Rashid Khalidi on the Arab Revolutions of 2011

On May 22, 2011, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, delivered the final CIRS Distinguished Lecture of the academic year on the topic “The Arab Revolutions of 2011.” Khalidi noted that not enough time has passed to be able to truly analyze the impact and consequences of the Arab Spring, and so he offered some preliminary observations regarding the uprisings. He argued that “this juncture may be unprecedented in modern Arab history. Suddenly, despotic regimes that were entrenched for over forty years are vulnerable.” In a short period of time, some key regimes crumbled after having clung to power for so long and as a result of the challenging efforts of ordinary people. Khalidi said that “This is a moment, when we are suddenly facing the prospect of entirely new possibilities in the Arab world.
It comes after decades, when nothing seemed to change in this region.”

Several factors distinguish these uprisings from previous Arab revolutions, including the peaceful nature of the movements and the protestors' insistence on abstaining from violence, Khalidi argued. Although the publics of Tunis and Egypt came out in force to air their displeasure with the status quo, they rejected the use of violence. For the first time in recent years, Western media carried images of peace-loving, middle class, and charismatic Arabs, instead of the usual portrayal of Middle East publics as violent Islamic fundamentalists. “This is thus a supremely important moment, not only in the Arab World, but for how Arabs are perceived […] in the West – a people that has been systematically maligned in the Western media for decades are for the first time being shown in a realistic and positive light,” he said.

The Arab uprisings stemmed from the public’s frustration not only with despotic Arab regimes, but also with injustices made global through corporate privatization of public resources at the expense of social welfare. “What we have been seeing across the Arab World are not just revolutions for democracy, for freedom, for dignity, and for the rule of law, they have also been revolutions against the neo-liberal world order and the free-trade market fundamentalism dogma underpinning it,” Khalidi maintained. Any new government formed after the ousting of the old regime must attempt to fulfill the economic and social needs of their populaces whilst resisting pressure from the West to engage in the very economic globalization practices that led to the revolutions in the first instance.

Khalidi pointed out that many of these Arab countries are still unstable and that nothing has been concretely decided about their future political paths. He argued that the task ahead will be daunting for the new leaders of these societies as they will have to envision new social and political forms. “Building a workable, functioning, democratic system will be much, much, harder than overthrowing Mubarak or Ben Ali,” Khalidi argued. Any new system must avoid the pitfalls of the old regime and needs to target the old centers of power and corruption which have not altogether disappeared. This, he said, is a scenario that is not unique to these Arab countries as “we know a lot about entrenched powerful interests dominating a democratic political system from the American experience. This is a problem every democratic polity suffers from.”

In sum, Khalidi explained that “we must never forget that this is the Middle East, which because of its energy resources and its unique strategic position is the most coveted region of the world and, in consequence, the region of the world most penetrated by foreign interests.”

Khalidi is editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid and Washington Arab-Israeli peace negotiations from October 1991 until June 1993. He is author of many books, includingSowing Crisis: American Dominance and the Cold War in the Middle East (2009); The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006); and was the co-editor of Palestine and the Gulf (1982) and The Origins of Arab Nationalism (1991).

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Publications Coordinator