A conference convened in Beirut to discuss the development of the Arab uprisings, five years after the landmark eruption of the Arab Spring, jointly organized by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) and the Issam Fares Institute, came to a close on Saturday, January 23. Two keynote lectures marked the opening of the final day. The first was given by Egyptian activist Khaled Ali who spoke on the challenges facing the Arab Spring.

Ali spoke on the frightening humanitarian crisis currently afflicting the region. “The parties to the conflict”, he said, “have created a wave of refugees, a situation for which we must find radical solutions.” Expressing his disappointment with the course of events in Egypt, Ali said he was surprised by people who, after the revolution, went against the principles of the revolution, and once they reached power, used the same practices as the Mubarak regime. He also said that the term “transition” was a misnomer. What is taking place, he added, is more of a foundational period taking the country from the stage of revolution to the stage of actualizing the slogans. In his view, the revolutions have not come to a halt and mass movements are likely to explode again. Tahrir Square today, he said, has become an army barracks, given the fear of the spirit of the January 25 revolution.

The second keynote lecture, “The Political Theology of ISIL,” was given by Ahmad Dallal from Lebanon. Fear, he said, has replaced hope for the Arab Spring revolutions, and ISIL has come to embody this fear as a force of the counterrevolution. He highlighted the theological lack of accuracy utilized by ISIL noting that ISIL had its own narratives of political theology that construct and shape its interventions around the world. Dallal focused on the affiliation of ISIL with Islam, stressing that the Islam preached by ISIL was embodied by very few Muslims, whose values and understanding was not shared by the majority of Muslims. Drawing from ISIL’s own publications, such as the works of Abu Musab al-Souri, its mouthpiece Dabiq, and books such as The Administration of Savagery and The Memorandum on Strategy, Dallal warned that examining and critiquing the movement was no easy matter. It is not enough to simply condemn violence and brutality, he said, but the political theology it had created and twisted had to be understood. 

Two parallel session were held in the morning. The first, “From Revolution to the Dilemma of the Democratic Transition,” was chaired by Saoud Almawla. Opening the session was Scottish Raymond Hinnebusch’s contribution “Conceptualizing and Explaining Post-Uprising Divergence in the Arab States: Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia.” Hinnebusch outlined the evolution of the Tunisian revolution, exploring its main junctures, and noting that the democratic transition was formally restricted to the constitution and parliament as a result of agreements made at the expense of the revolution. He was followed by Ahmed Idali from Morocco on “The Democratic Transition within Yemen and Libya: Reasons Obstructing It,” who saw that the advance had failed in both countries and unsuccessful in founding a new period with a horizon of freedom. To conclude the session, Mohamed Ezzat Ruhayyim from Egypt spoke on “The Public Sphere Five Years after the Revolutions: Egypt as a Case Study.” He asked where things stand now in comparison to the starting point of the revolution, and attempted an answer on the basis of four themes: the relation of state and society before and after the revolution; the public sphere during the periods of transformation and revolution as the arena for the struggle between state and society; the symbolism of place and the relationship of place and identity; and the manifestations and effect of the virtual public sphere, the Internet especially.

The parallel session, “Obstacles to the Democratic Transition in the Arab States,” was chaired by Hazem Al Amine. Leila Kabalan and Amr Kotb presented their joint paper, “The Secularist-Islamist Alliance in Post-Revolutionary Transition: Egypt and Tunisia.” Kabalan stated that Bourguiba was Tunisia’s Ataturk, “but he was not alone in liberating Tunisia. Salah ben Youssef was with him, but after he was killed Bourguiba was on his own, and propagated the idea that secularism was the face of moderation with the intention of excluding”. During the revolution, he added, the left felt that political Islam was not the problem, rather the Ben Ali regime, and when Ennahda took power, it gave the idea that the Islamists would not continue in power for ever. Kotb stated that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt wanted to monopolize power. They had boycotted the protests during the uprising, and the army allied with them. The military monopolized power and excluded the civil society component. The behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood was a betrayal of the revolution’s principles and of their former ally, the army. Kabalan intervened to say, “There was also violence in Tunisia, like in Egypt, but there was a foundational constitutional framework that the opposition could rely on.”

