How Framing of Revolutions (the Arab Spring and Maidan) Takes Us Away from Their Roots During and After the Protests
‘Peace in the Middle East is more unlikely than ever’ – for half a century foreign journalists have started and finished their reports that way. Generalising, frightened of ‘inevitable Islamisation’ and ‘an Arab winter’. Most often adopting the position of the elder brother, who criticises the younger for his lack of pragmatism. This romanticised notion of the ‘Arab Spring’ has never been directly employed by the Arab media; it was first used in the American magazine Foreign Policy. Meanwhile most Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis emphasise that systemic changes need time, that the Islamists were at the helm because they were the only organised opposition. Therefore, it was not a question of religious fanaticism becoming stronger.
When two and a half years after the overthrow of Mubarak, the Egyptian military, which had some support among the public, removed the first democratically elected President Mohammed Mursi from power, and a month later killed about a thousand people while suppressing the demonstrations in support of the imprisoned leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world was confused. Forced to simplify the story (‘democracy against dictatorship’, ‘Islamists against liberals’, ‘Muslims against Christians’), the media talked about ‘the army against the leader, who was chosen by the people’. We are given to understand that what is happening in Egypt or Tunisia is not so complicated; we just have to compare it with similar political processes in our own country.
Ukrainians are outraged when the foreign press, both western and Russian, writes about the country being split into Ukrainian and Russian, East and West, about the ‘irreconcilable opposition of supporters of Europe and Russia’. However, we readily use the word ‘split’ when it comes to liberals and Islamists in the Middle East. We readily speak of ‘separatism’ in other countries, while insisting that the separation of Crimea was artificial, unnatural. We explain that the language issue is not the number one problem, but rather the map which the politicians are playing with. And so we should understand that in the Arab world, the best way to distract voters from economic problems is religion. Ukrainians are outraged when the foreign media draw conclusions about the racism of the whole population based on a video about the far-right, and all follow the herd about ‘fascism’ because of the red and black flags on the Maidan. Likewise, the Islamists in Egypt do not represent the entire population. The Ukrainians who did not vote for President Yanukovych argued that winning the elections does not constitute the endorsement of the majority. Meanwhile in the case of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had the support of one-eighth of the population.
“The revolutionaries wanted the best, but were naive and as a result they got war”; so ran the text I noticed in an eminent American magazine. This time they were wearily summing up the Ukrainian Maidan. Ukrainians do not want the West to give up on the Ukrainian revolution, because we have a civil society, we have independent media, we have educated young people. However, attempts to show, on the basis of the same factors, that everything is still possible in the Middle East are often met with scepticism in Ukraine, because it has to do with different people.
Analysts, political scientists, media people who have grown accustomed to ‘velvet’ revolutions often consider the current uprising in the light of the standard principle: in place of the bad dictator there should be the good opposition. If you don’t get the prime minister’s chair – you have automatically lost. Meanwhile, among the Arab revolutionaries I noticed much less frustration and discouragement. When analysing the situation, they themselves told how the ones who came to the forefront were the classic ‘old regime’ figures, together with the representatives of the parties that were conventionally in opposition, but were always ready to compromise. They also complain about the new generation of activists who seek a glory that was so easy to get as the people came out onto the square. The new revolutionaries want to be on TV; but sometimes they lack endurance, strategy and an understanding of the essence of the Revolution.
Asma Mahfouz, a 27-year-old girl who has been called ‘an icon of the Egyptian revolution’. She posted a video online appealing to everyone who had courage to come to the square: “Sitting it out at home is the same as supporting the regime.” She wears the hijab, she was brought up in a conservative family. I met her in a modest café in a residential area of Cairo 2,5 years after the uprising in Egypt.
“An information war is still being carried on against me and other activists; they create fake accounts in my name, which they use to spread nonsensical rumours that I got rich through the revolution,” Asma complains. “They are discrediting the revolutionaries. The representatives of the old regime are doing it together with the Islamists; they entered into an agreement to preserve the system. I would be lying if I said I knew the way out of this. We didn’t expect it to be easy. The overthrow of Mubarak was only the beginning. The voters think any politician who gives them a slice of bread is good. We’re trying to explain that they have to vote for those who will create the conditions to make money themselves.”
“They say about me that I work for the CIA, Mossad and the KGB all at the same time. Even if I was a saint, they can portray me as a spy, and reduce the entire history of the Revolution to another conspiracy theory. And someone stops trusting me. And this is done consciously by those who know that some ideas are stronger than power and money,” explains Wael Abbas, one of Egypt’s most influential bloggers.
