Comment: People soft power is spreading and cancelling out the traditional methods of repression open to autocratic and tyrannical regimes across Arab and Muslim countries, writes Hamid Dabashi.
According to the most recent reports from the war-torn Yemen, “al-Qaeda militants have seized an army base in the southeastern city of Mukalla, which is now almost entirely under the group's control”. This is at a time when the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen is wreaking havoc, “as the United Nations expressed alarm over the conflict’s rising number of civilian casualties”, and seeks to put an end not just to the Houthi uprising but to the whole spectrum of Arab revolutions.
Will Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region and beyond succeed putting an end to Arab revolutions? What happened
We are no longer protected either by the borders of national territory or within the walls of the city-state.
to the Arab Spring? Where did the dreams and aspirations of millions upon millions of Arabs and Muslims go, from one end of Africa to another end of Asia pouring out into their streets and squares shouting: “People Demand the Overthrow of the Regime”? Is this the end of Arab revolutions, or have the revolutions just begun?
The militant and military presence of both al-Qaeda and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is symptomatic of the larger frame of reference in mobilization of counterrevolutionary forces in the Arab world, where both state and non-state actors are actively crossing national borders to dismantle the revolutionary momentum. Does this counterrevolutionary momentum, in and of itself, not point to the factual evidence of thetransnational disposition of these revolutions?
Brutal suppression in Bahrain by its ruling regime and aided by Saudi Arabia and its UK military advisors, a military coup in Egypt endorsed by the Saudis and facilitated by the Israelis, the vicious suppression of the peaceful Syrian uprising by murderous Assad regime helped by Iran and its proxies, the aggressive militarization of the Assad opposition by the US and its European and regional allies leading to the formation of the transnational gang of the Islamic State group (IS), bloody civil war in Libya, disturbing signs of IS infiltration into the hopeful developments in Tunisia, militant sectarianism in Yemen leading to the Saudi-led military invasion of yet another sovereign nation-state, alarming signs of Persian-Arab, or Shia-Sunni confrontations camouflaging the Saudi-Iranian regional power mongering against the very grain of the Arab revolutions: are these the signs of the end of the Arab Spring?
Sometime a metaphor is just a metaphor: call it Spring, Awakening, Revolutions — whatever meets your politics. The key is the critical turn to the timber of our history, the unfolding of a winding — neither linear nor circular — road with no end in sight. Do not be fooled or disappointed by those who sarcastically put the “Arab Spring” in scare quotes, or plant a “so-called” in front of it, or least of all by the racist, bastardized version of what in Europe and US passes for “the left”; they have no moral investment in these revolutions. Ordinary people and their fates are lifeless signs and vacuous abstractions in the dreary-eyed juvenile delinquency they mistake for their politics. These revolutions and what they (could) mean must remain at the centre of our critical thinking, far beyond the patience, perseverance, attention-span or critical intelligence of those who denigrate, in cahoots with those who are dead-set to end them.
The new topography of people power
We must continue to read these revolutions on the terms they teach those who can listen carefully: above all by the unleashing of people’s soft power. These are not, nor have they ever been, violent revolutions. These are revolutions against the very logic, the very calculus, of powers that have now come together to end them.
From the hard power of the US and EU-engineered Israeli, Egyptian, and Saudi military machineries to the soft power of neo-con and neoliberal machinations in Washington and London-based think tanks, the fate of our nations is being manhandled and manipulated to sustain the ruling regimes and their benefactors in power. The Saudis are now pounding Yemen, as Israel did Gaza. The Egyptian junta and their liberal intellectual contingency aborted the course of the Egyptian revolution, and the dreadful IS has just seized control of Yarmouk, with the same intensity that NED, WINEP, BBC, and other Neocon and Neoliberal outfits ad nauseam employ native informers and latter-day Orientalists alike to manufacture a false and falsifying knowledge about where we are and what lies ahead.
