The Arab Revolutions in Historical Perspective

Once again, from Algeria to Iraq, the peoples of the Arab world are in open rebellion. What are the stumbling blocks that stand in the way of their aspirations? How does history shed light on the present situation?

Beirut, 17 October 2019, Riad el-Solh square

We are witnessing the second wave of protest and rebellion in the Arab word. The first wave began in December 2010 and brought about the downfall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. It also led to upheavals in Bahrain and Syria, not to mention the many protest movements in Morocco, Algeria, Iraq and Sudan. Then came the counter-revolution, most spectacularly the July 2013 coup in Egypt, financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Involving a mixture of repression with an injection of fresh capital (from the Gulf countries or from oil revenue) and some more or less formal concessions, it seemed to confirm the resilience of the old order, while the threat of civil war acted as a deterrent to protestors of every shade.

And yet those who once again, and especially in the West, harboured the illusion that “stability” was back, have had to change their tune. For 2019 has seen a rekindling of the revolutionary flame: a popular uprising in Sudan overthrew Omar Al-Bachir’s dictatorship, nearly thirty years old ; in Algeria, a huge wave of protests foiled a doddery president’s bid for a fifth term and is still demanding the end of a “system” which has bled the country dry; the Iraqi people are rising up to denounce a system imposed by the United States in 2003, sustained by Iran and based on confessionalism and corruption. And finally the Lebanese, fed up with the same evils, have taken to the streets demanding, “Out with the lot of them!” or “All of them means all of them!” Even the Egyptians, controlled and stifled by a repressive apparatus unparalleled in the country’s history, did nonetheless hold street protests in September, necessarily small, of course, but in Cairo, in Suez, in Alexandria and Mahallah Al-Kobra.

The State above the citizenry

This second wave is fuelled by the same motives as the first: authoritarian power structures, lording it over the people, so that anyone can be arrested at any time—and not only for political reasons—thrown into gaol, brutalised, tortured; unbearable social situations, with massive unemployment, especially among the young, and enormous disparities, deepening every day.

The Middle East is the most inegalitarian region in the world! Even more than in 2011, social injustice is at the heart of the movement.

While these “hirak” as all these movements are called today, have drawn some lessons from the past, rejecting the armed struggle despite the ferocity of the repression as in Iraq and Sudan, foiling attempts to divide protestors on a confessional basis, and debunking the spectre of “foreign conspiracies.” They also realise that the true confrontation is not between alleged secular groups and supposed Islamists. Yet they are up against one major difficulty, an obstacle they sought to skirt in 2011-2012: imagining a new economic and social order.

When the Arab world changed

In order to grasp the difficulty of this task, we must go back to the end of WW2, to the years of decolonisation and the struggles for true political independence—coupled with the demand for the removal of Western military bases and the end of Western influence. The former colonies or “protectorates” were also bent on recovering their natural resources, building a powerful public sector and implementing agrarian reform. And this project actually materialised from Egypt to Iraq, from Algeria to Syria. The expansion of the schooling and health systems greatly improved the living conditions of the poorest categories of the population. These options went along with an independent foreign policy aimed at non-alignment. Despite the often heavy price to pay—an omnipresent police apparatus and the drastic curtailment of civil liberties— a large number of political forces made this program theirs in the sixties and seventies, whether they were in power or in the opposition.

However the June 1967 defeat of the Arab countries in their war with Israel, the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 and that of Algerian President Houari Boumedienne in 1978, as well as the deepening crisis of the “socialist system” as represented by the USSR, were to mark a turning point. And with the so-called oil crisis of 1973, the Gulf monarchies increased their influence in the region.

Internationally, economic globalisation and the triumph of neo-liberalism foisted the “Washington consensus”1 on the rest of the world and the concepts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became the only road to development. “There is no alternative”, Margaret Thatcher proclaimed. The plans concocted by the IMF, endorsed by the World Bank and the European Union were enforced without regard for the social consequences.

With his policy known as “infitah” (economic opening), Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadate committed his country to a path soon followed by others. The public sector was mothballed, at times simply sold off to private interests. Henceforth, the elites looked to Washington, turning their backs on the “old” nationalist demands and on their support of the Palestinians. Civil liberties had nothing to gain from this, since the various police forces continued to have the upper hand on all political activity.

Politicians stick together

This neoliberal model based on free trade has turned out to be disastrous for ordinary people. The private sector has not taken on the tasks of the public one but invested all the fruits of its plunder in tax havens. Millions of better-trained young people have not found good jobs at home and many have emigrated, often risking their lives. The 2008 market crash confirmed the nature of the crisis, which was not confined to the Arab world, as was seen in Greece or Chile. And all the while, global warming threatens areas in the region which are likely to become uninhabitable.

Strait is the gate

Today a new democratic political culture is starting to emerge, but it requires economic programs which cannot boil down to “pay your debts” and “open your markets.” However, there is no longer any other model available, except for state capitalism in the Chinese manner, which implies inhuman ploys such as outsourcing and fierce exploitation of the local labour force, a model which could not easily be put into practice today because outsourcing is out of fashion, the markets are closing up and emigrating becomes more dangerous every day.

What is to be done? Contrary to what many Western leaders imagine, stability cannot be restored without in-depth political transformations. To maintain the current elites in power means to aggravate the chaos which plays straight into the hands of radical organisations like al-Qaida, ISIS or some other movement yet to be born. The other path, narrow, steep and fraught with obstacles involves the new emergent pluralistic culture and the development of national economies based on satisfying people’s actual needs. And this requires a break with neoliberal logic and unbridled free trade.

So the question arises, for France and for the EU, whether we are going to accompany these options or cling to outdated dogma which can only worsen an instability for which we too will have to pay a heavy price.

1Editor’s note: “The Washington Consensus” refers to a tacit agreement between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), with the backing of the US Treasury, to provide financial aid to developing countries in difficulty only on condition that they adopt principles of strict budgetary discipline, redirecting public expenditures towards sectors guaranteeing a positive return on investment, reforming their tax laws, deregulating their markets and ensuring monetary stability.