Abdelwahab El-Affendi then presented “Auto-Immune Disorder: Manifestations of the Arab Disease in the Post-Arab Spring Disputes,” and Jawhar Jammoussi presented “Political Violence Channeled through Social Media: Obstacles to the Democratic Transition in the Arab Spring Countries,” which dealt with the role of social media in the revolutions.

Following the break, two further parallel sessions convened, both under the title, “The Stalled Democratic Transition: The Role of Social Institutions.” The first was chaired by Nasser Yassin, and the opening lecture came from Heba Raouf Ezzat with “From Awakening the Tribe to Looting the City: A Reading of the New Medieval Age”. Ezzat stated, “The tribe was no longer a primitive idea, in the negative sense of primitive. Some confessions became tribes, losing their religious message [...] The military establishment in some states turned into a tribe, determining the right to life, status, and power according to affiliation to this institution-tribe. The judiciary in some states has become a tribe, with the position of the judge being inherited by his sons.” According to Ezzat, the logic of the tribe has infiltrated the institutions that the state intended to build on the basis of accountability and without personal considerations. There is no modern state, because the state does not renew itself, “rather we have the new tribe which uses the components of the state, for better or worse.”

Maziyar Ghiabi’s “A State without People: Civil War and Displacement in the Middle East” studied civil war as a model of government. Riham Khafaji in “Sub-national Identities in Arab societies: An Imagined Absence, Painful Presence” saw the problem beginning when sub-national identities were turned into an institution that people affiliate with and separate themselves from society. She thought that the Kurds and the Amazigh belonged to states that did not accept them.

The parallel session on the same topic was chaired by Charles Harb. The first contribution was Naim Chelghoum’s “The Social Context as Reflected in the Path to Democratic Transition in Present-day Arab Social Movements: A Sociological Reading of the Algerian Reality.” He explored why Algeria remained an exception, as one state not touched by the Arab Spring. The second contribution came from Issam Al Khafaji with “Cities, Provincial Towns and Marginal Slums in the Race to Damascus,” where he tried to transcend the binary Sunni-Alawi opposition and the class-based interpretation to understand the movement and dynamics of various Syrian communities who share an aversion to the regime.

This was followed by Rabab El-Mahdi from Egypt who spoke on “Democratic Transition and the Idiosyncrasies of the Arab Middle Class.” She saw that it was the marginalized who turned the popular movement into a revolution, and that “democratization” was a narrow linear perspective which conceives of societies clamoring for democracy as an end achieved by going through defined stages. In her critique of the notion of democratization, she likened it to looking through the eye of a needle to take in the scope of a vast earthquake, when used as a perspective on the Arab revolutions. Democratization was not an aim of the revolutions. For those who took to the streets demanding freedom, dignity, and justice democracy as a system was a tool, not an end in itself. Against this background, El-Mahdi, discussed the case of Egypt, in terms of its class makeup and how this inflected political choices, with an emphasis on the middle class, which in Egypt, she thought, differed to the image presented in the classic works of liberalism.

The final session of the conference, “Regional and Global Polarization and the Impact on the Development of the Arab Revolutions,” was chaired by Rami Khouri. Yasser Djazaerly presented “The Containment of the Arab Revolutions and the Preservation of the World Order. Next, Felicia Pratto and Fouad Bou Zeineddine jointly contributed “What the Stable World Does not See that the Unstable World Does: Risks and External Threats in the Arab Uprisings.” This was followed by Muriel Asseburg with “The EU in the Middle East and North Africa: Helpless Bystander rather than Effective Promoter of Democracy or Stabilizing Force.”

The final contribution to the session, and to the conference, was Natalia Berenkova on “The Russian Approach towards Non-Governmental Actors in the Levant during the Arab Spring.” She dealt with the Russian approach towards non-state organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, change in Russian Middle East policy, and Russia’s position on the Arab Spring, noting that Moscow seems a lot more comfortable when dealing with states and governments.

To conclude the conference, Tarek Mitri thanked the contributors and attendees and referenced the importance of the research conducted and the debates that had taken place. He also noted the success achieved by cooperation between the Issam Fares Institute and ACRPS.