The term “Arab Spring” is an analogy to one of the most famous revolutionary processes in modern history: the People’s Spring of 1848. Beginning in Paris in the mid-19th century, it spread with unprecedented speed throughout France and the main cities of Europe, such as Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest, and even to the outlying regions of Poland, Naples, and Sicily. The Arab Spring spread with similar speed across the Middle East and North Africa, creating one of the biggest uprisings of the 21st century.
The Driving Forces
The Arab Spring was not lightning in the serene sky — imperialist wars and incursions had created a powder keg in the region. The Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative think tank, described the inhabitants of the Middle East as “barbarians” incapable of achieving “freedom” on their own, justifying the need to “export” Western political systems there and “educate” society to respect these values. This vision was made into policy by U.S. presidents. The September 11 attack on the twin towers was the perfect excuse for George Bush Jr. to export Pax Americana by putting U.S. boots on the ground (once again) in the Middle East. With Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. entered Afghanistan and then Iraq with the supposed aim of promoting “democracy” and fighting “terrorism” in the region. The failure of these wars disrupted the social fabric of these countries, altering the internal and geopolitical balance. On the one hand, it encouraged regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, or close ones such as Russia, to play an increasingly leading role. On the other hand, they awakened old ethno-religious disputes that created the conditions, owing to the level of social decomposition and poverty, for the unprecedented upheaval that spread across the Middle East.
In 2003 there were demonstrations in Iraq and other countries in the region against the U.S. invasion. As a consequence, the Egyptian regime, in particular, came under pressure to provide political concessions to quell the discontent, which had been exacerbated in part by neoliberal policies. The electoral reforms, which were meant to channel popular anger over the Iraq war away from the government, resulted in significant gains for political parties that were opponents of the regime like the Muslim Brotherhood. These unexpected electoral results led to political crackdowns targeting the press and demonstrators.
In Lebanon, the Cedar Revolution took place after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005; the revolution expelled the Syrian army, which had occupied the country since the 1980s. Then, in 2006, the Lebanese people repelled Israel’s invasion of the south of the country, where Hezbollah had become strong.
But the Arab Spring far surpassed these processes, generating even deeper cracks in the geopolitical order and infusing the masses of the region with a new political identity and methods of struggle that inspired people around the world.
The Beginnings of the “Bread Revolts”
The region has great social, political, ethnic, religious, and economic heterogeneity, but there are shared similarities and oppression: after a millennium of being agricultural civilizations, the countries of North Africa became, in just a few decades, net food importers (Egypt is now the world’s largest wheat importer). Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq also experienced a sharp rural decline caused by climate change, outdated production methods, and government disregard for agricultural activity.
Rising food prices — exacerbated after the 2008 economic crisis — owing to desertification and the abandonment of rural areas, caused a desperate water and food situation throughout the region. In Tunisia and Egypt, the so-called “bread riots” were born in those years; these protests gave rise to processes of labor organization independent of the large trade unions, which are closely linked to the state. These organizations led wildcat strikes — often headed by women — in the most important workers’ centers, such as El Mahalla el Kubra in Egypt and in the Gafsa mining basin in Tunisia, where the fundamental demands pointed to low wages and unemployment, which were among the most acute on the planet. The strikes managed to nationalize demands, which acquired a political character, as in the case of Egypt, where the chants pointed to Mubarak. Although the movements did not manage to develop, they set the stage for the Arab Spring, as we shall see below.
Revolution and Counterrevolution in the Arab Spring
The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian worker, spelled the end for Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship, starting the biggest class struggle process of the 21st century. Within a few months, all the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco to Iran, saw unprecedented protest movements that shook their foundations. The “authoritarian republics” of Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Syria, born out of the processes of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s; the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan, still governed by tribal pacts and traditional ties to imperialism; and countries outside the Arab world, Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran, faced serious political turbulence and tried different strategies to suppress or divert protests. This gave rise to a complex dynamic of revolution, counterrevolution, and civil war in which regimes collapsed, were reformed, or developed civil conflicts that were settled by imperialist interests, regional powers, and autonomous local actors.
In Tunisia and Egypt, popular rebellions overthrew the lifelong dictatorships of Mubarak and Ben Ali in 2011. These were students, the working class, and the urban poor, who revived the political slogans and methods learned during the “bread revolts.” A period of transition was opened in which traditional political currents came to prominence: in Tunisia the Ennahda (Renaissance), and in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood. These parties come from the moderate wing of political Islam linked to the traditionalist bourgeoisie. Many of these parties advocate for an electoral strategy combining the ideals of liberal democracy with Islamic law. Outlawed by the dictatorships, they created networks of economic, educational, and social assistance that gave them the prestige that enabled them to provide a viable direction for the political process.
