These are cynical political times for social movements. Revolutionary action is something rarely discussed in serious conversation. Sometimes we boast hyperbolically about our “revolutionary politics” even though we have never engaged in revolutionary undertaking. Bloggers living with the privilege of a free press, university professors enjoying the comfort of tenure, and far-right movements such as the Tea Party who fight to uphold the status quo—it is no wonder that the word “revolution” has grown so hollowed out and devoid of meaning. The idea of the “revolutionary” is deployed to describe any kind of political ideology, suggesting a rhetorical placeholder for substance without substance—a phenomenon that political theorist Wendy Brown sees as a hallmark of depoliticiziation.
It is unsurprising that we are cynical about revolutionary undertaking—or that we are convinced of its obsolescence. Recent historical events have not been good to social movements with revolutionary aims. On the heels of the Cultural Revolution, World War II, and the Stalinist purges, the United States and Soviet Union engaged in a battle for world domination that left no one untouched. Throughout Latin America and in sub-Saharan Africa, the United States used proxy armies to crush popular uprisings and install tyrannical puppet leaders who committed egregious crimes against their people. The regions that fell under Soviet influence did not fare any better. Mass murders, disappearances, political unfreedom—these were the circumstances that defined the bloodiest century in history.
Even in countries with proud histories of social struggle, a sense of political hopelessness pervades the public imagination. The post-Marxist governments of sub-Saharan Africa long ago ceded economic autonomy to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The autocratic leaders of many of these states—from Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to King Mswati III in Swaziland—preside over populations at least as alienated from the political process as those in the Middle East. There is a sense in these countries that there will never be enough funding available to provide needed social goods. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was an excellent movement leader who nevertheless foundered as South Africa’s head of state. Gross disparities between the wealthy and poor continue to contribute to political apathy in South Africa. Meanwhile, the country has the highest per capita murder rate in the non-warring world. Just a couple of days ago, Ugandan gay rights activist David Cato was murdered in his home.
Revolutionary action is too often followed by murder or inaction, so we—most of us—stopped thinking in world historical terms. We dismissed social movements as “utopian” and “unrealistic.” Revolutions spurned by popular uprising simply do not happen in our world. We formulate our politics instead in the language of reform, hoping for a slight amelioration of the status quo instead of political transformation. We know too much now to believe in high-minded ideals about governance. We congratulate ourselves for being wiser now—ready to face our political alienation without flinching.
We do not have the rhetorical tools to understand social movements when they become mass movements that wield tangible political power. They have been in decline for so long that the possibility of political change is nonsensical to us. So it should come as no surprise that commentary about the Tunisian uprising is often wild, speculative, and unhelpful. Indeed, the one thing that can be said with certainty about the Tunisian revolution of January 2011—and ensuing protests throughout the Middle East—is that world commentators have no idea what to make of it. That writers on both the left and right are lauding the regime change is indicative of the greater confusion about what this movement actually means.
The truth is that, despite the fact that this revolution was televised and despite a proliferation of internet opinion, we know very little factual information. In brief: We know that a mass of activists in Tunisia—many of whom were unemployed young people— converged on Ben Ali to overthrow the government of Tunisia. We know that the military of Tunisia stood in opposition to Ben Ali’s orders and overwhelmingly sided with the activists, making it impossible for the beleaguered head of state to remain in office. We also know that the government overthrow in Tunisia converged with protests throughout the Middle East, and that some have more to do with the Tunisian uprising than others.
As of this writing, the related pro-democracy uprising in Egypt is the target of severe government repression. Internet access and cell phones are blocked throughout the country as police in riot gear line the streets of Cairo. Because the Muslim Brotherhood has a stronger presence in Egypt and because the United States sees President Hosni Mubarak as an important ally in its now-dated “war on terror,” international commentary is not as breathless or as laudatory. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are publicly calling for protesters to exercise caution and restraint. The official position of the United States involves the repeated assertion that the Egyptian regime is more “stable” than that of Tunisia. There are many indications that the Egyptian state will not topple—and that the autocratic Middle Eastern heads of state learned just as much as the protesters from the Tunisian revolt.
With the shaky foundations of the Tunisian regime now exposed, officials throughout the Middle East are working to curb the criticisms emanating from the growing public sphere. Just last week, the usually-restrained Palestinian Authority blocked a public rally in support of the Tunisian uprising. In Yemen, a state that traditionally silenced its citizens in exchange for oil patronage, the government appears to be exercising a more cautious approach, stressing a new commitment to free speech and a surprising tolerance for public dissent. Though it is impossible to predict what will happen in the region from day to day, it does seem clear that social movements with revolutionary aims feel emboldened throughout the region.
Did social media forces converge to create the great democratizing force that political thinkers have hoped for since the dawn of the internet? Did “diplomatic whisperings” embolden the people of Tunisia in any way? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else who is commenting about the government overthrow from the outside. If my education in international affairs taught me anything, it’s that we know far less than we think we do—and that our simplistic explanations are usually rendered meaningless by the complexities of history and politics. I suspect that it is no more possible to state without qualification that “the internet” led to the uprising than it is to say that “ancient ethnic hatreds” led to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Catch phrases and laundry lists rarely tell us much about the complexities of human behavior. Yes, we know that social media provided an outlet for organizing, but we also know that the uprising in Egypt continues even without the internet.
Even now, the outcome of these protests is unclear. The overthrow of Ben Ali was just as unexpected for political scientists and pundits as it was for the general public. Attempts to quantify and predict what is to come are misguided—and probably doomed to irrelevance as events shift from day to day. Another autocratic regime may very well emerge, as those versed in the history of social movements well know. Even so, it is premature to invoke pessimistic assumptions and assume that these popular movements are doomed from the start. After all, activists throughout the Middle East are not taking cues from the cynical politics of the day. Instead, they are banking everything on a political optimism that seems alien to many outside observers. Words like “freedom” and “justice”—so hollowed out and meaningless for so many—are imbued with new meaning and substance throughout the Middle East as many thousands assert a new and surprising political enfranchisement. Whatever happens next, these achievements in themselves suggest cracks in the dominant political malaise. They require those on the outside to reexamine our entrenched opinions—and to reconsider the import of an engaged, active citizenry.