Ten Years of Hope and Blood

14 February, 2021

“The Egypt­ian Rev­o­lu­tion,” one in a series by artist Hos­sam Dirar.

Robert Solé


It is in the mid­dle of win­ter that the “Arab Spring” comes unex­pect­ed­ly. On Decem­ber 17, 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, an agri­cul­tur­al vil­lage in cen­tral Tunisia, Mohamed Bouaz­izi, a young unem­ployed ped­dler, sets him­self on fire after his mer­chan­dise is con­fis­cat­ed by police offi­cers. The day after the tragedy, the anger spreads to oth­er cities in the coun­try. Pres­i­dent Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who has been in pow­er for twen­ty-three years, denounces “ter­ror­ist acts” per­pe­trat­ed by “hood­ed thugs.” The deaths will soon be count­ed by the dozens dur­ing clash­es with the forces of law and order. “Irhal!” (“leave”) becomes the rev­o­lu­tion’s byword. Ben Ali is accused not only of hav­ing estab­lished a police regime, but also of pil­lag­ing Tunisia. On Jan­u­ary 14, 2011, over­whelmed by the events, he flees with his fam­i­ly to Sau­di Arabia.

Five days lat­er, as protests erupt­ed in Jor­dan, Yemen and Lebanon, and fire­bomb­ings were report­ed in Alge­ria, Egypt and Mau­ri­ta­nia, an Arab League sum­mit was con­vened in Sharm el-Sheikh, South Sinai. For once, its sec­re­tary gen­er­al, Amr Mous­sa aban­dons the lan­guage of wood. “Arab cit­i­zens,” he declares, “are in a state of unprece­dent­ed anger and frustration.” 

Jan­u­ary 25th is Police Day in Egypt. As every year, a hand­ful of oppo­nents want to take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to “cel­e­brate” the police. A deriso­ry attempt, which has no chance of suc­ceed­ing. But, this Tues­day, Jan­u­ary 25, 2011, encour­aged by the fall of Ben Ali, the pro­test­ers, who have orga­nized them­selves through social net­works, will—to their own surprise—drag thou­sands of Cairo res­i­dents in their wake. The pro­test­ers clash with the secu­ri­ty forces as they try to con­verge on the huge Tahrir Square (“lib­er­a­tion” in Ara­bic), which would soon earn its name and become as famous as Tiananmen. 

The clash­es are not lim­it­ed to the cap­i­tal. The bal­ance sheet of this his­toric day (from now on we will speak of “the rev­o­lu­tion of Jan­u­ary 25”) is three dead and more than 150 wound­ed. A live upris­ing: for eigh­teen days, the Tahrir event will be filmed and broad­cast by tele­vi­sion sta­tions around the world. 

The “rev­o­lu­tion of Jan­u­ary 25” has nei­ther lead­ers nor ide­o­log­i­cal char­ac­ter. It is not in the name of Marx­ism, anti-Zion­ism, or Islam that Egyp­tians are mobi­liz­ing in increas­ing num­bers, but to demand free­dom and kara­ma (dig­ni­ty, respect), to denounce police bru­tal­i­ty and cor­rup­tion. The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, which had been cau­tious­ly observ­ing the move­ment, joins them on the fourth day, tak­ing their large bat­tal­ions to the streets. It would be the end of Hos­ni Mubarak, who seemed eter­nal after twen­ty-nine years of reign. Even the army, from which he came, even­tu­al­ly drops him. The high mil­i­tary hier­ar­chy thus takes advan­tage of the sit­u­a­tion to remove any chance that Gamal, the pharao­h’s youngest son—a civil­ian sur­round­ed by businessmen—might one day become president.

On Feb­ru­ary 11, 2011, the eigh­teenth day of the Egypt­ian upris­ing, Mubarak is forced into exile in his palace in Sharm el-Sheikh. In Tahrir Square, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple have gath­ered, an immense, inter­minable clam­or greets his depar­ture. Kiss­ing, danc­ing, cry­ing with joy. Egypt feels itself to become again oum el-donia, the moth­er of the world. 

