Ten years on from the momentous events of the Arab Spring, whatever happened to this huge revolutionary upsurge? Jamie Allinson surveys the heroism and tragedy of the movement, and explores what it can tell us about revolution in the 21st century.
Whatever happened to the Arab revolutions? The overthrow of the dictators Zine Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, and the spread of massive popular mobilizations throughout much of the surrounding region, briefly entranced most of the Western left. Here was the return of revolution as a historical actor – offering perhaps an alternative path out of the capitalist crisis of 2008 then still unfolding. ‘Tahrir’, referring to the central square occupied by Egyptian protestors, became a metonym for the protests of the early 2010s: notionally spontaneous and horizontalist, focused on the occupation of space rather than the withdrawal of labour, enabled by mobile phones and social media, opposed to the concentration of wealth and power in an elite (‘the regime’, ‘the 1%’) rather than capital as such, and dominated by a youthful generation born after the Cold War.
Ten years on, there has been remarkably little attention from the left on the subsequent course of these uprisings, even as a second wave of revolutionary movements burst forth in Sudan, Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon in 2019. The decade that followed the uprisings in the region, characterised by civil war, coups, foreign interventions and the rise of ISIS, was a bleak one indeed. Even Tunisia, the most successful of the revolutions in conventional terms, is at the time of writing mired in a crisis resulting from the failure of the political transition to address the social demands of 2011. The Arab uprisings have hence come to be dismissed as at most failed revolts or considered a version, especially where they faced former ‘resistance’ regimes in Libya and Syria, of the US-led regime change efforts of the early 2000s.
“The Arab uprising of 2011 – and the counter-revolutions that rendered their consequences so bleak and bloody – did indeed represent paradigmatic cases of the transformation of protest and revolution in the early twentieth century.”
To make such a dismissal is a mistake. The Arab uprising of 2011 – and the counter-revolutions that rendered their consequences so bleak and bloody – did indeed represent paradigmatic cases of the transformation of protest and revolution in the early twentieth century. In certain crucial respects, particularly the involvement of organised workers and the establishment of forms of ‘dual sovereignty’ in some cases, they went beyond most other contemporary protest movements. Indeed, the Arab revolutions represented not a regional exception but “a near-vertical inflection point in which two decades of relative calm instantly reversed into several years of elevated global unrest.”1 The 2010s were a decade of protests and uprisings: mass protests increased by an annual average of 11.5% from 2009-2019. The Middle East and North Africa saw the “largest concentration of activity” and sub-Saharan Africa the “fastest rate of growth”; a dip in protest activity in 2013-2017, coinciding with the high-point of the Arab counter-revolutions, was followed by a renewed expansion of protest leading to 290.5% more protests at the end of the 2010s than at the start (Brannen et al., 2020, pp. iv, 8).2 By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the world had become a far more ‘revolutionary’ place–in the sense of the prevalence of mass mobilizations overthrowing incumbent governments–than it had been a century before. These remained within the bounds of political rather than social revolution: the distinction being that, in Neil Davidson’s words ‘‘political revolutions take place within a socioeconomic structure and social revolutions involve a change from one socioeconomic structure to another.’3 Despite this growth in popular mobilization and even forms of political revolution, social revolution has remained stubbornly beyond the horizon. Ignoring the fate of the Arab revolutions, or downgrading them to the status of mere conspiracies or civil wars, means ignoring this contradiction. How revolutionary, then, were the Arab revolutions?
If we consider revolutions only to have occurred when they produce the successful transformation of social relations, then the Arab uprisings were not revolutionary – and it is for this reason that they are not considered such by much of the global and regional left. Yet to adopt such an understanding of revolution begs the question that needs to be answered: if only successful revolutions count as revolutions, then how would we ever know why revolutions succeed or fail?
