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James Denselow

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Arab Youth Energy Fuels Democratic Revolutions

Posted: 09/01/11 01:07 PM ET

It is hard to put into words the enormity of the events that have occurred across the Arab world in 2011. Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali have been unseated from power, Saleh and Assad are on the brink, and all other Arab leaders watch on with their own degrees of nervousness. These rapidly evolving events of historical proportions have not only dominated the global news headlines but have forced scholars into auditing the region anew. Jean-Pierre Filiu's book "The Arab Revolution" (2011, Hurst, London) is timely to say the least, offering a short but concise series of historical perspectives and modern analyses to form 10 lessons from what he terms the "democratic uprising."

According to Filiu, the fundamentals of the revolution are a call for comprehensive justice, a democratic renaissance characterised by a demand for dignity, pride and honour. Filiu passionately describes the "struggle for self-determination, for liberation from a corrupt clique, for regaining control and power over a nation's and the individual's destiny." The struggle is widely accepted to have originated with the suicide protest of 26-year-old Muhammad Bouazizi, who was "not emulating the suicide commandos of Islamist groups" but rather echoing the Czech student Jan Palach, who committed suicide through self-immolation, offering his own life protesting the Soviet invasion. At least seven Egyptians tried to follow Bouazizi's example and set themselves on fire in public prior to the fall of Mubarak. Bouazizi now has a square in Tunis, which had been named to commemorate Ben Ali's accession to power, named after him.

Many of Filiu's chapters are based on debates that have come to dominate study of the region seen in a new light in the context of the Arab revolutions. These include an examination of the myth of Arab exceptionalism and the tragically misguided post-9/11 search for answers to al-Qaeda's motives in the Quran. Arabs are no exception, their predicament was not due to their being the "quintessential other" but rather due to "the resilience of their ruling cliques," a resilience that has now been shattered.

Filiu admits that if there is to be an Arab exception, it concerns its demographic makeup. It is worth remembering that the median age of the Arab world is 22 (compared with 28 worldwide) and that 60 percent of the Arab population is less than 25 years of age. Arab youth unemployment ranges from 20 to 40 percent, twice the world average. Filiu is spot on when he remarks on the "mind boggling" reality that 50 million jobs are needed by 2020 to fully absorb young people coming into the labour market. Although the book's length means it must inevitably leave out certain details, references to economic points, such as the impact of rising food prices, would have given a more comprehensive picture of the factors at play. World Bank president Robert Zoellick, for example, has said that food prices have risen by almost 30 percent in the past year, with an estimated 44 million people worldwide being pushed into poverty by soaring commodity costs.

The youth "demographic issue" is compounded by the emergence of satellite channels and Internet social media sites, with Al Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter all bringing the tools of globalisation to millions of new users. Filiu colourfully describes the youth anger, saying "their power and their rage could be the energy of the future." He goes on to sum up with magisterial prose the actions of the youth as "the ultimate reaction of defence by the most exposed generation against the sterilization of its aspirations, the privatization of its nation-state and the obliteration of its future."

Technology inspired the emergence of the "leaderless revolution," with the Tunisia uprising characterised by "no central planning and no operation room." A leaderless revolution is described as "not only a political choice but also a condition for survival." However Filiu, while saluting the leaderless revolutionaries, is guilty of falling into contradiction when describing al-Qaeda's irrelevance as a consequence of it being "speechless and leaderless." More important is that the al-Qaeda movement has been demonstrated by the revolutions to be ideologically bankrupt, an "aberration" that is both "disconnected" and "alienated" from Arab realities.

The Internet is described as being situated "at a fascinating juncture between the public and the private sphere." The murder by police of cyber-militant Khaled Said in 2010 became both a symbol and a rallying point for this new arena of protest and dissent after being broadcast and going viral online. However, Filiu urges against getting carried away with the notion that social networks are always a central driver of revolution, with a skillful placing of Twitter users into events that were also determined by the more old-fashioned techniques of mass protest and civil disobedience.

The revolutions symbolize, in Filiu's mind, a "unique way to get out of the patriarchal mould" of the Arab regime. The protestors are both fed up with the ruling elite and in no mood to replace them with something similar. Islamists, often seen as the natural alternative to fill the vacuum left by the fall of authoritarian leaders, are also challenged by the new era ushered in by the revolutions. Although religious places were used as meeting points both prior to and during many of the uprisings, this was more of a reflection of the realities that most other spaces were under close internal surveillance. For worried observers of Western news coverage, Filiu reassures the reader that shouting "Allah-u-akbar" during moments of collective excitement is "not proof of religious fervour" and is much like a football fan's chant.

The book only briefly touches on the role of external international actors. Filiu is scathing of Washington, bemoaning that "after decades of American support for the autocrats, mere benign neglect by the US is already perceived as a relief." The book is also largely focused on Tunisia and Egypt, with events having moved so quickly that Filiu is not up to date enough to cover Gaddafi's fall. This means that Libya is used to highlight the limits of grassroots dynamics to an armed insurgency, a shortfall that in reality NATO airpower and over 20,000 sorties helped to correct. Backed by a strong set of appendices, Filiu's short but concise work is an important introduction into what is sure to be an expansive debate aimed at understanding the Arab revolutions.

 

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