[Marxism] More Achcar

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 28 08:00:52 MDT 2011


Gilbert Achcar: The Revolution Has Just Begun

"The revolutionary process is continuing all over the region. Nobody 
knows what the Arab world will look like in six months time... But we’ve 
been through a very long night, and things are only beginning to 
change". (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Dima Charif

Published Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies 
of the University of London, has no qualms calling the popular protests 
sweeping the Arab world a revolution. They are, in his view, part of a 
revolutionary process that is taking the region into uncharted 
territory. The forces active on the ground have changed, and, while the 
future is unpredictable, there is no going back to the previous situation.

Dima Charif: Different terms have been used to describe what the Arab 
world has witnessed since the beginning of the year: revolution, 
uprising, popular revolt, protests, etc. What do you think is the best 

Gilbert Achcar: There has been much debate about what to call what has 
been happening, whether we’re talking about the region as a whole or the 
countries which have seen successes, namely Tunisia and Egypt. In fact, 
even in those two countries, there are many who object to the use of the 
word ‘revolution’, as it gives the impression that the regime was 
overthrown in accordance with the people’s wishes, when in reality it 
was not. Only its head and its most despotic and corrupt figures were 
removed. But the backbone of the regime survives. I think the best 
description of what is happening today is ‘revolutionary process.’ This 
term also explains what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. There were indeed 
revolutions there, with mass action achieving undeniable successes, even 
though they did not bring about overall regime change. They are 
important victories nevertheless, and the process is continuing in both 
countries. The Egyptians were right to name their revolution by the date 
it began, the ‘Revolution of 25 January.’ That was the date of a mass 
rally, nothing more, not a major achievement as such. But it was the 
starting date of a process that is still continuing and whose fate is 
now being contested.

DC: Who is driving these revolutions in your opinion: the marginalized, 
the national bourgeoisie, the workers?

GA: The situation differs between countries. In Egypt, Tunisia, and 
elsewhere, there is a broad social front that is opposed to two key 
features: despotism and corruption. All are united against these two 
aspects. It is noteworthy that in countries where there is corruption 
but less despotism, the mass movements have not had the same momentum as 
when they have been united against both despotism and corruption, as in 
Egypt and Tunisia. This applies to Morocco, for example. There is no 
overwhelming sense of political oppression there, as the king instituted 
some democratic changes and eased some restrictions on freedoms, albeit 
to a limited extent. Right after the start of the protests he announced 
a number of reform measures. Thus the protests demanding political 
change and a constitutional monarchy lack the momentum of Egypt and Tunisia.

In Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, there is a broad social front that is 
opposed to two key features: despotism and corruption. All are united 
against these two aspects.
The masses suffering from social injustice and poverty took to the 
streets alongside wealthier social groups more concerned with ending 
despotism. These social groups are liberal in the political sense. They 
may favor social reform, and oppose neoliberal economic policies, but 
their members aspire above all to a degree of democracy and freedom that 
they believe to be appropriate for our time. They are advocates of 

The bulk of the movement involves a very broad mass of the marginalized, 
poor, and unemployed who resent the corruption and the social status quo 
and understand that there is a link between despotism and corruption. 
Included in this front are the left and the workers’ movements. These 
were instrumental in Tunisia, as well as in Egypt where the mobilization 
of the workers’ movements hastened the downfall of Mubarak.

Toppling Mubarak thus brought together a broad spectrum of forces, from 
far-left to far-right. But once he was ousted, a new alignment of 
political forces developed, with the Muslim Brothers (MB) and Salafist 
religious currents supporting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces 
(SCAF), and differences emerging with the other forces – leftist and 
liberal – over the future shape of the state.

DC: What does the US want from the Arab revolutions? Is it behind the 
train, on board, or ahead?

