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Why, What, Where To, and How? Tunisia and Beyond

[Image from author's archive] [Image from author's archive]

[Admittedly, I wrote this post before Bin Ali fled, and before the Tunisian protests escalated. It was kind of interrupted by the events on the ground and, so, not much due jubilation here. I added some references posthumously but kept its pre-government collapse spirit at the expense of dampening the mood: Where to? . . . even if dictatorships fall. Where to? Oh, I don’t provide an answer]


The problem is that once it happens [when a dominant form of oppression collapses], it might happen for the wrong reasons, but everyone will claim victory. Everyone will be a hero. And a new "team" will probably proceed to disempower the majority, except in softer ways. Congratulations--"mukhtaruna al-jadeed jiddan jiddan yatakallam . . . " Unless, much serious work is done in the mean time, at the local institutional and micro-levels.


The increasing protests and (mini)uprisings that we have been witnessing in the Arab world in the past year or so are not customary. When a protest calls for "change" in Tunisia, [too late for this now] and when protesters tear down the pictures of Husni Mubarak in Egypt, something is afoot, irrespective of the cause. There are more cases, but these are significant (more so in Tunisia than in Egypt).

We are witnessing not the beginning of the end of Arab dictatorships wholesale--notwithstanding differentials in time across countries. Rather, we are witnessing the realization on the part of growing segments of their citizens/subjects that these regimes are not here to stay. For those unfamiliar with the history of these regimes, or who are familiar with them through fables and distorted reporting, it is worthy to recognize the kind of "eternal" aura these regimes/leaders occupied in the conscience or un-conscience of "their" people--despite, or maybe because of, their longstanding opposition. More than that, it is important to recognize the myriad of daily acts of coping and resistance carried out every day by citizens who toil under them simply to get by. Citizens struggle to get by under the weight of these authoritarian regimes as though there is no end in sight, thereby giving an additional aura of timelessness to the status quo. Hence the kind of unexplainable shock and bewilderment, some say odd despair, that overtook many Iraqis after the swift fall of their exceptional butcher in April 2009. Ironically, it was at the hands of US foreign policy, one with a long history of a more professional kind of brutality vis-a-vis peoples of the "Third World," directly or indirectly, from Latin America, to the Middle East and East Asia--usually in the name of some bullshit dreamed up by some "team" of neoconservatives, realists, liberals or otherwise in the halls of American power. The role of the US is important, but I shall return to it later, as it is another form of eternal "aura" that occupies the minds of victims and observers alike. The Israeli occupation is a third such case that occupies a special aura, but with far less internalization. All three will come to pass. That, is not a puzzle.

The sad part is that what will come after the fall of existing Arab dictatorships and US hegemony, as well as Israel's apartheid, is not necessarily what people want. But it is a necessity for all these forms of control, brutality, ethnic cleansing, and oppression to fall before one can even consider options in a meaningful way. Gone are the days when what brings down a “system” or a regime is the same party that will necessarily shape the future. Muhammad Ghannushi of Tunisia is hardly the man who will shape Tunisia’s future.

Is all this somewhat cryptic? Maybe. Justifiable? Perhaps. I am referring to the eventual demise of dictatorships in the region as well as the eventual dramatic waning of US domination of such regimes and the region as a whole. I am also referring to the eventual demise of Israeli apartheid. They all should, and certainly will, give way to something else in due time. The question is what? And under what terms? And what, if any, are the gains? There will certainly be gains. Experience and collective learning itself is a gain. Disasters teach us many things. And the bigger the disaster, the bigger the lesson can be--though not necessarily so. The Holocaust did not prevent many of its victims from victimizing others in a different context. And one might fear that Palestinians, once "free" of Israeli apartheid, will not necessarily be much better than their jailers, though the imperative of apartheid's end is not in question. It all depends on how matters unfold and how strategic alliances and various forms of capacities and relations (local and global) blend to create a metamorphosis of sorts. The current state of limbo in Tunisia is a case in point.

This is why none of what we are observing by way of waning influence and aura is a done deal, including the impending fall of authoritarian regimes. To be sure, this is not a plea for the opposite: too many people in the region despise their dictators/jailers but fear a worse alternative. Whether justified or not, for some time before 2003, many feared that an "Islamist" alternative to existing dictatorships might extend authoritarian practices and controls to the private and social spheres, not just the political. Thus, people preferred not to support the opposition at all costs, lending what can be called "negative legitimacy" to the "lesser evil" (i.e., existing regimes).