In North Africa and the Mid­dle East, it is delir­i­um. If the largest Arab coun­try falls into democ­ra­cy, won’t all the author­i­tar­i­an regimes, monar­chies or republics, fall one after the oth­er, like domi­nos? Observers see “the end of the Arab excep­tion.” These peo­ples, who were said to be resigned, show that they are capa­ble of revolt­ing against oppres­sion, like Latin Amer­i­cans or East­ern Euro­peans. The region has indeed entered into glob­al­iza­tion, giv­ing social net­works a new func­tion. “Face­book makes it pos­si­ble to plan events, Twit­ter coor­di­nates them, and YouTube com­mu­ni­cates them to the world,” explains Egyp­t’s most famous Inter­net user, Wael Ghonim.

Map courtesy of   Historical Dictionary of the Arab Uprisings   by Aomar Boum and Mohamed Daadaoui, in which the authors note:

Map cour­tesy of His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Arab Upris­ings by Aomar Boum and Mohamed Daadaoui, in which the authors note: “The ini­tial cat­a­lysts of the Arab upris­ings were eco­nom­ic depri­va­tion and polit­i­cal repres­sion. The pat­terns of dif­fu­sion were sim­i­lar across the region in terms of the use of social media as a means for mobi­liz­ing and sus­tain­ing the pace of the protests.”

Chaos in Libya, hor­ror in Syria

In Tunisia, after Ben Ali’s flight, a gov­ern­ment of nation­al uni­ty was formed and a gen­er­al amnesty decreed. This allows the return to the coun­try of sev­er­al oppo­si­tion fig­ures. Free elec­tions are sched­uled with­in six months. In Egypt the Supreme Coun­cil of the Armed Forces pledged to ensure a demo­c­ra­t­ic tran­si­tion. Eupho­ria con­tin­ued, although the 18-day upris­ing left hun­dreds dead and thou­sands injured. 

But, in this win­ter 2011, “Spring” does not bloom every­where. In Man­a­ma, the cap­i­tal of Bahrain, demon­stra­tors belong­ing main­ly to the Shi­ite com­mu­ni­ty demand­ed in vain the end of the monar­chy and the clo­sure of Amer­i­can bases. Sau­di Ara­bia inter­vened mil­i­tar­i­ly to quell the rebel­lion and save the throne of King Hamed ben Issa. It watch­es like milk over the fire in neigh­bor­ing Yemen where, on Jan­u­ary 27, the forces of order fired on those demand­ing the depar­ture of Pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh, who has been in office for thir­ty-two years. 

The Arab record is held by Muam­mar Gaddafi, who came to pow­er in 1969 … Libya also does not escape the con­ta­gion. The arrest on Feb­ru­ary 15 of a Beng­hazi lawyer, Fathi Ter­bil, pro­voked a “day of anger” the next day. And after a vio­lent crack­down, a “Nation­al Coun­cil” is formed by oppo­nents. Invit­ed by the Euro­pean Union to respond to the “legit­i­mate aspi­ra­tions” of his peo­ple, the Libyan dic­ta­tor endeav­ors to quell the rebel­lion by all means.

This time, French Pres­i­dent Nico­las Sarkozy, who had under­es­ti­mat­ed the upris­ing in Tunisia, took the lead: after rec­og­niz­ing the Libyan Nation­al Coun­cil as the sole legit­i­mate polit­i­cal author­i­ty, he per­suad­ed Lon­don and Wash­ing­ton to inter­vene mil­i­tar­i­ly. On March 17, 2011, the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil autho­rized the use of force, while Beng­hazi, a strong­hold of the insur­gents, was threat­ened with aer­i­al bombardments.

From then on, Gaddafi will not stop los­ing ground. On Octo­ber 20, he tries to flee the city of Sirte, when his con­voy is attacked by NATO planes. He finds refuge in a tun­nel with his body­guards, before being lynched by insur­gents. His death was imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed by clash­es between mili­tias, who fought for con­trol of local ter­ri­to­ries or var­i­ous traf­fic routes. Libya then appears for what it is: not a real state, but an aggre­ga­tion of tribes. The chaos that reigns there risks desta­bi­liz­ing neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Already, trucks filled with assault rifles, machine guns and rock­et launch­ers, seized from gov­ern­ment forces, were leav­ing for Mali, Chad, Sudan, Niger, Tunisia or Egypt.

