The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising

The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising

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“The people want . . .”: This first half of slogans chanted by millions of Arab protesters since 2011 revealed a long-repressed craving for democracy. But huge social and economic problems were also laid bare by the protestors’ demands.

Simplistic interpretations of the uprising that has been shaking the Arab world since a young street vendor set himself on fire in Central Tunisia, on 17 December 2010, seek to portray it as purely political, or explain it by culture, age, religion, if not conspiracy theories.
Instead, Gilbert Achcar locates the deep roots of the upheaval in the specific economic features that hamper the region’s development and lead to dramatic social consequences, including massive youth unemployment.
Intertwined with despotism, nepotism, and corruption, these features, produced an explosive situation that was aggravated by post-9/11 U.S. policies. The sponsoring of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Emirate of Qatar and its influential satellite channel, Al Jazeera, contributed to shaping the prelude to the uprising. But the explosion’s deep roots, asserts Achcar, mean that what happened until now is but the beginning of a revolutionary process likely to extend for many more years to come.

The author identifies the actors and dynamics of the revolutionary process: the role of various social and political movements, the emergence of young actors making intensive use of new information and communication technologies, and the nature of power elites and existing state apparatuses that determine different conditions for regime overthrow in each case. Drawing a balance-sheet of the uprising in the countries that have been most affected by it until now, i.e. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, Achcar sheds special light on the nature and role of the movements that use Islam as a political banner. He scrutinizes attempts at co-opting the uprising by these movements and by the oil monarchies that sponsor them, as well as by the protector of these same monarchies: the U.S. government. Underlining the limitations of the “Islamic Tsunami” that some have used as a pretext to denigrate the whole uprising, Gilbert Achcar points to the requirements for a lasting solution to the social crisis and the contours of a progressive political alternative.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274976
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/03/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Gilbert Achcar is Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London). He grew up in Lebanon. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms, translated into thirteen languages; Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky; and the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust.

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The People Want

A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising

By Gilbert Achcar, G. M. Goshgarian


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95654-4


Fettered Development

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. —Karl Marx, 1859, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

When a revolutionary upheaval is not an isolated phenomenon attributable to specific political conditions in a particular country, but constitutes a shock wave that goes beyond the merely episodic to initiate a veritable sociopolitical transformation in a whole group of countries with similar socioeconomic structures, Marx's thesis cited above takes on its full significance. From this perspective, the "bourgeois" revolutions at the heart of the Age of Revolution—from the sixteenth-century Dutch War of Independence and the seventeenth-century English Revolution through the long process comprising the French Revolution to the 1848 European Revolutions sometimes called the Spring of Nations—appear as a series of earthquakes triggered by the collision of the two tectonic plates Marx identified as developing productive forces and existing relations of production. The latter are represented by what the author of Das Kapital calls the "legal and political superstructure," with the state at its core. These revolutions accelerated the transformation of the predominantly agrarian societies of the late feudal period into societies dominated by the urban bourgeoisie. They thus paved the way for capitalist industrialization.

A comparable instance of the existing relations of production blocking the development of the forces of production was at the origin of the shock wave that, beginning with Poland in 1980, overturned all the Central and Eastern European "communist" regimes and culminated in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR). This shock wave put an end to the bureaucratic mode of production of the USSR and Eastern Europe, undermined by stagnation at its very center, and put a "market economy" in its place. With that, the process of capitalist globalization was essentially completed. It has not been sufficiently stressed just how striking an illustration of Marx's thesis this historic turn provides—a new irony of history, since the overturned regimes claimed to take their inspiration from his "doctrine." Yet it was a Marxist critic of the Soviet regime, Leon Trotsky, who was the first to predict—in 1936, at a time when the "socialist fatherland" was posting record growth rates—that the bureaucratic command economy would ultimately founder on the "problem of quality." Trotsky thus anticipated the period beginning in the early 1970s, later named the Era of Stagnation, which culminated in the collapse of the regimes descended from Stalinism.