In Egypt, elections supervised by the army and imperialist interestsput the Muslim Brotherhood in power. After two years in office, President Mohamed Morsi tried to increase his power and Islamize the country. The people rejected his initiative with huge demonstrations, retaking Tahrir Square and launching general strikes. But in the absence of an alternative project that would respond to the demands of the working people by breaking with imperialism and the local bourgeoisie, the army found the opportunity to stage a coup in 2013. Dictator Al-Sisi smothered the “democratic illusions” of the demonstrators with a massacre of 800 people in one day, a record in the 21st century. Today, his regime is sustained by the persecution, imprisonment, and torture of opponents; the expulsion of journalists and activists; media censorship; and the social control imposed by a permanent state of emergency.
In Tunisia, a Constituent Assembly was called in response to the demonstrations. The Ennahda movement also proposed to “Islamize the country” and attempted to contain the unrest of hundreds of thousands of frustrated and unemployed youth. They built a government of “national unity” with the secular parties, until their electoral defeat in 2014. But the country’s structural problems, such as poverty and unemployment, have deepened, strikes and demonstrations against the government and its imperialist-dictated plans have periodically erupted, and the crisis remains latent.
In Syria, Libya, and Yemen uprisings have been undermined by prolonged civil wars. In Libya, Western powers intervened by arming groups similar to NATO, like the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), or even groups directly tied to NATO. Regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia — which had just violently quelled the uprising in Bahrain — took advantage of the power vacuum to bolster their hegemonic project by fighting a “cold war” through allies outside their territories. The remnants of former armies, tribes, Islamic militias, sectors linked to the illegal economy, and autonomous communities are the local actors that make territorial control possible and maintain it thanks to a changing system of alliances.
In Yemen, after the fall of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh as a result of the demonstrations, a civil war began between supporters of the government of Vice President Hadi (supported by Saudi Arabia) and the Houthi insurgents (who have Iranian backing) entrenched in the mountains surrounding the capital, Sana’a, now under their control. Despite the millions invested in the war and a criminal blockade of the civilian population, the Saud family did not manage to impose a puppet regime or prevent the emergence (with support from the Arab Emirates) of an autonomist army in Aden and Yemeni branches of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
In Libya the popular insurrection in Bengazi and Tripoli was crushed by Mu‘ammar Gaddhafi, who in the 1990s forged his friendship with the West. The repression of the insurrection drove thousands into the arms of the National Transitional Council — a NATO-sponsored armed movement — and shattered the tribal agreements underpinning the regime. Gaddhafi’s killing led to the army’s collapse and the fragmentation of Libya into regions controlled by tribes, mercenaries, and jihadists with international alliances of their own. After a decade of conflict, the powers that be supported different sides, and groups linked to human trafficking and arms smuggling operated freely. From Tripoli, the National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC) called for elections, under the tutelage of NATO, but failed to assert its authority beyond the capital. General Khalifa Haftar, with Russian support, captured the eastern region and laid siege to the capital for several months, but after heavy fighting against Turkish-funded militias, the situation is now at a standstill.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — an Arab nationalist belonging to the Alawite minority — fiercely suppressed insurgents after being cornered by them, and with the vital collaboration of Iran and Russia, he held on to power by waging a civil war against jihadist groups and “rebels” allied with Western powers. Despite the hundreds of thousands of deaths, the millions of refugees and the emergence of reactionary actors, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), the economic crisis brought about a new upsurge in mobilizations in Damascus, once challenging the Assad regime.
As we can see, the 2011 mobilizations were crushed or diverted with various strategies. The “democratic” reforms expropriated the discourse of the demonstrators and did not resolve the structural causes of the movement, allowing the sectors of local power to reorganize and establish new ties with imperialism. The civil wars opened up more complex scenarios, in which the emergence of jihadist militias — linked to the collapse of the power structure and regional interests — gave dictatorships the cover to respond to popular demands in a reactionary way by linking their repression to the “fight against terrorism.”
The inability of the working class masses to build an organization of their own, independent of the local bourgeois leaderships — which would never confront imperialism head-on — was a weakness that allowed the ruling classes to reestablish their authority at a high cost, even if their hegemony was weak in the Middle East after the wave of uprisings of 2011. The experience of the Arab Spring, however, remains a symbolic struggle for those in the Middle East and beyond. As the current global crisis of capitalism intensifies, a new cycle of class struggle could erupt in the region.
Fighting Resurfaces in North Africa
In Algeria and Sudan, mobilizations have been taking place since the beginning of 2019. These are countries with single-party governments, supported by closed circles of power — made up of the army, families, and friends — that control the strategic sectors of the economy. Both went through prolonged civil wars in previous decades and remained relatively stable during the 2011 wave.
The crisis in the oil industry pushed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria to make huge cuts in wages and subsidies, creating the conditions for an uprising. The incapacitated “president on paper only” planned to run for a fifth consecutive term in the 2019 elections — after 20 years in power — and this was the “spark” that lit the fire, leading to demonstrations by millions of people. In these demonstrations, youth, workers, professionals, students and women’s organizations joined the Hirak (Arabic for “movement”). Student committees were also formed, with significant women’s participation.
Since March, the workers of the oil company Sonatrach — one of the largest in the world — began a series of hunger strikes and regional strikes. They supported the movement to force Bouteflika’s resignation, despite threats from the employers, prohibiting strikes, and threats from the bureaucracy of the GUAW (General Union of Algerian Workers), which is linked to the ruling NLF (National Liberation Front). On April 2, the army took power by initiating long months of negotiations aimed at wearing down the Hirak until elections were held under its aegis, elections that were won by army candidate Abdelmadjid Tebboune despite the demonstrators’ attempt to boycott. Despite lacking a concrete program and clear political direction, the Hirak continued to stand even after the health crisis imposed a quarantine, managing to stay on the streets and showing that the conflict continues.
In Sudan, the stranglehold imposed by IMF plans forced the government of Brigadier Omar al-Bashir to cut flour subsidies. The response of the masses was further “bread riots.” On April 11, 2019, as protesters occupied Khartoum’s central square demanding the fall of the regime, the army forced al-Bashir to step down after 30 years in power. Since its independence, Sudan has been going through a civil war over the control of natural resources, mainly oil located in South Sudan — which became independent in 2011 — where long-standing religious, ethnic, and tribal tensions are emerging. Since the seizure of Khartoum Square, an organization called the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA) has emerged that brings together progressive liberal parties, including the Communist Party. The novelty of the process underway is the apparent overcoming of ethno-religious and gender differences, since in the political organizations and unions that emerged from the struggle, women played a central role — with internationally renowned figures such as Alaa Salah — and religious groups joined the demonstrators without unleashing sectarian violence.
Regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, intervened in favor of the army, providing military loans and advice, with the aim of stifling the process, without managing to prevent the demonstrations from spreading throughout the country. The formation of the Transition Council, in which the Alliance for Freedom and Change participates — which is linked to the mobilization process — aims to provide an institutional channel for the movement by agreeing to hold elections within two years. It remains to be seen whether it will manage to contain the social demands raised during the uprising.
Iraq and Lebanon
These countries contain a heterogeneity of ethnicities, nations, and religious denominations, expressed in a society segmented into clientelist networks and linked to local and international interests, which manage the economy and the territory. Their political system is organized along sectarian lines, which in Lebanon was consecrated after the Taif agreements at the end of the civil war (1975–91), while in Iraq it was imposed in 2005 during the U.S. occupation, with the collaboration of Kurdish and Shiite leaders, giving rise to acute conflicts with the sectors excluded from the political system. Both also have a mostly young population, affected by unemployment, culturally secular and very critical of the conservative political, economic, and religious elites.
The successive international and civil wars in Iraq, including the current conflict triggered by the emergence of the Islamic State — which is still active — have dragged millions of people to the margins. According to the IMF, 40 percent of young people are unemployed, and precarious employment abounds. In October 2019, after a protest in Baghdad against the expulsion of a popular commander of the struggle against the Islamic State, the government cracked down using parastatal militias and the army. The protesters were chased into their homes and destroyed; women and children were killed as a result. Since then, no effort by the government and reactionary forces to get the angry youth off the streets was enough.
This “youth without leaders” who left hundreds of dead in the streets fought the regime as a whole and its ethno-sectarian system of government, called Muhasasa, without giving up structural demands: work and access to basic services. In their organizational centers, like Tahrir Square (“Independence” in Arabic), they set up camps to rest and make soup. Several teachers’ unions held public classes there, and doctors and nurses assisted the injured protesters, where women’s groups are key. The workers of Shell and Total — at the oil wells in Bassora — went on strike, and the tuk tuk (rickshaw) drivers are considered heroes for their role in helping those injured in the demonstrations.
One of the protesters’ most heartfelst demands was the expulsion of Iranian troops from the country and the denunciation of the Shiite groups that reinforced the military during the protests. The U.S. diplomatic headquarters and army were attacked, but this was hegemonized by the Shiite parties and militias, close to Tehran and hostile to the mobilizations. The weakness of the claim against imperialism, which controls important areas of the economy and finance, can be seen as the main limit of a process that did not stop with the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the health crisis.
The process in Lebanon is similar. The demonstrations exploded from a ridiculous tax on WhatsApp and Skype calls. They gathered in Martyrs Square in Beirut, chanting “The people want the regime to fall” (Al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nizam), and “They all mean it” (Kellon ya’ani kellon). This last verse refers to the particularity of Lebanese sectarianism, pointing to the leaders of all political-religious sectors who, at the end of the civil war in 1990, took over and distributed the levers of the Lebanese economy and made million-dollar deals linked to the banking system during the whole of neoliberalism.
