By VIJAY PRASHAD
February 15, 2011
The Arab Revolt of 2011 is unabated. Protests continue in such unlikely places
as Bahrain. On Valentine's Day, a protest march in Manama had no love for the
al-Khalifah royals. It wanted to deliver its message. "Our demand is a
constitution written by the people," the protestors chanted. Opposition leader
Abdul Wahab Hussain told the press, "The number of riot police is huge, but we
have shown using violence against us only makes us stronger." The police fired
rubber bullets and dispersed the as yet small crowd. "This is just the
beginning," Hussain said after he had been beaten off the streets.
Such protests appear unlikely only because the wave of struggle that broke out
in the late 1950s and peaked in the 1970s was crushed by the early 1980s.
Encouraged by the overthrow of the monarch in Egypt by the coup led by Gamal
Abdel Nasser, ordinary people across the Arab world wanted their own revolts.
Iraq and Lebanon followed. On the peninsula, the people wanted what Fred
Halliday called "Arabia without Sultans." The People's Front for the Liberation
of the Occupied Arab Gulf emerged out of the Dhofar (Oman) struggle. It wished
to take its local campaign to the entire peninsula. In Bahrain, its more timid
branch was the Popular Front. It did not last long. With Nasserism in decline by
the 1970s, the new momentum came to this Arabian republicanism from the Iranian
Revolution of 1979. The Islamic Front of the Liberation of Bahrain attempted a
coup in 1981. They had the inspiration, but not the organization. This Arab
archipelago could not go the way of Yemen, where a revolution allowed a Marxist
organization to seize power in 1967.
Exertions by these revitalized forces in the 1990s was met with stiff resistance
by the al-Khalifah regime. But the new ruler, Hamad (a graduate of Cambridge
University), was smart. He knew a thing or two about hegemony. Not enough to
smash the heads of the Islamists, he hastily called for an elected parliament,
allowed women to vote, and released some political prisoners. It was enough to
please Washington, and the oil companies. Nothing like stability that looks like
democracy. The Egyptian virus of 2011, however, overcame the façade of democracy
erected by Hamad. Protests are back.
The contagion is not only political. It is also, and perhaps decisively,
economic. Bahrain relies upon oil for its wealth. Oil money spawned real estate
speculation (the Dubai model). The beneficiaries of this process have been the
royal family, and a crony clique. The vast mass, mainly Shi'a, are enraged that
this wealth has had almost no social outlet. Afraid of the Shi'a population, the
monarch imported 50,000 foreign workers to reconfigure the demographic
landscape. This Bahranization policy was a smokescreen to pit the (local) labor
against the (foreign) labor. It has not worked. To top it off, an outcome of the
credit crunch since 2007 has been the Bahrain government's proposal to cut
subsidies of food and fuel. These have already been withdrawn because of popular
anger. The youth in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are kin to the young people in
Britain, Ireland, France, Italy – all of whom have been on the streets against
austerity. Young people are at the forefront of the revolts because they have
the most to lose from the cuts, and from the policies that mortgage their
futures. These are also, therefore, convulsions against the overpaid agents
(bankers) of over-ground powers (the Davos elite and their institutions).
Meanwhile, the U. S. Fifth Fleet has a berth in Bahrain. Vice Admiral Mark Fox
must be powering up the EA-6B Prowlers for emergency action.
Explanations for the Arab Revolt flounder. There are those who take refuge in
the trans-historical, finding this an example of the striving for human dignity.
The Arabs were angry. They would not take it anymore. This is all very good, but
it is too general. Why did the protests happen now, why in this way, why these
There are others who lurch in the other direction, away from the
trans-historical to specific circumstance. They think that broad explanations
are reductive, and so, they take refuge in the contingent: this event (the
immolation) led to that event (the protest) led to another event (the occupation
of Tahrir Square), and so to the grand event (Mubarak goes to the seaside).
History becomes a series of events that measure up to shifts that have no
bearing beyond the surface.