Revolutions consist not solely of an outcome but also of a process. They are not just the “locomotive of history” (Marx’s term) but (Trotsky’s) “inspired frenzy.” Considered instead as instances of a revolutionary situation in which a mass uprising contends with the existing power of the ruling class – with a number of undetermined outcomes possible – the Arab uprisings were very revolutionary indeed. In fact, these were the largest and broadest protest movements in the history of each of the states in which they broke out, and some of the largest in the world. Where the data is available, participation rates in the uprisings outstrip those of paradigmatic revolutions such as France in 1789 or Russia in 1917. At least four states – Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen – experienced nationwide strike waves, the largest in their history, and some of the largest in global labour history. In at least three states – Syria, Libya and Yemen – sovereign authority fractured into competing institutions while elsewhere the ruling social order was challenged by demands for ‘cleansing’ or a ‘parallel revolution’ in both public and private organisations. These were very deep revolutionary situations, brought about by mass revolts that entered into violent and divisive confrontation with the state, but nonetheless did not issue in lasting social transformations.
The ‘Arab Transformations’ project based at the University of Aberdeen surveyed respondents in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya about their participation in and support for the uprisings. The survey found in Egypt a participation rate of 6.9%, or roughly 5.6 million people. A further 21.9% reported giving passive support to the uprising. These figures are slightly higher than estimates for historically much more famous revolutions, such as 1917. Compilation of participants’ narratives and media reports leads to a much higher estimate, of 15-20 million, which would account for a fifth to a quarter of the Egyptian population at the time, although these are a less accurate form of measurement.4 In Tunisia, however, slightly under 20% of respondents reported participating in the revolution: a very high proportion of the population compared to previous revolutionary movements. In Libya, an absolute majority, 56.6%, claimed to have actively participated in the revolt. A supermajority of 72.5% supported it. This would equate to over 3.5 million participants and nearly 5 million supporters: but these figures must be treated with some caution as the survey over-represents graduates and people from the Benghazi area, both populations likelier to have participated in the uprising. Surveys for Bahrain, Yemen or Syria are not available in the same level of detail but some figures are indicative: the occupation of the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, on 22 February 2011 – according to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry – was attended by 100,000-150,000 people. This would represent one-sixth of Bahrain’s (citizen) population. On 7 July 2011, 500,000 people assembled in the Syrian city of Hama (partially destroyed in the crushing of a previous revolt in 1982) which only had a population of 700,000. After 4 years of war, surveys of Syrian refugees in Lebanon found 53% expressing support for some form of the opposition: 40% for the regime or its allies.5 Yemen, where existing opposition parties joined the protest movement quickly, reportedly saw demonstrations of 1 million in Sana’a in February 2011: the country’s third city of Ta’iz was certainly occupied by over 100,000 protestors.6
“These were protest movements of unprecedented breadth and depth in the region, involving levels of participation not seen in historically paradigmatic cases of revolution. In some cases they also involved organised working class collective action, something comparatively rare in 21st century protest waves.”
These were protest movements of unprecedented breadth and depth in the region, involving levels of participation not seen in historically paradigmatic cases of revolution. In some cases they also involved organised working class collective action, something comparatively rare in 21st century protest waves. In Tunisia in particular, general strikes organised through the central union federation, the UGTT, spread the revolt and sent Ben Ali into exile. In Egypt the final days of Mubarak’s reign, 10 and 11 February saw a huge increase in strike activity and a general strike called on Wednesday 9 February spread quickly even to the military production facilities. The level of labour actions actually increased after this. There were 1,400 recorded collective labour actions in 2011; 1,969 in 2012 and 2,400 in the first quarter of 2013.7These remained largely localised actions, however. In Bahrain, the general strike called by the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions on 20 February 2011 was reportedly observed by between 60% and 85% of the citizen workforce.8 Yemen, meanwhile, witnessed a ‘parallel revolution’ of mutinies in several branches of the armed forces and all-out strikes at the national airline, state media companies and several government departments; the ‘Yemen Economical Corporation’ (the investment arm of the armed forces); the country’s main universities and its largest oil field. In Libya and Syria, where trade union organisation was reduced to a transmission belt of the regime, there were far fewer workers’ actions–particularly in Syria, the uprising was concentrated among the precariously employed or unemployed in peripheral areas or the suburbs of major cities.
