During the decade preceding the Arab popular uprisings ignited by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on December 17, 2010, there were three schools of opinion about the current state and political future of the region. One contended that the expansion of civil society, often understood simply as NGOs, would gradually lead to democratization. A second emphasized the continuity and resilience of authoritarian rule and did not anticipate its demise in the foreseeable future. Proponents of a third school focused on instances of social mobilization and contentious politics under authoritarian rule—the social movements of workers, unemployed degree holders, and others marginalized by the neoliberal developmental model, whether or not they openly advocated or led to democracy.
Social movements that did not explicitly call for democratization received relatively little attention from Western observers, who often regarded economic demands as unrelated to the prospects for democratization in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Consequently, the contributions of these movements to the formation of a culture of protest that prepared citizens to overthrow autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond were not well appreciated. Focusing on social movements and their trajectories rather than attempting to predict the future of authoritarian regimes simultaneously highlights the class dynamics of contentious politics and the limits of vaguely defined demands for democracy or “the fall of the regime.”“In both Tunisia and Egypt, during the decade before the removal of former presidents Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak, working people and the unemployed mounted exceptionally protracted and militant protests demanding secure jobs, higher wages, adequate supplies of water and other services, and opposing the privatization of public assets.”
In both Tunisia and Egypt, during the decade before the removal of former presidents Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak, working people and the unemployed mounted exceptionally protracted and militant protests demanding secure jobs, higher wages, adequate supplies of water and other services, and opposing the privatization of public assets. A six-month rebellion in the Gafsa phosphate mining basin in 2008 prefigured the Tunisian uprising of 2010. Both movements began in midwestern and southern governorates where poverty rates and unemployment, especially for educated youth, are historically higher than the national average. As the 2010 uprising gained support in the capital, its social character became more middle class and democracy became an explicit demand. In Egypt, from 1998 to 2010, there were 3,426 strikes and other collective actions involving some 2.5 million workers.1Joel Beinin and Marie Duboc, “The Egyptian Workers Movement Before and After the 2011 Popular Uprising,” Socialist Register 2015 51 (2014): 139. While they rarely raised explicit demands for democracy, they comprised Egypt’s largest social movement since the post–World War II waves of strikes and nationalist demonstrations. Some Cairo-based NGOs embraced the workers’ movement, and the formation of the April 6 Youth Movement was inspired by (but not closely connected to) it. However, most NGOs, the officially recognized political parties, and the broad public did not actively support workers’ collective actions.
Just as these class-based social movements were typically overlooked before 2011, their persistence has also not been adequately examined. Their escalation after the ouster of the autocrats suggests that formal democratic institutions—even had they been successfully installed—and rebranded neoliberal economic policies have not met the needs of the great majority of the populations who rose up against autocracy.
Movements demanding democratization, an end to police abuse, gender equality, and an end to corruption and domination of the state and the market by cronies of the monarchs and presidents-for-life did draw attention from Western observers, who perceived their leaders to be “like us”—members of the educated, often youthful, middle classes who wanted their countries to adopt the North Atlantic models of governance. Typically, those movements were less clear about their economic and social vision.
Social movements of working people and the educated urban middle classes occasionally overlapped. But they never reached the level of unity and coordination between workers and the oppositional intelligentsia achieved by the Polish Solidarity trade union and its associated social movement in the decade before the demise of the communist regime. The inability to consolidate such a counterhegemonic social base is a major reason why, despite successfully overthrowing four autocratic rulers (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya) and threatening three monarchies (Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain), the Arab popular uprisings were unable to establish stable alternatives to the existing regimes.
Neoliberal economic policy and popular discontent“IMF and World Bank reports emphasized growth, not inequitable distribution, the continued marginalization of entire regions, and the consolidation of corrupt crony capitalist classes.”
Since the mid-1970s, the international financial institutions (IFIs) and leading Western states have promoted the neoliberal policy package, which John Williamson dubbed the Washington Consensus, throughout the MENA region, particularly in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. By the mid-2000s, the IFIs were fulsomely praising Tunisia’s “economic miracle” and dubbing Egypt a “most improved reformer.” IMF and World Bank reports emphasized growth, not inequitable distribution, the continued marginalization of entire regions, and the consolidation of corrupt crony capitalist classes. While neoliberal economic policies were a major driver of popular discontent, oppositional movements rarely attempted to formulate an alternative. Instead, they mostly sought to restore the social contract that prevailed until the 1970s.
