31 January 2021
The uprisings that spread across the Middle East in 2011 seemed to be dead and buried until a new wave of protests began in 2018. Gilbert Achcar is perhaps the leading Marxist analyst of these movements. His books The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (University of California Press, 2013) and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (Stanford University Press, 2016) are essential reading for anyone who would understand the historical trajectory of the region over the past decade. Jeff Goodwin recently spoke with Achcar about recent developments and his views of the revolutionary process that began in 2011.
INTERVIEW BY: Jeff Goodwin
Let’s begin with the most recent events that you’d like to talk about, Gilbert, which I imagine would be the second wave of uprisings or protests that started in the region a couple of years ago.
I would start with something of even more immediate relevance — the ongoing pandemic, and how it has affected what the media called the “second Arab Spring,” referring to the 2011 shock wave that was dubbed the Arab Spring. Take the Algerian case, where it is most obvious: there used to be a massive weekly demonstration, which had become almost a ritual. Every Friday, the local weekend, you would have a huge outpouring of people, especially in the streets of Algiers, the capital. This stopped abruptly with the pandemic. The government found a good pretext to tell people: “It is over now. You must stay at home.”
In Sudan, the mass movement was also interrupted and paralyzed for a while by the pandemic, and the same happened in Iraq and Lebanon.
Nevertheless, there are moments when the anger is such that people are willing to brave the pandemic in order to demonstrate — you know something about that in the United States, with the Black Lives Matter movement! There comes a point when people can’t stand it anymore. We had an illustration of that in Lebanon, in the aftermath of the huge blast in the port of Beirut on August 4 this year, and both Sudan and Iraq have witnessed a resumption of mass mobilization. But there’s no denying the impact of COVID-19.
Once the pandemic goes, hopefully, sooner rather than later, will the movements pick up where they left off, in your view, or have they been crippled in any substantial way by this pause?
That’s a good question, which points to important differences between these cases. Where you have an organized movement, which is effectively the case for Sudan only, the movement has been carrying on, even if at a lower intensity. The more we get rid of the pandemic and the fear it creates, the more the Sudanese movement will pick up again due to its organized continuity. In contrast, whereas the Sudanese movement is remarkably structured with different levels of organization and representation, the Algerian popular movement of 2019 was unorganized, in the sense that no representative bodies, no recognized structures, did emerge. The movements in Lebanon and Iraq both suffer, too, from a lack of leadership and organization. In the case of Lebanon, this reflects the variegated social and political composition of the movement, involving a very broad spectrum of forces that only have in common the wish to get rid of the existing power elite.
However, the core ingredients that led to the social explosion ten years ago are still there everywhere in the region, and even getting worse year after year. The pandemic is only worsening this. While it plays an immediate counterrevolutionary role in hampering mass mobilization, it is deepening, at the same time, the crisis that led to mass revolt in the first place. Except for the very rich, small, oil-producing states inhabited by a large majority of migrants that they can deport at will, most countries of the region will suffer from a sharp fall in income, including remittances, and a massive rise in unemployment. They will endure the consequences of the projected long-term fall of oil prices, oil being a major source of money flows in the region.
You said that the fundamental causes of the uprisings are still there and, in fact, getting worse. I take it to mean that this second wave of protest has been driven by fundamentally the same factors as the first wave.
There’s no possible dispute about that, I believe. In Jordan in 2018, the catalyst of the social protest was a government decision about taxes. In Sudan, it was austerity measures cutting price subsidies at the expense of the poor. In Lebanon, it was a new tax that the government tried to impose on VoIP communication. In Iraq, the last few years have seen a sharp rise of social protest. And whereas the issue that triggered the movement in Algeria was directly political — the attempt to renew the president’s mandate for a fifth five-year term — this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t related to ongoing, deep socioeconomic problems. You could say the same about several countries of the first wave, where the uprising started over political issues, while it was very clear that deep social and economic problems underlay the political anger.
