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Research Report

In Light of the Intellectuals:: The Role of Novelists in the Arab Uprisings

Copyright Date: Sep. 1, 2014
Pages: 24

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. [i]-[i])
  2. (pp. [ii]-[iii])
  3. (pp. 1-4)

    At first glance, the Arab Spring transpired without a prominent role for intellectuals. In contrast to other revolutions, such as the 1989 Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, no single individual has been credited with having led the masses to rise up and enforce change in the popular uprisings that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010. Instead, the rebellions that swept through the Middle East, toppling regimes in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, and Sana’a one after another, were fueled by pent-up anger among a mass of people who for decades lived under authoritarian rule, an absence of political rights,...

  4. (pp. 5-8)

    To understand the role of the Arab intellectuals in the Arab Spring, it is necessary to look at the longterm relationship between the region’s writers and the authoritarian regimes. Speaking at IPI in September 2011, the Libyan writer Hisham Matar underlined the importance of going back in time. He argued that the surprise that some observers showed at the outbreak of the uprisings should have been tempered, as the shock somehow implied that the factors that caused the revolts were short term, when, in fact, they were cumulative and had been ongoing for a long time. He thus questioned the...

  5. (pp. 8-11)

    But why exactly do authoritarian regimes display such violence toward literature? Novelists play an impor t ant role in subverting authoritarian regimes because literature is in some ways uniquely equipped to express what is forbidden while undermining that very prohibition. Although writers are part of the intelligentsia, they do not necessarily work within the “formal political activity” that James C. Scott juxtaposes against the subordinate classes in his classic work Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.45 Nor is their form of opposition either that of the “organized, large-scale, protest movements” or the everyday forms of peasant struggle.46...

  6. (pp. 11-12)

    However, Matar is perhaps too optimistic about the rebelliousness of literature, unless he would simply deny the label to the work of writers who are too compliant. Writing literature under the threat of repression is not an easy task, and not all writers have been defiant. Repression and intimidation, often in extreme doses, have frequently led to coercion. Whether enticed or intimidated by power, intellectuals have been co-opted by authoritarian regimes and in good numbers.

    Coercion was made manifest in different ways. To avoid the sort of political critique that might bring them into disfavor with the authorities, some Egyptian...

  7. (pp. 12-17)

    Arab intellectuals have struggled for change not only through their work but also by mobilizing themselves as a collective and grouping together to lobby for reform. In Egypt, the activism of intellectuals for political change can be traced back prior to the uprisings. Though labor and student movements were more visible in the social unrest that started in 2004 in Egypt, intellectuals were also heavily involved in the coalitions formed around them, including the Movement for Independent Universities, the Coalition for Independent Culture, as well as Kifaya, the name for the Egyptian Movement for Change. These groups were a critical...

  8. (pp. 17-18)

    Though it is impossible to say what the uprisings will bring about in the long term for artists and writers in particular, in their immediate aftermath, the environment has changed dramatically. There are certainly newly found freedoms that have resulted in an explosion of creativity: “Endless committees have been set up. In Benghazi alone, there are more than 115 new newspapers and magazines.... Most of them aren’t good at all; I don’t recommend you to read them, but it’s an incredible expression of the desire to express. Committees about the great and the small, committees about the role of women,...

  9. (pp. 18-19)

    That there may not be a Havel-like figure—an intellectual turned politician who managed to lead a revolution and successfully overthrow a dictatorial regime—in the Arab uprisings does not mean that there are no intellectuals who are trying to effect change. Further, such denunciations illustrate a tendency to overlook the intellectual activity ongoing in the Arab world. Intellectuals participate in revolutions in a variety of ways and the Václav Havel model is just one of these.

    What is undeniable is that intellectuals and particularly literary figures—who are the focus of this paper—have played a unique and crucial...

  10. (pp. 20-20)