Arab revolutions through the lens of history

Arab revolutions through the lens of history
Comment: Arabs are on the streets once again. Alain Gresh and Jean-Pierre Sereni ask what is blocking their aspirations, and what history can teach us about the present situation.
6 min read
'2019 has seen a rekindling of the revolutionary flame' write Gresh and Sereni [Getty]
The Arab world is currently witnessing its second wave of protest and rebellion this century. 

The first began in December 2010, and brought about the downfall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

It also led to upheavals in Bahrain and Syria, not to mention the many protest movements in Morocco, Algeria, Iraq and Sudan.

Then came the counter-revolution, most spectacularly the July 2013 coup in Egypt, financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Involving a mixture of repression with an injection of fresh capital (from the Gulf countries or from oil revenue) and some more or less formal concessions, it seemed to confirm the resilience of the old order, while the threat of civil war acted as a deterrent to protestors of every shade.

And yet those who once again - especially in the West - harboured the illusion that "stability" was back, have had to change their tune.

For 2019 has seen a rekindling of the revolutionary flame: a popular uprising in Sudan overthrew Omar Al-Bashir's dictatorship, nearly 30 years old; in Algeria, a huge wave of protests foiled a doddery president's bid for a fifth term and is still demanding the end of a "system" which has bled the country dry; the Iraqi people are rising up to denounce a system imposed by the United States in 2003, sustained by Iran and based on confessionalism and corruption.

And finally the Lebanese, fed up with the same evils, have taken to the streets demanding, "Out with the lot of them!" or "All of them means all of them!" Even the Egyptians, controlled and stifled by a repressive apparatus unparalleled in the country's history, did nonetheless hold street protests in September, necessarily small, of course, but in Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and Mahallah al-Kobra.

The state above the citizenry

This second wave is fuelled by the same motives as the first: authoritarian power structures, lording it over the people, so that anyone can be arrested at any time - and not only for political reasons - thrown into jail, brutalised, tortured; unbearable social situations, with massive unemployment, especially among the young, and enormous disparities, deepening every day.

The Middle East is the most inegalitarian region in the world. Even more than in 2011, social injustice is at the heart of the movement.

Even more than in 2011, social injustice is at the heart of the movement.

These 'hirak' as the movements are known today, have drawn some lessons from the past; rejecting the armed struggle despite the ferocity of the repression as in Iraq and Sudan, foiling attempts to divide protestors on a confessional basis, and debunking the spectre of "foreign conspiracies."

They also realise that the true confrontation is not between alleged secular groups and supposed Islamists. Yet they are up against one major difficulty, an obstacle they sought to skirt in 2011-2012: imagining a new economic and social order.

When the Arab world changed

In order to grasp the difficulty of this task, we must go back to the end of World War II, to the years of decolonisation and the struggles for true political independence, coupled with the demand for the removal of western military bases and the end of western influence.

The former colonies or 'protectorates' were also bent on recovering their natural resources, building a powerful public sector and implementing agrarian reform. And this project actually materialised from Egypt to Iraq, from Algeria to Syria.

The expansion of the schooling and health systems greatly improved the living conditions of the poorest categories of the population. This went along with an independent foreign policy aimed at non-alignment. Despite the often heavy price to pay - an omnipresent police apparatus and the drastic curtailment of civil liberties, a large number of political forces made this programme theirs in the 60s and 70s, whether they were in power or in the opposition.

However the June 1967 defeat of the Arab countries in their war with Israel, the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 and that of Algerian president, Houari Boumedienne in 1978, as well as the deepening crisis of the "socialist system" as represented by the USSR, were to mark a turning point. And with the so-called oil crisis of 1973, the Gulf monarchies increased their influence in the region.

Internationally, economic globalisation and the triumph of neoliberalism foisted the "Washington consensus" on the rest of the world and the concepts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became the only road to development.

This neoliberal model based on free trade has turned out to be disastrous for ordinary people

"There is no alternative", Margaret Thatcher proclaimed. The plans concocted by the IMF, endorsed by the World Bank and the European Union were enforced without regard for the social consequences.

With his policy known as 'infitah' (economic opening), Egyptian president Anwar Sadat committed his country to a path soon followed by others. The public sector was mothballed, at times simply sold off to private interests.

From then on, the elites looked to Washington, turning their backs on the "old" nationalist demands and on their support of the Palestinians. Civil liberties had nothing to gain from this, since the various police forces continued to have the upper hand on all political activity.

Politicians stick together

This neoliberal model based on free trade has turned out to be disastrous for ordinary people. The private sector has not taken on the tasks of the public one, but invested all the fruits of its plunder in tax havens.

Read more: A May '68 for the modern era

Millions of well-trained young people have not found good jobs at home and many have emigrated, often risking their lives. The 2008 market crash confirmed the nature of the crisis, which was not confined to the Arab world, as was seen in Greece and Chile. And all the while, global warming threatens areas in the region which is likely to become uninhabitable.

Strait is the gate

Today a new democratic political culture is starting to emerge, but it requires economic programmes which cannot boil down to "pay your debts" and "open your markets."

However, there is no longer any other model available, except for Chinese-style state capitalism, which implies inhuman pratices such as outsourcing and fierce exploitation of the local labour force, a model which could not easily be put into practice today because outsourcing is out of fashion, the markets are closing up, and emigrating becomes more dangerous every day.

What is to be done? Contrary to what many western leaders imagine, stability cannot be restored without deep-rooted political transformations.

Stability cannot be restored without deep-rooted political transformations

To maintain the current elites in power means to aggravate the chaos which plays straight into the hands of radical organisations such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) or some other movement yet to be born.

The other path, narrow, steep and fraught with obstacles involves the new emergent pluralistic culture and the development of national economies based on satisfying people's actual needs. And this requires a break with neoliberal logic and unbridled free trade.

So the question arises, for France and for the EU, whether we are going to accompany these options, or cling to outdated dogma which can only worsen an instability for which we too will have to pay a heavy price.

Alain Gresh is the Director of Orient XXI, a journalist and expert in Middle East affairs. He is the author of 'L'Islam, la République et le monde', Fayard, 2014 among many others.

Jean-Pierre Sereni is a journalist and author, specialising in north Africa and the Gulf.

Follow him on Twitter: @jeanpieeresrn

This article was originally by our partners at OrientXXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.