Lessons From the Arab Spring

Far from ending in defeat, the Arab Spring inaugurated a long-term revolutionary process in the Middle East.

What happened to the 2011 Arab revolutions? They reverberated throughout the Middle East and North Africa and around the globe, influencing movements from Occupy to the indignados. Even after the Arab Spring had mostly passed, the wave they helped initiate continued in Gezi Park, the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns, and Black Lives Matter.

But the immediate outlook in the region has become bleak. Only Tunisia offers even the limited hope of democracy and progressive social policies. Meanwhile, Egypt and Bahrain are in lockdown; Libya is mired in civil war; and Yemen and Syria are gripped by brutal conflicts aided by outside powers.

Drawing on sources in Arabic, English, and French, Gilbert Achcar’s Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising, offers the clearest and most comprehensive analysis of the fate of these revolutions. A sequel to his The People Want: A Radical Examination of the Arab Uprising, his newest book follows the story through December 2015, concentrating on developments in Syria and Egypt.

The Three-Cornered Struggle

In the new book, Achcar picks up three major threads from The People Want. First, he assesses the class and democratic politics — or lack thereof — of the political actors in Syria and Egypt. This broader analysis sets him apart from much of the global left, which tends to evaluate the region solely through the framework of imperialism. This has led some to side with the Assad and Qaddafi governments, while still supporting struggles against pro-American dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain.

Achcar certainly does not ignore Western imperialism, especially US imperialism, but he does not see it as the sole determinant in any of these events. As a result, he has supported both the 2011 Libyan uprising and the struggle against the Assad regime in Syria. In doing so, Achcar takes an unambiguously critical stance not only toward nominally secular MENA dictatorships — many of them military in origin — but also militant Islamist forces. As he explains, this has resulted in a three-cornered struggle: not a binary confrontation between revolution and counter-revolution, as in most revolutionary upheavals in history, but a triangular conflict between one revolutionary pole and two rival counter-revolutionary camps — the regional ancien regime and its reactionary antagonists — both equally inimical to the emancipatory aspirations of the “Arab Spring.”

The two reactionary camps individually combat emancipatory forces while contending with each other. The weakness of the democratic left has allowed one or the other counterrevolutionary element to gain control. In Egypt, the military defeated the Muslim Brotherhood, restoring a version of the old order. In Syria, “the binary clash between the two counter-revolutionary camps” has taken center stage, “relegating the revolutionary pole to the background.”

Finally, Achcar argues that the Arab world has embarked on a long-term revolutionary process. In his telling, the hopes raised in 2011 have not died out but have been driven underground. This turn allows Achcar to acknowledge defeats unflinchingly, while not dismissing the revolutions as mere epiphenomena in the march toward dictatorship and fundamentalism.

Assad’s Alliances

The first substantive chapter of Morbid Symptoms covers Syria. There Achcar attacks not only Russia and Iran for supporting the murderous Assad regime, but also the United States for displaying “deep human indifference to the fate of the population of an oil-poor Arab country.”

Having seen in Iraq and Libya that the collapse of centralized states can open the road to jihadism, the United States supports Assad’s ouster while remaining as adamant as Russia that the Syrian state and military be preserved.

The restrained nature of US intervention has been denied by some on the global left that see the country’s revolution as being tainted by complicity with US imperialism. Many have tacitly or openly supported Russia, Iran, and Assad on anti-imperialist grounds as a result.

Achcar chides them for their dehumanization of the Syrian people: “When disastrous failures of imperialism happen at the cost of terrible human tragedies, there can be no schadenfreude from a truly humanist anti-imperialist perspective.”

Achcar also subtly draws out how the regime has manipulated and tacitly supported jihadist groups to position them as its “preferred enemy,” allowing Assad to rally segments of both the domestic population and outside powers to his side.

For example, in spring 2014, Assad allowed ISIS to bring forces across Syria and into Iraq unimpeded, at the same time launching airstrikes against even the smallest convoys in other areas free of his government’s control. This was just one small part of a larger strategy of targeting democratic or moderate Islamist opposition while leaving ISIS alone.

Achcar also credits Syrian Kurds for their gender politics, characterizing them as “the most progressive force to emerge to this day in any of the six countries that were scenes of the 2011 uprising.” He contrasts the Kurds’ strategically organized resistance to the participants in the early Syrian uprising, who failed to develop “an effective organization” and relied too heavily on “an improvised network facilitated by the use of social media.”

One does not have to be a Leninist (and I certainly am not) to see this argument’s merit and its resonance far beyond Syria, but it’s a shame that Achcar does not spend more time closely analyzing the Kurds and their role in the region.

Nostalgia in Egypt

If the chapter on Syria is tightly packed, the chapter on Egypt stretches out, covering a multitude of developments since the 2011 uprising. Achcar first traces the Morsi government’s fall. Elected in 2012, Morsi promised to form a broad-based coalition government, but instead installed the narrowly partisan Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the military — more powerful than the government — watched and waited.

Achcar then details the rising opposition to Morsi, including the left-of-center Tamarod movement that mobilized millions in spring 2013. In contrast to many other accounts, he stresses Egyptian labor’s role in both the 2011 uprising and Tamarod. But at the same time, he shows how the military co-opted the anti-Morsi movement — which initially had great democratic promise — to install the pitiless dictatorship that rules Egypt today.

The most moving section of this chapter concerns Hamdeen Sabbahy, the left-wing Nasserite who won significant working-class backing. Sabbahy appears as a tragic figure in his attempt to carve out a space for secular leftist politics between the counterrevolutionary threats emanating from both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Aware of the Egyptian left’s relative weakness, Sabbahy initially joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s coalition. Soon disillusioned, he helped mobilize the anti-Morsi movement on the streets. But he was misled by his biggest illusion: that the Egyptian military — which had under Nasser enacted some positive social and economic measures — could be a progressive force today.

As a result, he hesitated for months before distancing himself from the new military ruler, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. On Achcar’s account, Sabbahy believed that Sisi would allow democratic elections after he toppled Morsi and that the military would support Sabbahy’s presidential bid. Achcar suggests that pure opportunism cannot explain this miscalculation. Rather, it was a product of deep illusions based on nostalgia for an earlier era.

After covering Sisi’s economic policies and the country’s overall economic plight today, Achcar concludes that the greatest failure in Egypt lay in how progressive nationalists and leftists oscillated between the two poles of counterrevolution, first seeking support from the Muslim Brotherhood then from the military.

He does not oppose the Left making “short-term tactical alliances” with conservative forces, but argues that it must never give up its independence or stop openly espousing its values. This must include “championing feminist values as much as national liberation values” as part of building the kind of “resolutely progressive leaderships that have hitherto been so cruelly lacking.”

Questions for the Future

As welcomed as Achcar’s book is, it does leave itself open to some criticism. While he discusses the Syrian Kurds, he does so only briefly, without drawing out their politics and connections with other regional movements. Considering their role as a broadly socialist and feminist force, the success and limits of the Kurdish movement’s strategy should have been explored.

Achcar also doesn’t seriously examine the relatively progressive elements of Islamism — like Egypt’s Abdel Mouneim Aboul-Fouteh, who together with Sabbahy garnered some 38 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2012 Egyptian elections. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for understanding the global effects of the Arab revolutions, Achcar’s critique of the limits of spontaneous organizing is only offered in passing.

Despite these omissions, Morbid Symptoms is a sobering yet generous account of the Arab people’s fight for true liberation and the lessons that have been learned from that struggle.


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