If we change our perspective away from total revolutions and sudden success towards open-ended revolutions and expansive public sphere (as I have argued and articulated the idea in some detail in my books on Arab Spring and the Green Movement), a vastly different angle of vision will open on our societies and where we are headed. Today the terrorizing power of warmongers — from Netanyahu and Abubakr al-Baghdadi to Bashar Assad and the Saudi family — grabs the global attention from a much wider spectrum of revolutionary soft power. We need to see them clearly.
Against the ruling stratagems — hard and soft power at work to force the reality back to the status quo ante — there is another vast and impending terrain populated by ordinary people engaged in long-term and pervasive change. They are there, but invisible on the radar of the daily news.
In crafting a different radar that actually registers these changes we need to consider that there are three types of soft power: (1) the soft power at the disposal of the superpowers like US and the vast propaganda machinery of neoliberalism it enables; (2) the soft power at the disposal of more minor powers like Iran in places like Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, and (3) undermining all these powers, soft and hard, is the people’s soft power, their daily lives, their quotidian disposition, their increasing awareness of their rights, their pious and dignified practices, their ordinary habits, their ability to say no, their defiance against indignity of abusive power, the subterranean changes that have begun to alter our consciousness of who we are and what we can do.
Using and abusing people’s soft power
But one must have an accurate and contrapuntal conception of people’s soft power. It can be as much used by people themselves in the ordinary course of their lives to dismantle the grip of the ruling tyranny as abused by the colourful institutions of a widespread globalized neoliberalism that enables varied venues speaking softly of good things such as women’s rights, human rights, freedom of expression or humanitarian intervention, while their respective governments carry the big stick of brutal military conquest and the cruel torturing, maiming, murdering of people, and forcing into refugee camps those who survive.
What keeps people’s array of soft power operative is the much deeper subterranean changes at work. Arab, Afghan, Iranian, South Asian and African cultures are in the midst of systematic and epistemic changes, by virtue of the material forces that underlie their daily lives. False and falsifying binaries still afflict these cultures (East-West, Persian-Arab, Sunni-Shia) but the body of their seismic transmutation moves towards liberating horizons apace.
In line of these opening horizons, the new media has changed the very architecture of journalism. Satirical programmes, an expat journalist in possession of a Facebook account, cartoonists tweeting their latest work, singer and songwriters performing around the world, and the constellation of sentiments they all generate on the internet are far more effective manners of poking fun and pointing fingers at the vicious but empty drum of totalitarian farce across the Arab and Muslim world.
The result of this widespread spectrum of resistance and resilience alters the very topography of revolutionary resistance and mobilization, and thus the very notion of revolution. In On Revolution (1963), Hannah Arendt suggested that freedom is “spatially limited”. She emphasized how “the borders of national territory or the walls of the city-state comprehended and protected a space in which men could move freely”. She even offered the metaphor of “islands in a sea”, or “oasis in a desert” as the spatial limitations of meaningful freedom.
Today in the age of cyberspace globalization of both the capital and its neoliberal economics and the amorphous empire that seeks to sustain it we must in fact reverse Arendt’s metaphor of spatiality for freedom. We are no longer protected either by the borders of national territory or within the walls of the city-state. We are in fact decidedly trapped inside such borders and walls. We are free and liberated only to the degree that we manage to escape these borders and territories and craft new spaces of resistance and articulate liberation geographies beyond such borders. From refugee camps generated by mass murderers and war criminals like Bush and Assad in Iraq, Jordan and Syria to the vagaries of the cyberspace, “the naked life” (Agamben) of our future citizenship is located within a space much wider and more enabling than within any city- or nation-state.
Did Egypt’s strongman General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi not just say he was going to create a transnational Arab army of oppression and tyranny? Well he is too late. Arabs and Muslims have been resisting his and his co-tyrants from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another by an equally transnational topography of ideas and actions, mobilization and social formations. He and his ilk’s hard power can only kill and destroy within or without national borders. Our soft and spreading power crafts and creates new terms of liberation as we pull the rug from under their feet.