It is how­ev­er Syr­ia that will expe­ri­ence the blood­i­est “Spring”. On March 13, 2011, fif­teen teenagers are arrest­ed in Der­aa, a south­west­ern city with a Sun­ni major­i­ty. Their trans­fer to a prison in the cap­i­tal and the abus­es they suf­fered there revolt­ed the local pop­u­la­tion. The Ba’ath Par­ty head­quar­ters and the cour­t­house were burned down. Der­aa is occu­pied by the army, while the rebel­lion spreads and becomes more rad­i­cal. In Dam­as­cus, Alep­po and Homs, thou­sands of pro­test­ers clash with secu­ri­ty forces fir­ing live ammunition. 

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where all Mus­lims are Sun­ni, Syr­ia is ruled by an Alaw­ite minor­i­ty, descend­ed from Shi’ism. The “Spring” there very quick­ly took the form of an inter-reli­gious con­flict. The “Fri­days of anger” fol­low one anoth­er, at the exit of the mosques, after the great week­ly prayer. The repres­sion is ter­ri­ble. Three thou­sand sol­diers, accom­pa­nied by T‑55 tanks, entered Der­aa on April 25. Pro­test­ers are exe­cut­ed in the sta­di­um and the wound­ed are tak­en to hospital. 

The Free Syr­i­an Army is col­lab­o­rat­ing with Kur­dish forces in the north of the coun­try. But it is soon sup­plant­ed by sev­er­al Sun­ni Islamist groups, includ­ing the al-Nus­ra Front, a branch of al-Qae­da. These groups are aid­ed by Turkey, Sau­di Ara­bia and Qatar, while the Syr­i­an regime receives sup­port from Iran and var­i­ous mili­tias that are sub­or­di­nate to it, start­ing with the Lebanese Hezbollah. 

French pres­i­dent François Hol­lande, who suc­ceed­ed Nico­las Sarkozy, sup­ports the Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion. His Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs, Lau­rent Fabius, calls Assad an “assas­sin.” In the sum­mer of 2013, France is about to inter­vene mil­i­tar­i­ly with Great Britain and the Unit­ed States after a gov­ern­ment chem­i­cal attack in Ghou­ta, in the sub­urbs of Dam­as­cus that caused the death of sev­er­al hun­dred peo­ple. But Paris is let down by Lon­don and Wash­ing­ton. Rus­sia then enters the scene and, very skill­ful­ly, occu­pies the cen­ter of the diplo­mat­ic game. While con­tin­u­ing to strong­ly sup­port Bashar al-Assad, it pro­pos­es to place the Syr­i­an chem­i­cal arse­nal under inter­na­tion­al sur­veil­lance, before its destruc­tion. On the 27th of Sep­tem­ber, 2013, the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil passed a res­o­lu­tion to this effect. Assad is saved. He could not have fared any better. 

Activist and graffiti artist Ammar Abo Bakr created a mural in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo depicting martyrs who were tortured and killed by security forces

Activist and graf­fi­ti artist Ammar Abo Bakr cre­at­ed a mur­al in Mohamed Mah­moud Street in Cairo depict­ing mar­tyrs who were tor­tured and killed by secu­ri­ty forces

An Islamist parenthesis

While Syr­ia is being torn apart in blood, demo­c­ra­t­ic advances are being made in sev­er­al coun­tries. In Tunisia, after free elec­tions, Mon­cef Mar­zou­ki becomes Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic in Decem­ber 2011, while Hama­di Jebali, the num­ber two of the Islamist par­ty Ennahd­ha, win­ner of the leg­isla­tive elec­tions, holds the post of Prime Min­is­ter. In Egypt the pub­lic tri­al of Hos­ni Mubarak opens, along with his two sons and sev­er­al dig­ni­taries of the deposed regime. This has nev­er before been seen in the Arab world! The var­i­ous elec­tions are won by the Islamists, the only oppo­si­tion forces orga­nized in the Nile Val­ley. In order not to insult the “Spring,” some irreg­u­lar­i­ties in the elec­tions are ignored. Mohamed Mor­si, a mem­ber of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, is nar­row­ly elect­ed Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic in June 2012. For the first time since the fall of the monar­chy six­ty years ear­li­er, the head of state is not from the army, and he is an Islamist.

