The Middle East Channel

The second Arab renaissance

The democratic uprising is only beginning in the Arab world. It would be wrong to assess it  based on either its initial breakthroughs in Tunisia and Egypt or from the various setbacks, betrayals, and splits it will undergo in many countries. This is a regional movement of popular intifadas that are both inclusive and nationalist, but each protest develops inside its own framework of post-colonial borders and within its specific context. These demonstrations have vowed to stay peaceful unless confronted, like in Libya, with the regime's terror. But this democratic uprising is also an irresistible renaissance, the victory of a generation that decided to claim control over its own destiny. And this modern renaissance carries alongside it the unfulfilled promises and the liberating energy of the first Arab renaissance, the Nahda, opened by Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and concluded by World War II.

This "liberal age of the Arab thought", as Albert Hourani entitled his seminal book about the Nahda a half-century ago, was indeed the intellectual and political response to this French revolutionary challenge, which was simultaneously both an external military aggression and a spur to cultural progress. The Ottoman Empire was so shocked by such a blow that it let two modernizing dynasties launch, under its nominal leadership, their own reformist programs in Tunisia and Egypt, which were already at the vanguard. The ensuing spread of Arabic printing led dozens of newspapers to publish not only challenging ideas and information, but also a much more accessible language, something that is echoed today by satellite pan-Arab channels. Today's "Facebook kids" were in the nineteenth century the cosmopolite strata of young and older graduates, often at odds with their religious hierarchies (whether Muslim or Christian), while the Arab diaspora in Europe and America was already supporting their audacious calls for change.

Further, consider many of the hisorical developments and genuine reforms in the time of first Nahda. Ahmed, the Bey of Tunis from 1837 to 1855, not only abolished slavery in 1846, two years before France, but also revamped the whole process of tax collection in the distant provinces. This process, known as the mahalla, involved two seasonal campaigns, the first in summer in Western Tunisia, and the second one in winter in the Center and the South. Ahmed Bey strove to make this tax campaign less predatory and aggressive, therefore pacifying the region targeted by the winter mahalla, the same one that rebelled in December 2010 and contributed to Ben Ali's ousting.

Muhammad Bey, who ruled Tunisia from 1855 to 1859, established a "pact of social peace" (Ahd al-Aman) based on public interest (maslaha), equality before the law, and freedom of religion. His successor, Sadiq Bey, adopted in 1861 the first Arab constitution, with a de facto separation between the political and the religious power. The text simply expressed in general terms its respect for Islam and did not even explicitly state that the ruler had to be Muslim.

In 1881, France imposed her protectorate over Tunisia, and the following year the United Kingdom crushed the Egyptian resistance to its occupation, effectively putting an end to the reformist programs that the khedives -- or local rulers -- had undertaken in the preceding decades. In 1919, the detention and deportation of the delegation (wafd) that the Egyptian nationalists wanted to send to the Paris peace conference triggered a widespread popular uprising. This campaign of civil disobedience exhibited a degree of discipline, geographic breadth, and social inclusiveness that was mirrored in the recent anti-Mubarak revolution. The emphasis on the Muslim-Christian unity against the British occupier was echoed in the militant solidarity in Tahrir Square. And the 1919 revolution, despite facing bloody repression, forced the UK to recognize Egypt's independence three years later.

The Libyan insurgency is now claiming the legacy of Umar al-Mukhtar and its unwavering struggle from 1911 to 1931 against Italian colonization. And the similarities between Qaddafi and the fascist governor are not only reflected in rhetoric: then and now, the manipulation of the geographic and tribal divisions is as cynical, the violent focus against Cyrenaica is as ruthless, and the toll inflicted by an absolute power on the civilian population is as high. The Libyan revolutionaries fight under the "banner of the independence" (‘alam al-istiqlâl) that was Libya's flag from 1951 to 1969. This does not express the rebels' aspiration to restore the monarchy but rather invokes the unity that was then forged between the three entities of Tripolitana, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. The civilian as well as military rebels in Libya are literally obsessed with the unity of their country.


The democratic intifada is perceived by its own actors as a national liberation movement, since the regime and the rulers are accused of being alien to a country they consistently plundered and foreign to a nation they humiliated. This explains the celebration of the army when it joins the people with the sea of Egyptian flags over Cairo on the evening of February 11, and the patriotic mantra delivered with pride and joy on every occasion ("Proud to be Tunisian/Egyptian"; "Raise your head high"; etc.). But this restored national pride also empowers revolutionaries to deal on an equal footing with the foreign states, while the dictators and their cliques keep on spreading their usual conspiracy theories about the Mossad or al-Qaeda. This is what distinguishes the current Arab awakening from the first Arab Nahda: The key difference being the realization of genuine independence previously hijacked by the autocrats at the expense of their own people.

This Arab Nahda is smashing the once-prevailing sentiment that what is good for the ruler should be good for the country. The Tunisian and the Egyptian armies valued loyalty to their country over obedience to their ruler, thereby forcing presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak to step down. And despite the savagery of Qaddafi's retaliation in his country, a significant part of the Libyan armed forces boldly sided with an insurgency that would have otherwise been slaughtered. Similarly, what happens in Yemen will inevitably depend on the extent to which military commanders are willing to oppose president Saleh. And the Syrian protest was vindicated when the granddaughter of the leader of the anti-French 1925 uprising lashed out publicly at Bashar al-Asad and was swiftly detained. The moment the rulers are targeted as enemies or liabilities to their country, then the force of nationalist energies turns wholly against them.