Such attempts to understand the Arab Revolt leads in two directions: they
confuse these revolts for Revolution, and it tends to see them as the 2011
Revolution against the 1952 Revolution led by Nasser. Inspirational as these
current revolts are, they are part of a long process in the Arab world that
stretches back into the 19th century. That long process is the Arab Revolution,
one that strives for a total transformation of the structures of domination that
constrain Arab futures. One episode in that long Arab Revolution is Nasser's
revolt of 1952. It was defeated by the late 1960s, and it returned Egypt (and
the Arab world) to its historical subordination. Another episode is the current
wave. The long Arab Revolution poses two questions that remain unanswered. These
should provide part of the scaffolding to understand what is afoot in the Arab
lands. The first question is of its politics, and the second is of its
When will the Arab people rule themselves, and not be ruled by one-party
dictators and monarchs who are beholden to bond markets and foreign capitals?
Not long ago France's Sarkozy and America's Clinton offered praise for their
"democratic" friends Ben Ali and Mubarak. To top the obscenity, Obama conferred
with the Saudis on the democratic transition in Egypt, which is like asking a
vegetarian how to cook prime rib.
In 1953, the aged King Farouk set sail on his yacht, al-Mahrusa, guarded by the
Egyptian navy, he waved to people who he considered his lesser: Nasser, son of a
postman, and Sadat, son of a small farmer. Their Colonels' Coup was intended to
break Egypt away from monarchy and imperial domination. Nationalization of the
commanding heights of the economy came alongside land reforms. But these were
ill-conceived, and they were not able to throttle the power of the Egyptian
bourgeoisie (whose habit for quick money continued, with three quarters of new
investments going to inflate a real estate bubble). The economy was bled to
support an enlarged military apparatus, largely to fight the U. S. backed armies
of the Israelis. Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war led Nasser to resign on 10 June.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Cairo, this time to ask Nasser to
return to office, which he did, although much weakened.
The democratic opening of 1952 was, however, unable to emerge. Military
officers, however, progressive, are loath to hand over the reins of power. The
security apparatus went after the Muslim Brotherhood certainly, but it was
fiercest against the Communists. Nasser did not build up a strong, independent
political culture. "His `socialism'," as Stavrianos put it, "was socialism by
presidential decree, implemented by the army and police. There was no initiative
or participation at the grass-roots level." For that reason, when Sadat moved
the country to the Right in the 1970s there was barely any opposition to him.
Nasserism after Nasser was as hollow as Perónism after Perón.
The current revolt is against the regime set up by Sadat and developed by
Mubarak. It is a national security state that has no democratic pretensions. In
1977, Sadat identified Nasserism with "detention camps, custodianship and
sequestration, a one-opinion, one-party system." Sadat allowed three kinds of
political forces to emerge, but then hastily defanged them (the leftist National
Progressive Grouping Party), coopted them (the Arab Socialist Party, and the
Socialist Liberal Party), or tolerated their existence (Muslim Brotherhood).
Cleverly, Sadat put in place what he accused Nasser of building. It was under
Sadat, and Mubarak (with Omar Suleiman in tow) that the detention camps and
torture centers blossomed.
In Tahrir Square, 22 year old Ahmed Abdel Moneim said, "The French Revolution
took a very long time so the people could eventually get their rights." His
struggle in 2010 is to repeal the national security state. That is the basic
requirement, to return to the slogan of the French Revolution. The dynamic that
Ahmed wants to be a part of is the dynamic of Nasserism, but this time it should
be without the military. That is one lesson of history.
The other lesson comes to us from Nadine Naber, who reminds us that women formed
a crucial part of this wave of revolt, as they did in the previous ones, and
yet, when the revolt succeeds women are set aside, as secondary political
actors. "What are the possibilities for a democratization of rights in Egypt,"
Naber asks, "in which women's participation, the rights of women, family law,
and the right to organize, protest, and express freedom of speech remain
central?" Naber repeats a question raised in 1957 by Karima El-Said, the deputy
minister of education of the United Arab Republic ("In Afro-Asian countries
where people are still suffering under the yoke of colonialism, women are
actively participating in the struggle for complete national independence. They
are convinced that this is the first step for their emancipation and will equip
them to occupy their real place in society"). It is history's second lesson,
that the democracy that emerges be capacious.
