Roads to the Arab Uprisings

Against the Current, No. 167, November/December 2013

Kit Adam Wainer

The Journey to Tahrir:
Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt
Jeanine Sowers and Chris Toensing, eds.
Verso, 2012, 320 pages, $29.95 paperback.

The Arab Revolts:
Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East
David McMurray and Amanda Ufheil-Somers, eds.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013, 272 pages, $28 paper.

TIMELINESS IS THE enemy of any analyst of the Arab Spring. The sharp conjunctural turns in Egypt and Syria during the summer of 2013 alone demonstrate how challenging it can be to produce a work of analysis that will remain relevant by the time of publication. Yet these two works find a way to remain meaningful even if events, to some extent, have passed them by.

The strength of all of the essays in these two collections is that the principal trends the authors analyzed have become critical background to recent events. And many of the central characters who were less well-know at the time of publication — Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, Mohamed Mursi, Rachid al-Ghannouchi — would emerge as key actors over the course of 2013.

Egypt, the font of modern Arab nationalism and political Islam, is the subject of The Journey to Tahrir. Sowers and Toensing have collected a strong group of essays on the political, cultural and historical backgrounds of the Egyptian revolt of 2011. The Arab Revolts is a regional collection allowing readers to compare the evolution of protest movements in five Arab countries.

Journey to Tahrir is broken into five sections in order to cover the protests of 2011 and the activist, partisan, economic and cultural backgrounds of the Egyptian revolt. The first section, “The January 25 Revolution,” contains essays by Mona El-Ghobashy, Ahmad Shokr, Elliot Colla, Ursula Lindsey, and Jessica Winegar.

All make strong contributions. El-Ghobashy presents a particularly well- written and exhilarating narrative of the Tahrir Square occupation of January-February 2011 which brought down Husni Mubarak. She also demonstrates how the act of protesting and organizing changed the consciousness of participants. In the course of challenging the state, protesters developed a new consciousness of political power.

In “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolu­tion,” El-Ghobashy writes, “Egypt’s streets had become parliaments, negotiating tables and battlegrounds rolled into one. To compel unresponsive officials to enact or revoke specific policies, citizens blockaded major roads with tree branches and burning tires, organized sit-ins in factory plants or outside ministry buildings, and blocked the motorcades of governors and ministers.” (23-24)

The Smell of Neoliberalism

Like El-Ghobashy, Jessica Winegar is an important scholar of modern Egypt. In her contribution “Taking Out the Trash,” Winegar focuses on the privatization of trash collection and how sanitation became a political issue during the Tahrir protests. This is the kind of mundane topic that is often overlooked in more sweeping analyses. Yet it had a substantial impact on mass consciousness.

Winegar demonstrates how the Mubarak regime, infatuated with neoliberalism and encouraged by international lending agencies, privatized Cairo’s trash collection system. The result was unemployment for trash collectors, less collection, less recycling, and foul odors on Cairo’s streets. She then provocatively theorizes about the interaction between the identification of cleanliness with the emergence of the new posh suburbs, gated communities, and resort areas that emerged in Mubarak’s final years.

The second section, “Protest Under Authoritarian Rule,” brings together the voices of Asef Bayat, Paul Schemm, Joel Beinin and Ursula Lindsey.

Beinin’s “The Working Class and the Popular Movement in Egypt” is an excellent summary of the development of Egypt’s labor movement since 2004. He shows how rank-and-file militant activism led to the growth of new unions, independent of the older state-dominated labor federation. Beinin is one of the few authors who studies this topic, and his body of work is essential reading for anyone interested in Middle East labor history.(1)

The third section on “Political Partici­pation and Political Institutions Under Mubarak” addresses the emergence of opposition political parties and attempts at constitutional reforms. The essays by Mona El-Ghobashy, Issandr El Amrani, Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, Ewan Stein, and Mariz Tadros are all excellent and work together nicely as a thematic package.

El Amrani’s “Controlled Reform in Egypt” describes the unsuccessful efforts by Gamal Mubarak, the dictator’s son, to transform Egypt’s New Democratic Party from a corrupt assemblage of avaricious regime flunkies into a political party organized around a neoliberal agenda. The military leaders viewed Gamal Mubarak’s privatization agenda as “crony capitalism,” which they contrasted with their own “national capitalism.”

Many officers feared that the younger Mubarak, once slated to be his father’s heir, would threaten the military-corporate axis that forms the basis of officer power and privilege (the spinal column of what’s called the Egyptian “deep state”). These suspicions help us understand why the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was willing to sacrifice the aging dictator in February 2011.