GA: America certainly isn’t ahead of the train. Washington and its ally 
the Zionist state were and continue to be extremely concerned about the 
changes in the Arab world. We know from the Israeli press that they are 
even concerned for the Syrian regime, because at least it provides a 
measure of stability. But the US wasn’t entirely surprised by what 
happened. That was clear from the WikiLeaks cables. They know what is 
going on, especially regarding the corruption of the regimes. They know 
they are dealing with despotic regimes, but these are their clients. 
They have no illusions about such regimes lasting forever, and they know 
there’s popular dissatisfaction.

Under George W. Bush, the US posed as champion of democratic change in 
the region because it needed to provide a pretext for occupying Iraq 
after the WMD lie was exposed. In 2005, its Arab allies came under heavy 
pressure to come up with some cosmetic democratic reforms in order to 
enable the Bush administration to claim it was serious about the 
venture. Washington managed at the time to get its Saudi allies to hold 
municipal elections for the first time in 30 years – male-only elections 
and for only half of the seats. They pressed Mubarak to hold 
parliamentary elections with a modicum of credibility, and he obliged, 
letting the MB get 20% of the seats. He was thus sending back his usual 
message: if you want real elections, you will get Islamist groups who 
oppose your policies. This served to reinforce the line which had 
previously prevailed in Washington: that talk of democracy is a fine 
ideological weapon for the US and its allies to use, but not in the 
Middle East, where hostility towards the US is intense, not least due to 
its sponsorship of Israel.

Washington was dismayed by Mubarak’s hereditary succession plans and his 
reversal of whatever limited democratization he had conceded, and it was 
certainly irritated by the fully rigged 2010 elections. This caused 
tension between Cairo and Washington, as the US realized that Mubarak 
had outlived his usefulness and that his continuation in power would 
jeopardize US interests. So once the protest movement began, and having 
taken in the lesson of Tunisia, Washington was not completely perplexed. 
It urged the army – the Egyptian player most organically connected to 
the US, as it subsidizes it – to remain above the fray. The US 
administration’s statements hailing the peaceful nature of the protests 
were messages to the Egyptian army to avoid joining in the repression. 
Joining may have caused the army to split, making it less capable of 
managing the post-Mubarak period. Washington’s much-repeated calls for 
an ‘orderly transition’ actually meant ‘We favor a democratic transfer 
of power while our principal ally remains firmly in control.’ This is 
the Turkish scenario of the 1980s: a peaceful transition under army 
supervision towards a civil state, in which the army retains its 
supervisory role, and can intervene should a threat arise to strategic 

America today is getting out of breath running behind the train, yet it 
is still attempting to get things under control. The clearest example is 
the intervention in Libya. There was a popular revolt there after the 
barrier of fear was broken in Tunisia and Egypt. But Libya is an oil 
state, and this is a serious matter for Western imperialism, i.e. the US 
and its allies. Hence the intervention aimed at bolstering the Western 
countries’ image as partners in and supporters of change in the Arab 
world, while enabling them to hijack the insurgency and contain it. The 
West was relieved that the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt did not 
mobilize around slogans hostile to the US and Israel. This was read as a 
political indication, but it was a mistake. The reason such slogans 
weren’t raised was not that they weren’t shared by the overwhelming 
majority of protesters, but only that the priority at that point was to 
get rid of local despotism. People had also grown accustomed, over 
decades, to their regimes invoking the national cause in order to 
silence popular protest.

In Libya there is no institution like the Egyptian army that can be 
employed in a relatively peaceful transfer of power, hence the Western 
decision to intervene militarily. In its early weeks the Libyan revolt 
raised the slogan ‘no to foreign intervention,’ and even now after 
turning to external support they still reject intervention on the 
ground. But the Western powers do not want Gaddafi’s regime to fall 
before knowing what will replace it. Everyone realizes that NATO's 
intervention is motivated mainly by oil. The Libyan rebels also know 
that. The West won’t arm them, it limits their military action, and it 
dictates terms to them. But once the regime, or what remains of it, 
falls, the West will not be able to control the course of events without 
a presence on the ground. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the regime’s 
downfall in Libya will mean the disintegration of the existing state 
apparatus. The main difference between Tunisia and Egypt, on the one 
hand, and Libya and Syria on the other is that in the latter, the 
regimes have reorganized the armed forces so that their key components 
are linked organically to the ruling families. There can be no repeat of 
the scenario of Tunisia or Egypt, where the establishment could survive 
without the family and disavow it. In Libya and Syria, the collapse of 
the regime would cause a massive institutional vacuum.

