The Spark of Revolt

With the overthrow of longtime authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, a Middle East expert asks, who’s next?
Rami G. Khouri
“The indignities and the humiliations that ordinary people suffer mount up and reach a point where people just simply snap, and they fight back,” says Rami G. Khouri, seen here at a Fares Center conference at Tufts last fall. Photo: Kelvin Ma
February 15, 2011

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The overthrow of two longtime authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt in just six weeks caught many world affairs watchers by surprise, even as new protests are being reported in other countries in the Middle East.

What was the spark for these popular protests, and what lies ahead? Rami G. Khouri, an authority on Middle East politics who is a visiting scholar this month at Tufts’ Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, says the revolts were long-simmering and will likely spread in the region.

A Palestinian-Jordanian and U.S. citizen whose family resides in Beirut and Nazareth, Khouri is an internationally syndicated political columnist and the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He is also editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper. He spoke with Tufts Now about the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia.

 

Tufts Now: What allowed unarmed protestors to overthrow two longtime rulers?

Rami G. Khouri: These things happen on schedules that are difficult to predict, but in retrospect, they always follow a clear pattern. If you look at Tiananmen Square or South Africa or the Soviet Union, you see that the indignities and the humiliations that ordinary people suffer mount up and reach a point where people just simply snap and they fight back, knowing there’s a risk of death and imprisonment. They can’t take the humiliation anymore.

Think about Rosa Parks: why did she not move to the back of the bus that day? She had enough. In Tunisia, it was a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi. He was hit by a cop when he was trying to sell vegetables and fruits on his cart, and he had enough. He burned himself in protest, and that sparked the protests in Tunisia. The Egyptians, in turn, were inspired by the Tunisians.

Were the protests a sudden turn of events or did they have deeper roots?

It’s really important to note this did not happen in a historical vacuum. For the last 30 years, many people in the Arab world have been challenging their regimes and demanding change. But they never got anywhere because the governments were so strong militarily and were backed 100 percent by foreign powers, including notably the United States, England and France.

The previous expressions of resistance and desire to change were always put down by the Arab police and security states. It’s not as if this came out of the blue. Take Egypt. All kinds of people from different parts of society have challenged the Egyptian regime over the last 30 years: the Muslim Brotherhood, labor unions, civil and human rights movements, young people, lawyers and judges. A few tried to do it violently and got crushed.

So what happened was not a sudden eruption, but a consequence of grievances expressed over 30 or 40 years. It finally spilled over to the mainstream and brought down the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. The cumulative humiliations got too big for the spirit to stand. These are intangible things and you can’t predict them.

Of course you also have tangible, practical stresses: unemployment, the cost of living, corruption, the lack of clean water, the inability to get affordable housing. But it’s the combination of the tangible and the intangible—a sense that your own government is not giving you the rights that you believe you have as a human being and as a citizen of that country. When a few people get out on the streets and the government beats them up, that generates more protest.

Why didn’t the military push back the protestors?

The military is used to defend the country; it is not a police force. The police did crack down, and some of the police came back [to Tahrir Square] as civilian thugs. There is a clear distinction between the police and the national armed forces. The national armed forces in the Arab world usually are held in high esteem, partly because they tend to stay out of internal politics. They are seen as protecting the country. That’s why the armed forces in Egypt stayed out of this. They knew it would have been a catastrophe if they got involved in repression.

Who is in charge in Egypt now?

A combination of existing institutions, government, armed forces and new elements that are making themselves felt: young peoples’ movements, student movements, activist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood. They have to come together and forge a new national ruling mechanism, write a new constitution, hold elections, legitimize a new system.

Will this revolution spread?

You’ve already seen expressions of major discontent as well as active street demonstrations in several Arab cities. I think you can see it in Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain and Algeria, where the public expression of discontent has been the most obvious. But you also have Sudan, Syria and Libya, where discontent will express itself. It’s hard to predict which one will happen next.

You’ve got quite a few countries in the Arab world where the nature of the grievances is very similar to Tunisia and Egypt. You’ve got the makings of continued challenges to the established order in at least a half-dozen Arab countries. In the Gulf countries that have a lot of oil and smaller populations, protests are less likely because people are better off and feel less vulnerable.

What about Iran?

In 2009, there were big uprisings in Iran after the elections. But Iran is a much different place. It’s Persian, not Arab. The Shiites, not Sunnis, are in the majority. The nature of the ruling regime is different. Iran has its own problems, and the discontent is very obvious. Large numbers of Iranians would like significant change to happen, and they will continue to express it, but the government cracks down really hard. It’s a longer-term process of change. But Iran had the granddaddy of these street revolutions when they overthrew the Shah in 1979.

What role did the Internet play in the protestors’ success?

Clearly there was a digital element. I believe it accelerates and widens the process that is started by brave people who challenge their government. But people in the West, particularly in the United States, put too much emphasis on that. The digital revolution was exaggerated. The driving force is human courage. When Egypt closed down the Internet, more and more people went out on the street.

How do you think Obama handled the situation?

By and large I think the United States handled it pretty well: they more or less stayed out of it and said they support change. The U.S. is pretty ignorant about realities in the Middle East and doesn’t have much insight. Obama understood this and said the best thing we can do is say we support democratic change. He did it gently, which was the right thing to do.

Should Israel be worried?

Some Israelis have been worried, but with zero justification. The Israelis have absolutely no reason to believe the Egyptians will abrogate the peace treaty. There is zero evidence of that. The vast majority of Egyptians want to maintain a peace with Israel.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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