By now, it is the stuff of legend: Muhammad Bouazizi, fed up with police harassment and poverty, douses himself in kerosene and sets himself alight in front of the local municipality. And so it began, more than one year ago in the ruin of a Tunisian backwater called Sidi Bouzid.
Just like that the dry forests of the contemporary Arab order were set ablaze – flames rising from Morocco in the west, to Bahrain in the east, Yemen in the south, to Syria in the north. Three hundred million people seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Heads would roll, pyramids crumble. Commentators worked overtime for the most appropriate analogy to describe what was unfolding. Was it 1848, 1968, or perhaps 1989? If historical metaphors failed, colours, fabrics or seasonal allusions lay ready.
Arabs were, all of a sudden, sexy. After years of taking it on the chin, through imperial and sub-imperial aggression, or in the realm of Western knowledge-production and representation, the mould had broken. Now there were veiled Arab women leading demonstrations of millions, Arab bloggers, and Arabs on Facebook and Twitter.
They had real faces, real demands and deserved real membership in the brotherhood of humanity; they felt injustice, fought injustice and occasionally won against injustice. ‘Just like us,’ was the unsaid refrain. ‘Just like us …’
This is the story of the Arab revolutions, at least their beginnings. It is a narrative, and like all narratives it brings with it a set of elisions and a particular positioning – factors that, in this case, have resulted in forms of disorientation over how things have progressed. Where do things stand? Are the revolutions advancing or retreating? And what is the role of international forces in solidarity with this broad historical movement, at a moment when confusion surrounds the fate of the revolutions themselves?
There are those who argue that the problem began somewhere in Libya. If Tunisia looked like a Disney movie, and Egypt a Sean Penn flick, Libya was a whole other script. No longer was the imagery of millions chanting in Tahrir square: now it was young men speeding across the desert in pick-up trucks outfitted with anti-aircraft machine guns, Mad Max-style.
Enter NATO, stage right. Desert dust kicked up by falling bombs, blurring the vision. This was getting bloody. It was also prolonged. Somehow ‘the cause’ was still kept intact, nurtured by a convenient lunatic and his playboy sons for enemies.
Then there was Syria. More smoke, more blood – this time with no end in sight. The tinkering of external players became a fully fledged industry: the solidarity of elites, not citizens. And they came with guns and ammo, petrodollars and ‘legitimacy’.
Then came the parliamentary elections in Egypt, the supposed democratic fruit of those impressive demonstrations the year before. Did I hear the results correctly? Yes: 40 per cent of parliamentary seats for the Muslim Brotherhood, 30 for the Salafis. Now we see what those dictators were keeping caged …
It should go without saying that honestly describing even one Arab revolutionary theatre requires a whole range of information, from socio-economic indicators and political analysis, to knowledge of historical, political and sociological antecedents particular to that country. Beyond this, one needs information about things in ‘the field’ to which we simply don’t have access – either because it doesn’t exist, hasn’t been recorded, has been destroyed or has been taken to the grave or into exile.
Multiply these exigencies across the various revolutions and you are tasked with an enormous undertaking. Moreover, each is dialectically influenced by the revolutionary developments and politics of the other, while all are somehow conscious of dynamics between themselves and the international periphery of state players and citizen supporters.
In such a context, is it currently possible to make any substantive conclusions about the Arab revolutions without offering generalities, collapsing into caricatures or quite simply sounding ridiculous?
But a great deal can be said and, in fact, needs to be said, because much has already been omitted in the emergent narrative.
Let’s start with laying out some of the main political, economic, social and civic questions.
The Arab revolutions pose a series of contestations over democracy, citizenship, economic security and employment, the social contract between governed and governing, human dignity, freedom of expression, freedom of organisation, gender equality and foreign policy (particularly regarding Palestine).
The disaggregation of revolutionary ‘issues of contention’, however, should not allow us to forget that these are, in the end, revolutions. Their actors chant repeatedly for the downfall of regimes, and demand freedom, work, dignity. They call for the overthrow of the structures of power that govern their lives and the reorganisation of the entire set of social, political and economic relations.
These goals are a tall order to fill. In attempting to judge the achievements of the Arab revolutions, one must mark the human and material cost of winning similar demands in the Western world.
Then there’s the political economy of the region itself. Conducting ‘revolution’ in the Middle East and North Africa – ‘MENA’, as Western governments and international financial institutions like to say – means, after all, conducting revolution in the heart of the world economy, controlling its fuel, fuel networks and geostrategy.
That means no global citizen, government or multinational company is immune from the revolutions’ repercussions – a fact that in and of itself recalls power’s abhorrence of vacuums. The region’s notorious concentration of dictatorships did not, after all, spontaneously appear, just as the regimes were not sustained for so long without more than a little help from some friends.
But that old system is crumbling. No amount of weapons, cash or viagra could save Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Saleh from their peoples. Every Arab order is threatened and no-one really knows how to prevent Humpty Dumpty’s downfall – nor what will arise afterwards.
