The Failure of Citizens' Action in Syria and Egypt: Lessons for South Africa?

5 Sep 2013

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Fazila Farouk of SACSIS talks to Na’eem Jeenah of the Afro-Middle East Centre about developments in the Middle East, particularly, given the threat of external military intervention looming over Syria and the undoing of the Egyptian revolution, where a military coup has unseated a democratically elected government.

Both the revolution in Egypt and the calls for the removal of Syria’s dictator are rooted in the struggles and mobilization of ordinary people on the ground. The problem is that citizens’ action is not leading to the realization of democratic rights for the people of the Middle East. Jeenah addresses this problem and its implications for citizens’ action in South Africa.

Transcript Of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk coming to you this morning from the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg.

We’re at the Afro-Middle East Centre because we’re going to focus our discussion this morning on events in the Middle East, which as you know have been very much in the news these past few weeks. Starting with Egypt’s failed revolution a few weeks back when a military coup removed the democratically elected government and reinstalled Egypt’s generals and then moving on to the situation in Syria, which as we all know, is incredibly topical at the moment with the Obama administration threatening military action on the Syrian government for what it claims are chemical attacks that took place, and which it blames the Syrian government for.

Helping us to make sense of these issues, this morning is Na’eem Jeenah, the director of the Afro-Middle East Centre.

Welcome to SACSIS Na’eem.

NA’EEM JEENAH: Thank you, Fazila.

FAZILA FAROUK: I’d like you to unpack for us what is going on in the Middle East. We’ll start with Syria, particularly, the popular movement that called for the removal of a dictator that’s now being co-opted by forces much bigger than itself.

We’ve seen what’s happened in Syria; we’ve seen the failed revolution of Egypt, which has its roots in citizens’ action. The problem is that citizens’ action is not leading to the realization of democratic rights for people in the Middle East. And I’d like to have a conversation about that and its meaning for South Africa.

NA’EEM JEENAH: Fazila, let me start by saying, and perhaps a word of caution, if you like, I think that partly because of the great excitement that we all were guilty of promoting two and a half years ago when the uprisings began in Tunisia then Egypt, Libya etc., we kind of, I think forgot, that uprisings, transitions, etc., are actually pretty messy businesses.

I mean just think about South Africa in the 80’s and in the early 90’s, okay. We didn’t have one movement within the country that was opposing the state. We had a number of them. In the 80’s and early 90’s, you might remember a number of them were fighting against each other.

I mean we had, we had no go areas in our country; I’m not taking about those no-go areas that were no go for the SADF, for the defence force, but no-go for people from other political groups. So in one township you would have an ANC controlled/UDF controlled area and then an AZAPO controlled area. God forbid that one of the people crosses into the other side, they could get killed. You know, I mean, that’s how messy things are.

In some ways what happened in the Middle East and North Africa, you know, two-and-a-half years ago - was a bit then- we made it seem a bit abnormal to how these things normally turn out. So we all got excited and…

FAZILA FAROUK: But hang on, I mean, to be fair to the way people around the world reacted, the people of Egypt and Tunisia did manage to get dictators toppled.

NA’EEM JEENAH: Sure, but these things are not two-week processes. They take a long time. I mean we’re still in a transitionary process here, many would argue, almost twenty years later.

Secondly, this notion that…you know, of these so-called leaderless revolutions, is a misnomer really. Firstly, they were neither leaderless nor were they revolutions in my opinion. And, you know, you spoke about the failed revolution in Egypt; I don’t agree because I don’t think there was a revolution in the first place. So all of these kinds…

FAZILA FAROUK: How would you define it then? What happened?

NA’EEM JEENAH: I think what we had was, we had poplar uprising that took place, we had the overthrow of a dictator, but we didn’t actually have any kind of fundamental transformation within society.

Yes, it moved from a military dictatorship to what seemed like the beginning of a democratic process but even within that seeming democratic process the military ensured that it was in charge. So there was no fundamental transformation, the levers of power didn’t really shift to the people or to anyone very much different. The…you had five elections and referenda that took place, but we now know that even through that period that the military was really very much in charge of things.

And so it’s not a failed revolution. The revolution hasn’t taken place.

Some Egyptians will say they had two revolutions. No, you had popular uprisings, you had a dictator being thrown out and really, frankly, the dictator was kicked out by the army of which he was a part because…also because he was becoming inconvenient for them.

And then you had democratic elections, parliament elected, and then parliament dissolved by the army. You had democratic elections for a president and before he took office, his powers were reduced by the army and immediately he took power, the army planned on how to get rid of him and a year later he was gotten rid of. And they’re now, I wouldn’t say back in charge because they’ve always been in charge, but much more forcefully - and much more clearly to everyone that they are the ones in charge.

