Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Arab Spring: Between Past and Future

Tarıq Ali
New Left Review 80

Reply to Asef Bayat 

‘Dynasty and government’, Ibn Khaldûn wrote in his introduction to The Muqaddimah, ‘serve as the world’s marketplace, attracting to it the products of scholarship and craftsmanship alike.’ The 14th-century scholar was constructing a new methodology for understanding history, based on a study of the Maghreb and a critique of the work of Arab historians of preceding centuries. Replace ‘dynasty and government’ with Washington or the ‘international community’ and what he goes on to write is not inapposite for modern times:

Wayward wisdom and forgotten lore turn up there. In this market stories are told and items of historical information are delivered. Whatever is in demand on this market is in general demand everywhere else. Now, whenever the established dynasty avoids injustice, prejudice, weakness and double-dealing, with determination keeping to the right path and never swerving from it, the wares on its market are as pure silver and fine gold. When it is influenced by selfish interests and rivalries, or swayed by vendors of tyranny and dishonesty, the wares of its market-place become as dross and debased metals. The intelligent critic must judge for himself as he looks around, examining this, admiring that, and choosing the other. [1]

Looking around at the Arab world, two years after the uprisings that exploded across it in the spring of 2011, how should we judge the outcomes—fractious political scenes in Egypt and Tunisia, simmering strife in Yemen, armed anarchy in Libya, civil war in Syria, governmental crisis in Lebanon, crackdown in Bahrain, boosted regional weight for Riyadh and Qatar? Are there any patterns to be discerned in the Arab present? Asef Bayat’s ‘Revolutions in Bad Times’ is a thoughtful contribution to a preliminary balance sheet. [2] Bayat offers a categorization of oppositional strategies—reformist, insurrectionary, ‘refolutionary’—set in a broadly comparative, historical framework. In one sense, he argues, this is indeed an age ripe for revolution: the bankruptcy of liberal democracy and lack of government accountability in face of soaring levels of inequality and deprivation, sharply exacerbated by the financial crisis, have created a political impasse that would seem to demand revolutionary change. Yet the hold of neoliberal ideology and the defeats suffered by earlier revolutionary currents—anti-colonial, Marxist-Leninist, Islamist—have undermined the possibilities for it: both ‘means and vision’ are lacking. As a result, he argues, the opponents of the dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia adopted a strategy of ‘refolution’: mass mobilizations that aim to compel the regime to reform itself, rather than to overthrow it. It was only where intransigent regimes responded with armed force—Libya, Syria—that ‘refolutionaries’ were compelled to pass over into outright insurrection (with NATO backing) and the violent overthrow of the regime. 

Bayat borrows the term ‘refolution’ from the Cold Warrior Timothy Garton Ash, who coined it to describe the liberalization underway in Poland and Hungary in the spring of 1989. Bayat admits, though, that the political processes in Tunisia and Egypt have not aimed at fundamental economic transformations, comparable to those that negotiations in central Europe were bringing about. In that sense, he argues, Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 or Ukraine’s Orange version in 2004–05 are closer approximations, albeit lacking the liberatory charge unleashed throughout Egyptian society by Tahrir Square. Bayat concludes by borrowing Raymond Williams’s idea of the ‘long revolution’ as a possible strategy for ‘meaningful democratic change’. How should this contribution be assessed? 


Bayat rightly stresses the lack of means and vision for a revolutionary overthrow of these regimes, but also the depth and scale of the insurrectionary energies released in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. Whether or not it is helpful to transpose the neologism of ‘refolution’ to capture these realities is another matter. Its original coinage referred to a very different process. Garton Ash was gushing over the negotiations taking place between state and opposition representatives in Budapest and Warsaw, where ‘enlightened’ apparatchiks were staging an ‘unprecedented retreat’, offering to share power, signing up for the road to parliamentary democracy and crying ‘Enrichissez-vous!’ (even Garton Ash confessed that the prospect of Communist bosses turning into capitalist ones, as he put it, afforded him a moment of unease). [3] With the exception of Romania and the DDR, the mobilizations in Eastern Europe were on a relatively small scale; the cosy confabulations in the spring of 1989 were a long way from the televised announcements by uniformed spokesmen of the SCAF and the cracked heads of Tahrir Square. 

Nor does ‘refolution’ tackle the great rallying cry of 2011: ‘The people want the downfall’—not the reform—‘of the regime!’ There is an obvious risk in this terminology of confounding tactics—which, for any determined and effective political movement, will be flexible by definition—and goals. However the slogans and the spirit of the crowds in Cairo, Suez, Alexandria were very clear. It was not only Mubarak who had to go but also his torturers—including the sinister Omar Suleiman, whom the Obama Administration at one stage touted as Mubarak’s successor—and the Interior Ministry forces that had brutalized the country for decades. The military alone was not targeted, despite the role of a corrupt and collaborationist High Command that had been on the US payroll since the defeat of 1973. The decision by the protest leaders in February 2011 to refrain from trying to split the Army, despite the fraternization of junior officers and soldiers with the crowds, was probably a tactical miscalculation of the balance of forces, rather than springing from any illusions in the institutions of the Mubarak state. ‘Refolution’ in Bayat’s sense, if it means anything, is more applicable to the Bolivarian Republics in South America, a model firmly rejected by the Brotherhood and Ennahda, and with tragically little backing from young officers. 

