Why the Arab Spring Failed

Anand Gopal

As inspiring as the Arab Spring uprisings of the early 2010s were, they failed to democratize the Middle East. The primary cause had little to do with the region’s cultural or religious characteristics and everything to do with the profound weakening of the Middle East’s working-class power under neoliberalism.

Tunisians protest outside the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia in January, 2011. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Interview by
Meagan Day
Micah Uetricht

It’s been almost a decade since the Arab Spring began, and there is still a dearth of satisfying explanations for the uprisings’ overall failure to achieve enduring democratic progress or a better quality of life for the people of the region. In his article “The Arab Thermidor” published in Catalyst, Anand Gopal attempts to fill in some of the blanks.

Why did the rebellions militarize so quickly? Why didn’t they rely on strikes and other exertions of collective working-class power? Why were their liberal elements discredited and discarded in favor of their fundamentalist elements, and how did groups like ISIS exploit the divisions among their ranks?

In this conversation, which originally appeared on the Jacobin podcast The Vast Majority, Gopal answers these questions for Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht. Gopal takes a materialist approach to the development of the Arab Spring, focusing on changing class dynamics in Middle East society and emphasizing that “there’s no substitute for independent working-class power.”

Meagan Day

You write in your article that there are two common explanations for why the Arab Spring ultimately failed. There’s the liberal explanation that these uprisings needed more foreign intervention, more foreign support. And then there’s an explanation sometimes heard on the Left that these uprisings were too Islamist from the very beginning, that they weren’t secular enough to be fully revolutionary. Why do you view these explanations as insufficient?

Anand Gopal

I think both of those aren’t really explanations, because they demand that we think about the underlying causes of both. So for example, if you take the liberal explanation, which is that if the international community or foreign powers had just intervened then the story would have been very different, it may not be the case. But either way it forces us to ask the question, “Why did the revolutions develop in such a way that they needed foreign intervention?”

If you look at the history of revolutions, it’s not often the case that the success of a revolution ultimately hinges solely on whether foreign powers could prop it up. So that explanation demands that we identify the weaknesses of the revolution that then required intervention.

And then there are some sections of the Left which would argue that actually these were never really secular revolutions, they were all fundamentalist. That’s not the case. It was much more complicated than that, which I’ll hopefully get a chance to talk a little bit about.

But beyond that, it also begs the question, “If these were fundamentalist revolutions, why is it that when people decided to rise up in this region of the Middle East both the language and the forms of the resistance took the guise of political Islam or fundamentalism?”

There’s no reason why that should be the case. If you look back at the fifties and sixties, it was various left-wing secular ideologies which were predominant in the region, whether Arab nationalism or communism. There remains a question of why those ideologies weren’t predominant in the uprising. So I think we need to look much deeper than either of those two approaches.

Micah Uetricht

Let’s pause on that point for a second. That’s a very basic observation about the history of the region that is often glossed over in mainstream discussions. The assumption, at least implicitly, is that this area is forever and always dominated by Islamic fundamentalism. As you just mentioned, there’s a very complicated history of secular politics, and left-wing movements that have at times come to power. The task is to explain how we got from there to the Middle East and North Africa that we see today.

Anand Gopal

Islamic fundamentalism is more or less a new phenomenon going back to the 1970s in the region. If you look at the region today, it’s hard to imagine that it was ever anything other than this. And part of that is the success of Western propaganda and the US War on Terror’s way of framing it, which I think has inadvertently shaped even how the Left looks at these areas. But if you go back before the seventies, it looked very different.

In more or less every single country in the Arab world, the predominant forces of opposition to the status quo were either Arab nationalists or communists. The Arab nationalists were people who thought that all Arabs across the various countries were united through their language and culture. It was a secular ideology. It was an ideology that was anti-colonial, and had a redistribution of wealth and a sense of social equality built into it. That was the most important political ideology in the Middle East in the fifties and sixties.

The second most important was communism, particularly of the type that was influenced by the Soviet Union. To this day, the Iraqi Communist Party was probably the most successful political organization in the country’s history in terms of being able to bridge sectarian divides. It had millions of members. Sudan is another country that had a massive communist party, as did Egypt, and others. Unfortunately most of that history has been forgotten.