So, you know, I don’t want to put too bleak a picture on it, but I think we need to understand where things are. So, two years down the line, people feel a great deal of disappointment, which is necessary I think. But it also needs to be understood that two years is actually not a long period in the process of consciousness developing and in the process of political transition.

Coming back to Syria if I may. I mean, what we saw in Syria was despite president Bashar al-Assad’s insistence about some kind of Syrian exceptionalism - that all the stuff happening in these other countries won’t get here because we are so great and we are anti-imperialist and we’re anti-Zionist, etc. The fact of the matter was that there were deep-seated grievances, genuine grievances that people had against the government and against the state.

And as with the other countries where these uprisings had taken place already, by March 2011 in Syria, the grievances in a sense fell into two categories. One might say three, but two categories. The one was economic, socio-economic grievances and so in Syria, what we found was in the past decade -- before that Syria was this socialist Arab republic as it called itself -- but over the past decade or just under a decade, there was a move towards a more liberal, neo-liberal economics.

The result of that in a very short space of time was accumulation of wealth with the minority and that minority included a number of people from the Ba’ath party or the family of the president.

So, the richest man in Syria is Rami Makhlouf who operates his business practice very…in a way that people don’t like. So, for example, if you want to get a licence for fishing you have to make sure that Rami Makhlouf has a share in your business.

So that move towards neo-liberal economics ensured that what happened was that poor people began to be worse off than they were before. Because slowly the welfare net, if you like, the social kind of net, economic net that was there began to be whittled away. Poverty began to increase, people started being unemployed, which you know, the kind of thing that you didn’t see.

So, on the one hand there were these socio-economic grievances. People were getting worse off, particularly, in the rural areas, but in general, right.

And then together with that, still within that category is a particularly in the East you had a period of drought for a few years, and with the drought the peasantry, the small farmers, began to be in bad state and you had a movement to urban areas and that put greater pressure on the economy.

So, you had all of these factors, some natural, but others coming from the political situation. These socio-economic factors and then you had the political factors.

So you had Syria, a country where there was no democracy, no democratic practice, where the security services, the Mukhabarat, as they’re known, very well penetrated into society. I mean people were spying on their neighbours, you know, to that extent.

There was no freedom of expression. There was no freedom to form political parties, in general. I mean, of course, opposition groups did exist, but mostly underground.

So, you had these political grievances, economic grievances and as many of the slogans throughout the region said, when the uprisings began, that the big thing was dignity. When you don’t…when you can’t fulfil your economic needs and, you know, have to live with poverty, etc. and you don’t have political rights and are treated like a sub-class, then the issue of human dignity becomes a big thing.
And so, these were the reasons, as with the other countries, that people then took to the streets in Syria demanding reforms.

At the beginning of the uprising two and a half years ago, people were…people took to the streets calling for reforms, not for the overthrow of the government, not for the overthrow of the president. Even though some of the initial slogans, particularly, by young people said that -- just echoing the slogans in other countries.

FAZILA FAROUK: But that’s been amplified internationally. The slogans calling for the removal of Assad.

NA’EEM JEENAH: The people demanding the downfall of the regime.

Yes, you know, but that happened later. So initially, when you look at the banners even and the slogans, people were talking of, you know, calling on our beloved Bashar to make sure that there were reforms, that things got better for us.

FAZILA FAROUK: And these were socio-economic reforms?

NA’EEM JEENAH: Socio-economic and political, right. Because there was, you know, part of the political was all the torture and all of that that took place.

The regime didn’t respond well to that, so the response was very heavy handed. Military was brought in, into towns and cities, etc. And so, from the opposition that also began to change and that…so today, that kind of peaceful, if you like, non-violent action, is virtually non-existent.

People are running from snipers. They’re really not going to take to the streets with banners.

So that began to change then from the opposition’s side. And when that change started taking place, and particularly when you had a few defectors from the army who said, “OK, we’ll protect now these marches, etc., from the regime,” that began to take on an armed kind of character and then you had people coming from outside as well. You had the flow of weapons into the country from various parties and its developed now, into what we have now which is a civil war.

FAZILA FAROUK: So what happened in terms of the struggles becoming co-opted in Syria by other forces, the broader forces, the regional interests, the international interests?

NA’EEM JEENAH: This is now the big problem for me, you know, and even though I belong to an institute that does kind of geo-political research, the tragedy in Syria is now that when we talk about Syria, its become about everyone else. You talk about Syria and it’s about the role of the Saudis and the Iranians and the Russians, and the Americans and whether the Americans are going to bomb and whether they should bomb or not.

