Remembering the Arab Spring

Image: Anthony Beck


Arabic as the language of the XNUMXst century revolution

After a long journey through the postal services of various authoritarian regimes, a physical copy of the Arabic translation of my Marx at the Margins[I]recently arrived in the mail. I was deeply moved by the fact that this happens on the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring. When I posted the good news on my Facebook, saying that I was honored to be published in the language of the XNUMXst century revolution, I received many friendly responses. But, I later realized, they weren't unanimous. One of those who replied, a dogmatic leftist who considers himself an anti-imperialist, thus dismissed my words about Arabic as the language of the revolution: “foolishness”.

Last winter, I couldn't write a longer article in memory of the Arab revolutions of 2011, but that little word, “foolishness”, kept popping into my head. I therefore want to thank this critic for pushing me to write something, in these times when these revolutions – the most important, by far, of the last few decades – are so forgotten, or, even worse, discarded (it is true that academics in the region , as Gilbert Accar, commented analytically on their anniversary, but without the broader impact they deserve).

It is true that the silence of the tombs permeates Egypt, the largest country involved in the 2011 revolutions. So much so (for now at least) that the military regime of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently promoted a parade in which vehicles carried mummies of ancient pharaohs; on the other side of the wall, literally, the working class could not see, if not on television, an event that was passing through the streets of their own neighborhood. It is also true that Syria has become a nightmare for almost all of its people: still living under Assad's murderous regime, forced into exile or struggling for existence in a small area controlled by fundamentalist-dominated rebel forces; the only exception: the small territory controlled by pro-feminist, secular Kurdish revolutionaries. It is still true that Tunisia, which maintained the democratic republic conquered in 2011, is under an increasingly authoritarian regime and with the mass unemployment of youth and women, which triggered the revolution, rising again.

The situation was entirely different in 2011-2012, which should never be forgotten. Otherwise, we will also forget the ability of ordinary workers and youth to effectively transform society, to effectively overthrow governments. Another lesson to remember is that moments of radical transformation are usually brief, and if we don't seize them, we may miss the chance for a generation or more. A third lesson is that even when we are defeated, new perspectives emerge from defeats. A fourth lesson: what we started can spread wherever it goes, inspired by us, even in defeat.

The Arab Spring began in tiny Tunisia at the end of 2010 with the self-immolation of a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who had been found by the police to the point where he could no longer support his impoverished family. In January 2011, weeks after Bouazizi's death, angry youth and workers overthrew an authoritarian regime that had been in power for decades and was seen as invincible. A few weeks later and the Egyptian regime, a pillar of US imperialism for forty years, also met its end, after vast crowds occupied Tahrir Square in central Cairo for over a week, supported by a massive uprising of youth, mostly coming from the poor and working-class neighborhoods of the big cities.

At that moment, some on the left, the kind who love to bash US imperialism while keeping quiet (or worse) about anti-US regimes, began to parrot: US allies in the Middle East were kicking the bucket. Even when these limited prospects were publicized, the revolution was spreading, and not just by one, but by two regimes that had long been considered hostile to the United States: Qaddafi's Libya and Assad's Syria, also reaching Bahrain, another US ally. United States, like Yemen.

So, in the space of less than three months, from January to March 2011, two governments were overthrown, and another four faced truly mass uprisings. In Libya, Qaddafi was overthrown by rebel forces in the summer of 2011, albeit ambiguously, owing something to imperialist and sub-imperialist external powers, with serious consequences for the future. In Bahrain, the uprising was suppressed with the help of Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary power in the region. In Yemen, a stalemate developed, followed by Saudi Arabia and the US complicity in airstrikes that resulted in what many now call the world's worst humanitarian crisis. In Syria, the Assad regime survived through brute force and sectarian appeals to Alawites and Christians. In arms, the rebels were only infiltrated by all sorts of fundamentalists, helped by Saudis and others of their own, while the regime called in the Russian air force and ground forces loyal to the theocratic regime of Iran, unleashing the most bloody repression region in order to stay in power.

