From Tunis and Tahrir to Wall Street, and Back Again


It doesn't look like much, the patch of asphalt where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight, igniting a pro-democracy revolution across the Arab world with his sacrifice. Yet, even nine months after the act that changed world history, I couldn't help but tremble as I stood on the same bit of street, trying to absorb the magnitude of his action, and the improbable chain of events it had set in motion.

The most intense wave of protests the world has witnessed since the era of post-War decolonisation began on a dusty street in a town not important enough to warrant its own exit off the highway.

But it was precisely the relative marginalisation of Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi's home town, which made his self-immolation so meaningful for people across Tunisia, and soon after the Arab world. The lack of hope or possibility to find decent work, or overcome the corruption and repression there that defined life in the town, was a microcosm of political and economic life in Tunisia under Zine Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt under Hosni Mubarak and most every other country in the region.

Six ingredients that have become paradigmatic in the Arab Spring were in place in Tunisia the fateful day of December 17 – a youthful population, an internet savvy, multi-lingual and cosmopolitan activist cadre, a working class that had already stood up to a bloody government crackdown, a religious movement with deep roots in society, a regime that had devolved from authoritarian to just plain mafia and a population that had lost all hope – and thus all fear.

Yet, if Tunisia provided the template for the Arab spring, its successful revolution – which this week culminated in the election of a well-known human rights campaigner as president – was never a reliable indicator of the possibility for democratic transitions across the wider Arab world.

Tunis is not Cairo; indeed, most of its population could likely be squeezed into Tahrir Square. In the end, the reality is that Tunisia was small enough to be allowed to fail. But countries like Egypt, Bahrain or Yemen – the next stops on the Arab world's still largely unpaved revolutionary road – were, and remain, a different story.

These countries are far too central to US and Western strategic and economic interests in the region for the US to have supported a democratic transition that might upend existing relationships and policies. Thus, the Obama Administration's unwillingness even to utter the word "democracy" until Mubarak's departure was imminent, offer more than mild criticism of the brutal crackdown against Bahrain's pro-democracy protests or to support a transition in Yemen not orchestrated by the starkly anti-democratic Saudis.

A system that refuses to die

The external and domestic interests aligned against democracy in a country like Egypt were precisely what made Hosni Mubarak's removal from power such an amazing event. I will never forget the sound of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians – over twenty times the number in Tunis – shouting with delirious joy when news flashed through the crowd in Tahrir that Mubarak had finally let go of the reins of power.

Only 24 hours before, in the wake of Mubarak's defiant speech refusing to step down, a sea of protesters were united in their willingness to die to force him out. It was a sense of unity that was as fleeting as it was powerful. But by the time crowds returned to Tahrir for celebratory speeches and concerts the day after he left, various religious forces had already started to hijack Tahrir for their purposes, much to the chagrin of those who had called it home for the previous 18 days.

Yet 10 months later, as I returned to Cairo for the third time this year, Tahrir was again "under occupation", to use a phrase that would have meant nothing to protesters last winter, but which now elicits pride among the Square's tent dwellers because of Egypt's role as the model for the global "Occupy" movement.

Today, however, protesters are fighting against a system that refuses to die. Chants such as "The people want the downfall of the system" were perhaps overly optimistic back in January, but few people expected the system to prove quite so resilient – even as no one thought that less than a month after the fall of Mubarak Cairenes would be ordering pizza for protesters in Madison, Wisconsin whom they inspired.

And it is precisely the strange mix of global reach and local weakness that is the most important legacy of Sidi Bouzid and Tahrir Square one year after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze, starting the whole process in motion. The seemingly contradictory phenomena are in fact intimately related, and point to several lessons that are not lost on activists from Wall Street, Tahrir and beyond as the global movement for democracy and economic justice that began in North Africa continues to grow.

First, democracy is a means, not an end. Electoral democracy might well become institutionalised in Tunisia and Egypt, but that does not mean that the primary goals of the revolutions – "Bread, Freedom and Dignity" – will be achieved. Indeed, the US and Europe have only negative lessons to offer the Arab world, as our own system today is so dominated by money and power that inequality and corruption are reaching "third world" levels while elections offer almost no hope of real changes in policy.

In such an environment, large-scale grassroots activism of the sort that has defined the Arab Spring and now the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement are the sine qua non for successful systemic political and economic transformation.

Don't count out the liberals

Second, occupying public space is absolutely crucial to occupying public consciousness. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions only succeeded when people got off of Facebook and took to the streets in large enough numbers to prevent the army from using large-scale violence against them. Similarly, OWS was able to raise issues of social justice and growing inequality only because of the hundreds of occupations that mushroomed across America.

Yet such occupations are incredibly hard to sustain long-term. Arab and Western activists have to figure out a way to institutionalise their presence without having to spend the huge amount of energy and resources it takes to occupy public spaces.

In Egypt, the government continues to jail, torture and kill activists. While less overtly violent, the increasing militarisation of policing and the stifling civil disobedience are harbingers of a far less open and democratic public sphere than we have experienced in generations. Indeed, standing amidst the violence in Tahrir reading tweets from Oakland and other cities and universities where police were forcefully dispersing protesters literally made my head spin.

Finally, liberals might have lost the elections, but don't count out the Left. Commentators have focused on religious movements and parties but the fact is that in Egypt it was the various socialist movements which did the crucial organising that enabled the revolution in February. Lenin and Trotsky played an equally, if not more important, role to non-violent resistance guru Gene Sharp in shaping the strategies of protest deployed by revolutionaries.

In fact, while liberal Egyptians look aghast at the rise of the Islamists, socialist and labour activists are setting about the hard work of building a base among the poor and working class. Their numbers are growing and include many religious activists who have been turned off by the Brotherhood's easy embrace of the corrupt and violent system that only recently oppressed them. A similar trend is apparent in Tunisia.

Ultimately, however, no matter how well organised the emerging democracy and justice movement become, transforming a global system that has taken decades and even centuries to evolve is a herculean task. Amidst the violence in Tahrir last week, as a dwindling number of occupiers fought off continual infiltrations and attacks by government agents, one of the protest leaders I'd spent much of the previous two weeks with pulled me aside and asked, choking back tears, whether I thought it was time to call it a day, at least for now.

"It's not for me to say," I replied. "But, as a historian, it seems that the struggle's only just begun."

"Of course," he answered, composing himself in the blink of an eye. "We are making history, and history takes time." With that he smiled and said good-bye, heading back into the battle.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books). 

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