any coherent agenda or governing strategy beyond a few cliches from a past era, it's been mostly helpful to its enemies... There's no better alibi for fear-mongering politicians and generals. Its black-fitted, long bearded, knife wielding, Kalashnikov-holding men have already spooked the Western public into compliance."

From that compliance arises the principal diversionary tactics through which - just days after President Obama turned a blind eye to the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza - in Iraq, and perhaps even in Syria, he poses as civilised saviour.

The "Islamic State" group really is a gift that keeps giving to all the counter-revolutionaries who are frightened with that revolutionary momentum people affectionately call "the Arab Spring". 

But against all these pernicious plots, "the Arab Spring" has just begun. Its duration will cover generations to come.

The acid test is very simple. What happened to those urban and urbane, civilised and organised crowds? What happened to those labour unions, women's rights organisations, student assembles, community organisers, teachers and journalists?

Nothing. They are still there - under the radar of the manufactured mirage of desert landscapes, cloudless skies, black-clad mercenaries, decapitated innocent journalists and aid workers, drone attacks, airstrikes, and opportunists sectarian and ethnic vying for power and territory.

The manufactured mirage will sooner or later disappear. 

The silenced and invisible urban citizens will inherit these revolutions. The force of history is on their side. 

Hamid Dabashi is the author of Arab Spring:  The End of Postcolonialism (2012).  He lives in New York. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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