In the first of our summer series on legacies of the Arab Spring, Massaab al-Aloosy tracks down the forgotten and new memorials of recent transitions.

Throughout their rule, most if not all dictators have tried to put their mark on their countries by building statues as self-apotheosis. But as the winds of political change buffet their regimes, the statues epitomize something different from what they were intended to represent: stories of their own. Some statues were removed without the possibility of them being reinstalled; some polarized nations, while some statues were simply replaced by others. In other words, statues epitomize the rocky transition from dictatorship to democracy which is important today because we are witnessing a new epoch of democratization. Ever since the statues of dictators such as Joseph Stalin, Francisco Franco, and Pascal Lissouba were brought down, there is an unfolding transition that could result freedom and liberty but could also result suffering, possible setbacks, and degeneration.

Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor that set himself on fire in late 2010, set the stage for mass demonstrations in Tunisia that toppled President Zain Alabdin Bin Ali. As soon as the 23 year veteran dictator fled the country, Tunisians began to tear down his pictures and to remove any signs of his reign. The sun of democracy shined on Tunisia and the region as the revolution had a ripple effect in what became known as the Arab spring. 

In Cairo, protesters defaced the statue of Hosni Mubarak placed in 6th October City. After Mubarak was toppled, Egyptians voted for new MPs, and moved a statue of the deposed dictator that was standing in front of the Egyptian parliament. The ouster of Mubarak not only affected domestic politics, but foreign relations as well.  A four year old statue of the late dictator was removed from the “Azerbaijan – Egyptian friendship park” near Baku. The Azeri authorities were wary of any association with the ousted dictatorial regime. Egypt is on the path of democratization, parallel to other countries.

In neighboring Libya, demonstrators in Tobruk destroyed the monument that represented the Green book – a summary of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s political ideology. Libyans rejected what Gaddafi advocated throughout his 42 year reign, and vied for a political system that is less corrupt and more representative of the people’s will. They also derided his standing-up-to-the-US bravado by destroying another monument showing a hand crushing an American war plane – commissioned after the 1986 bombing of Libya.

As dictators statues were removed, defaced or destroyed, the city of Sidi Bouzid – the hometown of Bouazizi – unveiled a statue of the hero’s cart. People’s power appears to be peeking. Although these countries seem trekking, nevertheless, they are on the right roadway. However, there is still a place for pessimism amidst all of the optimism. The transition from dictatorship to democracy is always celebrated as heralding a new prosperous era but reality proves otherwise. Revolutions need heroes who bravely take the initiative; making changes on a national, however, has different requirements.

Not all removals of statues yielded happy results. In Iraq the conditions in post-2003 pushed Kadom al-Jabouri – who participated in toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9th – to regret regime change. This is not to say Iraqis suddenly changed their views of Saddam, but the pandemonium that befell the country for the past decade made some Iraqis nostalgic for stability and security. Saddam’s statues represented fear, and though his regime was toppled, fear continues to exist in the minds of Iraqis albeit the cause is civil strife.

Similarly, the removal of the Shah’s statue in Iran did not change the people’s lives for the better. In 1979 jubilant demonstrators overthrew the dictator and destroyed his statues in Tehran. Iran appeared to be on the verge of becoming a liberal democracy, but theocracy won at the end of the day, and an absolutist was only replaced by another. Two decades following the Islamic revolution, demonstrators took to the streets after the rigged 2009 elections but they failed in unseating the ayatollahs and were quelled.

In Syria an ongoing civil war reaped already tens of thousands of lives since demonstrators burned the statue of Assad the father in Deraa two years ago. Demonstrators turned to armed groups, and regional as well as international actors became directly and indirectly involved in Syria by supporting either anti – or pro-government forces. As a result, the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries is predicted to reach 3.5 million by the end of the year. Worst still, there does not seem to be an end in sight for the conflict before matters become even worse.

There is a ubiquitous assumption that peaceful demonstrations against dictatorships inevitably leads to democratization. While this is true in many instances, in many others this assumption does not hold. True that a revolution might lead to a better reality, but there is also a possibility that the revolution itself might go astray. Furthermore, toppling the imposing statue in the capital is but the first step that in a long road to rehabilitate the country, and that is a biggest challenge than toppling the imposing statue in the capital.

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3 Responses to Democracy, Dictatorship, and Statues

  1. Roxanne says:

    Great post, Massaab, on a fascinating topic! I am curious to see, over time, what — if any — memorials are elected to the victims of the struggles of the Arab Spring. How will Tunisians choose to memorialize Mohammed Bouazizi? How will Syrians, Libyans, and Bahrainis memorialize the hundreds of victims of torture or disappearance or sexual violence? I have followed the spontaneous memorialization of these processes a little bit, and I’m looking forward to tracking it as it becomes more directed and deliberate.

  2. JRozAntle says:

    What do you think of the recent “coup” in Egypt? Is this going to be a never ending cycle or do you think they might find their way to a honest to goodness democracy?

  3. Massaab says:

    It is very hard to predict.
    Personally, though I do not agree with the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, I do not see the coup itself as a healthy development for the political process in Egypt. Politics in every society should be inclusive of all the components of that society with agreed upon parameters and rules. Also, unseating an elected president by the army – no matter how abysmal his performance was –will definitely increase the doubts of political Islamists in secularism and democracy.

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