In my 2013 book, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, I identified the deep roots of the explosion as lying in the fettered development of this part of the world, which has had lower rates of growth (especially per-capita growth) than other parts of Asia or Africa over the preceding decades. The most striking consequence of this was massive youth unemployment, of which the region has held the world record for decades. That gives you a crucial clue to the 2011 upheaval, which, of course, like any uprising, was mostly driven by young people, many of whom saw no future for themselves. A poll taken in 2010 showed a very high proportion of young people wishing to emigrate: the highest figure was then in Tunisia, with close to 45 percent stating that they wished to leave their country permanently. And to be sure, youth unemployment, as well as unemployment in general, has worsened since 2010, now more than ever due to the pandemic.
Would you say the youth have been at the forefront of the uprisings across the region, or has there been some variation in their class composition? Or, to put it differently, when you speak of youth being at the forefront, do you mean middle-class youth, or working-class students?
Like any vast popular movement, these movements cut across social layers and classes, but this is where age probably counts most. If you’re looking for middle-class participants, you would mostly find young people from the middle class, but a much lower proportion of older people. However, the vast majority of those who were in the streets belonged to poorer classes: working class, lower middle class, and unemployed, including a high number of lower-middle-class graduates in a region where enrollment in higher education is more extensive than in other parts of the Global South.
This fact is a product of the nationalist, developmentalist phase that peaked in the 1960s, providing free education that led to a high rate of enrollment in colleges and universities. As a result, graduates represent a high proportion of the unemployed. The massive participation of students and graduates in the movement also explains how they could play a key role, being tech-savvy. They know how to use new technologies and social media. At one point in 2011, the global media even described the Arab Spring as a Facebook revolution, which was an exaggeration, but not entirely wrong.
To be sure, the ability to organize is not the same from country to country: it depends on the preexisting levels of repression, the kind of working class, its degree of concentration, and so on. If you look at where it all began, that is in Tunisia — the first country where the mass movement, starting in December 2010, managed to get rid of the president in January 2011 — it’s no coincidence that it should have happened there. Tunisia is indeed the only country in the region with a powerful, organized, and autonomous workers’ movement. The Tunisian labor movement was instrumental in turning what started as a spontaneous revolt of anger into a mass movement that spread all over the country. The teachers’ union, in particular, played a key role in radicalizing the movement and putting pressure on the central union leadership. The day that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country was the day of the general strike in the Tunisian capital.
If you turn then to the second country that joined the movement, Egypt, you find that it had seen the most important wave of workers’ strikes in its history during the years preceding 2011. There were a few embryonic independent unions, but the official unions were controlled by the government, so that the organized labor movement couldn’t play a key role in leading the uprising. However, Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow by the military in February 2011 was precipitated by a massive wave of strikes that started in the days before his forced resignation, involving hundreds of thousands of workers.
Bahrain is another of the six countries that went into uprising mode in 2011, and, although this is little known, it is a country where you had a significant labor movement that played a key role in the early phase of the uprising, until the monarchy harshly repressed it. So, these are countries where the role of the working class in the uprising has been vital, most consciously. Now, on the streets of all the countries that witnessed a sharp rise in social and political protest in 2011, even from merely looking at photos, you can see that popular classes were the most involved.
The international financial institutions have tried to portray the Arab Spring as a middle-class revolt, because that fits with their neoliberal framing that this was an expression of people’s thirst for more economic liberalization. They would admit that there were economic causes to the region’s upheaval but would attribute them not to the implementation of their neoliberal recipes but to the lack of vigor in implementing them. This is complete rubbish, of course: only ultra-dogmatic neoliberals can deny the fact that the neoliberal shift did considerably worsen the socioeconomic conditions in the region prior to the uprisings. I explained how this happened in The People Want.
Tunisia is often said to be the exception in the region. According to this perspective, the uprisings failed everywhere else. Some have linked this to the exceptional organization of workers in Tunisia. Does this analysis make sense?
The answer to this is not a straightforward yes or no. First, we should consider if Tunisia has truly been a success story. It has, if we mean democratization. In that specific sense, Tunisia has turned into what may be called an electoral democracy since 2011. From that angle, its uprising was successful.
But was it successful in solving the key social and economic problems that we mentioned? Not at all, unfortunately. Nothing changed with regard to political economy. Under the pressure of the IMF and the World Bank, things have even got worse. There have been intermittent social explosions in various parts of Tunisia since 2011, driven by the same social issues that led to the uprising ten years ago; a major upsurge happened a few weeks ago. Any belief that Tunisia has made it and is now out of the woods would be deeply mistaken.
