Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Good-bye despotism

Similar popular uprisings, same brutal reaction by ruling regimes, same result: the end of despotic regimes is neigh across the Arab world, writes Khalil El-Anani*

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and the rest is history. First it was Tunisia, then Egypt, and now it is Libya and God knows who's next. A lot of things are set to change in this part of the world. Egypt's ability to lead would be restored, for one thing. And the region's political map is going to undergo a lasting change. History is speaking, and we're all listening.

The Arab world is in the throes of a revolution, one that will change its shape, mindset and future. Forget partial reform and gradual evolution. As the demonstrators told us in no uncertain terms, "The people want to bring down the regime." If this is not a revolution, what is?

We are now faced with a new and unprecedented situation. The collective Arab conscience is being reborn, and things are never going to be the same again. It's hard to know where this will take us, but allow me to share with you what is known so far:

- The ongoing revolutions are "grassroots" revolutions. They are not imposed from above, nor brought about by military coups. For the first time in six decades, the upper echelons of the political regime are not the ones showing us the way. The Arab people, for the first time ever, are deciding the fate of their own presidents and regimes. The revolution has been spontaneous, fluid, and so far irreversible. The masses that took to the streets were intent on bringing about radical change. They refused to go home before their leaders were ousted. They made history, and they are going to make some more.

- What we see today are not revolutions against despotic regimes alone, but also against conventional elites and the opposition that was part of those elites. A radical shift of existing elites is about to happen. The legitimacy of despotic regimes is gone, and with it the legitimacy of the former opposition. Therefore, the traditional opposition must step aside and refrain from riding the revolutionary wave.

- Part of the vitality of the current wave of Arab revolutions is due to the fact that they were not led from above. In the Tunisian case, the revolution had no unified leadership, although labour and professional groups offered some guidance. In the Egyptian case, there was a lack of unified leadership or even organised groups from the scene. Scattered groups offered horizontal coordination, and I am sure we'll learn more about them in the near future. In Libya, all we can see so far is a spontaneous eruption of anger feeding on historical and psychological injustices.

- The aim of the ongoing revolutions is not only to depose despotic regimes but also to establish true democracy. This is rather ironic considering the disdain with which Arab officials and their Western interlocutors held the idea of democracy in the Arab world. The despotic media tried to dismiss democracy as being a figment of the imagination, a secular idea with no relevance to reality, but the demonstrators begged to differ.

- Arab revolutionaries have proved themselves to be uncompromising in their demands. Their central demand has been to oust the regime regardless of the cost. Over the past few weeks, we've been told of how simple folks were proud of the sacrifices their children have made for the cause of freedom. The way we view martyrdom has changed as a result.

- The revolutionaries didn't seem to care much for what foreign powers thought of them. They didn't ask for foreign assistance. Actually, in Egypt and Tunisia, and lately in Libya, foreign powers seemed to be more of a hindrance than otherwise. The first reaction of Western powers was either to aid and abet the despots or to ignore the whole thing. Indeed, the revolutions brought down the masks of falsehood and double standards, for the West generally acted as if supporting despots was worthier than the cause of freedom and democracy. In one instance, the French foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, offered to train the Tunisian police on crowd control.

7.-been refuted. This used to be a favourite cliché, invented by Arab officials and reiterated by Western academics. Now it is thoroughly discredited, and not a moment too soon. Researchers must take note, and books will need to be rewritten.

- The current Arab revolutions speak volumes about the crimes post-independence regimes have committed against their own people. Those regimes stand now accused of undermining Arab culture and stifling the Arab spirit, of giving birth to one-party and despotic governments. And when shove came to push, those regimes didn't hesitate to fire teargas and live ammunition at their own people, even sending planes to strafe innocent civilians.

The pattern of Arab revolution has turned out to be astoundingly uniform. It starts with a small and localised protest. Faced with brutal suppression, the protests go out of hand until the whole country is engulfed in revolution. At one point, the army is asked to deploy, but it either stays neutral or take sides with the people. The dictators eventually leave. But before that, their reactions are quite similar. They make concessions that are too late, they promise reform that is too limited, and they speak of foreign conspiracies and blame the uprising on Islamists.

The question now is not which country will revolt next. It is whether one autocrat or another will actually step down without first committing brutalities. Either way, the Arab despotic state is fast becoming a thing of the past.

* The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

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