The New Arabs
While my family and I were paying our respects to the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen and his gold-plated sarcophagus in a side room at the Cairo Museum, one of the guards abruptly forced us out of the room and then out of the building. Soon I learned that what I took for rudeness was desperation: something bad was coming.
That morning, August 1, 2011, my wife, my son, and I had finally found a free moment to visit the venerable museum, a scandalous jumble of poorly labeled precious antiquities less on display than randomly dumped here and there. The building is around the corner from Tahrir Square, where thousands of youth had assembled to push for the trial of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and of policemen who had killed demonstrators during the revolution earlier that year. Forty-five minutes before closing time, the guards had begun herding us out, declaring that the museum was closing early for the fasting month of Ramadan. It was a well-intentioned lie.
When we exited the building into the blinding daylight showering Tahrir Square, we discovered shirtless soccer fanatics, called “Ultras,” frantically pounding on the metal barricades with plastic bottles and other instruments. They were clearly sending a warning signal, and we did not have to look far to see the reason. Armored vehicles were pulling up on side streets with what looked like ninja police pouring out of them, armed with batons. Now we understood the panic of the museum guards: they had not wanted the tourists to get caught in the middle of the coming melee.
We half-ran, half-walked toward Talaat Harb Square a few blocks away, where we caught a taxi. I told the driver what was going on and that we wanted him to take us away from the scene as quickly as possible. There had
been stories of foreigners arrested at Tahrir Square or having their cameras broken by overzealous police, and I imagined all the photos and videos I had taken that summer of the demonstrations, posters, banners, and graffiti being crushed beneath the heel of one of those black boots.
As is frequently the case with Cairo cabbies, he completely disregarded my request. Instead, he circled around and drove us as fast as he could back toward Tahrir Square. Then we got caught in Cairo’s notorious traffic, right next to the armored vehicles and the security police, who occasionally peered suspiciously into the taxi. I was petrified that they were going to demand our passports and accuse us of being spies or saboteurs. My camera would have contained all the evidence they needed. They would not have wanted foreign witnesses to what they were about to do.
The taxi inched its tortuous way forward. We could still hear the anxious drumming of the self-appointed guardians of the square, which was festooned with tents, banners, and posters demanding change. The police methodically tapped their open palms with their batons. Two approached our car from the front and I froze. They looked in at us with curiosity. But they were just crossing the street.
After an eternity, the taxi reached the square and turned right, toward the Nile island of Zamalek, and made its way down a highway lined with more armored vehicles, beside which masses of police and soldiers stood. Every inquisitive glance was a threat.
Finally, we were away. I exhaled in relief as we crossed the October 6 Bridge over the languorous Nile. Not long after, we heard that all the protesters had been chased away, all the tents pulled down, and all the banners and posters trampled. Some of the banners had demanded the resignation of the military government, and the military had given its reply.
• • •
Young people are the key to the rapid political and social change in the Arab countries that have been in turmoil since 2011.1
Activist youth returned to Tahrir Square again and again in 2011 to 2013 despite the attempts of the military and various postrevolutionary governments to repress them. In spring–summer 2013, the youth Rebellion Movement against the Muslim Brotherhood managed to unseat its president. The military this time posed
as an ally of the youth and made a coup on the backs of the millions of young people who came to the streets. Thereafter, the officers went back to jailing young activists in a continued quest to put the genie back in the bottle. My focus in this book is not on the politics of the presidents, generals, and prime ministers of what some call the “Arab Spring” but rather the networked movements of young people that played such an important role in these events. Not all cohorts of teenagers and twenty-somethings produce movements centered on their identity as youth, with a set of organizations, symbols, repertoires of social action, and demands rooted at least partly in the distinctive problems besetting people of their age. The Arab millennials did, and they forever changed their societies.2
While they were by no means the only important social actors, youth associations played an outsized role in provoking and shaping these upheavals.3
This effective activism was all the more remarkable given the patriarchal and regimented character of Arab society. A young Egyptian from the Suez Canal port of Ismailia said after the revolution, “We have made this revolution. Our families were used to keeping quiet. We didn’t keep quiet. We went out to get our dream.”4
The massive crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo in January and February 2011 pushed the long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak out of power and brought down one of the Middle East’s most powerful governments. The protesters in Cairo had taken their inspiration from similar events in Tunisia in December and January. In turn, youthful crowds challenged their rulers in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Smaller movements produced hurried cosmetic changes in Jordan, Morocco, and Oman. Attempts by the erratic dictator Muammar Gaddafi to crush Libya’s protest movement with tanks and artillery led to a United Nations Security Council plea for outside intervention—answered in sometimes problematic ways by NATO and the Arab League—and evolved into civil war. In June and July 2013 millions of Egyptian youth came out for an encore performance, driving from office their first elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and signaling that Arab youth were not done fashioning their future. The networked youth movements protested the idea of presidents for life being succeeded by their sons in a kind of dynastic succession. They rejected censorship, arbitrary arrest, police brutality, and torture. They developed a concept of personal freedom emphasizing
the dignity and autonomy of citizens with regard to their bodies, convictions, and lifestyles (an entire Egyptian nongovernmental organization was formed around this notion). It is unsurprising that they had only partial success in pressing for the implementation of their ideals in the three years after the fall of the dictators. What is surprising is that in societies dominated by police states for decades, these millennials made new social and media spaces in which their demands could be voiced and small steps could be taken toward achieving them.