This nationalist dimension makes the issue of foreign interference extremely sensitive. This is why it is so important that the international move to save Benghazi from Qaddafi's wrath has generated such an unprecedented approbation in the region. The red line not to be crossed is clearly sending ground troops to Libya. This is a matter of history: we often forget that the first war a nascent United States waged was against the "Barbary Coast" of Libya and its pirates who were raiding American ships and enslaving their crews. In 1805, the star-spangled banner waved over Derna in Cyrenaica, where the US Marines supported a contender to the Libyan throne (he ultimately was abandoned because of deal between Washington and Tripoli). But the challenge today is not what the US did in Libya in 1805 or what the French did in Egypt in 1798, but how this second Arab renaissance is reclaiming the aspirations of the first Nahda from the colonial legacy and the "independence" under ruthless Arab autocrats. This is why the democratic intifada is so galvanized by the universality of the American, French and, hopefully, Arab revolutions.

Jean-Pierre Filiu is a professor at the Sciences Po in Paris and a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Apocalypse in Islam (University of California Press, 2011).

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

A remembrance of Juliano Mer-Khamis

Last year millions of parents and children around the world lined up at movie theaters to see Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland. For most, it was a fun escape from reality. In the city of Jenin, the play, Alice in Wonderland, featuring kids at Juliano Mer-Khamis' Freedom Theater, symbolized something different. In this town marred by conflict and blinded by zealotry, Alice in Wonderland is actually "dangerous." That's how Juliano described it weeks before he was senselessly and brutally murdered. For those grieving in this part of the world, his murder is, in my mind, on par with the shock and grief we felt in Central Park after the loss of John Lennon. To kill a person like Juliano is like killing peace itself. This murder is yet another cold reminder of how this prolonged conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has deformed people's sense of up and down, good and bad, right and wrong. They literally can't recognize their friends from their enemies.

Born to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian Communist father, Juliano was, as his daughter Milay eloquently said at his funeral, "100 percent Arab and 100 percent Jewish." There were no boundaries, no labels or compartmentalization. Although the visuals of Juliano's life in Jenin often included demeaning checkpoints and ugly interrogations, Juliano saw beyond them. He accepted the yolk of his life. And he wore it, in order to work within it. He could have easily run away -- his talent and his fame afforded him that opportunity. He chose to stay and raise his voice for peace. If that is not an act of bravery, I don't know what is.

Juliano's evolved sense of purpose, sorely lacking in the region on both sides of the conflict, was a result of an extraordinary, if not unorthodox, upbringing. His mother, Arna Mer, was a fighter -- she was a member of the Palmach militia, later in life she battled cancer, and most importantly, she fought tirelessly on behalf of the children of Jenin. Arna began a theater school for Palestinian children during the first intifada. Juliano captured his mother's work in his deeply moving 2004 documentary Arna's Children. Juliano began to film his mother and the children from her theater school as they began their love of the art form. Dressed in colorful costumes with paper crowns, these fleeting moments amidst violence and terror were the few in which one could see these children reveling in their youth. Early on in the film, Arna is seen advising another teacher: "If the children make a mistake, please don't be angry. And please don't correct them."

Over the span of a decade, Juliano filmed 10 of the children from Arna's theater school and when he returned in the last year, he found that six out of the 10 children were killed as suicide bombers or in altercations with guns in Tel Aviv, two were in prison, and only two remained. As we know, and woefully ignore, the cycle of violence consumes all who continue it -- even those who are taught to know better.

A mutual friend of ours tells a story of how Juliano spoke of his dreams as a young man: "Just because my father was a Palestinian Marxist doesn't mean I can't be the best fighter pilot in the Israeli Army." But clearly, something in him changed. Like his mother before him, Juliano started the Freedom Theater to educate children in the only professional venue for the arts in the Northern West Bank. Juliano envisioned the Freedom Theater as a "third intifada" -- a cultural uprising, with poetry, music, theater, cameras and magazines used to fight back against the violence. The Freedom Theater serves as a safe haven for many children, where they could turn to develop their creativity and emotions in the midst of military occupation. It is a place where young girls who are being abused can come and talk in confidence, where children can freely express their fears, and where a young boy who stutters can overcome his speech impediment through acting. 

Juliano was shot five times outside this theater -- in front of his wife and youngest child. 

If you knew Juliano, as I did because of his work on Miral, you couldn't possibly imagine such a tragedy. He was a very big man with a very big smile. The man was strong and on a mission. He came over to my house in Jaffa to meet me. He didn't want to go to the production office. He wanted to come to my home, meet Rula Jebreal, the author of the script, and learn about me personally before committing to the film. He was very late -- checkpoints gave him a fit. He brought his kids who made themselves at home. They were polite, comfortable and proud. Then Juliano sat on my couch and studied my face -- to see what my intentions were with Miral. Trust is immensely important, and not easily granted from a man living amidst a violent military occupation. In hindsight, I am lucky I got it.

During production, when Juliano was given his expensive robes for the role of a Kuwaiti sheikh, he scolded the costume designer: "Why did you spend all of this money on these robes? We could have used this money for something more important." When he finally put on those robes, he unbuttoned the top button -- something a sheikh would never do. For Juliano, it was another gesture of freedom, from a man who gave us many.

Julian Schnabel is a renowned American artist and Academy Award nominated filmmaker. His latest film Miral is currently in theaters.

Author's note: All of us involved with Miral are mourning the loss of our colleague and collaborator, Juliano Mer-Khamis. Our film, Miral, is a cry for peace and is intended to open a dialogue to end the cycle of violence. The Freedom Theater in Jenin is a beacon of light in a very dark place. If you would like to support it, and continue Juliano Mer-Khamis' peaceful mission, please visit the website. Thank you.

Miral : Jose HARO © 2010 Pathé Production--ER Productions-- Eagle Pictures--India Take One Productions