Over the course of the Arab Spring, one of the more fascinating aspects of the revolutions has been the use of language and the evolution of slogans between Arab countries. Without a doubt, the central slogan of the Arab Spring has been “The People want the downfall of the Regime” (الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام). I’ll dissect important words of the slogan, because each word has its own story. But first of all-
What language is it in? The answer seems somewhat simple: It is in Arabic. But “Arabic” is a complicated thing: it has multiple spoken registers, and hundreds of dialects that are local to regions in the Arab world. The chant given above is spoken in a higher registers of Arabic, within the linguistic bounds of fus’ha, or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Without going deep into the history of MSA, I can summarize by saying that it is a cultural language understood by most Arabs due to its derivation from the Qu’ran and its usage on news networks and in literary texts/newspapers. So, the utterance of the chant itself is significant in that in its language it speaks to a broader Arab polity, and not local demands.
The People (ash-sha’ab): Arabic has multiple words for “people” or “community”. ash-sha’ab is significant is that it is the most “secular” and directly nationalist of these words; it is commonly used in Marxist and leftist streams to stand in for People (as in People’s Revolution).
Want (yurīd)- The word “want” here is interesting to me because it is not quite as forceful as other words in Arabic. For example, in English, we have “need”, “demand”, “require”, “insist on”, so on and so forth. The word yurīd, is more of an “everyday” word, such as “I want to go outside” or “I want to drink water”, so on and so forth. It is also used to express “desire”: Arabic love poetry will use the word in phrases like “I want you to love me”.
the downfall (isqāṭ)- the most important connotation this word is indeed the “falling” aspect of it. The root it comes from (s-q-ṭ), connotes “dropping” verbs; this verbal form essentially means “to cause to drop”, and is used in cases like downing enemy aircraft. Politically, of course, it means “to bring down”, which is interesting to me in the words that were not used. There is no explicit call to “erase” or “destroy”, but rather, to literally bring it down to the level of the people.
the Regime (al-niẓām)- This is a fascinating word because “regime” doesn’t quite capture the meaning within. The root it comes from (n-ẓ-m) connotes “order” or “systematizing”; from it springs a great many words, including “to organize,” “organization”, “regularity” and so on. The word al-niẓām, as such, does not explicitly refer to a government. Instead, it refers to a sociopolitical order that the people are trying to bring down, an entire mechanism of terror and discipline that they have broken free of.
Usage of the Slogan-
The slogan arose in Tunisia, home of the first Arab revolution. This video claims to be the first utterance of the slogan, on 14 January, after the flight of Ben Ali, calling for the downfall of the entire dictatorship and those associated with the former dictator. At the beginning the are chanting “Strike, Strike, until the regime falls”. They start chanting “the people want the downfall of the regime” at 0:55.
Egyptians were quick to pick on the slogan as well as their revolution broke out.
Libya, in February 2011-
Yemen, February 2011
Bahrain, in February 2011-
Syria, in March 2011 (chant starts at 0:35)
Other uses of the slogan-
The slogan has become somewhat a brand in the Arab world to express any desire, small or large.
In the West Bank, the slogan was changed to “The People want an end to the division” (ash-sha’ab yurīd inhā’ al-inqisām), expressing a desire to end the political division between Fatah and Hamas that divided the West Bank and Gaza. From Ramallah, February 2011.
In the case of Lebanon, the slogan “the people want the downfall of the regime” expressed a desire to end the ethnic and religious sectarian divisions that has plagued the country since its birth.
In other cases, the slogan has been adopted by supporters of the current regime. In Syria, for example, the slogan was adopted to express love of Bashar al-Assad: “The People want Bashar al-Assad” (ash-sha’ab yurīd Bashar al-Assad). From Syria, October 2011. Warning- turn your speakers down.
In recent months, Islamists have picked up the slogan and adopted it for their own use. The following is a protest in Baba Amro, in February 2012. They chant “The People want the declaration of Jihad” (ash-sha’ab yurīd i’lān al-Jihād).
In this demonstration in Aleppo, February 23 2012, Islamists chant “The Ummah wants an Islamic Caliphate”. They have removed the secularized “People” (ash-sha’ab) and replaced it with the theologically-oriented concept of the Muslim masses (al-Ummah turīd khilāfah islāmiyyah), starting at 2:05.
About MeNews producer. Blogger on politics and culture of the Middle East, specializing in issues of public diplomacy.
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