‘A revolution takes time’

Marwan Bishara, political analist Al-Jazeera

Marwan Bishara, political analist of Al-Jazeera English, and producer and host of Empire, a programme that discusses world leaders and their agendas, was one of the prominent guests at the Friends of Europe congress on the Arab Spring. For Bishara, the Arab Spring is first and foremost a political revolution of consciousness. “The revolutionary seed has been sown,” he says. “A step backwards is no longer possible.”

Marwan Bishara does not have a gloomy take on the future of the Arab revolution; not even if elections do not lead to real change, reforms do not go far enough, or uprisings are suppressed with bloodshed. For this former professor of international law at the American University of Paris, emphasising what goes wrong out of so-called realism is a form of cynicism which has a negative effect.

What kind of evolution do you see in the Arab world?

Marwan Bishara: That depends from country to country. In Northern Africa they are heading towards stability despite everything. There will be times of social unrest but, in general, each step backwards will be followed by two steps forward. In the Middle East the situation is a lot more complicated. Syria might collapse completely and sink into a civil war that could expand to the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. If we add the Palestinian issue, this may lead to a long lasting civil war and a repartition of those countries. But the situation might as well be resolved in Yemen-style by inserting a transitional period. In the Gulf States, it is even more complicated. There is a lot of money and a lot of conservatism. Things will take more time and change will be slower. But in general, what began in Tunisia will continue to spread through the Arab world.

Initially the revolutions were welcomed with a lot of enthusiasm, even euphoria. But due to the bloody turn of events, that enthusiasm has given way to pessimism. Even your take on the situation is not particularly rosy. Can we therefore actually speak of an Arab Spring?

Marwan Bishara: In the 1950s when Chinese leader Zhou Enlai was asked his opinion of the French Revolution more than a century after it had taken place, he said that one hundred years was far too early to comment on anything. The Arab Spring merely started just over a year ago. It is far too soon to draw conclusions. Several scenarios are possible and no revolutions come without a price. Revolution in itself is a historical breaking point: breaking in itself entails violence; spiritual or physical violence. That is why what we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt is the dream, the exception that confirms the rule. The Arab revolutions began peacefully but then got complicated, and in my opinion, that is a normal chain of events. Of course it is painful and annoying. There is the collapse of Syria and there was the foreign intervention in Libya. But that is the result of dictatorships that lasted decades. Some have weakened, others have succeeded in building a strong security apparatus that enabled them to fend off civil and revolutionary uprisings. But one thing is for sure, whether it is in Yemen, Bahrain or Syria, a step backwards is not possible.

How can you be so sure of that?

Marwan Bishara: There has been a break with the past. I think that the revolutionary seed has created a new Arab consciousness, capable of ending the state of fear. That is very important. In every country people have found new ways to resist and yet simultaneously to stay true to the principles of democracy and humanism.

What are these new means of resistance?

Marwan Bishara: The use of social networks and new media when organising the resistance; occupation of streets and squares; social and revolutionary communication that came into being in every country and between the activists in the different countries; holding on to peaceful protest and manifestation. Even when the regime answered with violence, people succeeded in organising themselves in different ways and hung on. In Syria, for example, there is some sort of autonomy, a sort of self-organisation in the villages and the cities.

In Syria there may be self-organisation in the villages and the cities, but there is also the Free Syrian Army, the foreign meddling and the weapons from abroad.

 Marwan Bishara: Indeed that is the result of the bloodiness of the regime and the fact that a part of the population and a part of the army are forced to take up arms to defend themselves. In most cases and despite the deaths of thousands of people, both the armed Syrians and the Free Syrian Army were merely defending themselves initially. We cannot judge people who defend themselves. I would love for all revolutions to happen peacefully but these regimes did not allow for this.

How do you see the situation in Syria evolving? 

Marwan Bishara: There are 4 scenarios: one is the so-called Algerian scenario and the Syrian regime is counting on that one. It is backed by Russia impeding every international intervention and continuing to suppress the revolt, as was seen in Algeria in the nineties. The regime hopes to permanently bury the revolt. Secondly, there is the Libyan scenario, a military intervention, but that seems unlikely to me now. But if the situation continues to deter, the country is headed towards civil war and ethnic cleansing and, in that case, we have a Balkan scenario on our hands in which there are interventions without an international mandate. That was the case in 1998 in Kosovo and Belgrade. I believe that the best and least bloody scenario is the Yemeni one, in which Bashar al-Assad is deposed under international pressure and replaced by the vice president. In that case, a transitional period will arise and people will begin democratising the system and setting up elections.

