On the fifth anniversary of the revolution we can see that there is a simple lesson we need to learn from the ongoing fighting in Syria: people want to live in freedom, to be as free as their mothers created them, and the tyrants are refusing to let them do so.
That sums up the revolution.
This article attempts to distinguish between the important political phases of the revolution – within the meaning usually ascribed to that word – and the more profound and comprehensive notion of revolution as presented to us over the last five years by the Arab Spring. Most observers of Syrian political affairs think of the main phases the revolution has passed through as a chronicle with a beginning and an end that is based on whether the regime falls or not. This is partly correct, but within the revolutions of the Arab Spring there is something more profound than that. These revolutions have radically and definitively changed the concept of political engagement – for good. From now on the ordinary citizen will have a voice, and a role in making decisions about her life and her future. Revolution, in the deepest sense of the word, is a continuous and unending project, and it is on that sense of the word that this article attempts to shine some light.
Revolution as continuous project
The basic characteristic of the all revolutions of the Arab Spring is the participation by broad swathes of the populace in demonstrations and unrest. These people were from sections of society previously almost completely absent from the decision-making process. This is perhaps the first time in our history – apart from the movements that rose up against colonialism – that the masses have directed their energy towards making political change.
Revolution is not only an attempt to change the political regime, but an attempt to change the very concept of political work. Revolution cannot restrict itself to transforming the regime into an electoral democracy that replaces the ruling group of tyrants; it must go much further than that, and change the nature of political work, so that the ordinary citizen acquires the ability to confront the mega-bureaucracy and to influence the course of events and policy-making. The huge mass movement that arose – and still exists in various forms – reflects this definition of revolution, in its deepest sense.
So is this revolution over, then?
For those who seek political regime change the revolution can only end in one of two ways: either the regime falls, or it remains in power and crushes the revolution. The Arab revolutions seem to be caught in the middle: in some cases the regime has fallen, but then a bloodier and more comical clone of it has come to power, as in Egypt. Syria, Libya and Yemen have all entered a phase of long-term civil war. Tunisia is the only country whose revolution has succeeded in these terms, but so far it has not fulfilled the deeper aspiration of changing the very concept of politics.
But revolutions, in the deeper meaning of the word as proposed above, neither end nor begin, as such, with political transformation. Revolutions fail when the ruling regime – or its mutant descendant, in the Egyptian example – succeeds in making the people start to obey it again, and in making them believe that they are incapable of managing their own affairs and must therefore hand over the reins of power to the politicians and the military, who will protect them from Western and Zionist conspiracies and the treachery of the reckless.
On the ground, it seems that matters are not remotely going as the tyrants would like. Despite the way the revolutions have stumbled and stalled there is still a faith that the ordinary citizen has the right to self-determination, and that the era of ‘wise’ patriarchal leadership is over. The revolution is still under way, with diverse and innovative methods being used.
Revolutions end in utter defeat when the tyrants succeed in erasing all manifestations of discontent by the citizens and turn us, once again, into congregations for a ruler seemingly acting on God’s orders. Whether that ruler is Sunni, Shia, secular, or a mixture, the orders are issued in the name of abstract absolute concepts such as freedom, socialism, nationalism, or Palestine that are used to oppress the citizen forever.
In these terms, then, it doesn’t seem as if the revolutions are over, despite the impasse they have reached.
The following is an attempt to illuminate some aspects of this impasse.
Temporary losses and final defeats
To confront the impasse that the revolutions have got into we must distinguish — or reaffirm the distinction – between principles and tactics, and between temporary losses and final defeats.
One is obliged to distinguish between the moral principles that rule one’s relationship with politics, on the one hand, and the tactics used to achieve one’s goals, on the other. This distinction has grown exceptionally important lately because of the impasse we have reached. For example, we can distinguish between the question of negotiating with the Syrian regime and that of surrendering to it, just as we can distinguish between truce and submission. The Syrians live in fear of negotiations and of truces because they have repeatedly been betrayed by their friends, and because of calls for them to accept solutions that keep the current regime in place with just a few basic reforms that are not even worth mentioning.
The second distinction it is important to make is between temporary losses and final defeats. The Spring has been exposed to some major temporary losses: among the obvious examples are Sisi seizing power in Egypt, the Russian airforce bombing northern Syria, and Saudi troops entering Bahrain. However, these very examples also prove that major temporary losses have not been able to kill off the seed of freedom sown by the uprisings of 2011: the struggle is still ongoing, varying in form according to the time and place in question. This means that these are losses, although major, are temporary losses in the long fight against dictatorship.
Final defeats come when we relinquish our principles. When we accept that the people love Abdul Fatah al-Sisi and want him in power, or that the Syrians will surrender to the Russian and Iranian occupiers, or when we become convinced that the ideal solution for the kingdom of Bahrain is its military rule by Saudi forces. In short, defeat comes when we see the ideal solution in sending the citizens back to their homes and submitting to the rule of the Father Leader and his security apparatus.
