By Julian Lahai Samboma
The following is from Chapter Five of my recently-published book, The Dialectic & the Detective: The Arab Spring and Regime Change in Libya.
“Economists explain how production takes place in the above-mentioned relations, but what they do not explain is how these relations themselves are produced, that is, the historical movement that gave them birth.” Marx: The Poverty of Philosophy
I. THE TUNISIAN REVOLT
The “Arab Spring” is a term coined by Western media to refer to the wave of mass protests and uprisings which rocked several nations in the Middle East and North Africa from late 2010. Others have referred to them as the “Arab Revolutions”.
Tunisia was the first to erupt, on 18 December 2010, followed by Egypt, on 25 January 2011. [i], [ii] The governments of both countries, which incidentally flank Libya on the north-west and the east respectively, were toppled within a month of the commencement of the uprisings.
Generally considered to have taken hold in six countries – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen – the so-called Arab Spring is alleged by sundry academics, commentators and reporters to have been a series of spontaneous, grassroots “revolutions” against authoritarian governments in the region. [iii]
Given that the street protests in Libya followed immediately upon the heels of the revolts that toppled the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, these learned people jumped on a bandwagon emblazoned with the legend: “Libya – an outgrowth of Tunisia and Egypt”.
In a perfect example of this, one writer, states: “The 2011 Arab Spring seems to offer new evidence of a domino theory – one event spurring another event. Libyan youth, inspired by the toppling of two long-time dictators in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt in January and February, started peaceful protests to pressure Muammar Gaddafi to leave”. [iv]
Not surprisingly, we find the old canard about “peaceful protests” here again. However, what preoccupies us now is this forging (fudging?) of a link between the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, on the one hand, and the Libya protests, on the other. Were the latter actually manifestations of this Arab Spring. In fact, what exactly was this phenomenon called the Arab Spring?
To answer this question we need to conduct a dialectical examination of the Arab Spring and see what conclusions spring up (pun intended!). It follows that the Arab Spring represents Marx’s “chaotic whole”, “the real-concrete” in this investigation into the Arab Spring. We will abstract for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt; we will call them, respectively, the Tunisian Revolt and the Egyptian Revolt.
We should mention from the outset that we are not giving any noteworthy consideration to the uprisings in the other Arab countries. This is because, although dialectical interconnections may exist between all of them, those uprisings took place after the Libyan uprising and, therefore, could have no conceivable bearing on the genesis of the latter. (Also, we will be referring to the “Tunisian Revolt of 2011” – as opposed to 2010, when the uprising actually started. This is done for analytical convenience, as the uprisings in Egypt and Libya started in 2011. In any event, ex-president Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.)
The uprising in Tunisia was triggered after Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate selling vegetables, set himself on fire when his inventory was seized by police. After days of localised protests, another jobless man protested by electrocuting himself in the same town, Sidi Bouzid, where figures, according to the London Guardian, revealed an unemployment rate of 25% for male and 44% for female graduates.[v]
For the Tunisian Revolt, we abstract from the common sense perception – abetted by mainstream media – that the uprising was a reaction against domestic dictatorship, and examine instead the part which poverty and economic hardship played in triggering the social upheaval.
As those initial protests unfolded, images of demonstrations and heavy-handed security measures by the authorities were deployed on social media to organise more and increasingly larger protests and demonstrations across the capital, Tunis, and other urban centres. They eventually tipped the by-now tottering government over the edge and the president had to flee the country.[vi]
Well into February, over a month after Ben Ali fled the country, protesters called for a “day of rage”, to force the resignation of the new prime minister.[vii]
If you were beginning to suspect that the uprising may have been triggered primarily by poverty and economic matters than by anything else, then you are on the right track. In 2016, five years after Tunisia’s so-called revolution, London’s Financial Times reported that the death of another young man in the Kasserine district of Tunis had triggered protests like those of the so-called Arab Spring.
