x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Suddenly, it's cool to be an Arab

The euphoria triggered by the swift and mostly peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt has been dampened by the war in Libya and bloodshed in Yemen and Bahrain, but the collective sense of self-esteem and yearning that has swept the Arab world has not yet been extinguished.

Tunisians were the first to see their protests bring down a long-established leader, since when the 'Arabic spring' has spread through the Middle East.
Tunisians were the first to see their protests bring down a long-established leader, since when the 'Arabic spring' has spread through the Middle East.

Across the Arab world, people are savouring a heady cocktail of pride and hope as popular uprisings overthrow dictatorial regimes and leave others uncertain.

Those sentiments had long lain dormant, buried by decades of foreign intervention and heavy-handed rule. No more.

"Now I can raise my head proudly and say 'I'm an Egyptian'," said Nadia Hussain, a 24-year-old doctor in Cairo.

The war in Libya and bloodshed in Yemen and Bahrain have dampened the euphoria triggered by the swift and mostly peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, but they have not extinguished the collective sense of self-esteem and yearning that has swept the region.

That desire for change is being displayed this week on the streets of Syria, where peaceful, pro-democracy protesters have broken through the barrier of fear to demand their rights in one of the Arab world's most enduring police states. At root, there is a feeling of throwing off outside stereotypes of the apathetic Arab.

"Suddenly, it's cool to be Arab, easily the most vilified and demonised character in western discourse and culture," wrote Aijaz Zaka Syed, a Gulf-based commentator, in a widely published newspaper column.

Ever since a young Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, immolated himself on December 17 to protest against police corruption at a local fruit market, the images headlining newscasts around the world have been an iconic tableaux of courage and heroism.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria, they show unarmed men and women, young and old, secular and Islamist, well-off and poor, all ready to brave batons and bullets as they demand a greater say in the decisions that shape their lives.

The uprisings are confounding Western assumptions about Arab societies and shattering the myth of "Arab exceptionalism" - the notion rooted in much Western commentary that Arab and Muslim culture is inherently incompatible with democracy.

In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi had long snuffed out all attempts to form civil society groups and other institutions that could have fostered political opposition. Even so, popular committees and regime defectors in the eastern city of Benghazi moved with remarkable speed to counter a power vacuum by establishing an interim governing council, complete with foreign envoys.

Dr Larbi Sadiki, an expert on the "search" for democracy in Arab countries, said that Arabs have been "Orientalised" by the West as "passive and invisible agents." But "now they've spoken for themselves and claimed the right to self-governance."

In the process, said Dr Sadiki, a professor at the University of Exeter in England, "Arab identity has shown itself to be cosmopolitan, to interlink well with global and humanist ideas…that all of us are freedom-loving human beings."

The turmoil in Libya, and the bursts of violence in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, have served as reality checks, putting paid to popular early hopes that the path to more participatory government would be mostly peaceful.

Nevertheless, there is a widespread conviction that there can be no return to the past: that ossified regimes, even if they are not ousted, will have to undertake significant reform. Several, under unprecedented pressure, are promising to do so.

The protests have also awakened a pan-Arab consciousness, a common sense of ownership of the uprisings.

Ahmed Al-Omran, a popular 26-year-old Saudi blogger, said: "Even if people aren't Egyptian or Tunisian, they feel that this revolution is theirs and they're proud of it."

This view is widely echoed on the internet. From Morocco to Yemen, people have been proudly proclaiming their Arab identity since the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt began.

Other websites, reflecting the renewed sense of Arab self-esteem, have names such a "Proud to be an Arab" and "A united Arabworld."

Messages of brotherhood, such as "Tunisia loves Bahrain" or "All Arabs with Libya", have also spread across the net.

Mr Omran has been following the transformative events in the Middle East from New York, where he enrolled last August in a one-year graduate course in journalism at Columbia University.

"Many pundits and commentators on American TV seemed surprised to see young Arabs protesting peacefully, and demanding freedom and democracy and change when they're used to seeing images [from the Middle East] of violence and killing and blood," he said. "It's quite something."

The feeling of pride is all the greater because the revolts were home-grown and largely leaderless manifestations of people power. They have been mostly free of factional or religious slogans and, apart from Libya, untouched by the involvement of Western powers that long shored up many authoritarian Arab regimes.

The Libyan exception to Western involvement came after rebels called for international help because they were being crushed by Colonel Qaddafi's military onslaught, which was also killing many civilians. The no-fly zone over Libya, authorised by the UN, has vital diplomatic support from the Arab League.

Even so, many people in the Arab world, while keen to see the end of Colonel Qaddafi's rule, feel that the resort to Western military action has tarnished Libya's revolution.

In Tunisia and Egypt, long-standing dictators went relatively quietly when their militaries refused to stand by them. This meant their people, unlike in Libya, never had to agonise over whether to seek outside assistance.

