Protests Are Not Enough to Change the Rules of the Game

The Arab uprising goes from strength to strength.  When the Egyptian protestors stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last week, they showed that the power of protest can prevail over docile diplomacy.  Across the Arab World, protest power has shown its effectiveness.  The achievements are incontestable.  Yet, in the world of the excluded, the Arab protests are looked at with some cynicism: “What have they brought us?” people ask.  In this post I argue that protests are just one tool of change and should not become the goal of the revolution.  Nor should we wait until we have state power before we start changing social and economic conditions.  We should take action on the ground, now.

To my mind, the great Arab Awakening did not begin with the Tunisian uprising.  It started when Lebanon’s Resistance humiliated the Zionist occupiers twice in South Lebanon: the first time in May 2000 and the second in July 2006.  This is when we understood that we could change the world, and that the great powers were not so great after all, and that any conspiracy can be thwarted by courage, dedication, and popular will.  Gaza’s steadfastness in the face of a brutally hermetic siege and its resistance to the violence of Cast Lead in 2008 strengthened our resolve and our self-assurance.  The self-immolation of Mohamad Bou Azizi in a Tunisian rural town in December 2010 catalyzed a series of momentous revolutionary events that continue to unfold and that have altered our world.

The Arab uprisings and the achievements of the Resistance in Lebanon and Palestine exist on a continuum.  However, they differ in a very significant manner.  The Resistance is organized along classical party structures and uses armed struggle as its main approach to liberation.  The uprisings, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, drew their power directly from the masses, without self-appointed intermediaries, regulators, or transformers.  Protest, of mostly non-violent nature, is its main tool.  In both Tunisia and Egypt, the power of protests achieved the unthinkable: two of the most potent Arab dictators were removed within a few weeks.

The power of protest is unarguably effective.  Its dimensions are multiple and it can convey embedded messages of conflicting nature: peace, threat, resolve, sacrifice, life, ambition, and desire.  It is unbridled, heuristic, and does not abide by normative interpretation.  Its achievements can be formidable.  The storming of the Israeli embassy in Egypt a few days ago is a resounding example.  The message of the Egyptian protesters is clear: “Whatever you hear from the government is inconsequential, we can break any agreement.”

Organized armed struggle and street protests have so far been our principal forms of resistance.  The have allowed us to seriously damage the regimes that have hijacked state power and used it for their personal interest.  But they have not allowed us to replace those regimes.  We are discovering, in Tunisia as in Egypt, that it is much easier to break government than to govern.

Governing is a complex and arduous process that involves taking over state power.  To do that requires us to become immersed into government politics.  This will need the establishment of some form of organized representative democracy.  This process is by itself hugely controversial.  Moreover, this is a tedious and burdensome undertaking, which only a few power-hungry politicians have a particular affinity for.  More importantly, the process is protracted and its social and economic impacts need a very long time to become apparent.  It requires, among others, changing the operating framework of the government and developing new mentalities between private and public sectors.

We do not have time.  People have been promised a better world and they are expecting it.  By “people,” I do not mean the middle-class youth who have been intellectually emancipated by the process of revolt.  I am talking about the people who are locked into a vicious circle of exploitation and poverty and lack voice and agency.  I will call these the excluded.  They live in the outer margins of the periphery of geography and society.  Those are the Arabs who have no access to sufficient income, affordable heath care, education, food, housing, roads, or electricity.  They include millions of small farmers who scrape a living from lands they may be evicted from any moment.  What has the Arab Spring brought to these?  How has class justice been advanced by protest power?  And most importantly, what is the Plan?

What we realize today is that protest power alone cannot improve the lives of those who need it and state power is still out of reach.  The rules of the game are still the same.  Clearly, something is missing.

In my next post: Why aren’t we all selling potatoes in the streets?

Rami Zurayk is Professor of Land and Water Resources at American University of Beirut (AUB).  This article was first published in Al-Akhbar on 14 September 2011 under a Creative Commons license.  Read his blog Land and People at <>.  Follow Zurayk at <>.

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