The first round of the elections in Egypt ended in a victory for Ahmed Shafiq, a former co-worker of Mubarak.

Marwan Bishara: The question asked about Egypt is: are we one year past the revolution or one year into the revolution? If we assume this is one year after the revolution then Shafiq’s election is somewhat strange. But if we consider what is happening now as part of the revolution, then it is only normal the regime tries to

The Arab revolutions started out peacefully but then got complicated; I believe that is normal.
n back part of its power. The complex political situation in Egypt and the complex security situation in Syria are indeed a step or two backwards. But generally this will, I believe, be a mere detail opposed to the pushing of the people which ends up lasting.  

Equally characteristic for the situation in Egypt is the discord between the revolutionaries. Even with regards to participating in the elections they disagreed.

Marwan Bishara: What we know about revolutions is that they are either totalitarian or they fight totalitarianism. The Bolshevists, Chinese and Iranian revolutions were totalitarian: one group of people with revolutionary ideas imposed a particular reality on the rest. The Arab revolutions are not totalitarian revolutions but revolts against totalitarianism. That entails participation in this people’s revolution and of all sorts of institutions and structures. If elections are hurried, then you have the mentality of the past and not the mentality of the future. What we now see in Egypt and in other countries is not the revolutionary situation and its future potential. What we see is the mentality of the people after decades of totalitarian regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salaphists, for example, are not a result of the revolution. But the revolution shed light on what was already there in the society. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salaphists have become popular through the dictatorship. When people got the chance to vote they voted for the people they knew and who they knew opposed the regime. A revolution takes time. A revolution also means starting a social and intellectual revolution, a revolution in education and so on, and that will take a lot of time.

And what about women in all of this? It is often said that their situation has deteriorated. Look at the election results in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. 

Marwan Bishara: There has definitely been a setback in the position of women. Not only deterioration from the point of equality but also - and especially - with regards to their presence on the squares and their leading role in the revolutions. That leading role has not translated to the results of the elections. That is due to the conservatism and the non-revolutionary structure of the political parties and institutions. In this transitional period, women do not receive what they deserve, but there is hope that the revolutionary seed will strive towards equality, and that democratic and humanistic values pave the way for a much larger role for women in both social movements and political structures.

What can Europe do to help these revolutions? Is that a legitimate question? Is it possible to help? 

Marwan Bishara: Let Europe stop damaging the revolutions. At this point in time, Europe still holds a double standard. Terms are being set to collaborate with Annahda in Tunisia, but for collaboration with a far more conservative regime, like that of Saudi Arabia, there are no restrictions. That is bad for Europe’s credibility. Europe can also help by developing a vision for the whole of the Arab world instead of working together with each country separately. This way Europe can enhance the collaboration between the Arab countries.

Isn’t that the Arab countries’ task - to work better together?

Marwan Bishara: Of course. The Arabs must take their responsibility but we are talking about Europe here. Europe has a role to play and that should be a constructive one. Saying that each country or each block is chasing its own interests and that that unfortunately is the reality, is cynical and has a negative effect. In the current revolutionary environment we are speaking of an opportunity and not of realism.

Qatar played, plays and wants to play. What does Qatar want?

Marwan Bishara: In Qatar, the political leaders are enthusiastic about the new situation. This is regarded as a chance to come into action and to help the people in the struggle against dictatorship. I do not know what the underlying reasons are but apparently they are investing in these profitless revolutions, visible profits anyway. Qatar cannot even play a decisive role in what is happening. And whoever dislikes Qatar’s role should play its own.

Has the image of the Arab changed thanks to the Arab Spring?

Marwan Bishara: In each movement, from Spain to Beijing, people are talking about the Arab world. Everyone refers to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and that has influenced the image of the Arab for the better. Of course, people who seek to create doubts surrounding the possibilities and capabilities of the people in the Arab world to progress towards democracy and human rights will continue to do so. But in general people today no longer see the Arab world in the same way as before the revolutions.

What are now the largest challenges for the revolutions?

Marwan Bishara: There are obviously different levels. The first is writing constitutions that make it possible to transfer power. Secondly, there is a need to work towards sustainable development where we can put an end to hunger and discrimination. There is also a need for collaboration, not only within a country but between countries.

You said that a democratic revolution is not possible without intellectual revolution.

Marwan Bishara: The economic situation is not the only determining factor. You also need an intellectual revolution that brings about a deeper meaning of democracy, on things like equality, the rights of women and minorities, and citizenship. And that revolution is now in full effect.

Marwan Bishara is author of the book The Invisible Arab. The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions, published at the beginning of 2012.

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