David McMurray and Amanda Ufheil-Somers, editors, The Arab Revolts: Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. Published in association with Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you compile this volume?
David McMurray & Amanda Ufheil-Somers (DM & AU): MERIP recently published an edited volume with Verso on just the events in Egypt, examining the initial eighteen days of the uprising as well as looking back on the political and social shifts of the previous two decades that gave shape to the revolt: economic reforms and restructuring, the activities of organized labor and protest movements, the role of opposition parties, and the increasing presence of the security state in everyday life. We thought there was enough material in the MERIP archives to give similar treatments to Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, as well as Egypt. We were also able to include chapters on developments following the initial uprisings, to look at the ongoing challenges in the struggle for democracy in each country.
J: How does this collection contribute to and/or diverge from recent scholarship on revolts in the region?
DM & AU: We have taken a longer-term view of the revolts to frame the events of 2011 and beyond. We`ve also drawn on MERIP authors with strengths in various fields, such as political science, economics, history, sociology, and anthropology, to provide a range of analyses on the uprisings and their antecedents. Though there will be many volumes about the uprisings, we hope to make a contribution to the literature that favors a multi-causal interpretation, but one rooted in the concept that the uprisings have long pre-histories wherein various social groups developed modes of participatory politics and challenged the regimes.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does this work address?
DM & AU: The book is strongest on the social, political, and economic background leading up to the Arab uprisings.
The book is divided into five sections. The first deals with Tunisia, and includes the following chapters: “Tunisia`s Wall Has Fallen,” by Nadia Marzouki; “Tunisia`s Post-Ben Ali Challenge: A Primer,” by Amy Aisen Kallander; “Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia: Back from the Democratic Brink,” by Christopher Alexander; “Structural Adjustment and Rural Poverty in Tunisia,” by Stephen King; “The Making of North Africa`s Intifadas,” by Laryssa Chomiak and John P. Entelis; and “Beyond Ghannouchi: Social Change and Islamism in Tunisia,” by Francesco Cavatorta and Rikke Hostrup Haugbolle.
The second section deals with Egypt, and features Mona El-Ghobashy on “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution”; Timothy Mitchell, “Worlds Apart: An Egyptian Village and the International Tourism Industry”; Joel Beinin and Hossam El-Hamalawy, “Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity”; Hesham Sallam, “Striking Back at Egyptian Workers”; Issandr El Amrani, “Sightings of the Egyptian Deep State”; and Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher on “Egypt’s Generals and Transnational Capital.”
The third section deals with Yemen, and includes: “No Exit: Yemen`s Existential Crisis” and “The Economic Dimension of Yemeni Unity,” both by Sheila Carapico; “Cracks in the Yemeni System,” by Sarah Phillips; “The Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen,” by Susanne Dahlgren; and “Tawakkul Karman as Cause and Effect,” by Stacey Philbrick Yadav.
The fourth section deals with Syria, and includes chapters by Carsten Wieland on “Asad’s Lost Chances”; Bassam Haddad on “The Resilience of the Syrian Regime”; Christian Sinclair and Sirwan Kajjo on “The Evolution of Kurdish Politics in Syria”; Donatella Della Ratta on “Dramas of the Authoritarian State”; and Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, “Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime.”
The fifth and final section deals with Bahrain, and includes “A Revolution Paused in Bahrain,” by Cortni Kerr and Toby Jones; “Bahrain`s Crisis Worsens,” by Joe Stork; “The Battle Over Family Law in Bahrain,” by Sandy Russell Jones; “Bahrain`s Sunni Awakening,” by Justin Gengler; and “In the Kingdom of Teargas,” by Gregg Carlstrom.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DM & AU: All MERIP articles are written both for non-experts who have an interest in Middle Eastern and North African current events as well as for scholars of the region looking for reportage and political analysis. The authors strive for a middle ground between academic analysis and a you-were-there kind of journalism. In this sense, it will be especially appealing to undergraduate students, policy makers, and other non-specialists. Contributions from scholars of political science, economics, history, sociology, and anthropology allow the volume to fit into a variety of undergraduate courses. It is ideal for students and instructors looking for an introduction to the uprisings, as well as to the recent history and political economy of each country. Given the density of substantive information, however, the collection will have value for graduate students and scholars as well, both within Middle East studies and among those working on social movements and political transformations.
