Later Basem Fathy, who spoke from his experience on Tahrir square in Cairo, described the revolution as one without leadership, led only by a revolutionary idea, that of ‘Tahrir square’ – It is an idea of freedom and of human dignity, a feeling that had been lost but had to be restored. It is this feeling, this presence of human dignity that Yanar Mohammed, female rights activist from Iraq, voiced in her touching description of the ‘revolutionary spirit’ that rose on the Tahrir square in Bagdad in the wake of the Arab revolts. She described how in a Bagdad tormented by civil war, internal strife and heavily charged tribal and factional politics, a new spirit of togetherness arose in this square. Here, people came together again and listened to each other, regardless of affiliation, sex or religion.
But as the seminar continued, these revolutionary hopes were confronted with the fears deeply embedded in the societies of the Middle East. Rania Fazah, Lebanese by descent but currently working in Amman for IKV PAX Christi on the Levantine region, spoke of ‘societies of fear’ that have not yet disappeared. There are fears regarding security and liberty, fears of ‘the unknown’ and of change, of tribalism and of the military. Each minority, tribe and social group has its own: These are fears that come together only in the overall fear that the new private citizens’ hopes, which occupied the squares and international media platforms, will shy back from this battle against deeply rooted conformity. That the Arab world will shy back in a culture of fear, as it has done in the last decades.
The question at the core of this discussion was: Would the people of the Arab world be able to overcome these fears and enforce real change? In the words of Paul Aarts of the University of Amsterdam, “Is the Arab world able to transform the revolts of today into the social revolution of tomorrow?”. Disguised as a seemingly semantic discussion, about whether recent events should be characterized as revolts or as a revolution, lay a general insecurity as to where this will all lead to eventually.
The lack of an ideology or a clear plan, other than the strong motivation to restore dignity, that was lauded in the beginning of the conference for starting off the revolts, also turned out to be the splitting point, at which the revolutionary thread unraveled at the end of the day. The variety of perspectives presented suggests that, while some of the threads will end in intangible knots of violence, others may lead to meaningful change. Let’s hope that as many threads as possible will eventually find their way through the darkness of Arab fears, into a bright future.
Ruben Elsinga has taken an MSc. in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has lived in Damascus, Syria for one and a half years, where he worked at the Netherlands Institute of Academic Studies.