The New Arab Revolts
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009.
POTHIK GHOSH (PG): In what sense can the recent events in the Arab World be called revolutions? How are they different from the colour revolutions of the past two decades?
Vijay Prashad (VP): All revolutions are not identical. The colour revolutions in Eastern Europe had a different tempo. They were also of a different class character. They were also along the grain of US imperialism, even though the people were acting not for US but for their own specific class and national interests. I have in mind the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Otpor in the Ukraine, among others, was well lubricated by George Soros’s Open Society and the US government’s National Democratic Institute. Russian money also swept in on both sides of the ledger. These Eastern European revolutions were mainly political battles in regions of the world still unsettled by the traumatic transition from state socialism to predatory capitalism.
The Arab revolt that we now witness is something akin to a “1968” for the Arab World. Sixty per cent of the Arab population is under 30 (70 per cent in Egypt). Their slogans are about dignity and employment. The resource curse brought wealth to a small population of their societies, but little economic development. Social development came to some parts of the Arab world: Tunisia’s literacy rate is 75 per cent, Egypt’s is just over 70 per cent, Libya almost 90 per cent. The educated lower-middle-class and middle-class youth have not been able to find jobs. The concatenation of humiliations revolts these young people: no job, no respect from an authoritarian state, and then to top it off the general malaise of being a second-class citizen on the world stage – second to the US-Israel and so on – was overwhelming. The chants on the streets are about this combination of dignity, justice and jobs.
PG: Does the so-called Jasmine Revolution have in it to transform the preponderant character of the politico-ideological topography of oppositional politics – from Islamist identitarianism to an organic variant of working-class politics – in West Asia and the Maghreb? Under what circumstances can this series of general strikes, which seem to be spreading like a brushfire through the region, morph into a constellation of counter-power? Or, would that in your eyes merely be a vicarious desire of Leftists from outside the region?
VP: I fear that we are being vicarious. The youth, the working class, the middle class have opened up the tempo of struggle. The direction it will take is not clear. I am given over to analogies when I see revolutions, largely because the events of change are so contingent.
It is in the melee that spontaneity and structure jostle. The organised working class is weaker than the organised theocratic bloc, at least in Egypt. Social change of a progressive type has come to the Arab lands largely through the Colonels. Workers’ struggles have not reached fruition in any country. In Iraq, where the workers movement was advanced in the 1950s, it was preempted by the military – and then they made a tacit alliance.
One cannot say what is going to happen with certainty. The Mexican Revolution opened up in 1911, but didn’t settle into the PRI regime till the writing of the 1917 constitution and the elevation of Carranza to the presidency in 1920 or perhaps Cardenas in 1934. I find many parallels between Mexico and Egypt. In both, the Left was not sufficiently developed. Perils of the Right always lingered. If the Pharonic state withers, as Porfirio Diaz’s state did, the peasants and the working class might move beyond spontaneity and come forward with some more structure. Spontaneity is fine, but if power is not seized effectively, counter-revolution will rise forth effectively and securely.
PG: What are, in your opinion, the perils if such a transformation fails to occur? Will not such a failure lead to an inevitable consolidation of the global neoliberal conjuncture, which manifests itself in West Asia as fascistic Islamism on one hand and authoritarianism on the other?
VP: If such a transformation fails, which god willing it won’t, then we are in for at least three options: (1) the military, under Egyptian ruling class and US pressure, will take control. This is off the cards in Tunisia for now, mainly because the second option presented itself; (2) elements of the ruling coalition are able to dissipate the crowds through a series of hasty concessions, notably the removal of the face of the autocracy (Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia). If Mubarak leaves and the reins of the Mubarakian state are handed over to the safe-keeping of one of his many bloodsoaked henchman such as Omar Suleiman…. Mubarak tried this with Ahmed Shafik, but he could as well have gone to Tantawi….all generals who are close to Mubarak and seen as safe by the ruling bloc. We shall wait to see who all among the elite will start to distance themselves from Mubarak, and try to reach out to the streets for credibility. As a last-ditch effort, the Shah of Iran put Shapour Bakhtiar as PM. That didn’t work. Then the revolt spread further. If that does not work, then, (3) the US embassy will send a message to Mohamed El-Baradei, giving him their green light. El-Baradei is seen by the Muslim Brotherhood as a credible candidate. Speaking to the crowds on January 30 he said that in a few days the matter will be settled. Does this mean that he will be the new state leader, with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and certainly with sections of Mubarak’s clique? Will this be sufficient for the crowds? They might have to live with it. El-Baradei is a maverick, having irritated Washington at the IAEA over Iran. He will not be a pushover. On the other hand, he will probably carry on the economic policy of Mubarak. His entire agenda was for political reforms. This is along the grain of the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment part 2, viz., the same old privatisation agenda alongside “good governance”. El-Baradei wanted good governance in Egypt. The streets want more. It will be a truce for the moment, or as Chavez said, “por ahora”.
