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2011 Five Years After: ‘I was terribly wrong’ - writers look back at the Arab spring five years on

Monday 7 March 2016, by siawi3


Thursday 28 January 2016,


In January 2011, days after the first uprising in Tunisia and the protests in Tahrir Square, the Guardian invited leading writers from across the Arab world to reflect on the revolutionary fervour sweeping the region. Then, they expressed great optimism for the future. Here, they revisit their responses and ask, is there still room for hope?

Table of contents

Robin Yassin-Kassab – British-S
Alaa Abd El Fattah – Egyptian
Ahdaf Soueif – Egyptian (...)
Mourir Barghouti – Palestinian
Laila Lalami – Moroccan (...)
Raja Shehadeh – Palestinian
Khaled Mattawa – Libyan (...)
Tamim al-Barghouti – Palestinia
Nouri Gana – Tunisian writer
Joumana Haddad – Lebanese (...)

Robin Yassin-Kassab – British-Syrian writer

Look back: After Tunisia: Robin Yassin-Kassab on Syria in 2011 [1]

Five years ago the Guardian asked me to evaluate the effects of the Tunisian uprising on the rest of the Arab world, and specifically Syria. I recognised the country was “by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society”, but nevertheless argued that “in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge”.

That was published on 28 January 2011. On the same day a Syrian called Hasan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Akleh’s act went largely unremarked, but on 17 February tradesmen at Hareeqa in Damascus responded to police brutality by gathering in their thousands to chant “The Syrian people won’t be humiliated”. This was unprecedented. Soon afterwards, the Deraa schoolboys were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. When their relatives protested on 18 March, and at least four were killed, the spiralling cycle of funerals, protests and gunfire was unleashed. In 2011, I wrote that Assad personally was popular, and so he remained until his 30 March speech to the ill-named People’s Assembly. Very many had suspended judgment until that moment, expecting an apology for the killings and an announcement of serious reforms. Instead, Assad threatened, indulged in conspiracy theories, and, worse, giggled repeatedly.

I underestimated the disastrous effects of Assad’s neo-liberal/crony-capitalist restructuring during the previous decade. I was soon to be wrong about many other things too. In April the regime made conciliatory gestures to Islamists and Kurds. At first I thought this showed how hopelessly out of touch it was – the protest movement at this stage was pan‑Syrian and non-sectarian. Then I understood its misinterpretation was deliberate. In the following years the regime would stick to reading the revolution through ethnic and sectarian lenses; and largely due to its own efforts, these eventually came to dominate the field.

“Bashar al-Assad is the leader of the revolution,” one young Damascene told me. “Every time he kills someone, every time he tortures, he creates 10 more men determined to destroy him.” At first the regime’s resort to the “security solution” made me think I had overestimated its intelligence. Then I realised I had underestimated it. Knowing it couldn’t survive a genuine reform process, it provoked a civil war.

First, the savage repression of peaceful, non-sectarian activists. Tens of thousands were rounded up, tortured, killed or disappeared. At the same time jihadists were released from prison. Then, in response to the revolution’s inevitable militarisation, the regime applied a scorched earth policy. Soldiers burned crops and killed livestock. Civilian neighbourhoods were blasted by artillery, fighter jets, Scud missiles, barrel bombs and sarin gas. A string of regime-organised sectarian massacres in 2012 irretrievably hardened the mood.

The Syrian people’s supposed “friends” failed to seriously arm the revolution, or to protect the people from slaughter. With Assad’s indirect aid, foreign jihadists stepped into the vacuum. Until July 2014, the regime and Islamic State enjoyed an unstated non-aggression pact. Even today, when Isis is fighting the Free Army, the regime (and Russia) bombs the Free Army.

An arsonist posing as a fireman, Assad tells the world his survival is indispensable to defeating jihadism. Too many commentators agree with him, perhaps because commentary in general has tended to ignore the travails and achievements of the Syrian people in favour of the terrorism story and proxy-war chess. As a result, the general public in the west seems to think Syria’s choice is between, as one man recently told me, “President Assad” and “the nutters”.

Since 2011 I have learned to distrust the grand pre-existent narratives of both left and right, to fear the dead(ly) ends of identity politics and to focus instead on the human facts. Like the 300,000 dead and 11 million displaced (the worst refugee crisis since the second world war) – the vast majority at his hand. Plus the more positive realities, such as the revolutionary local councils, usually democratically elected, which do their best to keep life going and which should be part of any settlement. Or like the revolution in culture that has produced groundbreaking music, poetry, critical radio stations and newspapers.

