Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 May 2012
Issue No. 1096
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Revolution and reform

While reformists under ousted Arab regimes failed, so too did Arab Spring revolutionaries, outmanoeuvred by groups with only a tenuous grasp on today's world, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

The shock of the Arab Spring still has people in Arab political, intellectual and even academic circles stunned. One reason for this is because no one predicted it. The intelligentsia talk of tyranny, the marriage of wealth and power, and a groundswell of discontent, but the idea that these could engender a grassroots revolution seemed out of the question.

Secondly, in terms of its magnitude, means and complexity, the revolution was beyond even the wildest dreams -- or nightmares -- of the ruling elites, as well as of the people, who rushed to take part in the countries where revolution erupted or, if they live elsewhere, are watching and waiting to see how other situations pan out on the ground.

This is not to suggest that the ruling elites were entirely out of touch. Within these circles there were groups of reformists who were able to understand and explain the social, political and economic discontent. In Egypt alone there were 222 instances of various forms of protest in 2004, and they soared to 690 in 2009. The following year, there was an average of five protest actions a day. Logically speaking, a revolution was not farfetched.

There were two approaches to the problem: one reformist, the other conservative. The reformists believed that revolution could be averted if the authorities stemmed the upward curve of anger by implementing serious political reforms. These reforms had to provide the mechanisms for the peaceful rotation of authority and they had to open horizons for the participation of younger generations who had passed from infancy to adulthood seeing the same faces in power, faces that had long since lost their traditional "paternalistic" appeal with the advent of a new age of high-speed technology, continuous social change, and constant contact with the world abroad, where everyone obtains a share of power and wealth. Perhaps the reformists' aims were too ambitious. For example, in Egypt, after many years Mubarak finally agreed to the idea of amending the constitution; however, by the time the amendments were done, little had changed.

The conservatives had ruled out the possibility of revolution. "Democracy" and public participation were elitist demands, they argued. These demands were voiced by people from classes of society that were familiar with and wanted Egypt to resemble Western countries. They did not represent the greater portion of the Egyptian people. Therefore, there was no "demand" that required a "supply". Even in the social protest movements, that were gaining momentum at the time, the focus was economic. Bread took priority over freedom, the conservatives argued. But, surprisingly, when revolution did break out, it was in Tunisia and Egypt, which were better off than many other countries, according to all known economic growth indexes. It is not true that, in Egypt at least, there was a massive imbalance in the distribution of wealth. On this score, the available figures tell us that Egypt was fairer than Brazil, China, South Africa, Turkey, India and even the US. The paradox is that the improvement in economic circumstances was essentially one of the engines of revolution. The hungry do not make revolutions. Revolutions are made by people who have had a taste of wealth and feel that it is their right to take part in the decisions on how it should be distributed. That right can only be obtained by ending the existing monopoly over power.

A third reason the Arab Spring came as a surprise was the impression that had prevailed -- and that continues to prevail in Arab countries that have not yet been hit by revolution -- that the upheavals could not escalate to revolution due to some intrinsic socio-political nature in respective Arab countries. In fact, this "nature" is often the fabrication of the media and staged receptions of the head-of-state, although sometimes, too, it is the product of a historic development, a tribal composition, or the dominance of a particular sect, none of which fall into the category of "intrinsic".

In like manner, politicians and the intelligentsia had misgauged the "masses". These have turned out to be rational and aware; they know how to tell the difference between a situation they do not like and the alternative, which could be either chaos or the Islamist option. The alternative is pretty much what happened in the countries of the Arab Spring, which either fell into the grips of chaos or into the grips of the "Islamist option," or both. In Egypt, these days, in spite of the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood now controls the legislative authority, it is determined to stage "million man" marches in Tahrir Square so as to assert its monopoly over the "legitimacy of the square" and add this to its monopoly on "parliamentary legitimacy". However, if what the liberals used to call the former regime's "bogeyman" is a prediction come true, the majority of the people were of the opinion that they would be no worse off if given a chance to, at least, put that "bogeyman" to a test. What this boils down to is that the "masses" -- or the people -- had been looking for the right to choose while the ruling elites were in quandary over what appeared to be a futile choice and, therefore, decided to stick to routine as long as everything seemed fine.

But conditions were far from fine. In countries where economic progress was lower than it should be when wealth was being distributed, and in countries where there was enough to go around even if it did not go around equitably, the question was never about the size of the shares, but about the distribution process itself. Reformists realised this, which is why they urged regimes to get ahead of the curve of social and political discontent. The conservatives in power always felt that this was asking too much and that there was no need to rush. Moreover, they felt that too much reform would only whet the appetite for rebellion and revolution.

In all events, rebellion and revolution did happen in some countries, and stirred unrest of varying dimensions in others. Then the revolutions began to stare in disbelief at the consequences. In Egypt, today, one detects a sense of major remorse because the revolution let down the people, first by not being more connected with them and then by abandoning the field to reactionary forces that had never sought revolution but that once it happened swooped in to snatch the fruits just when they were ripe enough to pick.

The reformists failed to persuade their governments to get a step ahead of the momentum for change by introducing meaningful reforms. The price to pay would not be unreasonable, especially since the reforms would propel the countries forward without exposing them to an unsustainable onslaught of violence and chaos. Unfortunately, whether the reformers were part of the regime or had remained apart from it so as to retain their independence, they met the same fate. When the regimes fell, they too fell victim to the revolution's wrath because they were also blamed for the faults of the regimes they had been trying to reform. The revolutions, themselves, exacted a high toll, both in terms of dead and wounded and in terms of different forms of material and moral destruction. But this was not the only consequence. The original revolutionaries suddenly woke up to find not only that they had hit the hard ground of reality but also that they were being expelled from the arenas of the revolution that they had originally created but that were now being taken over by a political movement that hails from the distant past and that has difficulties in coming to terms with the present and in dealing with today's world. Reform and the reformers fell, and the revolution and the revolutionaries have faded. Has backwardness won?

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