The article said: “Thousands took to the streets in the region’s towns for several days in scenes reminiscent of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, which was also triggered by the death of a young man amid frustration over joblessness and corruption.” [viii]
The above article by the Guardian mentions a so-called “devil’s pact” under which Tunisians had for many years tolerated autocratic rule as long as their economic needs were met. We should also add that the Ben Ali regime comprehensively tackled the threat from radical Islam. This strategy relied heavily on strong and often heavy-handed security tactics, which also came in handy when the target was secular political dissent.
That this so-called devil’s pact had broken down and the government had fallen back on the security establishment to hold things down is reasonable conjecture. A corollary of this was that, if at all the opposite had been the case previously, the people’s economic needs were certainly not being met by the regime at the time of the uprising.
The aggressive implementation of IMF-imposed policies had caused havoc on the economy and led directly to the impoverishment of millions of people. [ix] Unlike some other countries in the region, Tunisia does not have oil revenues with which to bribe its impoverished masses into docility. As a result there is a consistent record of anti-austerity protest in the country, most notably the Bread Riots of 1984 and labour union-led unrest in the 1990s and in 2008. [x]
If we now conceive our unit of analysis, the Tunisian Revolt, as a Marxian Relation extending backward and forward in time, its historical character suddenly becomes clear, for it can be traced back decades to union-organised strikes and demonstrations against government economic policies – policies which have meant successive series of ideologically-driven privatisations of state enterprises, and the epidemic levels of mass sackings that attend them; the Relation can also be projected forward to protests and demonstrations which have taken place since the so-called revolution.
We have already mentioned the “Bread Riots” of 1984, which followed massive hikes in prices of basic foodstuffs after the then government implemented imperialist-imposed “economic reforms”. [xi] Those unrests were spearheaded by the General Union of Tunisian Workers, the UGTT, as was the 1978 General Strike, which was to protest growing unemployment rates and declining living standards of the working people. [xii], [xiii]
One consequence of the Ben Ali government’s heavy-handed security measures against militant Islamism during the 1990s and early 2000s was a clampdown on civil unrest, which meant there were few anti-government protests and demonstrations in that period.
That slack, however, was picked up in 2008 – and again in early 2010 – when the UGTT led anti-austerity demonstrations in the country’s Gafsa mining region. [xiv] From the foregoing we can see that the when conceived as a Relation, the historical character of the Tunisian Revolt extends backward to the Gafsa protests of early 2010 and 2008, and then further back to the 1984 “Bread Riots” and the General Strike of 1978.
After that, we can extend the Relation forward in time, to arrive at the Kasserine riots of March 2016 against poverty, unemployment and corruption, as reported in the aforementioned Financial Times article. Still extending the Relation forward, we arrive at today’s Tunisia, where, from 3 January 2018 – the 34th anniversary of the 1984 Bread Riots – the country was rocked by more than two weeks of violent protests, triggered once again by economic concerns, this time against increases in bread and grain prices blamed on IMF economic diktat. [xv]
So, even if our friend the Sceptic had tried to limit the historical character of the Tunisian Revolt of 2011 by arbitrarily imposing a cut-off point at the 2008 labour unrests, the suffering masses have made it unequivocally clear that the 1984 Bread Riots represent an earlier moment in the perpetual process of anti-imperialist resistance, whose outward appearance is protest – and violence – against the local agents and symbols of international capital.
As the protesters of the 2018 Bread Riots don the old costumes and slogans of the 1984 Bread Rioteers, we may recall Marx’s remarks in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that “the awakening of the dead… served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again”.[xvi]
We can now see very clearly that the 1978 Tunisian General Strike, the 1984 Bread Riots, the labour unrests of 2008 and early 2010, the Kasserine riots of 2016 and the 2018 Bread Riots are all, each and every one of them, expressions of the Tunisian Revolt of 2011 looked at from different vantage points. Or, which is another way of expressing the same thought, they are all moments in the same process.
As we saw in our study of the 2011 Libyan protests, the appearance or form of the Relations will change over time, given their immanent contradictions and interconnections, exhibiting a different phenomenal form at various moments in the process of their mutual interaction. But their essence will remain identical. That essence, as we have demonstrated above using the dialectic, is the destruction of imperialism, mediated through an assault on its local structures and representatives.