The people practised democracy where they could. Yet by August 2013, counter-revolution seemed to have won, both regionally and globally. In Egypt, that month’s Rabaa massacre began the liquidation of the Muslim Brotherhood, then the repression of everyone else. In Syria, as Barack Obama’s chemical “red line” vanished, Assad killed 1,400 people with chemical weapons. Assad continued to receive Russian weapons; the Egyptian army received theirs from America.

Iran and then Russia rescued the Assad regime from military collapse, although in a way it has collapsed already, subcontracting its powers to foreign states and local warlords. And it has lost four-fifths of the country. Some of “liberated Syria” is held by beleaguered democratic nationalists, Arab or Kurdish, and a lot is strangled by transnational jihadists.

The crisis increases exponentially. The only thing sure about Russia’s invasion is that it is expanding the war in space and time.

So, a five-year accounting: friends and relatives have lost homes, witnessed atrocities, been forced into clandestine migration. Nothing unusual – every Syrian family, from whatever side, has trauma tales to tell. Most are mourning their dead. I will never show Palmyra’s temples or Aleppo’s Umawi mosque minaret to my children – these monuments that survived earthquakes and Mongol invasions are now razed, and the complex social fabric of the country irreparably torn.

Syria has witnessed the depths of human depravity. Syrians have also demonstrated the most inspiring creativity and resilience in the most terrible of circumstances.

Change in Syria and the wider region is running at breakneck pace, and heading in contradictory directions. As to the final results, this time I’ll say it is far, far too early to tell.

Robin Yassin-Kassab’s book ’Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’, co‑written with Leila al-Shami, is published by Pluto.

Alaa Abd El Fattah – Egyptian blogger

Look back: After Tunisia: Alaa Abd El Fatah on Egypt in 2011 [2]

The only words I can write are about losing my words.

Five years ago, on what would turn out to be the last normal day of my life, I sat down at my desk in a small IT firm in Pretoria and pretended to be working while I was writing a short article for the Guardian. It was about why the Egyptian revolution should be taken seriously. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I can’t get back to that article now; it’s been more than a year since I had access to the internet. In Egypt, prisoners aren’t even allowed a phone call. But I shouldn’t complain: at least I get to see my family two or three times a month. Other political prisoners (mostly Islamists) are not allowed visits at all.

On that day five years ago I first engaged in the battle over the narrative of the revolution, a battle that would consume me completely for four years. But on that day I wasn’t even sure a revolution was happening in Egypt; I feared it would fizzle out even as I wrote about a new form of youthful pan‑Arabism.

It would take me another day to fully accept that it was for real and three more before I could fly back to Cairo and join Tahrir. I moved from doubting the depth of the uprising to worrying about arriving too late and missing out on all the action.

After the fall of Hosni Mubarak the battle over narrative grew in importance. The state was forced to compromise with the revolution while trying to contain it by appropriating its story. We articulated why we continued to protest and indeed why we ever protested at all. Are the kids who threw stones at the police revolutionaries or saboteurs? Should the prisoners who died in prison riots be counted among the martyrs of the revolution or not? What is the role of the military in the Mubarak regime? Should education continue to be free in public universities? Do we need a new constitution? If so, who should write it? And so on. I wrote and wrote and wrote, mostly in Arabic, mostly on social media, but sometimes for a national daily. Mainly, I was talking to fellow revolutionaries and, increasingly, my voice became cautionary: how fragile the revolutionary moment was and how precarious our situation were my main themes. And yet I couldn’t shake off the sheer sense of hope and possibility: despite setbacks our dreams continued to soar.

People talk of a barrier of fear but to me it always felt like a barrier of despair and, once removed, even fear, massacres and prisons couldn’t bring it back. I did all the silly things over-optimistic revolutionaries do: I moved back to Egypt permanently, had a child, founded a startup, engaged in a series of progressive initiatives aiming at more popular, decentralised and participatory democracy, broke every draconian law and outdated taboo, walked into prison smiling and walked out of it triumphant.

In 2013 we started to lose the battle for narrative to a poisonous polarisation between a rabidly militarised pseudo-secular statism and a viciously sectarian-paranoid form of Islamism. All I remember about 2013 is how shrill I sounded screaming “A plague on both your houses”, how whiny and melodramatic it felt to complain about the curse of Cassandra warning of an all-consuming fire when no one would listen. As the streets were taken over by rallies that raised the photos of policemen instead of their victims, sit‑ins were filled with chants against the Shia, and Coptic conspiracies flourished, my words lost any power – and yet they continued to pour out of me. I still had a voice, even if only a handful would listen.

