Conferencing the Revolutions, Amsterdam, Holland

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7. May 2011, Amsterdam

Far from the heart of the Arab revolts, a group of ‘revolutionaries’ gathered in Amsterdam on April 18th 2011. Organized by the University of Amsterdam and the Dutch civil society NGOs Hivos and IKV PAX Christi as part of their Knowledge Programme on Civil Society in West Asia, the conference “Inside the Revolutions: Middle Eastern Perspectives on the Revolutions”, had invited several speakers to give an insiders’ perspective on the revolts in their countries. Our Middle East blogger from the Netherlands Ruben Elsinga was there and reports on the power of revolutionary inspiration, on revolts trying to become revolutions, and on the fears that need to be overcome.
It was a full house in the Doelen Zaal of the University of Amsterdam library. The Arab revolts in the Middle East have also been filling the headlines of the Dutch media, and a mob of Dutch activists, academicians and journalists with a particular interest in the region had gathered to hear the insights of the true revolutionaries who had been flown over from the Middle East to report. With representatives from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Morocco, most of the ‘map of revolts’ was covered.The insights varied in content, I have therefore distilled a ‘red thread’ that runs through the conference.
The red thread starts with the call for the restoration of dignity, which, supported by globalist media, leads to a new spirit of hope and opportunity for a positive future and ends by unraveling itself. It is an unraveling of revolutionary hopes faced by harsh realities as well as an abundance of fears yet to be addressed.Representing Tunisia and Egypt, Messaoud Romdhani and Esraa Abdel Fattah respectively spoke of the accommodating role of globalist social media and of how perception has shifted from a “revolt of the Arab people” to “the revolts of the people of the Arab world”. They commented on the fact that this revolt did not have a particular ideology other than the restoration of human dignity, emphasizing how the restoration of this dignity was exactly what drove the masses to revolt throughout the region.

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.


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