The most consequential organizations for the overthrow of long-serving dictators in the region’s republics were made up of left-liberal youth living in towns and cities, and so they are my primary focus.5
They were distinguished by their preference for a horizontal model of organization instead of a hierarchy, so that leadership tended not to be centralized. They had years of experience in dissidence, beginning in the early twenty-first century, and in avoiding political taboos. That is, their predecessors had often identified political groups with whom they refused to work, whereas the engaged youth often had wider horizons and were more pragmatic, possibly because their preference for interactive networks and horizontal organization made an inclusive approach easy and a sectarian one difficult.
My travels in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have given me a good sense of the issues on the ground. Not only was I able to interview and talk to a wide range of participants in these dramatic events, but I was able to collect rare pamphlets and books and to photograph posters, placards, graffiti, and other visual sources for attitudes and political demands. In Tunisia I found secular middle-class activists firmly confronting militant fundamentalists who were deploying violence to protest film showings and art exhibits, defending the right to be unreligious and warning that the Muslim al-Nahda (Renaissance) Party wanted to turn Tunisia into another Iran. In Egypt I was present on several occasions when the famed Tahrir Square erupted in large protests, in what many youth clearly felt was an unfinished revolution. Tensions between the relatively secular youth movements and the Muslim Brotherhood were palpable and would come to a head in 2013. In Libya I visited a hastily erected war museum in Misrata and Benghazi’s symbol of revolt, the city’s courthouse, haunted by a generation of the “disappeared,” those made political prisoners and done away with by the Gaddafi regime.
Since my concern in this book is with organized youth movements that led to fairly extensive changes in national politics, I will concentrate on Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. For the same reason I will slight Yemen and Syria. In Yemen the president stepped down in favor of his vice president but remained the leader of the ruling party, which shared some of its power but was not overthrown. Young demonstrators played a key role in these changes in Sanaa, but so too did political parties, tribal groups, and religious and regional movements. In Syria youth played a central role in the March 2011 demonstrations that kicked off a long, grinding political struggle. When the ruling Baath regime deployed armor and the air force to repress those rallies in small towns and cities in the center of the country, the youth turned to military struggle and the country was plunged into years of civil war that is, as of this writing, still unresolved. As the sociologist Manuel Castells observed, “Civil wars not only kill people, they also kill social movements and their ideals of peace, democracy and justice.”6
There was no preexisting youth movement in one-party Syria of the sort I recount in Egypt and Tunisia. Syria’s agony requires a different sort of analysis, including that of a military historian, than I offer here. I will not treat Bahrain, both because the demonstrations there were not only generational but also ethnic and political and because my focus is on the Arab republics.
Not all authors writing about the Arab upheavals have put the same emphasis on social movements as does this book. Some see a conspiracy promoted by the United States and/or NATO. Others suspect forces like the Egyptian army of fomenting trouble in early 2011 and again in 2013 to rid itself of rivals. Both theses seem to me absurd. Nothing in the public record suggests that the Obama administration wanted to see Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak deposed, and great powers for the most part are status quo powers. The Egyptian military was opportunistic, using the turmoil where it could to its benefit, but it did not always get its way because of youth opposition to particular policies. The officers were riding a tiger.
