Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Ahmed Douma, leading Egyptian revolutionaries, wrote these words in 2014 for the Mada Masr piece “Graffiti for Two…Alaa and Douma.” Abd El-Fattah and Douma have spent most of the last decade in jail, much of it in solitary confinement. The uncomfortable coexistence of hope and despair in the experiences of a single revolutionary such as Abd El-Fattah challenge common understandings of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Abd El-Fattah’s story, along with the experiences of so many other individuals, show that it is misleading to conclude that hope for change dominated a decade ago only to be replaced now by despair at failure.
If despair is treason, what about hope? At least despair speaks frankly. Hope is treacherous and tricky. Is there any treason uglier than the one committed in the name of a hope you held? … Hope, like despair, is treason. But also, like despair, it’s a normal human weakness. Here in my cell I wrestle with my dreams and my nightmares, and I don’t know which hurts most. Despair and hope pull at me—but I am never a traitor.
A decade after the 2011 uprisings, it is abundantly clear that those mass struggles for political control in the Middle East and North Africa were the most significant events of our times. As MERIP editors documented, regimes and their security men in capital after capital were squarely presented with a course of politics that they could not control. Broad swaths of the population had realized that fashioning meaningful change was possible, no matter how sure the political elite’s grip on power seemed. Ten years on, the temptation to find an easy explanation for it all remains pervasive. Expert observers often deploy metaphors as they imagine protests and resistance flowing into civil wars, Islamic winters or bends back to authoritarianism. Successes and failures are defined and categorized to produce cautionary tales and tough lessons. This simplistic thinking—the search for a dependable algorithm amidst revolutionary contingencies—is understandable yet it must be resisted. Equally, we reject thinking of 2011 in commemorative terms. Instead, MERIP prefers to examine defeat and destruction not as ends but as lenses to understand the power on display then and what it means for advancing political change now. Too much blame has fallen on the Arab revolutionaries for their lack of a radical drive or their youthful naivety. It must be remembered that political power is relational, possessed at times but always contested.
The many forces of counterrevolution in the twenty-first century must also be considered along with the revolutions. Counterrevolutions today are not confined to internal political forces within a given state: They operate on regional and transnational scales. Temporally, they are dynamic and shift in response to undercurrents of power, contestation and fluctuation in revolutionary momentum. Thus, reducing the role of counterrevolutions to discreet events of potential victory is as misleading as fixing revolutionary moments in time. The catastrophic violence of counterrevolution has the potential to crush people power. But that violence can never return society to the time before the protests and before the sacrifices, nor can it dictate a closure of the events.
In exploring the changes wrought by the 2011 uprisings, observers must keep the revolutionary subject at the forefront. After all, it is the individuals, social classes and collective actors who propel revolutions, which embody their dreams as much as their political limitations. What are revolutions at the end of the day? Some schools of thought suggest revolutions should be understood in terms of dualities. For example, one way to view a revolution is as aspirations (for the ideal or a utopia) in contrast to realism, in which case there are tensions between idealists and pragmatic revolutionary actors. Another duality views revolutions as liberatory and also as totalizing experiences. In this sense, successful revolutions can lead to an emancipatory society, but they also have the potential to pave the way for an autocratic regime (such as France in the early 1800s). Revolutions can also be understood both as a movement and as a change, which corresponds to the common differentiation between revolutionary situation and revolutionary outcome. There is, however, another duality, often forgotten but vitally important—revolution and the revolutionaries. We cannot understand revolutions without genuine consideration of revolutionary actors’ dreams, bravery, struggles, uncertainties and traumas, at home and in exile. Only if we consider these aspects seriously will we be able to make sense of the perplexing experiences of Arab revolutionary subjects and their lives of hope and despair.
Histories of Struggle
On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire. This act was the trigger for the first big wave of Arab uprisings of 2011. Countless self-sacrifices followed. But 2011 was not just a beginning, it represented a saturation point of years of conflict and struggle, such as the Kefaya movement and a long history of labor strikes in Egypt, determined social protest in Bahrain and simmering opposition in parts of Syrian society.
To the ears of a North American op-ed audience, Arabs waking up in 2011 to demand “democracy” fit accepted Middle Eastern tropes. This conception of democracy, however, tended to ignore protesters’ actual demands for dignity, social justice and popular control. From the Egyptian bread riots in the late 1970s, the 1979 Iranian revolution and through the 1987 Palestinian intifada, these tenacious demands crop up again and again. Put another way, protesters have been asking for quite some time the important question: democracy for what and democracy for who? Their demands also show how it is impossible to separate the social goals of the Arab revolutions from their political ones, not only because protesters’ grievances connected the economic and the political (bread, liberty and human dignity) but also because some of the key actors were drawn from the middle-class poor, the marginalized poor, the working classes and members of the trade unions. The global media’s fixation on young Arabs with iPhones flattened these critical contours. Such conceits invited the absurd conclusion that Arab revolutions aspired for the West’s form of proceduralist democracy at a time when that politics has been decaying, its institutions and conventions steadily submitting to nativist and militaristic ends.
