By Gilbert Achcar.

  1. The gigantic upheaval that is shaking the entire Arab world since its initial tremors started in Tunisia on 17 December 2010 was determined by a long and deep accumulation of explosive factors: the lack of economic growth, massive unemployment (the highest average rate of all world regions), widespread endemic corruption, huge social inequalities, despotic governments void of democratic legitimacy, citizens treated as servile subjects, etc. The mass of people who entered into action across the Arab region is a composite, encompassing a wide range of social layers and categories that are affected to various degrees by elements of this complex set of determining factors. Most share, however, a common aspiration to democracy, namely aspirations for political freedoms, free and fair elections, a democratically elaborated constitution. These are the common denominators that unify the masses involved in the uprising in all the Arab countries where it took hold powerfully. (The fact that the single country where these same conditions are lacking to the highest degreethe Saudi kingdomhas yet to face a massive upheaval is a testimony to the intensity of dominance and oppression in that country.)
  2. Several impressive features of the ongoing upheaval are directly related to the global information revolution. The speed at which uprisings spread through the entire region has been rightly attributed above all to satellite TV: a new factor that has given the region’s linguistic unity a much stronger effect, thus giving renewed and more substance to the old concept of an “Arab Revolution.” By transcending state boundaries and ignoring state censorship, this new communication technology has allowed the populations of the whole Arab-speaking region to follow the events in real time, just as they were unfolding—in Tunisia initially and then, on a much larger scale and with much more breathtaking impact, in Egypt, and finally, at the level of the whole region. The power of the Tunisian example was magnified by this new ability for millions of people to watch the uprising as it unfolded. Populations of the entire region took part “virtually” in the Egyptian uprising too; they were all in Cairo’s Tahrir Square through the cameras and reporters of satellite TV channels, partaking in the joys and anxieties of the gigantic mass of people gathered at the Egyptian Revolution’s epicenter. In instances where repression prevented TV cameras from attending protests, as in the case of Syria, they were supplanted by countless activists using their phone cameras and Youtube in order to project images of struggle and repression on the global virtual sphere from where they were quickly relayed by TV satellites and conveyed to their vast public.
  3. Satellite TV and global communication through the Internet has allowed the peoples of the Arab region to get much greater access and exposure to the global cultural melting-pot, in addition to global realities and its fictions. For an entire new generation—the first one to grow up in this age of the information revolutionthis experience has been eye-opening, in the extreme. The huge gap between, on the one hand, the aspirations and envies created by this virtual citizenship in the fiction-come-true “global village” and, on the other hand, the bitter and repulsive real subordination to futureless societies ensconced in medieval cultural traits was a hugely powerful determinant in bringing into action an entire social layer of young people belonging to a broad social spectrum ranging from the poor but educated to the upper middle class. One more time in world history, young educated people (former and present students) stand at the forefront of social and political protest. This new layer of activism made intensive use of new communication technologies, especially “social media.” Facebook in particular allowed them to network with an ease and at a speed that would not have been imaginable a mere decade earlier.
  4. A most striking paradox characterizes the “Arab Spring”, however. Whereas it has largely been determined by the above described cultural revolution, it is similarly removing the lids that have been containing the expression and action of religious fundamentalist forcesthe forces that have been the overwhelmingly dominant organized currents of opposition and the major available vehicles for expressions of protest in the region for the last three decades. Hence, the paradoxical result of a gigantic movement of emancipation giving way to electoral victories won by forces of social and cultural  if not political (experience will tell us soon) — repression. This paradox is but the natural outcome of the fact that the pressure cooker lids imposed by the Arab world’s existing despotic and corrupt regimes had created an environment particularly suitable for the growth of this form of opposition and cultural retrenchment. Religion and religious forces have been extensively used by most regimes in the region to quell the remnants of the old nationalist and communist lefts, and to prevent the rise of new leftist forces in the post-1967 era. At a time when progressive political forces had gradually lost all their sources of state support and funding, religious fundamentalist forces were being funded and sustained throughout the region by three regional oil-rich states, which competed in pouring money into them: the Saudi kingdom, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the emirate of Qatar.
  5. For this paradoxical state of things to change, it will require that the Arab world to go through a new historical experience, during which two simultaneous processes must unfold. On the one hand, regional populations will have to give religious forces a chance at power and thus witness their obvious limitations, especially the fact that they lack any programmatic responses to the deep social and economic problems that lie beneath the entire Arab uprising. On the other hand, new forces of social, political, and cultural emancipation that have risen powerfully during the upheavalafter taking the lead in igniting and conducting itwill need to build organizational networks of political struggle capable of constituting a credible alternative to the current religious backlash. For this, they will need to be bold enough to fight the cultural obscurantism of religious fundamentalist forces, instead of accommodating them, in the futile belief that they could thus gain access to their constituencies.

Gilbert Achcar teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.

[These theses were written in early December 2011 for a workshop entitled “Translating Revolutions” that was organized by and held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin on 12 and 13 January 2012.]

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Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.