Meagan Day

In your article, you’re trying to propose an alternative explanation to the two that we just discussed, one that’s rooted in changing class dynamics in the region. You locate the most important change around 1990 with the beginning of the neoliberalization of the region, accelerated massively in the 2000s.

We’ll talk about that process shortly, but first let’s talk about what it was like before neoliberalization, because I think it’s important to understand what the previous social contract looked like in order to understand precisely how it unraveled, and how that unraveling paved the way for the Arab Spring.

Prior to 1990 the masses of the Arab world had effectively given up their democratic and collective bargaining rights in exchange for broadly redistributive policies and protection from the market. You also emphasize that this social contract was more than just a quid pro quo, the way that I’ve phrased it here. So what exactly did the pre-1990s social contract in the Arab world actually amount to?

Anand Gopal

Maybe I should even take a step back before then to quickly describe how the social contract came into being. You had all of these countries in the Middle East that emerged from colonial occupations, and they all went through a period of independence, mostly in the forties and fifties. In that period, they were led for the most part by what we call liberals, by forces that believed in elections, and believed in free markets and individual rights.

Now what happened in one country after the next is that while the question of having democratic voting rights is really important, what the liberals either ignored or try to stifle was any type of economic equality. So in Syria, for example, you had political parties that were championing elections at the same time as they were trying to keep in place a really deeply unequal landowning system that amounted to quasi-slavery. In Syria, 5 or 10 percent of the population owned all of the wealth and all of the land.

So you had millions of Syrians, Egyptians, and Iraqis coming of age at a time when liberals weren’t able to actually solve the problem of extreme inequality substantively, with economic redistribution. That’s why the communist parties and the Arab nationalists became so prominent in this period. They took on these questions directly, and by doing so they came to power in one country after the next. You had Arab nationalist regimes come to power and break up the old feudal landlords and redistribute land and wealth.

What emerges is this social contract in which, as you described, the masses of people were able to get some protection from the market. They got their basic needs met in terms of health care, and housing and guaranteed employment in many cases. In Egypt, if you went to college or university and you graduated, you were guaranteed a job in the state government. And college was made free. So now you had millions of people moving from the countryside to cities like Cairo and Alexandria, and going to college and being guaranteed a job, creating a type of middle-class.

At the same time, though, there were no democratic rights whatsoever in any of these countries. Egypt was a dictatorship. Syria was a dictatorship. There were also no rights of collective bargaining. [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, who was the dictator of Egypt, was the one who implemented this plan to give guaranteed education to millions of Egyptians — but one of the first things he did when he came to power was to hang striking workers from a pole in Cairo.

Gamal Abdel Nasser.

It was a symbol of a concept summed up by a quote that goes something like, “Workers don’t demand anything, but I give.” He wanted to destroy the ability of people to independently demand any external control over their lives, whether economic or political, and in exchange for that they were protected from the market.

You mentioned the complications of it. It’s also the case that people learn how to live within that social contract. And there are still forms of upward mobility. For example, you could have talked to a friend in the government who could have helped you get a job. If you had the right connections to the authorities, you could get a school in your village. That’s really what the social contract is: it’s the complete destruction of any collective control over people’s lives, but individually they were able to make connections and improve their position or the position of their communities.

Meagan Day

You argue that the concept of “corporatism” is vital to understanding the changing class structure of the Arab countries. In the United States today, progressives will sometimes use the term corporatism when they mean capitalism. So can you give us an accurate definition of corporatism in the sense you use it?

Anand Gopal

When people use the term corporatism, sometimes they mean like the rule of corporations or other such things. Corporatism historically has actually meant something very different. It came about in late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Italy, when there were priests and others who were looking for a way to attack the grave inequalities that plagued Italy at the time, while not supporting workers’ movements for the goals of radical redistribution of wealth and workers’ power.

Corporatism was almost like a “third way” between workers’ power and the status quo. Essentially the idea is that you can think of society as like a body in a sense, like a human body. That’s where the word comes from, corpus meaning body. You think of a society as a body, and all of the different parts of society, like the hands and legs and head, all work in concert to ensure its functioning.

What that means is that every part of the body has to give up something, and in return will gain something through negotiations. So for example, instead of having class struggle as the way to redistribute wealth, the corporatists said that CEOs, workers, teachers, housewives, every segment of society can negotiate.

