The Big Think Behind the Arab Spring

Do the Middle East's revolutions have a unifying ideology?

"Why does every nation on Earth move to change their conditions except for us? Why do we always submit to the batons of the rulers and their repression? How long will Arabs wait for foreign saviors?" That is how the inflammatory Al Jazeera talk-show host Faisal al-Qassem opened his program in December 2003. On another Al Jazeera program around that same time, Egyptian intellectuals Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Fahmy Howeidy debated whether it would take American intervention to force change in the Arab world. Almost exactly seven years later, Tunisians erupted in a revolution that spread across the entire region, finally answering Qassem's challenge and proving that Arabs themselves could take control of their destiny.

Throughout this year of tumult, Arabs have debated the meaning of the great wave of popular mobilization that has swept their world as vigorously as have anxious foreigners. There is no single Arab idea about what has happened. To many young activists, it is a revolution that will not stop until it has swept away every remnant of the old order. To worried elites, it represents a protest movement to be met with limited economic and political reforms. Some see a great Islamic Awakening, while others argue for an emerging cosmopolitan, secular, democratic generation of engaged citizens. For prominent liberals such as Egypt's Amr Hamzawy, these really have been revolutions for democracy. But whatever the ultimate goal, most would agree with Syrian intellectual Burhan Ghalyoun, who eloquently argued in March that the Arab world was witnessing "an awakening of the people who have been crushed by despotic regimes."

In March, Egyptian writer Hassan Hanafi declared that the spread of the revolutions demonstrated finally that "Arab unity" -- long a distant ideal in a region better known for its fragmentation and ideological bickering -- "is an objective reality." This unified narrative of change, and the rise of a new, popular pan-Arabism directed against regimes, is perhaps the greatest revelation of the uprisings. Not since the 1950s has a single slogan -- back then Arab unity, today "The People Want to Overthrow the Regime" -- been sounded so powerfully from North Africa to the Gulf. This identification with a shared fate feels natural to a generation that came of age watching satellite TV coverage of Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon over the previous decade. Al Jazeera, since its rise to prominence in the late 1990s, has unified the regional agenda through its explicitly Arabist coverage -- and its embrace of raucous political debates on the most sensitive issues.

That pan-Arab popular identification extended to the democracy movements that multiplied across the region -- whether Egypt's tenacious street protesters, Bahraini human rights activists, or Yemenis (including this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman) protesting President Ali Abdullah Saleh's nepotism and corruption. A decade-long, media-fueled narrative of change is why Arabs immediately recognized each national protest as part of their own struggle. As Wadah Khanfar, the network's recently departed director-general, put it, "That was Al Jazeera's role: liberating the Arab mind. We created the idea in the Arab mind that when you have a right, you should fight for it."

So while the Arab uprisings generated a marvelous range of innovative tactics (uploading mobile-camera videos to social media like Facebook and Twitter, seizing and holding public squares), they did not introduce any particularly new ideas. The relentless critique of the status quo, the generational desire for political change, the yearning for democratic freedoms, the intense pan-Arab identification -- these had all been in circulation for more than a decade. What changed with the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was the recognition that even the worst tyrants could be toppled. It shattered the wall of fear. That is why hundreds of thousands of Egyptians came into the streets on Jan. 25. It's why protests broke out in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan. It's why Syrians and Libyans took unfathomable personal risks to rise up against seemingly untouchable despots despite the near certainty of arrest, torture, murder, and reprisals against their families.

The uprisings came in the wake of years of institutional and political decay diagnosed acutely by Arab intellectuals such as Egyptian jurist Tariq al-Bishri, by the prescient 2002 Arab Human Development Report, and by nascent political leaders like former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei. Beneath the edifice of stability, they warned, state institutions were crumbling, their legitimacy faded in the relentless drift of corruption, nepotism, casual brutality, and indifference toward their people. Elections became ever more fraudulent (with the Egyptian and Jordanian elections of late 2010 among the worst), security services more abusive, graft more flagrant.

All this greatly contributed to the economic underpinnings of this year's discontent. The previous decade saw neoliberal economic reforms that privatized industries to the benefit of a small number of well-connected elites and produced impressive rates of GDP growth. But, as ruthlessly dissected by Arab economists like Egypt's Galal Amin, the chasm between the rich and poor grew and few meaningful jobs awaited a massive youth bulge. For many leftist activists, the uprisings were a direct rejection of this neoliberalism -- and those ideas and the technocrats who advanced them have likely been driven from power for the foreseeable future.