Bemoaning the onset of an “Arab winter,” but equally lauding Tunisia as the exceptional successful transition to democracy, overlooks a substantial component of the popular uprisings and the trajectory of contentious politics in the MENA region over the last decade.2“The Arab Winter and the Tunisian Exception in Context” (Reset Dialogues on Civilizations | Mominoun Without Borders | Reset Dialogues US, December 14–15, 2020, virtual). For more elaborated arguments, see Noah Feldman, The Arab Winter: A Tragedy, and Safwan M. Masri, Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). The crowd occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square often chanted “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.” Tunisian revolutionaries demanded “Work! Freedom! Dignity!” The latter slogan was raised again at a demonstration in Tunis in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT) marking the ninth anniversary of the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, suggesting that these demands had not been achieved. UGTT secretary-general Noureddine Taboubi addressed the crowd, decrying the lack of economic progress since Ben Ali’s departure and vowed, “The revolution will go on until the real republic has been established.”3“Thousands of Tunisians Celebrate Anniversary of Revolution,” France24, January 14, 2020.
In the decade before Ben Ali’s ouster, the national unemployment rate fluctuated between 12–15 percent; since then, it has risen to 15–17 percent and around 30 percent for young, university graduates. Real wages in most sectors have declined and annual GDP growth averaged only 1.7 percent from 2011 to 2018.4→OECD Economic Surveys: Tunisia (Paris: OECD, March 2018).
→Statista, “Tunisia: Unemployment rate from 1999 to 2020,” July 20, 2021. All economic indicators declined sharply in 2020, exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19.
In January 2016, an unemployed college graduate was electrocuted in Kasserine, another marginalized midwest governorate, while protesting his removal from a list of candidates about to be appointed to a government job. His death sparked a week-long anti-austerity uprising that spread to 16 of Tunisia’s 24 governorates. Prominent slogans of that movement included: “The revolution of the young, confiscated by the old” and “We’ll never give up our right to development and employment.”
In January 2018, under pressure from IMF demands for austerity, the Tunisian government announced a budget that would raise taxes on gasoline, phone cards, housing, internet usage, and hotel rooms, and reduce subsidies on fruits and vegetables. In response, a demonstration broke out in Terbouba, a rural town west of Tunis. It morphed into a violent riot after a 55-year-old man died, likely from tear gas asphyxiation. The movement encompassed at least 20 other locales, spreading via social media with the hashtag #Fech_Nestannew (“What are we waiting for?”), and persisted for five days.5James Doubek, “Protests Across Tunisia Over Price Hikes, Worsening Economic Hardships,” NPR, January 11, 2018.
Those social rebellions highlighted the economic failures of the post-Ben Ali regime, which were exacerbated by the limitation of post-2011 Tunisian democracy to matters of electoral procedure. The 2017 Administrative Reconciliation Law pardoned civil servants who engaged in corruption during the Ben Ali era, unless they personally benefited from embezzling public funds. It also permitted them to return to positions of power in government. Political deadlock has blocked establishment of the constitutional court stipulated in the constitution. Until his death in July 2019, President Béji Caïd Essebsi (formerly foreign minister under Ben Ali) increasingly concentrated power in the presidency despite the lack of constitutional authority for many of his actions.“Saïed suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister and several other ministers, closed the office of Al Jazeera, and ordered several members of the Islamist Ennahda party confined to house arrest.”
This established a precedent for President Kais Saïed’s declaration of a state of emergency on July 25, 2021, in response to protests in Tunis, Nabeul, Sousse, Kairouan, Sfax, and Tozeur over deteriorating economic conditions and the government’s mishandling of the surging Covid-19 pandemic. Saïed suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister and several other ministers, closed the office of Al Jazeera, and ordered several members of the Islamist Ennahda party confined to house arrest. Saïed’s show of decisiveness was popular and supported by the army and initially also by the secularist leadership of the UGTT, which appreciated his firm opposition to Ennahda. But it also exposed that establishing a patina of procedural democracy while maintaining the economic model and recirculating many of the elites of the Ben Ali era was inadequate to meet the expectations of the popular uprising of 2010–11. Since he accepts the terms of the neoliberal economic model and has sought support from the IFIs and the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf states, Saïed cannot provide the “development and employment” that Tunisians have repeatedly demanded. Since his initial assault on the rule of law, Saïed has continued to degrade the formal institutions of democracy, emptying them of substantive content.
In Egypt, wildcat strikes proliferated during the short-lived presidency of the country’s first democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.6Beinin and Duboc, “The Egyption Workers Movement,”146–47. The IMF refused to grant post-2011 Egypt a $4.8 billion loan on conditions significantly different from those it imposed over the previous two decades. The IMF’s obstinacy contributed to destabilizing Morsi’s presidency after the price increases and other austerity measures it demanded leaked to the press in late 2012.