In the Arab world, peo­ple talk about “con­ta­gion” and “domi­noes” again, but in the oppo­site direc­tion: if Egypt falls into Islamism, won’t all coun­tries fol­low one after the oth­er? The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood has put away its old slo­gan (“The Koran is the solu­tion”), but the Broth­er­hood’s incom­pe­tence and greed wor­ry many Egyp­tians who are ready to “give them a chance.” As for the mil­i­tary hier­ar­chy, it can­not stand the exis­tence of a com­pet­ing force encroach­ing on its pre­rog­a­tives and threat­en­ing its empire. In June 2013, mil­lions of cit­i­zens who fear the estab­lish­ment of a reli­gious state take to the streets with the sup­port of the mil­i­tary. The army has­tens to depose Mohamed Mor­si and put him in prison. This is the sec­ond time in two and a half years that a head of state is overturned.

The bloody repres­sion of an Islamist ral­ly in Cairo soon taints what appeared to be a “new rev­o­lu­tion.” It is now clear that pow­er belongs to the army. Because he has neu­tral­ized the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, Mar­shal Abdel Fat­tah al-Sis­si will have in May 2014 an elec­tion … of mar­shal to the pres­i­den­cy of the Repub­lic. He will nev­er­the­less be con­front­ed with attacks, a wor­ri­some jihadist guer­ril­la war in the Sinai and a very wor­ri­some eco­nom­ic situation.

Events in Egypt have prompt­ed the Tunisian Mus­lim Broth­er­hood to be cau­tious. They have decid­ed not to present a can­di­date for the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of Decem­ber 2014, which is won by Béji Caïd Esseb­si (88 years old), leader of the Nidaa Tounès par­ty. This will not pre­vent them from being asso­ci­at­ed with pow­er. The Nobel Peace Prize 2015 will be award­ed to four insti­tu­tions that have worked for this peace­ful tran­si­tion: the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, the Nation­al Bar Asso­ci­a­tion, the main work­ers’ union and the employ­ers’ union.

Above all, destroy Daesh

With the fall of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood in Egypt, Pales­tin­ian Hamas lost one of its most valu­able sup­port­ers. Yet it is being dragged into a dis­as­trous war against Israel in July-August 2014. Ten days of air raids fol­lowed by a ground offen­sive results in thou­sands of vic­tims and con­sid­er­able dam­age in Gaza. This open-air prison comes out blood­less from the con­flict, despite the “vic­to­ry” claimed by Hamas. 

The despair of the Pales­tini­ans, con­vinced that they will nev­er have a state, is then expressed by the “intifa­da of knives.” In sev­en months, more than 350 knife attacks are com­mit­ted against Israelis in the West Bank. They result in 34 vic­tims, but also some 200 deaths on the side of the assailants, usu­al­ly killed by police officers.

If the demo­c­ra­t­ic advances of the Spring had been a dis­avow­al for the jihadists, adepts of vio­lence to con­quer pow­er, the win­ter in which part of the Arab world is sink­ing plays in favor of their the­ses. All atten­tion is now focused on Daesh (acronym for the Islam­ic state in Iraq and the Lev­ant) whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­da­di, has pro­claimed him­self Caliph. This com­peti­tor of al-Qae­da not only con­trols a vast ter­ri­to­ry strad­dling Iraq and Syr­ia and impos­es a medieval way of life, but also orga­nizes or incites mur­der­ous attacks in the coun­tries that fight it. This is the case of France, which has been bereaved sev­er­al times, as well as Tunisia: the attacks com­mit­ted in 2015, at the Bar­do Muse­um and then in a sea­side resort near Sousse, divert­ed tourists and con­sid­er­ably affect­ed its economy.

