If acts of defiance are what spark a revolution, then words of defiance are the fuel that keep it going.
For it was the words of the Arab Revolutions, expressions long-buried under the heaviness of oppression and the cloak of fear, that triggered the unthinkable. These words of defiance that have made heroes of the unknown, armed with nothing but hope and newly-found courage. And so they chanted:
“The People Want to Bring Down the Regime…” when regimes thought people existed only to clap along and chant their praises and no other regime was viable except their own
“One One One, the People of [Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain or Syria] are One…” when regimes sought to exploit demographic fault lines to divide and conquer the opposition solely for their own survival
“ Freedom…” when regimes sought to portray it as an alien aspiration, invented in a faraway land, unfit for their own people, or simply
“Irhal…” to dictators who had propagated the myth that their country’s destiny was inextricably linked to their own, a country without them was almost no country at all.
Irhal, Arabic for leave, was a cry for mercy by those who had never dreamt the day would come to utter such words. Irhal was irrefutable evidence that the bullets of the dying regimes could no longer kill their people. Irhal was proof that the people had already made a decision about their country’s future.
First and foremost, Irhal was for dictators and their cronies’ physical departure, to ensure they no longer passed down the throne to their sons as a prized family possession. But it also was a call for what the regime embodied – the oppression, injustice and corruption – and what it had led to – the humiliation, poverty and hopelessness – to go away too.
The physical removal has been achieved in some countries, and has yet to happen in others. But purging what the regime stood for and what it led to, will require more than just taking over squares and punching fists into the air. It is a challenge exacerbated by the length of time these regimes survived, which made their political and societal structures the only ones many had known to exist and had grown accustomed to. It is also a challenge because the same people that helped, whether willingly or unwillingly, to establish such regimes, are the same ones that are left to see the revolution through.
These are the people who were not at the forefront of the revolution, nor the ones taking over the reins of power, now basking in the opportunity of instituting meaningful change. These are the people who terrorized, supported and profited, who were forced to become part of the fallen regime or who truly believed in it. These are the people who fled and cut all ties to the homeland, transforming it into a washed-out memory of a long-forgotten dream, and are only now coming back to ride the wave of change.
The way regimes deal with those left behind will determine their sustainability and viability into the future. It will determine whether they have learned from past suffering and oppression and are truly determined not to make the same mistakes of those they helped topple.
Arab experience in dealing with remnants of deposed regimes, of those left behind, is a mixed bag of failures and successes. From the foolishness of de-Baathification to post-revolution Tunisia carefully dealing with and trying former high-ranking officials directly involved in corruption, embezzlement and torture.
It remains that new governments will be faced with a delicate balancing act of quenching people’s thirst for justice without spreading seeds of bitterness that may grow into new sources of division and tension. A delicate balancing act of integrating those involved in the fallen regimes without integrating their former ways and behaviors through the back door. For the revolution not to go in vain, it will be necessary for governments to ensure the above without themselves being drawn into the obscure political maneuvering that kept previous regimes afloat.
No viable political transition, let alone a full-blown revolution, can be credible without drawing the line between those that must be held accountable and those who were previously made to paid the price of submission in return for their livelihoods. The success of the revolution will be determined in terms of its ability to have implemented the fundamental political and social change it aspired, without alienating a weaken yet determined populace after years of hardship.
The ownership of the future belongs to those who had the courage to fight for change in the face of extreme adversity, those in whose hands change can now be attained, and to everyone else in between. And now is the time to see it through…
[This piece was initially posted on Comment Middle East]
 De-Baathification refers to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority’s policy of removing Baath party members from Iraqi government positions after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Iraqi government later reversed this policy.