Wael Abbas has two hundred thousand followers on Twitter, and sixty thousand on Facebook. He has been writing his blog criticising the government since 2004. Wael believes that the revolution has failed. He says things have become even worse: “The muddy waters have begun to move.”
“My film about the revolution in Egypt – I will take five years to shoot it,” says a Cairo documentary maker. “Our future seems very difficult, but there is hope. It’s not a matter of five or ten years. We will see the result after fifty years. For this alone, we have to do something, at least,” adds another Egyptian artist and filmmaker Bassem Yusri.
“It's just cucumbers that are smaller here in Ukraine, everything else is the same,” I am answering Bassem Yousri after he sent me a copy of his ironic movie so that I would be ready to talk about his politically engaged art. In this film, shot a year before the ‘Arab Spring’, Bassem mocks the government-controlled television of Egypt in the Hosni Mubarak era. The filmmaker plays the role of a presenter who, instead of reading the news, stays silent or says meaningless phrases, shouts something out, and in the end chews a huge cucumber – no, there aren’t any like that in Ukrainian cities, either. Bassem’s pre-revolutionary work has the odour of disbelief, frustration and even anger.
“I didn’t believe that the regime in Egypt would ever change. I received a scholarship and moved to the US, and I was sure that I wouldn’t return to Cairo. I thought that my country was in a terrible state, that hopelessness prevailed there. Why torture myself?”
Bassem returned to Egypt at the exact time when in another Arab country – Tunisia – the people took to the streets, outraged at widespread corruption, brutality and the police’s impunity. When the Tunisian leader ben Ali resigned, the protests spread to Egypt as well. That the regimes which had remained in power for decades in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, could collapse, and that in Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, the people would dare to protest – these things were impossible to believe.
At that time in Ukraine, the Yanukovych regime was rolling back civil liberties. On Ukrainian television, the budgets for talent shows were increased; the news resembled Russian state TV in its loyalty to the government, or was just limited to crime reports, while the foreign news mostly reported celebrity weddings, and the main task of the international correspondents was to translate these notes. “Why should Ukrainians care who’s president of the United States?” the editor of one of the central channels said to me when I offered to prepare a report about the American elections. The only thing that you could talk about was European integration, but only from the most popular perspective: how difficult is it to get a Schengen visa? Among media circles it was quite often mentioned that it was too late now, that it was time to move to Europe. Another option was to be a tourist in your own country, hiding away in your own world, far from politics.
The changes in the Middle East seemed pretty far away in Ukraine. The comment you often heard when it came to the ‘Arab spring’ was: “We know how this is going to end.” On the anniversary of the Orange Revolution, perhaps in one of the cafes along the Kreshchatyk, I noticed people with orange ribbons, although on Facebook I didn’t really like to recall “where I was in November 2004”. Western journalists kept asking why Ukrainians had not taken to the streets in defence of Yulia Tymoshenko; and then they wrote about the pro-Russian government and the pro-Western opposition, with the obligatory mention of the ‘Russian-speaking east’ and the ‘Ukrainian-speaking west’. Meanwhile, the foreign press’s emotional immersion in the protests in Cairo and Tunis quickly changed into debates about the demands of the liberals and the fundamentalists, the Western and Islamic civilisations.
I also wondered why, when it comes to Ukraine, it was necessary to oppose East and West, Brussels and Moscow, the Russian and Ukrainian languages; and in the case of the Middle East, Islam and Christianity, Bin Laden and the White House, fundamentalists and liberals,… meanwhile, the people were taking to the streets to protest against corruption, the police’s impunity, the repression of freedom, and the poverty, trying to confront the regimes that allocated public resources among their family members by transferring money to offshore accounts in the Caymans and the Virgin Islands. If we have similar problems in Ukraine, why do they first of all mention jihadists, or ‘the legitimacy of spheres of geopolitical influence in the post-Soviet space’? Another issue which resembled the Arab revolutions: what happens after the dictator is deposed, and the people leave the square?
