Two phenomena make history rush by so fast that it seems that day suddenly turned to night, or as though you blinked and opened your eyes to find the totally unimaginable, the unpredictable, the unfathomable right before you. War and revolution are like no other historical events; when they happen the world is never the same as it was before.
It's been a year since the "Arab Spring" began. The first signs of this season emerged in midwinter when, on 14 January 2011, President Zein ElAbidine Ben Ali boarded his plane and fled his country, bringing a close to the Tunisian revolution that had erupted a month earlier and consigning himself to the annals of history. Then history accelerated to the speed of light as revolution erupted in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. By March 17, just as Mother Nature's spring rang in, demonstrators took to the streets of Deraa, proclaiming the arrival of revolution in Syria. The entire Arab region was now in turmoil. In countries where revolution had not yet struck, people bit their fingernails and, with every protest or disturbance, wondered whether their time had come or whether what they had taken for signs of impending revolution was all a mirage.
A decade's worth of events unfolded in the space of a single year. Yet now we realise that this was just a beginning, and not just for the spread of revolution. Revolutions, as historical phenomena, never follow in a nice straight line and this certainly applies to revolutions in this region. As much hope as they inspired, they have also brought an equal amount of harbingers of a future that may not be all poetry and roses. They also present a very confusing picture, what with some countries at the point of just having toppled a dictator, others in the midst of a "transitional phase," yet others trying to steer away from revolution by means of just enough reforms to convey an image of change but that do little to affect the essence of the regime, and yet a fourth set of countries that are still waiting. But such categorisations do little to simplify matters, for other factors contribute to rendering the situation so complex as to defy comprehension. Consider, for example, that in some instances the state has remained intact, as is the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, whereas in Libya, by contrast, there was never a state to begin with, but rather some vague political scaffolding that has collapsed, leaving the revolutionaries nothing solid to take hold of. Syria is another case entirely. There, the blood has been flowing for a year and the Syrian people are still holding out against a nightmarish machine of violence and amidst uncertainty as to whether the state will change fundamentally or collapse entirely.
In general, the Arab state is undergoing one of its hardest tests. Nor is the fate of "the state" alone in the balance; along with it is the fate of the revolution that has suddenly found itself caught in the vice between the "civil" and the "religious" state. For the moment, at least, it appears that this dilemma rests in the hands of the Islamist groups and parties which are in the position to take decisions with regard to which elements of both -- the civil and the religious -- to blend into a new state. Perhaps, the question would be simpler or more predictable if the Muslim Brotherhood, with its extensive legacy and experience and its famously tight organisation, were alone in the field. But that is not the case. The Islamist spectrum is diverse and complex, especially since the arrival of the Salafist "movements" and the various jihadist groups to the political arena. Not long ago, people were saying that the Arab revolutions put paid to al-Qaeda and the Bin Laden-style trends, because the revolutions succeeded in changing in a matter of weeks what those movements failed to change in a decade and a half. This, too, has proved false. Al-Qaeda-linked groups are now operating in the Sinai and they have found a new foothold in the Maghreb, while they remain well entrenched in Yemen and Somalia and they continue to leave their fingerprints -- and footprints -- in many other Arab countries.
How this tangled Islamist factor will affect the structure of the Arab revolution will remain a puzzle for the remainder of this decade. The constitution and government building processes that we already see in progress during the current "transitional phase" is sufficient to realise that the state and the revolution have entered a new stage that is at once hazy and exciting.
At the same time, when we look back over the past year, the course of revolution appears to have doubled the rates of Arab pain and suffering. "Peaceful" may have been the byword for the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, but "bloody" has prevailed in all the ones that followed. What is amazing is that the peaceful approach determined the outcome of the revolution (or at least its first phase) within a month in Tunisia and in 18 days in Egypt, whereas where the regime response was violence resolution took much, much longer: 10 months in Libya, a full year in Yemen, and Syria is still counting. The latecomers to the dawn of revolution have paid a much heavier price, and not just in lives. Not only was revolution complicated by the cultural conflict between the civil and religious state, but also this nexus then interwove with the structure of ethnic, sectarian, tribal, regional and other organic affiliations that abound in the Arab state. The result was a range of civil and religious forces with members abroad that form national councils and members at home that form other national councils, plus a panoply of sectarian and/or ethnic factions with their councils abroad, which enjoy financing and international support, and their other councils at home, which are fighting on the ground and bear the brunt of the confrontation.
The upshot is that the revolutions that started as rebellions against tyranny have suddenly come face to face with an important truth: if revolution is for the sake of freedom, why shouldn't freedom extend to all and include the right to autonomy, a federal state or even independence? The dilemma, here, is terrifying, which is precisely why it served as such a useful tool for tyrants who had claimed the ability to preserve the unity of the state. When the people of Barqa (Cyrenaica) demanded autonomy or a federal state, the spectre of another secession in the manner of South Sudan loomed and analysts began to wonder whether the ghosts of Sykes-Picot had risen again, this time at the hands of the Arab Spring.
Over the past year, the Arab Spring has lost not a small degree of its romanticism; however, resistance to change at the same time left no alternative. The political stagnation that has reigned while society and the economy were in upheaval and as the globalised world with its high speed communications and new technologies shook the Arab world to the core made revolution an only option after it became too late for systematic reform and rational change that might inspire new generations of Arabs to great undertakings of their own. Perhaps some day, older generations of Arabs will realise that the rising generations have the right to live in accordance with the demands, laws and spirit of their time. In all events, after a year of revolution the score sheet is still open. Who knows? Perhaps next year at this time we will see another Arab Spring.
The writer is a prominent clumnist. The article was published in Egypt's al-Ahram Weekly on the March 15-21 edition.