And ordinary Syrian people have been in a sense forgotten. They’ve become in many ways the fodder for all sides to use and that’s a big problem. So, you know, what you’re calling the co-option of that struggle, that non-violent struggle, citizens’ action, calling for reforms initially and then later calling for the overthrow of the regime, once they felt that the regime wasn’t responding. That co-option kind of - I’m not sure that I would call it a co-option - but it was a kind of morphing from where it was that non-violent action into what people felt was the necessity for it to take a different character, which was the violent move.

When that happened, then you know, things couldn’t be contained. So, the groups now that are part of the opposition on the ground and you know, of course, there’s the political opposition outside the country, but then there’s also the political opposition within the country – which - part of which maintain, very jealously guards, its kind of non-violent character.

But then there’s the military opposition on the ground in Syria and within that military opposition, there’s a whole plethora of groups and a whole spectrum of ideologies from just nationalist to kind of extreme Islamist and a whole range of things in between, as well. And many of these groups of course are supported materially in terms on weapons, etc. from the outside.

So, you have Saudi Arabia deciding that it’s going to support particular groups because they reflect what Saudi Arabia would like to see. Saudi Arabia of course is not really great on democracy. Qatar supporting, you know, groups that it would like to see being ascendant and other countries, on the one hand.

And then on the other hand as far as the regime is concerned, receiving support from Russia, from Iran, those two countries in particular.

And so you have now this kind of really messy situation where if you talk about citizens’ action, you know people will kind of scratch their heads and…where, where is it? Because what you have now is a military civil war that’s taking place.

This is not to say that those groups, those local committees that took forward the non-violent action, you know, two and a half years ago, that they don’t exist or that they’ve all taken up weapons. Neither of that is true. They do exist. You do find, you know, occasional protests taking place here or there.

And then a whole range of other kinds of civilian action - trying to protect refugees or work with refugees, trying to ensure in some places that education happens, as difficult as that might be, when you’re under attack and a whole range of other kind of things like that, that civil society groups, however, organized or unorganized find themselves playing.

FAZILA FAROUK: What does this then mean for peoples movements in other parts of the world? What does it mean for South Africa particularly?

We’re at a very interesting period in South Africa’s history twenty years after apartheid. The ANC has never been weaker I think in the last twenty years than it is today. Splits in the alliance, weakness of the party, new political parties emerging from people that use to support the ANC, new movements on the ground, new trade unions that are being formed, all in some way saying that they represent the real will of the people and the real desires for what people want to see in terms of change in South Africa. It’s a very interesting period in our history.

I’m going to ask you to look into the future a little bit based on the experiences of what’s happened in the Middle East ‘cause you’ve researched that quite a lot -- and tell us what you think about the potential of these new movements and shifts on the ground in South Africa to result in a new destiny for our country.

NA’EEM JEENAH: I think, you know, less than Syria perhaps - to answer your question - I think less than Syria, perhaps Egypt and Tunisia would be more instructive for South Africa. But having said that, just a word of caution that I think in some senses the issue of what can we learn, perhaps should be the other way around.

We’ve gone through a longer process in our transitionary period than either Egypt or Tunisia. And so, you know, there are things that we can share from our side.

But nevertheless, I think that, you know, if we look at both Egypt and Tunisia, for example, certainly the importance - and this goes back to two and a half years ago when this is what we were saying – that in a sense these uprising rekindled the hope among activists, citizens around the world that people can make a difference.

You had over the past couple of decades this kind of movement towards, even, authoritarianism within democratic societies; political, but certainly economic, where the role of corporations and multinationals and global capital became so overwhelming and burdensome that ordinary people just didn’t have any wherewithal to be able to fight against that or to resist against that. Suddenly two and a half years ago, you had people coming out onto the streets and then overthrowing a dictator who’d been…who’d been in power for decades, whichever country you’re talking about, which are the obvious countries. And being able to do that just by the force of their unhappiness, by the force of their numbers on the street, by their determination not to leave the street.

And I think that, that is certainly, even within South Africa, I think the reason that for many of us this was exciting, was because of that potential - that yes it can be done. Now, of course, this is not to suggest that South Africa, like in many other countries, that citizens’ action or on the ground action had stopped - it hadn’t.

I mean if you look at the past six or seven years, the number of protests that take place in South Africa, you know, you’re looking at probably about ten or twelve protests a day in various parts of the country on political and economic issues. Many of these, of course, go unreported because they’re, you know, in a small village somewhere, people block the road for the day and say we want water or we want electricity or whatever. But that’s what’s happening. Ten or twelve protests a day in this a country is a lot, right. So it’s not like we all went to sleep, that was happening.