The Muslim Brotherhood overreached in their effort to consolidate power. Hence, the July 2013 military coup was initially popular. Coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed the presidency in 2014. Strikes and workers’ collective actions diminished sharply in the second half of 2013 but resumed in 2014 and 2015 at lower levels than pre-2013 rates but still far higher than at any time in the Mubarak era. However, since early 2016, Sisi’s praetorian dictatorship has harshly repressed strikes and all other expressions of dissent. As in Tunisia, despite the changes in Egypt’s political leadership, its economic model has remained largely the same, except that the military has substantially expanded its role in the economy, displacing the crony capitalists who surrounded former first son Gamal Mubarak while maintaining comparable levels of corruption.
Petro-capitalism continues to impede democracy and social welfare
Throughout the MENA region, petro-capitalism remains the dominant regime of capital accumulation. Its power and influence radiate outward from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, even as they are developing beyond the stage of capital accumulation based on oil and gas rents. Gilbert Achcar described the mélange of older and newer forms of governance that regulate this regime of capital accumulation as “a mix of patrimonialism, nepotism, and crony capitalism, pillaging of public property, swollen bureaucracies, and generalized corruption against a background of great sociopolitical instability, and impotence or even nonexistence of the rule of law.”7Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, trans. Geoffrey Michael Goshgarian (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2013), 74. I would add, high military spending, low human development indices, a repressive public culture, and the prevalence of Islamist movements as the main form of political opposition. Hydrocarbon-poor countries are integrated into petro-capitalism via the remittances of their migrant workers, aid, and investments from hydrocarbon-rich GCC countries. The policies promoted by the IFIs seek to integrate this regional regime of petro-capitalism into the broader global capitalist market.
After the 2010–2011 uprisings, the IMF acknowledged that it had ignored the highly unequal distribution of the benefits of the economic model it had promoted since the 1970s. Its then managing director wrote, “Let me be frank: We were not paying enough attention to how the fruits of economic growth were being shared.”8Christine Lagarde, “The Arab Spring, One Year On,” IMFBlog, December 6, 2012. But in practice, the same basic portfolio of policies that the IMF touted before 2011 has simply been rebranded as “inclusive growth.”
Consequently, social protests have continued and even escalated despite the apparent defeat of the revolutionary upsurge of 2011. In Morocco, a protest movement of the Amazigh (Berber) population, the Hirak Rif, persisted from October 2016 to June 2017. The movement erupted when Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller, was crushed to death in a garbage truck in Al Hoceima while trying to recover his confiscated merchandise, a scenario disconcertingly similar to the events that led to Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation six years earlier.“In 2018–19, an upsurge of mass protest spread across Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and briefly, Egypt.”
In 2018–19, an upsurge of mass protest spread across Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and briefly, Egypt. In Sudan and Algeria, autocratic presidents Omar al-Bachir and Abdelaziz Bouteflika were ousted, and some pillars of the old regimes were weakened before the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to the popular mobilizations. In Sudan, contestation between the military and civilian revolutionaries continues as of this writing. Widespread demonstrations resumed in Lebanon after 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut unsafely for six years exploded on August 4, 2020, killing 218 people, wounding 7,000, displacing over 300,000, and damaging 77,000 apartments. Prompted by Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since the 1975–90 civil war, demonstrations erupted once again in March and June 2021 and continued into the fall.
The repeated outbursts of rebellion across the MENA region over the last decade indicate that the economic and social issues highlighted by the 2011 cycle of protest, most sharply in Tunisia and Egypt, have not been adequately addressed. While they raised demands that were specific to each country and its history (Amazigh rights in Morocco and Algeria; the supply of utilities and dismantling of sectarian political structures and corruption in Lebanon and Iraq; minority rights in Sudan), they are clearly connected, both by mutual inspiration and by a common structure of political economy.
The Arab popular uprisings of 2010–2011 and their sequels in the ensuing decade have falsified the myth that Arab or Muslim culture are inimical to democracy. They also demonstrated that mere procedural democracy that leaves politicized militaries and old ruling elites substantially in place and does not meet the economic, social, and cultural needs of the majority of the population will not succeed. The uprisings of 2010–2011 were a moment in a continuing social upheaval that may last generations and whose outcome is unpredictable. Understanding the components of that social upheaval is a more fruitful endeavor than bemoaning autocracy, “democracy promotion,” and recycling economic policies that have manifestly failed.
Banner photo: Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr.