The terrible illusion of the Arab Spring

Gilbert Achcar
2016 / 1 / 28

The revolutionary process is bound to continue for decades to come, says author Gilbert Achcar.

Achcar says he fears that dictatorial regimes, on a background of social and economic crisis, will be feeding the form of terrorism that Daesh represents [Al Jazeera]
Achcar says he fears that dictatorial regimes, on a background of social and economic crisis, will be feeding the form of terrorism that Daesh represents [Al Jazeera]
Beirut - At the outset of the Arab Spring, a handful of analysts noted that what started in Tunisia and spread to the rest of the region was just the beginning of a long-term process that would necessarily go through ups and downs - revolutionary upsurges and counter-revolutionary setbacks.

Five years into the revolts, activists and analysts say that the story is far from over, with a host of complex and difficult issues at stake. But despite all the gloom and doom gripping the region, there is still hope.

Five years ago, Egyptians joined the Arab Spring by taking to the streets to demand that President Hosni Mubarak stand down [Reuters]
Gilbert Achcar, a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and author of The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, was teaching his students about the explosive potential in the Arab world long before the Arab Spring. He believes that the core issues at the heart of the "explosion" were primarily socioeconomic, and that the revolutionary process is bound to continue for decades to come.

Al Jazeera: In your book and in your analyses in general, you do not refer to what happened in 2011 as the "Arab Spring" or a revolution. Why?

Gilbert Achcar: Most people have used the term "revolution" to refer to the initial sequence of events, like when speaking of the "25 January Revolution" in Egypt as one that ends on February 11, or even naming the "revolution" by the day the autocrat fell, like in referring to the "14 January Revolution" in Tunis. What I have been emphasising since 2011 is that we were only at the beginning of a long-term revolutionary process that will go on for years and decades. As in every such historical process, there will be ups and downs, revolutions and counter-revolutions, upsurges and backlashes. My view of the events is predicated on my analysis of the real issues at the heart of this revolutionary process, which are issues that I have been studying and teaching for several years.

I saw the explosion not primarily as the result of a political crisis, as it has been widely portrayed, or as one provoked by a thirst for political freedom. This was an important dimension of the uprising, to be sure. However, the deepest roots of the explosion were socioeconomic, in my view. For several decades, the Arab world has had the lowest rates of economic growth of all regions of Asia and Africa and the highest rates of unemployment in the world, especially youth and female unemployment.

Those were the crucial ingredients of the big explosion. And they are not issues that can be settled with a new constitution or a mere change of president. They can only be settled through a radical change of the social, political, and economic structures. They request a real social revolution, one that cannot be merely political.

The problem is that there were no organised forces representing such a radical goal and pursuing it with a coherent strategy. That is why it was obvious to me that it would take a long time before the process comes to conclusion. And there is no certainty whatsoever that the process will end up with the required progressive kind of change. What is certain is that, short of such a change, the region will keep living through turmoil and violence.

The problem is that there were no organised forces representing such a radical goal and pursuing it with a coherent strategy.

Al Jazeera: But what about two months before the Egyptian revolution, when the World Bank issued a report with a positive assessment of the economic outlook in Egypt?

Achcar: Well, it so happens that two years before the Egyptian revolution, in 2009, I wrote a critique of the international financial institutions assessment of the Egyptian economy, at a time when economic indicators were showing a positive trend. In my critique, I explained that this was only a result of the surge in oil prices at that time, that it was not going to last, and that social tensions in Egypt were actually worsening.

That said, a political explosion of the magnitude of what happened in 2011 must necessarily be triggered by a convergence of various factors. It is never a single issue that produces such a big regional explosion as we have seen.

If the uprising was limited to a single Arab country, one could believe that any factor particular to that country was the root cause. But the upheaval engulfed the whole Arab region, a fact that requires us to investigate what explosive factors are common to all of these countries. The most important of those is the structural socioeconomic crisis.

Of course, other factors are involved, such as various political factors: for instance, the destabilising effect of the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, which affected the whole region.

Al Jazeera: But those depressing socioeconomic conditions existed for a long time. Why did they trigger the change at this particular moment, and not before?

