On the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, TRT World spoke with Gilbert Achcar, who has written extensively on the politics of the Middle East, to make sense of what transpired and what comes next.
Ten years since the popular uprisings that shook the Arab world, there continues to be a shortage of satisfying explanations for the rebellions’ dashed dreams and failure to achieve democratic gains the masses hoped for. Living standards have not drastically improved, as the material conditions which triggered the protests continue to linger.
As witnessed in states like Egypt, Syria, and Libya, the spectre of counter-revolution looms large. Bahrainis were crushed by their Saudi-backed monarchy. Embroiled in civil war, Yemen is a humanitarian disaster. The region, long viewed as a chessboard and its people pawns in the grand theatre of geopolitics, has seen various foreign actors apply their thumbs to the scale.
Bearing a long-view of political and social transformation in mind, TRT World spoke with Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London, to discuss the hopes and shortcomings of those momentous uprisings sparked a decade ago by distressed Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi.
As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, how would you describe the current balance sheet of those regional upheavals from the Maghreb to the Mashriq?
Gilbert Achcar: If we have to draw any kind of balance sheet of where it stands ten years later, it is obvious that compared to the hopes the initial uprisings in 2011 created and the euphoria at that time, there has been a big disappointment.
A more sober assessment of the situation in 2011 would be that what was called the Arab Spring could only be the initial phase of a protracted, long-term political revolutionary process in the region, which would inevitably go through ups and downs, periods of revolution and counter-revolution.
If you bear that in mind, then what happened over these ten years fits clearly in this picture. Of course, some of the setbacks have been tragic, especially in Syria and Yemen, where you had civil wars and foreign interventions.
Overall, the region has continuously seen the eruption of new social protests. The first phase ended with counter-revolutionary setbacks starting from 2013. Five years later, we saw the beginning of a new upsurge that started in Sudan in December 2018 and spread to Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq in 2019.
All this conforms to the expectation based on the diagnosis that this is a deeply rooted structural crisis that won’t subside unless there is a radical overhaul of the social and political structures in the region. Short of that, the turmoil will continue and no political stability is possible.
That long view of history when it comes to events of political and social transformation is important. Especially when after states like Egypt, Libya and Syria endured counter-revolutionary setbacks, the refrain was that perhaps the old regime was better than the nightmare that came after. Why is that misguided?
GA: The argument that ‘it was better before’ can be understood in various ways. There was recently a poll taken in various countries in the region, showing majorities saying that the situation now is worse than before, and not only where you have wars – Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Take Egypt for instance, the situation there is worse today than it was under Mubarak.
But the same poll shows that majorities do not regret the uprisings. The issue is that the uprisings signal the beginning of a change that is badly needed, in a situation that was completely blocked historically. However, as long as the kind of change that is needed did not occur anywhere, the situation is bound to keep worsening.
In any event, the explosion of 2011 is the outcome of the kind of regimes that you had before. To say that it was better before is illogical – because that ‘before’ is what led to the explosion, and to believe that it could have lasted forever is another illusory view.
In your book Morbid Symptoms, you discuss mainstream misinterpretations of a process that began in 2011 as being centred on “democratic transitions”. Such narratives tended to gloss over the significance of economic trends - particularly how neoliberal reforms in the 1990s upended the social contract for the vast majority in the region. How important is that dynamic in driving the rebellions?
GA: The use of “social contract” is misfortunate in this context. The origin of the formula refers to people’s sovereignty, and there was no contract: you had regimes that maintained a certain level of minimal welfare to carry on their authoritarian or despotic rule without provoking excessive popular anger.
The view of the Arab Spring as a “democratic transition” was a superficial reading of what was happening because the conditions for such a transition can be very different indeed from one part of the world to another. If you take countries like South Korea, Turkey, or Brazil, their transition came after years of industrialisation, and it represented the adaptation of the political system to a more modernised and developed economy.
In the Arab region, on the other hand, the uprisings did not come at the culminating point of some fast phase of development or industrialisation – they came after decades of reduced growth, translating into very high unemployment figures. The world’s highest rates of youth unemployment have been in the Middle East and North Africa for a few decades.
That’s a crucial clue to understanding the regional explosion, which makes it very different from “democratic transitions” that happened in other parts of the world. What you have in the Arab region is a systemic blockage, which can only be overcome by a radical structural change of the social and political nature of the state system in the region.
Neoliberalism alone is not an adequate explanation – it’s a very important factor, no doubt about that – but the workings of neoliberalism depend on the countries where they happen. In India or Turkey, for instance, the results were quite different from what you had in the Arab countries.
It is neoliberalism combined with the structural features of the region – the nature of the state system – that produced the blockage and the crisis. And that’s why the way out of the crisis in the region does not consist of a mere change of economic policy.
Even though it was eventually crushed in places like Egypt and Syria, as you mentioned we saw another wave of uprisings in Sudan and Algeria, suggesting that the material conditions that originally gave rise to the revolts continue to persist. But structural impediments remain entrenched too. Did the military coup in Egypt for example, signal to democratic forces that any path towards fundamental change must include a strategy that tackles the ‘deep state’?
GA: Egypt is one of three countries in the region where the military is the main political institution – in the sense that the armed forces determine the country’s politics. They are the regime’s core. What happened in Egypt in 2011 and later only affected the tip of the iceberg – the civilian facade of the regime – but did not alter the fundamental role of the military. And they seized the first opportunity to take back full control of political power.