West­ern­ers are deter­mined to destroy the Islam­ic state, even if it means serv­ing Bashar al-Assad. The Syr­i­an con­flict becomes illeg­i­ble. While Rus­sia pro­vides the regime with direct mil­i­tary sup­port by indis­crim­i­nate­ly bomb­ing all its adver­saries, the Unit­ed States and its allies attack Daesh and active­ly sup­port the recon­quest of Mosul by Iraqi troops and Kur­dish fight­ers from Octo­ber 17, 2016. One year lat­er, it was the fall of Raqqa, in Syr­ia, whose self-pro­claimed caliph had made his cap­i­tal. Bagh­da­di will be killed on Octo­ber 27, 2019 dur­ing an oper­a­tion by Amer­i­can spe­cial forces. 

MBS does a lot of damage

No “Spring” in Sau­di Ara­bia, but the entry on the scene of a mod­ern young man, appoint­ed Min­is­ter of Defense in 2015: Mohamed ben Salman, known as MBS, son of King Salman, is anoth­er fig­ure­head of a sov­er­eign. He is said to intend to reform this soci­ety from anoth­er time—he will, for exam­ple, allow women to drive—but he will do great damage.

MBS is drag­ging sev­er­al coun­tries in the region, includ­ing the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates and Egypt, into a war against Houthi rebels who have seized vast areas of west­ern and north­ern Yemen, includ­ing the cap­i­tal, Sana’a. The Houthis, a branch of Shi’ism, are backed by Iran, Sau­di Ara­bi­a’s absolute ene­my. Not only did they resist, but the anti-Houthist front broke up, and sep­a­ratists con­quered Aden, the great south­ern port. The dead num­bers in the tens of thou­sands. The UN denounces “the worst human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis in the world.”

On Novem­ber 3, 2017, MBS sum­mons Lebanese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri to Riyadh, accused of not being firm enough with Iran. He forces him to resign and holds him pris­on­er. The affair caus­es a scan­dal. Hariri returns to his post in Beirut, to great acclaim, after an inter­ven­tion by France. The same month, the Crown Prince has some 200 Sau­di per­son­al­i­ties locked up at the Ritz-Carl­ton in Riyadh as part of an anti-cor­rup­tion oper­a­tion. They are released only in exchange for the pay­ment of large sums of mon­ey to the Trea­sury. Last but not least, in Octo­ber 2018, MBS bru­tal­ly mur­ders an exiled jour­nal­ist, Jamal Khashog­gi, inside the Sau­di con­sulate in Ankara. This pro­vokes a great deal of emo­tion in the world. The prince, how­ev­er, seems immov­able, thanks to the sup­port of his father and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, part­ners in their strug­gle against Iran. 

The activism of two non-Arab countries

Three for­mer empires—the Per­sian, Russ­ian and Ottoman—sometimes allies, but always com­peti­tors, are very active in this shat­tered Arab world. Each one plays its own score, with dif­fer­ent objectives. 

Iran con­tin­ues to sup­port Bashar al-Assad. The Syr­i­an dic­ta­tor also ben­e­fits from Rus­si­a’s mil­i­tary entry into the con­flict from Sep­tem­ber 2015. This sup­port will trans­late into deci­sive vic­to­ries against the rebel move­ments in Alep­po (Decem­ber 2016), Homs (May 2017) and Der­aa (July 2018).

Assad man­aged to stay in pow­er, but at what price? Hav­ing become behold­en to Tehran and Moscow, he reigns over a dev­as­tat­ed coun­try. This ter­ri­ble con­flict has left some 380,000 dead, count­less wound­ed and led half of the Syr­i­an pop­u­la­tion to migrate or go into exile. 

Anoth­er non-Arab actor, Turkey, con­tributes to strong­ly dis­rupt what remains of the “Spring”. Turn­ing his back on the West and pos­ing as the Caliph of Sun­ni Islam, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan push­es his pawns in all direc­tions, whether direct­ly or through mer­ce­nar­ies. His coun­try is home to three mil­lion Syr­i­an refugees. He uses them as a threat to Euro­peans who fear a migra­to­ry upsurge. 

On Octo­ber 9, 2019, in favor of an Amer­i­can with­draw­al, Turkey launch­es an offen­sive against Kur­dish forces in north­ern Syr­ia. This oper­a­tion allows it to occu­py, at its bor­der, a strip of ter­ri­to­ry 120 kilo­me­ters by 30. 

