The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising
Few people are on the pulse and can offer a sophisticated analysis of politics in the Arab World quite like Gilbert Achcar. It is little wonder his 2013 book The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising has now been re-issued with a new preface. It stood out then and it stands out again today.
“I felt the conditions analysed in the book are the same today and so felt releasing a new edition was a good idea,” he tells The New Arab.
Too many people think 2011 and its protests were a moment, the revolution an event, but not Achcar.
As he cautioned then when revolutionary optimism was high and as he cautions now when revolutionary optimism is low- uprisings in the Arab World are not done yet and revolution is not an event but a long historical process.
Certainly, those who thought the 2011 moment was dead were disproven as protests erupted in Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq in 2019.
"History is not made of days or weeks. These big radical changes in societies don’t happen easily, they take time and they go through ups and downs"
Reflecting on why so many people think of revolution as a single event that either succeeds or fails, when in the past revolutions go back and forth as we saw in Europe in the 19th century, where revolutionary regimes and counter-revolutionary regimes kept emerging and reemerging, “people don’t know history enough and what they know about history are just events," Achcar explains.
"The French Revolution 14 July 1789, I mean okay that was the day of the Bastille, but that was just the beginning and France went into turbulence for many decades.
"The Russian Revolution too, you have processes in history and if you know the history of these countries, you know in Russia there was an aborted one [revolution] in 1905, before the one of 1917, which was followed by civil war. History is not made of days or weeks. These big radical changes in societies don’t happen easily, they take time and they go through ups and downs.”
One possibility as to how this mentality emerged was the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, where almost overnight authoritarianism was replaced by democracies, the speed at which these occurred may have contributed to the feelings that revolutions are only successful if they quickly overturn existing orders.
But as Achcar warns, Eastern Europe in the 1990s is not the Arab world in the 2010s, “to project Eastern Europe on the Arab World is faulty, because in Eastern Europe there was no private property and so all you had were large bureaucracy, many of those in charge of the bureaucracy stand to gain from privatisation and so had little interest in resisting the change of political order.
"That’s totally different from the Arab World, where you have private ownership on the one hand and what I call ‘patrimonial’ states on the other hand, which is where some states are owned by ruling families much like states in Europe under 18th-century absolutism.”
The People Want starts off with economic analysis and moves forward to political analysis charting long term trends within the region.
Initially, the promise of neoliberal opening up of the economy in the 1990s created an illusion that things would get better for ordinary people, however, it soon became clear the reforms worsened people's living conditions and the authoritarian structures proved unable to address the issue.
This was one of the key drivers behind the 2011 uprising and the situation is even bleaker now. “Whenever I am asked about my prognosis for the region, I always say the only prediction one can make is that there will be no stability until there is a radical change of the whole system. If that change does not happen then the region will suffer more crisis and war.”
He goes on, “That’s why I distinguish hope from optimism, I see no reason to be optimistic, however, there is still hope. The new generations who have been politicised through uprisings have learned a lot and it is a learning process and we can see that they will progress in their forms of struggle.”
One place where Achcar sees reasons to be hopeful is Sudan, where following the ouster of long-term dictator Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, Sudanese protesters did not leave the streets but began to form broad-based committees made up of people from differing ideologies, where serious debates about progressive alternatives are happening.
For Achcar, Sudan is already an advancement from what we witnessed in 2011.
But a huge factor determining what happens in the Arab World is global events taking place elsewhere, “What happens in Russia is very important because Putin is the model for the Arab reactionaries [authoritarian regimes and authoritarian political activists], if this terribly miscalculated war on Ukraine ends with Putin losing and some kind of democratic transformation in Russia, this will have a positive impact on the whole world.”
The Arab World is globalised and part of the rest of the world, the negative impact of ‘neo-fascist’ regimes, Achcar says, referring to the wave of right-wing populism from Hungary to America, was keenly felt in the Arab World and Trump’s presidency helped set the region back.
But as we have seen, Achcar believes, the progressive movements that sprang up and generational changes offer reasons to be hopeful.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt