By Goufrane Mansour, Thursday 3 February 2011 14.59 GMT
The Arab awakening, for that is what it is, which began in Tunisia and is now gripping Egypt, has taken western powers, and indeed the world, by surprise. Yet it is the Arab people themselves, myself included, men and women of all ages, who have been most surprised by what is happening – perhaps even more than the region’s dictators and regimes. Until now, it has been accepted and tacitly taught in Arab society that Arabs are weak, incapable of change, of holding their destiny in their own hands.
It is said that since the great Arab conquests of the first millennium and Saladin’s victories, Arabs have known only defeats, decline and degeneration, a fate doomed to persist. What is happening today has great political significance: in one form or another, there will be political change in Egypt, which will affect the whole region. But this revolution is also cultural: bringing an incredible shift in Arabs’ perception of themselves and what they’re capable of achieving.
I am a Lebanese descendant of the generation that has seen the rise and fall of Arab nationalism. Carried by the idealism of the 1960s, we saw Nasser as the personification of those values of freedom, justice and dignity that spread across the world, from Cuba to Vietnam. But after his fall, and the defeat inflicted by Israel in the 1967 six-day war, the dreams of unity, self-determination and nationalism slowly disappeared.
Not until the late 1990s did a powerful and inspiring figure appear to Arabs in the form of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shia resistance group Hezbollah. Through Hezbollah’s ending of the 25-year Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, he became the Middle East’s most popular figure. However, perhaps due to its Shia nature, its close relationship to Iran and Lebanon’s complex politics, Hezbollah’s victories failed to lift the morale of Arabs.
This, combined with the autocratic leaders, monarchs and dictators, created a lack of belief in us Arabs, that we could aspire to belong to countries in which freedom, justice, creativity and democracy prevail. We have been led to believe that these are not Arab attributes. Instead, we are mostly known for our dictators, oil, conservatism, religious fundamentalism, illiteracy rate and last but not least ultra-consumerism (that old Gucci outfit underneath the burqa).
This is the “Arab malaise”, to use the expression of the late Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir in his remarkable essay Being Arab. It penetrates to our core, to our history, eating away at our pride, even to our relation with Arabic. In Lebanon, more and more people take pride in not being able to speak Fusha (classical Arabic) properly – because the degree of one’s inability corresponds to how westernised (ie non-Arab) one is, which is seen as the aspirational goal. Parents address their children in English or French, leaving Arabic for school. As a result, for many young Lebanese, Arabic is not a language of the heart but a formal, impersonal language – only for TV news and old books no one reads.
So the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt – the most populous Arab country and one-time leader of Pan-Arabism – are an incredible awakening for every Arab, a seismic shift in the way we perceive ourselves. How wrong I was to think that Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who set himself on fire, was just another victim of Ben Ali’s cruel regime. Little did I know he was a hero in the revolution to come. Gripped by my Arab malaise, my mind could not see that real change was happening, until the day Ben Ali fled the country. And how wrong I was, to feel sorry for those Egyptians who also committed self-immolation, how my disbelief persisted until just a few days ago.
The Egyptian revolution, though not yet over, has also taught us something about the Arabs that Kassir had clearly foreseen: “While the internet may be the prerogative of a new, albeit growing, elite, satellite channels, whatever their orientation, give the majority access to a visual and information culture, which thereby situates the Arab world in a composite global geography. This shows how, contrary to a fearful vision of Arab identity, cultural globalisation could be Arab culture’s great chance.”
And so it has been. It feels good all of sudden to be Arab these days.