Globalisation and the Arab revolutions

Awatef Abdel-Rahman
Tuesday 19 Nov 2019

Nearly a decade after the Arab Spring revolutions, conditions are ripe for renewed grassroots uprisings across the Arab world, writes Awatef Abdel-Rahman

The current global capitalist system appears determined to avail itself of a single and non-democratic ruling order limited to narrow, though multilingual, economic underpinnings in order to harness all human activities, including health, education and culture, to increase the wealth of a handful of nations and multinational companies to the detriment of the rest of the world’s peoples, says Susan George, president of the Observatory on Globalisation in Paris.

Globalisation in its current form serves the interests of only ten per cent of the world’s inhabitants. Moreover, the ills of globalisation not only affect the peoples of the South, but also the majority of people in Europe and North America. Globalisation has internationalised the class struggle in impoverished and wealthy nations alike, and this struggle has intensified since the US has asserted its monopoly over the global order, facilitating the growing influence of multinationals and the interests of big business.

Globalisation has generated ever more acute and frequent social crises, with economic experts now predicting the onset of a recession that will be longer and more severe than that of the 1970s and 1980s. In tandem with the spread of consumerist culture and the growing dominance of market forces, the purchasing power of the impoverished peoples of the world has plummeted, both in the centre and in the periphery of the world system where we find the countries of the Arab world.

The peoples of the South have been the hardest hit by the capitalist order, especially the Arab peoples. The situation is such that it has drawn attention to what has been termed the “leadership crisis” in the Arab region. This term alludes to the leaderships’ inability to achieve stability and realise social justice because of the inherited legacy of mismanagement, corruption and terrorism, combined with the ongoing prioritisation of meeting the conditions of globalisation’s governing institutions that conflict with the social, economic and cultural rights and interests of the Arab peoples.

This has contributed to creating conditions ripe for renewed outbreaks of grassroots uprisings. In other words, the justification for Arab Spring-type revolutions still exists under regimes that do not believe in democracy or social justice, that monopolise the centres of military, political and economic influence, and that propound authoritarian approaches to the protection of national security.

As a result, people find horizons closing in on them until their choices are essentially limited to death by starvation or suicide from despair. It is at this point that the cycle of mounting collective frustration evolves into seething anger that could erupt spontaneously at any moment.

The first instance of this sort of uprising in modern Egyptian history occurred just after World War I. Egypt’s 1919 Revolution initially erupted without an identifiable leadership but was then cleverly taken up by leaders from among the political elites that had emerged during the previous phase of the nationalist movement. Despite the fact that these elites had not previously engaged in nationalist activities, they managed to place themselves at the helm of the revolution and steer it towards a conclusion that took the form of an understanding with the British occupation and that won for Egypt a nominal independence in exchange for accepting colonialist plans that substituted liberal democracy for the nationalist cause.

Demands for self-determination, independence, and the evacuation of the British from Egypt were overshadowed by slogans of “democracy,” the drafting of a national constitution, parliamentary elections, and futile negotiations with the occupiers. The negotiations failed, and evacuation and full independence were deferred for 30 years when the cycle began again with the closing of horizons and the loss of faith in the existing political parties and government institutions that had proven themselves unable to meet such aspirations.

As the military establishment, by dint of its organisation and cohesion, was the only institution capable of achieving this end, it launched the July 1952 Revolution in order to shoulder the necessary responsibility in events initially known as the Free Officers Movement. But it was not until Gamal Abdel-Nasser became president and began to implement an array of political and social policies that this movement evolved into a national revolution with a major dimension of social justice.

The July Revolution achieved the original political aim of the 1919 Revolution in the British evacuation and went on to realise its other aims, apart from the establishment of democratic life in the country as conceived in the West. This had negative repercussions on all the revolution’s national and social accomplishments soon after Abdel-Nasser’s death in 1970. The rollback began with the “Open Door” economic policy in 1974, ushering in economic liberalisation processes in the framework of a budding alliance with the US that was cemented with the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978.

However, the July 1952 Revolution was still the only Egyptian revolution to have realised most of its aims. In part, this was because the external circumstances were propitious: the colonial era was nearing an end while the Third World liberation movements were on the rise. In part, too, it had to do with the nature of the revolutionary leadership and its commitment to at least most of its principles. Nevertheless, Nasserist rule gave root to a detrimental political tradition, namely a lack of political and ideological pluralism combined with the executive’s monopoly over all decision-making processes on matters of national and social interest.

This deprived the people of the opportunity to exercise their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and political participation through political parties and a free and independent press. If the inroads Abdel-Nasser achieved in achieving social justice may have justified such a governing system during his time, the later Al-Sadat and Mubarak regimes that succeeded him took advantage of this anti-democratic tradition to void its dimension of social justice of substance while compensating for it with only a thin facade of political pluralism.

Regarding the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, the most pressing question here is why they failed to realise most of their aims despite the legitimacy of the justifications that drove them. In the case of Egypt’s 25 January 2011 Revolution, the Mubarak period had seen the rise of new generations of angry young people who were simultaneously armed with the instruments of the revolution in communications in the form of the new social media. These generations had not experienced the defeats of 1948 and the loss of Palestine or 1967 and the loss of the Arab nationalist dream. But they had suffered from political repression, high rates of unemployment and the other consequences of economic globalisation.

Yet, at the same time, the new technologies offered them new horizons and new hope. By utilising the Internet and other electronic communications platforms, they went into action to realise their dreams for an end to dictatorship and corruption and succeeded in generating a mass impetus that culminated with the fall of the Mubarak regime. Unfortunately, they also lacked the political expertise needed to channel their protest movement and its energies into feasible strategies for comprehensive social change. As a result, authoritarian forces managed to recapture the political arena and to exclude the youth from decision-making processes that affect crucial aspects of their present and future.

In many Arab countries, generations of young people lived through an era characterised by the tyranny and fear instilled by powerful security agencies, the adulation of the ruler, the domination of a misleading and non-plural press, and widespread opportunism, nepotism and corruption. Their only alternatives were to join ideologically closed and insular Salafi movements or to open themselves up to the only available space for free expression in the social-networking sites.

However, because of the youth’s lack of political experience in some countries forces that seek to perpetuate specific policies that have impoverished nations and peoples politically, economically and culturally have come back to the fore again. Consequently, frustration and anger are building up again, and their accumulation could lead to new waves of spontaneous uprisings.

*The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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