MESA Banner
Arab Revolutionaries' Paths through Defeat

Panel VIII-19, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
In most Arab countries that witnessed revolutionary processes, hope and euphoria have come to be replaced by disillusionment, disenchantment, and, most critically, a state of defeat. Many revolutionaries in Syria, Egypt and even Tunisia have been silenced, imprisoned or forced into exile because of such defeat. This panel sheds light on the meanings and consequences of defeat in the private and public lives of revolutionaries. Most of the literature on the Arab revolutions focused on the trajectory of political processes in the respective countries by assessing their success or failure in achieving democratisation. This panel challenges this dichotomy through the lens of defeat, a notion that centres on a subjective approach which brings into view the salience of biographical positionality, including dynamics of gender, geography, politics, and class. Some individuals can, for instance, feel defeated even when the broader political process is deemed successful, as in the case of Tunisia. By defeat, we mean a state of dispossession felt, perceived, and lived by revolutionaries after realizing that the essence of their political commitment changed, the public spaces they inhabited were seized, their practices of activism shifted or were silenced, their freedom was at risk, or they were forced into exile. Defeat is accompanied by feelings of disillusionment, disenchantment and nostalgia. Based on life history interviews, the papers of this panel have two broad objectives: firstly, to understand how revolutionaries narrate and cope with defeat after dedicating a significant period of their lives to the revolution; secondly, to study the different paths revolutionaries have taken since admitting defeat. We will tackle several questions which attend to these two objectives: How do revolutionaries talk about and narrate defeat? What are the different meanings they give to it? Do they differentiate between personal and revolutionary defeat? What emotions and affects have followed defeat? What biographical consequences stem from participation in a defeated revolution? What “new” opportunities and perspectives could defeat yield? Does the disenchantment accompanying defeat imply a process of disengagement, or, on the contrary, generate alternative commitments and practices of activism? Can “hope” co-exist with defeat in revolutionary narratives? Answering these questions can reveal how individuals seized by historical moments and their aftermaths are both shaped by and shapers of their societies. This will contribute to studies of revolutionary defeat and what transpires after it, a subject still nascent in the literature on the Arab revolutions.
Political Science
  • The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 raised high hopes for radical change in the social, political and economic spheres. Many individuals dedicated their everyday lives towards this objective. A few years later, however, the revolution seemed to enter a phase of long-lasting defeat. In this paper, we distinguish between defeat and failure. While the latter tends to describe the inability of political actors to carry on a democratization process, the notion of defeat brings into view the mental state of activists, especially those from younger generations, when it became increasingly clear that their activism was being extinguished, when they had to pay the price of imprisonment for their participation in revolutionary events, or when they were forcibly or voluntary obliged to leave their country. Based on biographical and life histories interviews with Egyptian activists across different generations, this paper seeks to understand what being defeated means to those who participated in the revolution. This paper suggests that the admission of defeat is a subjective process depending on one’s position. Thus, the feeling of defeat does not necessarily take hold amongst activists at the same moment. For some, its onset may be related to the trajectory of broader political processes (eg. the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013). In others, a sense of defeat may be induced by more private moments (eg. The imprisonment of a fellow activist, the capture of the “public space”). In this paper, I will focus on two activists’ life trajectories belonging to different generations: the first has been active since before the revolution; and the second entered adulthood during the revolution. I aim to understand activists' different paths through defeat, and how, despite a sense of defeat, their choices (or non-choices) in life contribute to keeping the revolution alive and narrated. I attempt to answer the following questions : How does defeat reverberate in their personal and professional lives? Does defeat necessarily mean disengagement from activism?