Erdoğan is also active in Libya, with a dual pur­pose: to exploit gas in the East­ern Mediter­ranean and to inten­si­fy its black­mail of migrants by con­trol­ling anoth­er refugee route to Europe. Indeed, many Africans tran­sit through this coun­try in full chaos, often in ter­ri­ble con­di­tions, and then try to reach Europe by sea. 

Libya is almost cut in two, between a Tripoli­tan (west) admin­is­tered by the Tripoli gov­ern­ment and a Cyre­naica (east) under the dis­si­dent Mar­shal Khal­i­fa Haf­tar, who is accu­mu­lat­ing vic­to­ries on the ground. In Decem­ber 2019, Erdoğan signs a mar­itime demar­ca­tion agree­ment and a mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion pact with the Tripoli­tan author­i­ties. Thou­sands of pro-Turkey Syr­i­an mer­ce­nar­ies, sup­port­ed by armed drones, will reverse the sit­u­a­tion. But the Russ­ian air force inter­venes to res­cue Haf­tar: in this shat­tered coun­try, Tripoli­ta­nia is “Turk­i­fied” and Cyre­naica is “Rus­si­fied” …

The Tunisian exception

Nine years after the begin­ning of what we no longer dare to call “Spring”, the Arab world appears in a sad state. If, on the whole, the monar­chies are doing bet­ter than the republics, their old rival­ry from the time of Nass­er and the Ba’ath Par­ty has been sup­plant­ed by numer­ous inter­nal wars: between Sun­nis and Shi­ites, mil­i­tary and Islamists, Hamas and the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty, Sau­di Ara­bia and Qatar … not to men­tion the Arab-Israeli con­flict which, in this field of ruins, turns to the advan­tage of the Jew­ish state. Don­ald Trump rec­og­nized on Decem­ber 6, 2017 Jerusalem as the cap­i­tal of Israel, which will see its rela­tions nor­mal­ized with the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, Bahrain, Sudan and Moroc­co. The Pales­tin­ian cause no longer seems to inter­est many people.

In Egypt, con­trary to what hap­pens in Syr­ia, Libya, Iraq or Yemen, the state main­tains itself. But the “Spring” of 2011 is only a mem­o­ry. The gov­ern­ment fierce­ly repress­es the slight­est protest. The army now inter­venes in all the activ­i­ties of the coun­try, to the great dis­plea­sure of indus­tri­al­ists and busi­ness­men. The horse’s rem­e­dy inflict­ed on the econ­o­my to reduce the deficit has accen­tu­at­ed inequal­i­ties. Gal­lop­ing demographics—the pop­u­la­tion has dou­bled in thir­ty years—amplifies unem­ploy­ment and leads to a dete­ri­o­ra­tion of pub­lic ser­vices (health, edu­ca­tion, hous­ing). In the north of Sinai, the gov­ern­ment has not suc­ceed­ed in elim­i­nat­ing jihadist move­ments, despite the deploy­ment of sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary resources and dis­creet aid from Israel.

Tunisia, the first coun­try to rise up, appears to be the only sur­vivor of the Arab Spring. It con­tin­ues its democ­ra­ti­za­tion and freely elects its lead­ers, but is expe­ri­enc­ing great eco­nom­ic dif­fi­cul­ties. The num­ber of Tunisians seek­ing to emi­grate to Europe con­tin­ues to grow. Dis­il­lu­sion­ment and despair man­i­fest them­selves in var­i­ous ways, includ­ing sui­cide. On a wall in Sidi Bouzid, not far from the place where Mohamed Bouaz­izi set him­self on fire, the word “rev­o­lu­tion” (ثورة ) has been tagged upside down.

After­shocks of an earthquake

Would the Arab Spring, that earth­quake that took every­one by sur­prise, have been just a quick digres­sion closed back up upon itself? Unex­pect­ed after­shocks will revive the hopes of the Democ­rats. In Bagh­dad, thou­sands of demon­stra­tors will occu­py Tahrir Square in Novem­ber 2019 to call for the “fall of the regime” of Iraq, which was drowned by Iran. Blood is also run­ning in oth­er cities of the coun­try. But it is above all Sudan, Alge­ria and Lebanon that are attract­ing attention.