But then the state decided to end the conflict by committing the first crime against humanity in the history of the republic. The barriers of fear and despair would return after the Rabaa massacre. Another battle of narrative would start: getting non-Islamists to accept that a massacre had happened at all, to reject the violence committed in their name.

Three months after the massacre I was back in prison, and my prose took on a strange new role. I called on revolutionaries to admit defeat, to give up the optimism that had become dangerous in its encouragement to choose sides: a military triumphalism or an unpopular and impractical insistence on complete regime change. What we needed was all the strength we could muster to maintain some basic defence of human rights.

I narrated defeat because the very language of revolution was lost to us, replaced by a dangerous cocktail of nationalist, nativist, collectivist and post-colonialist language appropriated by both sides of the conflict and used to spin convoluted conspiracy theories and spread paranoia.

In early 2014 it was still controversial to ask revolutionaries to engage in a human rights campaign limited to revoking the protest law and the release of political prisoners. Most still believed the revolution was winning (defining winning as either the demise or the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood) – the idea that the state of emergency was the new normal was rejected by most.

Today it seems like we won that final battle for narrative. While the state still has its supporters their numbers are shrinking rapidly, especially among the young. Most people are no longer debating the nature of the events of summer 2013. The coup versus revolution debate is passé. Even Sisi supporters don’t really believe that prosperity is coming soon. It is harder to gauge the sentiment among supporters of the Islamists: sympathy with their plight is certainly increasing but faith in their ability to organise an effective unified front against the regime is probably scant. Despair prevails.

I spent most of 2014 in prison, yet I still had lots of words. My audience was much diminished, my message not one of hope, and yet it felt important to remind people that even after admitting defeat we can still resist; that going back to the margins we fought from during Mubarak’s time was acceptable as long as we continued to fight for basic human rights. But by early 2015 as I heard my sentence I had nothing left to say to any public. I could only write personal letters. The revolution, and indeed Egypt itself, would slowly fade out even from those letters, and by autumn 2015 even my personal words dried up. It has been months since I wrote a letter and more than a year since I’ve written an article. I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights; nothing, absolutely nothing. I try to remember what I wrote for the Guardian five years ago on the last normal day of my life. I try to imagine who read that article and what impact it had on them, I try to remember what it was like when tomorrow seemed so full of possibility and my words seemed to have the power to influence (if only slightly) what that tomorrow would look like.

I can’t really remember that. Now tomorrow will be exactly like today and yesterday and all the days preceding and all the days following, I have no influence over anything.

But one thing I do remember, one thing I know: the sense of possibility was real. It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe that another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Alaa Abd El Fattah is serving a five-year sentence in Tora prison, Cairo, under the protest law.

Ahdaf Soueif – Egyptian novelist and commentator

Look back: After Tunisia: Ahdaf Soueif on Egypt in 2011 [3]

I’m by the river on a sunny, gentle morning in January. All taken for granted, utterly dependable for thousands of years. The Nile, running south to north, opening up into the delta, the sun sailing across it, east to west. Together, they make the sign of the Ankh: the symbol of life.

Now the river is polluted with everything from sewage to factory chemicals, and, soon, we shall see the effects of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: the river will run low, maybe it will dry out. Our rich land, the black soil that gave Egypt its first name of Kemet, is being degraded, no longer replenished by the silt of the river, encroached and built on. We refuse to treat the sun as our friend and draw energy from it, instead we sign deals to import coal and deals to build a nuclear energy plant while our basic infrastructure is collapsing with lack of care and maintenance.

In the surge of action and optimism that came with the revolution in January 2011, people’s delegations headed south to mend relations eroded by three decades of prideful neglect, to explore common development with the countries of the Nile Valley. All this is now gone – as has so much else of January 2011: lives and livelihoods, ideas and energy and hope.

Meanwhile, the ruling regime is trying to have it every which way. It affiliates itself with “The Glorious Revolution of 25 January” but pincers it between Police Day – also on 25 January – and the “Revolution of 30 June” when the people came out against the Muslim Brotherhood and the door was opened for the general to seize power. It sings the praises of “Egypt’s youth”, but wages a lethal war against every one of them identified with the revolution. Hundreds of them are behind bars. Dozens are disappeared. And, in an escalation last month, one was stabbed and left for dead in a central Cairo metro station. And these young people are virtually invisible; world governments and media insist on the old dichotomies: the military/business regime versus various Islamists.

Three Basic Facts.

