Review: Ten Lessons from the Arab Revolution

“Mr. President, today I am speaking in name of myself and of all the people who are suffering in 2011. There are still people dying of hunger who want to work to survive.” With these angry words, sung against a somber, dull, and repetitive beat, the rap artist El Général addresses “Rayes Lebled”—Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the then-president of Tunisia.

The video, which begins with an old clip of the former president scaring a schoolboy to tears, was uploaded to YouTube in November 11, 2010, six days before Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself, precipitating a series of protests that ended with the ouster of Ben Ali. And it is this sort of detail that Jean-Pierre Filiu uses to piece together in The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising, extracting a set of supra-narratives from the revolts that have sent tremors throughout the Arab world.

Through specific references to a whole tapestry of bloggers, rappers, and the YouTube videos that went viral, Filiu brings to life the forces behind the events. He references Lak3y’s “Tunisia is fine” and Malek Khemiri’s and Armada Bizerta’s “Music of the Revolution” (dedicated to Bouazizi), and traces this phenomenon through Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and the diaspora community in Europe and North America.

Yet the printed word pales in comparison to the capacity of the Internet to allow us to relive history. The fact that you can watch many of the original videos that moved thousands, see the exact dates they were uploaded, and read the comments made at that time, is mesmerizing.

The depth of his research and knowledge of the undercurrents comes to light most vividly when he describes the Internet movement as inextricably linked with the youth movement. As he explains in lesson three (“Anger is power for the younger”): “If there is an Arab exception, it is an exceptionally young population.” Their sense of disillusionment illustrated in the contrast between the current generation, who were born and became adults under the same presidential gaze as that of their parents, despite “no war of independence or nationalist struggle to justify this kind of permanence.”

Shifting the burden of agency to the youth, Filiu also weighs into the wider debate over transitions to democracy. The argument put forward by Samuel Huntington in Political Order in Changing Society and applied by Francis Fukuyama to the Middle East—that it is the middle class who guarantee a transition to democracy as they mobilize against a system that does not provide them economic and political opportunities—is wrong, he says: “The emasculation of the bourgeoisie and the cooption of the middle class invalidated in Tunisia the sociological narrative of any smooth transition to democracy.” This is not to say that the middle class played no role; they are the silent majority, and thus a vital link in the causal chain. But that they were not the catalysts of change.

The speed in which this book was written—Filiu finished it in April 2011, only a few months after the outbreak of the revolts—has some drawbacks. Some of it reads awkwardly. He mixes past and present tenses when he refers to events taking place as he writes, while, at the same time, attempts to draw broad conclusions. For example, he makes a reference to a “former opposition party, now included in the ‘national unity government,’” which was already defunct some months after printing.

However, it’s clear he feels a sense of urgency, even duty, in writing The Arab Revolution. Filiu sees the uprisings as the closure of a period of history which started with the events of 9/11 and that has been marked by very negative associations of the Arab world. He is even more interested in the way these uprisings correct misconceptions that reach back decades, even centuries.

It is in this sense that the term “revolution” in the title must be understood. The uprisings have not caused a complete change, even in those countries that have managed to overthrow the head of state; much of the regime apparatus and modus operandi either remains intact or has only been superficially altered. However, Filiu is not so interested in this sense of the word. The revolution, according to the author, is in people’s attitudes and the message that these send to the world about who they are. And if there is one lesson that he would like us to take home, it is that, “Arabs are no exception.” Much ink has been spilt in trying to explain why the Arabs endured under dictatorial regimes for so long. The uprisings have proven that there is nothing inherent in Arab culture or the Arab mindset to explain this. Arabs want freedom and democracy as much as anyone else.

Inevitably, some predictions he makes have been proven wrong. For example, he sees the popularity of the army in Egypt and Tunisia enhanced by the uprisings. Had he written the book a little later, he would have had to factor in the negative performance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in directing the Egyptian transition.

But it is with Syria that he is proved wrong the most. He makes much of the commitment of the protesters there to peaceful means, but the violent turn that events have taken there seems to trump this conclusion. Also, his theory that armies switch sides when they realize that sticking to the regime threaten the stability of the country is devoid of meaning when we look at what has now happened in Syria. What these exceptions do, however, is inform us of the fact that Syria is a sui generis case among the Arab uprisings.

He does, on the other hand, frequently hit the mark, as with his claim that Yemen is a country where the jihadis are most interested in a bloody showdown and that the latter would, in general (for example in Syria, with the car bombs attacks) benefit from any “counter-revolutionary campaign that would roll back the peaceful protests.” It is also further validated by more recent reports that forces loyal to former president Abdullah Saleh are stoking the fire between the army and Islamic extremists to create chaos.

It is easy to explain some of his errors in judgment; the fact that he is writing so soon after the uprisings started make him overtly optimistic. However, the basic lesson that the Arab world has changed profoundly and irrevocably, and not the punctual predictions, are the major takeaways in this thought-provoking book.

Jose Vericat is an Adviser at the International Peace Institute