Arab revolutions: One year on

Published on ZNet, by Gilbert Achcar, January 16, 2012.

One year after the start of a revolutionary process which swept through the Arab region and continues today, International Viewpoint asked Gilbert Achcar to look at the current state of play throughout the region. This interview was conducted on December 14, 2011.

International Viewpoint: We are approaching the first anniversary of the outbreak of the “Arab Spring”, in Tunisia. The overthrow of Ben Ali opened the way to the mass mobilisations in Egypt and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, the mobilisations in Yemen and the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the mobilisations in the Gulf States and in Syria in favour of democracy. How can we characterise these movements?

  • Gilbert Achcar: These are effectively movements which have as their common point the demand for democracy: they take place in countries with despotic regimes and they demand a change of regime, a change in the form of government and the democratisation of political life. This dimension is common to the movements cited, and it also gives them their strength because the democratic demand allows unification of a broad mass of people of different views, when it combines with a potential for social revolt that is very strong in the region. It should not be forgotten that in Tunisia the movement began with a social explosion. Young Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself, protested against his conditions of existence and did not advance political demands. His case highlighted the problem of endemic unemployment in the countries of the region, notably youth unemployment, the economic crisis, the absence of social perspectives. These are the basic ingredients. But when they combine with the opposition to a despotic regime, it takes on considerable proportions, as we can see in the countries mentioned. In contrast, in the countries where the despotic question has not been posed with the same acuteness, or the regime is more liberal and more tolerant of political diversity — Morocco for example — we find a movement built on social questions, but which has not yet acquired the breadth rapidly attained in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

IV: How do you see the evolution of US policy and that of the European countries in the region? Do the elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, or the military intervention in Libya, constitute a recovery of the initiative on the part of imperialism or the comprador national bourgeoisies? … //

… IV: The Algerian regime has not up to now been shaken by popular mobilisations. How do you explain this?

  • GA: We can say the same of Iraq or Sudan, as well as Lebanon. These are countries which have known prolonged phases of civil war. In such conditions, it is understandable and natural that the people are not very inclined to destabilise the situation. There is a fear of the unknown, a fear of the resurgence of the most extremist fundamentalist forces, a fear of renewal, including by manipulation of the regime, of the dirty war that Algeria has known and for which the people have paid the price. This background is very important. It should not be forgotten that Algeria is a country which has already experienced a popular uprising in 1988, which certainly did not have the same breadth, or the same forms of organisation as what we have seen this year, but which nonetheless led to political liberalisation. The electoral rise of the Front islamique du salut (FIS – Islamic Salvation Front), which followed, was ended by the coup d’état as we know, and the civil war. It is natural and normal that the people do not wish a repetition of this scenario. This is a stumbling block in Algeria, in the absence of forces capable of organising a horizontal social convergence on a class basis, which could be the base of a new uprising. There have been attempts at mobilisation in Algeria, but they have had little resonance. The perspectives seem rather blocked for the moment. That could change if the regional movement, which began in December 2010 in Tunisia, continues to broaden. We should also take account of the fact that neighbouring Tunisia and Libya are experiencing democratisations which benefit in both cases Islamic forces resembling the former FIS, repressed in Algeria. Ultimately that can have direct consequences on the Algerian situation and that worries the ruling military.

IV: Do you think the revolutionaries can win in Syria? And who are these revolutionaries?

  • GA: The mass uprising in Syria is above all an uprising of the popular base, of which the youth are the spearhead. It is the expression of exasperation faced with a family dictatorship which has ruled for 41 years. Hafez el-Assad took power in 1970 and died in 2000, after thirty years in power and since then, for eleven years, his son Bashar, promoted to this post when he was only 34, has ruled. There is then a very understandable exasperation, all the more in that the social dimension, ever-present in the background and as part of the infrastructure of the uprisings, is very present in Syria. It is a country which has been subjected for decades to economic liberalization reforms, which have accelerated in recent years and which are reflected in a dizzying rise in the cost of living, a very difficult social situation and considerable poverty (with 30% of the population living below the poverty level). This combines with the minority, confessional character of the regime, the ruling clique belonging mainly to the Alawite minority. All this explains why, when the inspiration came from the Tunisian example, then Egypt and finally Libya — including the international intervention in the latter country, which encouraged the Syrians to enter into action, hoping that it would dissuade their regime from repressing violently — we have seen the explosion of this movement that no political force can claim to control and still less to have initiated. Youth networks in particular — as we have seen everywhere from Morocco to Syria, using the new technologies of communication (like Facebook, of which much has been said) — have initiated and organised these uprisings under the form of “local coordination committees” now federated, which continue to propel the movement. They have no political affiliation.
  • But there are also political forces which are coalescing so as to “represent” the movement. We have seen two forces emerge, two competing groupings. One basically includes left forces, some of whom were not in the radical opposition to the regime and have ambiguous attitudes with respect to it, after having called for dialogue with it, believing they could act as mediators between the popular uprising and the regime and convince the latter to make reforms. They have quickly seen that this would not work and since then most have rallied around the objective of overthrowing the regime.
  • The other includes parties which are more radical in their opposition to the regime, a variety of forces going from the Muslim Brotherhood (who, here also, play a central role) to the Democratic Peoples’ Party (originating from a split in the Syrian Communist Party), which has evolved ideologically in an “Italian” manner, but remains a left opposition to the regime, as well as the Kurdish parties. These forces have formed the Syrian National Council, which has been accepted by a good part of the rank and file of the Syrian popular movement as their representative, although this doesn’t mean that the movement is controlled by political networks. It is then a peculiar situation which is reflected in the fact that they have chosen to entrust the presidency of the SNC to Burhan Ghalioun, an independent who is rather to the left. We see him now participate increasingly in a diplomatic game led by the Muslim Brotherhood in agreement with Turkey and the USA. This is a dangerous dynamic.
  • Finally, there are the army dissidents. After several months of repression, what should have happened did happen. Even in the absence of an organisation capable of organising the passage of soldiers to the side of the popular revolt, the discontent of the soldiers has led to defections, initially completely unorganised. Since August they have set up a Free Syrian Army, against a backdrop of the beginnings of a civil war, with confrontations between army dissidents and the Praetorian guard of the regime.
  • There is then in Syria a spectrum of forces. Because the country has not known any political life for decades — although the regime here is less totalitarian than was the case in Libya — it is impossible to know what the relative weight is of one or the other. We need to await the overthrow of the regime, if it happens, and free elections to see the relative force of the organised political currents.

IV: To return to Libya, does the fall of Gaddafi mean the end of the civil war or could we see the re-emergence of armed confrontations and if so, who are the protagonists?

… (full long interview text).

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