Egyptian journalists Hisham Allam and Abdulrahman Chalabi led well-publicised investigations into the oligarchs close to the former president. They discovered that Hussein Salem, the right hand of Mubarak and the constructor of the resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, had earned two billion dollars from a deal with Israel on the gas monopoly, and hid his money in bank accounts in Switzerland. This discovery was made during the period of changes. Egyptian activists set to work investigating these financial deals; they encouraged the employees of state institutions and banks who had witnessed questionable operations in which highly-placed people had participated to anonymously hand over any documents they had to independent jurists and economists. It became more important to receive documents about the income of businessmen closely linked to the government, than to find out that political opponents were still being tortured now in the cellars of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Nor was it easy to investigate the sources of the Muslim Brotherhood’s financing, especially those based in Qatar. The Islamists’ popularity was based on their generous donations to the poor. Particularly on the eve of elections. In a suburb of Alexandria, the government party paid for a campaign to purge the districts of rats. The practice of pre-election benevolence was also taken up by the oppositionists: the social-democrats build schools in some areas of Giza; the liberals from the Sixth of April movement send mobile clinics out into the conservative depths. In that area, everyone voted almost unanimously for the Muslim Brotherhood, as they believe in God, and because they will not steal or lie.
However you can’t really say that the provinces support the Islamists – the voter turnout is too low. Of the 90 million inhabitants of Egypt, 53 million have the right to vote. For the presidential elections in this quarter of town, half the voters turned out; and for the referendum on the constitution, a third. So in both cases, the Muslim Brotherhood was supported by little more than ten percent of Egyptians. In a country of 80 million, the Muslim Brotherhood has only one million members and three million supporters. That’s a lot, but it’s a false argument to talk about religious people fighting with liberals, or Muslims with Christians. I am against using the headline of ‘civil war’ which some media use to refer to the events in Egypt, but my Ukrainian editor still changed the title of my article to “Split in two”.
The banker Mohammed al-Ansari was one of those Cairenes who didn’t go to the Tahrir in January 2011. At that time, he thought that politics should not be carried out on public squares, and that stability was more important than law and freedom. Later, he was one of first who came to the Tahrir with the slogan ‘Morsi out!’, because he understood that the Islamists were incompetent, and were leading the country to economic collapse.
“Religion is a secondary matter. The Western media often write about the advance of Islam. But what are they talking about? They remind us that in old Egyptian films the actresses wore evening dresses, and now the women walk around in niqabs, and men in long Muslim clothes. Really, people only started wearing clothes like that in Egypt in the eighties. During the economic crisis, thousands of Egyptians left to earn money in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait. They dress like people do in the Persian Gulf countries, it’s come to be seen as a symbol of wealth.”
“The army is not just people in uniform opposing Islamists; it’s a gigantic structure that rests primarily on property: it’s involved with land and with business. See that store on the corner? That belongs to the military too; they have a monopoly on some products, and they fix the prices. For example, they sell cigarettes cheaper than anyone in the neighbourhood, and no-one can compete with them,” explains Emad, a documentary film-maker, who has been shooting a film about the revolution for three years now, since the first day.”
By then I have left the central Ukrainian media; since then, saving every penny, I have looked for the cheapest flights, I slept in airports, travelled from city to city by public transport or hitching lifts, from Amman to Tunis, from Cairo to Tehran, from Palestine to the Syrian border, down to Baghdad, Istanbul and Beirut, for almost two years, I asked everyone I met about the revolutionary struggle, the everyday post-war and post-revolutionary life, the disappointments, the search inside oneself, and for inspiration – so that together with the community activists and apolitical hipsters, the artists and musicians, the cyber-dissidents and bureaucrats, the Islamists and atheists, the former and not so former soldiers, the peasants and townspeople, there, in the Middle East.
While getting these kind of answers I occasionally returned home `to Kyiv to join another protest action in the movement against censorship, to discuss the further curtailing of freedoms, trying to understand why Ihor Indylo, tortured by the police, had not become our Khaled Saeed or Mohammed Bouazizi; the tragic deaths of these two had led to mass demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, but the revolt in Vradiyivka - a village in the south of Ukraine where local policemen raped and beat up a girl - lasted only four days.
The Middle East was inspiring because it seemed that the people were operating in much harder and riskier circumstances than in Ukraine; the Arab bloggers were not only arguing about different ideas of history, but were also reporting from the streets, and were among the people all the time; the fighters against corruption organised anonymous online platforms so that officials who had witnessed money laundering could share this information with lawyers. Finally, as I then maybe naively thought, no one was hoping that someone would come and save them straight away. The Ukrainians were hoping to be rescued by their undeniable historical affiliation with European civilisation and their common border, whereas the Arabs could not become part of the European Community.
I realised that a research I should come out of all of this, and so I planned to spend the winter of 2013/4 in Cairo, to write about the three years of Tahrir Square, and above all to learn more about the Syrian refugees in Beirut.
Having received an invitation to the summit in Vilnius (European integration was still almost the only international theme in the Ukrainian media), at the invitation of a European foundation I agreed to fly to the Lithuanian capital with students, and at the same time I was going to prepare the first broadcast of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU for Hromadske.TV – an independent online television run by a group of the Ukrainian journalists which has become the go-to-news media during the Maidan revolution and further conflict in Ukraine.