The revolutions also created situations of dual power, albeit not enduring institutions. In Libya the revolt split off part of the state apparatus and created a new – very shaky – administration based in the east of the country. In Syria the revolutionaries established first ‘local co-ordination committees’ to organise protests, from which emerged local councils administering the ‘liberated areas’ from which the Assad regime had withdrawn. Along with these came the split in the regime’s armed forces as conscripts and some officers deserted to join armed volunteers in the ‘Free Syrian Army’: although the core of the regime army always remained intact. Even in Egypt and Tunisia, where such contending institutions were not established, the occupations of Tahrir and the Casbah prefigured alternative forms of governance to the existing regimes. The revolutions also directly challenged the coercive power of the state, contrary to the image of peaceful, middle-class protests. In Egypt At least 84 district police stations (a quarter of the national total) were burned down. Half of the district police stations in Cairo and 60% in Alexandria were destroyed on the ‘Friday of Anger’, 28 January 2011. These attacks were likelier in poorer areas.9 Around 300 people were killed while attacking police stations–three times the total number of casualties in the squares. Similar events occurred in Tunisia.
“The Arab revolutions thus very much resembled previous revolutionary experiences in their mass mobilisation, class-based collective action and their confrontation with the state.”
Beyond these moments of revolutionary uprising, most of the Western left will probably be familiar with the ‘democratic confederalism’ established by the Kurdish ‘Democratic Union Party’ (the sister organization of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Northern Syria. A contradictory experiment, uniting an eco-socialist vision with some of the old-fashioned authoritarianism of national liberation movements, ‘Rojava’ undoubtedly offered a more palatable alternative than either the old regimes or much of what replaced them. Yet the experiment was fatally dependent on two relationships: first an ambiguous stance towards the Assad regime itself, and hence a distance from the broader uprising against it; and second on US air power once the latter pitted itself against ISIS from 2015. When US support was withdrawn, the PYD were left effectively defenceless against Turkish incursion.
Nonetheless, the Arab revolutions thus very much resembled previous revolutionary experiences in their mass mobilisation, class-based collective action and their confrontation with the state. So what happened to them?
One of the consequences of dismissing the revolutionary nature of the Arab uprisings is to underestimate the significance of contemporary counter-revolution. The 2011 revolutions did not simply fail: they were defeated. The split between political and social revolution played a part in this defeat. In Egypt and Tunisia the revolutions opened up a space for the Muslim Brotherhood (and its offshoot Ennahda in Tunisia) as the beneficiaries of democratising political revolution–who were nonetheless opposed to any further extension of the social aspects of the revolution. Into the gap thus opened in the revolutionary ranks stepped the military in Egypt, and politically-organised remnants of the old regime in Tunisia under the banner of Nidaa Tounes. The military coup in Egypt in 2013 led by Abdel Fattah El-Sisi against the elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, was the central event of the Arab counter-revolutions. Sisi was able to draw on a popular base mobilised through Nasserist loyalty to the army as an institution and hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation–reaching even to some independent trade union leaders such as Kamal Abu Eita.
