Every day in February and March seemingly passes another anniversary of the Arab Awakening. The uprisings were not simply ‘the people’ in opposition to dictators – they were rooted in issues of economic justice, the creation of civic states providing welfare and services, and asserting national autonomy. The uprisings’ power came from the shock they produced. As Rachel Maddow commented on the night Mubarak was overthrown, “What does this cause? We don‘t know. But we do know in some sense, today is day one of a different world. And change is hard.” 3 years later and there is a different world. Recent uprisings in Eastern Europe have seen anti-privatisation protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but a heavy far-right presence in the Ukrainian revolution. Similarly in ‘the Arab world’, the consequences are many and complex.
The Tunisian Revolution’s power was partly that Arab people were no longer faceless. They were real people with demands that could not be collapsed to ‘religion’ or ‘anti-American’ attitudes. Both the Western right and left profited off this discourse during the Iraq invasion at the expense of Iraqis who wanted neither dictatorship, nor their country partitioned into segregated neighbourhoods. The anti-war left was weakened by resorting to tropes that Arab people didn’t want democracy, instead of seeing the war as about asserting US dominance. Flirting with partitioning Iraq into three states as a ‘peace plan’ further weakened the anti-war left when the 2007 troop ‘surge’ entrenched the segregation of Baghdad. Success was found because local insurgents were accommodated to turn against Al-Qaeda affiliates, and ethnic cleansing was effectively complete. But the Iraqi people were still seen as ‘faceless’ pawns against the Bush administration. General Jay Garner’s proposals for quick elections in 2003 – mainly to prevent US-imposed privatisation – and President Bush’s rejection of this proposal, was ignored. Despite Iraq’s GDP growth, 75% say poverty is the biggest problem, 79% say electricity is bad or very bad, and 74% do not have irrigation amidst massive bureaucratic corruption. The inability to speak to Iraqi people’s realities – with political reform tied to improving material conditions – stifled the left after 9/11 and the beginning of the Arab Awakening.
Simultaneously, the Arab left has been institutionalised for decades. The Syrian left, having been co-opted by the Assad regime, did not address rapidly rising poverty brought about by economic liberalisation. Their institutionalised outlook is irrelevant for local ceasefire agreements between pro-Assad and revolutionary forces. The Western left has desired a coherent figure or narrative to align with amidst the breadth of the opposition, too often missing non-violent movements active in building the revolution, ranging from unions to media start-ups. Anti-NATO intervention narratives argued invasion would bring chaos and infringe upon Syria’s sovereignty without recognising the civil war already instigated chaos and international intervention. It is easier to condemn British arms manufacturers exporting chemical weapons than to talk about the conditions of 2 million refugees and 7 million homeless Syrians or rebuilding Syria’s medical and education systems. While a peace process involving Iran is essential, there remains a danger the Western left will endorse sectarianism as a ‘peace plan’ to prevent US intervention. Such sectarianism only produces truncated alliances with governments over people, and opportunities for intervention.
The military coup in Egypt last year underlined the Western left’s greater interest in a coherent figure or narrative than Arab people themselves. Many rushed to endorse liberal Mohamad ElBaradei as Prime Minister without realising how Egyptian liberals support the militarised state to ‘contain’ the ‘illiberal’ Muslim Brotherhood – they are not comfortable with the masses. The same is true even of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. There is little difference between Tony Blair’s support for the coup and their position, despite the illiberal state violence against dissidents and break down in the rule of law. Many in the West refer to the Arab Awakening as having ‘ended’ or dismiss the idea that any ‘real’ revolution could take place. The desire for such a simplistic narrative brushes over the complicated relationships in Egyptian politics; middle-class coalitions couldn’t break the military’s entrenched ownership of the economy or restrictions on unions – 82% youth unemployment thus remained unchallenged.
The assertion of national autonomy was a common thread throughout the uprisings. US control in the region has been fundamental to scepticism of Arab democracy’s success. While refusing to completely stop military aid, the US was constrained by Saudi and Israeli support for the coup (and Saudi financial support propping up General Sisi’s regime). The US’ complicity with Egypt’s military is a reminder their regional influence impedes democracy, seen with the re-entrance of US bases into Saudi Arabia to launch drone strikes into Yemen. The Yemeni revolution has stalled; reconciliation has protected patronage over revolutionary demands, namely a civic state which provides for Yemenis’ material needs like water. US interests are directly opposed to the key democratic concern of banning drone strikes in Yemeni territory. President Obama’s pressure to jail a Yemeni journalist reporting on drones shows US encroachment in Yemen is a barrier to establishing a non-patronage based democracy. Similarly in Bahrain, Saudi influence – and the US-Saudi relationship as a lynchpin of regional control – exacerbates civil rights violations and the militarisation of daily life even in hospitals. Indeed the UK’s complicity in stalling regional democracy starts in Bahrain: new arms deals have been signed with King Hamad and Scotland Yard officials continue to have strong links with Bahrain’s internal security services.
Yet the ‘original’ revolution in Tunisia – despite violence and political deadlock – has recently revived hope in the regional revolutionary processes. With a constitution affirming women’s rights, the right to healthcare and a living wage, and the fair conservation and distribution of water resources among other things, Tunisians and Arab people are once again no longer faceless. The logic that worked before the Arab Awakening is unsustainable. Democratic aspirations are part of broader movements for economic justice, national autonomy, and civic state development, and cannot be ‘planned’ through liberal institution-building – the reason for the Tunisian Revolution’s success has been the development of independent mass movements.
The fledgling revolution in Tunisia shows that while the Arab Awakening continues, it requires new sparks to facilitate the tentative revolutionary processes. The difficult Tunisian constitutional process shows the best means of doing this is backing Arab people themselves. But these movements also require breaking the US’ reliance on these client state regimes. The most developed Arab civil society movement is for Palestinian liberation, the elephant in the room in these uprisings. Backing Palestinian and Western Saharan liberation, Bahraini and Yemeni autonomy from US and Saudi control, and Egyptian and Iraqi attempts to break economic monopolies, is the best means of furthering the difficult and unpredictable revolutionary process.