But in a long-term revolutionary process, there is always a learning curve. In the second wave of uprisings, the two other military-controlled states in the region – Sudan and Algeria – the popular movements, unlike what happened in Egypt in 2011 and 2013, have had no illusions whatsoever about the military. They have been very conscious that the army constitutes the core of the regime that “the people want to overthrow” as in the famous chant, and that this requires to dismantle military control of political power and replace it with civilian power, which is a basic condition for democracy.
Tunisia is seen as the lone success story of the first wave of uprisings that managed to transition to democracy. Wasn’t one of the key reasons for that success the role of Tunisian labour with its historically strong union movement?
GA: The fact that Tunisia was at least able to keep its democratic gains, unlike others, is indeed linked to its labour movement, which is the only one in the region that is both powerful and independent from the state.
Although still in a transitory phase, another country where the gains are tangible is Sudan. Here the Sudanese Professional Association – which has become similar to a trade union federation, is playing a key role along with autonomous grassroots movements, in a combination that is even more advanced than what there is in Tunisia.
That’s why even though the conditions in Sudan are much more difficult than in Tunisia because of military rule, the Sudanese process has achieved quite remarkable results last year, and is still now in a situation of duality of power between the popular movement and the military – a transitional phase that can, of course, be settled in one way or another: revolutionary progress or counter-revolutionary setback.
But both cases, Tunisia and Sudan, point to the importance of the existence of an organised mass movement that is able to represent popular interests. That is what is lacking in other countries of the region.
The thwarting of revolutionary forces early on had repercussions beyond the region itself. Is it fair to say that we live in a world today that was in part shaped by the Arab Spring?
GA: Oh definitely, the whole series of events that started in 2011 had a huge impact globally.
On the one hand, it came in the wake of the global crisis of the neoliberal order, in the aftermath of the subprime crisis – the Great Recession of 2008 – and many social movements in various countries got inspired by the Arab Spring. At the time of the second wave in 2019, the uprisings in Arab countries were happening at the same time as other mass protests throughout the world from Hong Kong to Chile, all related to the global crisis of neoliberalism.
The difference is the deeper structural crisis that you have in the Arabic-speaking world. Whereas in other countries popular movements want a change in policy or in the composition of government, in the Arab world it wants to overthrow the whole system, which is seen as illegitimate by the popular majority.
There is no doubt that, throughout the whole revolutionary process, various imperial and regional powers have played a role, but to what extent did they impact the character and trajectory of the uprisings?
GA: In the face of the revolutionary process, you have had two major options. One was the consolidation of the old regime and therefore, classical counter-revolution. The other was co-opting the uprisings and steering them.
These options were represented in the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]; the Saudis and Emiratis represented the counter-revolutionary option, whereas Qatar, later on in alliance with Turkey, represented the cooptation option through their links with the Muslim Brotherhood.
US regional hegemony in 2011 was at its weakest since 1990. The US was leaving Iraq after a huge failure that weakened it immensely. So in the face of the uprisings, the Obama administration’s inclination was for co-option, not repression. That’s why Obama facilitated the transition in Egypt that led to the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, fostered a compromise in Yemen, tried to do the same in Syria as well as in Libya while reluctantly supporting the insurgency, much more so in Libya than in Syria.
Another imperial actor has been Russia, which fully played the repressive card. First in Syria, by intervening on the side of the Assad regime, after Iran preceded it for sectarian and geo-strategic considerations. Syria became a showcase for Russia’s ability to contribute to counter-revolutionary offensives. Since then it has extended its intervention to Libya in close collaboration with Sisi’s Egypt and the UAE.
On the other hand, US policy in the region has become quite blurred under the Trump administration beyond the issue of opposing Iran, cozying up to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his Emirati counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed, and, of course, full and unconditional support to Israel.
There is no clear policy regarding revolutionary upheavals. If you take Sudan for instance, all that the Trump administration has been concerned with was to force the Sudanese to normalise relations with Israel. They did not care much about the democratic process in the country, they were mostly concerned with the Israeli agenda.
The Muslim Brotherhood suffered a major defeat after the Egyptian coup in 2013. They bore a major responsibility in bringing it about by the way they completely mismanaged the situation, forgetting that their presidential candidate had been elected in the second round by a majority of voters who did not vote for him in the second round. Instead of taking that into account and building a large coalition, they gave the impression that they were trying to seize all levers of power, thus losing popularity at high speed. There is no doubt that in 2013 the outpouring of mass anger in Egypt was even larger than what there was in 2011 against Mubarak. This is what allowed the military to exploit the situation and stage their comeback.
This defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood made the option supported by Qatar and Turkey quite weak. Turkey has continued to support the Muslim Brotherhood through interventions in Syria and Libya, but it is clear that, since 2015, Ankara has been more concerned with its own domestic agenda than with the regional revolutionary process.
If there is one lesson that the people of the Arab world can draw from this equally momentous and tragic historical experience so far, what would it be?
GA: There are several important lessons! But if you had to single out one only, it is what the uprisings showed to be possible – that the people can change the government by mass mobilisation.
The next crucial lesson is that you need organisation, you cannot achieve revolutionary aspirations without an organisation that is capable of leading the revolutionary process. And by organisation I am thinking above all of trade unions and grassroots movements – they are the kind of combination that is needed in order to achieve change.
It doesn’t exist at present in most of the region’s countries, but it will be the key condition for the future of the ongoing long-term revolutionary process if it is to succeed and steer the region away from the abyss.