Since the eruption of mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt and with the fall of presidents in both countries, international and local observers have been overly-focused on understanding the prospects of democratisation in this process.
Despite the importance of this dimension, it remains only one of many aspects that the revolts/ongoing revolutions carry, and hence it would be a mistake to reduce it only to this.
Such a reduction not only stems from the overestimation of democratic transitions as key to all systemic changes, but it also reflects two long-held analytical misinterpretations.
The first is a reductionist definition of politics and agency equating it to “elite politics” and the supremacy of formal institutional processes in deciding outcomes.
The second, is an underestimation of “Arabness” as a factor in the uprisings, either because it has been “dead” with the end of Nasserite-national project since the 1967 war and its repercussions since then, or because it is of limited use outside of mobilisation pertaining to regional issues, specifically Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Fortunately, the “Arab Spring” came to negate both of these assumptions and their derivatives. More importantly, the unfolding process is combining the three elements of “democratisation”, “Arabness” and “politics-from-below” in a new dialectical relationship that carries more potential for this region and its people than what a “democratic transition” strictly defined entails.
The unfolding process is bringing an end to the assumed binary between nationalist regional causes and democratisation.
For decades now, many observers and scholars of the region have argued that such causes have been part of the reason for sustaining authoritarianism; both because of how it has been used to give dictatorships a false legitimacy (Assad in Syria being the most flagrant case in point) or because it diverts attention away from country specific demands towards the regime, and against a common regional enemy (Israel).
However, the current revolts came to negate such presumptions and claims not only because they have their roots in earlier waves of mobilisation dating to the rise of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, but equally because the current uprisings are reinventing an “Arab” national identity in new ways. This new collective identity is not being forged from above as in the heydays of state nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, but rather from “below” and in opposition to the hegemonic grand narratives and governing dynamics of the ruling elite.
This new identity manifested itself symbolically in the common chant of Al-Shaab Youreed Isqat Al-Nizam (The people want the fall of the regime) from Tunisia to Syria, which not only transcended local dialectics but more importantly reasserted the commonalities of a geographic and cultural unit when it comes to shared grievances and demands.
Practically, the manifestations abound, from exchanging protest advice and tools over the internet to solidarity protests from one country to the next.
Unlike earlier intellectual and political attempts of creating “Arabism” in support of regimes seeking to build a hegemonic consent for their rule, this time it was used by the masses against the regimes. It was leveled at regimes as the “common enemy” and by a majority of people — under the age of 30 — who did not live through the rise and fall of Arab state nationalism.
Unlike their parents, these people have not made the negative association between anti-colonialism and Arabism on the one hand and dictatorship on the other. On the contrary, their awareness of this newfound collective identity is being built through, and embedded in, a struggle for “freedom” and “equality” and not just national liberation as in the past.
Hence, they are cultivating a new sense of solidarity that is taking away regimes’ monopoly over defining the “nation”, the “enemy” and accordingly “national interests” and “identity”. This change of dynamics not only opens the door for new democratised “Arabism”, but it also means that the new democratic regimes being established will not be able to evade questions of imperialism and international intervention in the region.
Understanding this totality, explains why the recent mobilisation in Cairo against the Israeli embassy and the symbolism of lowering the flag twice — through the superhuman act of climbing a building — is very much part and parcel of the ongoing mobilisation against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and continued demands for a new democratic regime.
The writer teaches political science at the American University in Cairo and Yale University.