The Arab Counterrevolution

Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos
Protesters celebrating Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, Cairo, February 11, 2011

When the music’s over, turn out the lights.
—Jim Morrison

The Arab uprising that started in Tunisia and Egypt reached its climax on February 11, the day President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. It was peaceful, homegrown, spontaneous, and seemingly unified. Lenin’s theory was turned on its head. The Russian leader postulated that a victorious revolution required a structured and disciplined political party, robust leadership, and a clear program. The Egyptian rebellion, like its Tunisian precursor and unlike the Iranian Revolution of 1979, possessed neither organization nor identifiable leaders nor an unambiguous agenda.

Since Mubarak’s ouster, everything that has happened in the region has offered a striking contrast with what came before. Protests turned violent in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. Foreign nations got involved in each of these conflicts. Ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions have come to the fore. Old parties and organizations as well as political and economic elites contend for power, leaving many protesters with the feeling that the history they were making not long ago is now passing them by.

Amid rising insecurity and uncertainty there is fear and a sense of foreboding. In many places there are blood, threats, and doubts. People once thrilled by the potential benefits of change are dumbfounded by its actual and obvious costs. As anxiety about the future grows, earlier episodes cease to be viewed as pristine or untouchable. Accounts of the uprisings as transparent, innocent affairs are challenged. In Egypt and Tunisia, plots and conspiracies are imagined and invented; the military and other remnants of the old regime, which continue to hold much power, are suspected of having engineered preemptive coups. In Bahrain, protesters are accused of being Iranian agents; in Syria, they are portrayed as foreign-backed Islamist radicals. Little evidence is offered. It doesn’t seem to matter.

February 11 was the culmination of the Arab revolution. On February 12, the counterrevolution began.


The Arab upheaval of 2011 is often heralded as an unparalleled occurrence in the region’s history. Ghosts of the European revolutions of 1848 and the popular protests that brought down the Soviet bloc in 1989 are summoned. There is no need to look so far back or so far away. The current Arab awakening displays unique features, but in the feelings first unleashed and the political and emotional arc subsequently followed, it resembles events that swept the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the days well before social media and 24/7 television, Gamal Abdel Nasser, a young Egyptian army officer, captivated the imagination of millions of Arabs, prompting displays of popular exhilaration that would withstand comparison with anything witnessed today. The Baath Party took power in Syria and Iraq, promising the restoration of dignity and championing freedom and modernity; a triumphant national liberation movement marched…

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