Twists and turns in the Arab Spring

August 26, 2013

The Egyptian military's deadly crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi has cast a spotlight on the challenges ahead for the uprisings that shook the Arab world since early 2011.

The military stepped in to remove Morsi after a campaign calling for his resignation gained mass sympathy, culminating in a day of demonstrations that brought millions of Egyptians onto the streets. But in the weeks after Morsi fell, the generals--flush with confidence after having rehabilitated their image in the eyes of many Egyptians--have begun to rule again with an iron fist, carrying out massacres against Brotherhood protests and even moving toward releasing former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt is in the headlines every day, but a similar process is taking place in Tunisia, and other countries shaken by the Arab Spring are also going through new upheavals.

Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is the author of many books, including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder--his latest, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising will be released in English at the beginning of September. In late July, he spoke to Jacques Babel in an interview for the online publication of France's New Anticapitalist Party. This English translation appeared at International Viewpoint.

THE REVOLUTIONARY process in the Arab region continues to surprise the media. How do you analyze the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia?

THERE ARE certainly qualitative changes that have taken place, but the fact that there are twists and turns in the process is not surprising. We must understand that what began in late 2010 and early 2011 is a long-term revolutionary process. The idea that the electoral victories of the currents coming from Islamic fundamentalism in Tunisia and Egypt would close down the changes underway proved completely wrong.

These forces were doomed to failure since they, like the regimes they replaced, had no answer to the very serious social and economic problems that caused the uprisings. They are a continuation of neoliberal policies and therefore cannot solve these problems, which have only got worse.

The revolutionary process can take surprising forms, but we will continue to pass from upheaval to upheaval in the region as a whole, before the situation stabilizes. This would mean, in a positive hypothesis, a profound change in the social nature of the governments in the region and their move toward policies based on the interests of working people.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood face a line of Egyptian soldiers in Nasr City
Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood face a line of Egyptian soldiers in Nasr City (Amr Abdallah Dalsh | Reuters)

HOW DO you see the battle going on today in Egypt?

WE MUST distinguish two levels: the maneuvering and conflicts among those concerned with political power and the underlying wave of popular discontent. The second has been unleashed, but like the unrest of 2011, it has ended in a military intervention.

In February 2011, Mubarak was dismissed by the military, which then took direct power, placing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces at the head of the executive. This time, the generals have not repeated the same operation, having burned their fingers trying to govern the country in a state of upheaval such that it would rapidly wear out any government that limited itself to carrying out neoliberalism. But the civilians who have been appointed to head the executive cannot hide the fact that it is the army that has the power.

However, the argument that the army intervened against a democratically elected government is a very right-wing view of democracy. It is to say that elected officials have carte blanche to do whatever they want during their term of office, even if they blatantly betray the expectations of their constituents. A radical conception of democracy involves the right to recall elected representatives.

This is the form that the movement took in Egypt with the petition campaign, launched by the youth movement "Tamarod" (Rebellion), calling for Morsi to go and for new elections to be held. In a few months, they gathered an impressive number of signatures, a much higher total than the number of votes Morsi obtained in his election to the presidency. From this point of view, his dismissal was entirely legitimate.

However, the big problem is that rather than organizing the broad movement to overthrow Morsi by means of mass struggle--a general strike, civil disobedience--we saw the opposition leaders, both liberal and left, agree with the military and applaud the coup, whose ultimate logic is to capture the potential for popular mobilization and impose a return to hard-line "order," something that has been confirmed by the actions of the military. This is extremely serious, and in this respect, there has been a strategic failure for the majority of Egyptian left.

The army's image has been restored, and the commander-in-chief of the army, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, has been showered with praise. El-Sisi is the strongman of the new ancien regime. Although only the minister of defense, he called on the people to demonstrate in support of the army, completely ignoring the new government.

Today, even the youth of Tamarod have begun to worry--rather late in the day--about the trap of their own making that they have fallen into. The coup has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to rejuvenate itself politically, posing as martyrs and victims of a military coup. It has reconsolidated its social base, which is important, although it is now clear it is a minority. The military action has polished their image.