The second unanswered question of the long Arab Revolution is about bread and
the dignity of work. When will the economies of the Arab region be able to
sustain their populations rather than fatten the financial houses in the
Atlantic world, and offer massive trust funds for the dictators and the
monarchs? Cursed with oil, the Arab world has seen little economic
diversification and almost no attempt to use the oil wealth to engender balanced
social development for the people. Instead, the oil money sloshed North, to
provide credit for overheated consumers in the United States and to provide
banks with those vast funds that are otherwise not garnered by populations that
have stopped saving (for a long while Americans saved 1 per cent of their
paychecks, an understandable figure given the stagnation of wages since 1973).
The oil money also went toward the real estate boom in the Gulf, and the
baccarat tables and escort services of Monaco (the Las Vegas of Europe, which
has another decrepit monarch, Albert II, at its head).
As part of Sadat's de-Nasserization of Egypt, he opened the economy (infatah) to
foreign capital. Nationalization and subsidies ended, and free enterprise zones
were created by February 1974. Sadat wanted a "blood transfusion" for the
Egyptian economy, and so the Atlantic banks began to draw pints of blood from
the ailing Egyptian working class. They replaced it with liquor stores and
nightclubs (the targets of the January 1977 riots in Cairo). Inequality
flourished in Egypt, and neo-liberal policies produced an haute bourgeoisie with
more investment in London than in Alexandria. By 2008, some 40 per cent of the
population lived on under $2 a day. In October 2010, the courts directed the
government to raise the minimum wage from $70 a month to $207 a month. Because
Sadat and Mubarak eviscerated the attempt to create a diverse economy, Egypt now
relies upon rent income for its survival (remittances from Egyptian workers,
Suez Canal tolls, oil and gas exports, tourism revenues, and payment for
privatization, among others). A substantial part of this rent was diverted by
Mubarak to his coffers in the Swiss banks. There is no democracy for its
economy. The tyrant here is not only Mubarak, but the IMF, the World Bank, the
Banks, the Bond Markets, the Multi-National Corporations.
Labor strikes across Egypt, protests before the housing authority, protests at
food stalls – this is the face of the ongoing revolt. The Egyptians seem clear
that the departure of Mubarak means also the end to the neo-liberal dispensation
that was set up in the 1970s. They want to expand the social wage, to better
manage whatever rental wealth enters the country and to expand economic
* * *
Over the past twenty years we've seen two types of revolts. The first, those in
Eastern Europe for instance, were revolts against the suffocation of the late
Soviet-era State. Indifferent to the tarnished promises of such socialism, the
people sought refuge in the glamour of the market economy. It was a revolt for
the market. Two decades later, the East European dreams have become a horrid
The second, those in the Arab world today, but also the people's revolt in the
Philippines against Marcos and the people's revolt in Indonesia against Suharto,
were revolts against the market. These were revolts by masses of people who
wanted an expansion of the social wage. They began with revolts against
long-standing autocrats (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Marcos, Suharto) and cascaded into
demands for a different social and economic order.
For the Arab lands, these events of 2011 are not the inauguration of a new
history, but the continuation of an unfinished struggle that is a hundred years
old. Some people already sink back into gloom, discounting the remarkable
victory of ejecting Ben Ali and Mubarak. Such acts raise the confidence of the
people and propel other struggles into motion. The old order might yet remain,
but it knows that its time is on hand. In Gladiator (2000), the Germanic
barbarians sever the head of a Roman soldier and toss it in front of the Roman
battle lines. One of the Roman generals says, "People should know when they are
conquered." He meant the barbarians. The dictators of the Arab world, our
barbarians, might yet throw some heads before the advance of the people. But
they should know already that they are defeated. It is simply a matter of time:
a hundred years, or ten.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and
Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most
recent book, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, won the
Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just