Did They Get What They Wanted?

Against the Current, No. 170, May/June 2014

Atef Said

The People Want
A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising
By Gilbert Achcar
University of California Press, 2013. Hardcover $63.30; paperback $22.33.

JANUARY 25, 2014 was the third anniversary of what the world knows as the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. On that day hundreds of protestors, many of whom were leading activists in the revolution, were not allowed to go to Tahrir Square, the iconic space where the 2011 revolution largely took place. Instead, activists were beaten and tortured in the streets. Some female activists were kidnapped by police, only to be beaten and then driven out to the desert and left there.

Before the anniversary, many prominent activists considered icons of the revolution were already in jail. They have not been given trials and, to this day, news continues to trickle out about their abuse in jail. Egypt now has more than 25,000 detainees, most of whom have been arbitrarily detained.

At the same time, most of the Mubarak officials who were charged with corruption after the revolution have since been released by Egyptian courts. The current cabinet in Egypt is chaired by a former member of Mubarak’s inner circle.

Perhaps most symbolically, on the day of the anniversary, Tahrir Square was open instead to pro-military supporters and security personnel who carried banners showing the faces of military leaders dating back to Nasser, including General Sisi — the current de facto dictator in Egypt. Some people even carried banners bearing the picture of Hosni Mubarak, the very man whose regime the revolution sought to overthrow.

This contrast between images of Tahrir in 2011 and 2014 reveals the complete recasting of the Egyptian Revolution according to those (still) in power. The now dominant state and media narrative of the January 25, 2011 revolution is that it was a conspiracy against the state. The youth who participated in the revolution were infiltrators, seeking only to destabilize the country.

If we look broadly at other countries that witnessed uprisings during what has come to be known as the Arab Spring of 2011, the picture is no better. In Bahrain, the uprising was violently crushed by the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia with the United States’ blessing. In Yemen, there were superficial reforms only, again under the watchful eye of Saudi Arabia.

Libya has yet to see the emergence of a functioning state and Tunisia only appears to have fared better — despite some political reform, protestors still face repression and the economic conditions that spurred the first protests remain unchanged. Finally, Syria has spiraled into civil war, as international onlookers do nothing.

Complex Realities of Revolution

How can we understand this state of affairs? Did the Arab Spring fail? The problem is, in part, that many analyses — particularly those generated in the West, but also some written by liberal academics and critics in the Middle East — were far too quick to celebrate in 2011 and now, faced with the realities of 2014, are committing the same mistake again, this time rushing to declare that all is lost in the region.

It is therefore all the more important and invaluable when someone offers a more nuanced analysis; such is the case with Gilbert Achcar’s The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising.

Achcar’s book offers a refreshingly insightful analysis — and not just because the field is otherwise filled with such shallow scholarship featuring truly galling mistakes about the Egyptian revolution and the Arab uprisings. These vary from basic ignorance about Arabic terms and languages to stories and analyses that are taken completely out of context.

Achcar in contrast grounds his book with a deep understanding of the region, and draws upon the voices of many activists and organizers who participated in 2011 and who continue to fight for the goals of the uprisings today.

One of the book’s most important contributions is the author’s emphasis that the series of Arab uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia ushered in not a brief season of change, but rather a long-term revolutionary process. Achcar writes here against simple analyses that seek to generalize about the whole region based on short-term successes or failures.

Uprisings occurred in six countries in the region (so far) — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain — and Achcar insists that, in each case, the outcome has yet to be decided. Furthermore, these outcomes hinge on multiple factors including state structure, economic and social grievances, and revolutionary organizing as well as international geopolitical determinants.

In the Introduction, Achcar explains that his argument is motivated by two reasons. First is the likelihood that there are more uprisings still to come; as he puts it, “the revolutionary shock wave has shaken virtually all the countries in the Arab region; although it has so far (at the time of writing) led to general uprisings in only six, it is highly likely that others will follow their example in the months and years ahead.” Second, the political revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya “cannot by themselves eliminate the profound causes of explosions that has [sic] set the region ablaze; only profound socioeconomic transformations can do that.” (4)

This is the insight missing from so many analyses seeking to explain how and why the why the realities of 2014 have fallen so far short of people’s hopes and expectations in 2011. This is the discrepancy between the real changes that people wanted in 2011 and the change that the political and economic elite in the region — and beyond — were willing to permit.

This is the difference between social revolution and a merely political or democratic revolution. As Achcar rightly states, “if socioeconomic factors are at the very heart of the Arab uprisings, it follows that there are still radical changes to come.” (4)

The leader of Egypt’s regime may have changed, but real change is broader than elections. Elections nonetheless remain the obsession of Western liberal democracies, and thus scholars and commentators continue to reduce genuine democracy to the presence of ballot boxes, regardless of whether corporations are represented in parliament more than people.