“I’ll be back after Vilnius,” I said in Beirut, a day before the Ukrainian government announced that it would not sign the Association Agreement. There, in Lithuania, it seemed as if something else might still change, although the Ukrainian opposition leaders explained to the media that it was worth preparing for the elections in 2015, as if there were no protesters on the streets of Kyiv. The confused Ukrainian journalists and civil activists returned to Kyiv on the same flight, of course, talking about nothing else than what would happen after the Berkut troops dispersed the students. Then there was the Maidan, Crimea, the Donbas. Of course, no Beirut, no Cairo, no Tunis. Of course, I never wrote to anyone that I wasn’t coming. And I responded unusually briefly to the reports of what was happening in Ukraine. What was special was that the replies from Cairo, Amman and Tunisia did not contain sympathy or pity, but rather expressions of solidarity.
While reporting from the Maidan general, I didn’t like using the flag of the European Union as a protest symbol, just as I didn’t like using the ‘Ode to Joy,’ the phrase ‘European integration’ or the hashtag #euromaidan, despite the fact that I’d already used the latter myself several hundred times. I didn’t like them because, for me, they didn’t not evoke any emotions; in the same way that the official symbols of the IMF, UN, OSCE or the EBRD say nothing to me. I didn’t like them because, in contrast to our national flags and hand-painted posters, they were invented or chosen by men in suits, That is why I couldn’t force myself to use the symbol of the European currency as my profile picture. What does euro money have to do with anything here?
At the same time, I realised that talking about these symbols without context is pedantry. For Ukrainians at #euromaidan, the word ‘Euro’ didn’t mean the European Commission, or cabinet meetings in Brussels, or the currency, or Baroness Ashton, or the bureaucrats. Here’s the thing: if you don’t explain to Ukrainians what is inherent in the concept of the ‘euro,’ from abroad the protests about European integration might look strange, but then, we didn’t understand why the Turks got so angry about the construction of a tiny park, or why millions of Brazilians are so ready to crawl under batons and bayonets because of a rise in the price of bus tickets.
Caught up in the protests, I really didn’t have the time to respond to reports from Western journalists who, exactly as they did in 2004, are asking about Ukraine’s choice between Russia and the EU. What could I say? Perhaps it was logical to assume that it is not the European Union that the Ukrainian people support, but rather European values (including material values). However, I didn’t believe that anything like specifically ‘European values’ exist, just as there is no such thing as ‘European’ human rights. They are just human rights, which should be universal from Tokyo to Rio, New York to New Delhi. Moreover, if you look not at the letter of #euromaidan but rather at its spirit, the euro itself was secondary, that’s why it was so hard to find appropriate responses to the protests. After all, it was not a question of making a ‘geopolitical choice’ in a strictly literal sense – neither supporting the EU nor expressing anti-Russian sentiments – but rather the universal right of citizens to take to the streets when their opinions are brazenly disregarded, even though, supposedly, 'the people are the source of power.' Ukrainians must do the same as the citizens of Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and speaking of values, which are common to all people.
Abandoning the ‘Euro-choice’ in Ukraine meant remaining in the territory of lawlessness and tyranny, ignorance and kleptocracy. Abandoning the ‘Euro-choice’ in Ukraine meant being stuck in a grey zone where education and professionalism are empty words, where being different risks earning you a kick in the head. Abandoning it at the moment meant finding ourselves on the brink; and we risked falling into an abyss where every day would be like this: Vradiivka and Indylo – a village in the south of Ukraine where local policemen raped and beat up a girl; and a 20-year old student died after being tortured at a police station. Where ‘education’ meant Tabachnyk and Farion – a Minister of Education who denies that western Ukrainians are really Ukrainian, and is trying to ‘Sovietise’ Ukrainian historiography; and a neo-Nazi MP, former communist party member and school teacher who claims those who do not speak Ukrainian ought to be jailed. Where ‘healthcare’ meant Slyusarchuk and a drug called ‘Ukraine;’ and a distinguished neurosurgeon who turned out to be a fake, and in the end was accused of forgery, fraud and illegal medical practice which led to the deaths and injuries of patients; and a fake anti-cancer drug sold by a political party which led to the death of the patients. Where ‘art’ meant Zabolotna’s black square – a mural critical of the government, which was painted black by the curator of a modern art exhibition in an act of wanton censorship.