But the uprisings were not only about jobs and bread; as Sudanese intellectual Abdelwahab El-Affendi wrote in January, echoing a famous slogan of the 1950s, the revolutions were needed so that the people would deserve bread. The theme of restoring the dignity of the people pervaded the Arab uprisings. The police abuse that drove Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation and killed the young Egyptian Khaled Said struck a chord with populations who experienced daily the depredations of uncaring states. The gross corruption of Ben Ali's in-laws and Hosni Mubarak's efforts to groom his son for the presidency simply insulted many Tunisians and Egyptians -- and they were ever less afraid to say so. A fiercely independent and articulate rising generation would no longer tolerate brazen corruption, abusive police, indifferent bureaucracy, a stagnant economy, and stage-managed politics.

Egypt's Kefaya ("Enough" in Arabic) movement was in many ways the forefather of the Arab uprising. Originally drawn together for state-sanctioned protests over Palestine and Iraq, the organizers of the loose movement courageously turned their focus inward to challenge the succession of Gamal Mubarak. Kefaya brought together an astonishing range of ideologies with revolutionary socialists protesting side by side with Muslim Brothers, and liberals with Nasserists. It pioneered the use of social media, mastered the art of symbolic demonstrations, and pried open a space in the Egyptian media.

That opening was seized by an increasingly aggressive press, led by figures like the irreverent editor Ibrahim Eissa and liberal publisher Hisham Kassem, as well as determined new Internet citizen journalists. Independent newspapers such as Eissa's al-Dustour eviscerated the pretensions of their rulers. Al Jazeera talk shows threw every issue open for debate. Activists like Tunisia's Sami Ben Gharbia used Internet tools to reveal the Tunisian first lady's shopping trips to Paris on the president's private jet. Bahrainis used Google Earth to reveal the shocking size of lands expropriated by the royal family for private use. Egyptians like blogger Wael Abbas circulated videos of police abuse and identified individual officers online. This opening of closed regimes to raw information and opinion, a faith in the power of public ideas, was itself one of the key ideas underpinning the Arab uprisings.

But it would be a mistake to portray the enthusiasm for revolution as universal in the Arab world. Saudi and Gulf intellectuals, in particular, argued fiercely against the spread of the revolutions to their own lands, insisting that the Gulf monarchies were different. Many, such as Emirati writer Sultan Al Qassemi, argued that the monarchical regimes would prove more resilient than the republics, whether due to greater legitimacy or simply greater wealth. Most have indeed avoided significant internal challenges. For now.

Some Arab intellectuals go further to say that the Gulf is leading a "counterrevolution" -- a wide-ranging conspiracy to restore the status quo. In this telling, the conservative Gulf regimes, after protecting themselves, set out to use their wealth and media empires to rebuild relations with the Egyptian military, rid themselves of the hated Muammar al-Qaddafi, promote Islamist movements against liberals, and support the challenge to Iran's major Arab ally, Syria. Anxious revolutionaries around the region likely attribute too much coherence and power to these counterrevolutionary efforts. But even in Egypt, the fears of chaos and disorder run deep, and many will be susceptible to the lure of a return to normality. No final answer has yet been delivered to the question posed by Lebanese liberal Hazem Saghieh in February: "Can a corrupt dictator be overthrown without descending into chaos or a new tyranny?"

And then there is the contested role of religion in the Middle East's new politics. Islamist political movements such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Jordan's Islamic Action Front have long participated in elections, citing the fatwas of Doha-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to avoid seeing democracy as an un-Islamic innovation. In Tunisia and Egypt, such movements rapidly demonstrated their mastery of the techniques of political competition, out-organizing and out-campaigning their secular rivals. Even more tellingly, their longtime Salafi critics -- who had spent decades denouncing them for joining an un-Islamic political game -- now rushed to form their own political parties. But as their power grows, these Islamists have struggled to reassure their domestic critics and the West of their commitment to democratic principles -- and, given their first opportunity to actually exercise power, to figure out for themselves how deep those commitments run.

The uprisings were also about America -- just not in the way most Americans would have it. Arabs found the idea that Iraq's liberation had inspired their democracy struggle laughable; if anything, it was the protests against the Iraq war that taught them the value of public dissent. Americans cheered themselves with the thought that the protesters in Tahrir Square were not burning American flags -- and that Libyans in Benghazi were waving them. But this was a dangerous misunderstanding. Many Arab analysts directly equated dictatorial regimes at home with a foreign policy they considered subservient to Israel and the United States. The Arab uprisings called for independence, national sovereignty, and respect for the will of the people -- all of which pointed to less eager cooperation with Washington and frostier relations with Tel Aviv.