Tunisia retained the form of transition to political democracy, albeit one in which the social demands of the revolutionaries went unresolved – eventually leading to the crisis that broke out in the country in the summer of 2021. Elsewhere the revolutions succumbed either to civil war, external intervention or a mixture of both. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Co-operation Council dispatched the ‘Peninsula Shield Force’ in March 2011 to shore up the monarchy. In Syria the regime’s early turn towards armed repression and siege tactics led to a spiralling civil war and the emergence of Islamist groups such as ISIS that proved just as repressive of the revolutionaries as Assad had been. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cobbled together an arrangement to divert the revolution by replacing the dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh with his deputy and allies in the Sunni Islamist opposition. Dissatisfaction with this deal fuelled the rise of the Houthi movement and consequent civil war, into which the Saudis and Emiratis (with staunch UK backing) intervened to catastrophic effect. In Libya, the Nato bombing campaign – pursued notionally to protect civilians – of 2011 allowed the armed uprising to triumph over Gaddafi’s forces. The governments elected in the aftermath proved unable to hold onto the country, however, and soon foreign intervention – from Saudi, Emirati, French and Russian versus Qatari and Turkish sources – was backing rival contenders in repeated outbursts of civil war. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the would-be Sisi of Libya, was particularly favoured by the former.
“Both imperialism and sectarianism formed vital aspects of these counter-revolutions but not in the way often conventionally understood. It is essential to recognise first of all the competitive character both of imperialist geopolitics at a global level and the relative autonomy of regional counter-revolutionaries.”
Both imperialism and sectarianism formed vital aspects of these counter-revolutions but not in the way often conventionally understood. It is essential to recognise first of all the competitive character both of imperialist geopolitics at a global level and the relative autonomy of regional counter-revolutionaries. Three axes of counter-revolution operated in the region: one centred on Riyadh and the GCC, hostile to any form of popular representation, to political and social revolution both; one uniting the ‘axis of resistance’ in Iran, Hizballah, the Assad regime and Russia; and finally the Qatari-Turkish alliance which promoted the Muslim Brotherhood as inheritors of democratic political revolution but preservers of the social order. The US tended to vacillate between the first and the third of these. Far from an extension of the American hegemony and regime change policies of the early 2000s, the general cataclysm of the 2010s resulted from the competition of these counter-revolutionary alliances. In Syria the US’ main role was to regulate – through its ‘Timber Sycamore’ programme – arms and funds already flowing to the armed opposition from Turkey, Qatar and other Gulf countries. The level of US intervention in the country paled by comparison with the Russian commitment to the Assad regime. The US launched two sets of air strikes–all under President Trump more than six years after the uprising began– against regime targets. A US attempt to create an anti-ISIS ground force (the ‘train-and-equip’ programme) ended in dismal defeat by the Al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat Al-Nusra: by far the most substantial US intervention was the air campaign against ISIS carried out in co-ordination with local allies in the Kurdish PYD.
This is not to argue that US intervention is preferable to Russian and certainly not when US backing for the counter-revolutions in Yemen and Bahrain is considered. Seeing ‘Empire’ in the singular, however, means being unable to account for the success of counter-revolution across the region.
As well as external intervention, forms of sectarian identity also played a key role in facilitating the counter-revolution. This was particularly the case in Syria and Bahrain – and to a lesser degree Yemen. The concentration of these counter-revolutions on members of the majority sect in each country (Sunni in Syria, Shi’a in Bahrain) combined with exemplary punishment of minorities identifying with the uprising create a dynamic of what Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel call ‘sectarianisation.’ This transformed cross-sectarian uprisings into a perceived threat to religious minorities, who would then tend to look for protection to the counter-revolutionary regimes backed by their regional allies.
What does the fate of the Arab revolutions tell us about revolution in the twenty-first century? First of all, they embody the paradox of increasing levels of mass mobilization accompanied by a decrease in social transformation. Mark Beissinger’s database of revolutionary situations offers an outline of this trend:
Four peaks, prior to the Arab revolutions – which rank with the periods surrounding the establishment and fall of the Soviet Union in terms of new revolutionary episodes per year – are visible in this table. The first peak is the revolutionary wave that preceded and then was accelerated by the Russian Revolution in 1915-1919, continuing into the early 1920s; the second, smaller and more chronologically isolated, at the end of the Second World War; the third, counter-intuitively at its height in the early 1960s (corresponding to the wave of anti-colonial revolutions) and then slightly decreasing in the latter part of the decade; and the fourth beginning its upward ascent after 1975 to peak in the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s. Most notable of all is the general upward trend in revolutionary episodes.