Tunisia was therefore a tinderbox on a countdown to ignition; the spark was provided, quite literally, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. In essence, the revolt was not a clamour for Western-style, one--person/one-vote democracy, nor was it a reaction against President Ben Ali, the neocolonial presiding officer.
On the contrary, it was a reaction against the neoliberal economic diktat of international capitalism.
II. THE EGYPTIAN REVOLT
It was universally reported in bourgeois, or Western corporate media that what was taking place in the land of the pharaohs in early 2011 was an uprising against bloody, entrenched dictatorship. It all started on 25 January, we were told, after people responded to social media calls for a so-called “day of rage” against the Mubarak regime.
Here is a typical report, from the London Telegraph, on the same week the revolt erupted: “After nearly 30 years of dictatorial rule, Hosni Mubarak has begun to make concessions. The question is whether the sacking of his cabinet and his promise of reform will assuage his opponents or merely amplify their call for his removal.”[xvii]
The reason for the protests, the article goes on to enlighten us, is the “decades of repressive and corrupt rule which has failed to create sufficient jobs”. When we take another random article from another imperialist-friendly organ we find yet another offering based on the same template.
A fellow called Duncan Green wrote a piece for the Guardian about “what caused the revolution in Egypt”. In his lofty opinion, the revolt was a reaction to repression and “torture”.[xviii] He dances around the principal cause so much that you wonder whether he was dizzy by the time he finished this offering. Blaming everything from repression and Mafia-style rule to corruption, joblessness, foreign policy and, yes, torture, we were left pondering why he didn’t just chuck in the kitchen sink while he was at it.
Reading these misguided, fallacious and reactionary offerings, the message a tourist from Mars would send to folks back home is that the people in the land of the pharaohs were very unhappy because one of the pharaohs’ children, a very bad man called Mu-Barak, was refusing to vacate the royal palace. And, to cap it all, he was not giving them work, was locking them up and spending too much money on his family and friends.
In accordance with our dialectical methodology, we do not trust these hand-me-down conclusions from our good friends in the bourgeois media. Following that methodology, our next abstraction, the Egyptian Revolt, will treat political repression as but a phenomenal, or cosmetic, aspect of the uprising, and abstract for economic hardship as the dominant factor driving popular discontent in the country.
After trawling the public record, we came upon an item on the website of the Qatari-based, imperialist-friendly news channel, Aljazeera. Once in a while – and in spite of themselves – they do report the truth! The item said that the Egyptian people were protesting “against poverty, unemployment, government corruption and the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for three decades”. [xix]
There was certainly a ring of truth about this, given that it not only gave primacy to economic motivating factors, but also placed autocratic government last in a list of the protesters’ grievances. This accords with the driving force in our abstraction being primarily economic in nature.
Not wanting to be accused of succumbing to Vulgar Marxism or “economic determinism”, we must emphasise that we are not highlighting the economic to the exclusion of other factors. We are simply saying that, although other factors may have played a role, poverty, or economic hardship, was the primary motive force. This position is in accord with the dialectic; it is analogous to the dialectical axiom that a complex process has one primary or main contradiction, although it is subject to other, secondary contradictions.
We saw earlier that, for Marx, to grasp the concept of capital was to see capital as a historical event conditioned by a particular set of circumstances. Thus, our method demands that, as in the case of the Tunisian Revolt, we treat the Egyptian Revolt as a Relation that extends backward and forward in time. The public record again provides us with previous instances of anti-government protests which were rooted in economic grievances.
As in Tunisia, Egypt had been reeling from the consequences IMF so-called structural adjustment programmes, which hinged on privatisations, massive sackings and drastic cuts in spending on healthcare and education. Their impact on a rapidly growing population already experiencing galloping youth unemployment is open to reasonable conjecture.
The impact of rapid population growth cannot be overestimated. During the 30-year rule of Mubarak, the population nearly doubled, reaching a staggering 76 million people. The neocolonial economy could not support this level of growth. [xx]
The popular response to increasing poverty in the country was a series of trade union-led strikes from 2006 to 2008. In 2006 alone, according to a report by Canada’s Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), tens of thousands of workers were involved in 220 major strikes and demonstrations – the largest strike wave in decades. [xxi]
Protests and demonstrations against increasing poverty and declining living standards have continued under the new, “post-revolutionary” political dispensation. This is explained by the fact that the economic situation has worsened since the fall of Mubarak. According to figures from 2013, 25% of Egyptians live below the poverty line, with 24% hovering just above it. [xxii] The trend continues to this day.