Achcar: The question is not why the region exploded in 2011, but rather why it took it so long to explode. I say this because the regional situation has been explosive for such a long time. If we put the question differently and ask "Why did it start in Tunisia, why did Egypt follow, what is peculiar to these two countries?", we will find that these are the two Arab countries where the social crisis found its clearest expression in struggle.

In Tunisia, there were a number of local uprisings before the one that became the national uprising. The previous uprisings remained regional, but they were quite important nevertheless. The Sidi Bouzid uprising in December 2010 started also as a regional one: It spread nationally as a result of the long accumulation of anger and struggles that preceded it. Tunisia has the strongest organised genuine workers movement in the whole region. At rank-and-file and intermediary levels, it was acting as an opposition force that was not controlled by [former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali s regime.

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The Tunisian workers union played a key role in organising the extension of the uprising, and then in toppling the president. Egypt, for its part, had seen the most important wave of workers strikes in its history from 2006 up to 2011. So in the two countries where the regional upheaval started, an accumulation of social struggles had prepared the ground for the uprising, a confirmation of the fact that the issue is socioeconomic at the core.

Al Jazeera: In your research, you emphasise the role played by the labour movement. Why is the labour movement such an important component in the revolutionary process?

Achcar: It would be difficult to call it a "movement" in Egypt s case because it is not organised, so it s better to speak of a labour struggle. These struggles are important because they are the most direct expression of the core problem, of the socioeconomic problem. In both Egypt and Tunisia, strikes and social struggles could unfold, unlike in many countries in the region, such as Libya or Syria, that were so repressive that no such struggles were possible in them.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, it was possible for a social movement to build up, as well as for a political opposition, albeit within limits. When the uprising started, it could take the form of gigantic mass mobilisations, whereas the logical continuation of the strict prohibition of any social or political struggle by the Libyan and Syrian regimes was in the way they dealt with demonstrations, attempting to crush them in a much bloodier way than what happened in Tunisia or Egypt. But toppling the president in the last two countries left the bulk of the repressive state.

Al Jazeera: What went wrong then? Would you say that people were too naive, that the revolutionaries did not study their own societies and did not know what type of state they were up against?

Achcar: Well, that is exactly the problem of the leadership, of the political vanguards in social movements that are able to give political guidance. For example, take the "25 January Revolution", as it is called: It was a great moment, a huge historical event, but the uprising was dominated by huge illusions held by the protest movement.

Although it was initiated by opposition groups, part of which were very radical, the largest part of that protest movement was composed of traditional political forces that joined the movement, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. These forces played a key role in fostering illusions about the army in particular.

So the protest movement ended up requesting that the army remove [former Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak. There was a repetition of that in a much shorter sequence from June 30 to July 3, 2013. In both cases, we have seen a gigantic mass mobilisation asking the army to topple the president on its behalf.

The terrible illusion is that, whereas the uprising s main slogan was "The people want to bring down the regime", very few understood that the army is the backbone of the regime, and that it has been so for decades. The regime could not be reduced to Hosni and Gamal Mubarak and their cronies. These were just the tip of the iceberg. The backbone of the regime was the army, which was transformed since the Sadat era into a big business group and an economic force on top of its political role.

One cannot blame ordinary people for holding such illusions and buying into the image that the armed forces projected of themselves, but this is where there was a lack of radical leadership able to explain to the people what was at stake. The hope remains that the vast mass of the people can learn from their own experience, but it is not that easy.

The people in Egypt may get to understand that the army is part of the problem, not part of the solution, but the old-new regime is scaring them by asserting that the alternative to the problem that it represents is a worse problem still. That is the ultimate ideological card of all Arab regimes nowadays. They claim: "It is either us or Syria, Libya, Daesh [ISIL]".

Al Jazeera: Some argue that the very fact that these were leaderless movements was a key reason for their success. How would you respond to this?

Achcar: Those who say so confuse the absence of charismatic leaderships with the absence of leaderships in general. The fact, however, is that political and social networks and coalitions have led the uprising everywhere. The problem is that even those forces that I regard as progressive have been oscillating between the old regime and its religious fundamentalist opposition. Ultimately, both the old regime and its religious opposition were deeply opposed to the revolutionary process, and yet the progressive left and liberal forces went switching from an alliance with the latter (the religious opposition) against the former (the old regime) to an alliance with the former against the latter. This oscillation is disastrous.

