Arab Uprisings: Progress, But Not Yet a Revolution




By Hisham Bustani *


A protester, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, stands in front of Egyptian military police standing guard near the Ministry of Defense in the Abbassiya district of Cairo 30 April 2012. (Photo: REUTERS – Mohamed Abd El Ghany)


There is no real class formation in modern Arab societies. The post-colonial Arab “state” is a political and economic disaster area that has yet to advance into the industrialized era. Its social fabric was deformed by imposing and/or magnifying divisions and fragmentation. It transformed the collaborative self-sufficient gatherings – based economically on farming and grazing in rural areas; pillaging and grazing in desert areas; and commerce, crafts, and some manufacturing in cities, with each social group having its own traditions and rules that applied to all members – into malformed consumerist social formations. These formations come in the shape of family, clan, sect or ethnicity for identity, solidarity and protection.


These formations live on the periphery of a globalized service sector, and are governed by regimes that largely destroyed local economies in exchange for a model based on foreign aid. This is a corporate-dependant, commoditized, service-based model, where the ruling class is the representative of global corporations: a comprador formation with interests opposed to local industrialization and production. In countries where natural resources are abundant, the governments opted for exporting raw materials rather than investing in and manufacturing goods with them. Instead, the money was sucked away in a cycle of corruption and parts of it were redistributed down to the people as a form of a “grant” from the benefactor ruler.

The shockwaves of Arab uprisings gradually sent more educated young people to the streets as unemployed, impoverished, and desperate individuals.It is hard to identify a class division based on interest or contradiction. What we find is a well-defined ruling class generally composed of the head-of-state, close aids and relatives, businesspeople representing foreign corporations, and high-ranking security officials (usually all intertwined in the same matrix of corruption). Below lies a vaguely defined middle class composed of professionals and service sector employees, and an impoverished stratum of daily workers, craftspeople, and unskilled workers. At the bottom lingers the unemployed, heavily influenced by tribal, religious, sectarian, and ethnic loyalties.


Privatization of the public sector and opening up the market to foreign investors further suffocated what little local production was left. With the “state” having nothing to live on other than an ever increasing taxation on commodities, services, and income, more and more of the middle class collapsed into poverty in a number of Arab countries.


The main remedy for this situation was injecting pockets of impoverishment and possible protest with small amounts of benefits and money barely sufficient to keep it below the explosion threshold. This was done by distributing some of the oil money (in oil-producing countries) or some of the foreign aid money and benefits through “projects.” This mechanism proved efficient for a long period of time, and was successful in neutralizing popular protests, until the global economic crash in 2008 and the subsequent collapse of the neoliberal economy.


If there was a direct single catalyst for the Arab uprisings, it was the global collapse of money markets, and the resultant shockwaves it sent around the world.

In the Arab world, the shockwaves gradually sent more educated young people to the streets as unemployed, impoverished, and desperate individuals. Adding to that, the confiscation of political rights (and thus the confiscation of the future), the tremendous humiliation of dignity, coupled with relatively free and uncensored new tools of communication set the stage for an uprising.


In Tunisia, Mohammad Bouazizi, the iconic figure who initiated the chain reaction, had all of the above-mentioned elements. He was an educated, young, and impoverished individual who was insulted by a policewoman confiscating his unlicensed vegetable cart. His self-immolation sent fire through the dry grass of Tunisia and the Arab world. The desperate middle-class youth of Egypt were the initiators of the January 25 uprising, whereas it was the impoverished rural areas that initiated the uprising in Syria.


Uprising or Revolution?


If we were to swiftly inspect the models of the 1789 French revolution and the 1917 Russian revolution, we’ll find three characteristic pillars on which they are based.

First: revolutions accomplish complete economic and social change and move society from one era to another (feudal to bourgeois in France, feudal to socialist in Russia).

Second: revolutions are preceded by theoretical and philosophical discourses generated by avant-garde philosophers and thinkers reflecting the interests of the rising class or group. Those discourses present futuristic visions, solutions, perceptions, predictions, structures, values, and so on. Revolutions are later based on them or endeavor to accomplish them (the visions of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and others in France; the visions of Marx, Engels, Lenin in Russia).

A revolution is fueled by class interest or the ideology of a revolutionary party while an uprising is fueled by anger and frustration.Third: there is a revolutionary class or a revolutionary group (or party) that embarks on achieving class interests, or promoting the philosophical discourse that requires a material existence expressed socially by class interests.


Those characteristics are not found in the current Arab uprisings. The future might prove otherwise on the first point, but the second and third points certainly do not apply.


Moreover, a revolution is fueled by class interest or the ideology of a revolutionary party while an uprising is fueled by anger and frustration. A revolution presents a comprehensive social, economic, and political program for change that was pre-meditated and based on philosophical discourses. An uprising has no such program and has no philosophical discourse. A revolution has a leading class or a leading party, whereas an uprising has no clear leadership.


What we are experiencing in the Arab world is a number of generalized uprisings. They may develop and mature into revolutions, they may regress, and they may experience setbacks, but we should not have excessive expectations. The crucial step forward has been accomplished: people in the Arab world have risen up against their corrupt and subordinate regimes. Their rising up has been written in blood. There is no turning back. This uprising is now carved deep in the general consciousness of the people, and they will not bow down to future oppressors, whoever they may be. But until this moment, we’re still short of a full Arab revolution.


* Hisham Bustani is a writer and activist from Jordan. He has published three volumes of short fiction in Arabic.

Published on Al Akhbar English (

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