Many analysts compared the Middle East revolutions in the Winter and Spring of 2011 that toppled dictators in Egypt and Tunisia and sparked revolts throughout the region to the democratic revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. New Left Review editor Perry Anderson made just that analogy, while adding the early 1800s Latin American wars of independence and the 1989-91 collapse of Stalinist regimes for good measure.1 In the four years since political revolutions swept the MENA region, hope has seemed to give way to despair as the region sinks into a nightmare of sectarian war, fueled by support from reactionary Gulf monarchies and their patrons in Washington. It’s worth remembering that this was actually the outcome of the 1848 revolutions as well—a wave of counterrevolution in which the ancien regimes of Prussia, Austria, the Italian states and other European states pushed back against the democratic upsurge. Only in France did the revolution win limited democratic reforms.
While no two historical periods are exact replicas, having a sense of historical developments, and where ruptures like Egypt and Tunisia fit into them, is essential for understanding revolutionary processes. And for its skill in providing just this sort of perspective, Gilbert Achcar’s 2013 The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone who wants to understand the origins, development, and future of what the Western media dubbed “the Arab Spring.”
Achcar, a Lebanese Marxist and scholar at University of London and an expert in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has provided a clear and informed account of the revolutionary events that began in late 2010 and swept the region in 2011.
As with any book of political and social analysis written in the midst of unfolding events, The People Want now seems out of synch with the current state of affairs in the MENA region. At the time of writing, Achcar was concerned with explaining such phenomena as the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the failure of Syrian revolutionary forces to crack the Assad regime. In 2015, the Egyptian military has retaken control and banned the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has brought the US into a de facto alliance with Assad.
It would be easy, and unfair to Achcar, to judge The People Want on its ability to prophesy the immediate future. Much more valuable for those reading the book in light of recent developments is its explanations of the underlying factors that erupted in 2011.
Using Marx’s formulation that rooted social revolution in the fetters that outmoded social relations place on the development of “forces of production,” Achcar illustrates this with specific reference to the characteristics of capitalism in the MENA region. Reviewing a wealth of statistics, Achcar concludes that MENA growth rates in the neoliberal period lag behind other parts of the world. And while poverty and inequality rates there are somewhat lower than in Asia and Africa, measures of “precarity”—unemployment, underemployment and informal labor relations—set the MENA region apart from the rest.
The inability of the MENA region economies to generate the type of growth that will absorb a working population, including women and thousands with college degrees, presents the main fetter on production, Achcar argues. And this in the region of the world where unprecedented oil wealth exists.
In the last three decades, as most MENA region states have adopted neoliberalism and moved away from policies of state-led industrialization, rates of investment and capital formation have declined, Achcar points out. These economic factors created a “blockage” to development in the region, and formed the background for “conjunctural” factors, like the 2007–2008 economic crisis and a spike in food prices, to detonate the social explosion.
“What fetters development is not the abundance of natural resources as such, but the uses to which resources are put under the prevailing type of social domination,” Achcar writes. Following on this insight, Achcar turns to the concept of “patrimonialism,” borrowed from the twentieth century liberal German sociologist Max Weber, to create a typology of states that confronted mobilized populations. To Achcar, these states range from fully patrimonial, in which the state is the property of a ruling family and its entourage (think the Gulf monarchies) to “neo-patrimonial,” where an authoritarian republican regime, a la Syria or Egypt, still retains aspects of personal and family cronyism at the highest reaches of the state.
This peculiar modality of the capitalist mode of production— a mix of patrimonialism, nepotism, and crony capitalism, pillaging of public property, swollen bureaucracies, and generalized corruption, against a background of great sociopolitical instability and the impotence or even nonexistence of the rule of law— is dominant in the Arab region. It is this modality that is fettering the region’s development. And it is this that cracked in Tunisia in December 2010, bringing the other links in the chain to crack in turn, one after the next.
Other Marxists, such Adam Hanieh in his Lineages of Revolt, might challenge Achcar’s economic analysis of stagnant rentier capitalism in the region. But Achcar’s focus on the political forms of the state allows him to explain the unfolding of the revolution in different countries. The power base of each regime, and whatever connection it had to broader tribal, ethnic or sectarian interests, largely determined its response to the wave of protest. In Egypt, where the military-industrial complex had interests of its own, it was willing to step in and to remove Mubarak. In countries like Syria and Libya, where the regime’s “praetorian guard” was fully identified with the regime’s leader, it was “willing to go to war against the majority of [its] country’s populace to defend the regime.”
In this context, it’s particularly worth considering Achcar’s discussion of the role of Islamic fundamentalism in the rebellion. Contending that this current was in eclipse throughout the region prior to 2011, Achcar explains why it nevertheless became the first beneficiary of the revolt. Owing to its existing networks of support—including millions from capitalists and regional sponsors like Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—it was thrust into the center of events. Washington even considered its Qatar-backed Muslim Brothers wing as its choice to co-opt and short-circuit the mass movement. This was so because Islamic fundamentalism is “in no sense hostile to neoliberal economic logic. Rather, it contents itself with denouncing corruption from a moralistic standpoint and preaching charity as a substitute for the kind of far-reaching social reform that would satisfy aspirations to social justice.”
The Morsi government’s failure to meet popular aspirations in Egypt underpinned mass discontent. The Egyptian army was first to exploit by overthrowing and outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood; and second, launching a full-scale counterrevolution against the 2011 uprising. Mass repression in Egypt, and the descent of other parts of the region into sectarian barbarism, illustrate the crying need for a political alternative worthy of the aspirations of 2011.
In evaluating this dilemma of the revolutionary process, Achcar turns to Lenin’s well-known writings on the conditions for revolution. Few could disagree that 2011 confronted the MENA region with a revolutionary situation of the type Lenin described: the ruling class can’t rule in the old way, and the masses, who refuse to be ruled in the old way, take mass action. But Lenin also stressed a subjective factor, “namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.”
And in this prospect will lay the fate of the revolutionary process unleashed in 2011. From the vantage point of 2015, those prospects look bleak indeed. And yet the underlying factors that brought the struggle into the open four years ago remain in place. In many ways, they are even more exacerbated. In The People Want, and in many other commentaries since, Achcar has insisted that 2011 marked the beginning of a process that might unfold over a generation. In the course of that time, building a genuine left political alternative to authoritarianism, dictatorship, and Islamic fundamentalism will be essential. As the author put it in a 2014 International Viewpoint article:2
For the Arab uprising to lead to a true modernization of Arab societies, new leaderships embodying the progressive aspirations of the millions of young people who rose up in 2011 will need to emerge and impose themselves. It is only on this condition that the revolutionary process will clear its own original path, equally distant from both the ancien régime and the reactionary oppositions that the ancien régime itself generated.