It started in Tunisia. In early January, crowds called for “the fall of the government.” After former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell and members of the ancien regime
stepped in to preserve the status quo, the protesters realized their battle was with an entire political system. Their modified chant, “Ash-sha‘b, yurid, isqat an-nizam!” (“The people want the fall of the regime!”), spread almost instantly to Egypt.
The driving “clap, [rest], clap, [rest], clap, clap, clap” rhythm is a staple of protest chants across the world, from the anti-Vietnam movement’s “Hell, no, we won’t go!” to Latin America’s ubiquitous “¡El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!” (“The people, united, will never be defeated!”).
Yet, more important than the chant’s rhythm is its resonance. Protesters in North Africa chanted in Modern Standard Arabic rather than a regional dialect, giving the words pan-Arab accessibility. In not specifying which people want which regime to fall, the chant was also easily transferable across borders.
In Syria, the chant took on an almost symbiotic relationship with the protests. Demonstrations in Dara‘a following the detention of a group of youths for painting the slogan on a wall escalated into the confrontations that became the catalyst for unrest throughout the country. In Bahrain and Lebanon, meanwhile, the chant has become the inspiration for pop songs.
In Libya, it has even spawned a joke. “The people want the fall of the regime!” chant the protesters. “Thank God my name is not Regime,” says Gaddafi.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.