And, thanks to the US brutalization and destruction of Iraq and its social fabric in 2003/4, this "lesser evil" mode of thinking and feeling has gained even more salience. US military brutality in Iraq and Afghanistan (now forgotten in many western circles) produced (or catalyzed) at least three significant consequences: it gave a breath of fresh air for the crippling repressive status-quo in the region, at least for half a decade henceforth. It also emboldened Islamist alternatives, especially those non-state actors of the popular variety (Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizballah), possessing a relatively large populist base, providing social services, and legitimate legal presence as a political party and/or social force. Finally, mixed with the effects of the unprincipled and duplicitous farce that is called the "Global War on Terror," the War on Iraq pushed the entire polity in the Middle East somewhat to the religious right, whether of the political or the social variety, a matter visible at first in Iraq, but later throughout the Arab world. These three consequences, along with the US foreign policy shift of focus to non-Arab countries to the east after 2007/2008, began to create a different mood in the region, one that chipped away at the emboldening of dictatorships that took place in 2001 (because they were given a carte-blanche to fight the opposition in the name of fighting terrorism) and 2003 (because the populace in neighboring countries grew more appreciative of their relatively "safe" and orderly status quo in relation to the chaos in Iraq).

The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the "Global War on Terror," and the summer 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon have exacerbated a shift in the positions of many non-Islamists in the region: they did away with their opposition to an Islamist take-over (but not their opposition to an Islamic "state") as a means by which anti-imperialism can be best challenged currently. In effect, the 2003 War on Iraq shifted nationalist priorities and tipped the balance towards anti-imperialism, for many--some say most--of those opposing the status quo, especially in the Levant (as opposed to north Africa or the Gulf). Whatever served anti-imperialism better and more efficiently, became the horse on which many Islamists and leftists/secularists bet (with some exceptions, of course). Regime loyalists and liberals who supported either "economic reform" or the US presence in the region maintained their pro-status-quo and anti-Islamist stance. But any observer of developments in the region began to see more emphasis among the left on anti-imperialism as opposed to anti-Islamism. Though the left is not a strong social force with institutional representation in the region, it is a significant indicator of the relatively independent public mood: If it takes an Islamist take-over to set things straight at this time, then so be it. There is a widespread feeling that any Islamist take-over would be interim, however, as it will not reflect the aspirations of most groups in a less (op)pressed local, regional, and international context. 

Opportune Neglect in 2011: The End of the Iraq Invasion/Occupation Effect

But things are changing now in most countries in the region. The fear of another debilitating US invasion is hardly as palatable as in 2005 or 2006, when a "more Catholic than the Pope" pro-Israel cabal of neoconservative zealots were pressing to take a military action of sorts vis-a-vis Syria (interestingly, many Israeli politicians opposed such plans because, well, they were thinking longer term than their neoconservative American supporters). Most of the focus, and the pressure, has shifted east, to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, even before Obama assumed the Presidency. 

Coupled with global economic decline (especially of neoliberal norms) and the very real if often exaggerated American decline, what we have today by way of emboldening authoritarian rule in the Arab world has given way to what I would like to call opportune neglect, a situation that creates opportunities for anti-status quo forces in the region. Essentially, as we have seen recently (November 2010), the US didn't press the Mubarak regime too hard for an independent monitoring of the Egyptian Parliamentary elections--which were so rigged beforehand that the voter turn-out was very thin. The US did not get its way, in any shape or form, and nothing was done about it. The elections came and went without as much of a (meaningful non-discursive) peep from the American administration. However, this lack of attention is not simply the function of deliberate support for the status quo in Egypt. Although the situation in Egypt is testy because of the impending succession crisis and the major (and alarming for the regime) victory of the Brotherhood in the 2005 Parliamentary elections, US indifference was largely because it had larger fish to fry, east of the Nile. This American indifference is replicated elsewhere in the region, including vis-a-vis the Palestine-Israel question, Lebanon, and, to an extent, Syria. We are thus witnessing an "opportune neglect," one that can be functional for the continuing opposition to the status quo in region. There was little of value coming out of the US administration, and even the so-called democracy promoters, during the first two weeks of public protest in Tunisia. Recent American relative neglect of the Arab Middle East has so far been a good thing, not because America can’t offer much by way of a good role (quite the contrary). Rather, its Mideast policy has been rotten and short sighted for the most part, during and after the cold war: its real politic or, worse, normative emphasis on supporting dictatorships, apartheid states, and neoliberal reforms at all costs were based on abridged logics, short-sighted goals, and undue influence from a gang of political, economic, and weapons manufacturing lobbies who outsmarted policy-makers (when they weren’t themselves the policy makers, that is). And don’t get me, or any sane person, started on the post 2001 period when US foreign policy went off the deep end, speeding up American decline more than anything, while wreaking havoc in Iraq and elsewhere.

