After being glued to Al-Jazeera for what seemed like decades, I returned to semi-normal life and found that there was breaking news in the academic circles as well. In the last three weeks, the popular overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak seems to have brought about the demise of another oppressive foe of the Arabs: Islam. Once fixated on Muslim psychology and Qu’ranic exegisis, commentators now have no choice but to emerge from their essentialist slumber to return to the Clintonian adage (not Hillary, the other one): it’s the economy stupid. It struck me that finally Marxists and liberals, literary critics and political scientists, beltway pundits and Russian revolutionaries, can agree on something. This time, ironically, it’s the non-role of Islam in the region and the unitary struggle for justice unfolding across the Middle East. This unholy alliance both agrees on the root causes of unrest (rising food prices and unemployment), and is able to view similar phenomena wherever an Egyptian flag is raised in solidarity. Indeed, one can play a game of “Where’s Waldo” with the Egyptian tri-color, in which he last appeared in Madison, Wisconsin. On Thursday, when public employees protested in the face of an anti-union bill aimed at reducing their benefits and collective bargaining rights, they were armed with the Egyptian flag. The “domino effect” has ensured that people all around the world can finally “walk like an Egyptian.”
Far from the streets of Madison, commentators are celebrating the end of Middle East exceptionalism, which has often appeared as a narrow concern with the role of Islam in the region. I recently attended a workshop at which a major academic proclaimed that what is “really” going on is not identity, or difference, or religion, but the resurgence of labor unrest resulting from the global crisis of capitalism. What used to be studied through the narrow lens of Islam and regional difference has finally been made legible to the universal dictates of capitalism (or, to more liberal writers, democracy).
Two things in this statement should make any careful observer of the Middle East uncomfortable. Firstly, how, exactly should we speak of these recent events? Do we call them riots? Or, should we give the “pro-democracy” demonstrators more credit, and call the ensuing changes a Revolution? Unfortunately, the struggle for rights in Egypt does not fit neatly into either category. It was neither an irrational outbursts of anger (a la the portrayal of the LA race “riots”), nor has it led (yet) to the uprooting of a deeply corrupt system of rule. The protests were not instances of socio-economic frustration turned vandalism (a la the banlieues of Paris), as evidenced by the extraordinary diversity and discipline of the participants. And they have not indicated a revolution in Skocpol’s classic sense of "rapid, basic transformations of society`s state and class structures.”
The second aspect that cannot be ignored in discussions on the “new Middle East” is the role of labor. When protestors in Wisconsin wave the Egyptian flag, the dominant story becomes one of secularism and global capitalism that is able to domesticate Egypt’s grassroots movement against a fundamentally unjust political and economic system. For the new internationalists of 2011, the workers of the world can (and will) unite. Yet the role of unions and labor is much more ambiguous than the Marxist party line would have us believe. Indeed, one of the major effects of neo-liberalism in the region has been the emergence of Islamist groups that are able to channel collective frustrations over the distribution of resources into a political movement. The jump from pervasive anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in the United States to a knee-jerk solidarity with people fighting for democracy (even if they did not learn through a US military invasion), should give us reason to pause.
While there is no doubt that we are witnessing a historic psychological and political watershed in the region, the pesky question of comparison remains. While Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Bahrain and Libya are all, in different ways, impacted by the march of neo-liberalism (including an assault on social welfare and the devaluation of local currency), they are by no means experiencing a unitary movement. Nor does this extraordinary moment negate the role of Islam as a political force in the region that, contra Marx’s dismissal of religion, has often been at the forefront of demanding radical economic change. While I neither defend the ideological dictates of Islamism, nor dismiss the systemic dynamics of capital accumulation, we should be more careful when giving one (or the other) full explanatory power.
Take, for example, the cases of Egypt and Algeria. The Egyptian regime was confronted with the central role played by labor movement as well as the tepid participation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unrest at textile mills, the Suez Canal, and in other industries, have been powerful factors in continuing the momentum of the Egyptian uprising. Yet much to the chagrin of the new internationalists, last week’s protest in Algeria was not backed by the main trade unions. In fact, while many of the Islamist parties enjoy considerable grass-roots support in Algeria, most of then abstained from the demonstrations (FIS’ Ali Belhaj being one major exception). Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast to Algeria’s FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) historically enjoys close ties with labor. In contrast, FIS has criticized Algeria’s planned economy and emphasized the need to protect the private sector.
In Algeria, the protests were quickly put down by a massive police force as an authoritarian state, which has been emboldened by a decade of civil war, flexed its military muscles. Quite a different scenario from Mubarak’s rag-tag militia of thugs and a military that seemed largely sympathetic to protesters. Furthermore, Algeria’s ruling party, the FLN (the National Liberation Front), purports to be socialist as well as Islamic, emerging after a vicious war of independence in which the FLN vanquished not only the French, but any other viable political organizations in Algeria itself. Despite its oppressive policies, the Algerian state still feeds off of its revolutionary credentials (and oil rents) in order to discredit the opposition. As exposed by Wikileaks, Algeria has been an ally of the war on terror, but has done so surreptitiously, taking care to protect its fading revolutionary image.
Yet while Algeria has been able to cash in on revolutionary rhetoric to tame the opposition, Mubarak holds no such trump cards, suffering from a lack of legitimacy (as well as oil). Instead, he is widely recognized as a friend of American imperialism due to his role in Middle East “peace process,” stance during the Israeli attacks on Gaza in December 2008, and the enormous amount of military aid that continues to pour in from the US.
Clearly neither the role of Islam, nor the singular logic of capital can explain the divergent trajectories of unrest in Algeria and Egypt. And yet, while the far right continues to fear-monger about the specter of an Islamic takeover in the region, liberals have fallen into a breezy populist-lite “we are the people” rhetoric that seems oblivious to the geographical and historical miles between Algeria and Bahrain. There is not one modular form of revolution, any more than there is one set of Islamic behaviors. In other words, we should not dismiss the injunction for cultural specificity, but revisit it in light of the current global conjecture. Just as an older internationalism failed the Third World on the eve of decolonization, when it deemed that international revolution was more important than struggles for national sovereignty, so the new internationalism of 2011 threatens to re-mystify the local voices it claims to support.