DC: Do you envisage an Islamist future for the region after the downfall 
of the regimes? Would the present Turkish model of government be suited 
to the Arab states?

GA: The recent Turkish experience is based on three components that are 
nowhere to be found in the Arab world: a secularist tradition 
represented by the army, a democratic (up to a point) constitution, and 
a party that split from a fundamentalist Islamic movement and underwent 
a profound transformation. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) 
is a conservative party that seeks to combine Islamic heritage with 
modernity. It is more akin to the Christian Democrat currents in Europe. 
So on what basis could we adopt a Turkish model? Take Egypt, for 
example. The army is not an institution that upholds secularism. The MB 
is a fundamentalist party in every sense, whose slogan is ‘Islam is the 
Solution.’ For a Turkish model to take shape, a modernizing Islamic 
party would be needed, not one that is just the political façade of the 
existing Brotherhood like the Freedom and Justice Party. It could be 
created by groups that are splitting off from the MB, especially among 
their younger members. As for the Egyptian army, it has since Sadat’s 
days been inclined to use religion as an ideological ploy to cover its 
many failings. We may be actually closer to the Pakistani model – a 
military-fundamentalist alliance – than to the Turkish one.

There is no point speculating about where things will lead though, 
because the process is still in its early stages and it may take years 
of ups and downs before it settles. How and what kind of stability will 
be ultimately achieved depends on the shifting balance of forces. What 
is clear in Egypt’s case is that the regime survives via the military 
establishment’s continuing control of the reins of power, the 
maintenance of the economic and social order, and the retention of the 
regime’s personnel (other than a few figures who are being tried, 
representing the tip of the iceberg). Washington concluded that with 
democracy making inroads in the Arab world, and in the absence of 
US-friendly political forces enjoying public support, it would have to 
win over existing players. The most ideologically open to a partnership 
with the US is the MB. Qatar and Turkey are both engaged in mediation on 
this issue.

We are thus witnessing the beginnings of an alliance between Washington 
and the MB. The movement’s statements have become more moderate 
vis-a-vis Washington and Israel than they used to be. The army and MB 
have been cooperating, with the latter providing assurances that it does 
not aspire to take power but only to participate in government. Thus a 
new page is being turned with Washington. We have also seen a clear 
shift in the official American line towards the MB. The cooperation in 
Egypt directly impacts the Palestinian reconciliation effort. 
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could not have taken such 
a step as the reconciliation with Hamas in defiance of Washington. In 
the final analysis we must not forget that the MB cooperated closely 
with the US and its intelligence agencies in the 1950s and 60s.

For two decades after the 1948 Nakba, popular action was dominated by 
the Arab nationalist movement in its various guises. The 1967 defeat 
undermined the nationalist current, and the 1970s witnessed the rise of 
the radical left, which failed to secure a dominant position. The 
fundamentalist current was also on the rise during that transitional 
period, and Arab regimes used it to confront the left, often with the 
Saudi kingdom financing the Islamic movements. Then came the 1979 
Iranian revolution which showed that the religious current could evolve 
in an anti-Western direction and therefore pose a threat to Western 
interests. This change set a political cycle in motion in the region. 
The US tried to draw a distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam, as 
evidenced in its continued collaboration with Sunni fundamentalism in 
Afghanistan. However, after the invasion of Kuwait, the position adopted 
by several Sunni Islamic movements led to a breach between them and both 
the Saudi kingdom and the US. Yet the religious current has remained 
dominant for three decades, from the time of the Iranian revolution 
until today.

