Understanding the Arab revolution

by Magid Shihade

Despite a long history of revolutions in the Arab world in the last 100 years from Palestine, Algeria, Egypt to elsewhere in the region, it is correct to argue that not many scholars, commentators, and experts have expected the recent Arab revolution to take place. This is both true of Western and Arab/Muslim experts, commentators, and scholars alike. It is true that there were many studies and commentaries in the last two decades concerning the possible explosions of youth, with their overrepresentation demographically. But these were more warnings or fear of possible “chaos” and “extremism,” warnings about the younger generation’s lack of job opportunities and what that might lead to. So, the only expectation or prediction was based on fear of the unknown, fear of youth, fear of “chaos,” fear of “extremism.” In other words, it was also fear of the change of the status quo, especially when it comes to economic, political and security concerns, that are at the heart of western interests in the region. It is also an Orientalist and racist framework that sees peoples’ possible needs as alarming, as possible danger. People’s needs and aspiration and their self-determination are not of any concern, rather it is Western interests that matter.

More so, even when the revolution erupted in Tunisia, many kept doubting it, or refrained from calling it as such.  As the revolution succeeded in Egypt in removing the Mubarak regime, similar arguments and comments were made about the events there. When the revolution in Egypt managed to topple Mubarak’s regime, many were quick to judge its nature and possibility of success.  Some argued that the case of Egypt was a military coup. Others feared the Islamic movement would take over. Some argued that the U.S. and Israel, and the West in general are involved in these events. Similar arguments were made in regards to other Arab countries.

Central to all these arguments, is whether these are “real” revolutions, and whether these revolutions are the making of the West (Europe, U.S., and Israel).  To understand such arguments/questions, I believe that three concepts are worth considering. These three concepts are: Orientalism, Euro/Western-centrism, and modernity; all as ideas and practices of intervention in the region politically, militarily, and culturally, which I hope to clarify next.

Orientalism: Passivity, agency and change

In the racist representation of the Arab and Muslim worlds, Orientalism depicted Arab and Muslim peoples as lazy, lacking the vitality for change, and lacking the spirit of initiative. They were deemed thus as lacking the power to make history of their own creation and always in need for outside forces–the West– to achieve change, and “progress.” This representation or image of the Arabs continues to frame the discourse of mainstream as well as non-mainstream analyses.[i]

All the conditions were present that might drive people to revolt in the Arab world for a long time such as economic, social, and political oppressions and consciousness of that oppression (as Abd Al-Rahman Al-Kawakibi theorized decades ago). If there is anything different about the time that these current revolutions started to take place it was the exhaustion of the U.S.- Zionist led empire both in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the time when such revolutions were not expected, and attention and resources were directed elsewhere; mainly on Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. This is also why these revolutions took western powers by surprise.

Yet, after the revolutions were hard to stop, Western rhetoric (official and non-official alike) was framed through this Orientalist culture of “knowledge.”

Some liberals argued that the “non-violence” nature of the revolution in Tunisia, but especially in Egypt, was largely influenced by the fact that some individuals involved in the revolution came to the U.S. for training and learned the methods of non-violent activism and the theory of Gene Sharp, among others, on peaceful transformations.[ii]

Not only Western thought and ideas helped the revolution according to this narrative, but also the power of western technology (the Internet, facebook, twitter, phone messaging…etc.), which supposedly shaped these revolutions. This is of course without any serious and critical study about the number/percentage of users, and also as if without such technology, the revolution would not have happened; and it also contradicts or evades the history of revolutions in the region that have been taking place there for decades without such technology.

So, again, if any change takes place in the Arab world, it must be due to, influenced by, or aided by Western ideas, thought, and technology. Thus, according to this narrative, even if the events were not shaped by direct Western intervention, they are shaped by these indirect tools.

Orientalism, penetrating and arousing: Gendering the Orient

In his critique of typical orientalist writing about Arabs and Muslims, Edward Said took the work of Bernard Lewis as an example. In this context, he focused on the essentialising and gendering language used by Bernard Lewis. In Said’s critique, Lewis attempted at explaining Arabs through their language. Thus, according him, Arabs do not have the concept of revolution because the word “revolution” does not exist in their language. The word thawra in Arabic for revolution, according to Lewis, is derived from the root thaara, which is more about being aroused or moved by something else, a sexual object, or sexual desire. The Arabs according to Lewis, since the rise of Western modernity, witnessed change only due to western “penetration” in the region. This, in Said’s view, is typical of gendered and sexualized Orientalist writing about the region and the way such experts saw the region and its people: As only recipients of ideas, of acts of pleasure and “progress” that come only at the hands of those leading Western modernity. They have no agency of their own, and as similar to female passivity in the framing of knowledge and action according to White Western masculinity, we should not expect from Arabs much more than emotional reactions to acts of penetration and arousing.


