Lessons from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions

Many activists in Palestine believe that they are the inventors of the concept of popular uprisings in the modern Arab history. After all, many say, the Palestinian Intifada has been hailed as a shining example of an entire people rising up in unison against a ruthless aggressor.

Palestinians know very well what it means to break the barrier of fear and what it means to expose the bare chest to the live ammunition of an aggressive security regime. Clandestine youth leadership that works behind the scenes to organise and energise an entire population is something that has the signature of Palestine all over it.

Every country and every situation is different and the fight against the Tunisian dictatorship or the 30-year-old Mubarak regime is different from Palestine’s fight against a foreign military occupier which is also planting colonies and colonisers on Palestinians’ land. But despite their successes, which no doubt influenced the young leaders of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Palestinians and many other peoples can learn a lot from their fellow Arab revolutionaries.

One of the first lessons Palestinians can learn from the North African uprisings is the need to keep the uprisings united in purpose, not lacking in ideological debate and without a clear individual or party leadership. The people want the downfall of the regime, a simple, powerful slogan that captured the imaginations of millions. This slogan has become the rallying cry for every popular uprising in the Arab world.

The Arab uprisings have stayed away from ideological debates, which has helped keep the circle as wide as possible. If the revolts had Islamic rhetoric, left-wing vocabulary or any other distinctively ideological narrative, it would have been divided and thus it would have been easier for ruling powers to crush them.

The absence of a clear, identifiable leadership made it impossible to crack down on it by arresting or killing it.

There is no doubt that revolts need leaders, but the fact that these leaders were wise and humble, restraining from declaring themselves leaders, gave them longevity and guaranteed their success.

It was interesting to see how the Egyptian youth who were interviewed by the media began their talks by saying that they do not speak for the revolution, thus protecting themselves and the revolution.

Keeping a revolt focused, non-ideological and leaderless, does not, however, guarantee that others will not try to hijack it. Egyptian and Tunisian protesters have been keenly aware of this danger and after the initial success made sure that no individual or party tried to claim credit or continue with the same policies using new faces.

The Palestinians of the first Intifada are very much aware of this problem as most laid down their guard when the PLO signed the Oslo Accords that were negotiated behind the backs of leaders such as Faisal Husseini and Haider Abdel Shafi. Ironically, one of the major complaints that Palestinians had was that the PLO negotiators did not insist on a settlement freeze during the five-year interim period (which continues until now, 15 years later).

Another important lesson that should be learned from the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is the need to make sure that a peaceful revolt does not slide into violence. While the popular Palestinian uprisings were largely peaceful, one of the biggest weaknesses of the various efforts to peacefully get rid of the occupation is that they did not remain nonviolent.

During the first Intifada, the marches, sit ins, demonstrations and boycotts were often accompanied by low-level violence. A stone thrown here, a Molotov cocktail attack there, the torching of a settler car elsewhere resulted in the weakening of what should have been a purely white Intifada.

Scenes of Israeli civilians (irrespective of whether they were settlers or not) bleeding after stones penetrated their cars were used by Israeli propagandists to defame the nature of the Palestinian uprising, painting it as a violent anti-civilian protest. This has been the case in the Bilin and other nonviolent demonstrations that have gone on for years.

It is not clear why Palestinians insist on keeping a level of violence even when they participate for hours in nonviolent protests. Some think that this is an inherited romantic sentiment from the days of the armed revolution.

If the recent months have proved anything, it is that the debate over which attempt is more effective, violent or nonviolent, has been settled. Egyptians’ shouts for peaceful, nonviolent protests, using the words "slmiah slmiah", have been heard around the world and have forced themselves into the speech of US President Barack Obama.

As Palestinian groups are mushrooming on Facebook calling for an end to division and the Israeli occupation, it is high time Palestinians reconsider the way they protest, unify their focus, keep protests nonpartisan and non-ideological, leaderless and, above all, commit to nonviolence all the way until independence.