The first demonstrations focused on the corruption of the tycoons who control the economy and whose wealth is mostly located outside the country. They are considered responsible for the debt, which reaches 150 percent of GDP; the adjustment plans; and the devaluation of the currency. The resignation of Prime Minister Hariri, a faithful representative of this parasitic caste, was the first major achievement of the process. The Hezbollah Party, an ally of Iran, tried to use the movement in its favor, expanding its influence in the government. But the demonstrations continued and challenged Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. In response the Shias, as in Iraq, tried to prevent the mobilizations by force, increasing hatred against traditional politicians and Persian influence in the country.
The movement in Lebanon is historic because of its massive and secular character; in a transversal way it attends to common claims of the population of all national and religious communities, and the government failed to awaken sectarian hatred to divide it. The problem of the refugees, who number almost 2 million out of a population of 6 million, counting the Syrians from the last conflict and the Palestinians who have been displaced for decades, constitutes perhaps the most potentially explosive element of the Lebanese process, owing to the level of poverty and discrimination that this segment of the population endures. Until now, however, their demands have played a secondary role in the demonstrators’ demands.
The processes of popular mobilization and rebellion initiated in 2018 have shown the weariness of millions who live in marginality as a result of decades of dispossession by neoliberal and imperialist capitalism. Both in 2011 and now, sectors similar to those of other global protest movements are involved: the “relative losers” of globalization, meaning the educated youth without opportunities, the ruined middle class, and low-wage professionals; and the “absolute losers,” who include the destitute and marginalized population, which after the conflicts has large pockets of food insecurity (deaths from cholera and starvation in Yemen) and the largest number of refugees and displaced people in the world.
The depth of the demands, the combativeness of the marginalized youth, and their spontaneity are elements that fit the characteristics of the popular revolts that emerged in the world during all 2019. Their sustainability over time is an important element that shows that for governments, it will be a central problem in the coming period. The working class participated in large numbers, as we mentioned, with the political strikes in Sonatrach and Sonelgaz in Algeria, or in the Bassora wells in Iraq, or the Sudanese unions. But by acting as one of the “actors” in the demonstrations and assuming a “citizen” identity without attempting to assume leadership, it failed to weigh in on its strategic position. There was no direction that proposed a break with imperialism and the Islamist or progressive parties that proposed changes in the distribution of hydrocarbon income or reforms of the political system, reforms that are utopian if they do not alter these countries’ role as minor partners of the Western powers or clients of countries like Russia and Iran, in the case of Syria.
After years of “democratic” experience in Tunisia, the economic structures and the repressive apparatus that sustained the Ben Ali dictatorship are still in place. The strategies of the popular sectors are now confronting the weak republic and the regime’s parties are losing legitimacy, while “politics in the streets” is regaining prestige in the regional arena. But the absence of anti-capitalist leadership and objectives continue to be features of the movement.
The experience of Rojava and Kobane in Syria, where Kurdish militias achieved virtual self-determination for some years thanks to a tactical alliance with American troops, was one of the most progressive experiences in the whole Middle East; thanks to its secular character, and the role of women in the military organization, it became one of the main enemies of the Islamic State in the region. This step in the historical struggle for national self-determination was crushed in 2019 by the criminal intervention of the Turkish army in northern Syria. This attack killed thousands of villagers and displaced millions, under the complicit gaze of alleged YPG ally Donald Trump, who in a telephone conversation negotiated and handed over the Kurds “on a platter” to Turkish president Recep Erdogan.
After the Spring of the Peoples, Marx and Engels argued in 1850 that if the working people did not participate in political organization independent of the bourgeoisie, the fundamental basis of capitalism would continue to be laid by increasing the misery of the exploited. Bridging the historical gap, the Arab Spring showed how imperialism and the local bourgeoisies will make huge efforts to put forward solutions with democratic faces by presenting this as triumphs before their eyes. For this reason, in the face of the revolts that were born in 2019, the revolutionary strategy will have to start from these conclusions of independence of the working people in order to destroy the shackles that oppress them.
El Alaoui, Hicham Ben Abdallah. “Replicas of the Arab Spring.” Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2020.
Kopel, Ezequiel. La disputa por el control de Medio Oriente: De la caída del imeprio otomano al surgimiento del Estado Islámico [The fight for control over the Middle East: From the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of the Islamic State]. Hedwig, 2015.
Kopel, Ezekiel. “The Third Chapter of the Arab Spring.” New Society, March/April 2020.
Molina, Eduardo, and Simone Ishibashi. “A Year and a Half from the ‘Arab Spring.’” International Strategy, no. 28, 2012.
First published in Spanish on June 20 on La Izquierda Diario.
Translation: Maryam Alaniz