In the idealized version, everybody kind of comes to an agreement and everybody’s better off. In reality, of course, because there are interests in society that are irreconcilably opposed to one another, it’s never going to be so simple as you can just get everybody to agree. So often the state steps in and becomes the mediating force between these various different components of society.

What happened historically is that although corporatism was meant to be a compromise that avoided class conflict and treated everybody equally, in practice the state basically became the final arbiter of all these disputes. Corporatism became one of the main forms of government under Mussolini, under the Nazis, and also under the various Arab nationalist regimes that came about in the fifties and sixties. They all were anti-colonial and they all wanted the Arab countries to catch up to the West, but they didn’t want class struggle, so the way they squared that contradiction was through this corporatist order.

Something I described in the piece is the Arabic term wasta. And what wasta means is essentially having the right ties or having the right connections to people. We have wasta in the United States, like how if you’re wealthy and you know an admissions counselor or whatever you can get your child into the right school. It’s the same thing, except that the way it worked in the Arab world was that the only way you could get anything done was through these personal connections.

Let’s say you lived in a village and you wanted a school in your village. You would go to your neighbor who happened to have a sister who worked in the education directorate of the province. You would convince your neighbor, and he would convince his sister, and after a cascade of influence maybe you got a school. So wasta was the way that resources were distributed under a corporatist society until the 1990s.

Micah Uetricht

You have a pithy phrase for these kinds of regimes: “torture chambers and butter,” meaning these are politically authoritarian regimes, but ones with a relatively decent amount of economic redistribution.

But as you just indicated a minute ago, one of the key problems here is that to get and keep nice things, you need independent working-class organizational capacity. The working class needs to have leverage points and needs to be able to organize, but in this arrangement, that capacity is taken away. Instead the state says, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it for you.”

Anand Gopal

That’s actually a good way of putting it, which is that the real quid pro quo in corporatism is that to get nice things you have to give up independent working-class class power. It doesn’t mean you can’t get nice things, but you have to surrender collective power.

The reason I focus on the structure of these corporatist regimes is really to critique the liberal conception of the Arab world and the Arab Spring, which is that people were tired of dictatorships and then they rose up in 2011. That doesn’t explain why it took until 2011 for them to rise up, why the dictatorships were happily plugging along for forty years. We have to understand why these regimes were able to forestall a massive opposition against them. That’s where the torture chambers and butter comes in.

People were faced with a terrible choice in the fifties and sixties. Without strong independent institutions of class power and with a dearth of alternatives, they could choose to either live under the gross inequality of liberalism or to accept something in exchange for dissolving any collective power they had whatsoever. And the latter is what they did.

Meagan Day

It’s really important to understand all of that in order to understand how neoliberalization actually affected the region, and in particular affected the class dynamics of the region. You make the point that neoliberalism dissolved that particular social contract but left certain features in place, which then caused other features to develop in a particular way.

You write, for example, that neoliberalism produced a new bourgeoisie. I’m curious what that looked like. And then on the other hand, what changes took place within the working class once neoliberalism started to make inroads in the region?

Anand Gopal

The neoliberal turn began in the 1990s and then really accelerated post-2000. It unraveled the social contract by dissolving the various parts of the corporatist body and gutting social services. So whereas before people were protected from the fluctuations of the free market, they were now exposed to it in a way they’d never been before. They were feeling fluctuations in prices of basic consumer goods, and things like health care and education were de facto privatized during this period.

At the same time, it wasn’t the case that there was a rise of industries that could absorb all of these people to become traditional blue-collar workers. Instead, you had the rise of the service sector, the rise of the informal economy, and a lot of people leaving the country, for example leaving Syria and Egypt, and becoming migrant workers and day laborers in the Gulf or Lebanon.

In other words, the working class of the Arab countries fragmented and atomized during this period. They were no longer working in collective areas where they could exert a power by, let’s say, withholding their labor. Instead they were going from muster zone to muster zone, country to country, with long periods of unemployment, waiting to see if they could get some opportunity to work.

So when I say that neoliberalism restructures the working-class, what I mean is that the working class is just as large as it was under the previous era, pre-1990s, but has even less collective power.

