These are not Facebook revolutions | Mohamed-Salah Omri

Oxford academic Mohamed-Salah Omri, who will be participating in the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival on September 10, speaks to Adrian Grima about the cultural impact of The Arab Spring.

“I think it would be naive to call these internet or Facebook revolutions,” says Oxford University lecturer Mohamed-Salah Omri. “Likewise, we are not dealing with intellectuals-led movements.

To summarise, the case of Tunisia (Libya is very different), one can say it has been a popular uprising, facilitated by new social media and mobile telephones, and channelled or framed by existing structures and traditions of resistance and protest, such as trade unions and known activists. The army played a crucial role by refusing to follow government orders at first, and by stepping in to support popular demands afterwards.”

Mohamed-Salah Omri is one of the 14 writers invited to this year’s Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed and Literature Across Frontiers that will be held on September 8, 9 and 10 at the Garden of Rest in Floriana, at 20:00.

I started by asking him about how people in Tunisia – his country of birth – refer to the Arab Spring and whether he thought that the names given to these movements or events are ultimately irrelevant. Mohamed-Salah Omri identified ‘Revolution of Freedom and Dignity’ and ‘Revolution of Dignity and Democracy’ as the most circulated names.

“Earlier on, the term ‘Jasmine Revolution’ was circulated but received a hostile response. It was pointed out that the origins of the name were foreign – specifically, French – and that such a name somehow dilutes the revolutionary content as well the sacrifices which took place to achieve it.

“I think names do matter, and in fact, a battle to name these revolutions is indicative of underlying assumptions or shows the desire to inscribe aspirations and desires. I must note that colour-coding has been in fashion over the past few years, particularly in Eastern Europe.

“Some have pointed out that these were code words, which indicate a desire to control and frame local movements. In this case, the term Jasmine Revolution harkens back to an imaginary where remnants of old Orientalist perceptions of Tunisia mix with more recent mass tourism and marketing images of the country.”

In the context of the revolutions taking place parts of the Mediterranean Arab world, I ask him about references to the ‘Mediterranean’ which seem to me more like a European rather than an Arab ‘invention.’

“I think the only time I saw clear reference to the Mediterranean was in the course of debates around ‘the Republican Pact’, which Tunisians have been discussing as a form of moral pact or agreement to guide the various parties during the transitional phase towards a constitution. There, the Mediterranean is mentioned as one of the contexts for a Tunisian identity.

“This is revealing of the underlying attitude you mention and the desire to take a distance from a concept of the sea largely carrier of domination, colonialism etc.”

Perceptions change very slowly

The preface to the book about The Movement of People and Ideas between Britain and the Maghreb, edited by Dr Omri and Prof. Abdeljelil Temimi, questions the representations that both Britain and the Maghreb have of each other.

To what extent have the Arab uprisings changed these representations? “Britain has had a revealing relationship to the Arab Spring. Notice that Official Britain has been much faster than the French and the Italian in recognising and “supporting” changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

There is a politics to this of course, but I also wonder whether there isn’t what I would call “a veil of proximity” by which Italy and France were perhaps too close, too threatened by the movement, too protective of their privileged positions to embrace such radical change. The British moves indicate a change in perception that is now much wider.

It is very difficult to find an analyst who does not recognise that what has been seen as “inherent” resistance to democracy in the Arab world is simply not true.

The long-held “democratic exceptionalism” of the Arab world is no longer tenable. There are consequences to such change in terms of perception. But perceptions change very slowly, history tells us.

When I ask Mohamed-Salah Omri about whether he interprets the Arab peoples’ call for democracy as an emulation of so-called ‘Western’ models of society, or whether he sees them as developing a new form of self-representation, he admits right away that this is “a tricky question to answer.”

“I think while the democracy model may be visible in Europe, concepts such as secularism will not be universally coveted.
In addition, it would be naive to think that a unified system across the region will emerge. The social and political history of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, for example, are very different, and so have been the processes by which they conducted their revolutions.

“The outcome is a combination of that history, the process and actors of emancipation and the dynamics of transition. But in all cases, one may say there is a unified desire for civil state in the place of a security state.”

What role has literature played in the uprisings? “Three main types of literature fed into and thrived during the revolution; namely, resistance poetry – Awlad Ahmed [also reading at the Festival in Malta] comes under this group; alternative popular literature, mainly, colloquial poetry and some rap poetry; and part of the theatre and music scene.

“The effects of all of these was noticeable in demonstration, vigils and public gatherings during the first days of the revolution, and everywhere after January 14 when hitherto suppressed poets, singers, actors and writers simply took centre stage in the local and national scene. Summer festivals, national media gave them almost exclusive access.”  

Additional interview questions by Nathalie Grima.

The Festival will take place at The Garden of Rest, Floriana from 20:00 on September 8, 9 and 10.