Preliminary Historical Observations on the Arab Revolutions of 2011

Rashid Khalidi in Critical Inquiry:

1_123125_2073765_2180614_2203618_081103_fw_khaliditnWhat so far distinguishes the revolutionary upsurge that we have been watching across the Arab world from its many predecessors? One of the apparent distinctions is that in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and several other countries, it has so far been largely peaceful: “Silmiyya, silmiyya” the crowds in Tahrir chanted. But so were many of the great Arab risings of the past. These included many episodes in Egypt and Iraq’s long struggles to end British military occupation, and those of Syria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia to end that of France, not to speak of the first Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation from 1987-1991. While tactics of non-violence were broadly employed in the recent uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, this is by no means the first time that Arab uprisings have been largely non-violent, or at least unarmed.

It has also been said that what distinguishes these revolutions from earlier ones in the Arab world and elsewhere in the Middle East is that they are focused on democracy and constitutional change. It is true that these have been among their most central demands. But this is not entirely unprecedented. There was sustained constitutional effervescence in Tunisia and Egypt in the late 1870’s until the British and French occupations of those countries in 1881 and 1882. Similar debates led to the establishment of a constitution in the Ottoman Empire in 1876 that lasted with interruptions until 1918. All the successor states to the Ottoman Empire were deeply influenced by this chequered constitutional experiment. In 1906, Iran established a constitutional regime, albeit one that was repeatedly eclipsed. In the inter-war period and afterwards, the semi-independent and independent countries in the Middle East were mainly governed by constitutional regimes.

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