Vague Thoughts on Arab Uprisings (III)

It is worthwhile to put down some thoughts several months out from the winter events that began in Tunisia and became what some call the “Arab Spring” or “awakening”. This blog does not write about “Arab revolutions”; no such thing has taken place in the Arab countries from a results-oriented stand point. Important and substantive political change came to a number of Arab countries in 2011. But nothing as of yet can be called a revolution, socially, economically, culturally or politically in the Arab region. There are multiple transitions and unresolved conflicts playing out. The Libyan and Syrian uprisings of yet have the greatest potential for fundamental reordering of politics and society of the all the Arab revolts. Tunisia comes in a sturdy third; Egypt and Yemen perhaps lag the farthest behind of those countries having seen mass movements this year. There is as much ground pessimism and skepticism regarding the Arab uprisings as optimism and gleeful excitement. So this is a “thought dump” following that line of thinking. 1900 words are probably too much but the word count here is unlimited. 

The removal of particular deeply entrenched and brutal political leaders is not itself enough to produce revolutionary change; there are many more miles to go in the Arab countries before one can talk about “revolution”. This is not to argue that what has happened in the Arab world this year is not historic, significant or otherwise meaningful; the Arab uprisings are absolutely all of these things. But to term these things “revolutions” there are conditions and results that need to be met which, as of yet, simply have not in most of these countries. The Arab uprisings are not social revolutions or “color revolutions”; only in Libya and perhaps Tunisia have the core elite groupings and institutions have collapsed to the point where one can really imagine a significant reordering of politics and power at multiple levels and the emergence of a new or truly alternative elite segment to replace the previous regimes.

In Egypt it is hard to describe what has happened as a “revolution” in any real sense (thus far) given that the old regime has managed to hold onto so much power and that there has been so little fundamental change at the structural level. The military managed to establish popular legitimacy for itself in the March referendum and has moved progressively to marginalize the disparate groups and individuals who made the events of January and February possible. Pressure from the bottom has a met heavy resistance from above, bolstered by support from many in the lower classes. The Egyptian uprising has taken a course that will likely produce a larger, more basic series of changes in the future but not now. The Egyptians neglected to form a revolutionary party or front with common aims beyond the fall of Mubarak. “SCAF” is an apt English acronym for Egypt’s transitional authorities who are the scaffolding of the country’s longstanding military regime.

In Syria the situation is inconclusive; the nature of the regime and society is different from the more or less homogenous Egyptian, Tunisian or even Libyan (though note the Imazighen fighting in the west) struggles. A regime which is heavily, though by no means at all wholly, made up of sectarian minorities faces higher stakes than one run by majority communities; the Ba’th regime and the communities supposedly running Syria have become more defensive as the uprising has gone on and external pressures have been applied. And at the communal and sectarian level there are ugly realities: the Alawite and Christian communities are more and more likely to suffer harshly in a post-As’ad or post-Ba’th Syria the longer it takes for the As’ad regime to be dislodged (and the elite Sunnis who make a significant parts of the armed forces and business class will likely escape mass wrath; though according to Anthony Shadid there are “indications that the business elite in Damascus has begun preparing for the government’s fall”). And this is also a regime with limited external backing compared to, say Egypt where international capital and American tutelage had a stronger sway on elite decision making during the winter crisis. Syria has fewer of these foreign commitments. Turkey’s admonishments have proven to have only limited affect on the government’s behavior. Though a number of Gulf states have withdrawn their ambassadors or put out harsh words against Damascus it remains unclear how ready, competent or willing any of these countries are to deal with the consequences of a Syrian transition. The Syrian regime is likely to continue as it pleases, with all its cruelty and brutality, until the popular uprising reaches a point where the authorities in Damascus can no longer resist its push (as in the elites (especially in the military) reach a cross purposes or are simply overwhelmed) or, doubtfully, concludes a kind of truce with the other side, by force or by negotiation. And Syrians will continue to die for their cause for as long as one can reasonably forecast.

The Syrian opposition, like its Egyptian and Tunisian and Yemeni counterparts, has failed to form a coordinated and coherent political front that might offer a hope for a remotely coherent political transition. The Arab regimes have been massively successful in fragmenting and disorienting their opponents and depriving their citizens and enemies of valuable political experience. These regimes have predicament many angry (and brave) young men and women eager to make change but little in the way of mature and pragmatic civil society or opposition characters that appear, presently, capable of leading each other to a new politics. Arab oppositions continue to show weakness and even pettiness at crucial moments digging trenches and allowing divisions and distrust between Islamists and secularists, leftists and neoliberals, minorities and majorities, young and old to dictate their activities rather than common objectives. And this does not mean that these diverse factions act in bad faith or are run thick with stupidity; it simply means that there are many more built in obstacles to carrying over transcendent, Tahrir-like sentiments into effectual political action. The Islamist groups who had hardly anything to do with the original uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have historic opportunities to outmaneuver and outsmart their secular rivals — in Egypt they have a great chance to entrench themselves with the military and business leaders than ever before.