We didn’t have a central place like the Tahrir Square where everyone came together everyday, but it has been happening. And so the hope that came out of these uprising was very useful at that stage.

But importantly, is this notion that people, citizens, can’t become complacent. I mean what we saw in Egypt is, you know, within the space of about a year and a half, having had three elections, two referenda, by the fifth one of those, the referendum for the constitution, people were just tired of voting. And so you had like less than 40% of the people actually voted for the new constitution. You know sixty odd people said yes, but the point is that there were less than 40% that made the effort to go and vote.

And so many people kind of became tired, number one, but at the same time, you had grievances that were not addressed, right. Partly because there was an undermining of any democratic attempt to address them and partly because these challenges are huge and can’t be addressed within a few months.

Now I think in South Africa what we saw after 1994 was in a sense - and perhaps partly because of our euphoria around at that time - but there was a sense of an acceptance that things take time to happen.

And so the government, the ANC government, was given some time. And when it didn’t fulfil that you know, half a decade later, by 1998, 1999, 2000, you found then people saying well this is not working, you know.

By 1996 our economic policies seemed to be actually worse than what they were a couple of years ago. By the mid 2000s, you know, our inequality had gotten really bad. So, but there was that timeframe (when) people were willing to say that these things do take time. And I think that that’s important.

We didn’t see that in Egypt and partly because of the behind the scenes movements by the military, for example, by countries like the United Arab Emirates who then, you know, poured lots of money into artificially creating grievances -- not that they were not there already, on the one hand. But then on the other hand, you had legitimate protests, for example, from workers’ groups, from trade unions for needs that were not being met. So all of these things kind of came together.

And, you know, I think the lesson there for us in South Africa is as I said this notion that you can’t become complacent. That even when you have a democratically elected government, a government that all of us accept, that many of us support, even with that, that the pressures and the forces on that government - and I’m talking about South Africa - that exist on that government, are huge from all sides and if people become complacent, then you’ve removed that most legitimate of pressures on the government. And so, the fact that we have ten or twelve protests a day is good and necessary, otherwise the government could be even worse than it is at the moment.

And the fact that you have, whether in an organized fashion through new organizations or in an unorganized way, that you have people coming together in neighbourhoods or as organizations, national or whatever the case might be, social movements, etc., means that that pressure is kept up on government and it needs to be.

Otherwise your kind of…the move of South Africa towards neo-liberalism becomes a fait accompli. I don’t think we’re completely there yet. I think that, you know, there’s still hope for South Africa. There’s hope for South Africa partly because we have so much of dissent.

Now if you look at some of these countries - you know, you look at Egypt, for example. The level of dissent before 2010 wasn’t the same. You had, you know, some political groups for example that were dissenters but you know tried to participate in parliamentary elections whatever. You had the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the biggest dissenter, which organized protests now and then, etc., but was heavily repressed.

You had independent trade unions because the main trade union federation was a sweetheart union. I mean its purpose really was to provide people ways of getting into the upper echelons of the National Democratic Party rather than anything…

FAZILA FAROUK: Sounds familiar.

NA'EEM JEENAH: Sounds familiar, yes.

So independent trade unions, particularly, from around 2007, 2008. But the masses of Egyptians were not willing, you know, to take action in the same kind of way. So the Muslim Brotherhood, which was a big organization and a big kind of network, independent trade unions, which were in particular areas and then a few youth groups, particularly, supporting the trade unions. So, a very small, in a sense mass of people that were dissenters - that were willing to confront the state in any kind of way.

We fortunately have a greater sense of dissent and willingness to confront the state and I think that that…the fact that twenty years after our first democratic elections that that kind of level is there, I think, is very useful.

But we also see that organizations unfortunately rise and fall. I mean look at the early 2000s and the great hope in social movements, Anti Privatization Forum, Landless Peoples’ Movement, etc., that emerged with big bangs. And, you know, very active for next five, six, seven years -- and are very quiet now for all kinds of challenges, internal, external, whatever the case might be.

But organisations rise and fall. The point is I think not to hinge our hopes on particular organisations only, but the spirit of dissent and the spirit of people being willing always to confront the state when they feel that there’s a problem. To work with the state at some points, but also to confront the state. The challenge is on civil society to play both those roles. The one is the dissenting confrontational role and the other is the kind of mediating and directing role.

FAZILA FAROUK: Na’eem Jeenah, thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS. And thank you to our listeners and viewers for joining us at SACSIS. And remember if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at

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