This short-sightedness of the existing progressive movements in the region is the main problem that needs to be overcome if there is ever to be any progressive outcome of the revolutionary process. Short of this, we will see more of this deeply degenerative process that we are witnessing now, with more brutal dictatorial regimes on the one hand, and on the other hand the emergence of Daesh and the like - what I call the "clash of barbarisms".

Al Jazeera: By progressive do you mean the liberal/secular, which is the non-religious opposition?

This short-sightedness of the existing progressive movements in the region is the main problem that needs to be overcome if there is ever to be any progressive outcome of the revolutionary process.

Achcar: By progressive I mean all those who are for social equality and for democracy, knowing that there is no true democracy without secularism properly understood. There can be no democracy without a separation between religion and state. Religion should not interfere with the state, and likewise the state should not meddle with religion.

Religion should be the sphere of individual freedom: If a woman wants to wear the hijab or not, this is her personal freedom - no one should impose that on her, whether state or even family. Freedom goes both ways. So the matter is not religious versus secular, where secular is progressive and religious is oppressive. One can very well be religious and progressive, or secular and oppressive.

Al Jazeera: One of the issues raised during the Arab Spring was precisely those binary codes, like secular versus Islamist, and the revolutionaries were bogged down in such polarising debates.

Achcar: But these are completely phoney debates. For example, is [Egyptian President] Abdel Fattah el-Sisi secular? Is the Salafi Nour party, which supports him, a secular party? Those who portray Sisi as being secular are in fact seeking an excuse to support him. This includes many of the self-declared progressives who try to justify their stance in support of the military.

Neither Sisi nor [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad are secularists. Sisi, like Mubarak before him, relies on the Salafists while Assad allowed Salafism in Syria years before the uprising, because they both believe that the Salafists are conservative forces which can dampen opposition. This is no secularism at all.

The issue here is that those who are motivated by a phobia of Islamic fundamentalism for whatever reasons are making a huge error in believing that dictatorship is the remedy or antidote to religious drift.

Al Jazeera: Would you agree with those who say that all has not been lost in the Egyptian revolution?

Achcar: I would say that not only it is not finished, but it is actually still at the beginning. I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but what I have been saying from the beginning is that this is a long process with ups and downs. Knowing that it is a historical process prevents you from falling into a constant change of mood. The first two years of the revolutionary process were years of upsurge, which were followed by a backlash.

There will be many other stages, though. The revolutionary potential is still very much there. Take the case of Egypt: The fact that, in the last election, the participation rate in Cairo was 19 percent according to official figures indicates that the bulk of the people are not adhering to the regime. Of course, a lot of people fall into passivity and resignation because they believe that the alternative to this unpalatable regime would be even worse. That s precisely what the regime wants them to believe: The "war on terror" has become the main argument of all repressive regimes.

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Nevertheless, workers struggles are taking place in Egypt in defiance of an anti-protest law that is more repressive than the legislation under Mubarak. This tells us that the "war on terror" argument will only work for a while, but eventually, sooner or later, the socioeconomic crisis that led to the explosion in the first place will lead again to new explosions. The recent protests in Tunisia are the best illustration of what I am saying.

My only fear is that the dictatorial regimes, on a background of social and economic crisis, will be feeding the form of terrorism that Daesh represents. Young people may seek any kind of force that looks like being radically opposed to the existing order.

We know from various studies that many of those who joined Daesh did not join it for religious reasons, but because they were attracted by its radical and violent stance against the old regime, which they came to hate to a high degree. The only antidote to this danger is the emergence of a really progressive radical alternative.

Al Jazeera: What do you teach your students about the Arab Spring today?

Achcar: I don t call it Arab Spring, but Arab uprising. What I teach is still the same, in part since I need the students to understand the deep structural roots and causes of the regional upheaval in order for them to understand its nature as a historical process, and the nature of the phase that we are presently witnessing.

My next book, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising, which will come out in the spring, analyses the current stage of counter-revolution and backlash. There will be several other stages and episodes until either we see the emergence of really progressive leaderships capable of steering the region towards a progressive alternative to the old order, as I said earlier, or the whole Arab region will sink into civilisational collapse. It happened once in its history with the sacking of Baghdad in 1258, and it may happen again. This should be an inspiration for resolute action to build a progressive alternative, rather than for despair.

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