Is what we have been witnessing in the Arab region since 2011 an "era of social revolution" brought on by a blockage impeding the development of productive forces? If so, is this blockage due to factors common to the countries of the region and specific to them, as in the two historical cases just mentioned? The question is worth asking, if only because the tremor running through the region has affected the whole of it, from Mauritania and Morocco to the Arab-Iranian Gulf. That, moreover, is why observers have compared the upheaval under way in the Arab countries with the shock wave that traversed Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Yet this upheaval has not—at any rate, not yet—brought about a radical change in the mode of production. There seems to be no change on the horizon of the revolutionary process unfolding today in the Arabic-speaking region profound enough to invite comparison with the great upheaval that ultimately integrated the "communist" countries into globalized capitalism.

Whereas the European upheaval of the 1980s resulted from a crisis at the very heart of the bureaucratic mode of production, the crisis in the Arab region affects only one of the peripheral zones of today's globalized capitalist mode of production. Hence it cannot, by itself, be regarded as a manifestation of a general blockage of this mode of production, nor even—since capitalism continues to generate development in other peripheral zones—a blockage confined to the capitalist periphery. Indeed, even if the crisis currently besetting the highly developed economies central to the world system (the European economies, above all) eventually proves to be the expression of an insurmountable block-age leading to sociopolitical upheaval, the coincidence of this crisis with that rocking the Arabic-speaking region can hardly be interpreted in terms of cause and effect.

The fact that the crisis in Arab countries is clearly limited to them as far as its peculiar modalities are concerned plainly shows that specific factors are at work. It is neither a symptom of the general crisis of globalized capitalism, nor even a symptom of the crisis of "neoliberalism," the dominant management mode in the current phase of capitalist globalization. To identify the specific factors at work, we must compare the Arabic-speaking region with others on the periphery of the world economic system—particularly the countries of the Afro-Asian group of which the Arab region is a part.

Nevertheless, Marx's paradigmatic thesis on revolution should not be ignored when explaining the ongoing upheaval in the Arab world. Simply, we have to derive variants that are less sweeping in historical scope: the development of productive forces can be stalled, not by the relations of production constitutive of a generic mode of production (such as the relation between capital and wage labor in the capitalist mode of production), but, rather, by a specific modality of that generic mode of production. In such cases, it is not always necessary to replace the basic mode of production in order to overcome the blockage. A change in modality or "mode of regulation" does, however, have to occur.

Such changes do not necessarily presuppose social or even political revolutions. They can result from economic crises that induce the economically dominant class to change tack. Capital has negotiated more than one such turn in the course of its history. Both the 1930s Great Depression, followed by World War II, and the generalized recession of the 1970s precipitated sharp changes of tack, leading in two diametrically opposed directions. Certainly, the social balance of forces entered into the equation in both cases: the workers' movement was strengthened by the first crisis, weakened by the second. But these were not periods of social revolution or counterrevolution in the proper sense.

These changes in the management mode occurring within a basic continuity of capitalist relations of production illustrate, in some sense, another of Marx's theses. He presents it shortly after the passage in the 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that serves as the epigraph to this chapter:

No social formation is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Yet there also exist situations in which the development of productive forces is held back, not by a "simple" crisis in regulation or management mode, but by a particular type of social domination, one sustaining a specific variant of the generic mode of production. In such cases, the blockage can be overcome only if the dominant social group is overthrown, that is, only by a social revolution. Yet that revolution will not necessarily precipitate a radical change in the mode of production. We may here make use of Albert Soboul's definition of "revolution" as a "radical transformation of social relations and political structures on the basis of a renewed mode of production," as long as we admit that such renewal may be limited to a profound change in the modalities of a mode of production, with no accompanying change in the generic mode itself.

For capitalist development can be blocked by a distinct configuration of dominant social groups sustaining one particular modality of capitalism, rather than by the general relations of production between wage laborers and capitalists and the attendant property relations (private ownership of the social means of production). Later we will discuss the conditions under which such a blockage can be overcome, as well as the social dynamics that may accompany that process. What matters for present purposes is the blockage itself. We must therefore first determine whether, in the case at hand, such a blockage exists.