J: What about Libya?
DM & AU: We left Libya out because, frankly, it has been very hard to report from Libya over these last decades. MERIP had stockpiled insufficient material to provide a reasonably good set of pieces on the Libyan case. We regret it, but we believe our readers will understand why it is absent from the compilation.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DM: I am taking a sabbatical in Morocco, using a Fulbright grant to conduct a longitudinal study of the impact of massive outmigration and return migration on the northeastern city of Nador. Twenty-five years have elapsed since I last lived in Nador. Significant changes have rocked the city and its inhabitants in the interim, many of them migration-induced, or at least related. Specifically, I want to explore: 1) the ways in which gender and generational relations have altered over the last two decades in the face of the tightening of access to older, male-dominated migrant destinations in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, and the opening up of new ones in Italy and Spain; 2) the impact new communication technologies have had on migrant relations to the country of origin; 3) the relatively recent changes in the position of the Moroccan state towards its Amazigh (Berber) citizens (Nador is the “capital” of the Amazigh North of Morocco) and the impact that may have on the desire to emigrate on the part of Nadoris of Amazigh descent; 4) the influence since the 1990s on Nadori migrants of the militarization of the Nador-Melilla border; and 5) the impact on Nador of returned migrants and remittances that have accumulated over the last quarter century.
AU: I am continuing my work as assistant editor at Middle East Report.
Excerpt from The Arab Revolts: Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East
From the Introduction
The collection of essays gathered here were originally published in Middle East Report, an independent quarterly journal providing in-depth analysis of the region’s political economy since 1971. The articles in this volume offer what Middle East Report does best: "meso-level" analysis of the causes and consequences of current events, something between the “big picture” supplied by journalistic reporting and the granular detail found in scholarship whose main audience consists of other specialists.
Each section is arranged in a present-past-future structure. Rather than providing a teleological search for origins, this form of organization sets the stage and attempts to unearth conditions that made the revolts possible and launched each nation on its own course. The articles, grouped by country, thus start in the thick of the uprisings, then take the analysis back over the last two decades to shed light on some of the historical developments that have shaped the specificity of each national context before returning again to the present to comment on current conditions.
Though there can be no singular narrative of uprisings that occurred in such different national contexts, the articles in this volume do highlight some shared underlying conditions that laid the groundwork for the insurrections. Relatively stagnant economic systems made worse by the 2008 financial crisis and recent rises in food prices, combined with relatively high unemployment—especially among educated youth—poorly managed public services, and rampant corruption created systems of entrenched and pervasive social inequality. Metastasizing security apparatuses inserted themselves into ever more aspects of daily life and impinged upon higher levels of the social spectrum. Though some countries saw a lessening of election fraud that allowed opposition parties into parliaments, constitutional acrobatics were institutionalizing the rule of autocrats and their family members. The increasingly organized opposition to declining living conditions and political freedoms, however, provided people with experiences and strategies that proved essential for the 2011 uprisings.
Yet the whole of the pre-revolt situation is more than the sum of its parts: Authoritarian practices combined with economic inequality in ways that rendered the state—as arbiter of both political activity and socioeconomic well-being—utterly alien to most citizens. The region faced a comprehensive crisis of governance.
The Socio-Economic Crisis in the Region
The official economic record of the Middle East and North Africa is mixed. The states that have been rocked by democratic uprisings have seen an overall rise in living standards over the last forty years. It is undeniable that most people are living longer and healthier lives, with more access to formal education than their parents and grandparents. At the same time, rising unemployment and increasing poverty over the last twenty years have sharpened the divides between elites—often ensconced in glittering gated communities—and the rest, the middle and working classes and the peasantry who live in increasingly crowded and underserved cities and towns. Despite varying degrees of economic socialization across the five states, the better social and economic future promised by post-independence governments seemed to materialize only for the well-connected.