In Sudan, the move­ment is trig­gered by the tripling of the price of bread. A first demon­stra­tion, orga­nized on Decem­ber 19, 2018 in the work­ing-class agglom­er­a­tion of Atbara, imme­di­ate­ly spilled oil. A coali­tion of oppo­nents, sup­port­ed by trade unions and lawyers, demands the depar­ture of Omar al-Bashir, the gen­er­al who had seized pow­er in 1989 with the sup­port of Islamists. The pop­u­la­tion is suf­fer­ing from the vio­lence and vex­a­tion inflict­ed on it by the secu­ri­ty ser­vices, but also from an eco­nom­ic cri­sis that has last­ed for years. The crush­ing of a rebel­lion in Dar­fur is fol­lowed in 2011 by the par­ti­tion of the coun­try: South Sudan took with it three quar­ters of the oil production.

Despite the repres­sion, a huge sit-in is orga­nized in Khar­toum in front of the head­quar­ters of the armed forces. It is to last sev­er­al months. A 23-year-old stu­dent, Alaa Salah, who climbed onto the roof of a car to sing a song against the dic­ta­tor­ship, became an icon of the move­ment, reveal­ing the vital­i­ty of this civ­il soci­ety and the place of women in it. 

Skill­ful­ly, the pro­test­ers encour­age the army to frat­er­nize with them. On April 11, 2019, the dic­ta­tor is placed under house arrest and removed from office. A tran­si­tion­al gov­ern­ment, involv­ing civil­ians and the mil­i­tary, forms under the lead­er­ship of a respect­ed econ­o­mist, Abdal­lah Ham­dok. The con­di­tions seem to be in place to lift sanc­tions against Sudan, which has so far been accused of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism, even though its polit­i­cal future remains uncertain.

In Alge­ria, in order to pre­vent an upris­ing, the gov­ern­ment count­ed both on the eas­ing of social ten­sions thanks to its oil rev­enues and on the trau­ma left by the bloody civ­il war of the 1990s. But by ear­ly 2019, the cof­fers were emp­ty due to the fall in the price of black gold. 

On Feb­ru­ary 22, as Abde­laz­iz Boute­fli­ka is seek­ing a fifth pres­i­den­tial term despite the stroke that ren­dered him impo­tent, anony­mous calls on social net­works encour­age demon­stra­tions in Algiers, Con­stan­tine, Oran and Sidi Bel Abbès. The Hirak (“move­ment” in Ara­bic) is born and the gov­ern­ment will not stop hear­ing about it. Every Fri­day, cit­i­zens of all ages, from all walks of life, invade the streets, car­ry­ing the nation­al flag in a cape or scarf. A gigan­tic con­cert of pots and pans is addressed to the “system”—and not only to the pup­pet president—that they want to get rid of.

The huge Fri­day crowds have the intel­li­gence to refuse all vio­lence: to guns and trun­cheons, they respond with the infi­nite­ly repeat­ed slo­gan “Selmeya” (paci­fism). On April 2nd, Boute­fli­ka resigns, after being released by Gen­er­al Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Chief of Staff of the Army. This qua­si-octo­ge­nar­i­an pos­es as a reformer, where­as he embodies—along with the FLN and the busi­ness clans—one of the pil­lars of the sys­tem that has been repu­di­at­ed. His rivals are arrest­ed, and a new pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is orga­nized. But the five can­di­dates all come from the rul­ing par­ty. On Decem­ber 12, 2019, the elec­tion of Abdel­mad­jid Teb­boune, 74 years old, deceives no one. And only 23% of Alge­ri­ans will vote in the con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum of Novem­ber 1, 2020. Mean­while, the epi­dem­ic of Covid-19 will have inter­rupt­ed the Hirak. This move­ment is suf­fer­ing from what was undoubt­ed­ly one of its strengths: the vol­un­tary absence of lead­er­ship. Nine years ear­li­er, the same could be said of the Egypt­ian revolutionaries.