In August 2012 several revolutionary organisations, including the Egyptian Communist Party, called for a protest against an IMF loan agreement. [xxiii] And only last year, so-called “Bread Riots” broke out across the country, in March 2017, after the government cut food subsidies as a condition to secure an IMF loan. [xxiv] Just in case you were wondering, there was a previous Egyptian “Bread Riot”, this time in 1977. [xxv]
And, surprise of surprises: “The [1977 Bread] riots were a spontaneous uprising by hundreds of thousands of lower-class people protesting World Bank and International Monetary Fund-mandated termination of state subsidies on basic foodstuffs.” [xxvi]
Here again, exactly 40 years after the first Bread Riots, we see the masses appropriating the old costumes and slogans of the first bread riots to inspire contemporary struggles, just as we saw in the Tunisian case.
As to local feelings about the IMF, Caroline Freund, former chief regional economist at the World Bank, the IMF’s partner-in-crime, said: “[T]he view on the Egyptian street of the IMF was not positive. You can see that from the Gallup polls, the public don’t want an IMF programme.”[xxvii]
Based on these material facts of anti-IMF, anti-austerity popular activism, we can perceive the historical character of the Egyptian Revolt as extending way back to the original Egyptian Bread Riots of 1977 – which happened three years before Mubarak became president – and then extending forward in time to the “post-revolutionary” protests of 2012 and the 2017 Bread Riots after his downfall.
Just as labour and capital are expressions of the same relation seen from opposite sides, so the 2011 Egyptian uprising – when perceived as a Marxian Relation from different poles – becomes the 1977 Bread Riots, the 2006-2008 labour union protests against IMF conditionalities, and the anti-government protests that have been fought since Mubarak’s exit.
They are all moments in a singular process. Not only are they dialectically interconnected, these Relations also share an identity as anti-IMF protests, in other words, manifestations of the class struggle against international capital. They all have this defining characteristic, which goes back to their origins in a particular set of conditions – one defined by poverty resulting from discredited neoliberal policies. In a word, their essence is anti-imperialist.
Three paragraphs above we highlighted the fact that, as an abstracted Relation, the Egyptian “Revolution” of 2011 (incarnated as the 1977 Bread Riots) took place three years before Mubarak became president, and again after he was removed from office (incarnated as the 2012 anti-austerity protests, and as the 2017 Bread Riots).
If anything, this simple fact demonstrates the objective reality that the so-called Egyptian “revolution” was, in essence, not a revolt against the political dictatorship of Mubarak, but rather a revolt against the economic dictatorship of imperialism. Further, this “simple” fact, which was previously “hidden” from common sense, has been stripped butt-naked by the judicious deployment of the Marxian dialectic.
This is as true of the Tunisian Revolt as it is of the Egyptian variant. Imperialism and its mass media and academia – “bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors” – have performed all manner of intellectual acrobatics to convince us that they were “only” revolts against autocracy. On the other hand, some of these writers may simply be ignorant of the truth. But, just as bourgeois jurisprudence maintains that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, these writers had better banish that ignorance by swotting up on the dialectic.
This recalls Engels’s remarks about Marx’s method “making the most difficult problems so simple and clear that even bourgeois economists will now be able to grasp them”. [xxviii] Indeed, now that we have used that very method to point the way, perhaps these bourgeois writers on the Telegraph, Guardian and elsewhere will be able to grasp the issues and desist from further inflicting their schoolgirl (or schoolboy) errors on the unsuspecting.
© Julian Samboma, eBeefs.com
You can download your copy of The Dialectic & the Detective here.