Such Orientalist representations have also an echo in the self-orientalizing among some Arabs and Muslims themselves, who, as suggested earlier, do not believe in the power of the Arab people to make their own history. Their history has to be shaped by others and this is either due to their weakness and/or due to the power of the West and its technology. Thus, the revolutions in the Arab world, according to this view, are merely the making of the West (US, Europe, and Israel).

One can see here, how such Orientalism and self-Orientalism mirror conspiracy theory, especially when conspiracy theory does not challenge the official narrative, but rather confirms it, and lends support to it. What such conspiracy theory, similar to Orientalism, highlights for me are two things: Lack of clear evidence of such arguments on the one hand, and on the other, negligence to evidence contrary to such arguments. The many examples from history that show the agency of Arabs to challenge foreign hegemony and local compradors as it has been happening in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq and elsewhere, are neglected.

In addition to Orientalism and self-Orientalism, there are another two factors that contributed and continue to contribute to the difficulty of predicting, evaluating, and understanding the Arab revolutions, one of which is Western centric approaches to theorizing and analyses.

Euro/Western-centrism and theory, knowledge, and analyses

Theories of social movements and revolutions/change, including Marxist approaches, continue to dominate Western academy and knowledge production, including academics and intellectuals in the non-Western world. These theories are seen as universal and are applied to study societies around the world. These objectified societies, thus serve only as recipients of theoretical interventions, they serve as a laboratory of Western-centric thought and theorizing.  According to this approach, change, and revolutions must happen according to these theories, and if they do not, then they are not considered revolutions nor evidence of a change. The case of the Arab revolutions is only one example of such interventions to evaluate, and judge public perceptions of them both in western societies as well as among Arab societies.

For example, in his talk at Mada Al-Carmel (August, 2011) Joel Beinin described the event/changes in Egypt as half revolution/half military coup, which borders an analysis that is half Orientalist, and half Marxist fantasy and disappointment about what is expected from the revolution in Egypt. Of course, such an early judgment overlooks the fact that the revolution is at its early stage and it is unrealistic to make any final judgment about an event that is still in the making. This Egyptian revolution is not a historical event that ended and can be judged, but an event in the making, and it is too early to judge.

But this is not so for Zizek—the European thinker, who argues that the Arab Revolution is over, and is dead. Hamid Dabashi correctly responds and argues that Zizek’s view is embedded on an old Marxist world, and that the world is dead for him, because the world now is not of his own making, but rather the making of those Arabs, Muslims and others who started to shake the American-Zionist led Empire, and these are mostly outside of Zizek’s and other European/Western thinkers’ paradigms of change and world view.[iii] What Hamid Dabashi did not point to, is that for Marx and Marxists, revolutions do not happen in “Asiatic” societies due to their mode of production, a mode that is not industrial and thus for such Marxist approaches, colonizing India by the British was a good intervention as it is the only way to bring that Asiatic society to terms with modern capitalist Western industrial economic mode of production that can lead to a possible revolution. Marx’s prediction on the possibility of revolution in Britain rather than in Russia was left out by Marxist theories for decades. It was left out because it might have disturbed the theory that they believe in, rather than being open to reevaluating certainty in theories of historical change, certainty that has shaped not only theorizing but also praxis and interventions.

Thus, Zizek’s view and analysis is not an exception, it is rather an analysis that is embedded in Western modernity’s thought and practice (by conservatives, liberals, and radicals alike), that does not help us understand much. It rather contributes often to confusion and mis-judgments, because we often take it at its face value, without much questioning, and leads many often to justify interventions (in all forms including colonizing other societies), with much negative impacts on peoples’ lives and psyche who never in the first place asked for help, advice, or interventions.

So, rather than leaving the Arab public alone to shape its own history, those from the right and the left continue to intervene, hand in hand with and/or parallel to Western states’ political, economic, and military interventions that come only to hinder real change; and only to arrest any development that stems from peoples’ choice and aspirations, and that might not be in line with preconceived theories, or preconceived interests.

Modernity: As an idea, and as a practice

The brief discussion of the different ideas and analyses about the Arab revolution discussed so far can be further understood in the context of Western modernity, and its linkage to knowledge, power, and practice. In other words, these ideas and analyses do not come from a vacuum, but rather they are part of a long history of knowledge production and have worked hand in hand with power/politics practiced since the inception of Western capitalist modernity; Western modernity both as idea as well as a practice.

As an idea (certainty, knowledge, rationality…)

With the inception of Western modernity the claims have been that the history of the past of human societies has reached a different period that will change the world for ever. The West claimed to have discovered the secrets of human history; a discovery that will lead to a world based on justice, equality, peace and progress. Humans were not only declared as rational beings/actors, but also as objects of study, whose behavior can be studied, judged, and even engineered with complete certainty.

