Why Tunisia… Despite Everything?
Why Tunisia… Despite Everything?
Deadly is the feeling of hopelessness, that change is impossible regardless of its champions’ actions. This is the contemporary Arab condition. As the tenth anniversaries of the Arab Spring and their defeats pass successively, something akin to fated submission spreads throughout the region: we are predestined to remain as we are. The young say this, and their seniors nod their heads in agreement.
The African Americans in the US had been stricken by this frustration for a long time: so long as our faces are black, we will remain where we are. This sentiment did not begin to change until the sixties, with the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King. Before that, it seemed to some among them that the only solution was migrating from the “white” US to “black” Africa; that is, changing the field of action before taking any actions. The African state of Liberia was initially established for this purpose, to become a colony that black Americans would move to. Marcus Garvey and the Rastafarians also advocated the “return to Africa,” to where they would find their “roots.”
The Jews of Europe underwent a similar, though harsher, experience: their emancipation after the French revolution did not avert their vulnerability to anti-Semitism during the “Dreyfus Affair” more than a century after their emancipation. Jewish intellectuals’ bets on Socialist and Communist movements paving the way for radical equality did not deter Stalinist anti-Semitism. Jews’ integration in Germany, which surpassed that of all other Jewish communities in Europe, was rewarded with the rise of Nazism and gas chambers. Even in the US, McCarthyism targeted their intellectuals and filmmakers, who had, in Hollywood, created America’s image of itself.
The Zionist Movement also found that the solution lay with Jewish migration to Palestine. At the start, the movement was very weak. It was difficult for the Zionists to find a European city where they could hold their founding conference. But it gained strength in parallel with the many tragedies that would befall the Jews.
There is something Sisyphean about the case of the African Americans, and even more so in the case of the European Jewry: in the myth, Zeus punishes Sisyphus by condemning him to continuously lifting a massive rock to a mountain, with the rock rolling back to the bottom when he approaches the peak. This is how his life would be forever. Arriving and bringing the rock to its location are forbidden. Impossibility is the only horizon. Hope is meaningless.
This extremely intense experience goes beyond political occasions or the cycles of violence that accompany the conflict between perpetrators and victims. It speaks to human consciousness’s most pessimistic proclivity, the sentiment that man is pure evil and that “making the world better is impossible.” We deserve what had been written for us. As for human action, it does nothing; worse yet, nothing good can be hoped for from humanity itself. Tomorrow is no better than today, but yesterday is beyond doubt the best of all.
We could interpret some aspects of that phenomena as a result of the defeats the Arab revolutions have been dealt: we understand, for example, the phenomenon of millions’ migration and seeking refuge in countries where human action is assumed to be of more consequence. We understand that in these countries people can make an impact and change things through this or that action, and that tomorrow could be different from today and undoubtedly different from yesterday…
People accordingly seek refuge in a place where human striving is respected, where life itself is hence respected.
We also understand, in this nightmarish climate, phenomena like ISIS as the crowning achievement of the loss of hope in humans and their actions, as a declaration of our wretchedness everywhere and at all times. ISIS flourished in the climate of decay left by millions who were transformed into refugees and the accompanying death, imprisonment and dispersal that struck the best of this region’s young men and women.
The Lebanese, today, are among the peoples of the world most afflicted by this despondency: one of the worst regimes imaginable in its plunder, corruption, incompetence and apathy, weighs down on them as an unprecedented humanitarian and social crisis grinds the country. With that, change, minimal change, is impossible.
This, in general, is a precious gift to those who promote the idea of “Arab exceptionalism,” who said early on, with rhetoric of various degrees of racism, that Arabs and democracy are two opposites that cannot meet.
Under the weight of this heavy burden, the Tunisian experiment’s success or failure ceases to be mere political news. If it were to succeed, it would be an exception to the exception that negates the divergent judgments that claim Arabs and democracy cannot come together.
True, Tunisia is suffering gravely from its challenges, topped by an extremely grave economic situation that has been exacerbated by declining economic conditions around the world. However, with that, it remains the only narrow opportunity available for Arabs to say that their actions can have an impact and that life on earth is not inferior to earth itself: it rotates and does not stop.
Will this experience succeed despite everything, and will it grant us the proof of innocence we need to be sure of what ought to be a certainty?