Micah Uetricht

And that’s not unique to the region, right? It’s the same story all over the world, where you have the same forces reshaping regional economies and politics, and weakening working-class power to the extent that it had developed.

Anand Gopal

Exactly. That’s the subtext to the whole piece, which is that obviously the details are different and specific to the Middle East, but the broader story is the story of the world since the 1970s.

I also tried to answer this conundrum, which is if neoliberalism and the destruction of protections against the market was one of the major causes of the uprising, why didn’t the uprising take the form of resistance to neoliberalism directly? Why did it take these other forms, either liberalism — in the sense that it focused purely on human rights and not on economic rights and social equality and redistribution — or fundamentalism?

That too has resonance around the world today. After forty or fifty years of an attack on people’s living standards, why don’t we see the resistance taking avowedly class-conscious forms? So yes, it’s the same story everywhere.

In the Arab world, which I think is also the case in most parts of the world, you’ve had people’s anger at the dispossession they’ve undergone at unprecedented levels over the last forty years, but their ability to turn that anger into collective power is not as great as it was once historically. And that’s fundamentally the issue of the Arab Spring.

Neoliberalism starts in the region in the 1990s but is really instituted beginning in the early 2000s. By 2011, you have a whole generation of people who’ve grown up in informal labor and in a kind of precarious work life, and meanwhile the lack of political rights hasn’t changed at all. So the butter is gone, but the torture chambers are still there.

Tahirir Square, Egypt, 2011.

There were many cases in the lead-up to the Arab Spring where there were kind of mini-uprisings and rebellions. I talk about the Tunisian city of Gafsa, home to one of the largest phosphate mines in the world, where there was a localized uprising. What’s interesting about that uprising before 2011 is that it involved unemployed workers, temporary workers, and informal sector workers. That was really a window into the shape of things to come.

In 2011 the revolution kicked off in Tunisia and rapidly spread to six or seven different countries. The rank-and-file of the revolution were by and large all of these people who had been atomized, fragmented, and dispossessed by the neoliberal regimes for the last twenty or thirty years.

Meagan Day

You write that in the absence of class-based parties and unions and other vehicles of collective working-class struggle, the revolutionaries lacked structural leverage when it came time to actually unseat power, and this really shaped the nature of the movement to come.

There’s a point in your article where you write that, “It was under these circumstances that the revolutionaries began to arm themselves, usually by sourcing weapons on the black market or by raiding government depots. This was, in effect, a desperate attempt to substitute for structural leverage. Unable to dislodge the regime peacefully by threatening its vital interests, the revolutionaries were forced to adopt military means.”

You also write that the new class dynamics under neoliberalism “both propelled and doomed the uprising.” We’ve talked about how they propelled it, but how did the altered class dynamics of the region give rise to a particular character of the Arab Spring uprisings that wasn’t actually sufficient to unseat power?

Anand Gopal

So, for example, in Syria there were protests in town squares across the country. The regime responded with brutality, opening fire on men, women, and children, and killing large numbers. That began in March of 2011.

Now fast forward to August. I have a friend who’s a Syrian revolutionary. He told me about how the activists used to meet in secret every week to try to plan the week’s protests. If you got caught being involved, you’d be arrested and tortured horribly, so they were being incredibly brave.

One week they met in this field and they had a debate. One side said, “Look, we have been organizing these protests every week for the last six months. And we’ve been shot at, and there’s only one thing we can do, which is we have to take up arms to defend ourselves.” And the other wing of this group said, “Well, that’s crazy. There’s no way. Even if we take up arms, we can never take on the might of the Syrian state. They will crush us. They have tanks and helicopters.”

So the debate went on for like a month and was split 50-50, and then enough people were slaughtered that the activists felt they had no choice. Even if they thought that picking up weapons would lead to disaster, if it’s between having a disaster a year from now versus having your family killed in a single day, everyone will take a disaster a year from now. So that’s what happened, and people started to arm themselves.

Now, what’s interesting about that debate is why were those the only two options? Why were the only options either continue peaceful protests occupying town squares or picking up weapons? The reason is because they had no other means of stopping the regime. What would be another means of stopping the regime? One of the only other forms of power that people have is to withhold their labor.

