First Published: 2011-06-17

 

Spontaneity of Popular Uprisings and the New Revolutionology

 

Last month as I attended a top-end Qatar-sponsored policy conference on post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt, the argument whether the popular uprisings that toppled the totalitarian governments there had an element of top-down organization and planning particularly stood out, splitting the audience into two camps, says Yahya R. Haidar.

 

Middle East Online

As the Arab Spring turns into a hot summer, with mass protests engulfing the streets of tens more major Arab cities, a debate heats on regarding a fundamental feature of Arab revolutions - that of spontaneity. Last month as I attended a top-end Qatar-sponsored policy conference on post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt, the argument whether the popular uprisings that toppled the totalitarian governments there had an element of top-down organization and planning particularly stood out, splitting the audience into two camps.

The conference hosted top political scientists, intellectuals, and commentators from the Middle East and North Africa, who cast forth highly specialized assessments – pioneering what is quickly becoming a new "revolutionology", or science of revolutionary analysis. Also invited were some key organizers, bloggers and activists who practically helped bring about the difficult, indeed bloody, birth of the Arab Spring. The activists seemed to agree with the theorists on every point, but not when it came to the question of spontaneity.

On appearance, the two perspectives diverged not as much on what they firmly hold to be true, but on what they "like" to believe. Activists consistently assert that the long-awaited salvation from dictatorships - admitting no room for ideology – (could only) have come in the form of genuinely popular revolutions, something which does not sit well with the attempts by academics, sociologists, and political analysts to present a depth of analysis that can only see such positions as shortsighted and naïve.

One thing is sure in this debate; the question of spontaneity has become part of the inquiry into the "causes" of revolutions. Protesters and "revolutionogists" alike seem to agree on the fact that what came into being had, and for a long time, been a near-immediate possibility; all indications for a revolution were present and known, especially to the average Arab citizen. A list of causes might run too long for a short article such as this when political, social and economic failures of despotic Arab regimes were a matter of normal everyday life.

If such inquiry does proceed, it will produce long lists of apparent causes for revolution – and in turn, plenty of intellectual space for the revolutionologist to mull over. But, questioning the spontaneity of mass uprisings turns from being an inquiry into causes to a wholesale reconsideration of the revolutions themselves, causing this great divergence. The revolutions were bound to happen, and – despite current maneuvers by Western powers to militarize some of them – the activist and average Arab citizen are right in liking to think the revolutions to be good for them. In the historical Arab context of failed ideologies and rigid elitist despotism, nothing "good" can come unless it is by and for the people, and the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were just that: popular, un-ideological and more importantly, spontaneous.

But, what does it mean if we suppose, as revolutionologists tell us, modern Arab revolutions to be the outcome of carefully pre-thought plans and strategies. Wouldn't it imply critical merits be given to groups of people (activists, blogger and the like) over the millions of protesters who made political change possible? No doubt, such mass mobilizations of people must naturally possess an element of organization. Contrary to the local dubious history of the word, this time "organization" did not mean top-down instruction and planning, but it was more in the sense of "working together". In Egypt, International Media streamed live images of people from all walks of life taking part in the protests. Shouting with monotonous rhyme the words "step down" or "leave" wasn't the only thing they did; the world also saw people taking up various roles – some dealing with the media, some aiding financially and so on. Hence, oraganizers of the revolutions – commonly referred to as the "Facebook youth" and internet bloggers – find it difficult to accept the attention and praise they receive, sometimes going beyond their real contribution.

The debate on spontaneity in the context of modern Arab revolutions is nothing but an inquiry into timing; an indirect questioning why now – year, month and day - and not before or after? It might be fitting to ask the question "why now" regarding previous military coups or foreign-backed political change in the region. Then the revolutionologist might find a somewhat reasonable answer. But, asking why popular uprisings happened ”now" or "then" is an implicit denial of the very thing which made them happen, and pressing on with it might lead to finding – even inventing – plans and strategies which were not even in place.

In modern Arabic political lexicon, the words popular and spontaneous are synonymous, and if we intend to doubt the spontaneity of revolutions, we might as well reconsider the very thing which made them happen; that fact they were popular par excellence. Instead of hoisting Islamist, Socialists or Nationalist banners, the protesters, who tore down the decades-old barrier of fear, carried banners bearing "14th of January" or "25 of January" - dates they had decided to be the beginning of their revolutions. This should solve the timing mystery, but only when the revolutionologist's analytic gaze takes the activists seriously. Until then, the question "why now" will remain unanswerable.

Yahya R. Haidar is a freelance journalist and researcher in Religious Studies. He holds a Master of Arts in Studies in Religion from the University of Sydney (Australia).

 

Iraq’s peshmerga ‘break’ Mount Sinjar siege

Yemen’s Huthis seize Sanaa state offices

Tough times for oil-rich GCC

Obama concerned about Egypt mass trials

Tumbling oil prices cut budgets of Mideast arms exporters

Turkey acquits sociologist over 1998 explosion

EU foreign affairs head to visit Iraq

Turkey court remands Samanyolu TV chief in custody

IS threatens to kill Lebanese soldiers held hostage

Turkish media chiefs charged with terrorism

Iraq may delay payment of Kuwait war reparations

Over $900 million needed to help Syria children

Saudi rules out oil output reduction

Dutch populist lawmaker to be tried for 'fewer Moroccans' vow

Outrage in Algeria over Islamist call for Algerian author's death

Iraq Kurds, coalition launch offensive to retake Sinjar

Three years to end Israeli occupation in UN resolution

Somalia appoints new PM after bitter infighting

Blow to Israel: EU court removes Hamas from terror blacklist

Sharp rise in Syria passport applications

Turkey FM visit to Iran highlights Syria divide

UK troops mistreated Iraq detainees in 2004

Saudi to carry on massive public spending

Iran to Australia: We warned you about the gunman

From bikini to Jihad in Ceuta, Melilla

Tunisia votes Sunday in second round of presidential poll

Islamist militias launch air strike near key Libyan oil terminals

Egypt refers 312 Islamists to military courts

Turkey rejects EU criticism over media arrests

Kerry meets chief Palestinian negotiator

Saudi cleric sparks uproar for showing wife’s face

15,000 march against country’s ‘Islamisation’ in eastern Germany

Key oil producers face uncertain outlook in 2015

Gulf stock markets tumble

Australia mourns Sydney cafe siege victims

Hostages flee as police storm Sydney café

Erdogan to EU: Mind your own business!

Syria PM in Iran for talks with key ally

22 Swiss jihadists fighting abroad

#illridewithyou: Australians stand in solidarity with Muslims

Sydney siege 'lone wolf' or IS-led attack?

EU support UN efforts for Aleppo ceasefire

Saudi policeman killed in Riyadh hostage-taking

Saudi king receives Jordan monarch

Palestinians push UN bid to end Israeli occupation