One: the people came out in January 2011 under a straightforward banner: “Bread. Freedom. Social Justice”.

Two: despite all claims to the contrary, no one made the people come out. Yes, activists articulated and politicised their demands; facilitated the protests and the sit-ins; tried to protect and save individuals from Mubarak, the police and the military; but the people – under a certain confluence of circumstances – came out of their own accord. And they knew what they wanted.

Three: the people are realising that they are further than ever from their aims. The killings they suffered, the fascist phase when they colluded in the killing of others – all count for nothing. The grand projects touted by the government – even if they are real – will have no effect on the lives of the poor. The number of ordinary citizens detained and ill-treated by the security services is higher than ever. Even in its chosen war, the “war on terror”, the regime fails: our soldiers and citizens are killed in Sinai every day. The infrastructure of people’s daily lives – hospitals, schools, transport, employment – is getting worse. The reasons people came out in 2011 are still there – are more acute.

But there are also differences between now and then. The euphoric hope generated by Ben Ali’s swift departure from Tunis has been replaced by horror at the spectacle of Libya, Syria and Yemen. People feel they have tried what is available – revolution, political Islam – and nothing has worked. Where is the alternative, they ask.

The regime is trying to ensure that there is no alternative: associations are outlawed; student elections are cancelled; cultural spaces closed. Journalists and photographers and students and doctors and engineers endure harsh conditions in jail.

And so the eruption, when it comes, will be born of despair rather than hope. It will be the eruption of people who have borne witness to or averted their eyes from murder for five years – people who are no longer innocent. It will not be amenable to calls for non-violence, and anyway the most effective of the non-violent activists are dead or in prison or have left the country. As our fifth anniversary draws near, the dread in which the ruling regime holds it becomes more palpable by the day.

Personally, all I want for the revolution’s fifth anniversary is that it should end without more young people murdered, detained or disappeared; that on 26 January the Nile and the sun are still in place. Then we will simmer along like this for a while and see what we look like when we come, once again, to the boil.

Ahdaf Soueif’s ’Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed’ is published by Bloomsbury.

Mourir Barghouti – Palestinian poet

Look back: After Tunisia: Mourid Barghouti on Palestine in 2011 [4]

In 2012 I wrote:“The setbacks are numerous. The revolutionary forces are still being demonised, killed, tortured or kidnapped, and sent to military trials. Justice is still far away and has not been done yet. Killers of the demonstrators are still at large and are being protected; the official media is still the same box of lies; misinformation and disinformation and the threat of conservative forces taking over have materialised. Revolution might be seen as a total failure and a sad event. But a revolution is not an event. Revolution is a process – a lengthy, laborious and demanding one. It has its ups and downs and its many surprises too.”

That was the situation in Egypt under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) and then the Muslim Brotherhood. It is still the same under the military rule of General Sisi.

The catastrophe goes back to the moment when the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists maliciously imposed the issue of “identity” on the people’s revolution. “Vote for Islam” was the order of the day, thus shifting the conflict; it was no longer the people against the regime, but rather the people against one another. The battle line of the revolution, which was about the people’s “physical” needs, was replaced with a “metaphysical” one. The Muslim Brotherhood took the new presidency and the new parliament and Mohamed Morsi chose Saudi Arabia of all countries for his first visit as the revolution’s president!

The Muslim Brotherhood connived with Scaf against all secular revolutionary powers. This caused a detrimental split among the anti-Mubarak opposition front. The split allowed the military and the old regime to survive and win by allying themselves with one side then with the other, before getting rid of both. Morsi crowned the military and security generals with medals and praise but this did not prevent them from toppling him, making use of the real popular outrage against his performance.

I was very wrong, however, when I stated: “Arabs are leaving behind a repeated practice of coups that tainted their modern history with illegitimate and ruthless military rulers.”

I did not expect the trajectory of the revolution to reach these lows and to take us back full circle to a triumphant and vengeful counter-revolution. I never had any trust in the Muslim Brotherhood nor believed their slogans, but I did not expect them to choose political suicide.

Today, many see “hope” and “optimism” as obscene words. But there are two reasons to feel encouraged. One: the physical causes of the revolution on 25 January 2011 – corruption, tyranny and poverty – still exist, and have an uglier face. The situation is so dire that it is not sustainable; the revolution is still possible because nothing else is. Two: for the millions of Egyptians who experienced that glorious moment and passed through its pain and joy, the discovery of their potential, self-esteem and courage will not be easily lost – the fact that they did it once is proof that they can do it again.