As the philosopher Walter Benjamin stated in his famous Theses on History, revolution and redemption are twins in history. Benjamin suggests that all revolutions are acts of redemption for past failed revolutions or past injustices. In this sense, looking at the last decade through a count of seemingly decisive outcomes creates a narrow and impoverished picture of what was really accomplished.A fairer approach includes the many successes and redemptions that Arab revolutionaries have achieved: The fact that some Arab countries have had free elections for the first time in their modern history, that people witnessed bloody dictators fleeing from their citizens or performing illness and lying in bed behind bars in court, that they saw security officers hiding or running away in underwear, that they debated publicly and in the streets about the fate of constitutional assemblies and how people can be sovereign and in control on the ground. These were genuinely redemptive episodes. People will continue remembering them for decades to come even if some are now experiencing the trauma of exile. A fair assessment of the past decade requires seeing defeats and redemptions as still unfolding.
For instance, to believe that Syrians’ quest for justice axiomatically paved the road to civil war ignores the decisions, pressures and regional dynamics that persuaded the opposition to take up arms. And to fault Egyptian revolutionaries for their obsession with Tahrir is to ignore the square’s historical legacy as the site of the barracks where anti-colonial protesters demonstrated against the British occupation. Defeat of a political movement can be decisive, for a time at least. Collective efforts to recover generate new action for redemption, however small or temporary at first sight. Starting in 2018 protesters in Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq and Sudan began a new wave of actions with different tactics and different goals. The truth is that nobody, experts or revolutionaries alike, can claim that they have been able to predict what happens next, after Bouazizi’s tragic death or this year’s military coup in Sudan.
The revolutionaries of 2011 sensibly sought the defeat of the foe in front of them—the incumbent regimes and their power-wielding classes. As Asef Bayat notes, however, every revolution carries within it the germ of its counterrevolution. Initially successful movements eventually develop gaps—whether from uneven leadership or weak alliances—that elites can leverage. The seeds of counterrevolution in 2011 were not present only in the nation-state or the forces of the old regime. Decades of American security and budgetary assistance to Egypt and Jordan, reinforced with their own massive coercive budgets, bought some protection. Egyptian security organizations at first held back, but after they got away with killing peaceful Coptic protesters at Maspero in October 2011, they went on to commit the Rabaa massacre of hundreds of Muhammad Mursi’s supporters in August 2013. Washington’s most important ally in the so-called global War on Terror, Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, deployed its deep capacities for surveillance and intimidation to keep the ruling Hashemite regime from facing anything resembling a 2011 Tahrir moment. Similarly, decades of weapons and security technology sales to Gulf rulers emboldened a new generation of autocrats. The Saudi regime started with preemptively trying to contain the Yemeni uprising through the usual elite deal making and bilateral bribery. When stability did not emerge, Saudi Arabia—along with the United Arab Emirates—intervened with US weapons, training and support to inaugurate the greatest humanitarian disaster in modern Arabian Peninsula history.
Eric Hobsbawm’s admonishment to revolutionaries is, however, also apt for counterrevolutionaries: “The evident importance of the actors in the drama does not mean that they are also dramatist, producer, and set-designer.” Ruling families, autocrats, their military and intelligence apparatus and bourgeoisie allies may pull in similar directions, but they collaborate in different moments and with different logics. Their control over political and economic resources generates obstacles and bottlenecks for social movements, but that control is uneven and filled with dilemmas, it hardly guarantees outcomes.
Since 2011, the International Monetary Fund—perched at the top of this insecure labor network—has cast off its failed promises and snapped back with funding to buttress shaken elites in Amman, Tunis, Cairo and Rabat. Washington never interrupted its security aid while the ruling families of the Gulf augmented their military muscle with increased levels of funding and employment for regional allies—President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt received billions, while the Gulf Cooperation Council offered membership to the monarchs of Jordan and Morocco. This web of “authoritarian neoliberalism” seems massively entrenched, but it is a shallow and, in places, fragile order. The same old prescriptions for governance, entrepreneurship, privatization and free trade hold no more promise for success than they did in the 1980s. What regional public statistics we have agree with more specific socioeconomic accounts. Youth unemployment, rural dislocation and social inequality measures topped global levels before 2011 and have continued to do so since. Educational inequality, decaying infrastructure and increased poverty confront Arabs every day. For the allies of this costly order, there is no way forward except crisis management: cut some subsidies, deport labor, protect military and security budgets and deploy the tools of violence.