It is helpful to divide the analysis into three sets of players: the ‘internationals’, particularly the West under the leadership of the US; the surviving regional regimes; and the revolutionary movements themselves.
For the internationals, the contradiction between the ‘permanence of interests’ and ‘loyalty to ones allies’ has made for some serious head-scratching.
With 60 per cent of the world’s oil and natural gas located in the Arabian Gulf, there can be no question about the motivation behind the international response: the contagion must not spread. The West will not tolerate another loss like Iran in 1979, especially in the era of peak oil.
When states are not obedient to Western hegemony, the international answer is clear: back the revolutions and bolster your ‘pro-democracy’ credentials. Hence the support for the opposition to the Syrian regime.
But in the remainder of Arab states, the strategy is less well defined. Ever since Hillary Clinton declared Mubarak’s regime ‘stable’ only weeks before the Egyptian dictator was forced to fold cards, the US administration learned not to get caught out. Instead, it now opts for a more nuanced and cunning policy, playing all sides at the same time, while paying close attention to what is taking place on the ground.
Specifically, this has meant cranking up Obama’s mellifluous oratorical ambiguity while maintaining links with the old regimes, aligning with or creating ‘darlings’ among the revolutionaries and, where appropriate, engaging militarily to get intelligence and forces on the ground.
In Libya, the West took things a step further, attempting to piggyback directly on the revolutionary crisis. Naomi Klein has described the rise of ‘disaster capitalism’, a process of harnessing disasters for profit; now we have the seeming tautology of ‘revolution capitalism’. NATO’s Libya campaign was an orchestrated spectacle of false solidarity, designed to buy influence and cut deals in the inevitable chaos of the post-revolutionary scenario. The NATO intervention was a brilliant scripting that all of a sudden made Western governments supposedly legitimate players in internal Arab affairs. Whether NATO’s influence in Libya will be enough to buy the political capital it hopes for remains to be seen. Nonetheless, NATO is better positioned because it intervened than had it stayed outside.
In any case, there appears to be a consensus amongst Western powers that the consolidation of order in the Arab world – the prerequisite to the opening of markets – will need time to materialise. As information streams in, as social forces coalesce, as orientations clarify and consolidate, the internationals are gaining time and gleaning experience. They will continue to use both carrots (aid, influence, debt relief) and sticks (sanctions, military intervention, Israel).
The remaining Arab powers, particularly the Gulf states, are crucial but insufficiently recognised sub-actors. None of their rulers are keen to be splayed out dead in meat lockers while their former victims visit, taking pictures to show the grandkids.
The enormous financial means at the disposal of the oil sheikhdoms, their connections with Islamist movements across the region and their intolerance of any genuine democratic, liberal, leftist or nationalist project make them resourceful agents in the strategy of containment. Moreover, their historical and continued dependence on Western military support in terms of arms sales, technical experience and military bases, as well as the processing of petrodollar investments and the convenient Iranian bogeyman just across the water, align their interests with the internationals.
The challenges facing the Arab revolutionaries are indeed formidable. Those countries that deposed their rulers were successful in part through the outpouring of sheer numbers, united across lines of class, sect, geography and gender. After time, that unity naturally dissipates. Unified opposition to the regime does not, of course, mean a unity of vision. Moreover, lopping off the head of the regime is not the same as removing the regime itself, as the Egyptian example attests.
Here lies the general diagnosis of the situation today. The incompleteness of the revolutions in fully uprooting the old regimes; the inchoate political articulation of revolutionary streams apart from the Islamists; the weak presence of organised Left critiques and praxis; and the default asymmetrical prominence of Islamist parties as the sole organised survivors of the dictatorial era – all collectively explain the state of the Arab revolutions today.
Clearly, the Islamist parties will be the revolutions’ early winners. But they will also be the centre of its contradictions. While we must defend their legitimate right to engage in the revolutionary process, there can be no illusions about tendencies that represent an amalgam of contradictory class interests and are only a few degrees removed from the dark forces of counter-revolution. Crucially, the Islamists do not reject in principle the basic tenets of neoliberalism but only seek to engage it ‘more fairly’ while adopting a paternalistic, charitable approach to the poverty it creates.
With so many factors at play, it would be foolish to declare anything definitive so early on. We are witnessing enormous historical forces articulating themselves in compressed periods of time, squeezed through disarticulated and deformed intellectual and organisational models. It is wisest to remain modest and patient, educating oneself as to the historical currents at play, while interrogating the medium just as much as the message. Some core principles of solidarity with the oppressed, a recognition of the right to resist oppression and the right to learn as a part of the revolutionary process seem equally relevant.
In any case, the responsibility for resolving the complications, contradictions and complacencies of contemporary capitalism do not rest on Arab shoulders alone. The triumph of ineffectual, pro-imperialist social democracies, and the stalling of the Occupy movement, suggest that questions need to be asked and answered about what the possibility of another world really means – in the West as well as the East.