Samer Shehata(2) and Joel Stacher’s essay “The Muslim Brothers in Mubarak’s Last Decade” enables us to contextualize the current conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian army. Shehata and Stacher show how the Brothers were able to take advantage of the regime’s elections, crooked though they were, and formed the only disciplined bloc within Egypt’s parliament. As such they became the voice of those demanding better government services and the public face of opposition to Mubarak’s emergency laws.

Section four, “Economic Reform, Demography, and Environment,” consists of strong contributions from Karen Pfeifer, Timothy Mitchell, Eric Denis, Ray Bush and Amal Sabri, and Sharif Elmusa and Jeanine Sowers.

Pfeifer’s essay “Economic Reform and Privatization in Egypt” offers a useful historical overview of Egyptian privatization efforts from the Sadat period to the present day. Mitchell’s “Dreamland: The Neoliberalism of Your Desires” is a poignant critique of privatization and the ways in which it exacerbates cronyism and inequities.(3) Elmusa and Sowers’ “Damietta Mobilizes for Its Environment” presents an interesting story of how economic changes triggered an environmentalist movement in the port city of Damietta.

The final section, “The Cultural Politics of Youth, Gender, and Marriage,” brings together Linda Herrera, Hanan Kholoussy, Hossam Bahgat, and Ted Swedenburg. Herrera’s “Downveiling: Gender and the Contest over Culture in Cairo” provides a glimpse at the relationship between gender, religion, and state politics.

Veiling emerged in the 1970s among Islamic students as a form of cultural rebellion against the state. By the 1990s, however, many Cairene women challenged conservative dress codes by wearing more revealing hijabs, fewer niqabs, tighter jeans and western shoes. These trends led to a mass market for urban Islamic chic fashion.

Kholoussy’s “The Fiction (and Non-Fiction) of Egypt’s Marriage Crisis,” shows how marriage crises, often based on dubious data, repeatedly become subjects of public controversy in Egypt during times of political and social turmoil.(4)

From Tunisia to Bahrain

The Arab Revolts divides its essays into five sections by country: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. The editors of this exceptionally well-conceptualized collection have chosen writings that complement each other well. Each section begins with the present-day situation, and the subsequent essays describe the historical background of mass protests. At the end of each section is a writing that connects the historical themes back to the modern protest movements.

The first section, on Tunisia, comprises chapters written by Nadia Marzouki, Amy Aisen Kallander, Christopher Alexander, Stephen Juan King, Laryssa Chomiak and John P. Entelis, and Francesco Cavatorta and Rikke Hostrup Haugbolle.

The essays by Marzouki (“Tunisia’s Wall Has Fallen”) and Alexander (“Authoritar­ianism and Civil Society in Tunisia”) show how deposed ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had alienated himself even from wealthy Tunisian capitalists.

Ben Ali’s repressive measures had cut off avenues of political involvement for upper-class politicians. And by 2010 many investors were fed up with his cronyism and the extent to which they had to bribe the dictator’s family just to carry on routine business operations. Thus, in the face of mass protests in December 2010-January 2011, he had only the narrowest base of support.

The section on Egypt highlights many of the same contributors from Journey to Tahrir, and one of the same essays. Mona El-Ghobashy, Timothy Mitchell, Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy, Hesham Sellam, Issandr El Amrani, and Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher cover the essential themes of Egypt’s revolutionary transformation,and their work covers many of the contradictions of the post-Mubarak era.

Beinin and el-Hamalawy’s “Strikes in Egypt Spread from the Center of Gravity” provides useful insights into why the revolutionary left has not made deeper inroads into the industrial working class, despite the growth of independent workers’ organizations and newspapers. Hesham Sallam’s(5) “Striking Back at Egyptian Workers” describes the ways in which the Egyptian media, army spokespeople, and the Muslim Brotherhood tried to isolate the labor movement in 2011 and 2012.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood (prior to the ouster of Mursi in July 2013) and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had a stake in rewriting the history of the Egyptian revolt as one targeted solely at Mubarak’s cronyism. SCAF leaders began describing strikes as “counterrevolutionary,” and Brothers along with media pundits cast labor actions as fi’awi. (Literally translated simply as “pertaining to a group,” fi’awi has come to connote what “special interest” does in the United States.)

A reader may assume that the essays in the third section, on Yemen, by Sheila Carapico, Sarah Phillips, Susanne Dahlgren, and Stacey Philbrick Yadav, were written with the intent to be published together. That they form such a smooth narrative is a testimony to the fine work of the editors. Together they trace the story of partially successful attempts to impose neoliberal structural adjustment in the aftermath of the Yemeni civil war of 1994.

In those years Baathists, Nasserists, Shi’i leaders, liberals and socialists united under the umbrella of the Joint Meetings Party. Although JMP leaders joined the Arab Spring protests only belatedly, they were able to seize top positions after the departure of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012.