Final defeats do not manifest themselves in the major political developments mentioned above, but in the absence of any popular opposition to these developments. When people surrender to absolute evil, and when they lose hope, their defeat is final. But since the Arab Spring the only way in which this could happen would be if the instinct for freedom was suppressed in a way that has never before been done, even in our fraught history. Anyone who tasted freedom for a few months in 2011 and 2012 – even if only in a basic, brief and premature form – will not now go back into slavery. The Arab Spring, in this sense, resembles the French Revolution. Despite the tragedies and wars that went on for more than a century it was no longer possible to convince the Europeans to hand over control of their affairs and their future to the ‘ancien regime’.
What has happened here in the Arab World is a sea change in people’s vision of themselves, their nature and their future.
People have changed, concepts have changed, and times have changed.
None of the regimes, their security forces, their intellectuals, the Western intellectuals who doubt the revolutions, nor the Western governments who conspire with the regimes have changed, as yet.
So let us repeat, then, that the revolution does not only end in the regime being overthrown. Revolution strives to involve as many people as possible in managing their own lives. This process takes time, perhaps a very long time: in a sense it may never actually come to an end at all. That is to say, we can always develop tools for thinking and for governing, in an attempt to arrive at forms and institutions that allow the citizens to be both more effective and more involved in the decision-making process.
Revolution is a project for the future: one that never ends and never stops.
If the definition of revolution above is correct, then the question of the beginning of the revolution must also be posed in a different way.
The Legend of the Flood
In the film A Flood in Ba’ath Country by the late Syrian director Omar Amiralay there is a scene in a school classroom. The schoolchildren sit there looking utterly oppressed, repeating like parrots whatever their teacher, who is of course also oppressed, says. Worse than parrots, even, they seem like people who are drowning in a flood – the flood of dictatorship that has ruled over Syria for forty years.
That scene has always confused me: it seems to me that Omar Amiralay is not able to communicate with the schoolchildren, or to see what is behind the drab words they are repeating. But Amiralay was not the only one who lacked the ability to develop a real relationship with the pupils. There is a profound difference between three different generations in Syria: the older generation that never went to the Ba’athist schools and were not exposed to the hero worship of the ‘eternal leader’ that happened in them; the generation that experienced those schools and nothing else (which is my generation); and the third generation, who were at school in the era of Bashar Assad, when the worship was curtailed a little and the atmosphere was transformed into a comedy that no one could believe – neither the students, nor the teachers, nor even the regime itself.
The older generation’s relationship with the two younger generations was full of misunderstandings and doubts. Generally it seems that generation perceived a hopeless situation in the younger generation, believing that Ba’athist propaganda had succeeded in brainwashing them and making them utterly incapable of action or thought. In the beginning of 2011 many of the older generation expressed their surprise at the demonstrations breaking out, and at their huge scale.
But in fact the Ba’athist teaching machine did not succeed in fooling the pupils in the eighties or the nineties either. As schoolchildren we did not have enough of a political consciousness to fully comprehend the lies that made up the state propaganda. But we knew we didn’t believe the Father Ruler was omniscient and omnipotent. In school classrooms boredom and sarcasm prevailed, and this only became more stark later on, at university. All we really hoped for in practical terms was for our military and nationalist drill sessions to pass quickly, so that we get back to maths or biology class. These classes were taught in a fairly normal and reasonable way, and we could mess about during them – or even make sense of the content, unlike during drill. I would add to that that sectarian, religious, ethnic or regional divisions were frequently present: the Kurds were less influential and more rebellious than the Arabs, the Sunnis were more restless than the Alawites, the Christians were neutral, and so on.
The school classroom scene in Amiralay’s film suggests – if my understanding of it is correct – that the flood has inundated the school. There is not a breath of fresh air in the scene; there is not even a fleeting smile or a little yawn. There’s nothing but absence and emptiness, in the vast limitless expanse of Hafez al-Assad’s world.
Amiralay’s vision here is wrong, in my opinion. I wish he was still alive today, so that we could hear what he had to say on the matter. If he had lived to experience the revolution that he waited so long for we would have gained the insight of his probing eye on the revolution. I am confident that he would not have hesitated to join the revolution, but that he would show – like everyone else of his generation – his amazement at it happening.
The flood has not submerged Syria at any point, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s impossible to completely and utterly fool and oppress people, no matter how unrestrained the tyranny and madness of the ruler.
The Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin said that humanity, in its entirety, everywhere and at all times, possesses a basic instinct for freedom. No dictatorial regime can eradicate that instinct, even if people are forced into disguising it for long periods at a time.
What happens during revolutions is that the awareness of this instinct surges, making it difficult or impossible for people to go back to how they were before that awareness came to the surface.
The revolution, then, did not begin in 2011 in Syria, Egypt or anywhere else. The revolution was latent everywhere, always present in the smiles of the schoolchildren during military drill sessions, their recklessness as students in the university military training camps, and in their capacity to carry on learning, loving, laughing and transgressing despite all of the blatant humiliation and the tremendous fear. The revolution was preceded by very profound movements – varying in their size and in the principles they espoused – in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. All of these signs and indications were part of the original building blocks of the revolution.
Revolution, in the most profound sense of the word, neither begins nor ends at a specific point in time.
Revolution is a continuous project.
The revolution is victorious when it continues making more space for freedom, creativity and inspiration, forever and ever.