If we are to face these counterrevolutions and betrayals head-on, it is equally important that we do not forget the high points in 2011-2012. Everywhere, but especially in the two uprisings that brought down governments, in Egypt and Tunisia, democratic forces combined political demands with social demands. The revolutionaries clamored, therefore, for bread and jobs, as much as for freedom and democracy. And if they were not so explicitly opposed to capitalism, they did present harsh criticisms of its neoliberal, rapacious and corrupt form, which swept the region. Neoliberal policies had made the pre-2011 regimes poster boys for the International Monetary Fund and international capital in general, which did not play a secondary role in causing the uprisings to touch broad sections of the working class, as well as students and society. youth.

It was in Tunisia and Egypt that these economic and class aspects emerged most clearly. With the fall of the former governments in 2011, the revolutionaries almost immediately faced other defenders of the conservative regime, who threatened to block or roll back the agenda of radical transformations. These, in Tunisia, took the form of religious fundamentalists. Well organized after years of activity, they prevailed in the first elections, threatening to establish an Islamic and authoritarian regime. But after massive street protests, involving leftists, feminists and unions, the fundamentalists backed down, paving the way for the establishment of a constitution of a type almost unknown in the region: secular, favorable to women's rights and pluralist. In Egypt, fundamentalists also dominated the first elections, but when the democratic left launched consistent mass protests, the military intervened, supposedly to resolve the situation in favor of a democratic and secular republic. The democratic left, surrounded on the one hand by fundamentalists, on the other by the “secular” military, and without the presence of a powerful trade union movement (as in Tunisia), took the fateful decision to lean towards the military. Soon after, General Sisi sidelined not only the fundamentalists, but also, shortly afterwards, the democratic left itself.

We can, and certainly must, draw lessons from these defeats. But I think that, on this anniversary, it is much more important to grasp the world-historical character of the Arab Spring, whose international impact continues to this day. Numerous are the examples. During the Egyptian uprising, Wisconsin state government workers occupied the Capitol in protest against pernicious anti-work laws, explicitly acknowledging the inspiration of the Arab Spring. Six months later, the Occupy Wall Street, also explicitly acknowledging its roots in the Arab Spring. In the summer of 2011, protests and occupations against economic inequality and neoliberalism, also inspired by the Arab Spring, took place in Spain and Israel. That same summer, in the face of the police killing of a black man, a massive urban riot, involving both black people and white youth, spread across Britain. In 2013, all eyes turned to Turkey, where the Gezi Park uprising, inspired by both the Arab Spring and the busy, launched the biggest challenge yet to the right-wing Erdogan regime. And if, as many have said, the Sanders and Corbin phenomena in the United States and Great Britain are offshoots of the busy, then we need to say that they are also offshoots of the Arab Spring. The same could be said, albeit more indirectly, of the massive Black LivesMatter protests in 2020. And let's not forget the "second wave" of Arab uprisings that emerged in 2019-2020, with some success in Sudan, but with worse results. mistakes in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon.

In short, we who across the world challenge racism, capitalism and gender oppression must recognize our debt to the 2011 Arab Spring, as well as ponder its lessons. Always aiming for a revolutionary future, we must salute what these revolutionaries achieved in 2011 (and beyond), as well as gravely mourn their dead, wounded and oppressed. For Arabic is indeed the language of the revolution of the XNUMXst century.

*Kevin B Anderson é professor of sociology and political science at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Aauthor, among other books, of Marx on the Margins: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Boitempo).

Translation: Rodrigo MR Pinho.

*Originally published in the newspaper The International Marxist-Humanist.


[I]ANDERSON, Kevin B. Marx at the Margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. In Brazil: Marx on the Margins: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies. Translated by Allan M. Hillani, Pedro Davoglio. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2019.


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