Thus, the certainty of religious dogmas of pre-Western modernity was replaced by the certainty of human dogmas. Ideas and opinions became theories through claims and through power, as argued by Enrique Dussel.[iv]

Such theories and such knowledge production was embedded in power,[v] and were also embedded in pre-conceived notions of truth/myths/Orientalism,[vi] and race/racial superiority, and entangled in the history of Western colonial projects, imperialist practices, and neocolonial structures. These preconceived notions about the Other packaged through theories and knowledge production shaped colonial practices on the ground and continue to do so to this day.

In Colonizing Egypt, Timothy Mitchell discusses the British colonial intervention in Egypt in the late 19th century. Mitchell shows how that intervention was based on prior image/representations of the Egyptian lands and its peoples. But, when reality on the ground did not fit these “theories,” and preconceived notions of what Egypt and the Egyptians ought to be, rather than rethinking the already available knowledge/myths, the realities of Egypt and the Egyptians were to be engineered, and reengineered to fit not only interests (economic) but also to fit the knowledge/myth that was available prior to these Western interventions, prior to these encounters. Mitchell’s analysis is a useful example of the link between thought, imagination, and practice of Western modernity, but it is only one example of Western modernity as a thought-practice and the gap between claims and reality, which has a longer history, and continues to shape every adventure of Western power in the region. When the Americans were preparing to invade Iraq in 2003, they distributed handbooks for their soldiers that were used by the British military during the British colonial period in Iraq in the early 20th century. Of course, this is as if people there do not change, and as if these handbooks helped the British at all: Who were kicked out of Iraq not long after the start of the colonization.

Of course this view of Arabs has roots in Western modernity and Enlightenment rationality, where Kant figures large. When Kant, one of the leading figures and thinkers of Western modern thought, spoke of human rights and human agency of thought and action, he had in mind only the Western/White man, and for him the Other was beyond this faculty.[vii] Kant’s perspective on the White Westerner has shaped the way the West dealt with the rest of the world. This entanglement and intervention of the West in the rest of the world was fraught with double talk, colonialism, racism, intervention to “save,” to “modernize,” to “democratize,” to “liberate women,” to bring “peace,” and a long list of such claims that contradict reality from the beginning of Western ascendance to power to this day.[viii]

This modernity as a thought and as a practice has created a feeling of ambiguity, of confusion about and suspicion of the revolutions in the Arab world as they are not free or disconnected but rather related to the Western history of interventions, of mingling into the Arab World. Even those of us who support these revolutions cannot help but be disgusted at the practices and rhetoric of the West about these revolutions whether this is in Libya, Syria or anywhere else. This is evident from the history of such interventions, as I will discuss later, histories of Western interventions whether in the Arab world or elsewhere, where Western thought and practice has been long applied on bodies and minds of people who became objects to Western power, a form of thought-terror that was matched by the terror of the guns that killed millions of peoples from around the non-Western world.

Although this history is documented by many scholars, in my view, Western policy regarding interventions/non-interventions/selective intervention can also be dissected through a pattern. We do not need clear and public statements on such policy, but all what we need is to figure out a pattern through different examples that can reflect such policy even when it is not stated publicly.

When Western countries such as the US or some European countries talk of need to intervene in Libya or Syria because the peoples there want freedom and change, which no one doubts that people there want, one wonders about why these states were in the first place supporting oppressive regimes as long as they went along with their policies. Why did the US (also France and other European countries) support the regime of Hosni Mubarak, when the information about the oppressive structure of that regime was well known and public? Why would such states support the regime in Saudi Arabia, who is authoritarian and repressive? Or why at this very moment, while claiming to be champions of peoples’ voices, they did not oppose Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain that came to suppress Bahrainis’ protests against the oppressive monarchy? Or, why would such states not stand with the people in Palestine who have been crying for liberation from Israeli colonial rule?

Such supposedly double standards and hypocrisy are not as such, but rather are evidence and in line with Western racism, interests and policies, and history of imposition and intervention in the region and its people.


In my discussion so far, I have tried to push for acknowledging the complexity of human history, Arab history, Western interventions, and the effect of “knowledge” such as Orientalism, and Western-centric approaches to theory of change, modernity and the complicated history between its claims and the reality of its practices. I suggested that these dynamics are forms of interventions, in line with political, economic, and military ones, that were imposed on the people of the region for a long time. In fact, without these factors it will be harder to convince people in the West to go to wars in the Arab world (and elsewhere). Yet, acknowledging the effects of these dynamics nevertheless should not cloud our thought about the Arab revolution, and at least should not cloud our thought in regards to taking a position towards these revolutions, while opposing imperialism.