However, the two issues that you mentioned — the success story and the role of labor — are not usually connected in mainstream understanding. Those who describe Tunisia as a success story do not usually emphasize the importance of its labor movement as a key to this success. They usually resort to some culturalist, Orientalist explanation. They hardly mention the labor movement, even though its role in preserving social peace, along with three other Tunisian social actors, was recognized by the award of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, there is a serious problem with that role in that, instead of forcefully fighting for the social demands of the population, the trade-union leadership has been busy cutting deals with the bosses’ organization to guarantee a smooth alternation of bourgeois governments. So, Tunisia is actually proof of the fact that the issue is not “governance”: it’s not just democratization. It is fundamentally about deep social and economic problems that translate inevitably into political discontent. There is no way out of the crisis without radical socioeconomic change, but that’s a far cry from the situation in Tunisia today.
If, despite the democratic transition in Tunisia, the same economic policies remain fundamentally in place, would you say that the government should tackle the deep economic problems that you’ve been talking about? Or are the problems so deep-rooted that government policies are somehow irrelevant — this type of capitalism is stagnant and incapable of reform and must be dismantled?
As you know, the neoliberal view of the world is built upon the dogma that the private sector should be the driving force. Put the private sector in charge, and everything will be solved — that’s the miracle cure the neoliberals promote. The IMF offers the very same recipe to every country on Earth. This doesn’t make sense, even from a pragmatic capitalist point of view, because you need to take into account that different countries have very different conditions. The world region we are discussing is one where, due to the nature of the state system, the basic requirements for development driven by private capitalism are simply nonexistent.
There are a few countries in the world, such as Turkey or India, that are usually referred to as cases where private capitalism under neoliberal conditions achieved fairly rapid rates of development for a time, albeit at a social cost — but this story has now ended. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), however, this could not happen, because private money needs a safe and predictable environment to engage in long-term heavy investment of the kind needed for development. The prevailing condition in the region is one of despotic state power combined with very high levels of nepotism and cronyism. This must be radically overturned. And there is no way out of the developmental blockage without a central role for the public sector, as opposed to the neoliberal perspective. What the region needs is a new type of developmentalism — a democratic one, not one led by authoritarian, bureaucratic regimes.
As for the sources of public funding, it is a well-known fact that the rich don’t pay taxes in that part of the world. The only people who pay taxes are the wage earners of the formal sector, a minority of all workers. The region is known for massive capital flight and embezzlement. Resources are pumped out by the parasitic social groups that are in control of the states. So, there’s no way out of all that without overthrowing this whole sociopolitical structure. Getting rid of a president is like cutting the tip of the iceberg when it leads to preserving the ruling structure, as was the case in all MENA countries where presidents were forced to step down — most blatantly so when it is the regime’s military backbone that forced them, as happened in Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan, three states that have in common the armed forces’ dominance of their political regimes.
We haven’t talked so far about the role of the external powers — the United States, Russia, etc. — which might in itself indicate that those powers have not played as important a role as some people think. What role have the great powers played over the last decade?
When you speak of neoliberalism, when you speak of the international financial institutions enforcing their recipes, you are speaking, of course, of a system dominated by Western imperialist countries, above all by the United States. And yet, when the uprisings started in 2011, US hegemony was at a low point in the region, as a result of the heavy defeat of Washington’s plans for Iraq. And 2011 was the year of the withdrawal of US troops from that country. This failure was a severe blow to the US imperial project, and not only in MENA.
Looking at Barack Obama compared to Donald Trump, one recalls C. Wright Mills and his analysis of the centralization of power in the US presidential system, especially in matters of foreign policy and power projection. The basic class interests underlying the US government can be the same, but actual policies very much depend on who is in the White House. When the uprising happened in Egypt in 2011, Obama was keen not to give the impression that the United States stands with dictatorship, in blatant contradiction with his own discourse about democracy. In 2009, one of Obama’s first major speeches was delivered in Cairo, where he upheld democratic freedoms for the region. Moreover, it would have been very imprudent for the United States to stand against what looked like a democratic tsunami at the time.
