Around a year ago we were reminiscing about how a decade had passed since the mass protests in Alexandria (Egypt) in June 2010 against the police murder of a young Egyptian, Khaled Mohamed Saeed,1 and since the start of the third Saharawi intifada in Gdeim Iziki2 (Occupied Western Sahara) in October 2010. We talked about how for us that marked the beginning of a life-changing epoch.
In the year that followed (2011) a wave of revolt spread throughout the whole Middle East and North Africa region, in what came to be called the ‘Arab Spring’. These uprisings were acknowledged as world-shaking events. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions ignited historic upheavals in North Africa and beyond. People there celebrated the toppling of the dictators, Ben Ali and Mubarak, and looked ahead towards meaningful change in their lives. These uprisings, like most revolutionary situations, released enormous energy – a collective effervescence, an unparalleled sense of renewal and a shift in political consciousness.
The peoples of the region are all too familiar with the racist stereotype and contemptuous cliché embodied in the facile falsehood that ‘Arabs and Muslims are not fit for democracy and they are incapable of governing themselves’. The imperial and colonial dominance over the region has led to it being seen in some quarters as a homogeneous entity that can be systematically reduced through negative tropes. Seen through this distorting lens, the region evokes images of conflict and wars, ruthless dictators and passive populations, terrorism and extremism, as well as rich oil reserves and expansive deserts. This orientalist imaginary and the rigid representation of ‘the other’, as well as having the power to ‘block narratives’, are hallmarks of a political and geographic violence that is produced by imperialism.4
The uprisings shattered many of these stereotypes and debunked many myths. The wind of revolution that began to blow in 2011 spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman. The emancipatory experience was contagious, inspiring people all over the world: activists in Madrid, London and New York, whether calling themselves the Occupy Movement or the Indignados, were all proud to ‘Walk like an Egyptian’. Although the last three to four decades have seen attempts to delegitimize meaningful and radical change through revolution, following the shortcomings and defeat of decolonization efforts in various parts of the global South, and although counter-revolutionary onslaughts will always seek to crush the will of the people – revolutions and uprisings for emancipation continue (and will continue).
For both of us, as for many activists, the pride and hope that these events generated remains deeply personal and political. Our career paths, activism and world-views were shaped by this formative political experience. We participated in conferences/round-tables celebrating and analysing these historical events, we marched with our peoples in protests, and we were involved in various solidarity initiatives. We discussed, debated and disagreed with friends and comrades. Sometimes we felt hopeful, at others sad and dispirited. Above all, we learnt a great deal: engaging with revolutionary praxis offers a unique source of knowledge.
Nevertheless, we cannot deny that what started as inspiring uprisings against authoritarianism and oppressive socio-economic conditions, demanding bread, justice and dignity, morphed into violence and chaos, profound polarizations, counter-revolution and foreign intervention. The various people’s movements in the region found themselves pitted against entrenched authoritarian and counter-revolutionary forces bent on suppressing them. All were met with resistance from the state, often in conjunction with global capital and foreign interference. The military coup in Egypt ended up restoring a much more ruthless and repressive form of dictatorship. The brutal descent into civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and the series of crackdowns in Gulf countries like Bahrain, provide examples of the cruel logic of proxy war so reminiscent of the colonial schemes with which the region and its people are all too familiar. Tunisia, which had seemed to be the exception in this gloom and doom, is now in a very fragile position. Moreover, the deep polarizations (e.g. Islamists versus secularists) imposed on the masses have distracted them from the key socio-economic issues that were at the heart of the uprisings in the first place.
Some mainstream commentators have argued that the ‘Arab Spring’ gave way to an ‘Islamist winter’ (with Islamist forces coming to power in some countries). Some progressive voices have been less pessimistic and have presented a more historically nuanced perspective, arguing that these events should be seen as part of a long-term revolutionary process, with ups and downs, periods of radicalization and periods of setback and counter-revolution. This latter view received some vindication when, eight years after the 2010/11 events, an escalation of the revolutionary process took place, in the form of a second wave of uprisings in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon (2018–21), alongside the return to the spotlight in 2021 of the unending and heroic struggle of the Palestinians – all of which reveals people’s determination to continue fighting for their rights and sovereignty.
All of these momentous events between 2010 and 2021 have opened new horizons for people to express their discontent and demand radical change and reforms, forcing almost every government in the region to concede on issues – both political and economic.