French writer Alain Gresh looks back on the Arab revolutions

Mohammed Saad , Sunday 23 Feb 2014

Egyptian-born French writer Alain Gresh gave in Cairo last week his take on the Arab revolutions, saying that while some Arab countries — Egypt included — have retreated from 2011, the process of change will go on

Alain Gresh
French writer and Journalist, Alain Gresh, Director assisstant of ' Le Monde Diplomatique, speaking in Cairo (Photo: Ayman Hafez)

French writer, journalist and author of The Middle East: War Without End? Alain Gresh, fascinated his audience in Cairo with a panoramic overlook of the Arab revolutions of the past three years in a lecture delivered 19 February at the French Institute in Cairo, to answer the difficult question: “What became of the Arab revolutions?”

Three years since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions that aimed at establishing democratic regimes, the region is dwelling in turmoil, from Tunisia across Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria.

Speaking on the stage of the French Institute, before an audience completely silent, Gresh started his analysis not in 2011, but the years earlier.

In Gresh’s account, the social protest movements that swept across the region in 2011 didn’t start suddenly, but rather were the result of ongoing protests since the mid-2000’s. 2011 marked a “special event.” For Gresh, what happened in countries like Tunisia and Egypt — and Egypt especially — weren't revolutions in the classical sense, where the state and army collapse, to be rebuilt again. Rather, they were uprisings that witnessed a compromise between the ruling regime in the wide sense (including the army, bureaucracy and business networks) and the people.

The ex-chief editor of the prestigious Le Monde Diplomatique pointed out the differences between the political regimes that dominated the region, and yet said there were common issues and grievances that remained unresolved as these regimes stalled on reforms, citizen rights were denied, and the poorer classes were pushed into more poverty.

“The political regimes are different, but the grievances were common, from Morocco to Syria, human rights were denied and by the year 2000, which is called in the Arab region 'the year of economic reforms,' these regimes launched into liberal economic reforms that worked to privatise the public sector and hand it to businessmen, who are close to and have ties with ruling elites, so they both accumulated wealth while pushing poor people into more poverty,” Gresh explained.

The youth factor

This came at a time when the demographics of the Arab region were changing, with a huge increase in the number of youth, who also received more education than their parents, and hence had more ambitions that the frozen and paralysed regimes could not contain. This is why youth played the most significant role in the social protest movements, according to Gresh.

On the eve of the Arab Spring, the states of the Arab region were weakened and fragile, having had the same ruling elites for decades, and unable to meet the basic demands of the people. All these factors made these countries unable to resist and withstand the emerging protest movements.

Part of the fragility of the situation was caused by foreign military intervention in the region, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and also the wars between Hizbullah and Israel, in addition to widespread militias and the presence of Al-Qaeda.

“On the eve of the Arab Spring, the main players in the region were not the states but the armed militias. So when the revolutions broke out, this fragility and presence of militias created a liquid situation that allowed smuggling and transporting huge amounts of arms and foreign fighters, which is a significant phenomena that will have a huge and important impact, as can be seen in Syria,” Gresh explained.

All these factors should be considered by any analysis that aims to understand the Arab revolutions, Gresh asserts.

According to Gresh, four countries saw major political changes through long, continuous peaceful protest: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. Yet, Bahrain was brutally repressed and the case in Yemen differs because all parties had arms, but still the larger part of the violence was enacted by the government.

Libya saw a huge popular rebellion that was met with brutal repression that led to foreign military intervention, which caused a complete disappearance of the state in Libya. In Syria, the regime thought that excessive violence would force the opposition to bear arms in a country that is full of minorities, and that this patchwork makeup would in time bring balance to the situation.

Gresh gave the example of the Druze and Christians, who were against the Syrian regime but who became more afriad of the extremist armed opposition.

“This is the situation that the regime created to continue, and it managed to balance its situation through some international coalitions that managed to turn the Syrian case to an international situation that exceeds the limits of the Syrian people,” Gresh added.

Egypt and Tunisia: Managed uprisings

Why was the situation in Egypt and Tunisia easier? For Gresh, ruling elites realised earlier that they could sacrifice the head of the regime in order to save their own interests and business networks, which respective revolutions in these countries did not jeopardise in any sense.

“The ruling elites, in its wide sense, including the army, the security apparatus, and businessmen, and of course the bureaucracy in Egypt and Tunisia, realised they can sacrifice Mubarak and Ben Ali in order to keep their underlying business and interests going and protected. This prevented the protest movement from turning into a revolution in the classical sense that can make a radical change,” Gresh explained.

This had both good and bad effects, as it saved the two countries from descending into severe violence, and it also protected the state from collapsing fully. But it did not allow radical change, Gresh says.

“It is true that change is a long process, and what the Arab revolutions initiated is an unstoppable process, because the problems that the Arabs suffer from won’t be solved easily, or in a fast way. But the problem now is that no one has ever started a programme to face the real challenges, and by this I mean health, education and economy. For instance, the only programme in Egypt now is the 'war on terrorism,'” Gresh said.

The road that Egypt and Tunisia have taken will see up and downs, according to Gresh, as the state will not regain its powers soon. Maybe it will when we are no longer there to witness it.

