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End of an Era: The Arab Intifada of 2011 and the Decline of Empire

Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
March 11, 2011

Photo by Hossam el-HamalawyPhoto by Hossam el-Hamalawy

The sun is quickly setting on the rule of tyrants in the Arab world. Revolution is on the agenda from Morocco to Bahrain. After decades of passivity in the face of dictatorship, the Arabs are rising up like a waking giant to demand their freedom.

Tunisia was billed as a citadel of stability and an economic miracle. Just a few months ago, the most anyone hoped for was that its ailing president-for-life, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, would not bequeath the country to his wife or son-in-law. No one even dreamed that the Tunisians would become the vanguard of the Arab revolution.

Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor in rural Tunisia who was relentlessly harassed by the police, decided he had had enough and in a desperate act of protest burned himself in front of a local government building. Less than a month later, the Ben Ali regime was in ruins.

Then, something even more stunning happened. The fire that Bouazizi lit spread to what is arguably the most strategic country in the Arab world—Egypt. A revolution there would surely change the face of the region forever, but was it really possible?

The answer was not long in coming. Pax Americana’s strongest link in the region, Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime, was toppled in less than three weeks.

Very suddenly, long-standing dictators were beginning to fall like dominoes. We went from a state of near depression about any possibility of change to boundless possibilities. In the new normal, we try to guess who's next and how long will it take. We even dare to wonder whether the contagion will ever be contained.

Facebook generation

But what is the nature of these revolutions? Who are the social forces that have ignited them? Are they spontaneous uprisings of a new generation of radicals? And if so, who are these youth and what motivates them? What kind of politics do they espouse?  

First, it is important to note that both revolutions were not as spontaneous as they appeared. In Tunis, there had been a series of local and regional intifadas in recent years, much like the one in Sidi Bouzid, which were contained and eventually snuffed out by the state.

In Egypt also, the past decade has seen a number of protest movements emerge involving many different sectors of society ranging from judges to industrial workers. These too remained isolated from the vast reservoir of discontent brewing in the country. Many of the activists at the core of the revolution had cut their teeth on these struggles and gained valuable experience.

Another misconception is that these were “bread revolutions.” Certainly, unemployment and poverty, rampant in places like Tunisia and Egypt, played a role in drawing millions into the movement. Nevertheless, the cutting edge of this wave of revolt is a desire for a dignified life, being able to work and provide for your family, freedom from the daily humiliation of police brutality, and the right to speak your mind without being subjected to imprisonment and torture.

In Egypt, it was young middle-class activists, often referred to as the “Facebook generation,” who led the way and constituted the bulk of the people who initially occupied and held Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo.

In most Arab countries, people under 30 constitute a large portion of the population. For these young people, the existing political system is suffocating and hopeless. Unlike their parent’s generation, who may have come to terms with the order of things, they view the Arab regimes as relics of a bygone age not befitting a modern society.

Similarly their style of politics differs markedly than that of previous generations. They tend to organize as networks of activists around a set of demands rather than as traditional political parties with a clear leadership and a full-fledged program.

Crucially, they seem to have transcended the secular-Islamist divide that has hobbled the Arab opposition for so long. Even though these activists are certainly closer to the secular end of the spectrum in their outlook, they are by no means hostile to Islamist activism. In fact, the largest protests in Egypt were organized around Friday prayers and many of the protestors would take time from battling the police to pray. 

It’s too early to guess what organizational form these networks of activists will take in the coming months. In the few short days of the revolution, they have shown themselves to be both principled and pragmatic and managed to maintain a high degree of unity uncharacteristic of previous generations of revolutionaries.  

Empire’s retreat

The weakening and possible collapse of most Arab regimes cannot be understood outside the context of empire’s slow retreat from the region. Along with its most trusted ally, Israel, the United States relies on this system of autocratic rule to keep a firm grip on the entire Middle East. Mubarak’s fall and the outbreak of democracy in the Arab world is a nightmare scenario for Washington.

That’s why the White House and State Department spokespeople, normally giving the world lectures on freedom and democracy, had such trouble with their words when it came to their loyal friend Mubarak. They know that what we are witnessing is the waning, if not the complete unraveling, of American dominance in this strategic and oil-rich part of the world.

It was almost 10 years ago when Bush unleashed his “war on terror” with the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, threatening those who stood in Washington’s way with either regime change or annihilation. The neo-cons emerged with grand and sweeping plans to remake the region into what they called the “New Middle East.”

Not long after the initial bold thrust, reality set in as resistance forces began to emerge. Sometime in the middle of the last decade, the tide began to turn. Iraq was becoming a quagmire and Israel was humiliated in the July 2006 War with Hizballah. Soon, the neo-cons were hurried back to the asylum and the Republicans were soundly defeated at the hands of war-weary voters.

The undoing of Washington’s gang of autocrats completes the circle. First, the US military is humbled in both Iraq and Afghanistan and eventually forced to beat a retreat. Then, when Israel tries to lend a hand in Lebanon and Gaza, it only confirms that it can no longer play the role of policeman in the region. Now the people of the region have risen in their millions to sweep away the last vestiges of American empire.

As I write these final words (just one week after Mubarak’s downfall), revolution fever has spread to all corners of the Arab world. There are mass protests in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Algeria, with many more “days of rage” being planned elsewhere. Ironically, “regime change” is their main slogan, and we are most certainly witnessing the birth of a “New Middle East.” Maybe the neo-cons weren’t so loony after all.

Bilal El-Amine is the founding editor of Left Turn magazine. He moved to Lebanon in 2004 and has been living and working in Beirut.