As suggested by the book’s title, Achcar emphasizes the main slogan of the Arab uprisings: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The slogan was not “the people want fairer elections,” nor was it “the people want to maintain the status quo of economic and social injustice.” The people wanted the whole regime to come down and a new system entirely.

Achcar points out that despite this desire for real change, those who participated in the Arab uprisings of 2011 were given no say in the transition processes they set in motion. Most reforms have been superficial and controlled, directed more by the interests of those who only seemed to give up power and those regional and international interests invested in introducing elections, while maintaining a deeper status quo.

The Essential Background

Before this book there have been, to my knowledge, no adequate analyses of the political economy of the Arab uprisings. Even when such analyses are attempted, they generally offer simple discussions about the corruption and/or cronyism of a given state’s economy. They fail to explain the relationship between despotism and corruption, as if police states operate in an economic vacuum.

Few analysts even mention neoliberalism in the region. They never address how or why it was that international financial institutions’ reports about the countries that witnessed uprisings were emphasizing supposedly wonderful progress in economic reforms right up until the uprisings began. How could these institutions so systematically overlook the staggering rates of unemployment, the expanded state corruption, and the mass inequalities that characterized the countries eventually swept up in the Arab Spring?

Similarly, how have so many analyses fixated so obsessively on things like youth or social media or the question of political Islamists — but always in a way that assumes that these issues do not have economic and social components, or as if their politics operate outside the political, the social, and the economic map of society?

Achcar’s book is one of the few to offer systematic analysis of the political economy of the uprisings. And this is no simplistic or mechanical Marxist theory of revolutions. In a key chapter titled, “The Peculiar Modalities of Capitalism in the Arab Region,” Achcar offers a historically grounded discussion of the problems of capitalist development in the region.

Instead of providing a superficial analysis of gross domestic product (GDP) figures and growth, Achcar devotes most of the chapter to discussing the specific variant of the capitalist mode of production in the region. He notes how many states in the region have become rentier states, depending mainly on oil, gas pipelines, the Suez Canal, and so on.

He further notes that the political economy of such states can usually be described as either patrimonial, or neo-patrimonial. Patrimonial states are those in which the government is mostly controlled by a single ruler or his sect or group or family and network around the family; neo-patrimonial states are a more institutionalized form of that personal rule, especially in countries that are presumably republics.

Rather than states fitting neatly into one category or another, Achcar argues there is a scale of variation between patrimonial and neo-patrimonial. The point is that the economies of the countries in the region ncannot be understood by looking only at the reports of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, without taking into consideration how these economies work under patrimonialism or neo-patrimonialism.
In other words, as Achcar argues, capitalism in the region must be understood as politically determined. Only in this way can the spread of nepotism and/or investors’ risk be understood.

Politics and Revolutionary Actors

In the chapter titled “Actors and Parameters of the Revolution,” Achcar situates the Arab uprisings in the longer history of opposition and labor organizing in the few decades before the Arab revolutions. Achcar opens the chapter with an important discussion contrasting the subjective and objective conditions of revolutions. The latter, he argues, are always “overdetermined,” whereas the former are not.

To explain: “overdetermination” is the concept that Louis Althusser added to Marxist theory (and which Althusser himself borrowed from Freud). Overdetermination simply means that we cannot understand any social phenomena, let alone a very complex one such as a revolution, as occurring due to a single or simple cause; instead, such phenomena are brought about by multiple causes that occur at once.

Overdetermination, according to Achcar, can help to explain how revolutions may explode in a region, but it cannot explain how they unfold:

Overdetermination should not…be understood as overdetermination of the revolution’s success — that is, of the overthrow of the political powers that be and the shattering of …“the legal and political superstructure.” Only the revolutionary explosion is overdetermined. It is overdetermined in the sense that the exacerbation of the structural blockage holding back the development of productive forces, in combination with local, regional, and international conjunctural factors that contribute to heightening tensions, inevitably culminates in a popular revolt leading to a grave political crisis. If this popular uprising is to set a process of revolutionary change in motion, the rebellious masses must be capable of organizing to that end and acting effectively to achieve it. In other words, the transformation of a rebellious uprising into a revolution necessitates a subjective capacity. This subjective capacity cannot, for its part be “overdetermined.”  (115-6)

By providing this crucial distinction, Achcar helps to clarify both the force with which these uprisings erupted and spread throughout the region, but also why it is so misleading to discuss either their success and/or failure as assured.

