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ARAB SPRING/ The Revolutions in North Africa: a Challenge for Everyone

Following a summer of continuous unforeseen evolutions, the world finds itself before the mighty demand for freedom coming from the countries of North Africa and the Middle East

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There are moments when the timing of a biannual journal is difficult – the spring of 2011 was certainly one of those moments. At the outset, in the West, we did not give much importance to the referendum which in January opened up the road to the independence of the South of the Sudan, the first change ever in the boundaries of a post-colonial African State (this observation, ironically enough, came from Colonel Gheddafi). Immediately afterwards, however, in a succession of mass uprisings, we witnessed the end of the regimes of Ben Ali and of Mubarak, disorders in Bahrain and then the beginning of the revolt in Libya, which soon degenerated into a civil war with very uncertain features. While I write growing disorders are to be seen in Syria and the Yemen. We saw Egyptian demonstrators camped in Tahrir Square, counter-demonstrators recruited by the government gallop their camels through the streets of Cairo, and then the pick-up trucks of Libyan rebels skidding off roads in the face of the Libyan regular army in the best tradition of Ibn Khaldun, and the fragmentary videos from Syria which amongst many doubts on one thing at least are very clear: in Damascus, as well, there are shootings and deaths. Through our newsletter we have sought to follow the rapid development of this situation, privileging where possible the accounts of those who actually live in those places. We looked with amazement and passion, at one and the same time, at the emergence of a new and powerful demand for freedom in peoples which very many had adjudged to be condemned to a suffocating immobility. And yet the moment has come to sum up what has happened: the very large number of images which the mass media pumped out gave us the sensation (or better the illusion) that we were ‘in the front line,’ but in essential terms how much have we understood about what happened and above all about what will happen? It is here that this edition of this review wants to position itself.

Sunnis and Shiites

During the first euphoria of the revolutions, while so many usual points of reference were falling the scenario seemed to be so changed as to be unrecognisable. A gigantic tabula rasa without any connections with the past? Clearly such was not the case. Every day that passes confirms the impression that these revolts (which we rightly call revolutions) have introduced something really new, albeit grafted within a specific context. To chant a slogan in Cairo is not the same as shouting it out in Peking, and, as has been acutely observed, ‘liberal democracy is not the end of history.’ This is why the contemporary relevance of this edition has adopted a special point of view: the unresolved tension between Sunni and Shiite communities which has deep roots in the past (just how deep they are is explained by Sabrina Mervin in her article) and which represents in the view of many analysts the principal feature of the contemporary Middle West. With Christians in between them, as we can well see in the Lebanon.