Arab Spring: Revolution in Progress or Movements Co-opted?

Courtey of
Courtesy of Organizing Upgrade
By Greg Hom
May 3, 2013

Greg Hom looks at two differing in-depth views of the current conditions and historical lead-up to the “Arab Spring”. He also looks at the reflections of a Bay Area activist on her recent experiences in Tunisia, and highlights an article with the Yemeni journalist and activist Farea Al-Muslimi who recently spoke to Congress about drone attacks and how they are only recruiting people against the United States.

The past two weeks had me reading some different material. The current New Left Review has two pieces on the Arab Spring, one by Asef Bayat and the other a response by Tariq Ali, which I try to recap to some degree below.  There are also some shorter pieces I want to highlight: one from Maria Poblet published by our friends at Organizing Upgrade, and the other from Salon, an interview with journalist and activist Farea Al-Muslimi, who recently testified before congress about the impact of drone strikes in his home-country of Yemen.

Asef Batat’s article in the most recent New Left Review makes the point that while mass movements in the Arab Spring have shown a great amount of spirit, bravery, and creativity, they have not overcome major institutions of oppression in their country.  In Egypt, for example, the military continues to be a force to be reckoned with, and the Muslim Brotherhood seems content to keep it that way.

He ends up calling the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutionary paths as currently “refolutionary”— a borrowed term I won’t go into the history of – that means a revolutionary movement forcing the existing political apparatus to reform itself.  It is weaker than a revolution taking state power yet stronger than a reformist movement that we’re used to in a capitalist “democracy”.

I found a section of the article quite interesting for its view of history, and it basically starts with this statement: “ Up till the 1990s, three major ideological traditions had been the bearers of ‘revolution’ as a strategy of fundamental change: anti-colonial nationalism, Marxism and Islamism.”  (From the rest of the section, it seems clear that he means to tie these trends to third-world liberation movements.) 

Learning even a bit about the roots of political Islam was something new for me.  Batat writes:

“The third tradition was that of revolutionary Islamism, an ideological rival of Marxism which nevertheless bore the imprint of its secular opponent. From the 1970s, militant Islamist movements drew upon the ideas of Sayyid Qutb in their battle against the secular states of the Muslim world; Qutb himself had learned much from the Indian Islamist leader Abul A’la Maududi, who in turn had been impressed by the organizational and political strategy of the Communist Party of India.” 

The section is definitely longer, but getting a sense of the intellectual and political history of “Islamism” helps me relate it to the real world. 

The article ends by using another borrowed term (again I won’t explain it here, but the article- and Tariq Ali’s response- give background to it): “Long Revolution”.  As Bayat writes:

“It may then be worth considering another understanding of ‘revolution’, along the lines developed by Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution—that is, a process which is ‘difficult’, in the sense of complex and multifaceted, ‘total’, meaning not just economic but social and cultural transformation, and ‘human’, involving the deepest structures of relationships and feeling.”

So, while the current “refolutions” haven’t quite fulfilled the role that we would expect of previous revolutionary movements, perhaps the process has awakened something in the Egyptian and Tunisian people that is still there, and will be there for some time to come (until another revolutionary moment happens?)

Tariq Ali’s response also gives a good amount of historical background to refute some of Bayat’s claims or points.  Ali’s main point of his essay is that the difficulty activists in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the “Middle East” face has to do squarely with imperial interests in the region. 

To make this point, Ali writes: 

“The reasons why despotic regimes have persisted across the Arab world, long after the dictatorships of the Cold War era were dismantled across Latin America, Africa and much of Asia, lie largely in the intertwining logics of Washington’s jealous guardianship of the region’s oil and Israel’s grip over its Middle East policy. Free elections risked bringing Islamists to power who might act on their pro-Palestinian rhetoric.

The nature of Arab-world exceptionalism in face of the growing ‘third wave’ of democratization was starkly demonstrated in Algeria, where the Arab Spring might be said to have started in 1988. Following a week of mass protests, the FLN regime agreed to hold first municipal and then, in 1990, national assembly elections, just as the massive us military build-up to the First Gulf War was igniting popular anger across the region. The largest Islamist party, FIS, won a landslide in the first round of the national assembly elections, having led huge anti-war demonstrations not long before. The Algerian military cancelled the second round, on the advice of Washington and Paris. A brutal and corrupting civil war ensued with mass atrocities carried out by both sides, to the point of attrition, while the masses retreated to an embittered passivity. Conservative estimates of the number killed range between 100,000 and 200,000, without a word of protest from the Western powers. The country has still not fully recovered from that ordeal.”

Ali also writes that while “refolution” may be the state of where the political situation has led in Egypt, it was not a goal of activists on the street: 

“‘The people want the downfall’—not the reform—‘of the regime!’ There is an obvious risk in this terminology of confounding tactics—which, for any determined and effective political movement, will be flexible by definition—and goals. However the slogans and the spirit of the crowds in Cairo, Suez, Alexandria were very clear. It was not only Mubarak who had to go but also his torturers—including the sinister Omar Suleiman, whom the Obama Administration at one stage touted as Mubarak’s successor—and the Interior Ministry forces that had brutalized the country for decades. The military alone was not targeted, despite the role of a corrupt and collaborationist High Command that had been on the US payroll since the defeat of 1973. The decision by the protest leaders in February 2011 to refrain from trying to split the Army, despite the fraternization of junior officers and soldiers with the crowds, was probably a tactical miscalculation [my emphasis] of the balance of forces, rather than springing from any illusions in the institutions of the Mubarak state.”

Ali’s article ends on a quite negative view of Bayat’s article, taking Bayat’s description of “refolution” to mean an open acceptance of the machinery of oppression.  You’ll need to read both to make your assessment, but it seems to me that Bayat’s take on the political moment is pragmatic, but not defeatist in the way that Ali tries to show.

Tunisia & Movement Against Drones

Outside of the heavy reading of New Left Review, a few other pieces should be highlighted here. Maria Poblet’s piece in Organizing Upgrade is a recap of her time at the World Social Forum, Tunisia. She makes the case for internationalism in this simple, but great, point:

“The same banks that we at Causa Justa :: Just Cause [an Oakland and San Francisco, CA organization] confront alongside women trying to save their homes are the ones restructuring Tunisia's economy in a way that impoverishes women.” 

The interview with Al-Muslimi is perhaps seems like we’ve read before, but it seems important to highlight the words of someone who was able to speak to our government about the outright lunacy of the use of drones.  Asked how he felt about being a spokesperson on the issue he responded “I am ready to get this done so I can go back to Yemen and work on activism like I had been doing since 2007, on issues of democracy, youth development, human rights, women’s issues.” With all the lip-service the US governments gives to these issues, the terror that drones instill is the only real message getting across to wide sections of society in the Middle East and beyond.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Greg has written book reviews for Left Turn Magazine, and volunteered with Prison Radio.

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