But this is not the only reason one might observe a change in the public mood in the region.

Despite phases of respite, for the past three decades, we have been witnessing a reversal in the fortunes of most of the populations in the region, economically and otherwise. Political repression was always peppered with a compensation of sorts, usually a controlled economic opening that benefitted the few, but harmed most, creating a dangerous social polarization that, in due time, might bring down governments and even regimes [Tunisia was apparently a case in point--though I am not certain how radical the change will be]. Even seeming “success” cases (by the standards of International Financial Institutions) like Tunisia were an incomplete story, as we have been witnessing, leaving majorities disempowered. In any case, potentially productive “economic opening” or “liberalization” have reached their limit, and is henceforth contributing to further exclusion of individuals and groups in most, if not all, cases. I have discussed the reasons in other posts here on Jadaliyya, and they mostly have to do with who is capturing the benefits. Throughout the region, unemployment is on the rise, living standards are on the decline, the number of people living "outside" the market/system is increasing dramatically, and productive economic capacity is not growing. And all this is taking place at a time when publics are more wired, more tuned-in to the world, and more aware of where expectations should be set.

Yet, there is no meaningful outlet for discontent, and certainly no legally sanctioned and effective opposition (because it will not be allowed to be effective, not because the opposition does not exist legally in some cases). Amid this pressure cooker situation, repressive practices (police brutality, etc.) are becoming more sloppy and decentralized as populations grow and unaccountable power centers arise in various segments of coercive apparatuses in the provinces and elsewhere. The sloppy brutality of the Tunisian police in the past few days is symptomatic. Concommitantly, citizens are emboldened to act more forcefully and vociferously against the regime. This is refreshing, albeit at the cost for further suppression and killing of opposition members and activists.

This scene is taking place where for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union (the good days?) the attention of the US is not squarely on the traditional Middle East. This opportune neglect can be functional, not for the dreamy scenarios of authoritarian collapse, but for the building of, and networking among, social movements who seek a better life by challenging age-old practices and "knowns." Such movements, with the help of new forms of communication and dissemination (i hate the term "new social media" because it is used to explain everything, including my mother's smoking habits), are likely to grow in numbers, if not in effect at this time. This is a good thing and it ought to be supported. The going away of the US from the region is ultimately not a bad thing--considering how it engaged the region in the past half century or so.

Still, Where To?

Though it is a luxury, and naively premature, to talk about an impending collapse of various forms of existing political and economic exploitation, locally or globally originating, it is no longer too early to start thinking about what might come next? What will come after the current Arab dictatorships, US hegemony, and Israeli apartheid (clearly they will not wane at the same time)? In what conditions are these societies left by these exploitative monsters? To what extent have economies, institutions, and individuals been disempowered across the Arab world (differentially, depending the cause)? How will the oil card/wealth be played in the mean time? Will it empower or debilitate a historical transition in the coming decades?

Are the indicators of local development and empowerment promising? What is happening on the ground at the micro-level in various Arab countries that might serve as a cushion for painful transition and healthy rebirth (oops--a Ba`thist concept)? How much truly local independent research & development (not the kind we do in non-Arab countries) is taking place regarding the sensitive issues? To reiterate the introduction, it is likely that when these structures fall, everyone will claim victory, but the emerging new structures won't be necessarily much better unless a lot more work is done now--not then. [well, I guess it’s too late for Tunisia at this point because crap already hit the fan]. What is this work? I am not entirely sure, mainly because it is not the same work in different parts of the region. But there is no substitute to individual and group level activism in the direction of empowerment and collective action regarding matters of subsistence, education, creativity, protection, and measures of free thinking/behavior/action. A serious list of what this kind of work entails can proceed only from a serious consideration of the current social, administrative, economic, and political ills in particular contexts. I will try to focus on such states of being in the coming posts--unless, like everyone else, I'll be consumed with the immediate and, well, the meaningful, now.

In the mean time, after the incredible events in Tunisia . . . let’s face it, a domino effect would be sweet. Real sweet. But it will not happen so soon.




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