Al Rawiya

The Sisyphean March to Arab Freedom

A young protester carries a placard that reads, “The future of our children is not more important than our future,” during the October 2019 Revolution in Lebanon. This strong message calls out the government’s incompetence and the critical need for transformative change in the country. October 20, 2019. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Ghoussoub.

If we were to lay out some metrics which define a developed society, many things would come to mind. However, the most crucial of all these metrics is freedom, specifically freedom of expression. The main reason the West has managed to become the center of global civilization is its championing of this concept, of letting people think and express their thoughts. It’s impossible to dismiss the impact that freedom has had on Western society and its intellectual production (even with the many threats it faces in the West which is harming individual liberties), given its preeminent position in the global age. Thus was born the correct assumption between the prevalence of freedom and societal development.


In our Arab world, we have not exactly internalized the importance of freedom, either due to the conservatism of our societies or the focus of some regimes on the material conditions of their societies in exchange for their silence in political matters. To this day, freedoms in the Arab world suffer from state-sponsored and societal efforts to curtail them. We continue to be deficient in our political culture, our social liberalism, and our tolerance; a virtue which we are supposed to share. However, with the passage of time, activists are either imprisoned, exiled, or murdered by authoritarian regimes or militias. This is bound to scare an embattled people, suffering all forms of political and military oppression, into what seems to be an unbreakable silence gripped by fear. Is this our inescapable fate?

Loujain Al-Hathloul’s story comes to life in this short animated film by the 2021 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. Narrated by her loved ones, the film sheds light on the harsh realities Loujain has endured since she started advocating for gender equality and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Video courtesy of the Martin Ennals Award.

This is not to say that Arabs are, by nature, incapable of understanding the fundamentals of freedom and liberty, and such assumptions have been disingenuously promoted by bad actors and some Orientalist scholars. The Nahda (Renaissance) of the late 19th century represents the first attempt of intellectual and sociopolitical modernization in our world, and many intellectuals of that period spread ideas that were radically new to the people here. Since then, there have always been courageous women and men, like Loujain Al-Hathloul and Alaa Abdelfattah-to name a few- who have consistently stood for what is right, providing a ray of light and hope amongst the increasing turmoil we are experiencing.


However, this light is dim and weakening. This cycle of history led us to assume that as we were more exposed to modern currents of thought, our societies and regimes would follow suit and widen the “Overton window,” or the acceptable range of opinions on any given topic, allowing us to express ourselves, and implement change more effectively. However, it brings me great shame to say that we have failed; we have failed to magnify our voices enough to allow us to resist these oppressive regimes, militias, and dictatorships. Today, our freedoms are rapidly declining, while the reactionary forces that want to silence us are stronger than ever.


The political trends in the Arab region, in tandem with the rest of the world, have seen a rise in illiberal pseudo-democracies, which has translated into a strengthening of local despots and autocrats. With the return of Bashar Al-Assad into the Gulf fold, the entrenchment of Abdelfattah Al-Sisi in Egypt, and Qais Saied’s overturning of democratic norms, the Arab spring appears to have been a spectacular failure. Millions of people are dead or imprisoned. Even Lebanon, long hailed as a ‘liberal bastion,’ has become a failed state where the government and militia regularly intimidate or arrest people for exercising their constitutionally protected rights.

Screenshots of social media posts from Megaphone and The Public Source condemning the summoning and questioning of Jean Kassir and Lara Bitar by security agencies. The posts highlight the concerns surrounding press freedom in Lebanon. 

Do we just blame the governments? Arab governments have almost never been democratic, and their current actions show that they have no intention of slowing down. Even supposed democracies, like Lebanon, have a tendency to relish in democratic backsliding if need be: in the month of April, two leading journalists in Lebanon’s media scene, Lara Bitar and Jean Kassir, were summoned by Lebanese authorities for their work. As such, we must assume our governments are either outright tyrannical or prone to such tendencies when the circumstances allow. It has become pretty clear that our existing political structures are very untenable and indefensible.


We put our faith and trust in the rising class of Arab progressive scholars, artists, and activists. The fall of the Soviet Union and Arab nationalism have shown that previously dominant classical ideologies have failed in providing wide-ranging development. As such, a new class of Arab activists emerged and proved to be even more radical than their predecessors in the region, namely Nawal Saadawi and Samir Kassir amongst many others. This class gave us hope, or the illusion thereof, that we finally have “our soldiers,” those who will not back down from quarreling with the staunch orthodoxy of our seemingly invincible societal and political frameworks. 

In 2011, Egypt’s Tahrir Square stood as the epicenter of historic protests, as millions united, demanding political change and social justice during the Arab Spring. Photo courtesy of Ahmed Abd El-Fatah/Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

However, this class has failed, spectacularly. I will not brood on the failures of intellectuals in the 1960s, who despite their incisive critiques failed to produce material efforts to account for them, simply producing voluminous theoretical interventions while either failing to apply them or shifting lanes. I believe all of us, in 2011, were swept by the hopeful current which flooded our region: millions of Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, and others were on the streets, and their words attracted international exposure for the first time. No one was surprised by governments looking to preserve themselves by any means necessary, but what did our activists achieve and why weren’t they able to do more?


The reason, in my opinion, is intellectual and social laziness. Some activists were brave and unstinting in their advocacy for a universal set of morals, one which would grant everyone their freedoms and equal rights. However, other activists shrunk away from some key issues. For example, it is unsettling to witness democratic activists behaving in an openly racist or homophobic manner, solely driven by all-encompassing, unanalytical anti-Westernism thought. LGBT rights are seen as a vehicle for Western cultural infiltration, and ironically we are seeing a spike in ethno-nationalist sentiment amongst so-called advocates of “neutrality and self-interest,” especially prevalent in Lebanon and Egypt.

In 2018, Alia Awada, a prominent feminist activist, fearlessly led the International Women’s Day march in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo courtesy of Matthieu Karam

When formulating political and economic alternatives, we are simply recycling pre-existing paradigms. It is true that Arab governments have been highly reliant on a rentier or neoliberal economic model which was plagued by its many ills and corruption. However, some people have figured that the key to reforming the economy is to transition to a command economy where everything is controlled by an undemocratic state. On the other hand, regimes like Syria and Egypt have also reacted conversely to their socialist economic past by going overboard with privatization. No one has ever imagined a healthy middle ground alternative.


Socially, we have regressed. The anti-imperialist dogma which accompanies the large majority of Arab leftist activists-supposedly siding with the people-has led them to turn against human rights advocacy. Suddenly, people who have supported are supposed to be avowed progressives were spewing racist and sexist speech on social media. They have blamed refugees for our crises, and began reproducing talking points and conspiracy theories, which resemble those peddled by many members of the Republican Party in the United States. Homophobia spiked, but many activists didn’t raise their voice, claiming that there were “bigger fish to fry.” Such is the state of the fight for freedom in our Arab world, where we always trivialize personal liberties.


I wish I could say we are at rock bottom but what awaits us is much worse. To absolve Arab “progressives” who never failed to be mired in ideological dogma is unfair. When a society collapses, the people who do not speak loud enough are the last line of defense, without which we risk losing the foundation of our core values of freedom and progress. It is our responsibility to actively shape the world for the better. Yet, our profound failure to confront relentless authoritarianism and democratic backsliding reveals our inadequacy to fulfill our duty to build societies on par with the world. While we must evidently create united fronts and spaces in this fight, it is important that we do not romanticize spaces as the sole vehicle of social change, at the expense of individual effort and choice.

Mohammad El Sahily is an activist, member of Mada Network and an incoming graduate student at Georgetown University.



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