Obama therefore brought pressure on Mubarak to implement some reforms. When the latter proved unable or unwilling to deliver, Washington green-lighted the Egyptian military to get rid of Mubarak. Obama was basically confronted with a choice between two options. One was to support the existing regimes against the protest movements — the option advocated by the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies. Obama was reluctant to take this course for the reason just explained. Had it been Trump, it is quite likely that he would have done so without much hesitation. Obama’s second option was the one presented by Qatar, which had become the sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1990s. This gave Qatar influence over a key interlocutor from within opposition forces at the regional level, enabling Washington to try, with its help, to steer the movement in a direction that would remain unharmful to US interests.
That’s what Obama did, with the exception of Bahrain, where he basically turned a blind eye to the Saudi-led counterrevolutionary intervention. He facilitated the election of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate in Egypt, by preventing the military from blocking it. During the single year of his presidency, Morsi largely played the game according to Washington’s rules regionally, even when it came to Israel. That’s why the Obama administration was unhappy with the 2013 coup that toppled Morsi, although it ended up accepting its result, albeit grudgingly. That also shows you the limitations of US power.
In the meantime, you had the Libyan experience. Obama was drawn into that conflict reluctantly — the famous phrase used at the time to describe his course of action was “leading from behind.” The movement in Libya itself didn’t want foreign boots on the ground, and neither was Obama willing to engage US troops there. The result was a bombing campaign in support of an armed uprising confronting a brutal dictatorship, in the hope that Washington and its European allies would be able to steer the uprising toward an outcome that would be best for Washington — basically a compromise between supporting the regime and opposition, leaving in place the state apparatuses. This is what happened in Yemen in 2011 — Obama’s preferred model, which he advocated for Syria in 2012. But they completely failed to achieve this in Libya, not least because of Muammar Gaddafi’s intransigence, and the whole state structure collapsed when the uprising occurred in the capital.
Apart from the Libyan failure, the other direct major US intervention was against ISIS. On the margins of the regional upheaval, you had the emergence of this ultra-terroristic group posing a direct threat to US interests, especially when it crossed the border from Syria into Iraq in 2014, thus getting into an oil-rich country. Washington intervened again by means of a bombing campaign and sought local allies on the ground. The Obama administration and the Pentagon didn’t seem to have a problem collaborating with the left-wing Kurdish forces in Syria, as well as with pro-Iranian militias in Iraq in the fight against ISIS. But that military intervention was meant only to counter ISIS, not to help overthrow any government, whether in Iraq or in Syria.
US hegemony in the region had reached a peak in the 1990s after the first war in Iraq, and then a low point at the time of the Arab Spring. Russia’s rival imperialism exploited these weaknesses, in Vladimir Putin’s typically opportunistic style. When he saw that Washington was at odds with the Saudis after the Egyptian coup, he embraced them as well as the new Egyptian dictator. When he saw that tension was building up between the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Washington due to the Obama administration’s alliance with the Kurds, he embraced the Turkish leader.
Syria was a country that had been under Moscow’s influence for decades, where the Russian military held facilities. Iran first intervened in support of the Syrian regime in 2013, then Putin, seeing that even Iran’s intervention to prop up Bashar al-Assad had not prompted Washington to give decisive support to the Syrian opposition, intervened in turn in 2015, rescuing the regime from impending collapse. Given the general weakness manifested by the United States in the region, Moscow later extended its military reach into Libya, where it supports one side, along with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France, while the opposite side is backed by Turkey and Qatar. The Saudis are not involved in Libya — they weren’t either in 2011. They are busy waging their proxy war with Iran in Yemen at the expense of this poor country’s population.
Is it fair to say that the US position in the region has declined since the uprisings began, while the positions of Russia and Iran have been strengthened, to some extent?
Definitely. Although the Trump administration shifted on some issues to please its Saudi cronies, neither Trump nor anyone else is willing to deploy US troops massively in the region, short of a huge threat to US interests. They know that if they push the escalation against Iran too far, it could have huge economic consequences in affecting the oil market and therefore the global economy. The Iranians know that, too, and that’s why Iran seems to be undeterred and carries on acting accordingly. Had US imperialism been as almighty as some believe it is, Iran would not have been the main beneficiary of the US invasion of Iraq, to the point that this country’s government has become its vassal.