If they could withhold their labor, then all of a sudden the wheels that turn the system grind to a halt. Even more so in a case like Syria, because the major employers and big businesses in Syria were all siding with the regime. And so if people just stopped working across the country, you would have seen a major split in the ruling class and you would have seen a very different trajectory.

So the question is why wasn’t that on the table? And it wasn’t on the table because people didn’t have the experience of collectively laboring together and engaging in previous work stoppages, which one would have to do over the years to get the confidence to think that this is the right way to move forward.

If you look at previous revolutions for democratic change in history, the German revolution or the revolutions of 1848 for democratic change, it was a very different circumstance. There was actually a collective memory of how to resist. This is fundamentally the way that neoliberalism restructured the Middle East. Those experiences weren’t there.

So one of the arguments of the article is that neoliberal regimes destroyed whatever leverage the working class had. This doesn’t mean that it’s not possible for them to fight back, just that the hurdles are much greater. The options they had were to arm themselves or not arm themselves and get slaughtered. So they armed themselves, and of course all that did was delay the slaughter, because they were never going to be able to match the might of the Syrian regime, and then the Russian military and the Iranian military.

Micah Uetricht

It’s important to point out that what you’re saying is the opposite of what you hear from some parts of the Left, which is that many of these uprisings that were the result of Western imperialist intervention, or that Western powers armed factions that were mostly Islamic fundamentalists as a part of an imperialist plot.

It’s not that those elements didn’t become present later on, but in your reading these are organic uprisings of real masses of people in the Middle East who are rightfully pissed off about living under authoritarian regimes with declining living standards, and they armed themselves organically too.

Anand Gopal

Absolutely. And let me be very clear on what the timeline is here for anybody who may think otherwise. In Syria, the revolution started in March. The first discussions of getting armed took place at different times across the country, but generally in the summer of 2011. By the fall of 2011 you saw the first rebel groups. The revolution was more or less militarized by the end of 2011.

The first foreign intervention didn’t happen until 2012, and that was Qatar who first began to intervene in the spring of 2012. The US didn’t intervene directly until 2013. So what you have here is organic revolution to start with, which foreign powers then try to subordinate to their interests.

Meagan Day

You also give an account of the rise of the more fundamentalist sections of these revolutions. At the beginning, there were liberal and Islamist factions involved in all of these uprisings. How did it come to be that liberals became discredited over time, giving rise to the eventual character of a lot of these revolutions?

Anand Gopal

In 2011 you could say they were liberal uprisings, in the sense that they argued for democracy, for the vote, and for basic freedoms, but not social equality. That slowly changed, and by 2013 the character was predominantly Islamic fundamentalist. I think this speaks a lot to the class dynamics of the uprising itself.

You asked earlier about the new bourgeoisie. Let’s talk about Syria, though it’s similar in other countries. When the regime was neoliberalized, they didn’t want to just open up the country to investment and privatization, because that could also threaten their power, right? That would create a bourgeoisie that’s not controlled by the regime and can maybe overthrow the regime. So they tried to control neoliberalization so that all the privatization was done in such a way that it would be connected to the regime.

So the new elite of Syria post-2000 were all people who had previously had state positions or who had been relatives of Assad, the dictator, and then they all became businessmen overnight. They got fabulously wealthy in the neoliberal opening, but there were whole swaths of society who lost out. I mentioned earlier that the working class and the poor got screwed over by this opening, but they weren’t the only ones.

Let’s say you have a small business in some countryside town, and you’re wealthy in your own community but you don’t have the ties to get all the nice contracts and you can’t compete on the market because these big businesses have cornered the market. You’re also losing out in a sense from the neoliberal opening. So there are these two groups, what I call provincial bourgeoisie or this countryside elite who are disaffected, and the masses of the poor and working classes. At first, these are the two wings of the revolution.

In the beginning, they both agreed on a common program of democracy and individual freedoms. The problem is that after places became liberated and they kicked out the regime, now you had to face other questions that aren’t encapsulated in these slogans for freedom and individual rights. How do you distribute resources? How much goes to the poor? How do you tax people? Should you tax the rich, and if so how much?

All of these questions came to the fore in 2012 and 2013 in liberated areas. Unsurprisingly, you had two different answers. You had the elites in these areas who said, “Well, we should just have a laissez-faire kind of system where we don’t tax people and redistribute wealth, because that’s what freedom means.” But then you had the poor and the working class who had a very different conception of freedom as freedom from hunger, freedom from want.