In another chapter, Achcar also criticizes the simplistic arguments common in Western academic circles prior to the uprisings that proclaimed the exceptionalism of the region, especially in terms of what some described as the region’s robust authoritarianism. Achcar offers instead a critical portrayal of the region’s politics, which include the politics of oil, U.S.-Saudi relations vis-à-vis political Islamists, the role of Qatar and the role of Al-Jazeera, among other things.

This book is one of the few works to highlight the role of international geopolitics in working with (superficially) and most of the time against the Arab uprisings. Rejecting simple analyses that would suggest the Arab Spring simply devolved into an “Islamic Autumn,” Achcar delves into the political economy of politicized Islam in the region, as he gives strong attention to the economic programs of both the Nahda Party in Tunisia and also the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He also discusses how their economic policies do simply follow neoliberal polices.

The only critique I can offer — and less a critique than a question of analytical framing — concerns Achcar’s emphasis that the Arab world is witnessing a “long-term revolutionary process” that may last years or even decades. While I agree with Achcar’s basic point, particularly in light of others’ efforts to rush to judgment, I question the implication of saying, essentially, “we must wait and see.”

Agency and Turning Points

Specifically, I would like to note two things. First, we need to look more closely at the intersecting role of structure and agency in the revolutionary process.

As Achcar rightly explains, the Arab uprisings need to be understood as both  structurally overdetermined phenomena but also an ongoing process involving multiple actors with varying levels of agency and interests. Accordingly, we need to develop flexible analyses that can examine the intersections of structure and agency during specific moments or phases of this long revolutionary process.

Some factors we need to take into consideration are the role and the current state of affairs of radical organizations and revolutionary groups, the battle of narratives between that of the old/new regime and revolutionaries, and how activists and organizers on the ground have experienced these events and how their motivations and interpretations have changed over time.

Consider, for example, how even the label of “revolutionary”  has shifted since 2011. Some of those who were totally against the military two years ago in Egypt are now supporters of the military regime. Whereas it used to be the slogan that “the revolution will continue until its grievances are met,” some Egyptians have now begun to mock this slogan, noting that most of the grievances remain the same and revolutions don’t just continue by themselves.

My point is that simply saying the revolution is a long-term process could lead to ungrounded optimism or even, paradoxically, apathy (the revolution will simply continue on its own somehow).

As Achcar and as scholars of social movements themselves would agree, the mere presence of grievances about social and economic injustice won’t by themselves ensure that a revolution will happen or continue. I would just like to see further attention given to the dynamic relationship between revolutionary actors and the larger economic and social conditions of the revolt.

This relates to my second point, namely, that we need to develop critical temporal analyses that grasp not just the longer processes highlighted by Achcar, but also specific moments and turning points along the way.

Saying that revolution is a process does not tell us exactly what point we are at right now. I totally agree that making grand conclusions about the revolution after short-term successes or failures is a big mistake. But at the same time, we cannot ignore important developments and/or major setbacks as simply ripples in a larger wave.

A more process-based analysis would direct our attention to various steps or phases; we could examine, for example, the operations of counter-revolutionary forces in the region and globally, and also look at the revolutionaries’ mistakes in one stage or another in this process.

Recently, for example, three Egyptian academics engaged in an important debate about the future of revolution on the website Jadaliyya. Though all three (Ashraf El-Sherif, Amr Adly, and Khalil al-Anani) grounded their analyses in an understanding of the country’s political economy, they also talked about the revolution as a process and compared the success and failure of various revolutionary strategies.*

The key, I argue, is maintaining a kind of dual vision at all times — one attentive to broader, long-term structural forces, but another examining shorter-term, even sporadic dynamics of events and actors on the ground. A revolution is, indeed, a process, but there is more to process than the longue durée.

Overall, this is a great book, a must-read for all who seek a deep understanding of the root causes and the social and economic conditions that are shaping the dynamics of the Arab uprisings. While there is sophisticated discussion of some theoretical concepts and terminology, general readers shouldn’t find it overwhelming. Given the current state of scholarship around the Arab uprisings, if the worst thing I can say is that the book might be too nuanced for some readers, then this is high praise indeed.

[Of related interest: Lineages of Revolt by Adam Hanieh, on the structure of capitalism in the Middle East, was reviewed by Moshé Machover in ATC 169, www.solidarity-us.org/note/4109 — ed.]


*See links to these articles here:

Ashraf Al-Sherif. “Oh, the Modernization People: About the Mythes of Economic Modernization in the Future Egypt. ”January, 28, 2014. Available in this link:
http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/16230/(in Arabic).

Second, Amr Adly. “Survival is not always for the better.” January 30, 2014. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/16256/(in Arabic).

Third, Khalil al-Anani, “Despotic Regimes Do not Fall on their Own.” February 4, 2014. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/16323/ (in Arabic).

May/June 2014, ATC 170