Many people recognize the urgency of the current situation in this regard; further upheaval and struggle is required for the Arab uprisings to produce structural and social change as opposed to political change alone. If this is possible in the context of the elections and other managed processes planned for some countries is obviously obscure only five months out from the earliest uprisings. There is not (and was not) a constellation of external interests or pressures pushing ahead revolution or destabilization in the Arab countries that have gone through uprisings this year; with very notable exceptions (Libya) foreign political, economic and military power was concentrated on preserving as much of the authoritarian state structures in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain as possible without continuing the trends toward brittleness that brought on the uprisings to start with. Individual leaders were told be western politicians that ought to step down while courtiers and generals were told to prepare to take their place. Accelerated reform (which will very probably lead to another phase of regime crises in the region over the next decade) as opposed to revolution was and continues to be on the international agenda inso far as the Arab uprisings were concerned. These were not the sort of pressures that would cause regimes to buckle or divide so that popular or mass pressures would overwhelm elites and produce genuine revolutions or reorient elite attitudes toward governance and legitimacy. The moment may not be right for such things just yet. The world will find out soon enough.

  1. The Tunisian military has remained confined to its professional role and has had only a limited political role since assisting in the removal of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Since the military was not as important in the maintenance of the old regime’s power as the RCD party operatives and political police this was somewhat expected. The basic balance of power between classes has become more precarious since January but has not fundamentally changed although the center of political gravity has diffused; the political process underway has allowed time for civil gestation and competition which, in time, may lead to more extensive reorderings of things. Competition between elements of the urban and semi-urban middle classes appear to divide along ideological lines at the extremes while the “centrist” tendencies have tended to be characteristically pragmatic in their dealings with the transitional government and some of the old regime elements who, allegedly, have assisted in mob activity and political violence against the more activist-oriented segments of the population in recent weeks. The absence of a strong central authority has allowed political organizing and activity but also to an environment of precarious security and uncertainty that feeds suspicion, fear and conspiracy among emergent political factions. There is increasing political fragmentation and polarization in Tunisia  but also relatively more space for these contradictions and quarrels to be dealt with within political society than in Egypt. Regional differences in political appetite and identity politics are likely to intensify as the October polls approach. Places like Gafsa (where labor has made a strong mark in the last five years) are the scene of hot contestation between secularists and Islamists on multiple fronts as class, religion, ideology and material grievances become more heated. Tensions between arabisant and fransicant will likely merge into ideological and class divisions, especially among the young and the undecided.
  2. The Egyptian military has acted as more as a replacement for the old regime than a transitional caretaker since the overthrow of Mubarak. Having been a key pillar in the old regime and having quite strong populist credentials the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has continued many of the tactics and methods used by the former government to contain popular “excesses” by taking measures to curb protests, punishing demonstrators and using the urban poor against demonstrators. The SCAF has taken on a strongly bonapartist tendency, inciting the popular classes against the secular protest movements in Tahrir by blaming the “revolutionaries” for the country’s economic slow down and for obstructing a return to normalcy. There is a heavy degree of defensive and even vulgar populism in the SCAF’s treatment of protesters and its other opponents and critics physically and rhetorically. Despite the Mubarak trial and numerous other arrests of high profile regime figures, it is unlikely that what has gone on in Egypt since January 2011 can be called a “revolution” so much as an evolution of the previous regime or even a coup. For those with revolutionary agendas, the military’s significant popular prestige is a major obstacle to meaningful political or economic change at the structural level. The Egyptian situation reveals that although demonstrators in Tahrir were able to put the regime in crisis and force it to cut off some fat, they did not divide the elite so significantly that they were left truly vulnerable to the pressure of activists and civil society groups. The Egyptian uprising came with relatively vague objectives and ran up against a regime with a number of middle man social and political buffers between the deep regime and the masses — the labyrinth of security services and police, the public “civilian” regime figures and so on. This meant that a solid program of action never emerged from “the bottom” and that the core institutions of the old regime have basically remained in place.

6 thoughts on “Vague Thoughts on Arab Uprisings (III)

  1. For the love of God it’s only been 6 months! what do you think fastfood revolutions? the only way you can get your instant-mix revolution is by dropping smart-bombs on the country, demolishing all institutions and vaporising everyone over 50. There are revolutions sans civil wars and massive’s takes time. I bet you’re one of those ‘experts’ who back in January said Tunisia was an exception and other countries will never revolt. Call them whatever you want but they are revolutions in people’s mentality, thinking and empowerment; the socio-economic have yet to catch up and deliver without killing half the population, destroying civil societies and building everything from scratch. Give us a rest with your codswallop analysis!

    • “I bet you’re one of those ‘experts’ who back in January said Tunisia was an exception and other countries will never revolt”

      Quite the opposite, actually. You seem to have misunderstood the post.

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