These two wings clashed with each other in various ways. And because the poor and the working class didn’t have the structural leverage to organize collectively and conceive of themselves as a class, they instead conceived of themselves differently — say, as Muslims against these more elite figures who don’t represent Islam.

Into this divide, the Islamic fundamentalists entered. They were very keenly aware of the class divisions in the liberated areas, and they played to those class divisions. They basically had a populist program that said that we will deliver you from all these problems and get rid of these liberal elites if you support us. That also has resonances outside of the Middle East, around the world. The underlying dynamic is the same everywhere.

Most of the areas in Syria that ISIS took over, they didn’t necessarily win them militarily, they won them politically. They won them by convincing people that the elites of those areas don’t have their interests at heart, only ISIS does. And in the absence of an alternative, you can understand why people turn to that. By 2014 ISIS tragically took over half the country.

Very quickly, the people who in desperation threw their lot in with ISIS realized that it was a terrible, terrible thing to do. But it was too late at that point, because this was a totalitarian state that brooked no opposition, and if you said anything you’d be killed.

Meagan Day

If you’d asked me before I read your article why, in Tunisia, there was an exception to the general failures of the Arab Spring, I probably would have answered that if you try something in five or ten different countries then maybe you stand a decent chance at eventually succeeding in one of them. But your article makes the point that Tunisia’s success is not arbitrary or random. In fact Tunisia is the exception that proves the rule. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Anand Gopal

First I’ll talk about what’s similar between Tunisia and the rest of the Arabic speaking countries. It had a vaguely Arab nationalist dictator, no political rights whatsoever, and a social contract in which people gave up their right to independently organize in exchange for some butter. And you had a working class that was, like everywhere else in the region, atomized and fragmented by neoliberalism.

But for reasons specific to the history of Tunisia, there was a trade union confederation, the UGTT, which in Tunisia was able to survive and maintain some independence. This is in contrast to Syria and Egypt and elsewhere, where equivalent trade union confederations were completely absorbed by the state and became tools of the state.

In the other countries you had two forces, masses of people and the dictator. But from the seventies onward, this trade union confederation kind of acted as a third force in Tunisian society. Another thing the UGTT did from the nineties onward was organize the informal sector and tie it to the formal sector in a way that gave the confederation some influence over that sector.

Protests in Tunisia, 2011.

So when the revolution took off in Tunisia, they were able to exert themselves in a way that the state-controlled union confederations in the other countries were not able to. One of the reasons why the dictator in Tunisia fell was because there was a strike, pushed by the rank and file, and eventually supported by the trade union confederation.

If you look at Tunisia and Egypt, they almost parallel each other in their history up until 2013. But the difference here was there was a trade union confederation in Tunisia and a segment of the working class that had maintained its independence. It never surrendered it to the social contract over the previous forty years. And they were able to force a democratic transition.

Micah Uetricht

In the rest of the region besides Tunisia, the story of the Arab Spring does not have a happy ending. But you don’t believe all hope is lost. Why should we not feel like this chapter of history is closed, and what’s the task for the Left in the Middle East?

Anand Gopal

I end on Sudan because I think it bears some interesting resonances with Tunisia. Like in Tunisia, Sudan has seen the survival of some independent working-class organization. It’s not strong in Sudan, but even that small amount was enough to avoid catastrophe when events came to a head last summer. It could have gone the way of Egypt, but instead we had this independent power that was able to force what looks like a democratic transition. We don’t know yet how Sudan will turn out, but I think there’s cause for hope.

Proteser in Tunisia, 2011. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

If you look at the strategy of the Tunisian left, I think it’s actually not that radically different from what some people here on the Left in the United States call the rank-and-file strategy, which is to really try to build roots in unions, in areas where we can actually exert real power in the long run.

There were activists and militants in the UGTT who tried every step of the way to democratize it, to fight for union democracy, to fight for accountability. They were building power within the UGTT, so that when a moment of opportunity arose, when the uprising took place, they were able to move on that. I think that’s something we have to take to heart. The bottom line of the article is that there’s no substitute for independent working-class power.