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).