As Samir Amin suggested, the Arab revolution must be seen as a part of the history and lineage of youth uprisings and revolutions in the region against colonialism, and corrupt regimes; as well as Western interventions, with the help of local compradors, aimed at exploiting local resources, preventing the region from developing, but maintaining the dependency of the region on the Western global system, and thereby hurting the majority of people living there.[ix]

Furthermore, as Immanuel Wallerstein suggested in his writing about Libya, we need also to: Re-examine the rhetoric of anti-imperialism of leaders such as Gaddafi, while at the same time not exaggerate Western/American power as it is declining and trying to make the best out of it; nor salvage whatever is possible to help the U.S. as a leading power in this global imperialist system that is waning, and unable to control events from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, to Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere.[i]

Thus, the quick intervention in Libya was not to help the revolution as such, but to co-opt it, and to shape the further development of the revolutions in the region. The intervention in Libya was to make the revolution less appealing to other places. It also shows hypocrisy, as there has been no intervention in Bahrain or Palestine on behalf of the people. The West only intervenes for self-interest and to maintain Western supremacy in the region, and maintain control over its resources and peoples. Intervention only happens to demobilize local revolts, and only when Western supremacy is threatened; and to cover-up for their impotency, whose signs started to appear in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, as they stood against the wave of Arab revolutions against dictatorships that either worked fully with the West, or served them at times by their rhetoric, and other times by their actions.

The imperialist system is exhausted militarily and financially, and the spirit of the peoples’ revolution in the Arab world, and elsewhere, will no longer accept the policies of the past, and there is clear commitment to keep pushing for real, not cosmetic, change in internal and external policies. We see that in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere. But, we need to be patient with our judgments of these revolutions, and not expect too much too early.

After all, there is no revolution in history that was quick to achieve its goals; no revolution in history was clear about its end goals in the small details from the beginning, and that while history is a lesson to learn from, we should not be stuck with historical lessons and paradigms of knowledge as if no new knowledge is possible, and as if history repeats itself only to confirm our suspicion of change.

Knowledge is not static, it is an evolving process not only about new information, but also about new paradigms, and new ideas; and we should not dismiss the power of people who suffer to give us more food for thought. Thus, we need to continue to challenge mainstream and traditional theories and practices not just for a new history to be written, but also for new ideas, theories, and thought that are not hostage to Western modernity, Western-centrism of knowledge and Orientalism.

It is worth remembering what Timothy Mitchell (in Colonizing Egypt) spoke of about the difference between the rigidity and claims of certainty of Western forms of and attitudes to knowledge, compared to non-Western forms of knowledge such as that of Ibn Khaldoun that are more flexible, less certain, and less embedded in “theory” as such; ideas and thought that while they might appear to give complete and fully coherent answers, also allow more room for complexity, and for different outcomes and possibilities.


[i] For the general theory of Orientalism, see, Edward Said (1978), Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. For how the concept is still relevant in the representations and analyses of the Arab Revolution see, Joseph Massad, The future of the Arab uprisings (18 May 2011). http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/05/201151885013738898.html

 [ii] See for example, Financial Times—Ft.com, Middle East Society and Politics, “US non-violence center trained Egypt activists,” February 15, 2011. See also, New York Times, The Middle East, “Shy US Intellectual Created Playbook used in a Revolution, February 16, 2011, PeaceNewslog.info, “Revolutionary Homework,” (May 28, 2011)

[iii] Hamid Dabashi (01 Sep 2011). “Zizek and Gaddafi: Living in the old world”. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/08/201183113418599933.html

[iv] Enrique Dussel (Autumn 1993). “Eurocentrism and Modernity.” boundary 2, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp.65-76

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Said, cited earlier. Also Timothy Mitchell (1988). Colonizing Egypt. Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press

[vii] Ronald Judy (1993). Dis-Forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narrative and the Vernacular. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

 [viii] Jeremy Salt (2009). The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[ix] Samir Amin (8 Jun 2011). “An Arab Springtime?” http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/73902

[x] Immanuel Wallerstein (commentary No. 298, Feb. 1, 2011). “The Second Arab Revolt: Winners and Losers”. http://www.iwallerstein.com/the-second-arab-revolt-winners-and-losers/

[Thank you indeed Magid for your timely contribution]

The writer is a faculty member at Ibrahim Abu Lughod Institute of International Studies at Birzeit University. His research interests are: Modernity, colonialism, violence, identity, and the politics of knowledge. His recent book — Not Just a Soccer Game: Colonialism and Conflict among Palestinians — in Israel was published by Syracuse University Press.

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, philoforchange.wordpress.com. Thanks for your support.