Demonstrators in Beirut protest government policy on easing the economic crisis, 22 October 2019 [Photo: Mahmut Geldi/Anadolu Agency]

Demon­stra­tors in Beirut protest gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy on eas­ing the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, 22 Octo­ber 2019 [Pho­to: Mah­mut Geldi/Anadolu Agency]

In Lebanon, too, an upris­ing with­out lead­ers has emerged from a seem­ing­ly deriso­ry event: the impo­si­tion of a new tax on the use of What­sApp. On Octo­ber 17, 2019, the streets of Beirut are invad­ed by an angry mob that attacks the polit­i­cal lead­ers. The nation­al cur­ren­cy deval­ued sharply over the sum­mer, caus­ing prices to soar. This is the result of account­ing acro­bat­ics that the Bank of Lebanon has been per­form­ing for years in order to finance the bud­get deficit and to main­tain the par­i­ty of the pound with the dol­lar: a sort of Ponzi pyra­mid con­sist­ing in suck­ing for­eign cur­ren­cy deposits from com­mer­cial banks at fan­tas­tic inter­est rates. These schemes have great­ly enriched the share­hold­ers of these insti­tu­tions, includ­ing polit­i­cal lead­ers. Until the day the “pyra­mid” began to collapse… 

The eco­nom­ic cri­sis is hit­ting hard not only the poor—including a mil­lion Syr­i­an refugees—but also the mid­dle class. Fam­i­lies can no longer afford to pay for their chil­dren’s school­ing in the coun­try’s many pri­vate schools. Restau­rants are even see­ing some of their reg­u­lar cus­tomers order­ing half-servings… 

But the tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim, who demon­strate every week in the coun­try’s main cities are demand­ing more than just eco­nom­ic mea­sures: the depar­ture of an often high­ly cor­rupt polit­i­cal class that has clung to pow­er since the end of the civ­il war of 1975–1990. The con­fes­sion­al sys­tem now appears to be a dis­as­trous clanism, allowing—a unique case in the world—Muslims and Chris­tians to gov­ern togeth­er. Even the Shi­ites are blam­ing Hezbol­lah, which is right­ly described as a “state with­in a non-state.” 

On August 4, 2020, when Covid-19 was added to the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, a tremen­dous explo­sion shakes the city of Beirut, rav­aging the east­ern dis­tricts in a mat­ter of sec­onds, killing 190 peo­ple and injur­ing count­less oth­ers. Neg­li­gence, care­less­ness, cor­rup­tion? It is dis­cov­ered that 2,750 tons of ammo­ni­um nitrate had been stored for six years in ware­hous­es in the port. Anger is mixed with despair. Many Lebanese, ruined and exhaust­ed, see only one solu­tion: exile.

But in Lebanon, as in Alge­ria or Sudan, the game is not over. The same can be said of all the coun­tries that have expe­ri­enced a “Spring”, how­ev­er fleet­ing, fol­lowed by a counter-rev­o­lu­tion. The Arab peo­ples now know that it is not enough to over­throw an author­i­tar­i­an regime to achieve democ­ra­cy. Else­where in the world, the road has always been long and painful. Refus­ing to despair, the most com­mit­ted or lucid cit­i­zens are try­ing, in Gram­sci’s words, to com­bine the pes­simism of intel­li­gence with the opti­mism of will.

Robert Solé’s “Ten Years of Hope and Blood” orig­i­nal­ly appeared in N°328 of France’s 1 week­ly devot­ed to The Arab Spring: Con­fis­cat­ed Rev­o­lu­tion on Jan. 6, 2021 and appears here by spe­cial arrange­ment, trans­lat­ed by Jor­dan Elgrably.

Each Wednes­day, 1 week­ly focus­es on a sin­gle cur­rent top­ic and explores it through sev­er­al eyes. Read­ers of French will find new ideas and wide­ly-rang­ing opin­ions and con­trib­u­tors you won’t read else­where. TMR read­ers can ben­e­fit from access to 1’s dig­i­tal week­ly edi­tion with a spe­cial sub­scrip­tion offered at just 1€/month. Click here for the offer.


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