PG: The Radical Islamists, their near-complete domination of the oppositional/dissident politico-ideological space in the region notwithstanding, have failed to rise up to the occasion as an effective organisational force – one especially has the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt in mind. What do you think is the reason?
VP: The Muslim Brotherhood is on the streets. It has set its own ideology to mute. That is very clear. Its spokesperson Gamel Nasser has said that they are only a small part of the protests, and that the protest is about Egypt not Islam. This is very clever. It is similar to what the mullahs said in Iran during the protests of 1978 and 1979. They waited in the wings for the “multitude” to overthrow the Shah, and then they descended. Would the MB do that? If one says this is simply the people’s revolt and not that of any organised force, it’s, of course, true. But it is inadequate. The ‘people’ can be mobilised, can act; but can the ‘people’ govern without mediation, without some structure. This is where the structured elements come into play. If there is no alternative that forms, then the Muslim Brotherhood will take power. That the Muslim Brotherhood wants to stand behind El-Baradei means they don’t want to immediately antagonise the US. That will come later.
PG: What does the emergence of characters like El-Baradei signify? Are they really the “political face” of the resistance as the global media seems to be projecting?
VP: El-Baradei comes with credibility. He served in the Nasserite ministry of external affairs in the 1960s. He then served in the foreign ministry under Ismail Fahmi. One forgets how impressive Fahmi was. He resigned from Sadat’s cabinet when the Egyptian leader went to Jerusalem. Fahmi was a Nasserite. For one year, El-Baradei served with Boutros Boutros Ghali at the foreign ministry. That was the start of this relationship. Both fled for the UN bureaucracy. Boutros Ghali was more pliant than Fahmi. I think El-Baradei is more along Fahmi’s lines. At the IAEA he did not bend to the US pressure. Given that he spent the worst years of Mubarak’s rule outside Cairo gives him credibility. A man of his class would have been coopted into the Mubarak rule. Only an outsider like him can be both of the ruling bloc (in terms of class position and instinct) and outside the ruling apparatus (i. e. of Mubarak’s cabinet circle). It is a point of great privilege.
With the MB careful not to act in its own face, and the ‘people’ without easy ways to spot leaders, and with Ayman Nour not in the best of health, it is credible that El-Baradei takes on the mantle.
PG: Is the disappearance of working-class and other avowedly Left-democratic political organisations, which had a very strong presence in that part of the world till a few decades ago, merely the result of their brutal suppression by various authoritarian regimes (such as Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, Hafez Assad’s in Syria and Nasser’s and Mubarak’s in Egypt) and/or their systematic physical decimation by Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood? Or, does it also have to do with certain inherent politico-theoretical weaknesses of those groups? Has not the fatal flaw of left/ communist/ socialist forces in the Islamic, particularly the Arab, world been their unwillingness, or inability, to grasp and pose the universal question of the “self-emancipation of the working class” in the determinateness of their specific culture and historicity?
VP: Don’t underestimate the repression. In Egypt, the 2006 budget for internal security was $1.5 billion. There are 1.5 million police officers, four times more than army personnel. I am told that there is now about 1 police officer per 37 people. This is extreme. The subvention that comes from the US of $1.3 billion helps fund this monstrosity.
The high point of the Egyptian working class was in 1977. This was the bread uprising. It was trounced. Sadat then went to the IMF with a cat’s smile. He inaugurated the infitah. He covered the books by three means: the infitah allowed for some export-oriented production, the religious cover (al-rais al-mou’min) allowed him to try and undercut the Brotherhood, and seek some funds from the Saudis, and the bursary from the US for the deal he cut with Israel. This provided the means to enhance the security apparatus and further crush the workers’ movements.
Was there even space or time to think about creative ways to pose the self-emancipation question? Were there intellectuals who were doing this? Are we in Ajami’s Dream Palace of the Arabs, worrying about the decline of the questions? Recall that in March 1954 the major Wafd and Communist unions made a pact with the Nasserite regime; for concessions it would support the new dispensation. That struck down its independence. The unions put themselves in the service of the Nation over their Class. In the long run, this was a fatal error. But the organised working class was small (as Workers on the Nile shows, most workers were in the “informal” sector). The best that the CP and the Wafd could do in the new circumstances was to argue that the working class plays a central role in the national movement. Nasser and his Revolutionary Command Council, on the other hand, heard this but did not buy it. They saw the military as the agent of history. It was their prejudice.
POTHIK GHOSH writes for Radical Notes, where this interview originally appeared.