There were indications since 2009 that this phase is ending and a new 
one is beginning. In 2009, the Iranian model plunged into crisis faced 
with popular protests. Meanwhile, the rise of the class struggle and 
workers’ movements in Egypt, in particular, and the sharpening of social 
conflicts in several countries such as Tunisia and Morocco signaled the 
things to come. The religious current stays aloof from this kind of 
struggle, which is at odds with its nature and program. These were 
important signs.

We are today entering a new political stage, but it is a transitional 
period in which the leadership of popular action is being contested by 
three forces. First there is the religious current, which has gained 
from recent events. But they are now reduced to being one force among 
others in the movement, after having been virtually the only opposition 
in previous times. The second force is a new kind of liberal current, 
composed of middle classes rather than capitalists, mostly 
professionals, students, unemployed graduates, and intellectuals, who 
are reformist in the social sense. These groups are not organized in a 
single party, but form a network which enjoys a certain degree of 
cohesion. The third force is the workers’ movement and an array of 
allied leftist formations. The condition of the left varies from one 
country to another. It plays an important role in Tunisia, but less so 
in Egypt.

We are living through a revolutionary process and cannot prophesize its 
future. But while people have for years imagined that any shakeup in the 
region could only be brought about by religious groups, it is now clear 
that other forces are competing with them to lead popular action.

DC: Can Israel bear all these popular upheavals and revolutions?

GA: With the rise and radicalization of the nationalist current in the 
1960s, the Saudi kingdom asked the Americans to evacuate their Dhahran 
airbase to fend off pressure from this current. The US found 
compensation for the exit of its troops from the Gulf in building a 
military alliance with Israel. The Zionist state’s standing as a key 
ally of the US was bolstered after the victory it achieved in 1967, and 
the Iranian revolution further enhanced Israel’s importance. This 
situation persisted until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which 
provided the US with a golden opportunity to stage a military comeback 
in the region. Israel’s value accordingly declined.

At the time, Washington deemed it necessary to settle the Palestinian 
question, which was fuelling resentment against it. A period of 
unprecedented pressure and tension ensued between Washington and Tel 
Aviv in 1991. The Madrid conference was convened, and the Oslo accords 
were signed two years later. But their limitations quickly became 
apparent, and they were effectively terminated in 2000 with the second 

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 restored the full importance of the Zionist 
ally to Washington. Afterwards, with US failure in Iraq, Israel was 
given free rein in the region. The revolutions we are facing are a 
source of anxiety for Israel, to be sure. But the Zionist state also 
sees them as strengthening its standing as a rock of stability from the 
perspective of US interests at a time when all Arab regimes are teetering.

DC: What kind of resolution could there realistically be to the crisis 
in Syria?

GA: Frankly, the prospect of a smooth transfer of power has receded with 
time due to the savagery of the repression there. This has created a 
great deal of hostility between a large section of the people and the 
regime. The involvement of the military establishment in the repression 
has meanwhile given its chiefs a strong interest in adhering to the 
regime: its downfall would mean them facing trial. I see no line of 
retreat for the regime. It has been escalating the repression, and this 
has polarized the situation. We have seen that wherever initial demands 
for reform have been met with harsh repression, they have turned into 
demands for regime change. Where the regimes have acted more astutely, 
as in Morocco and Jordan, the demands have remained confined to reform. 
In Syria today, the least that the protest movement could accept would 
be the discard of the existing constitution and free elections. But I 
cannot see the Syrian regime agreeing to that. If Assad had continued 
with the reforms that he began immediately after assuming office, he 
would have avoided the current situation. I see only two prospects for 
Syria: either bloody regime survival through more violence and 
repression or a civil war. The regime’s collapse could come about as a 
result of the implosion of its armed agencies. If that were to happen, 
there would be a civil war.

The revolutionary process is continuing all over the region. Nobody 
knows what the Arab world will look like in six months time. All options 
are open, and some of them are frightening indeed. But we’ve been 
through a very long night, and things are only beginning to change.

This article is translated from the Arabic Edition.

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