By Joel Beinin
Ignited by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the impoverished Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, a prairie fire engulfed much of the Arab world during 2011. Social movements of the previous decade converged in the uprisings: broad pro-democracy activism exemplified by Egypt’s Kifaya (Enough!), campaigns against police brutality, in defense of judicial independence, prisoners’ rights, women’s rights, and in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Morocco, workers’ actions to defend their standard of living. However, the 2011 occupations of public space proclaiming “the people want the fall of the regime” and demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice” were much more than a social movement. They were popular rebellions with a revolutionary thrust directed, albeit vaguely and without a clear program, against both autocratic neo-patrimonial rule and neo-liberal crony capitalism.
Conventional wisdom in the West has understood these uprisings primarily through two frames: the successful expansion of “civil society” leading to democratization; and mobilizations impelled by the social media activism of educated, western-oriented youth. However, in no case did the initiative for pro-democracy demonstrations come from “civil society organizations.” Social media activists in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Bahrain were a significant factor. But the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) was the key force in ousting President Ben Ali and excluding his supporters from the subsequent interim government. Wildcat strikes by tens of thousands of Egyptian workers likely prompted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to push Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak aside. Social media activism did not save the Bahraini uprising from violent repression by Saudi armed forces using U.S.-supplied weapons.
The political economy of the Arab uprisings has received little attention in the West. The neoliberal restructuring of the region created a class of crony capitalists, slashed social services and public sector employment, failed to create private sector jobs in sufficient quantity or quality, and widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Egypt’s official (and highly understated) unemployment rate is 13.4% and rising. In Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, and Yemen it is higher. Throughout the Arab world over 30% of those under 30 are jobless. Over 25% of Egyptians live under the poverty line, with another 20% just below it. Poverty rates are higher in Algeria and Yemen, and moderately lower in Morocco and Jordan. Insofar as the Arab uprisings were propelled by the social consequences of neoliberalism, popular definitions of “success” may differ from the outcomes favored by western democracy promoters.
Those who mistakenly believed that the uprisings were primarily movements for Western-style, secular, liberal democracy were soon disappointed. Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party won a plurality in the October 2011 Constituent Assembly elections. The Islamist Justice and Development Party won a plurality in Morocco’s November 2011 parliamentary elections. The monarchy proposed a cosmetically more democratic constitution to contain the popular uprising, allowing JDP leader Abdelilah Benkirane to become Morocco’s first prime minister responsible to parliament rather than the King. Muslim Brothers and other Islamists won about 75 percent of the seats in Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament in six decades; and Muslim Brother candidate Mohamed Morsi won the presidency in June 2012. Analysts were quick to bemoan the Islamist “hijacking” of the Arab uprisings. However, continuing popular mobilizations and fluctuations in public opinion and the structure of power in several countries, instability in Libya and Yemen, the continuing insurgency in Syria, and the ongoing opposition movement in Bahrain suggest that the revolutionary upsurge has not dissipated.
On June 30, 2013 massive demonstrations repudiated President Morsi throughout Egypt in even larger numbers than those that led to Mubarak’s deposition. A few days later the military, with overwhelming popular support, ousted Morsi, just as it previously removed Mubarak. By October 2013 only 28% of Tunisians supported Ennahda. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party’s grip on power remains secure. But, Prime Minister Benkirane’s popularity declined from 88% to 64%.
Social struggles of unprecedented proportions continue in Egypt and Tunisia. Egyptian NGOs cataloged 1,400 workers collective actions in 2011, 1,969 in 2012, and 2,400 social and economic protests in the first quarter of 2013 alone. Army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi remains wildly popular. But, workers have resumed striking, iconic revolutionary leaders have challenged new legislation restricting demonstrations, and no economic solution is in sight.
In Tunisia, 49 women were elected to the 217 member Constituent Assembly – proportionally more than in either house of the US Congress. More liberal laws governing the press, political parties, associations, and demonstrations have been enacted; 7,000 to 10,000 new associations, unions, and professional organizations were registered in 2011. The Ennahda-led interim government lost its legitimacy in the second half of 2012 following the assassination of two secularist political leaders. With 517,000 members, the UGTT is Tunisia’s largest civil organization and was the only force capable of brokering the resignation of the government, which is due to take effect on January 14, 2014. The UGTT has also organized strikes against the interim government’s privatization proposals and its failure to alleviate regionally concentrated high unemployment, inadequate incomes, and corrupt hiring practices.
When Tunisia’s interim president, Moncef Marzouki, visited Sidi Bouzid for the memorial marking the second anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi’s death in 2012, demonstrators showered him with tomatoes and stones. He vowed to bring economic growth to the city in six months. The promise remains unfulfilled, and Marzouki did not attend the 2013 memorial. “Absolutely nothing has changed,” says Mohamed Ali, a high school math teacher and political activist. Though many say conditions in Sidi Bouzid are worse than before, he is “really proud….It was necessary. We are not afraid of our government anymore.”
This is the most radical achievement of the Arab uprisings. Revolutions take many years to unfold. Revivals of the old regime, as appears to be underway in Egypt, are common. The French revolution took a century and two restorations of monarchy before republicanism was stabilized. Russian socialists tried three times before overthrowing the Tsarist Empire. Assessing the Arab uprisings as a failure—because no Western-style liberal democratic regimes have yet been established or because Islamists won the first democratic elections in several countries—is premature. Their ultimate political character and outcomes are yet uncertain.