None of that, however, means that Arabs are flocking to join a new anti-American axis. Indeed, groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which inspired many Arabs over the last decade with their perceived success and anti-American defiance, have lost appeal, equivocating as their patrons in Damascus and Tehran preside over the slaughter of unarmed protesters in the streets. In a pointed challenge to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who has sought refuge in "resistance" to Israel as Syrians have risen against him, Palestinian writer Ibrahim Hammami wrote in June, "We say to those who raise the slogan of resistance to repress their people: Freedom first, and dignity is more important."

So it's early days yet. But as Palestinian intellectual Khaled Hroub wrote in February, "the fundamental change is the return of the people" to the region's politics. And that -- the idea that the opinions of Arabs matter and can never again be ignored -- may be the most potent new idea of all.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images


Does Facebook Have a Foreign Policy?

The social networking giant has the power to change the world for the better. But does it want to?

Toward the end of 2008, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was musing about a massive political rally in Colombia earlier that year. A young man had started a Facebook group to show his revulsion against the FARC guerrillas, and one month later, on Feb. 4, millions of people across Colombia and around the world rallied in opposition to FARC.

The anti-FARC protests were the first ripple in what would become this year's global wave -- the use of social media in massive political movements, as Facebook and Twitter have almost overnight become the world's collective soapboxes, petition sheets, and meeting halls. It may have started in the Middle East with outraged friends on Facebook, but the chain reaction eventually led to landscape-altering citizens' movements and demonstrations not just in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, where despots were toppled, but also Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and later in Spain, Israel, India, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Facebook is a common thread in all these movements -- it has become the new infrastructure of protest.

And more is coming. Zuckerberg has taken up the study of Mandarin in preparation for a Facebook push in China -- not as part of a Facebook political vanguard, but out of Zuckerberg's keen interest that his service succeed in China. Who knows what change, political or otherwise, it will bring?

Zuckerberg had a hint three years ago of what was to come. "In 15 years," he predicted, "maybe there will be things like what happened in Colombia almost every day."

Clearly, his time frame was much too conservative, which is why it's probably a mistake to call 2011 the Year of Social Media. Future years will likely see even more impact from these evolving online tools. Facebook, not even eight years old, is poised soon to pass 1 billion active users. Twitter may be smaller -- 100 million users -- but it's an elite crowd: media, political, business, and technology leaders. Meanwhile, legions of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are working on new social-media products that may eventually be even more efficient at helping ordinary people organize themselves.

What makes Facebook so effective in politics is the very fact that it is first a social tool. On Facebook you merely say, "I will be at the mall," and the system tells your friends. So if you want friends in Tunisia to know you are tired of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it feels natural to employ a system you've already learned is efficient at reaching large groups of people. The message, whether of political dissatisfaction or more mundane matters, can spread virally with great speed.            

Of course, neither Facebook nor Twitter caused the Arab Spring. Social media may help people organize and spread awareness, but it can't force people to put their own lives at risk. The two together are an incendiary combination.

And that is what makes it unlikely that Zuckerberg will repeat his musings of 2008. He now has powerful reasons for keeping quiet. Facebook is banned, more or less successfully, in Burma, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, among other places. But the service operates in scores of undemocratic countries, and he wants that to remain the case.

The biggest question mark for social media is China. Two massive national services modeled after Twitter, the so-called weibos operated by Sina and Tencent, have hundreds of millions of users each. Although government and company censors seek to carefully filter the comments, they aren't always successful. Following the deadly July crash of a high-speed train in Wenzhou, so many outraged citizen posts escaped erasure that it became seen as acceptable to criticize the Railways Ministry. That emboldened many in the press to cover the crash more aggressively, even in government-owned outlets.

The continued growth of the weibos and the public passion for them lends a new uncertainty to Chinese politics. While it can't be called democracy, it is a kind of manifestation of popular will. There are of course no illusions among denizens of the weibos that comments aren't monitored. To get around censorship, many users invent code words that stand in for the names of leaders or major controversies. Often such discussion of sensitive topics survives the censors.

On the other hand, the censors can still win. Tens of thousands of citizens of the northern city of Dalian massed in its central square this summer in what some say was the largest political demonstration in recent Chinese history. They were protesting an oceanfront chemical plant that had been flooded in a monsoon, potentially spreading noxious chemicals over the harbor and nearby sea. While the authorities agreed to relocate the plant, censors appear to have successfully kept information about the protest off the weibos. Most Chinese never heard about it.

While Zuckerberg says entering China is one of Facebook's top strategic priorities, it's hard to imagine the service being allowed to operate inside China without the filtering and censorship routinely applied already to other social media. A Facebook spokesman in Washington recently told the Wall Street Journal that the company could even conceivably cooperate. "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others," said Adam Conner. "We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before."

Even Mark Zuckerberg might not be able to anticipate how it will play out, but there's little doubt about this: Social media, once unleashed, will keep empowering ordinary people worldwide to have a public voice.