In fact, that’s why the recent uprising in Iraq is very much directed against Iran — not against the Iranian people, of course, but against the Iranian regime that is meddling in their country’s affairs and trespassing upon their sovereignty. Those who have been out on the streets in Iraq are mostly Shiites, and yet they’re very much opposed to Iranian influence rejecting all foreign dominations, whether from Washington or Tehran. In Lebanon, too, there has been significant participation of Shiites in the 2019 uprising, which was remarkably cross-sectarian and equally opposed to Tehran’s and Washington’s friends governing in coalition.
Capitalism, if I understand what you were saying earlier, really has no future in the region. There’s no fix for it at this point. Some kind of democratic socialism is the only possible way out of this situation, with an entirely new mode of development.
Well, I would say democratic socialism is the most desirable option, for sure. But in principle, you could also imagine a way out through the kind of authoritarian developmentalist regime that presided over the transformation of some East Asian countries. However, that is nowhere on the horizon right now. The key point is that the role of the public sector must be central in getting out of this crisis through a new type of developmentalism, which is much more likely to be socialist than capitalist. Add to this that we live in an age when people are much less inclined to tolerate the kind of dictatorships that prevailed in the 1960s. The aspiration for democracy is very widespread. In MENA, people have learned through experience that they can overthrow governments by mobilizing in the streets, and it is a very important lesson indeed.
Even though you link the uprisings to the stagnant form of capitalism in the region, what strikes many observers is how weak the overtly anti-capitalist voices have been. The rhetoric of democracy and freedom has been at the forefront of these uprisings, while the explicitly socialist forces seem very weak. Is that a fair characterization? And if it is, how are we to understand the weakness of socialist and anti-capitalist ideology in the region?
If we’re talking about anti-capitalist forces that uphold a socialist program, they are indisputably very weak in the region. Even though small, marginal groups have sometimes played a disproportionate role, as was the case in 2011 Egypt, that doesn’t change the fact that such groups are small and weak. But it is one thing to be against capitalism in theory, and another to be against actually existing capitalism. In the latter sense, there are very large numbers of people who are fed up with rotten capitalism and neoliberalism. They wish to get rid of the socioeconomic system under which they live. That doesn’t mean most are conscious socialists, but they definitely aspire to social justice in a vaguer sense, and that’s the key starting point. Social justice was indeed one of the prominent slogans in the Arab Spring.
History has never seen revolutions — not even Russia in 1917 — where most people were socialists wanting to abolish capitalism; it doesn’t work like that. In MENA, a major part, if not most, of the younger generation uphold progressive values, ranging from democracy to social justice. One key slogan of the uprising was “bread, freedom, and social justice.”
That’s a good definition of the dominant aspiration — to which you can add “national dignity,” i.e., anti-imperialism, as well as anti-Zionism, where Israel is involved.
How to measure this? There are no pollsters asking this sort of question; most of the time they ask very silly ones. However, one good indication came from the first round of the Egyptian presidential election in 2012, the first one the country ever witnessed. The two chief contenders were the old regime’s candidate and that of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. There were also “lite” versions of each: a lite regime candidate and a lite Islamic candidate.
The fifth candidate in the race had the least financial means and organizational support, yet he came third, close behind the two front-runners. This man was a Nasserist (by reference to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led Egypt’s “socialist” moment in the 1960s) who spoke the language of socialism explicitly. He is a reconstructed Nasserist, who refers to the social reforms and extensive nationalizations of the Nasser years while recognizing that dictatorship was a part of Nasser’s legacy that should be discarded as obsolete in favor of democratic values.
So, you could describe him as a representative of democratic socialism in the sense that most people would understand that. And yet he got the largest vote in Egypt’s key urban centers, including Cairo and Alexandria. This is an excellent testimony to the fact that, although it may not be steered by an organization, there is a diffuse aspiration for something radically different. That’s what is most important.
What I hear you saying is that there is a potential constituency in the region for a democratic socialist mass movement. The problem is that socialist organizations are weak. They have been destroyed by the dictators, weakened by authoritarianism. No one has been capable of mobilizing these social democratic or social justice sentiments that do seem to be very widespread in the region.
