Revolution Viewed from the Crow’s Nest of History

15 February, 2021

The unfinished Arab revolutions deserve our support.

The unfin­ished Arab rev­o­lu­tions deserve our support.

Melissa Chemam

As world media began to fol­low the ear­ly days of the mis­named “Arab Spring” in Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary 2011, I found myself in Ugan­da, cov­er­ing that coun­try’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion for the BBC, where the oppo­si­tion can­di­date, Kiz­za Besi­gye, had no chance to defeat the incum­bent pres­i­dent, Yow­eri Musev­eni, in pow­er since 1986. I had stud­ied jour­nal­ism in Paris and one of my best friends there was from Tunisia. I imme­di­ate­ly thought of her: she had grown up under Ben Ali but had always hoped she would see change in her coun­try dur­ing her life­time. She was then based in Cairo, and soon had to deal with two revolutions. 

“This is above all a moment of new pos­si­bil­i­ties in the Arab world, and indeed in the entire Mid­dle East,” Rashid Kha­li­di, the Edward Said pro­fes­sor of Arab Stud­ies at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, wrote in For­eign Pol­i­cy on Feb­ru­ary 24, 2011. “We have not wit­nessed such a turn­ing point for a very long time,” he added. “Sud­den­ly, once insu­per­a­ble obsta­cles seem sur­mount­able. Despot­ic regimes that have been entrenched across the Arab world for two full gen­er­a­tions are sud­den­ly vul­ner­a­ble. Two of the most for­mi­da­ble among them — in Tunis and Cairo — have crum­bled before our eyes in a mat­ter of a few weeks.” 

I came back from Kam­pala, feel­ing thrilled for them. Hav­ing grown up in France in a town led by a com­mu­nist city coun­cil, I had always thought of rev­o­lu­tion as a pos­i­tive, rad­i­cal and nec­es­sary source of change. In pri­ma­ry school, our teacher orga­nized a play for us to cel­e­brate the 200th anniver­sary of the 1789 French Rev­o­lu­tion. My own par­ents and grand­par­ents had also par­tic­i­pat­ed in their own rev­o­lu­tion with the lib­er­a­tion of Alge­ria, but at the time—especially in France— this was a com­plete taboo. No one ever men­tioned Alge­ri­ans as rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, in pub­lic or even in pri­vate, yet in our house that’s what we were. Lat­er on, when I stud­ied his­to­ry and pol­i­tics more in depth, I met quite a few French peo­ple and even Arabs who despised rev­o­lu­tions, see­ing them as form of vio­lence com­ing from “the peo­ple,” mean­ing the unim­por­tant low­er class­es. What they val­ued was order and hier­ar­chy. How­ev­er, I learned over the years that their reac­tion was a symp­tom of aller­gy to change, based on fear, and that no rev­o­lu­tion was ever com­plet­ed in one day. 

It did­n’t take long for skep­ti­cal voic­es to carp at the Arab Spring. Can Tunisia and Egypt real­ly suc­ceed in their pop­u­lar rev­o­lu­tions? Will Libya and Yemen ever shake off their despots…with pun­dits imply­ing that democ­ra­cy in the Arab would always be an oxymoron. 

Back from Africa, in 2013 I joined the news­room of the inter­na­tion­al radio in Paris, RFI, in the African sec­tion. As the only North African in the team, I often had a chance to cov­er Tunisian, Alger­ian and Libyan issues. North Africa had always had this weird place in for­eign news, in the UK as well as in France: it’s not com­plete­ly Africa, but it isn’t the Mid­dle East either… I noticed that many jour­nal­ists often walked on eggshells when they talked about the region. But by 2013/2014 the gen­er­al sen­ti­ment was that the rev­o­lu­tions had failed… Tunisia had an Islamist gov­ern­ment (Ennah­da won a plu­ral­i­ty of votes in the Octo­ber 2011 Con­stituent Assem­bly elec­tion). Egypt was a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship again. And Libya was in limbo. 

But when­ev­er the sub­ject of the Arab rev­o­lu­tions arose, I won­dered aloud and still won­der why no one ever com­pares them with at least the French Revolution—to be more his­tor­i­cal, we should say the French rev­o­lu­tions. Vic­tor Hugo, one of France’s lit­er­ary greats, was born in 1802 into a bour­geois fam­i­ly but lat­er became a true repub­li­can. Thir­teen years after the French Rev­o­lu­tion of 1789, he was forced into exile, how­ev­er, for decades. He wrote Les Mis­érables, pub­lished in 1862, in exile. Because after “The Rev­o­lu­tion”, France had two bru­tal empires—under Napoleon and Napoleon III—and as many roy­al “Restau­ra­tions” that only brought wars, more inequal­i­ty and social con­ser­vatism. Had the French Rev­o­lu­tion failed? 