  • Laura Ruiz de Elvira
    In 2011, the Syrian people took to the streets to protest against injustice, humiliation, and corruption and demand freedom and dignity. At first, this process gave rise to high expectations and paved the way for new projects and institutions as well as for the so-called “liberated areas” – where revolutionaries cohabited with armed fighters, jihadi forces and displaced Syrians (IDPs). Twelve years later, however, the revolutionary dreams and hopes have vanished. Today, more than the half of the Syrian population has become IDPs or refugees and the al-Asad’s regime and its allies, after having starved, gazed and bombed entire cities and villages, have managed to regain military control of most parts of the national territory. Relying on fieldwork and life stories conducted in Turkey between 2014 and 2022, this paper focuses on the case of exiled Syrian activists, who are conceived of here not as victims but as political actors producing micro-social change in their own society through their (humanitarian, cultural, institutional, advocacy, etc.) projects. More precisely, the aim is to study how they perceive the defeat of their revolution and to understand how their activism and life pathways have been transformed and shaped by it. I will first argue that beyond the failed political process of regime change, defeat is not always acknowledged as such by revolutionaries. Secondly, I will defend the idea that defeat doesn’t necessarily imply activists’ disengagement and that new professional and educational opportunities can open up, namely in exile. Finally, I will claim that defeat certainly generates feelings of frustration, despair and nostalgia but that the latter can also, in some cases, be entangled with positive feelings such as pride and satisfaction. In this way defeat appears not only as a disruptive process that destroys life opportunities and is filled with losses but also as a creator of new personal and activist perspectives and of original forms of solidarity.
  • Sarah ElMasry
    The 2011 Egyptian revolutionary aspiration for “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity,” was ultimately shattered in 2014, the year which marked the “death” of political mobilization and street politics, sedimenting behind it a deep sense of disillusionment and defeat that continues to echo in the lives of revolutionary participants. Through life history interviews with former revolutionary participants from different geographies across Egypt, this paper maps their trajectories of participation; from their foray into politics to their exit from the political field. It argues that the disillusionment and defeat of the revolutionary dream are understood and translated in the private lives of participants of different levels of commitments depending on their geographical context and what is and was embedded in it in terms of social, cultural and economic resources. It highlights the different meanings, interpretations, or opportunities defeat had for participants from marginal geographies across Egypt who at times lacked the constellations of networks, social and cultural capitals that those coming from big urban centers had. The paper follows how participants of different levels of commitments reflect on their revolutionary and political participation and how, for them, the defeat of the revolutionary dream and the closure of the political sphere rewrote the meaning of the revolution. For them, that defeat may mean the failure of bringing about political change, but the revolutionary moment was not just political, it was deeply personal. It was about revolutionising the self, the private and the intimate through questioning one’s values and beliefs beyond revolutionary politics and spaces. They narrate how intertwined revolutionary defeat was with their personal defeat and how defeat complicates the assessment of the revolutionary experience and its calculus. For some, with higher levels of political commitment, the defeat diminished the value of their participation, made them feel that their activism went to “waste”. For others, with lower levels of political commitment, defeat brought unforeseen opportunities, particularly given their marginal geographical backgrounds. In illustrating my interlocutors’ trajectories, I focus on how defeat is perceived relationally and inter-subjectively read by their affective ties and circles including their families and friends and how they bear the consequences of such defeat as they attempt to reconcile their newly acquired worldviews with their families’ and old networks’, search for jobs in their hostile post-revolutionary contexts and continue to navigate the reminders about the revolutionary defeat in their everyday.
  • For the exiled Syrian revolutionaries, the perceptions and emotions related to the experience of exile are intertwined with those of war and defeat. The sufferings caused the multiple losses they experienced, as deaths and disappearances of relatives and other kinds of political violence, are still acute. They vary according to the conditions in which the refugees live and the past and ongoing events in Syria. This paper proposes to analyze the nexus between defeat and exile. Defeat is understood here as a perception shared and expressed among Syrian refugees who participated in the uprising. My study will focus on a distant exile context, namely France, where I conducted more than fifty interviews with Syrian activists since 2015. I will highlight the ambiguity of perceptions and emotions concerning defeat. The refugees express different forms of nostalgia for their previous life in Syria: nostalgia for a country at peace, but also nostalgia for the lost revolution. Nostalgia coexists with a desire to refocus on their present and future, around more individual and private concerns than collective and public ones. In other words, we can observe how the conditions of exile hasten the acceptance of the defeat. However, although the defeat of the movement in Syria is undeniable, many activists in exile are still reinvesting their critical dispositions and activist skills in other arenas or other causes, even beyond the Syrian cause. The feeling of defeat does not imply a total abandonment of their belief in the value of activism. Many even still share a belief in the possibility of a victory for their revolution, or at least a fall of the ruling regime in the longer term, and still try to fight against it at a distance. These ambiguities invite us to pay attention to the nuances of activism, to the variations of activist practices and discourses, situated between the extremes of a complete commitment and a full disengagement.