That is why this time, unlike 2004, the presence of journalists on the streets of Kyiv did not raise any questions, because the EU flag no longer represented a choice between the EU and Russia, where there was a compelling argument ‘for’ or ‘against’; rather, it was revolt against everything which journalism should be exposing, but has become a routine. That is why I didn’t care what those pseudo-politicians say because victory for the #euromaidan did not mean taking political power, but rather changing the rules. That is why they cannot substitute the popular chant of ‘Shame!’ with ‘Schen-gen!” – even though at our western border, a wall is still standing that has become the Wailing Wall for non-Schengen Ukrainians.
A speech by one of Ukraine’s best historians, Yaroslav Hrytsak, resonated so strongly with me; it evoked the feeling that I was an equal part of the world, and not just a person who 'places all their hope on becoming part of the creation of a political economy,' which I respect as the post-war settlement in Europe. Although a 'revolution of equals in independence' sounds way too poetic, Hrytsak spoke of a revolution that has other civic aims, and, 'does not resemble the Orange Revolution or the Rose Revolution in Georgia, but rather Occupy Wall Street, Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, or what was done in Istanbul. This was a revolution of young educated people, who are educated but have no future. This was a rebellion by people who were supposed to live like the middle class... and whose only way out is to treat the old politicians and the old politics with scepticism.'
In my reports about arbitrariness, bribery and corruption in other similar territories, I sometimes wrote: 'The name of this country could be replaced by others.' Hrytsak’s words spoke to me because for the first time, I could even replace the name of the country in this post, for the Arab generation of revolutionary change: 'A generation which calls everything into question: faith, power, system, media, authority, tradition, nation, borders, all the existing ideologies, the rules of the game, even the need to play games. A generation for which East and West are not constants, fixed points, which force you to choose whose side you are on. A generation for which there is no black or white, because first of all you have to understand and ask questions at any moment, and immediately question any answer you receive.'
Of course there will always be someone who says that mass demonstrations have no impact, citing those mass protests that have swept the world but were not always effective, but it seems that the demonstrations alone – which in Ukraine had systematically been discredited by all parties bribing the participants – have come back to life. During the years I spent in the Arab world, Turkey, Greece, Brazil and the US, talking with community activists, politicians, theorists and sociologists who study protest movements, I came to the conclusion that Ukrainians don’t have many reasons to be disappointed with the initial failure of the civil demonstrations, which should not be confused with the systemic defence of the people’s own rights. The principles of success are simple: organisation, resourcefulness, perseverance and time.
This has nothing to do with Euro-integration. I still disliked the official flag of the EU; yet it seems that Ukrainians were bringing some humanity to #euromaidan.
While we had the Maidan, Crimea, the Donbass, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was still re-elected president of Turkey, even though Gezi Park had demonstrated against him; and after a year of rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, once again a general became president of Egypt with dictatorial powers – albeit a bit less corrupt, compared to Mubarak family. In Tunisia the Islamists who came to power after the revolution still lost the elections, which were still democratic. The Jordanians have become more cautious because of the threat of the ‘Islamic State’, whose brutality has even been condemned by al-Qaeda. Meanwhile Iraq and Syria have fallen under their control. The death toll in the war in Syria has only increased, and a victory over Bashar Assad now seems not just illusory, but sometimes seems as if it could threaten to radicalise the whole region.
The particular feature of the Arab and Ukrainian transformations is that it was not a matter of just replacing evil rulers with good oppositionists, it’s often not so obvious. The aim is to change the game, or at least to force whoever leads the country to play by the rules. The citizens understand that it is naive to think that the Islamists who benefited from the revolution, or the military who, for example in Egypt, controls the financial flows, will hand over control. But little by little, even if it is sometimes a situation of ‘two steps forward, one step back’, the system makes advances, because it simply cannot continue not to hear and to ignore the citizens.
“You know what made me angry, when I was last in London, and I was presenting an exhibition where there were a lot of Arab artists sharing their experiences about what is happening in the Arab world?” I recalled the words of Bassem, the Egyptian artist. “Often at the end of the performances or exhibitions, the audience had tears in their eyes. The first question that the audience put was: ‘How can we help you?’ There’s something deeply wrong in this. We are not victims of an earthquake. We lived through something very complicated, but we did it of our own free will. Even the Syrians did not oppose the volcano. People deliberately take risks, they are ready for a confrontation, they are bold. But I don’t understand why we put ourselves in the position of the victim. Too much drama, rushing around, too many labels. When the police fired at us, the Egyptians kept on making jokes. Similarly, when politicians reveal their connections and hand out the money, it doesn’t often mean a clash of civilisations, as people so often say.