In December 2010, a Tunisian vegetable merchant lit himself on fire in front of his city’s police headquarters to protest mistreatment by an officer. The incident sparked a wave of protests that led, within a few months, to the ouster of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents – and war in Libya. U of T Magazine editor Scott Anderson spoke with Mohamed Tavakoli-Targhi, a professor of history Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, about developments in the region.
What is driving these protests across North Africa and the Middle East now?
Arab civil society has grown in recent years, and become increasingly cosmopolitan and invigorated. Many of the countries where protests are occurring have large, highly educated and web-savvy youth populations. With the communication revolution, these youth are breaking down the state’s monopoly over information. Citizens’ cellphones are like radio and television stations. People can share uncensored news and information directly with each other.
How important a role has technology played in these protests?
Technology is important, but more important is the willingness of citizens to go into the public square – to physically be there – and face the danger of challenging the state. Technology on its own does not do much. Remember: as much as technology has enabled civil society, it has also enabled the state to suppress its citizens and maintain control. The communication revolution no doubt helps people to create networks, which is important. But the public protests are what caused authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt to collapse.
Tell me more what you mean by the “emergence of civil society.”
I mean neighbourhoods, students, workers and other groups coming together to articulate their interests and to present them in various forms – in media, in print, online. Since the end of the Second World War, states in the Middle East have claimed to be the singular representative of their people. Now diverse voices are emerging and wanting to assert themselves. That diversity – and the consequent discussion of what is Libyan, what is Egyptian, what is Tunisian, what is Yemeni, what is in the national interest and what is in the popular interest – constitutes the invigoration of the public sphere.
How long has this process been going on?
The desire for democracy has been an important part of the political culture in the Middle East since the early 20th century, but the state has managed to suppress it. Any voices that challenged authoritarian regimes were presented as enemies of the nation.
Are the protesters demanding democracy?
Unfortunately, the term democracy has become loaded ideologically – similar to how Islam is perceived in the West. Nevertheless, democracy is an important part of it. For many Egyptians, for example, the regime represented intense policing and the state’s control over everyday life – what you could say and how you could say it. When the protesters said Hosni Mubarak should go, they wanted all of this to go, too.
Have unemployment and poverty in these countries contributed to the unrest?
Any time you see mass protests resembling a revolution, there is some degree of poverty and unemployment. When people are dissatisfied with their lives, they are willing to fight for better conditions, higher pay and improved opportunities. But these revolutions are not just for higher wages. People want control over their own lives. The sovereignty of the individual and the liberation of civil society from an intrusive state are really the keys to understanding this round of democratic revolutions in the Middle East.
Do you think we are witnessing true revolutions?
True revolutions can only be decided at the end. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have elements of revolution, but to be truly revolutionary, they have to introduce radical social transformation: the rewriting of the constitution and the empowerment of parliament. The constitution, rather than being rewritten by the military, should be rewritten by a constituent assembly – and it should be put to a vote. Decision-making should include popular participation at all levels. So far, we’re just at the beginning of this process.
Do you think there are similarities between what’s happening in the Arab world now and Eastern Europe in 1989?
They both involve the simultaneous processes of civilian empowerment and the rejection of authoritarian states. There are these waves that somehow link national developments with the global context. Revolutions are almost always both local and global. There are local conditions for revolution that are fostered by the international situation.
You get the sense that protests in one country can lead to protests in another.
The protesters, in this case, have watched and learned from each other. This is the manifestation of a transnational Arabic-speaking public sphere. But the states also learn from each other about how to respond. How the state acts, how the revolutionaries act, how quick they are on their feet: these all determine the outcomes of revolutions.
What do you make of the situation in Libya?
It’s interesting to compare Libya with Egypt and Tunisia. The revolution in Tunisia had already happened before the Western media and governments caught on. The Egyptians managed to push out Mubarak on their own. The situation in Libya is radically different. When the rebels began to advance, the European and North American states became engaged militarily. When that happened, Moammar Gadhafi repackaged himself as the protector of Libya. This creates a crisis for the Libyan people. On the one hand they want him to go, and on the other they see that the Western states have begun attacking and their own leader representing the national interest. We have seen this before in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein and the Taliban had lost all legitimacy; the invasions of their countries helped re-legitimatize them.
Was there a better option for the international community?
With the importance of national sovereignty in the political culture of the Middle East, it’s best for external powers not to directly support civil movements. When democracy is depicted as a gift of foreigners, it cannot become a highly cherished cultural value. It only becomes a cherished cultural value if people fight for it, protect it and institutionalize it of their own volition.
What about the humanitarian rationale? “We have to stop Gadhafi from killing his own people.”
Gadhafi was on his last legs, and the military attack has invigorated him. You can’t give an authoritarian regime any excuse to continue its authoritarian rule. The military action in Libya is a gift to Gadhafi, not to civilians. When you turn the struggle for democracy into a military struggle, the citizens lose. They become victims of military attacks rather than becoming empowered.
What is the most appropriate response from the Canadian government?
Do not intervene. If you’re supporting the revolutionaries, then support them in a way that would not allow the states to depict them as tools and agents of “external powers.” As an example, Iranian civil society is vibrant and strong, and Iranian society is highly secular, but every time the Iranian opposition expresses itself, the U.S. declares its support. The Iranian regime has consistently used this vociferous expression of support to delegitimize the movement for civil empowerment as foreign sponsored.
Does what is happening now in the Middle East vindicate George Bush’s claim that removing Saddam Hussein and creating a democratic Iraq would spread democracy through the region?
No. What Bush did was bad for the Middle East and bad for democracy. It’s true that Saddam Hussein was pushed out, but Baathist culture in Iraq is on the rise. We have not successfully gotten rid of Saddam’s authoritarian legacy because the struggles in Iraq that could have been civil were militarized. If you look at Afghanistan, where the Taliban had totally lost legitimacy, they are now back. Both the American and Afghani governments are beginning to engage in dialogue with the Taliban.
One could argue that a more democratic Middle East would make life more difficult for Israel. What do you think?
As people in the Middle East seek to democratize their societies, their communities and their states, it is urgent for Israel to “democratize” its mode of engagement with Palestinians and Palestinian institutions. Israel cannot continue suppressing the Palestinians and denying them legitimate rights in the name of protecting the Jewish state. Israel is a Middle Eastern state. Jews have lived in the Middle East since the beginning, so Israel has the right to be where it is. But as its neighbours democratize, Israel must loosen its military grip on the Palestinians. In fact, the creation of a Palestinian state may be crucial to the democratization process across the entire region. This cannot be bad for Israel.
As a native Iranian, what’s your personal feeling about what’s happening?
I view it as a moment of global enthusiasm for a new world to take shape – the kind of world where we go beyond East-West distinctions and the ongoing struggle between Islam and Christianity. I think the Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yemenis and Syrians – and Iranians in the past – have shown that they cherish democracy and the right to speak their minds and protect their rights as much as Europeans do. It’s a moment to recognize that our global culture is rooted as much in Middle East and Islam and other cultures and civilizations as it is in Western culture and Christianity.