Laila Lalami – Moroccan writer

Look back: After Tunisia: Laila Lalami on Morocco in 2011 [5]

Morocco is often touted as the exception to the turbulence that the Arab spring has brought to North Africa and the Middle East. While the region was plunged into political unrest, sectarian infighting and even civil war, Morocco remained relatively calm. This is because, only a few weeks after popular protests took place in the kingdom, a new constitution was drafted and legislative elections were held.

But what do these reforms mean for Moroccans? Little, if one measures change by how the state – in the form of a police officer or a government official – interacts with the average citizen. Earlier this month, for example, trainee teachers took to the streets in Casablanca, Tangier, Fes, Marrakesh and Inezgane to protest new government measures that drastically cut their scholarships and take away job guarantees. They were met by police forces, and were brutally beaten. Later, the interior ministry released a statement suggesting that some of them had faked their injuries.

Furthermore, the Moroccan government continues to harass independent journalists who dare to cross its famous red lines: Islam, the king and the nation. Criticism of any part of this trinity is liable to land reporters in jail, often on charges that have nothing to do with journalism. Take, for instance, the case of Ali Anouzla, who had previously written critically about the monarchy, and who was accused in September 2013 of providing assistance to terrorists when he posted a link to an El País story about a propaganda video by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. He spent five weeks in prison before he was granted a conditional release. In this context, it is perhaps no surprise that the 2015 world press freedom index ranks Morocco at 130, below Afghanistan, South Sudan and Colombia.

The Makhzen (as the Moroccan state apparatus is traditionally referred to inside the country) is also particularly sensitive to criticism when it comes in the form of arts and culture. Last year, Nabil Ayouch’s movie Much Loved, which takes a close look at prostitution in Marrakech, was censored in the kingdom. This was certainly not the first film to touch on the subject of prostitution, and it seems likely that at least some part of the reaction to the movie has its roots in its depiction of wealthy Gulf tourists as the principal customers of Moroccan sex workers. But for daring to show international audiences at Cannes and elsewhere what everyone in Morocco well knows, Ayouch was accused of damaging Morocco’s image, and his movie was banned. Could there be anything more damaging to Morocco than people who prefer to live with their eyes closed, their ears stuffed and their mouths endlessly repeating that Morocco is “the exception”?

There are signs, however, that the “20 February movement” has served a larger purpose: it has demonstrated that popular pressure can force political change. In March 2012, 16-year-old Amina Filali killed herself after being pressured by her parents and a local judge into marrying her rapist. The marriage was made possible because of Article 475, a remnant of the French colonial code, which allows men to avoid statutory rape charges if they marry the minor with whom they are involved. The death of Filali sparked street demonstrations that ultimately led the Moroccan parliament, in a unanimous vote, to repeal Article 475 of the penal code.

So the 20 February movement may have failed in its immediate goals, but in showing Moroccans that sustained popular pressure can work its legacy cannot be discounted.

Laila Lalami’s most recent novel, The Moor’s Account, is published by Periscope.

Raja Shehadeh – Palestinian lawyer and writer

Look back: After Tunisia: Raja Shehadeh on Palestine in 2011 [6]

Five years ago I watched the inspiring and creative ways in which the Syrian people expressed their rebellion against the Assad regime, sometimes with dance, songs, graffiti and cartoons. I thought then that when a people rise up against oppression they are bound ultimately to win. I was wrong. In today’s world, no people, certainly not in the contemporary Middle East region, can act independently, however creative the means they employ. The conflicting interests of the various powers surrounding and beyond the region all played their part in thwarting what began as a peaceful revolution against the longstanding oppressive and anti-democratic regime of the Assad dynasty. This was also true of Egypt, where the most oppressive and rich country in the region, Saudi Arabia, rallied with others to restore the ancien régime. In the case of Palestine it was the unflinching US support of Israel that enabled an increasingly rightwing government to thwart the enduring struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination. And Syria now is a cruel battleground of contending forces with almost 3 million refugees and an unimaginable quarter of a million dead.

There has long been talk, especially by the neoconservatives, of a new Middle East fragmented not into the multi-confessional states that arose after the first world war but rather reduced to fragments on ethno/religious grounds. Instead of an Iraq there would be three statelets: one Sunni, one Shia and one Kurdish. And likewise with Syria and Lebanon. In this exclusivist Middle East, Israel as a Jewish state would not stand out as the only state organised on religious grounds.