And yet once the dust settles, the opposition remains. Yemenis and their political demands are not going away. They are embedded in the fabric of Gulf politics. Jordanian King Abdullah and Egypt’s Sisi cannot take their countries back to the relative comfort (for the ruling elite) of the 1990s. The tools they use to exile, repress and destroy cannot fashion political power anew.
The Experience of the Revolutionary Subject
We started this essay with the words of two Arab revolutionaries reflecting on the entanglement of hope and despair. It is a grave mistake to analyze revolutions without giving proper attention to their main actors. But who is the revolutionary? To understand the full scope of the revolutionary subject’s engagement and experiences, the philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s tripartite model to describe the production of social space can be a useful framework. Three kinds of revolutionary actors can thus be delineated, although individuals may fall into more than one of these categories and will have different ideas about the kind of change they are working toward. One type of actor is those who lived and experienced the revolution, which is the revolutionary in an ethnographic and sociological sense. Secondly, there are those who are revolutionaries in the political sense, who engage with and manage the political struggles while the revolution is ongoing. Finally, there are those who perceived the revolution in a philosophical and historical way or in the larger social sense. It is only this last type of revolutionary subject that makes the outcome their primary concern. Thus, when some scholars suggested that Arab revolutionaries were not revolutionary enough, they reduced the understanding of revolutionary to the one instance that is primarily concerned about the outcome. This narrow understanding not only presumes a universal objective consensus around the meaning of the revolutionary subject, but it also strips Arab revolutionaries of their experience of the revolution.
Not only that, whether because of the persistence of Orientalist tropes or the dominance of paradigms associated with certain classical revolutions, when scholars think of actors, they focus on revolutionary leaders. Focusing on leadership and leaders is understandable. But revolutions on the ground are a blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary. If observers look only for a Lenin or Trotsky, or Khomeini or Castro (let alone continuing to look for them in other centuries and decades), they will lose sight of the full spectrum of actors. More attention must be paid to the revolutionary armies and ordinary citizens who participated in a given revolt to understand the complexities of its trajectory.
Embracing a larger set of actors also requires a close examination of their varied positions and how they shift over time. Human agency has different properties, such as intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. Many revolutionary actors may seem only reactive now, owing to the viciousness of counterrevolutions, but they continue to self-reflect. They were the proactive forces that launched uncertain change; they turned the region upside down. In Egypt and the other Arab uprisings, actors disagreed on the ground and in the aftermath of their revolts. Some did not participate in the initial days but joined later. Some that were the most radical at first later collaborated with old elites when so-called transitions started. Defining the revolutionary in a static way is inadequate and ahistorical. Aspirations and political struggle coexist uneasily and the troubled trajectories of revolution in turn shape the lives and reflect the pain of those actors.
Between revolution and counterrevolution and between the subject and their experience, power has been consistently shifting. It has been a dialectic all along. The hope and despair of Abd El-Fattah and Douma reveal their dreams of a better life. There is no easy lesson but instead an invitation to look at how Arab revolutionaries and ordinary subjects’ lives changed forever, as much as the region changed forever. After all, as literary theorist Terry Eagleton commented, “Revolutions are about the shattering of identities as much as the construction of them, the generation of fantasy and disorder as well as of political constitutions. If they are not, then we probably know just about enough, historically speaking, to predict with some confidence that they will fail—fail, at least, in all the most fundamental ways.”
The Arab uprisings did indeed destabilize the identities and lives of their participants for life, even if they did not bring about the desired change. Identities may be shattered now, but they are ready to be reformed as people across the region continue the struggle for human dignity, freedom and social justice in ways large and small.
[Pete Moore is the Marcus A. Hanna Associate Professor in Politics at Case Western Reserve University and currently visiting Kuwait Chair at Sciences Po in Paris. Atef Said is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.]
 George Lawson, Anatomies of Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
 Asef Bayat, Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2017).
 Amina Riad Zarrugh, “’Only God Knows:’ The Emergence of a Family Movement Against State Violence in Libya,” Doctoral dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin. 2016.
 Manuel Castells, Rupture: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy (John Wiley & Sons, 2018). Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
 Özgür Gökmen, “Five Years After the Arab Uprisings: An Interview with Asef Bayat,” Jadaliyya, April 30, 2016.
 Cited in Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p.18, footnote 45.
 Albert Bandura, “Toward a Psychology of Human Agency,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1/2 (2006).
 Terry Eagleton, “Foreword,” in Kristin Ross, ed. The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) p. vi.