In mid-June, the Syrian poet known as Adonis, one of the Arab world’s most renowned literary figures, addressed an open letter to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The stage was set for one of those moments, familiar from revolutions past, in which an intellectual hero confronts an oppressive ruler and eloquently voices the grievances of a nation.
Instead, Adonis — who lives in exile in France — bitterly disappointed many Syrians. His letter offered some criticisms, but also denigrated the protest movement that had roiled the country since March, and failed even to acknowledge the brutal crackdown that had left hundreds of Syrians dead. In retrospect, the incident has come to illustrate the remarkable gulf between the Arab world’s established intellectuals — many of them, like Adonis, former radicals — and the largely anonymous young people who have led the protests of the Arab Spring.
More than 10 months after it started with the suicide of a Tunisian fruit vendor, the great wave of insurrection across the Arab world has toppled three autocrats and led last week in Tunisia to an election that many hailed as the dawn of a new era. It has not yielded any clear political or economic project, or any intellectual standard-bearers of the kind who shaped almost every modern revolution from 1776 onward. In those revolts, thinkers or ideologues — from Thomas Paine to Lenin to Mao to Vaclav Havel — helped provide a unifying vision or became symbols of a people’s aspirations.
The absence of such figures in the Arab Spring is partly a measure of the pressures Arab intellectuals have lived under in recent decades, trapped between brutal state repression on one side and stifling Islamic orthodoxy on the other. Many were co-opted by their governments (or Persian Gulf oil money) or forced into exile, where they lost touch with the lived reality of their societies. Those who remained have often applauded the revolts of the past year and even marched along with the crowds. But they have not led them, and often appeared stunned and confused by a movement they failed to predict.