These retreats from the path of revolution include attempts by the state to reinstate the police state, especially in Egypt.

“I’ve lived in Egypt for many years and I have always had the feeling that we are living in a big police station. At first they arrest you, then investigate you,” Gresh said.

No new Nasser

In Egypt, there is what may seem to be a revival of the era of the 1960s, as Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is being described as a new Nasser and is trying to revive ties with Russia. Yet, Gresh sees that there is no possibility of a new Nasser in Egypt, and that turning to Russia is just a game.

“The world order has changed. Egypt can’t separate itself from free market and it has fateful relations with the European Union and the United States, as every country else. The 60s can’t be returned back again, and Egypt’s can’t just give up its relations with the US under any circumstances,” Gresh explained.

On the Muslim Brotherhood

“The Muslim Brotherhood, was known as the only organised force on the political stage and they had influence. And after the Arab revolutions they were the main power. They had a simplistic vision of things, which is 'Islam is the solution.' It was never examined until they entered the political stage and showed their weakness,” Gresh said.

Gresh considers the Muslim Brotherhood a conservative organisation that could not change the state. And that was one of Morsi’s mistakes: he did not try to restructure anything; he just kept who could work for the sake of the regime. The Brotherhood, according to Gresh, are "secularists" in some way, as they are not clerics and they didn’t have religious influence and leverage. They are not religious organisation, but the Salafists are, according to Gresh.

Gresh sees that the protests of 30 June that led to the ouster of Morsi was an episode of the revolution and an expression of popular anger against the Brotherhood. But he sees the ouster of Morsi by the army as a coup d'état.

"Ousting a democratically-elected president in a non-democratic way will have severe consequences in the future, and will push the Brotherhood to do what it can do best, which is being a source of turmoil," he said.

Gresh estimated Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt to be 20-25 percent of the population, who are considered now as non-humans who can be tortured and jailed, which may lead to a civil war that will make a joke of democracy.

Gresh sees a deterioration in human rights and freedoms in Egypt after 30 June, saying that repression is spanning all dissent, even that not from the Brotherhood.

"Well, I don’t say the Brotherhood were the best democrats, but they wouldn’t be able to impose a dictatorship. In May 2013, I was in Cairo, the army, the bureaucracy, the businessmen and considerable sectors of the people were against them. Do you think they would have been able to establish a dictatorship? Personally, I don't think so, and speaking of them sinking the state isn't correct, I believe," Gresh added.

Gresh believes that the Egyptian police are trying to take vengeance after what happened in 2011, when the people rebelled against them.

One of the major factors that led the Brotherhood to failure, Gresh believes, is that they see the world from a conspiratorial point of view. They were never able to have political allies and collided with other political forces. Also, secularists refused any political coalitions with them.

Egyptian judges, meanwhile, played a role in the ouster of Morsi. According to Gresh, judges and the Egyptian judiciary belong to the “old regime” — to the Mubarak era and its network of interests.

“The Egyptian judiciary of course belongs to the old regime. They inherit the career from their fathers, who bequeath the posts to them. We literally have hundreds of Gamal Mubaraks among the judges. These are politicised judges who give cruel sentences and verdicts on young girls and the revolutionary youth, not because they want the rule of law, but to protect their network of interests,” Gresh explained.

“Now Morsi is being tried on spying accusations and Mubarak is being acquitted for all he has done,” Gresh added.

Gresh pointed his criticism at the Egyptian media and journalism, criticising the media frenzy against the Brotherhood and the propaganda of “the war on terror.”

“I’m not very in love with Western journalism, but in Egypt newspapers publish everything without any checks. They don’t make sure of anything. There is a retreat from the freedom of the press; it was better under Mubarak. You know we can agree or disagree about what I said about the Muslim Brotherhood. But the point remains that what you say appears in the media, but not my words,” Gresh added.

The Americans

Many people are concerned about the American role in the Egyptian scene. Gresh says everyone in Egypt is thinking theirs is a conspiracy: the Muslim Brotherhood says the Americans betrayed them, and the opposition says there was a deal between them. But that’s not how it was, according to Gresh.

“We in Egypt love to think there’s a conspiracy. But the fact is that the Americans ability to interfere in everything has shrunk, in virtue of the changes in running the country's affairs and the New World Order in the past 10-15 years,” Gresh said.

Gresh says that American politics is pragmatic in the first place and it has some goals, on top of which is preserving the peace between Egypt and Israel and maintaining cooperation between them. The US promoted the Muslim Brotherhood because they saw what might seem as a consensus on them in Egypt, and they choose what suits them in the end.

“The Americans do not want chaos in Egypt or the region. That’s not true. They want this region stable, as that serves their goals. They dealt with the Brotherhood, but they also continued to deal with who came after them, and they never described it as a coup d’état, also,” Gresh explained.

The way ahead

Gresh ended his lecture stating that there is a turn away from what erupted in 2011, but that it is not going to stop. 

“What happened in 2011 can’t be completely retreated from. I don’t think people will accept that. What happened will go on, but it will take years,” Gresh said, ending his lecture.

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