I wouldn’t say “social democratic,” because this refers, of course, to a mostly European experience that produced a certain type of organization with the outcome we know. As for the term “socialist,” it is not the preserve of Marxists, of course. If you take the Russian revolutions, there was a massive current, the Social Revolutionaries, that could hardly be described as Marxist. If you take the Paris Commune, most of the participants would not even refer to “socialism.” The key point here is aspiration to social equality, to a different kind of society, and at the same time, to radical democracy.
So, yes, the major problem is not the lack of a constituency for radical change of the kind that we are discussing; this constituency exists, but it lacks organization and is therefore weak. There’s an observation here we can make about social movements in general. When a mass movement takes essentially the form of occupying squares, that may constitute a show of numerical strength, but at the same time, it’s a sign of qualitative weakness. Why? Because if the movement were truly strong and well organized, it would shift from a “war of position” to a “war of movement” and aim at seizing power. But if it stays in the squares, the truth is that it is because it knows that it can’t overthrow the regime on its own, let alone take power. It is thus expecting someone else to overthrow the government from within the powers that be.
In Egypt, the popular movement was expecting the army to do it, and the military did indeed remove the president. That’s also what happened in Algeria and Sudan, even though the mass movement didn’t fall prey to illusions about the military in those two countries, like it did in Egypt. A mass movement can seize the centers of power only if it is organized — this is what the famous metaphor of the steam and piston expresses. And that is what is crucially lacking in the region. The most advanced movement in this regard is that of Sudan, because it has developed leading structures to a remarkable extent — not the kind of centralized leadership that people for whom the Russian experience is the model might think of, but much more horizontal leading structures: a network-like organization, impressive in its scope. The movement developed a program with clear demands that fit well into what I described as a half-conscious aspiration to a democratic socialism, broadly speaking.
Sudan is exceptional in this regard, and partly because this is a country where there has been a strong communist tradition. A lot of people have been through the Sudanese Communist Party. Most ended up leaving it, especially because it still retains Stalinist features, like other parties of its kin. In many respects, it is a “dinosaur,” but at the same time, there are a lot of young activists in its ranks, and there are tensions between the central leadership and youth and women members. Still, the party played an undeniable role in the development of a widespread left-wing or progressive culture in the country.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Sudan is on the verge of completing the revolutionary process, of course. The pandemic intervened, as we mentioned. And, most important, there have been all sorts of international interference, including from a Trump administration mostly interested in bringing Sudan to establish links with Israel. They have been exerting real blackmail over this very poor country, refusing to strike it off Washington’s list of terrorist states unless it agrees to recognize Israel.
The Egyptian dictatorship and the Gulf monarchies are the main backers of Sudan’s military. The country is in a transition period, with a kind of duality of power between the old regime, i.e., the military, and the popular movement. It is a very difficult situation, no doubt about that. The revolutionary process is more advanced there than in any other country in the region, but it still has a long way to go, and the military can still turn very nasty.
You’ve been emphasizing the importance of strong organization. When the uprisings began in 2011, there was a feeling of optimism, a sense that the region might be on the verge of a really important transition. And yet it generally didn’t happen. There were a lot of dashed hopes and disappointments, and worse. Would you say that this lack of strong, popular organization was the Achilles’ heel of the uprisings?
Yes, for sure. Organizational weakness is key. That’s the missing factor for this revolutionary process to mature. And it’s not written in the sky that it is going to happen. It’s an open process, in which the best-case scenario is one in which conditions are fulfilled and radical change achieved, and the worst-case scenario is historical blockage with more tragedies to come, of which Syria has become such a terrible instance.
The weakness of the traditional left is partly the result of its own shortcomings. In the region, this traditional left stems from two sources. One is nationalism, petit bourgeois nationalism, with all its problems and lack of political and social perspicacity. The other is Stalinism. Both were dealt a heavy blow by the fall of the regimes upon which they relied. The 1970s witnessed the decay and decline of Arab nationalism, and the fall of the Soviet Union made the 1990s a period of deep crisis for the entire communist movement in the region. There are, here and there, remnants of various sizes of this twentieth-century left, but it is overall in terminal crisis, and I don’t expect any revival under the same traditional forms.
