There is one aspect to recent events in the Arab world, which has not drawn the attention it deserves. What we have witnessed first in Tunisia, and now more dramatically in Egypt, is one of the great nonviolent revolutions of the last 100 or more years.
The revolution is all the more far-reaching in its implications in that it was forged entirely at the initiative of the Egyptian people with no support from and little understanding by the outside world.
This was a pervasive revolution that touched and spread across the whole society and was constructed implicitly if not explicitly on the philosophy and techniques of nonviolence.
I would venture to advance four additional propositions:
- The significance of this revolution is that it was nurtured and executed by an Arab and predominantly Muslim society - a possibility which the world generally and the West in particular had until now dismissed as beyond the realm of the feasible - the conventional wisdom has been that Arabs and Muslims were simply not equipped to envisage an alternative to, let alone directly confront, the politics of tyranny and repression.
- The revolution has once again demonstrated the power of nonviolence. The key to this does not lie so much in the fact that a tyrant was eventually removed from office. Rather it lies in the fact that the moral integrity of the revolution was so potent that even political elites in the West and in Israel, strong supporters of the Mubarak regime for more than three decades, were reduced to little more than passive spectators.
Indeed, the revolution was emotively and intellectually so powerful that in the end the President of the United States had no option but to give it his public and unreserved support. In this there are immense implications for other parts of the Arab world, not least for Palestine.
- This revolution is not just another re-enactment of the revolutions led by Gandhi or Martin Luther King. It is innovative in ways that will take a long time to assess. But even now we can fairly say that never before has a movement of this kind made such effective use of the new information technology to foster the politics of empowerment and participation - and never before has such a symbolically effective use been made of the uninterrupted occupation of public spaces, and in particular of the city square as the preferred site for the expression of the popular will.
- To date much western official and unofficial comment has emphasised the prospects for 'freedom' and democracy, with particular reference to free and fair elections. Yet, this is but one part of the story.
The social movement that has spread across the Arab world is first and foremost a movement crying out for social justice - for an end to corruption, to abject poverty, to grotesque inequalities, to patterns of aid, trade and investment that have consistently favoured the rich and disadvantaged the poor.
Should the protests of the last few weeks result in democratic elections that leave the unjust economic arrangements of the last few decades more or less intact (possibly with tacit Western support), this would indeed be a pyrrhic victory.
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About the Author
Joseph Camilleri is Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University. He has written and lectured extensively on international relations, governance and globalisation, human rights, North-South relations, international organisations, the United Nations, and the Asia-Pacific region.