Yemen’s Spring has been complicated by the War on Terror. Dubbing a disparate collection of preachers and militants “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” the United States has launched repeated drone strikes against this alleged target in southern Yemen.

Understanding Syria’s Tragedy

The fourth section, on Syria, is now a must read to understand the origins of what has become a colossal tragedy. The essays by Carsten Wieland, Bassam Haddad, Christain Sinclair and Sirwan Kajjo, Donatella Della Ratta, and Peter Harling and Sarah Birke do a good job of painting a complicated background picture.

Wieland’s “Asad’s Lost Chances” shows how the Asad regime squandered numerous opportunities to accommodate peaceful opposition forces in 2000 and 2006. Had he been able to do so, Wieland implies, he might have avoided the catastrophic civil war that began in 2011 and continues to the present day.

Bassam Haddad’s(6) “Behind the Resilience of the Syrian Regime” traces the intertwining of Syrian state institutions with rentier capitalists, many of whom were Sunni merchants from Damascus and Aleppo. After his father’s death in 2000, Bashar Al-Asad promoted his personal loyalists from the state security services to positions of greater authority. Thus the young dictator cemented a tight network of capitalists and functionaries around himself, making his rule more brittle and earning the loyalty of Sunni capitalists up to the present day.

Incapable of compromise, the regime increasingly relied on brute force against even peaceful opponents. His shabbiha, recruited from criminal gangs, have become the face of state terror. And Asad justifies his repression with rhetoric borrowed straight from George W. Bush. In “Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime,” Harling and Birke write,

They [regime supporters] posit — with evidence both real and invented, and generally blown out of proportion — that Syrian society shows sectarian, fundamentalist, violent, and seditious proclivities that can be contained only by a ruthless power structure. Remove Bashar al-Asad, and the alternative is either civil war or the hegemony of Islamists beholden to Turkey and the Gulf and sold out to the west. (198)

The final section, on Bahrain, covers an area of the world less understood in the west, even among left audiences. Once again the editors have chosen essays that complement each other well and tell a comprehensible story.

The first four essays by Cortini Kerr and Toby Jones, Joe Stork, and Justin Gengler show the interplay of economic and confessional struggles that led ultimately to the 2011 protest movement. Bahrain through the 1970s had been home to a strong underground labor movement. After 1979 and the Iranian revolution, however, Shi’i clerics began to play a more dominant role in leading the opposition to the Sunni monarchy.

While Shi’i Muslims have tended to oppose the regime, Sunnis have been divided along class lines, with wealthier Sunnis tending to identify more with the monarch. Appeals of the Al-Khalifa monarchy to the sectarianism of the Sunni minority help explain how the regime — so far — has weathered the storm. Military assistance from Saudi Arabia, which fears Shi’i rebellion in its eastern provinces, is also critical.

Gregg Carlstrom’s harrowing essay, “In the Kingdom of Tear Gas,” demonstrates the deterioration of human rights as police use tear gas ever more routinely, now even lobbing them into private homes. The United States role here is particularly reprehensible: This particularly noxious teargas (also used by Israeli Occupation Forces) is supplied by a Pennsylvania manufacturer, and the Bahrain police have been trained to protect themselves from the fumes by former Miami police chief John Timoney.

The Arab uprisings, along with the renewal of mass protest movements in Europe, Turkey and Latin America, offer hope for the emergence of a new generation of activists and revolutionaries. Both collections encapsulate well the recent trends in academic literature on the origins of the Arab Spring, yet avoid the kinds of esoteric debates that may be of little interest to non-specialists. For those who want to understand how and why these mass movements have emerged, these two collections are a good place to start.


  1. Beinin has written important articles on MERIP’s website on the Egyptian labor movement during the two years after the overthrow of Mubarak and on labor protests in the weeks following the July 3 overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi. Among his full-length works Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt details the history of Egypt’s labor movement up to the final year of Mubarak’s reign. It is available for free on the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center’s website (
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  2. Shehata’s Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009) is an invaluable description of working class consciousness. He engaged in a participant observation study of shop floor life in the textile industry and vividly illustrates how class and social privilege reveal themselves in language, dress, and simply how one travels to work everyday.
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  3. Timothy Mitchell has written many valuable critiques of neoliberalism in Egypt. See, for example, his Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
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  4. Kholoussy has demonstrated this as an overall theme in Egyptian history for the past century. Her For Better or Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010) is an important study of the interaction of gender politics, economic change, and state formation.
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  5. Along with Bassam Haddad, Sallam is co-editor of, probably the most important source of information of news and analysis of the protests movements in the middle east today.
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  6. Haddad’s Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012) is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the relationship between Baathist state formation and Syrian capitalism.
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November/December 2013, ATC 167