Are the upheavals in the Arab world revolutions? Uprisings? Revolts?
Perhaps all these terms are misnomers, because they imply an end point, a moment when the event will be over, its historical task finished, if not completed. It is increasingly apparent, however, that the Arab world is witnessing not discrete events, but the advent of a new era in which participatory politics has taken on much more immediate relevance. No end point has come into view — and none is necessary.
This statement is true in both negative and positive senses: No one can guarantee that every authoritarian regime fighting a savage rear guard action will fail, and still less that any set of activists will succeed in forging a better and more democratic order. But, by the same token, the current juncture is no hiccup in the consolidation of authoritarian systems. It often seems as if there are two parallel universes, one of revolution and one of retrenchment, which periodically collide with varying degrees of violence. But then one only has to recall the bleak certitudes of Arab politics in decades past to appreciate that something has changed for good.
The new Arab politics is not all novel; it draws heavily, for instance, on tried-and-true nationalist themes. And it is shot through with tensions. It invites and embraces ethnic and religious minorities — Berbers, Copts, Kurds — as rarely before, but also has made minorities more vulnerable than previously. Women, too, are more deeply involved and their status more sharply contested. The new politics is transnational in ways that recall pan-Arabist yearnings, with aspiring change agents like the February 20 movement in Morocco or Girifna in Sudan learning from Tunisians, Egyptians and others. Social media both mimic the role of Nasser’s radio addresses and transcend their state-centered logic. It is also transnational in ways that invoke the ironies and unintended consequences of Arab interconnectedness. The lightning diffusion of unrest can be seen as blowback against regimes that exported labor instead of investing at home. Nomadic workers bereft of rights carried with them collective recognitions of the links between political and economic oppression. Life in the Gulf had its comforts, but no more freedoms; life in Europe had its liberties, but no less potent alienation. Migration also spread Islamism, both its political varieties and the stricter forms of religiosity associated with the rising middle class in many countries. But there is no grand vision that holds the new politics together, beyond the feeling that the system is broken and must be refashioned.
Everywhere, the horizons of the possible are broader. The regimes cannot restore the status quo, not in Syria, where perhaps half the country has slipped from the army’s grip, and not in Jordan, where the streets have mostly been quiet. From the Gulf to the ocean, to borrow another oddly appropriate referent of yesteryear, the citizenry is demanding — at the very least — greater accountability from its rulers and more substantive input into how it is ruled. These realities mandate a rethinking as well of old categories of analysis, even old notions of what sorts of change are progressive and where they come from in society. Again, not everything is different: Time-tested appeals to sectarian fear retain their power, as do the languages of foreign meddling, on the one hand, and “stability,” on the other. And there is indeed external interference aplenty, whether from rival Arab states or great powers overseas. But Arab politics was never entirely engineered and “stability” was never stasis. The bottom-up pressures that were once subterranean have burst above the surface, meaning that their effects will be multiplied.
A new Arab participatory politics has arrived. We expect to be chronicling its development in these pages for years to come.