Bayat’s terminology offers little purchase on the social and political-economic content of the Arab revolts. Here the analogy with central Europe in 1989 breaks down completely. The Comecon states, eastern counterparts of Western social-democracies, were in essence social-dictatorships, for the most part heavily urbanized, with large-scale industrial sectors and social, educational and cultural provisions that benefitted a majority of the citizens, as G. M. Tamás discusses elsewhere in this issue. [4] Increasingly, through the 1970s and 80s, leading factions of the bureaucracies were won to market nostrums. Once the deal was done with the pro-capitalist oppositions, shock-therapy spending cuts and privatizations destroyed existing social structures and closed down much of the native industry, as Western firms stamped out competition. By contrast, import-substitute industrialization was always much more limited in the Arab republics, and workers were never valorized as they were under state socialism. Rural poverty is entrenched; vast slums surround the major cities; youth unemployment is desperately high. Egypt had disbanded much of its limited welfare state and embarked on a programme of privatizations under Sadat. Social provision is skeletal, mainly consisting of food and fuel subsidies; the mosques—Bayat’s ‘free riders’—provide most of the healthcare and education obtainable by the poor. Neoliberalism has famously served to benefit regime cronies. Social unrest and strikes have been repressed, time and time again, but they never completely disappeared. How to articulate political and economic demands remains a key strategic problem for the protest movements. 

Missing dimensions 

Equally important, Bayat’s abstract political categories—reform, revolution, something in between—exclude any analysis of the broader balance of forces in play. If the Arab uprisings began as indigenous revolts against corrupt police states and social deprivation, they were rapidly internationalized as Western powers and regional neighbours entered the fray. In his desire to find analogies for the Arab present in the European past, Bayat underplays the concrete impact of Western imperialism across the region. The current borders of the Arab states were drawn by the victors of the First World War and included a declaration by the British Cabinet—which its only Jewish member opposed—pledging to facilitate the establishment of a national home for European Jews in Palestine; thus setting in train the expropriation, uprooting and expulsion of large sections of the native Palestinian population to clear the ground for the state of Israel. There can be no adequate analysis of outcomes in the Arab world today without a consideration of the role played by the most powerful military and diplomatic force in the region, the US; and given the hold of America’s Israel lobby over US foreign policy, there can be no adequate assessment of the US role without bearing in mind the Israel–Palestine question. 

The reasons why despotic regimes have persisted across the Arab world, long after the dictatorships of the Cold War era were dismantled across Latin America, Africa and much of Asia, lie largely in the intertwining logics of Washington’s jealous guardianship of the region’s oil and Israel’s grip over its Middle East policy. Free elections risked bringing Islamists to power who might act on their pro-Palestinian rhetoric. The nature of Arab-world exceptionalism in face of the growing ‘third wave’ of democratization was starkly demonstrated in Algeria, where the Arab Spring might be said to have started in 1988. Following a week of mass protests, the FLN regime agreed to hold first municipal and then, in 1990, national assembly elections, just as the massive US military build-up to the First Gulf War was igniting popular anger across the region. The largest Islamist party, FIS, won a landslide in the first round of the national assembly elections, having led huge anti-war demonstrations not long before. The Algerian military cancelled the second round, on the advice of Washington and Paris. A brutal and corrupting civil war ensued with mass atrocities carried out by both sides, to the point of attrition, while the masses retreated to an embittered passivity. Conservative estimates of the number killed range between 100,000 and 200,000, without a word of protest from the Western powers. The country has still not fully recovered from that ordeal. 

With some variations, the populist-nationalist regimes that had come to power in the 1950s and 60s in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Algeria were structured—tragically—on a version of the Soviet model: a de facto single-party state, a grotesque personality cult glorifying the president of the day and a regime monopoly on politics and information. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the presidents-for-life as bad copies of the original. As they assembled to pose for the cameras at annual Arab summits, like so many veteran cars at a rally, they were cruelly satirized by the exiled Iraqi poet, Muzzaffar al-Nawab. Meanwhile the Mukhabarat (secret police) summits engaged in more serious business: collaborating with Mossad, comparing notes on dissidents, competing for renditioned victims from NATO countries and, occasionally, roaring with laughter as they described the effects of torture on the victim. Neither the Mukhabarat chiefs nor their US/EU sponsors detected the scale of the coming insurrections.


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