The Arab revolutions in perspective

This interview with Gilbert Achcar, who is currently working on a book on the Arab revolutions, was conducted by Yvan Lemaitre, and published in the newspaper of the French NPA on July 28, 2011.

Yvan Lemaître — The smothering of all political life by the dictatorships obscured the politicisation of intellectual circles, the workers’ movement and peoples in the aftermath of war and anti-imperialist struggles. Will this political base re-emerge today in the revolutions underway?

Gilbert Achcar — What is happening today should be placed in the context of the long modern history of the Arab states. Without going back too far in time, we can situate the current revolutionary wave in the road followed since the previous regional wave of upheaval, following the Nakba, the Arab defeat in Palestine in 1948. The rise of the nationalist movement in the 1950s and 1960s arrived then to ride on and check popular protest, but also accompany it in its socio-economic and political radicalisation. The new Arab defeat of June 1967 at the hands of Israel signalled the beginning of the decline of Arab nationalism. The 1970s were years of transition during which three currents battled for hegemony: a declining nationalism, a new radical left partly originating in nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism fuelled by Saudi petrodollars and favoured by the regimes in power as an antidote to the left.

After the Iranian revolution of 1979, a new historic phase lasting three decades began during which regional popular protest was dominated by religious currents, with the decline and marginalisation of the left. In recent years, however, the socio-economic consequences of neoliberal globalisation have led to a new rise in social protest, class struggle, propelled by the effects of the crisis and the deterioration of living conditions. In Egypt, 2006 saw the beginning of a wave of workers’ struggles which until 2009 went beyond anything the country and the region has known in this respect.

This revival of class struggle – an area in which the religious currents which advocated social conciliation are virtually absent – indicated that we were entering a new political phase, a new phase of transition. With the current revolutionary wave, we see the mobilisation and role of the working class in Tunisia and Egypt, the two most important countries so far, strengthening. We see also, in a more modest fashion, a new rise of the radical left. We also see the widespread appearance of a new liberalism in the American sense of the word, a political liberalism, quite progressive on the social plane, whose best known representative is the April 6 youth movement in Egypt.

While it is very exaggerated to speak of a “Facebook revolution”, it is true that a generation exists which has politicised within the limits of this new liberalism whose means of organisation have been provided by this technology. From Morocco to Syria, we have seen this illustrated in the organisation of mobilisations of electronic communication networks which bring together the great majority of youth mobilised around liberal, democratic and secular aspirations, combined with a social reformism. There is here a significant potential for radicalisation which the left, if it can take advantage of it, could influence.

We have entered a new period of transition, with a redistribution of the cards which sees a strong competition between, on the one had the new rising forces – the workers’ movement, the left and liberal youth – and on the other, the Islamic movements.

You talk of revolutions as if there is a single process. What is the role of pan-Arabism in consciousness and in these developments?

We should use the term “Arab” in quotation marks. We could characterise this region as Arab in the geopolitical sense of the Arab League, in the sense also that Arabic is the official language there, though not always exclusively. Morocco and Algeria, in particular, are Arabic-Amazigh speaking countries.

Pan-Arabism, or in other words Arab nationalism, has been the dominant ideology in the mass movement at the regional scale during the period of the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, this nationalism represented an aspiration to a unity in the manner of the great European bourgeois unifications, from above, mainly crystallised around the person of Egypt’s President Nasser. The defeat of the Arab nationalist movement was accompanied by a revival of the “nationalitarian” ideology. Today, the fact that the movement of opposition has spread like wildfire in the Arabic speaking area bordered by the Sahara, Iran and Turkey, can only be explained by the links created by this cultural, linguistic and historic community. The satellite chain Al-Jazeera has strongly contributed here, as, of course, have electronic communications.

A new regional consciousness is in the process of emerging, which is no long the aspiration to a unity at the summit, by the dictatorships, but a very much more democratic aspiration to unity at the base. Rather than the European models of past centuries, it is the confederal and democratic model of the current European Union (outside of its social content, of course) which corresponds best to what the youth of today wish for.

The concrete attempts at unification which have taken place up until now in the Arab world have taken the form one might expect when dealing with a union between dictatorial regimes. They were bound to break up, through the failure of the grip of one country over another like the Syrian- Egyptian union of1958, or rendered devoid of meaning like the Arab Maghreb Union of 1989. Today, there is the consciousness that before arriving at unification, it is necessary to make deep democratic changes in the countries concerned.

What stage are the Arab revolutions at now and what are their perspectives?

The point on which a broad consensus exists is that things are only just beginning. Even in the two countries where victories have been won, Tunisia and Egypt, there are as many if not more elements of continuity with the old regime as of discontinuity. What has been overthrown is the visible part of the iceberg; all the rest is still there, that is the bulk of the dominant class and the apparatuses of power. That is why the fight continues, as in Egypt with the mobilisation against the military council which has assumed power since the departure of Mubarak.

The most appropriate formulation to describe what has happened in the region is “revolutionary process”, rather than “revolution” in the sense of a finished process. Unleashed by the events of December 2010 in Tunisia and continued in Egypt, the revolutionary process is underway on a regional scale; it is only at its beginning. It has not yet won initial victory in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria – not to mention the other countries where demonstrations have not yet succeeded in taking on a great breadth – and it remains largely unfinished in Tunisia and Egypt. The Egyptians have good reason to call their revolution by the date of its beginning: the “revolution of January 25”.

They are still far from the end of it. The latter is difficult to predict, because as in any period of revolutionary upheaval marked by the eruption of the masses on the political scene, history accelerates to a dizzying degree.

That said, any return to the status quo ante is excluded. You can’t turn the wheel of history backwards. The Arab world has in 2011 entered into a period of transition which opens several possibilities like any revolutionary process.

The most desirable perspective from my viewpoint is the deepening and consolidation of the democratic conquests in such a way as to allow the construction of a social and political workers’ movement capable of starting a new phase of radicalisation of the process, on a class basis. The main alternative perspective today is the limitation of the democratic transformation to the profit of the continuity of the regimes, through the co-opting of the fundamentalism movements. This is what the US calls an “orderly transition”, which is why they have now established official relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. There also remains, of course, the perspective of a phase of prolonged instability with social and economic consequences which – like the aftermath of the revolution of 1848 in France which led to the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” –could ultimately lead to an authoritarian power confiscating the revolution and its gains. Such a development cannot be ruled out.

That is why is fundamental that the left knows how to fight for political democracy, with the alliances this fight implies, while considering as essential the construction of the independent workers’ movement on both the trade union and political fronts.



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