The most frequently cited indicator of economic development—in the sense of growth, considered without regard to other aspects of human development—is an increase in gross domestic product (GDP), both in absolute terms and also relative to the size of the population. This indicator is, of course, very much open to discussion (a point to which we will return), but it does provide some idea of the relative development of the production of goods and services: its growth over time as well as variations in the pace of development in the various countries and regions of the world.

It so happens that, of all the regions still referred to as the Third World, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the one facing the most severe developmental crisis. After the 1960s, when most of this region's economies were dominated by the public sector in line with a state-led developmentalist perspective, the 1970s saw the inauguration and gradual extension of policies of infitah (opening), the name then given to economic liberalization in the Arabic-speaking region. Infitah went hand in hand with public-sector privatization and an erosion of social gains. Certain MENA countries, notably Egypt, thus prefigured the "structural adjustment programs" that would be imposed on the whole planet from the 1980s onward in the framework of neoliberal deregulation.

The available data plainly show that the two decades between 1970 and 1990 saw stagnation in per capita GDP in MENA: the GDP's per capita average annual growth rate (at constant prices in local currencies) was even slightly less than nil. Although that growth rate became positive again in the two following decades, it remained at levels well below—fifty percent below—the average rate of increase in developing countries (Fig. 1.1).

It goes without saying that the regional average masks disparities between individual cases. But the fact remains that most of the positive performances in the 1970–90 period were inferior, or at best equal, to the average performance in developing countries. Egypt was set apart from the other countries in the region with an average annual rate of 4.1% in 1970–90; this growth rate, substantially higher than that posted by the other MENA countries, was fueled by Egypt's rising oil revenues, remittances from migrant Egyptians working abroad, aid grants from oil monarchies and Western powers, and the expansion of tourism. (All these factors, combined with compensation for the nadir due to the October 1973 war, explain the 1976 apogee.) In 1990–2010, however, Egypt's growth rate fell to 2.7%, despite exceptional performance from 2006 to 2008 (to which we will return). For the forty years under consideration, Egypt's per capita GDP exhibited a declining trend line (Fig. 1.2).

It is not unreasonable to suppose, of course, that MENA's poor results in per capita GDP find their explanation less in exceptionally slow economic growth than in exceptionally rapid demographic growth. It is indeed true that the region's average population growth rate was the world's highest in the 1970–90 period, thanks to the growth spurt in the population owing to 1960s social reforms and health care sector investment. Population growth was, however, stabilized in 1990–2010 at a level lower than sub-Saharan Africa's (Fig. 1.3). It was still 17% higher than in Southern Asia in the same period. However, GDP per capita growth was 47% lower in MENA than in Southern Asia (see Fig. 1.1).

Let us also point out that the average annual population growth rate in Arab countries—2.2% in 2010, according to the World Bank's World Databank—has been driven upward by the unusually high figures of certain oil monarchies whose population growth is to a great extent due to the importation of migrant labor. In 2010, all the countries represented in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) showed average population growth rates above the Arab average; they ran from 2.4% for the Saudi kingdom to 9.6% for Qatar, with 2.6% for Oman, 3.4% for Kuwait, 7.6% for Bahrain, and 7.9% for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For the other MENA countries, again in 2010, the rates were, according to the same source, Lebanon, 0.7%; Morocco and Tunisia, 1%; Algeria and Libya, 1.5%; Egypt, 1.7%; Syria, 2%; Jordan, 2.2%; Mauritania, 2.4%; Sudan, 2.5%; Iraq, 3%; and Yemen, 3.1%.

It should also be noted that MENA GDP growth figures over the four decades in question have in large measure been determined by the sharp fluctuations in oil prices during this time, since oil is the region's main export. Nevertheless, the variation in the real prices of crude oil—which soared between 1973 and 1981, then fell until 1986, only to increase again from 1988 onward—cannot explain the negative balance of the years 1970–90. Similarly, the steady but slight decrease in the prices of crude until 1998 and a new dip in 2008 did not suffice to counterbalance the hefty increase from 1998 to 2008.