Rached Jourmna, 47, a bespectacled and soft-spoken bookseller at the Al Kitaab book store in central Tunis, said: "The West did not intervene in our revolution and has no right to intervene." The revolution, he added proudly, was the property of the Arabs, a common cry for freedom and dignity.

It has also "liberated people psychologically". Tunisian writers have rushed to print books on subjects that were taboo just months ago. Topping the best-seller list, Mr Jourmna said, is "Le Regente de Carthage", an expose of Leila Trabelsi, the rapacious wife of Tunisia's ousted president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

More than 2,000km away in Beirut, there is a sense of astonishment at what their Arab neighbours have accomplished.

Danny Raslan, a 40-year-old father-of-four and shoe-shop owner, said: "I never thought until three months ago that I would see something like this in my lifetime… Now we are all Arabs."

Most Lebanese do not expect to be buffeted by the winds of change: their country, alone in the region, has always been a democracy of sorts.

"We are used to the idea of freedom," said Ali Attar, a 21-year-old engineering student at the American University of Beirut. His pride is in seeing others in the Arab world now staking their claim to freedom. "I hope it leads to peace… and more Arab unity."

In Egypt, the most populous and pivotal of Arab states, Nadia Hussain, the doctor, said the change of government in Cairo means that her country can finally regain its place on the world stage that it held decades ago.

She said it was "remarkable" when Barack Obama, the US president, told the youth of America that he wanted them to learn from their Egyptian counterparts. Dr Hussain, who works in a children's cancer hospital, was involved in her country's underground protest movement for nine years before President Hosni Mubarak's resignation.

The newfound sense of pride among ordinary Egyptians is showing itself in often simple but meaningful ways. In Fayoum, a rural village south of Cairo, young people are shovelling rubbish from the streets and planting flowers after years of decay.

Magdy Khalef, 45, an English teacher in Fayoum, said: "All of us are now taking our efforts to make our country look good in front of the world." He is confident that fewer young people will now leave the village to work abroad. Many who have, he said, "are seriously thinking of coming home".

Those in countries still struggling over how and at what pace to change are understandably far more cautious. "We still have a long way ahead," said Omar Moustafa, a leather-jacketed, 20-year-old kiosk owner in Amman. He has not participated in any of the protests in the Jordanian capital but hopes that reform is inevitable and that "one day we will be able to elect our own government".

The so-called Arab street, an often pejorative term used by Western commentators to conjure the picture of an amorphous, faceless and irrational mass, now has genuine "street credibility", a term of high praise in Western youth culture.

The overthrow of the Egyptian regime was "one of the most exemplary, civilised such uprisings in history", wrote David Hirst, a veteran author on the Middle East.

While the outcome of the Libyan uprising is by no means clear, those looking on from elsewhere in the region and beyond cannot but marvel at the courage of a Libyan car mechanic or student who raced to the frontline in a pick-up truck mounted with a machine-gun he has just learned to fire.

From Birmingham to Boston and Beijing, people are identifying and celebrating with the protesters who are at the cutting edge of history. It helps that many of the pro-reform demonstrators, wired and tech-savvy, speak in the international youth language of texting and tweeting.

Britain's The Sun daily, not known for its coverage of foreign news, recently carried an admiring two-page story about a 27-year-old Manchester-born university graduate of Libyan descent who joined the rebels. His most recent work experience was as a pizza delivery man in Cheshire.

"To be fighting the madman Qaddafi is an honour. People here want freedom and democracy like we have in Britain," he told the big-selling tabloid in a heavy Mancunian accent.

The sense of pride sweeping the Arab world is even greater because change is coming from the people, not from political or intellectual elites.

Sari Hanafi, a sociology professor at the American University of Beirut, said: "For the first time pan-Arabism is at work from below and not from above, not by a decision made by a dictator."

The "coolest" of all may well be the youth in Tunisia, a country long on the periphery of Arab events but where the touch-paper for the regional uprisings was lit. With their own revolution over, Tunisians are now mobilising to help those fleeing the upheaval in neighbouring Libya.

At the border between the two countries, Tunisian students are handing out water and food to thousands of stranded Bangladeshis and other refugees who lack the means to go home.

Wahid Abbes, a 29-year-old Tunisian English-language student, told Agence France-Presse: "Helping refugees, for us it is a test on the principles which guided our revolution: dignity, respect for the human person."

Some observers and experts argue that it is too early to say whether the often negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in the West will now markedly change.

"Let's not jump to conclusions - stereotypes and perceptions take a lot of time and work to change," said Mr Omran, the Saudi blogger.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that the region and its people have been forever changed by the events of the past three-and-a-half months. A transnational Arab sense of pride and hope continues to surge, not least on the internet.

"My name is LIBERTY," proclaims an entry on a Facebook page called "I am Arab".

"I was born in Tunisia, lived in Egypt and gave my blood in Libya. I was beaten in Yemen, passing through Bahrain. I will grow up in Arab world until I reach Palestine."

Chris Stanton in Cairo, Zoi Constantine in Beirut, John Thorne in Tunis and Suha Ma'ayeh in Amman contributed to this article.