There is no doubt that many among those now fighting in the Middle East deploy terror with devastating consequences for civilians. But the failure to distinguish between the freedom fighter, with a legitimate cause who should be supported by those countries claiming to support democracy, and the criminal terrorist has resulted in deepening the chaos in the region. US law gives terrorism too wide a definition, rendering legitimate resistance to occupation and oppression illegal. The same goes for many other western powers whose laws also prejudice the cause of law whether municipal or international, as a vehicle for peaceful change and transformation. The criminalisation of any contact with groups incorrectly described as terrorists often made potentially useful negotiations illegal.

Paying lip service to democracy yet failing to support those who seek it, as the west has repeatedly been guilty of doing, has encouraged many among the disenfranchised to become cynical and desperate, and encouraged some to rally behind those who are the true terrorists.

If those who failed to support the legitimate struggle of the Arab masses that began five years ago believed that this would bring about peace in the region, time has only shown how mistaken they were. The need for a resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is recognised by most countries and could serve as a catalyst for the pacification of the Middle East region. The question is: why is no one is doing it?

As I watch the region fall into greater chaos and the people’s suffering worsening, only one thing gives me hope. After the first world war when the European powers fashioned the Middle East region in the manner they thought served their best interests, the woes of the people of the region did not spread to western countries. The Middle East suffered as Europe prospered from cheap oil and an unrivalled market for its military and other products. This time it is different. Not only are large numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Europe but terrorism is no longer a plight that only disrupts the life of the people of the region. The theatre of conflict has no borders, it is spreading into Europe. Perhaps this might motivate western powers who directly or through their surrogates have the means to take positive action to begin to work diligently and honestly to help bring an end to the wars raging in the Middle East, and enable democracy to take root.
Khaled Mattawa – Libyan poet and translator

The road to Benghazi begins at Labraq airport with its drafty barracks where luggage is delivered on a train of carts that passengers have to rummage through to retrieve their belongings. The 230km ride is interrupted by numerous checkpoints, which provide a sense of security, and dozens of vigilantes’ speed bumps that make the ride twice as long as it should be. This time of year the Green Mountains of Cyrenaica are extravagantly beautiful with lush grass plains and dramatic skies.

My companion on the trip home is Ashraf Khalil, assistant professor and head of the electric engineering department at the University of Benghazi. He is a displaced refugee, having fled his house near the university back in October 2014 when the fighting forced it to close and made the western half of the city, controlled by Ansar al-Sharia and Isis, beyond the reach of its citizens.

Taking several shortcuts through bumpy side roads, we finally make it to the Al-Noor elementary school. We stand in a parking area that has huge engine oil-stains waiting for the children to clear out. At 1pm, Al-Noor becomes the University of Benghazi’s College of Engineering. Inside, young men and women gather in groups chatting and sipping macchiatos as they wait for class. We hear a warplane flying over, and the students tell me that the explosions are probably from the Al-Sabri and Souk al-Hout front.

From the college I head to the Huna Benghazi (Here Is Benghazi!) festival. I arrive during the lunch break and find hundreds of people milling about waiting for the closing session, with dozen more streaming in as I talk to the organizers and catch up with friends. The weeklong celebration includes new plays, several concerts, poetry and fiction readings, a book fair and an arts exhibition. The mood is jubilant, but the chaos is palpable. Explosions again, probably from the Al‑Lethe front. Cigarette butts are everywhere; the wastebaskets are filled with discarded paper cups and spilling.

I leave the festival to visit the group of artists who run Tanarout, a new arts organisation. Tanarout screen European films almost exclusively in their tiny hall where they also hold creative writing and visual arts workshops for children and young artists. The power goes out as we talk. They turn on the generator briefly to make coffee. Briefly because gas and gas canisters are in short supply. The group is working with very little support and facing tremendous challenges for their selective approach. I salute them and we make plans to work together in the future.

It is early evening when I leave Tanarout. As I walk to the house where my displaced relatives are staying, I have to skip over piles of garbage oozing their now familiar smell. A nearby gas station has a long line of cars waiting to fill up. I hear explosions again, further away, perhaps from Beloun or El‑Hawwari.

Benghazi is a besieged, traumatised city fighting terrorism with a beleaguered military and a total lack of local leadership. My fellow Benghazians are also fighting a legacy of brutality, corruption and ineptitude, always with great spirit and too often with the same habits and tools. I have no doubt that Benghazi, seat of the Libyan revolution, will defeat terrorism and extremism, but it will take even more effort and numerous changes to undo all the damage the Gaddafi regime and the effort to replace him have wrought on the city’s body and spirit. The revolution is not finished, and perhaps it has just begun.