The first part of this cycle produced exemplars of social transformation – the Russian Revolution for the post-World War 1 wave, and the Chinese 1949 revolution for the de-colonizing wave. After roughly 1975, however, with the arguable (and highly significant) exception of the Iranian revolution, structurally new and enduring social forms ceased to emerge from revolutionary episodes. Whether one sees the pre-1989 regimes of Eastern Europe as an example of ‘actually existing socialism’ or, as I do, varieties of state capitalism, there is no question that the regimes that replaced them after 1989 were not of a new type but rather versions of parliamentary market democracy. In other words we are still seeing the wide spread of political revolution and the absence of social revolution.
“The Arab uprisings were in fact unusual in the history of the 21st century in that some of them featured extensive working class collective action and the formation of kinds of ‘dual power’: but not for the most part a link between the two.”
The Arab uprisings were in fact unusual in the history of the 21st century in that some of them featured extensive working class collective action and the formation of kinds of ‘dual power’: but not for the most part a link between the two. They took place in predominantly urbanised settings (even where these were provincial towns or suburbs as in Syria) rather than as struggles over the land. The revolutionary situations they brought forth in the occupation of particular spaces tended to represent struggles over reproduction rather than production: yet their most salient examples in Tahrir and elsewhere foundered on the continued separation of the political and the economic.10 It must also be recalled that the uprisings took place in states distant from the main centres of global production and with large populations of urban-dwellers precariously connected to the labour market. Outside of East Asia, however, these are common conditions and hence likely to shape any further revolutionary outbursts elsewhere.
Perhaps the main lesson to be drawn from this first cycle of the Arab uprisings – for these were followed by renewed uprisings in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria – is the continued vigour of counter-revolution, both international and domestic. In the absence of a link between political and economic transformation, popular support for counter-revolution is likely to grow as the solution to a crisis that disrupts livelihoods. At the international and regional level, counter-revolution is pursued by multiple and competitive alliances reflecting the decline of US global dominance.
These forces come-up against inchoate revolutionary actors which, for all their weaknesses in binding political rupture and social transformation, are truly mass in scale, militant in character and, at their peak, capable of drawing organised workers into struggle alongside street level protestors. The Arab revolutions did not answer the key strategic questions of social revolution in the 21st century. But they have proved that we live still in a revolutionary epoch.
1 The GDELT Project ‘Mapping Global Protest Trends 1979-2019 Through One Billion News Articles’ (GDELT, 2019).
2 Samuel J. Brannen, Christian S. Haig, and Katherine Schmidt, ‘The Age of Mass Protests: Understanding a Global Trend’, (Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C, 2020).
3 Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (New York: Haymarket, 2012), p. 492; see also John Foran, Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 16–17; Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, pp. 142–43; Goodwin No Way Out, pp. 8–9; Parsa, Misagh States, Ideologies and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of Iran, Nicaragua and The Phillipines (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press 2000) pp.6-10.
4 Jeroen Gunning and Ilan Zvi Baron, Why Occupy a Square? People, Protests and Movements in the Egyptian Revolution (London: Hurst, 2013).
5 Daniel Corstange, ‘The Syrian Conflict and Public Opinion among Syrians in Lebanon’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 46.1 (2019), 178–200 (p. 184) <https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2017.1403307>.
6 Yemen between Reform and Revolution, Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2011), p. 3.
7 Joel Beinin, ‘Egyptian Workers after June 30’, Middle East Report, 2013 <https://merip.org/2013/08/egyptian-workers-after-june-30/>.
8 Holmes, ‘Working on the Revolution’ p. 106.
9 Ketchley, Time of Revolution p. 43.
10 Joshua Clover, Riot, Strike, Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (London: Verso, 2016).