Skip to main content

After the Spring

Despite the carnage of contemporary Syria and Libya, and the ruinous stalemate of Yemen, the euphoric appeal of what was once described as the ‘Arab Spring’ continues to feed revolutionary processes across the region.

printer friendly  
Tahrir Square, July 2011, Ahmed Abd El-Fatah

The ‘coldness’ of what some commentators now dub the ‘Arab Winter’ is felt most chillingly in Egypt, arguably the largest and most globally significant of the revolutionary theatres of a decade ago. No fewer than 60,000 political prisoners have been arrested since the July 2013 coup led by military intelligence chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, with an additional 2,700 disappeared.

Amnesty International describes the situation regarding freedom of expression to be ‘at its worst in the country’s modern history, reaching levels of unprecedented severity’. Critics have been arrested for ‘absurd reasons, including satire, tweeting, supporting football clubs, denouncing sexual harassment, editing movies [and] giving or conducting interviews.’ There appears to be no public recollection or outrage for the overthrow of Egypt’s only democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, let alone his ‘assisted’ death during imprisonment due to criminal medical negligence.

Despite initially proclaiming support for protesters, western governments and companies have casually re-established relations with the regime – if they ever froze them to begin with. US president Donald Trump even quipped ‘Where’s my favourite dictator?’ at a September 2019 meeting of the G7, when al-Sisi temporarily escaped his line of sight.

Europe acts no better. Companies such as Germany’s Siemens and Italy’s Eni have penned billion-dollar deals with the Egyptian regime. In the case of Eni, 30 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in the Mediterranean’s largest gas field offers more than enough profit to forget any residual ‘sticking points’ concerning the blood still dripping from the military junta’s hands – even if some of this blood comes from the tortured body of Italian graduate student Giulio Regini. Rubbing salt in the wound is the cynical revisionist discourse seen on the left and the right, that the revolutions themselves were fictions to begin with, and were only conspiracies of nefarious actors linked to the west, Islamists or both.

In a global era characterised by demoralising defeats for progressive forces, it is no wonder that wilful amnesia or ‘gaslighting’, getting people to doubt their own memories and perceptions of reality, have become the operational logic of a world seemingly spinning into a dystopian abyss.

The ‘Arab Spring’ was always a poor term for the revolutionary processes unleashed across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, for reasons explained below. But it is also reactionary anti-intellectualism to deny that the processes that unfolded beneath this misnomer were but hiccups of history. Perhaps more problematic is what happens when one asserts that these revolutionary processes remain alive today beneath the ashes of their first decade. What should be a fairly objective, empirically-based conclusion invites the goading of cynics and informants in an era of internet trolls and algorithmic policing. What a world we live in.

Avoiding revolutionary romanticism

But that is precisely the case. The revolutionary zeitgeist of 2011 has not been, nor ever will be, pushed to history’s footnotes. Instead, movements continue to assert demands for the downfall of regimes and the structural re-organisation of their societies to accommodate ‘bread, freedom and social justice’. That movements in Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Iraq have even dared to attempt a ‘second spring’ – and indeed reap significant political achievements in doing so – attests to the fact that the ‘Arab Spring’ is not simply a passing historical episode but relates to entrenched dynamics and conditions fuelling these revolutions. They also demonstrate that the revolutions have the ability to adapt and learn from one another and are likely to do so again in the future.

What does the passing of a decade since this revolutionary wave began tell us about the nature of these uprisings, their evolution and outcomes? How do we know from this experience that they are destined to re-erupt, without falling back into revolutionary romanticism?

The Arab Spring was never exclusively Arab, of course; nor was it a passing phenomenon that could be captured by intellectually lazy soundbites. Rather, it was an irreversible cracking of similar, yet complex and unsustainable political orders, whose fault lines continue to disintegrate the region’s political regimes. Understanding the nature of these regimes and the particularities of their historical, political, institutional, economic, demographic and denominational composition should always have been the starting point for understanding the revolutionary processes that emerged from them.

Equally important remains the need to recognise the commonalities and developments within and between the revolutions, given that what we have witnessed through the course of the past decade is neither random nor formulaic.

From the moment in December 2010 when Mohammed Bouazizi flicked his lighter in an act of rebellious self-immolation in the Tunisian backwater of Sidi Bou Said, the forests of political despair were set alight across this vast geography. The conditions of collective disenfranchisement in Bouazizi’s Tunisia were perceived as relevant and familiar to so many across the region. Here, examining the structural roots of these political upheavals – and particularly their political, economic and class dimensions – sheds light on the character and commonalities of power relations specific to this region.

Regimes of rent

The primarily Arabic-speaking states of the Middle East and North Africa continue to be characterised by the world’s highest concentration of autocratic states, with virtually all of them embodying variations of patrimonial or neo-patrimonial regimes. These are systems in which the state is de facto owned by a ruling family (patrimonial), or non-hereditary (neo-patrimonial) line of elites who occupy, preserve and benefit from the political system, its revenue generation and its ‘security’.

These regimes categorically reject any semblance of liberal, meritorious economic or political inclusivity, relying instead upon police states and selective, cynical elite generation and buy-off. Direct or indirect rent income often plays a significant role in the political buoyancy of these regimes, be this through the flow of petro-dollars, geo-strategic rent, such as income from passage through the Suez Canal, or injections of international aid, financial or military.

Because these systems prioritise the pillage of their country’s resources in the fastest possible time from fear that the ‘party’ could end at any moment, the bulk of profits tend to flee the country as soon as they are made. Any local investment tends to go into speculative or ‘lazy’ sectors such as real estate. This comes at the expense of developmental planning organised around productive sectors such as agriculture or industry, which render longer-term sustainable livelihoods and ‘added value’ in ways that ‘quick money’ never does.

The resulting socio-economic orders end up being characterised by the creation of police states with disenfranchised masses, and particularly decadent bourgeois classes that are anathema to any genuine liberal values, let alone those that are socially progressive or ‘left’. Liberalism is deemed too threatening to these modes of accumulation because it entails forms of competition that would threaten the preferential, corrupt, rentier nature of the system overall. With profit-making opportunities politically allocated, the bourgeoisie controlling the major sectors of the economy fundamentally back the regime and its security services, explaining their defence of the regime and the latter’s violence.

It is also worth appreciating a few additional factors that contributed to the eruption of the uprisings, their timings and characters. Rentier patrimonial or neo-patrimonial political systems are prone to particular challenges over time that are likely to weaken the regime. Questions of succession in the end days of the dictators’ lives (Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, for example) create uncertainties about a regime’s stability, as the next generation of potential leaders begins to jockey for power. Economic, political and security elites become unsure of where to place their bets, unsettling the state bureaucracy and even army.

Sustaining rent incomes and managing elite rent redistribution is a challenge, with factors such as volatile oil prices, and the international financial crisis of 2007-8 also lessening international and local investment. Simultaneously, neoliberal ‘reforms’ of the World Bank and IMF further contributed to instability by providing vehicles to concentrate wealth in elite hands while decimating the social welfare elements of the state and the ‘social contract’.

Finally, it is worth appreciating that all these dynamics were – and remain – present in a region that is central to the contemporary capitalist order and its reproduction.

The long shadow of imperial powers

The region’s oil and gas wealth and its unique geographic positioning as the fastest nautical access route linking ‘east’ and ‘west’ has always meant that the stakes of any political change there – let alone revolution – draw quick attention and engagement from the ‘game’s’ biggest players, alongside more junior scavengers. These actors manoeuvre to devise new means to intervene in unfolding dynamics so as not to lose ground, or miss an opportunity to gain some. Add to this the extensive technological capacity for surveillance and repression capable in the modern age, which further skews already exceptional asymmetric power imbalances between the governors and the governed.

