Labour protests preceded the popular revolution in Egypt, and when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in 2010 to protest his life conditions and the police’s humiliating treatment of him, his message resonated with many. “Bread, freedom, and dignity” – and later “social justice” – became the rallying cry of protestors. However, amidst the systematic marginalization of the Left, the eventual disintegration of the Arab revolutions followed by the domination of Islamism and the return of army generals was foreseeable.
From the beginning, the dominant discourse of the revolutions in the MENA region displayed a fatal deficiency in universal values. Those who manufactured the revolutionary discourse, namely middle class elites who co-opted the revolutions, quickly betrayed their own philosophical poverty and disinterest in de-normalizing the neoliberal myth of the end of history. In spite of the significant role played by labour movements in the revolutions, the paradigm of class, and thus the problem of class society, was completely absent from the revolutionary discourse and vocabulary.
"The dominant discourse of the revolutions displayed a fatal deficiency in universal values"
Instead, these revolutionary movements demanded little more than the removal of the dictatorships and the installation of representative democracy. The internalization of liberalism by these movements made it impossible for them to question the efficiency of parliamentary democracy or its legitimacy in terms of social justice and equality. Because they dismissed the fact that totalitarianism is no longer only a political system, but a social and economic one as well, the revolutions were able to challenge the power of the individual dictators but not the social conditions that produce and sustain totalitarianism.
Just as class inequality was omitted from the revolutionary ambitions for change, gender relations remained unquestioned, as if they would not need to be revolutionized in a more just state of affairs. Women actively participated in all the Arab revolutions, only to be betrayed soon thereafter by the male dominated movements that could not even physically guarantee their female members’ safety. Across the region, during as well as in the months and years following the uprisings, gendered violence in public space has become a major obstacle to the active participation of women.
In addition to ignoring the questions of class and gender, the Arab revolutions did not even superficially promise dominated and marginalized minorities an end to systematic discrimination. Thus, just as the revolutions essentially remained bourgeois and patriarchal, they also continued on largely nationalistic bases indicating the continuation of the racist politics of the falling regimes.
Moreover, the idealization of the nation as defined by colonial borders was perhaps the strongest bond among the people involved in changing each dictatorial regime. In each case, the personification of the country and the idealization of nationalist symbols, such as the flag, superseded human life, which should have been the sacred value.
When the dictatorships started to collapse, and because the despotism of dictatorship had long been the norm, liberal democracy sounded like the most attractive alternative to many. Therefore, secular forces across the board heralded representative democracy as the end-all solution.
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However, liberalism, with its emphasis on a negative concept of freedom – freedom which merely requires others’ non-intervention in one’s life – does not have a grand conception of social justice, nor does it call for equality. Immediately after the collapse of each dictatorial regime, the weak bond among liberal forces unravelled and their ensuing divorce from the revolutionary impulse left the populist will up for grabs.
Even though they were not a main force in the revolutions, political Islamists were the most organized forces when the dictatorial regimes began to crack. Thus, they found their golden opportunity for ruling in the absence of any enduring revolutionary force willing to reform the reality. With the failure of Arab nationalism leading to the revolutions, the inability of liberalism to act as a revolutionary ideology, and the absence of a popular Left, the domination of political Islam or a fallback to dictatorship is inevitable.
Ironically, it is the Jihadists that have been the only forces to dismiss the borders drawn by colonial powers. The secular forces have not even attempted to extend their solidarity in the ongoing struggles against political totalitarianism across borders. They have all simply watched and anxiously waited to see how each country’s revolution would play out. Meanwhile Jihadists continue to travel from as far as Europe and North America to fortify Islamist forces throughout the region.
Soon after the fall of the first three dictators, in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it became clear that the only way out of the emerging theocracies was a return to the rule of army generals. In Syria, the nightmare of the lack of a third alternative has reached the bloodiest levels in the region because both the army and political Islam have continued to maintain a disastrous balance of power. However, this dualism of the despotism of a dictatorship and the absolutism of fundamentalists is neither a real dichotomy nor is it new.
"The weak bond among liberal forces unravelled"
On the contrary, since the 1980s military dictators and the Muslim Brotherhood have justified each other’s existence simply by scaring people with “no alternative” discourse. In one way their claim is true: in the absence of the Left, either the army or political Islam will rule. Essentially, the hopelessness surrounding the “no-alternative” mentality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Not only is there no popular Left on the ground, but people also grow increasingly unable to envision or work towards a more just option. The more the neo-liberal belief that the Left has historically lost the struggle is internalized, the more impossible it sounds to obtain a decent form of equality and social justice in terms of relations of production, gender, and race.
By the same token, people’s hopeless submission to forms of despotism, exploitation, and totalitarianism is the normal outcome of the ideological hegemony according to which equality and freedom are not perceived as universally applicable.
The fact that religious politics are presenting the world with the most radical, albeit retroactively, changes – such as changing the political map of the Middle East – indicates the tragic absence of philosophical awareness in the region and the world at large. Indeed, the Arab revolutions have exposed the desperate need for the emergence of a Left capable of perceiving the scope of the human condition’s crisis and committed to de-normalizing the existing order by reintroducing revolutionary philosophical thought to politics and social relations.