I never liked the term ‘The Arab Spring’. I found it too passive a description with its connotation of a natural phenomenon that didn’t fully capture the sense of defiance that characterised the Arab Uprisings of 2011. But in hindsight there was perhaps something prescient about the ‘Arab Spring’ reflecting the lack of a sense of control over events that now characterises the frustration and disappointment felt by secularist Arab supporters of the uprisings. Not for the first time in their history, Arab leftists and liberals have revealed the same kind of incompetence and lack of political clarity that have allowed other parties, such as the Baath, to outmanoeuvre them in the past. This time round they seem to have reconciled themselves to watching from the sidelines and bemoaning the ignorance of the Arab masses as the Islamists appear to be gaining the upper hand. This would be a premature declaration of defeat.
An important point to remember is that the Islamists did not spark the Arab Uprisings. When it became clear in places like Egypt and Tunisia that Islamists had significant popular majorities following electoral victories, the response of Arab liberals/leftists ranged from bitter admonition of the masses to accusations of fraud and external funding by the Gulf states. Self-critique hardly featured. Furthermore, little did they make of the fact that Islamists hadn’t mobilised their wide support base to challenge the autocracies in power, preferring to coexist with the established orders for decades while carving a space for themselves and their followers. While the Islamists didn’t start the uprisings, they have mobilised to reap the benefits of their aftermath and they have proved themselves to be far better at connecting with the people than leftists and liberals.
It is this last point that more than anything explains the failure of secularist Arabs to capitalise on the uprisings to push for wider reforms and mount serious attempts at taking power. It became clear from the beginning that Arab secularists are far more skilled at speaking to the international media than to their countrymen and women. While celebrity activists were busy collecting awards in European capitals, parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Nour Party in Egypt were mobilising in preparation for the elections. As the established Islamist parties were preparing themselves to deal with the new realities, Arab secularists failed to produce a single legitimate political body that could represent the demands of the uprisings.
This disconnect between the secularist elites and the Arab masses is clearly illustrated in their patronising attitude. They constantly speak of ‘education’ and ‘raising awareness’, the preferred tools for social engineering they like to borrow from western liberal democracies. Rather than addressing the real political and economic challenges through ambitious programmes that could gain them popular support, they persist in alienating their audiences with superficial initiatives that rarely address the reality of peoples’ lives. They continue to pour so much time an energy into insignificant initiatives, like getting Twitter trending topics or harebrained publicity stunts like flash-mobs in western capitals, as if this is the culmination of political struggle. They would rather win the battle for victimhood status in western media rather than connecting with a genuine popular support base at home.
Now that the euphoria of the early months of the uprisings seems to be giving way to disappointment, many have taken to publicly revealing their scepticism. The ‘I told you so’s’ smugly point to the error of expecting too much from the Arab masses. I personally remain unrepentant in my support for the uprisings, if there is a missed opportunity it’s one that we have complacently allowed to happen because of our lack of focus and political clarity. Furthermore, blaming the masses for not ‘getting us’ is a recipe for self-exile.