When we add to this potent cocktail the region’s ballooning demographic trends, increasing levels of education (despite diminishing returns for this investment), growing unemployment and rising costs of living, it is not difficult to see why a breaking point might eventually be reached.

And so it was. The revolutionary upheavals were a testament to what happens when levees finally break. The ensuing decade witnessed a spectacle of incredible bravery and brutality, as revolutionaries squared off against centralised autocratic regimes and their backers, domestic, regional and international, western (the US and EU) and eastern (Russia, Iran and Turkey). Intra-regional Arab autocratic meddling would add yet another factor contributing to revolutionary subversion as Gulf petro-monarchies quickly entangled themselves to back flailing dictators, or subvert more progressive revolutionary actors.

Here it is worth bluntly acknowledging that the revolutionary actors were woefully unprepared to meet many of the challenges before them. Revolutionary movements too often lacked sufficient individual or collective organisation with the kinds of robustness, inclusivity or independence that might have allowed for the generation of cross-sectoral strategies and tactics around specific – as opposed to general – revolutionary demands and leadership. They also lacked independent financial lines, making them susceptible to acceptance of funding and support from conditional allies with ulterior agendas.

These factors have proven critical to the outcomes of the revolutions and explain in general terms the inability to form independent, sustainable, and coherent political movements that can withstand inevitable repression.

Tunisia and Sudan are uniquely identified within the region’s revolutionary upheavals by their abilities to have cohered elements of this alternative political movement through organised constellations of independent professional and working-class unions, as well as student and women’s movements. The revolutions that have failed to develop such independent organisation have ended up divided, contained, and defeated, at least temporarily, picked off through co-option, imprisonment or death.

French protestors in support of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution. Credit: Antoine Walter

Lessons learned

Forming, consolidating or realising a set of tactics, strategy and organisation is a formidable challenge for any political movement, let alone those attempting to do so from such unenviable positioning. It is this harsh reality that largely explains the mixed and often poor outcomes of these movements, despite the fact that no fewer than six dictators have been felled in this period – something to be celebrated – with the toppling of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh, Libya’s Qaddafi, Algeria’s Bouteflika and Sudan’s El-Bashir.

But the revolutionaries quickly learned that the decapitation of a regime is not the same as the dismemberment of the old order, nor the construction of a new one. For those fortunate enough to have achieved the first of these aims – the majority of states failed to do even this – it is the second and third of these objectives that has proven significantly more challenging and, oftentimes, incredibly destructive.

In light of the complexity of the unfolding revolutionary processes of the past decade, and a reasonable belief in their continuity, it is appropriate to end with a few words of caution.

The uprisings of the Middle East and North Africa today stand at the portal between hope and progress. The bruises and blood of the past decade are a reminder that taking the moral and political high ground is not a sufficient substitute for informed analyses, preparation, organisation, strategy, leadership and a movement’s independence and accountability from below.

There will be no shortcuts to making sense of and solving the intersectional ‘clusterfucks’ at the heart of each struggle, as the complexity of the many factors at play are hardly imaginary, but all too material, relational, institutional and political. With that said, the past ten years provide a valuable set of experiments in applied revolutionary praxis, despite the undetermined and mixed outcomes.

The task now must be for revolutionaries – locally and internationally – to see what can be gleaned from these experiences in the service of clarification, inclusion, organisation and effectiveness. Here lies a particular warning for progressive international forces in solidarity with these movements, which represent another sorely missed source of moral, material and political support for regional revolutionary actors.

The experiences of the past decade hold many valuable lessons for these actors as well, not only with regard to strengthening the effectiveness of the uprisings but also the desperate need to plan and organise radical progressive political action within their own contexts. Only by undertaking such a process can effective rejoinders to the complex and demoralising political contexts we currently inhabit take form. The time to act is now.

Toufic Haddad is Director of the Kenyon Institute, the Jerusalem branch of the Council for British Research in the Levant.

This article first appeared in Red Pepper Issue #230, Struggles for Truth. Subscribe today to support independent media and get your issue hot off the press!