Well, in 1830, Paris had a sec­ond rev­o­lu­tion after the col­lapse of Napoleon’s ego­tis­tic desire to dom­i­nate the whole of Europe… But the three days of the July 1830 Rev­o­lu­tion soon led to the return of a French king: Louis-Philippe Ier. Then in 1848, France was swept away by a vaster move­ment of rev­o­lu­tions that shook the whole of Europe, known as the “Spring­time of the Peo­ples” or the “Spring of Nations”. Italy and Ger­many did­n’t exist back then, but were com­prised of a clus­ter of sov­er­eign provinces speak­ing dialects of Ital­ian or Ger­man. It was a high time in Euro­pean his­to­ry. The same year, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who had fled Ger­many, pub­lished their Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo. How did this rev­o­lu­tion end? Well, in France it con­clud­ed with the elec­tion of Louis-Napoleon Bona­parte in 1851, who soon declared him­self… an Emper­or. In the rest of Europe, in oppres­sive, con­ser­v­a­tive regimes most­ly, and Marx had to leave France and Bel­gium for England. 

All these rev­o­lu­tion­ary events led to vio­lence and to very con­ser­v­a­tive regimes, also kick-start­ing impe­r­i­al and colo­nial rival­ry between the Euro­pean pow­ers over their con­trol of half of Africa and Asia. But it does­n’t mean they had failed; they were part of a longer process.

“If rev­o­lu­tion is a regime change involv­ing col­lec­tive phys­i­cal force, then the key dates are 1789, 1830 and 1848,” observed Peter Jones, a pro­fes­sor of French his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Birm­ing­ham in the Unit­ed King­dom. In the end, France had at least three major rev­o­lu­tions, and arguably a fourth one—La Com­mune de Paris in the spring of 1871—before it had a sta­ble regime, the Third Repub­lic. Yet even this regime did­n’t lead France to become entire­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic, not until at least the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry and not until the coun­try had been torn apart by the Drey­fus Affair from 1894 until 1906. Vic­tor Hugo did­n’t live to see the Third Repub­lic, for he died in 1885, while the French regime was still very con­ser­v­a­tive. Then of course, even after 1910, women still could not vote (they could­n’t until 1944!), and the largest part of the pop­u­la­tion of col­o­nized Algeria—declared French territory—was deprived of fair par­lia­men­tary representation. 

The tran­si­tion to a repub­lic did­n’t pre­vent Vichy or Dien Bien Phu. The French Third Repub­lic end­ed up in the painful and dis­as­trous Sec­ond World War, and the humil­i­at­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion peri­od. Then the Fourth Repub­lic, estab­lished after WWII, died out in a civ­il war, over the hor­ri­fy­ing set­tler colo­nial­ism in Alge­ria, in 1958. This gave birth to a Repub­lic of “emer­gency” or what François Mit­ter­rand often called “la République du coup d’E­tat per­ma­nent,” the Fifth Repub­lic and cur­rent French regime. 

Paris 1968.

Paris 1968.

Even then, rev­o­lu­tions weren’t over, for a social­ist and labor/s­tu­dent-led upris­ing broke out in Paris in 1968 and soon engulfed the coun­try, bring­ing the French econ­o­my at one point to a grind­ing halt. May ‘68 marked the world much in the way the 1789 Rev­o­lu­tion had. 

We could also draw par­al­lels with Amer­i­can history. 

One rev­o­lu­tion that is too often for­got­ten is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant of all in terms of bal­ance between the West and the rest of the world: From August 21, 1791 to Jan­u­ary 1st, 1804, the Hait­ian Rev­o­lu­tion made Euro­pean dom­i­na­tion over the Caribbean a reversible phe­nom­e­non. One might say that the Hait­ian rev­o­lu­tion isn’t over; cer­tain­ly Tou­s­saint Lou­ver­ture has become a hero inspir­ing Africans and African Amer­i­cans to this day.

The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, which took place between 1765 and 1783, only con­cerned colo­nial North Amer­i­ca, mean­ing 13 states and their white set­tlers, in a fight to free them­selves from their British oppres­sor. But all the oth­er human beings liv­ing on North Amer­i­can soil at the time were sim­ply ignored and denied cit­i­zen­ship, first and fore­most the Native pop­u­la­tion, the First Nations, as well as the dis­placed African slaves. Up until the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy remained a nuanced real­i­ty: despite the 13th, 14th and 15th Amend­ments to the Con­sti­tu­tion passed in the 1860s—all intend­ed to enfran­chise Black Americans—most could not vote until the pas­sage of the Vot­ing Rights Act in 1965. 

The Egypt­ian-Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Mona Elta­hawy, author of The 7 Nec­es­sary Sins for Women and Girls (2019), actu­al­ly referred to the civ­il rights move­ment as a rev­o­lu­tion on Twit­ter on Jan­u­ary 25, 2021, while com­ment­ing on the Arab Spring. She wrote that: “A rev­o­lu­tion does not hap­pen overnight. And because, as Audre Lorde insist­ed, ‘Rev­o­lu­tion is not a one-time event.’ I will not write its obituary.” 

Ten years after 1789, France was about to have a new Emper­or and to plunge Europe into war. Ten years after 1848, it was at the height of the Sec­ond Empire, and its best author was writ­ing in exile. So, ten years after the Arab Spring began, I would argue that we should give Arab rev­o­lu­tions some time.


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