The postrevolutionary period in all three countries was rocky, to say the least. Still, it is easy to forget how radical the changes have been. Only a few years ago it was widely expected that ruling families in most Arab republics would manage to install one of their sons in power, creating new dynasties and ensuring their continued dominance of state resources. The
notion of presidents for life bequeathing their countries to eldest sons as though the people were a mere heirloom has been tossed on the trash heap of history by Arab youth. There are other, extensive changes with regard to censorship practices and freedom of expression. A prominent newspaper editor was once threatened with jail time for merely speculating about the health of Mubarak. Likewise the slightest criticism of Tunisia’s Ben Ali or Libya’s Gaddafi could have led to years of imprisonment. For all the continued violations of the rights of journalists and social commentators, the revolutionary countries have a more critical and freewheeling political debate than could have been imagined in 2010, though by 2014 this achievement was imperiled in Egypt. In Tunisia the new constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Hundreds of new political parties have been founded and have contested elections in the three countries, in contrast to the past, when there were no elections in Libya and only phony ones in Tunisia and Egypt that the ruling party always won handily. In the old days a wide range of parties was simply not permitted, and the regimes limited the opposition to a handful of groups that had little popular support. Organizing outside the ruling party was dangerous because it could lead to arrest by the secret police and to arbitrary sentences and even torture. The secret police as a separate institution was abolished in Tunisia and Libya, and the state security police in Egypt experienced dramatic ups and downs from 2011 forward. Torture is not gone, but at least now it is controversial and openly contested (the constitution drafted in late 2013 in Egypt explicitly forbids torture and allows victims to sue government officials if they practice it). The keynote of these changes is what the youth call “dignity” (karama), a sense of personal autonomy and rights to freedom of one’s person and one’s political beliefs that must not be infringed by the security forces.
The rise of the internet may not have been as central to these social movements as some Western press coverage assumed. Nevertheless the revolutions were at least to some extent enabled by blogging, Facebook and Twitter campaigns, satellite television, and smartphones. New media allowed activists to get the word out about torture and corruption in ways that the state-dominated press would not have. The internet worked in tandem with popular social and political movements that moved like deep
currents to produce these waves of change. They included leftist and liberal parties, which had youth wings. Among them were long-standing and powerful labor unions, who tended to be ignored by American journalists in particular. Likewise student unions and organizations were often central. And members of the Union of Revolutionary Youth stressed to me that the organic character of urban neighborhoods in the Arab world allowed information to be disseminated through street chants more readily than through the ether. In many cases it was young people on their balconies or lining the streets who passed on the political slogans they heard, functioning as the information highway. Many Arabs live in provincial towns where agricultural jobs and water management matter more than abstract ideals and where the telephone or demonstrations were more important than Twitter for organizing. In Tunisia my informants told me that the offices of the former ruling party had been burned and police stations attacked even in provincial centers; indeed in many ways the youth in the provinces took the lead. “The revolution was everywhere,” proclaimed one young enthusiast from Le Kram, working behind the counter at a pizzeria in Tunis; even in his small town on the outskirts of the capital, people had risen up against the old regime.
In this book I tell the story of how the youth movements in North Africa and Egypt arose and describe their protagonists, struggles, passions, and ideas. I paint a broad picture of the revolts in the first half of 2011 in each of the three countries I treat, and I analyze the specific tactics and repertoires the youth used to accomplish their aims.7
I then assess the aftermath of the political upheavals in the Arab world through winter 2014. How likely is it that these young people taking to the streets, scrawling graffiti, making videos of police brutality, occupying city squares, mounting Facebook protests, and allying with striking workers can build more representative governments bound by the rule of law? Having thrown their societies into turmoil, can they turn to the hard work of institution building in the aftermath? Can the divide between nationalists and religious forces be bridged, or will it derail the transition to democracy? What are their chances of success? Did they really carry out revolutions or merely provoke a change in the personnel manning the ship of state?
Despite acerbic debates about the shape of the new constitutions, there
was very little dissent from the ideals of parliamentary democracy among the engaged youth. After decades of dictatorship and an implicit Leninism, in which the people were represented by a self-appointed vanguard, masses of Arab youth were demanding popular sovereignty. They chanted, “Bread, liberty, and social justice.” Some wanted a more French-style strong executive and exclusion of overt religious assertion in the state, while others saw Turkey’s religiously inflected Justice and Development Party government as their model. Thousands of new nongovernmental organizations have been founded in the three countries, often by engaged young people, working for human rights, women’s rights, cultural freedoms, workers’ rights, and food and water for the poor. They sought personal freedom and freedom to organize and express oneself in the face of renewed elite repression. Most troubling of all was the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt beginning in the summer of 2013, which went well beyond a reaction against the Brotherhood’s own dictatorial tendencies to denial of political rights to the country’s major party on the religious right. The rise of crime and of political terrorism from Muslim extremists and the constant instability and changes in the executive, while serious problems, should not blind us to the achievements of the youth in putting increased personal autonomy and dignity on the table for societal negotiation. They have kicked off what is likely to be a long intergenerational argument, in which there will be both advances and setbacks. We are still two or three decades from the time when the Arab millennials will come to power, but they have laid down markers on the future of the region.
Because I am a blogger myself, some of the youth activists had followed my work and were happy to meet me and exchange perspectives. I have met some of those whose stories I tell here, and my admiration for these brave and innovative young people who have shaken the world with their rejection of censorship, repression, and torture will be apparent. I dedicate this book to the young men and women who gave their lives for these causes, some of whom did not live to see the revolutions they wrought, while others are still in jail.