SO THE position of the Islamist movements that took the place of the previous regimes in Tunisia and Egypt has quickly deteriorated, but the weakness of the left is now equally a big problem.

APART FROM the revolutionary left, which remains marginal in Egypt, most of the left have put their forces behind the National Salvation Front.

Most of those who originate in the traditional Communist movement and those from the Nasserist current, which remains the left with the most influence on the people at large, have participated in the process of mystifying the role of the army. This is all the more unfortunate in that these forces were in the streets against the army in the months leading up to the election of Morsi!

When Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserist leader, explained a few days before June 30, that it had been a mistake to have shouted a year earlier, "Down with the military government," he drew the wrong lessons from history. The real mistake was to repent and to say now that we should be applauding the army.

WHAT DO you think of the plans in Tunisia to curb the power of Ennahdha party, the main Islamist party in the country?

UNFORTUNATELY, THERE is a risk that Tunisia will develop into a similar scenario to Egypt: a left that does not have the political insight to fight on a left-wing agenda, and is preparing to build alliances even with the parts of the former regime. These links are present in Nidaa Tounès.[1]

Such an approach ultimately benefits the Islamist forces, who have a golden opportunity to denounce the agreements of the left with remnants of the former regime. This allows the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahdha to pose as bearers of the legitimacy and continuity of the revolution.

IS THERE a problem of political representation for the working classes in the revolution?

YES. THE problem is that instead of trying to win hegemony in the mass movement--fighting primarily on social issues--which would cause all supporters of neoliberalism to unite against it, from the fundamentalists to the men of the old regime and even the liberals--the Tunisian left has made a short-sighted alliance with sections of the old regime.

In a country like Tunisia, in my opinion, the trade union federation, the UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers) is a socially hegemonic force and can easily become the politically dominant one. But a wall has been erected between union struggles and political ones.

Tunisia's left now heads the UGTT. But rather than launch the union federation into the political battle, with a strategy of forming a workers' government, this left seems to be moving towards alliances--against its own interests--with different political groups, organized in the Front Populaire on the one hand, and the liberals and the remnants of the former regime on the other.

DESPITE THESE difficulties, the uprisings are continuing in many countries. For example, we are seeing "Tamarod" movements in Libya and Bahrain.

IN THE six countries which were most deeply affected by the 2011 uprisings, the mass movements are continuing.

In Libya, it is constant turmoil. The media do not report it, but there are constant popular mobilizations, in particular against the fundamentalists--the elected institutions are subject to different pressures from the popular base.

In Yemen, the movement goes on, even though it has been weakened by the compromise that a section of the opposition forces made. Radical forces, particularly from the youth and the left, are continuing to fight against this pretense of change. In Bahrain, the popular movement against the monarchy is continuing.

And in Syria, the civil war is in full swing. It is at a tragically high level today with a ferocious counter-offensive by the regime, supported by Russia, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. Syria is a flagrant case of the cynicism of the great powers, who are allowing the massacre of a people in whom they have no confidence.

SO TWO and a half years after the beginning of the process, is it still continuing?

A REVOLUTIONARY dynamic was unleashed in 2011, a long-term process that will have its ups and downs, periods of reaction, counter-revolutionary and revolutionary upsurges. But for there to be a positive outcome to this process, forces that defend progressive answers to the social and economic problems posed must emerge.

If not, there are other possible scenarios--regression, reaction, repressive alliances against the populations between those who today seem to be on different sides: the military and the fundamentalists. There is nothing determined one way or another. It is an open situation, in full turmoil. The left must urgently find a third, independent way against the old regimes and against the fundamentalists, in order to satisfy the social demands of the women and men who rose in revolt.


1. "Call of Tunisia," an initiative launched by Beji Caid Essebsi, a lawyer; former minister of defense and of foreign affairs under the founding figure of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba; and the prime minister for 10 months shortly after the revolution.

First published in English at International Viewpoint.

Further Reading

From the archives