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An insightful collection of articles by participants in the Arab uprisings shows the resources are there to change the world even in the most unlikely circumstances, argues Richard Allday

The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order?, eds. Bassam Haddad, Rosie Bsheer and Ziad Abu-Rish, foreword Roger Owen (Pluto 2013), 328pp.

The major difficulty posed in reviewing this thought-provoking and insightful book is how to provide a coherent account, in six hundred words, of a book that is comprised of 36 articles, by over thirty different contributors, covering events in a dozen different countries, written contemporaneously over the course of the year that shook dictators (i.e. 2011).

The first strength of this book is that the bulk of the contributors are involved in the process on which they comment. This gives an immediacy and passion to their articles that is not lightly ignored. Thus, the advice given by a victim of the Syrian mukhabarat on how best to overcome fear of arrest, and how to cope with torture, (Chapter 28, p.213 and passim) is both chilling (in that the reader cannot but be aware that the text reports experienced reality) and constructive (in that the aim of the text is to reduce the paralysis engendered by fear, to maximise the chance of the arrested of survival, and the chance of the revolution of success). It is the unhistrionic ‘deconstruction’ of arrest and torture, for the purpose of instruction, that provides a sharp reminder that this book is not just an academic exercise, not just a commentary, but part of the process on which it reflects.

Likewise, the rigorous integrity of the editors and commentators is to be applauded. They make no attempt to provide a corrective, retrospective gloss to their contributions but let them stand as they were written. Thus Mohammed Bamyeh, in his ‘Initial Reflections’ on Tunisia baldly states that Egypt is unlikely to experience the cataclysm that shook Tunisia. He quotes Amr al-Shobaki’s contention that ‘the Egyptian regime has put into use a … safety valve, meaning that grievances and criticisms of the government and even the president are allowed; that civil society is tolerated; that the opposition can publish its newspapers; and so on,’ concluding that, ‘… Egypt, therefore, has diffused revolutionary potential in spite of the gravity of the situation,’ (both quotations, p.52). This jolts the reader into disbelief, until you return to the beginning of the article and realise the dateline is January 17th, i.e. one week before the explosion of unrest that unseated Mubarak, and then concede that this was an almost universally accepted analysis at that time. This demonstrates the universal truth that social revolution, in its timing, shares a lot with the Spanish Inquisition – nobody expects it!

The analysis is heterodox, again testimony to the editors’ (and the Jadaliyya project’s) insistence on allowing readers direct access to contemporary commentary, with all the inherent contradictions that involves. For example, I was bemused by Schwedler, Stacher, and Yadav’s assertion (Chapter 6, p.39) that: ‘Many have argued that this … moment in the Arab world is analogous to the Eastern European states that emerged … after 1989. The contagion effect is undeniably a factor, but the comparisons may end there. First, the uprisings have not yet been successful in producing fundamental change … either economically or politically.’

The idea that the Eastern European states have fundamentally broken with the old regime, either economically or politically, is belied by the current composition of the ruling elite in those states. Militarily, economically, juridically, socially, however you want to cut it the old elite is still in place, still enjoying the benefits of power with a few minor cosmetic changes; for evidence, read Tadeusz Kowalik, From Solidarity to Sellout, a commentary on how little has changed, reviewed here.

These contributors provide many useful insights into the current American establishment’s attempt to fit the Arab turmoil into a convenient box. Nonetheless, their argument that the US elite’s insistence that these revolutions are ‘about democracy, not the economy’ is a clear fallacy, is (in my view) weakened by a perspective that holds the purely superficial re-ordering of Eastern Europe amounts to a fundamental change. My view is only reinforced by the detailed unpicking of the interference of the European and American ‘aid’ offered to the new Egyptian government by Adam Hanieh (Chapter 17, ‘Egypt’s Orderly Transition’):

‘Anyone who has any illusions about the goals of the … [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] … investment in Egypt would do well to read carefully the EBRD 2010 Transition Report. [It] presents a detailed assessment of the East European and ex-Soviet Republics… [A] country cannot achieve top marks in the EBRD assessment without the implementation of [privatisation] in the water and road sectors. … The EBRD intervention thus likely augurs a massive acceleration of the privatisation process in Egypt.’

But this may be uncharitable nit-picking; certainly the book in the round is an immensely enlightening, challenging, and educational collection of essays that continually expand the perspective of the non-specialist reader.

Tahiyya Lulu’s ‘Let’s talk about Sect’ (Chapter 21), while only three pages long, provides a stimulating challenge to the received orthodoxy that the Shia/Sunni divide is inherent, fundamental and religious. She points to the very real material discrimination and explicitly discriminatory and divisive policies pursued not just by the present ruler, but dating back to the al Khalifa and subsequent British colonisation. Her closing remark that ‘…one thing is for sure, it is not the demands of the pro-reform protestors at Pearl Roundabout, but the Bahrain government’s rule by repression and discrimination that is pushing this country to a ‘sectarian abyss’ (p.164). The unspoken development of this argument is the far more general conclusion that the alleged fratricidal split between Shii’a and Sunni Islam owes far more to the ‘divide and rule’ policies pursued by despots east and west than any inherent inability of ordinary people to co-exist.

The one glaring omission is the absence, other than referentially, of any discussion of the elephant in the room: Palestine. To my mind, the first harbinger of the growing pressure for change was expressed a year before the events in Tunisia, in the Youth Manifesto that came out of besieged Gaza. For all of its over-enthusiastic use of profanities, it expressed the anger at, and rejection of, the attempts of Hamas and Fatah to use repression as a tool of control, and presaged the remarkable ten thousand strong demonstration in Gaza, which ultimately exerted enough pressure on both camps for Hamas and Fatah to agree (at least formally) to cooperate in the greater interest of the Palestinian people.

In the end though, my criticisms are carping when laid against the wealth of insight and interest contained in these pages. Although not a book for the casual reader, anyone who has an interest in events in the Arab world will find a great deal of benefit in these articles.

And for those who wish to change the world, but sometimes feel that the task is too big for us, we just plain do not have the resources, take heart from Mohammed Bamyeh’s article on Tunisia (Chapter 7): ‘The revolution appears to have taken place not because it had resources – a model already familiar from the completely resourceless first Palestinian Intifada in 1987. The events in Tunisia suggest that when there is enough reason for it, a revolution invents the resources that are appropriate for it. That was the case in Tunisia in 2011, just as it was in Palestine in 1987, and in Iran in 1979.’

He could as equally validly referenced Poland, 1980, Russia, 1917, Paris, 1870 or any other time the dispossessed have risen and claimed the right to act on our own stage, demanding the right to speak our own words, and start writing our own play.

Thank you to all of the contributors to this collection of articles; even where I have disagreed in whole or in part, you have made me examine my own prejudices and I have ended with a deeper insight. Shokran.

Tagged under: Middle East
Richard Allday

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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