The Arab Revolts: The Right to Celebrate

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Egyptians march in the coastal city of Alexandria, during celebrations marking one week after Egypt's long-time president Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office by the "25 January" revolutionaries. (Photo: AFP)

By: Amal Ghazal

Published Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On university campuses, in restaurants and in cafes, talk of celebrating what is taking place across the Arab World seems to be invariably met with calls for “sober” reflections given the uncertainties about the future. Similar scepticism has been voiced when the term revolution is uttered. While scepticism is a healthy frame of mind, how justified is the extra dose of cynicism one now encounters in public discussions of the uprisings?

Whether it is an uprising or a revolution, what took place seemed to be in the realm of the impossible before December 2010. The mere thought that citizens of the Arab world would en masse face their brutal and well-funded security regimes was wishful thinking. The decades-old oppressive practices of those regimes had instilled fear that was deeply embedded in these societies. Policies of political and economic marginalization had incapacitated and emasculated the populations involved. These regimes routinely displayed the different skills of punishment and control they mastered against their citizens. These skills were not necessarily employed against disobedience or opposition to the regime; they were not measures but rather policies against the collective citizenry, and were not periodic but rather systematic.

In Tunisia for example, going outside the touristic enclaves was enough to witness the miserable reality of everyday life for ordinary citizens. Tunisia under the now deposed Ben Ali was a country that catered to tourists and developers, and not to Tunisians: Piles of garbage abound in the areas not marked for tourism; the lack of means of transportation outside of Tunis and touristic sites was hard to miss; the alarming voice of the passengers on planes warning visitors like this author of the perils of carrying books into the country.

And yet despite all the oppression and the marginalization, and despite the realization that a web of international funding and diplomacy backed those regimes, the Arab citizen rose up, took the risk, confronted a monster and those feeding it.

If revolutions are about bringing fundamental changes, then certainly Arabs have already earned the name ‘revolutionaries.’ Breaking the wall of fear, silence, and political apathy, pushing their countries on the path of change, deeply shaking the status quo, feeling empowered as citizens are all, in the context of contemporary Arab politics, revolutionary acts. In Syria, until a few months ago, the image of masses marching in the streets chanting against Bashar Assad was unthinkable. Rather than judging what has been happening by long term goals, we should at least acknowledge the goals already achieved... and celebrate them.

While bringing down the demons of the past, ghosts of the future are being paraded in front of us. Chaos, sharia rule, civil wars, sectarian divisions, and economic instability are the scarecrows raised in face of the impulse to celebrate. As if change is not possible without full control of the future, near and far, that can guarantee the best outcome! Certainly there are different actors participating in that parade of fear mongering, some of them with genuine concern for the future of Arab societies. But the debate is disingenuous. Those are precious moments in Arab history and with significant implications for the future. If we choose to celebrate them, no one has the right to undermine them by fearing the future, however anxious we are about it. Those who have braved bullets, torture, and imprisonment until they shook the status quo were not utopia but seek a better future. They have no guarantees but have enough hopes. The fact that Arabs have now dreams and not nightmares only is indeed a revolution in itself.

Amal Ghazal is professor of History at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada.


This is really the time to celebrate. It’s the era of the people; It’s the era when the people across the Arab world have smashed the barriers of fear, which were solidly erected by the “March 14th & March 8th” regimes all across the Islamic world.

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