What is needed is a new progressive movement that manages to become the expression of the new radicalization. If you take Sudan, the most promising force there is the “resistance committees,” as they are known. These are neighborhood committees involving tens of thousands of people — mostly young people — organized at the grassroots level. They are wary of any attempt to hijack their movement, so they are allergic to centralism and very keen on preserving each committee’s autonomy. Here’s a major difference with the old left. They use social media and organize horizontally.
Also consider the role of women in the movements: in the first wave of 2011, it was already remarkable. Organized women played a significant role in Tunisia. The most surprising development was women’s remarkable participation in Yemen, a country where their status is appallingly oppressive. But the second wave of 2019 saw this role for women reach a higher level. In Sudan, women made up the majority of the mass movement. In Algeria, they constituted a major part of the mobilization. In Lebanon, women played a very prominent role, and this, in turn, influenced Iraq, where they weren’t prominent at the beginning. There is a clear interaction between movements learning from one another and emulating one another. The prominent role of women is also something that contrasts with the traditional left, which is quite male chauvinist, whatever its claim to the contrary.
It seems as if you remain optimistic that a new kind of Left is finally emerging in the region. But it sounds like a process that could take decades, frankly, to mature. What do you think is coming next in the region? What kind of time horizons are you thinking of for this revolutionary process?
This is a long-term process, of course. When you think of all major revolutions, they spread out over quite a long period of time. The French Revolution started in 1789. When did it end? This is debated among historians — some say a century later, but the minimum is ten years later. Take the Chinese Revolution — the first major episode in the twentieth century took place in 1911, and the upheaval continued until 1949 and way beyond, in fact.
At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily take decades for a new progressive force to emerge. What I mentioned in Sudan is not something that was prepared over the course of decades of underground organization. These resistance committees sprung up with the revolution in 2019. Even where there has been a decline or defeat of the movement, the activists reflect upon their experience. They draw lessons from it. There have been everywhere some initial steps toward organizing. To be sure, this can become very difficult where there is a massive crackdown, like in Egypt. But sooner or later, the situation will explode again. And then people who have been through the previous experience will hopefully draw its lessons and try to act differently.
I was accused of pessimism in early 2011, when I was warning that it won’t be easy and will require a lot of patience and long-term perspective. I explained that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, with the toppling of the president, can’t happen in Libya and Syria without a bloodbath. I also warned that removing Tunisia’s Ben Ali or Egypt’s Mubarak doesn’t mean that the people succeeded in overthrowing the regime, as the famous slogan said (“The people want to overthrow the regime”). Achieving this goal will take a long time and will require a lot of conditions to be met.
I was regarded as pessimistic then. A few years later, many of the same people who had been euphoric turned into gloom-mongers, claiming that the whole process was dead. It was but another impressionistic illusion. Orientalist views about the region’s cultural incompatibility with secular democracy came back with a vengeance. And this time, every time I stressed that the backlash was but a second phase in a long-term historical process, I would be accused of naive optimism.
Well, I don’t use those categories of optimism and pessimism — even when they are understood according to the famous formula combining “pessimism of the intellect” with “optimism of the will.” In fact, optimism of the will is conditioned by the existence of hope: however pessimistic intellect may be, it must leave a place for hope, short of which there can’t be optimism of the will, except for a tiny minority. The key point is to recognize that a potential exists.
Having said this, to assert that the region is going to witness future uprisings does not in itself constitute “optimism.” Uprisings may, alas, result in bloodbaths, and the possibility of a future like Syria’s present can’t be called “optimism,” for sure. The whole country has been devastated — the death toll is in the several hundreds of thousands, not to mention the people crippled for life and those who have been displaced from their homes or forced out of the country. It is the worst tragedy of our time so far, and yet, even in Syria, and even in areas under regime control, significant social protests have occurred lately. You might think that after all that happened, people would be terrorized into passivity, but that has been proven wrong. This is the best possible illustration, given how terrible the Syrian experience has been, that the revolutionary potential is still there. The only safe prediction one can make about MENA is that the regional turmoil won’t subside in the foreseeable future: the region will keep boiling until conditions allow for radical change. The alternative is barbarism, but as long as the revolutionary potential is still alive, there is serious room for hope, making action toward meeting the conditions for radical change obviously crucial and urgent.
Gilbert Achcar was a speaker at the founding conference of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.