[i] “Tunisian Revolution”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunisian_Revolution
[ii] “Egyptian Revolution of 2011”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_revolution_of_2011
[iii] Patrick Cockburn, “The Arab Spring, five years on: A season that began in hope, but ended in desolation”, The Independent, 8 January 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-arab-spring-five-years-on-a-season-that-began-in-hope-but-ended-in-desolation-a6803161.html
[iv] Mohamed A El-Khawas, “Libya’s Revolution: A Transformative Year”, in The Arab Spring and Arab Thaw: Unfinished Revolutions and the Quest for Democracy, by John Davis (ed.), Routledge, 2013
[v] Brian Whitaker, “How a man setting fire to himself sparked an uprising in Tunisia”, The Guardian, 28 December 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/28/tunisia-ben-ali
[vi] Colin Delany, “How Social Media Accelerated Tunisia’s Revolution: An Insider’s View”, HuffingtonPost.com, 25 May 2011, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/colin-delany/how-social-media-accelera_b_821497.html
[vii] Tarek Amara, “Tunisian ‘day og rage’ takes aim at premier”, Reuters, 25 February2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-protests-tunisia/tunisian-day-of-rage-takes-aim-at-premier-idUSTRE71O6QB20110225
[viii] Heba Saleh, “Tunisia: After the revolution”, Financial Times, 10 March 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/4f215d9c-d402-11e5-829b-8564e7528e54
[ix] James Melik, “Tunisia government faces credibility challenge”, 12 January 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12160219
[x] Christopher Alexander, “Tunisia’s protest wave: where it comes from and what it means”, ForeignPolicy.com, 3 January 2011, http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/01/03/tunisias-protest-wave-where-it-comes-from-and-what-it-means/
[xi] James Rupert, “Tunisians riot over bread price rise”, The Washington Post, 4 January 1984, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1984/01/04/tunisians-riot-over-bread-price-rise/a5aa4a75-9651-4a30-919e-9c297b3fdb38/?utm_term=.71cbcd16b762
[xii] Global Security, “Tunisia 1978 General Strike”, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/tunisia/politics-1978.htm
[xiii] Andrew Gavin Marshall, “Tunisia’s Unfinished Revolution: From Dictatorship to Democracy?”, 11 February 2013, https://andrewgavinmarshall.com/2013/02/11/tunisias-unfinished-revolution-from-dictatorship-to-democracy/
[xiv] Christopher Alexander, op. cit.
[xv] Jihen Chandoul, “The IMF has choked Tunisia. No wonder the people are protesting”, The Guardian, 17 January 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/17/imf-tunisia-people-rioting-2011-economic-reforms
[xvi] Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm
[xvii] “Egypt protests: Hosni Mubarak must step aside to save Egypt”, 30 January 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/egypt/8290617/Egypt-protests-Hosni-Mubarak-must-step-aside-to-save-Egypt.html
[xviii] Duncan Green, “What caused the revolution in Egypt”, Guardian.com, 17 February 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/feb/17/what-caused-egyptian-revolution
[xix] “Timelinme: Egypt’s revolution”, Aljazeera.com, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/01/201112515334871490.html
[xx] Will Rasmussen, “Egypt fights to stem population growth”, Reuters, 2 July 2008, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-population/egypt-fights-to-stem-population-growth-idUSL2270930020080702
[xxi] Angela Joya et al, “The Arab Revolts Against Neoliberalism”, CSJ, December 2011, P.24
[xxii] Patrick Kingsley, “Egypt suffering worst economic crisis since 1930’s”, The Guardian.com, 16 May 3013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/16/egypt-worst-economic-crisis-1930s
[xxiii] “Egyptian activists call for protest against IMF loan Wednesday,” Ahramonline, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/3/0/50893/Business/0/Egyptian-activists-call-for-protest-against-IMF-lo.aspx
[xxiv] Ruth Michaelson, “’We want bread’: subsidy cuts spark protest across Egypt”, The Guardian.com, 8 March 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/08/egypt-protests-we-want-bread-subsidy-cut
[xxv] “1977 Egyptian bread riots”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1977_Egyptian_bread_riots
[xxvii] Brad Plumer, “The Economic roots of Egypt’s crisis”, The Washington Post, 3 July 2013
[xxviii] Friedrich Engels, “Review of Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, https://www.marxists.org/subject/dialectics/marx-engels/review-political-economy.htm