Tamim al-Barghouti – Palestinian poet

Look back: After Tunisia: Tamim Al-Barghouti on Palestine in 2011 [7]

Reading what we all wrote in 2011 and 2012, one cannot but feel pain and anger, yet surprisingly, not despair. Due to a series of fatal mistakes, the route just got longer, but the destination remained unchanged, and the journey inevitable.

Like all major revolutions in modern history, 2011 can perhaps be described as a conflict between two ideas, two very different views of human freedom and forms of political organisation; Arab states; colonially imposed hierarchical centralised structures based on coercion and obedience, adorned with flags, anthems, borders, barbed wire and all the other trinkets of nationalism, were challenged by non-hierarchical network-based, narrative-led movements. For a moment in 2011, narrative replaced structure, conviction overcame coercion, volunteers defeated conscripts, massive decentralised leaderless networks of protesters following an idea, overwhelmed centralised hierarchies of soldiers, policemen or bureaucrats following orders.

In 2011, the narrative was anti-state, anti-police, anti-colonial, anti-Zionist and anti-capitalist. It was also pro-regional unity, be it Arab or Islamic, pro-democracy or pro‑social justice. Disagreements were manageable, because there was no hierarchy and, therefore, no coercion.

This narrative was betrayed by the Egyptian political elite, first by the Islamists then by the secularists. They agreed to a two-pronged unwritten compromise with the old regime. First, domestically, power was to be shared with the US’s main client in Egypt, the American-armed, American-trained and American-funded Egyptian military. Second, regionally, there was to be no breakup of the strategic alliance with the US, no rethinking of the peace terms with Israel, relations were to remain very friendly with Saudi Arabia and hostile to Iran. The use of sectarianism to sustain such a policy was allowed, and even encouraged. Those who rejected the deal while in opposition agreed to it once in power.

This caused the consensus-generating narrative whose mobilising ability was evident in Tahrir Square to be replaced with warring identities: Islamic versus secular in Egypt and Sunni versus Shia in the region. The US’s interests, Israel and oil, were thus preserved, and the major pan-Arab revolution(s) of 2011 turned into a series of civil conflicts with varying degrees of devastation.

The Egyptian military played both sides of the domestic divide and it now rules alone. In August 2013 the massacre it committed was the largest in the history of Cairo since the French invasion of 1798. The undead Draculas that are the Arab regimes knew they could not face a large mass of unarmed individuals, so they chose to kill children in order to turn large peaceful masses into small armed cells, and then cry terrorism. This, of course, only created a large mass of small armed cells that tore the whole system down. We are now witnessing a meltdown in the political order south of the Mediterranean and, in places, a meltdown of the social order as well.

Yet there is no room for despair. It got violent, but the demographic bulge that produced these unprecedented numbers of Arab youth, and the technological advancement that gave them an unprecedented ability to intercommunicate has made them uncontainable. States are failing and societies will have to manage without them. But societies are better equipped now to do so than ever before.

Nouri Gana – Tunisian writer

Look back: After Tunisia: Nouri Gana on Tunisia in 2011 [8]

Over the last five years, Tunisia’s image in national and international media has changed dramatically from being the cradle of the Arab spring to becoming the Arab spring’s last hope. The disastrous degeneration of the popular uprisings into civil war (in Syria and Libya) or military rule (in Egypt) gradually consolidated Tunisia’s positioning at the centre of an emerging narrative of exception. Yet, while this may point to the nonviolent achievements of the Tunisian revolution, it simultaneously sharpens the awareness of the enormity of the country’s ongoing hardships.

No wonder the successive post-revolutionary governments have routinely pointed to the catastrophic turmoil in neighbouring Libya, not to mention the wars in Syria and Yemen, to distract from their leadership failures.

The failures of Tunisia’s democratically elected officials are too numerous to enumerate – suffice it to mention their overall failure to fulfil the central promises of the revolution as summed up in its defining slogan: “Shughl, hurriya, karama wataniyya”, that is, “Employment, freedom and citizenly dignity”. The two terrorist attacks that targeted tourists inside the Bardo National Museum on 18 March 2015 and on the sandy beach of a Sousse hotel on 26 June 2015 have decimated the tourism industry, and left thousands of families without income. The clampdown on irregular migration to Europe and the ongoing civil war in Libya further exacerbated job losses and made an already bad situation even worse.