We can verify that the MENA region's especially poor performance does not just reflect the vicissitudes of oil markets by looking at the years 2000–8, during which oil prices rose spectacularly. The real price of crude (in 1973 US$) went from $7.99 in 2000 to $16.04 in 2008; that is, it more than doubled (more precisely, it soared from 2005 on). Let us compare the total GDP average annual growth rates of the various developing regions of Africa and Asia in 2000–8 (Fig. 1.4).

The result is surprising. MENA's growth rate is not merely far lower than South Asia's and East Asia's, it is below even that of sub-Saharan Africa. This comparison of total GDPs also neutralizes the impact of the demographic factor on per capita GDP growth, although it is perfectly legitimate to argue that the latter is the sole valid indicator of growth. Indeed, underscoring the oil wealth of this region of the world—richly endowed in both raw materials and capital, and with no shortage of labor supply, so that it has the three basic prerequisites for industrialization—throws the acuteness of the problem plaguing it into even sharper relief.

However, as is well known, GDP has only limited validity as an index of development as opposed to growth, both because it fails to take the so-called informal economy into consideration and because it is hard to measure public services such as education or health in terms of money. Moreover, GDP ignores both environmental costs and the qualitative aspects of the public services just mentioned. To take these aspects into consideration, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has devised a "Human Development Index" (HDI) of its own. The HDI is, according to the official definition, "a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living."

As measured by HDI, the Arab states were outperformed by East Asia in the period 1980–2010 (Fig. 1.5), despite the fact that the Arab region is much richer. The PPP-adjusted per capita GDP was on average $8,256 in the Arab states in 2009, according to UNDP data, as opposed to $6,227 in East Asia. ("PPP" stands for "purchasing power parity": simply put, a PPP-adjusted dollar has the same purchasing power in any given country that a dollar has in the United States.) Similarly, the disparity between the Arab countries' and South Asia's performance is, again as measured by HDI, far smaller than the disparity in wealth between the two regions (with a per capita GDP at PPP of $3,368 for South Asia).


Excerpted from The People Want by Gilbert Achcar, G. M. Goshgarian. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Figures and Tables


Preliminary Notes

On the Arab Countries and “the Middle East and North Africa” (MENA)

On Transliteration of Arabic

Introduction: Uprisings and Revolutions

1. Fettered Development

The Facts

Inequality, Precarity

Informal Sector and Unemployment: The Bouazizi Syndrome

Youth Underemployment

Female Underemployment

Graduate Unemployment

Fetters on Development

2. The Peculiar Modalities of Capitalism in the Arab Region

The Problem of

Public and Private

A Specific Variant of the Capitalist Mode of Production

1. Rentier and Patrimonial States

2. A Politically Determined Capitalism: Nepotism and Risk

The Genesis of the Specific Regional Variant of Capitalism: An Overview

3. Regional Political Factors

The Oil Curse

From “Arab Despotic Exception” to “Democracy Promotion”

The Muslim Brothers, Washington, and the Saudis

The Muslim Brothers, Washington, and Qatar

Al Jazeera and the Upheaval in the Arab Mediascape

4. Actors and Parameters of the Revolution

Overdetermination and Subjective Conditions

The Workers’ Movement and Social Struggles

New Actors and New
Information and Communications Technologies

States and Revolutions

5. A Provisional Balance Sheet of the Arab Uprising

Coups d’État and Revolutions

Provisional Balance Sheet No. 1: Tunisia

Provisional Balance Sheet No. 2: Egypt

Provisional Balance Sheet No. 3: Yemen

Provisional Balance Sheet No. 4: Bahrain

Provisional Balance Sheet No. 5: Libya

Provisional Balance Sheet No. 6: Syria

6. Co-opting the Uprising

Washington and the Muslim Brothers, Take Two

Nato, Libya, and Syria

The “Islamic Tsunami” and the Difference between Khomeini and Morsi

Conclusion: The Future of the Arab Uprising

The Difference between Erdogan and Ghannouchi . . .

. . . And the Difference between Erdogan and Morsi

Conditions for a Genuine Solution


References and Sources


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