It would be an understatement to say that we inhabit an age of turmoil. 2019 reminded us that any pretence towards business-as-usual is a farce, as witnessed by the thousands that have filled the streets from Santiago to Hong Kong and Beirut to Paris to demand their rights.
This is a moment of popular insurgency that can be seen as part of a longer arc of protests that emerged in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008 – the political response to which was punishing austerity, widening inequality and precarious employment.
Democracies – old and new – and their corrupt ruling establishments were devoid of new ideas and a coherent alternative to tackle the roots of the crisis. Systems have been steadily discredited, giving rise to a turbulent socio-political terrain defined by a reactionary populism expressed through xenophobic cultural nationalism.
Neoliberal capitalism, while ideologically weakened after the financial crash, maintained its institutional hegemony and increasingly accommodated illiberal strongmen from Jair Bolsonaro to Narendra Modi.
Despite an effort to consolidate this political tendency, underlying socio-economic fault lines remain. A glance at dissent in Sudan, Algeria, Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, Iraq, and now Iran – whether opposing state repression, demanding democratisation or justice – displays a common denominator: the pushback against neoliberal economic measures.
Of all the global upheavals that precipitated 2008, the ‘Arab Spring’ was the most spectacular and insurrectionary. Historian Perry Anderson referred to them as “a concatenation of political upheavals, one detonating the other” across the region.
While the hopes for millions who took to the streets for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ ended in counter-revolution, the structural conditions that animated it persisted.
The current wave of uprisings in the Arab world should be grasped as a continuation of a long-term revolutionary process that ignited in 2011, as Gilbert Achcar has argued.
As it was then, the gripe for citizens now is a combination of economic and political grievances, chiefly IMF-sponsored reforms imposed by despotic governments. On the ground, this translated into acute socio-economic ills like rampant inequality, rising food prices, lack of housing and massive youth unemployment.
Following the heady spectacle of popular mobilisations in spaces like Tahrir Square, there have been three reactionary forces that attempted to stifle and co-opt the progressive spirit of those revolts: the old regimes, representing the primary counter-revolutionary force with its brutal military apparatus, international backers of those regimes that wanted to stem the spread of the revolutions to their countries, and extremist forces competing with old regimes to seize power.
In this context, progressive forces – which largely initiated the uprisings – were organisationally weak and soon marginalised, leaving the twin poles of counter-revolution to clash. The most tragic example of this was in Syria.
Specific regional and global conditions inform this reality. The structural crisis across the region takes place in the context of the crisis of neoliberalism, which has, in turn, led to a crisis of legitimacy of those ruling regimes.
Several decades of sponsoring reactionary currents by US imperialism alongside its ally Saudi Arabia during the Cold War elevated regressive forces to fill the oppositional vacuum from left-wing nationalism.
In the years proceeding, the first wave of uprisings from 2011 to 2013, the overwhelming political response was counter-revolution, the outcome of which was a preservation of the old order that doubled down on neoliberalism.
In Egypt, the short-lived victory of the Muslim Brotherhood led to a coup, re-installing the military dictatorship with a vengeance. The Gulf monarchies stymied the revolt in Bahrain. The Syrian regime held onto power with Russian and Iranian assistance. Brutal civil wars erupted in Libya and Yemen, with belligerent intervention by a Saudi Arabia-UAE axis.
Given these tragedies and the retrenchment of patrimonial regimes, it is all the more powerful to see people across the region taking to the streets undeterred, resurrecting that ubiquitous slogan – ‘The people want the downfall of the regime!’
The Sudanese and Algerian movements understood from Egypt that the military – the repressive backbone of their respective states – was at the centre of political power. So when the military successively removed Bashir in Sudan and Bouteflika in Algeria, it was insufficient; it would have to include the ‘deep state’ and not just figureheads at the top, which explains their long-running confrontation with the military-security complex.
Accumulating social grievances didn’t need much to trigger formidable outbursts of anger. In Lebanon, it was a projected tax on VoIP communications, and in Iraq, it was the dismissal of a popular military figure.
Lebanese demonstrators have not only denounced corruption and neoliberal policies, but the whole sectarian and pro-business ruling class. As one of the main slogans puts it, ‘All of them means all of them’.
The Arab Shia majority has directed its ire against Iraq’s Shia ruling clique, whose Iranian-linked parties and militias have engaged in viciously repressing the popular revolt.
What is evident is that the popular movements in both countries have repudiated sectarianism in favour of a renewed national consciousness.
Meanwhile, in Iran, a decade of falling living standards coupled with sanctions, militarism abroad and a neoliberal squeeze at home has seen anger against the theocratic regime mushroom to an all-time high, exceeding the 2009 Green Movement and similar protests in 2018.
Conventional wisdom has sought to frame the current wave of protests as being singular “wallet-issues”. But isolating it to specific local or global trends is to miss greater regional patterns at play: that the fundamental structural causes for revolution will produce what Hamid Dabashi calls ‘delayed defiance’ and outlast any transient attempt to interrupt them.
If there is an element of truth to the persistence of rebellion, not only in the Arab world but across the globe during our age of systemic disorder, we might find it in Antonio Gramsci’s dictum – that “crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
And so from the Andes to the Levant righteous indignation brews, serving as a reminder that millions hope to usher in a future of greater equality and freedom in the face of a decaying order.
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