The region has been dramatically—though unevenly—transformed by the privatization and globalization of national economies under the influence of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other advocates of neoliberal policies. Though nominally socialist regimes across the region had begun turning away from statist economic polices in the late 1960s, most Arab states did not begin implementing neoliberal reforms in earnest until the 1980s when the fall in global oil prices precipitated a regional economic slump. For states seeking international loans, monies were conditioned upon shifting economic activity toward export-oriented agriculture, manufacturing, and services as well as selling state-owned corporations to private investors—the standard recipe for structural adjustment. Dismantling the institutions of state-driven development necessarily threatened the professed populism of many of these regimes: Raising the standard of living of people long held down by the colonial yoke was understood to be the first priority of the new regimes. But privatization of industry and agriculture, and the shift to service-based economies, combined with reduced price supports on necessities, rendered life increasingly precarious for urban and rural workers as well as the middle class. Such programs often served parallel regime interests by rewarding political allies with privileged access to formerly public assets and new markets. Even for governments that were not pressured into structural adjustment by supranational bodies (like Bahrain and Syria), privatization was often a means of personal enrichment sold as good liberal economics. In some cases, “privatization” was merely a reorganization of ownership such that certain sectors of the regime remained in control
An accelerant of declining socioeconomic conditions, and handmaiden to privatization programs, has been the steady erosion in government spending on public welfare. Such public services as did emerge during the early decades of post-independence state building have gradually been allowed to rot on the vine. Structural adjustment requires the reduction of state spending as an end in itself, though as some states (Egypt and Tunisia) became increasingly indebted to foreign lenders, cutting public investments in education, health care and pensions also freed more capital for debt servicing. Fluctuations in the price of oil put budgetary pressures on all of the states under consideration, whose economies are intricately linked to oil through either direct export, taxation, the remittances of migrant laborers working in more oil-rich countries (namely Saudi Arabia) or a combination of all these factors. In Syria, the economic stagnation wrought by inflexible central planning has also burdened the state’s finances, even though its external debt has remained very low. Bahrain has not seen as dramatic a shift away from public spending—indeed, the monarchy has consistently boosted public sector salaries or distributed household bonuses to mitigate political unrest—though deficits over the past several years have slowed the growth of social spending.
The benefits of these twin processes redounded primarily to the core of each regime—the president’s extended family and high-ranking members of the ruling party or government—and in some cases to a larger stratum of elites. In the nominally republican regimes, the role of the president’s family became increasingly prominent during the period of structural adjustment as key industries were sold to or controlled by members of the ruling family. In Egypt, Mubarak’s son Gamal became the official face of restructuring through his leadership of various National Democratic Party and government organs responsible for economic liberalization, not to mention his social clique of wealthy financiers with links to US companies. In Tunisia, the near-exclusive control the extended families of Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, exercised over all sectors of the economy alienated larger and larger segments of the middle class. The Asad family’s multi-generational rule in Syria, which inspired the term jumlukiyya, coined by Egyptian intellectual Saad Edin Ibrahim to describe the masking of monarchy (malakiyya) with the trappings of republicanism (jumhuriyya). Despite the more blatant republico-monarchism of the Asads, they were more careful about distributing the benefits of their rule among various competing classes of merchants and industrialists. Yemen’s north-south axis of power, further calcified after the failed 1994 rebellion against the newly unified government, enriched northern elites through the sale of southern land and oil infrastructure to regime backers. As a constitutional monarchy, Bahrain’s laws institutionalize the Al Khalifa’s control over all aspects of governance, including the semi-opaque management of Bahrain’s national wealth. Yet the family has also distributed some of the spoils to the island’s Sunni minority through access to government contracts and public sector jobs.
[Excerpted from The Arab Revolts: Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East, edited by David McMurray and Amanda Ufheil-Somers, by permission of the editors. © 2013 by Middle East Research and Information Project. For more information, or to order this book, click here.]