By Daniel Atzori
In 1848, a series of revolutions, popularly known as the “Springtime of the People”, spread all over Europe. Political upheavals threatened, and in some cases overthrew, European regimes seen as unjust and repressive by their subjects, who wanted to become citizens. From France to Poland, from Denmark to Sicily, “a spectre was haunting Europe”, as Marx famously wrote.
Is the Tunisian uprising the beginning of a new revolutionary wave, which will spread all over the Middle East and North Africa?
First of all, the Tunisian upheaval is challenging the prejudice according to which Arab states are strong, while Arabs are like children, not mature enough to rule themselves democratically and to hold their governments accountable. Orientalist scholarship adds the prejudice that Arabs are inherently passive and fatalistic, and thus authoritarianism is the only form of government suitable for them. But the Tunisian youth rose up and threw these misconceptions into the dustbin of history.
Many Arabs tend to consider their regimes unjust, and sometimes oppressive, but they do not dare to claim their rights out of sheer fear. The Tunisian revolt seems to show that some regimes are nothing more than “tigers of paper” and that their citizens are capable of overthrowing them.
Nazih Ayubi entitled one his most influential book “Overstating the Arab State”, explaining that “the real power, efficacy and significance of this state might have been overestimated. The Arab state is not a natural growth of its own socio-economic history or its own cultural and intellectual tradition. It is a ‘fierce’ state that has frequently to resort to raw coercion in order to preserve itself, but it is not a ‘strong’ state.”
Ayubi is telling us that the very fact that several Arab regimes easily resort to violence against their own citizens, arresting and torturing potential opponents is not a sign of strength, but of extreme weakness. Does this look like a paradox?
According to Machiavelli, the state can be represented as a Centaur, a mythological creature that is half human and half beast. Based on this intuition, the XX century Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci analysed how the power of the state is composed by both consensus (the human side) and violence (the beast). Gramsci was writing while he was a political prisoner during the Fascist period: he had direct experience of an unjust regime that tortured and ultimately killed his body but was powerless against his thought. A revolutionary thought that gave strength and energy to those brave Italians who, after his death, overthrew the Fascist regime once and for all.
According to Gramsci, the state achieves consensus through media, schools, universities, while it coerces through police, army and secret services. In order for a state to exist and maintain itself, there should be a balance between these two dimensions. States that survive merely relying on violence and coercion are intrinsically weak and doomed to fall, because the ruling class does not enjoy any true hegemony over the ruled masses.
Does this sound abstract? Let’s have a look at the Soviet Union. Loads of Westerners, but also most of Soviet citizens, considered the Soviet Union to be almighty and unbreakable.
But the Soviet Union did break down. The all-powerful secret police and the army were just a veil, behind which the Emperor was naked. The Soviet Union could only rely on its police, army, secret services, prisons and concentration camps: but there was not much behind that. The regime was lacking consensus: it was an idol with feet of clay, which one day just crumbled down.
The Soviet regime could almost only rely on its “armour of coercion”, in Gramsci’s words: but there was nothing behind that armour. The Tunisian example shows us that once the front line is conquered, the battle is over, because the “army’ of the regime does not have strategic depth, since it does not enjoy consensus. Once the Tunisian people started their offensive, the very pillars of the regime started shaking. The footages of the Tunisian policemen joining the protesters show how weak and vulnerable the regime really was.
Several Arab regimes are understandably worried for the consequences of the Tunisian upheavals. They have now two options. The first is to increase the level of repression in order to prevent revolutionary outcomes. In the short term, this solution may work. But this will further erode their consensus, feeding the anger of the Arab street. Revolutionary waves may become more frequent, and more likely to succeed. Moreover, terrorists will try to take advantage of the malaise, hypocritically claiming to represent the masses. Unequal taxations, which squeeze the poor and forget the rich, will further fund the repressive machinery, instead of being invested in social and economic development, first of all by decreasing the astonishing rich-poor gaps.
The second option is to really reform Arab societies, empowering the citizens and allowing diverse political actors to participate. When people would be treated as citizens, and not as subjects, Arab states will become truly representative, and thus stronger. It is when the Centaur will show his human face that a peaceful springtime of the Arabs will really blossom.