Tunisia’s successive post-revolutionary governments have failed more drastically when it comes to the issues of freedom and dignity, even though Tunisia boasts one of the more progressive constitutions in the world, adopted on 26 January 2014. Nonviolent demonstrations have routinely been curbed violently, while police brutality and torture of detainees continue to be practised widely in prisons across the country, fuelling endless debates about the return of the authoritarian state. Civil liberties were dealt their worst blow, though, on 25 July 2015 when the Tunisian parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of an anti-terrorism law that endorses capital punishment, and so vaguely defines terrorism that ordinary protesters such as those who once brought down Ben Ali’s regime could now face terrorist charges. Meanwhile, the Islamist-secularist polarisation of the public sphere resulted in so many seductive but unproductive debates about Tunisia’s national identity, the future of Islam and the Arabic language, all of which exerted an increasing pressure on religious, linguistic, racial and sexual minorities.

Ironically, the very engineers of those debates – namely, the leaders and supporters of the Ennahda (Renaissance) and Nidaa Tounes (The Call of Tunisia) parties – formed a coalition government after the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. The marriage of convenience between these two old foes has been seen by some as another example of the politics of concession, moderation and consensus building, which has recently earned the Tunisian Quartet the 2015 Nobel prize for peace; but others are less than enthralled, given that such an alliance practically ends with the system of checks and balances, and reduces to irrelevance the role of the opposition.

It may be hard in the end to speculate on the future of the Tunisian revolution, especially with a widening narrative of national dissatisfaction that goes as far as to call for the return of Ben Ali, on the one hand, and, on the other, the continued global perception of Tunisia as a country capable of containing its internal political disputes peacefully. A lot needs to be done lest the future of the Tunisian exception should quickly become synonymous with the future of an illusion.

Nouri Gana is the editor of ’The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects’, published by Edinburgh UP.

Joumana Haddad – Lebanese writer

Look back: After Tunisia: Joumana Haddad on Lebanon in 2011 [9]

What do you say to foreign friends who ask you if it is safe to visit Lebanon these days? Do you enlighten them about the exciting nightlife in Beirut, or do you discuss the dangerous implications of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria? Do you tell them that Chanel and Louboutin are on sale here, or that we are drowning in dumps (literally)? Do you inform them that they can “swim in the morning and ski in the afternoon”, or that our deputies still haven’t been able to elect a president? Do you go into raptures about how proud you are to be Lebanese, or do you tell them that you always spend your mornings preparing a plan B in case war breaks out all over again?

A Lebanese revolution, you say? We urgently need one, that’s for sure. But it’s not going to happen any time soon, because we are the heroes of denial: many Lebanese praise this as a survival instinct, but it is actually killing us, step by step, lie after lie. People who criticise this country’s decay are seen as discouraging the tourists with their pessimism. But this has nothing to do with pessimism: it is called facing the ugly truth.

We are the collateral damage of the so-called revolutions nearby. Specifically, the Syrian revolution. It is enough to read some of the graffiti on Beirut’s walls, which varies between anti-regime and pro-Assad slogans, in order to assess the weight of the situation in Syria on Lebanon’s destiny. Almost all Lebanese know that the war could at any moment be imported to Beirut. The real disaster in Syria today is humanitarian: washing blood off the streets has become routine. The smell of death is everywhere, and Syrians die by the second. People are being murdered like worthless flies because, on one hand, a criminal dictator doesn’t want to relinquish power and is committing mass murder because of that; while on the other hand, religious extremists, who are taking us 500 years backwards, are being heavily armed by regional allies who are willing to destroy the world in the name of Islam. How many more times must this pattern be repeated in the Arab world? How many more times will the people be forced to choose between one monster and another? And who are the real victims of this mayhem?

We all know them: the real victims are the civilians. We had them here, in Lebanon, not long ago. They are mere “casualties” who cease to have names, identities, dreams or lovers. They are simply a “necessary price” that has to be paid in order to nourish the “holy cause”. And the dead all look alike in the painful, deafening silence of their bodies.

In case you are wondering, what I said above was not a figure of speech; I do indeed spend my mornings preparing a plan B in case war breaks out in Lebanon all over again; a plan that involves a foreign country, a little bit of luck and a great deal of adaptability. Because I know that in Lebanon, as the French writer Jean Giraudoux so intelligently put it, peace is “just an interval between two wars”. How is that for a revolution?

Joumana Haddad’s books include ’I Killed Scheherazade’, ’Superman Is an Arab’ and ’The Third Sex’. You can follow her on twitter @joumana333.

• Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, who wrote for the 2011 feature, was unavailable to contribute this time.


* “‘I was terribly wrong’ - writers look back at the Arab spring five years on”. The Guardian. Saturday 23 January 2016 07.30 GMT Last modified on Thursday 28 January 2016 16.14 GMT: