The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions


Video and Edited Transcript
Mr. Marwan Bishara
Transcript No. 363 (1 March 2012)



1 March 2012
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC

Mr. Marwan Bishara:

I’ve been finding that over the last few weeks, to speak about the book by referring to some of the words on the cover, is probably the easiest thing. So to speak about the “Invisible” and the “Arab” and the “Peril” and the “Promise”; I think that will probably cover it.  What I will try to do is to delineate those issues to you and then maybe we can have a discussion which probably will be more of an interest for many [of you] after falafel and shawarma [sandwiches].  The invisible actually is quite important, the “invisible” part of it, because we are here in Washington [DC]. And I think “invisible” is more relevant to western mainstream media and academia than it is to other parts in the world. For the last several decades, for some of us who actually lived in this country and went to school in this country and are familiar with mainstream media, it’s clear to us that for the last several decades the Arabs, indeed Muslims in general, had been missing from the media narrative.

Missing in what sense? There had been conversations about Islam, especially as of late. But there had been no serious attempt at understanding Muslims or Arabs in the region. That’s for three reasons, and again they are centered here where we are in Washington. One, is that of energy security. The United States, its mainstream media and academia looked at the region through the prism of oil. It was mostly a question of energy security, it was mostly the question of if the oil prices go up, you will see the images of Arabs—as Jack Shaheen and others will tell you—quite negative in the media and Hollywood. And at best, the Arabs would be those who are trying to take control of their natural resources and deny America access to oil. Or, it would be that of Israel’s security, if it is not energy security, it is Israel’s security. The Arabs were seen from the prism of what is good and what is not good for, so-called, Israel’s security. And third, it was of course, especially of late, that of U.S. nationalism. And here, of course, it’s been seen from the prisms of terrorism and the War on Terror.

So, any way you look at it from those three prisms, American mainstream media and arguably academia and certainly policy-making, looked at the region, looked at Arabs, in all three levels from all three perspectives from all three angles and prisms, as enemies. The Arabs were the enemy. They were the enemy in terms of energy security, they were the enemy in terms of Israel’s security and they were the enemy in terms of national security and terrorism. So an Arab could not have been seen as what the Arabs turned out to be in 2011.

So the shock wasn’t just the shock of the question of contagion or the question of, “Did we expect it? Did we not expect it? Was it surprising? Was it shocking?” It was more than that. It was, “You know, these Arabs! Really? Wow, they’re capable of such things!” I mean, is it possible that an entire generation of Arabs would be anything but the Bin Ladens that everyone thought every Arab was growing up to be? Is it possible that Arabs are not just terrorists in waiting? Is it possible that they are not just a demographic threat? Is it possible that this young generation is not a reservoir of extremism? Because as an observer, that’s what I read. That’s what I studied.

Mostly, Arabs were seen as the enemy but the Arab individuals and new generation certainly were invisible. There’s the idea of the threat, the idea of the enemy. But what Arabs actually were evolving to be, that was never really of an interest. And because there was such an ideological hold from these three security prisms, even those who tried to seriously research the Arab world had to be guided by those major guidelines that we look at the Arab as not a very pleasant phenomenon. So that when millions of people poured into the streets of the Arab world unarmed with weapons, but armed with new technology, armed with universal values, terribly courageous, facing some of the most repressive and most infamous security services with their bodies and with their spirits, not to be broken, being able to transform and to take on some the most repressive security services in the world, some of the most repressive, oppressive dictators –within days, turning some of them like [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak or [former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali—that certainly was not in the cards.  Not for those who saw the Arabs as enemies.  Not for those who the “Arab,” meaning an entire generation of Arabs, were invisible.

So the promise really comes from those who have become visible to us, thanks to media, thanks to new media and satellite media; a new generation of Arabs have become visible. A new generation of Arabs really did surprise us, and surprised themselves, to be honest. This was an incredible year. In a country like Yemen, for example, a country of 22, 23 million people, where reportedly there is something like 50 to 70 million pieces of weapons in the hands of people there; an armed society.  The NRA [National Rifle Association] would have a field day in Yemen. If you think Texas and Denver or Wyoming, wait until you go to Taiz [Yemen]. But when the revolution started there, and actually continued there–persisted—the young generation of Yemenis would be demonstrating unarmed. And they would contain an entire area, a large area, miles of squares and streets and boulevards, making sure that no one goes into their demonstrations armed and be able to stage such a forceful opposition to a dictator who’s been there since 1978, and be able to even confront some of the tendencies among some of the tribes to arm the revolution in Yemen. And Yemen is just an example.

I just came back from Tunisia and Egypt. What I describe in the book as the “miracle generation” is really miraculous in the way it organized and the spirit in which it was organized and the brilliance in the way it networked, in the way it proposed slogans—simplified [ones]—that everyone can understand, in the way they brought in everyone else from the society, in the way they brought in men and women. I mean, the women in the public squares in the Arab world were more prominent than anywhere else in the twentieth century Arab world. It was there, with this new generation, where gender became part and parcel of their approach of their revolution; where really young men and women were able to lead, where they were able to take on dictators within days. This is the promise of the Arab revolution.

