After a long peregrination through the postal services of several authoritarian regimes, a physical copy of the Arabic translation of my Marx at the Margins arrived recently in the mail. I was deeply moved by the fact that this had occurred during the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring. When I posted this happy news on my Facebook wall, saying I was honored to be published in the 21st century language of revolution, I received lots of friendly responses. But not unanimously, as it turned out. One respondent, a dogmatic leftist who considers himself an anti-imperialist, dismissed my words about Arabic as the language of revolution as “nonsense.”
While I had been unable last winter to write the longer article I had intended in remembrance of the 2011 Arab revolutions, that little word “nonsense” stuck in my craw. Therefore, I want to thank that critic for pushing me to write something, this at a time when these revolutions — by far the most important of the last several decades — are being too often forgotten, or worse, dismissed. (Of course, scholars of the region like Gilbert Achcar have commented analytically on the anniversary, though without as much wider impact as they deserve.)
It is true that the silence of the grave permeates Egypt, the largest country involved in the revolutions of 2011. This is so much the case — at least for now — that the military regime of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently held a ceremonial parade of vehicles carrying the mummies of ancient pharaohs along streets from which the working-class population was literally walled off, unable to view an event passing through their own neighborhoods except on TV. It is also true that Syria has become a nightmare for most of its population: living again under the rule of the murderous Assad regime, driven into exile, or eking out an existence in a small area controlled by rebel forces dominated by fundamentalists, with the only exception the small territory ruled by secular, pro-feminist Kurdish revolutionaries. It is also true that Tunisia, which has been able to maintain the democratic republic won in 2011, exists under an increasingly authoritarian regime in a situation where the massive youth and women’s unemployment that touched off the revolution is growing again.
The situation was entirely different in 2011-12, and this should never be forgotten. For otherwise we also forget the capacity of ordinary working people and youth to actually transform society, to actually overthrow governments. Another lesson to remember is that moments of radical transformation are usually brief, and if we don’t seize the time, we can lose the chance to do so again for a generation or more. A third lesson is that even when we are defeated, new insights emerge from those defeats. A fourth lesson is what we have started can spread elsewhere, inspired by us even in defeat.
The Arab Spring started in tiny Tunisia in late 2010, with the self-immolation of a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who’d been harassed by the police to the point where he was unable to support his impoverished family. In January 2011, within weeks of Bouazizi’s death, outraged youth and working people overthrew an authoritarian regime that had been in power for decades and was widely regarded as impregnable. Within a few more weeks, the Egyptian regime, a lynchpin of U.S. imperialism for forty years, also met its demise, this time after huge crowds occupied Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo for over a week, defended by a massive uprising of youth, many of them from the poor and working-class neighborhoods of the large cities.
At this point, some on the left, of the sort that loves to attack U.S. imperialism while remaining silent (or worse) with regard to anti-U.S. regimes, began to crow that the U.S.’s allies in the Middle East were biting the dust. Even as such limited perspectives were being published, the revolution spread to not one but two regimes long considered hostile to the U.S., Qaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria, also reaching Bahrain, another U.S. ally, as well as Yemen.
Thus, in the space of less than three months, January through March 2011, two governments had been overthrown, and four more were facing truly massive uprisings. In Libya, Qaddafi fell to rebel forces by summer 2011, albeit in an ambiguous fashion that owed something to outside imperialist and subimperialist powers, with grave consequences for the future. In Bahrain, the uprising was repressed with the aid of Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary power in the region. In Yemen a stalemate developed, followed later by Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-abetted air attacks that have resulted in what many are calling the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In Syria, the Assad regime survived via brute force and sectarian appeals to Alawites and Christians, while the rebels took up arms, only to be infiltrated by all sorts of fundamentalists aided by the Saudis and their ilk. For its part, the regime called upon the Russian air force and ground forces loyal to the theocratic regime in Iran, unleashing the bloodiest repression in the region in order maintain itself in power.
While we have to face squarely these counterrevolutions and betrayals, it is equally important not to forget the high points of 2011-12. Everywhere, but especially in the two uprisings that toppled governments, Egypt and Tunisia, the democratic forces combined political and social demands. Thus, revolutionaries called for bread and jobs as much as for political freedom and democracy. And while they didn’t oppose capitalism as such explicitly, they did put forth strong critiques of the rapacious, corrupt, neoliberal form of capitalism that had swept the region. These neoliberal policies had made a number of the pre-2011 regimes poster children for the International Monetary Fund and international capital more generally. This played no small part in the fact that these uprisings touched large sectors of the working class as well as students and youth.
It was in Tunisia and Egypt that these economic and class aspects emerged most clearly. Upon the fall of the old governments in 2011, revolutionaries were faced almost immediately with other advocates of conservative rule that threatened to block or roll back the radical transformations that were on the agenda. In Tunisia, this took the form of religious fundamentalists. Well organized after years of activity, they prevailed in the first elections and threatened to establish an authoritarian, Islamist regime. But after massive street protests that involved leftists, feminists, and trade unions, the fundamentalists flinched, paving the way for the enactment of a secular, pro-women’s rights, and pluralist constitution of a type almost unknown in the region. In Egypt, the fundamentalists also dominated the first elections, but when the democratic left launched massive and sustained protests, the military stepped in, supposedly to resolve the situation in favor of a democratic, secular republic. The democratic left, hemmed in by the fundamentalists on one hand and the “secular” military on the other, and without as in Tunisia the presence of a powerful trade union movement, made the fateful decision to lean toward the military. Thereupon General Sisi not only pushed aside the fundamentalists, but soon afterward the democratic left as well.
We can certainly draw lessons from these defeats, as we should. But I think on this anniversary it is most important to grasp the world-historical character of the Arab Spring, whose international impact continues to this day. The examples are numerous: During the Egyptian uprising, government workers in the U.S. state of Wisconsin occupied the Capitol in protest against vicious anti-labor laws, explicitly acknowledging the Arab Spring as an inspiration. Six months later, Occupy Wall Street burst forth, again explicitly acknowledging its roots in the Arab Spring, and spreading to many countries. During summer 2011, massive protests and occupations took place in Spain and Israel, against economic inequality and vs. neoliberalism, once again inspired by the Arab Spring. A massive urban rebellion involving people of color as well as white youth spread across Britain that summer, in the face of the police killing of a Black man. By 2013, all eyes were on Turkey, where the Gezi Park Uprising, inspired both by the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, offered the biggest challenge to date to the rightwing Erdogan regime. And if, as many have said, the Sanders and Corbyn phenomena in the U.S. and the UK were outgrowths of the Occupy movement, then we have to say that they are also outgrowths of the Arab Spring. The same could be said, albeit more indirectly, of the massive Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. And let us not forget the “second wave” of Arab uprisings that emerged in 2019-20 with some success in Sudan — but with more equivocal results in Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
In sum, those of us all over the world who are today challenging racism, capitalism, and gender oppression should acknowledge our debt to the Arab Spring of 2011, and to ponder its lessons. We need to salute what these revolutionaries achieved in 2011 and after, and solemnly mourn those who lost their lives or were otherwise injured and oppressed, all the while looking to a revolutionary future. For Arabic is indeed the language of 21st century revolution.