The promise of the Arab revolution is that over 70 percent of its people are under the age of 30. Within a few years, these are the people who are going to be leading the Arab world. There is absolutely no escape from that. As one bright intellectual told me in Egypt just a few days ago, she said, “You know, what’s happening today in the Arab world is just a bunch of people associated with the past, a bunch of old people associated with the past killing a lot of young, innocent and courageous people.” In a way, what this novelist was talking about is not a question of age, but a question of: Are you are associated with a repressive dark past or are you associated with a bright new future? And I think this new miraculous generation is leading the way towards something far more universal, far more just, not just for themselves but for the region in general. Unfortunately, they are confronted by many countless counterrevolutionary forces, by some of the old structures, by what the late Hisham Sharabi would explain brilliantly, the patriarchal structures in the Arab world, the politicized old oligarchies that are trying to maintain positions, that are trying to defend themselves in the most violent ways. Whether they are religious or whether they are tribal, whether they are sectarian, whether they are regional, whether they are military. There are a number of forces now in the Arab world trying to slow the revolution, trying to confront the revolutionary spirit in the Arab world. And certainly, the leading among them are the remnants of the old regime, the old generals with the old mentalities, some regional powers—cynical regional powers—that would pursue the regime national interest, at the expense of anything that is good or anything that is potentially good. And some of those regimes think it is a question of life and death of their rule. And for some of them who think or have established a straight structure whereby family, tribe, regime and state is one and the same.

So for them, the removal of the family, the removal of the dictator, the removal of the tribe means the undoing of the country, the undoing of the state. So actually the notion of “me or the flood” becomes a reality for some of those regimes. That if you want to take me on, if you want to take me down, I’m going to bring down the country with me. For some of them there is this built-in anxiety that there is no other option. I’m not talking about just going into exile or having clemency somewhere or finding refuge somewhere. No, I’m talking about really, from the beginning, finding a way that is good for everyone.  Meaning, “Okay, I heard the message. I heard it in Tunisia, I heard it in Egypt and you know what? I’m starting the reform, seriously, and I’m giving myself one year, seriously. And I will make sure that everyone around me will be part and parcel of the future, seriously. This is not a game, this is not a maneuver. This is not a way to waste time or to gain time in order to break whatever potential change is coming my way, no, but seriously a way to pave the way forward.” There is a third way that even dictators could be part and parcel of a movement towards change if they haven’t gotten the message.  Unfortunately, old habits die hard and so for many of them, the idea that a new way is possible in the region didn’t bode well. And so what we see and what we will probably continue to see is an incredible beginning getting complicated; a non-violent revolution becoming violent. A swift change for, if not democracy, at least for elections, open process, an independent judiciary where a dictator can be put on trial. That swift beginning, that bright beginning, now is complicated into various compromises and, of course, the interventions of regional powers and international powers. And really the talk of war and military intervention and militarizing the revolution is becoming so sickening that for many the beginning is getting to fade away, which is unfortunate.

So when you do a balance sheet, of course for many who are watching for example, what’s happening today in Syria, wouldn’t be all too optimistic about the revolutions. And here I think is a major question for us to be able to answer today. If you’re looking at the short term, if you’re looking at what is happening every passing Friday in Homs [Syria] or in Taiz, I think you’re probably going to be disappointed. But if you’re looking at the long term, and what has opened up in that region, if you look at the collective consciousness now in the region, you will see that the forces of social justice are on the rise, are on the offensive. The youth, despite everything, remain to be vocal and on the offensive. In places like Egypt, in places like Tunisia, in places like Yemen, it’s the infamous generals that are on the defensive. Even though they continue to maneuver their way into maintaining power, even if they can continue sometimes to dictate what goes on in the country, but when you look at the long term, when you look at the graph, you will see that despite the terrible news, despite the fact that we need to fasten our seat belts the next few years, maybe more, that this is a generational question. This will not happen in a year or two. This was going to need a generation or two to bring real change. But at least they have started on the right way.

It will take a lot from a lot of us, especially in the Arab world. Intellectuals will need to be visible now. Those who long have been invisible—the human rights activists, the community organizers—who actually built up the evolution toward the revolution are now going to have to play a central role because it’s going to take more than a political revolution in the Arab world.  It’s going to take a social revolution [and] an economic revolution.  It’s going to take a revolution in the way people go about their daily lives in the culture in the Arab World. And that’s going to take time. That’s going to take new voices or the invisible voices becoming visible. Certainly, they could use all the help they could get from the outside. So all in all, I would say that the balance sheets in the short term might be complicated and a bit problematic, but I remain hopeful, optimistic.  I think the long term is going to bode well for the region. And I thank you.


Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera English’s senior political analyst and the editor and host of its flagship show “Empire,” a program that examines global powers and their agendas. He was previously a lecturer of International Relations at the American University of Paris and a fellow at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Bishara’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, International Herald TribuneWashington Post, Newsweek, GuardianLe Monde, Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Hayat, and The Nation, among other outlets.

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.