Ray Bush, editor, Turmoil in North Africa: A Radical Assessment of the Uprisings Since the End of 2010. Virtual Special Issue of The Review of African Political Economy (August 2013).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this issue?
Ray Bush (RB): Since the turmoil at the end of 2010, the editorial working group of The Review of African Political Economy [ROAPE] assembled a range of exciting and critical perspectives on state and politics, underdevelopment, agrarian transformation, and democratization. We wanted to put these in one place as crisis in Tunisia and Egypt intensified and conservative and counter revolutionary forces gathered pace. It was a good moment to reflect on how the analyses we have published may have foregrounded the current crisis.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the issue address?
RB: This collection of essays brings together contributions to ROAPE that provide a radical assessment of the uprisings in North Africa. The collection does two things. First, it accounts for the historical sequence of events that led to the most astonishing processes of political turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia. Second, the collection locates the uprisings and toppling of dictatorships in an analysis of the relevant national political economies. In doing this, the contributions contest the racialized and orientalist notion of “Arab exceptionalism,” and go far beyond this simplistic analysis, instead looking at the driving forces of political crisis. The forces that are explored in these contributions include local class and worker struggles and how these have often been forgotten or downplayed in accounts of the 2010-11 uprisings. The accounts also examine the inter-relationship between economic and political and social struggles and whether a new politics emerges to drive the uprisings.
J: How does this issue connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
RB: My own research has always had a political economy focus. It has examined the relationship between economic reform, state structure, and rural impoverishment. This collection might be read alongside my recently edited collection with Habib Ayeb, Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt (Zed Books, 2012). The ROAPE issue develops arguments raised in that volume about why and how the dictatorships were toppled when they were.
I find it extraordinary that most commentary on Egypt has been preoccupied by trying to understand politics in a very limited, often institutional, manner or remains focused on details of “authoritarianism,” “dictatorship,” the failures of political reform, and cultural determinants of politics. This restrictive view overlooks the political economy processes that underpinned the dictatorships, including the collusion of western imperialism. There has been very little examination of the ways in which Egypt`s farmers have been part of a process of dispossession, even though the program for economic reform began in the countryside in 1987, predating structural adjustment in 1991. Although existing work on class, capital accumulation, and Egypt’s incorporation into the world economy is exceptional, more work must be done to examine how these factors shape the country`s patterns of social inequality and raging injustice. In that respect, this collection builds on my critique of Poverty and Neoliberalism: Persistence and Reproduction in the Global South (Pluto Press, 2007).
J: Who do you hope will read this issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RB: I hope the readership will be wider than may normally be the case for journal-based articles. The free web-based access will ensure wider distribution and readership, and I hope for further engagement with the issues raised and further contributions, in the form of new submissions, to ROAPE. Our goal is to critically connect with a wider network of region-based activists and commentators. The collection is available free on-line, where all the articles will be available until the end of December 2013
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RB: I am just finishing a film made jointly with Habib Ayeb on the responses of farmers to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. We have provisionally called it Forgotten Voices: Farmers and Revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. I am also working more broadly on ongoing implications of persistent neo-liberalism in the global south. In a recent article, “`Making the Twenty-First Century Its Own`: Janus Faced African (Under) Development,” published in Africa Focus (26.1, 2013), I critique the mainstream optimism that Africa will benefit from the rebuilding of the very economic system that created the mess we are in. The “rebuilding” that is being constructed in Tunisia and Egypt will not meet the demands of those who lost their lives and limbs in the struggles to topple the dictatorships; neither will the policies peddled for “stability” by the EU and US jettison the remnants of the old regimes—on the contrary, such policies bolster them. The only hope for delivering on the rallying cries of “bread, freedom, and social justice” will be permanent revolution on the streets—one that holds representatives directly to account; ensures the complete transformation of security services; and challenges the military to (amongst other things) open their accounts to public scrutiny.
J: What is it like to have this issue appear when North Africa is in a state of flux? How would you like the issue to intervene in current conversations about ongoing events in North Africa?
RB: This is an important question. It raises the central issue that most academics choose to dodge, under the guise of “even handedness” and “neutrality.” The analysis in this collection highlights the differences between the Review of African Political Economy and most other journals and academic sources. ROAPE focuses on publishing engaged and informed radical scholarship. We think it is important to engage critically and to challenge mainstream perspectives by offering interpretation and analysis of the region. Our remit as an international collective is to provide radical analysis of trends, issues, and social processes in Africa, adopting a broadly materialist interpretation of change. This is well highlighted in this collection because it combines theoretical rigor with empirical detail in an analysis of power, inequality, and oppression—as well as struggles against them.
I would like the collection to be read as offering a series of analyses that show how power is structured by the interrelationship between economic interests and political actions. This interrelationship is not simply restricted to local or national struggles, but is also connected to international forces that construct patterns of capital accumulation in the context of capitalist globalization. We hope the essays provide information and analysis for activists and scholars to combat mainstream policy hegemony in North Africa. We also hope that the analysis begins to provide a background against which to interpret the catastrophic use of violence by the Egyptian military in their persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Excerpts from Turmoil in North Africa: A Radical Assessment of the Uprisings Since the End of 2010
From Ray Bush, “Turmoil in North Africa: A Radical Assessment of the Uprisings Since the End of 2010”
The articles here assemble explanations as to why the uprisings emerged when they did, and what some of the contrasting dynamics have been between Tunisia and Egypt (see Ayeb 2011 in this collection). They also locate the undercurrents and interrelationship between political and economic struggles that drove the Egyptian uprising. They are struggles that the state in Egypt and Western commentators have been keen to separate, as if politics and economics are hermetically sealed from each other (see Abdelrahman 2012 in this collection). In particular, the essays assembled here highlight why the July coup d`état should not be seen as revolutionary. Although the contributions were written before the July 2013 unrest, they offer analysis that is grounded in political economy. It is analysis that helps identify the competing social and economic interests that generated the 2011 uprisings and point to why entrenched interests did not easily vacate state institutions and positions of privilege. […]
From Marion Dixon, “An Arab Spring”
The imperial discourse at the center that claims responsibility for peripheral movements for justice cannot be separated from claims of expertise. This is claiming and co-opting: defining what the social change is about (including where it comes from) and what it needs. In the case of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, Western powers were proclaiming expertise to help Egypt’s transition to democracy even before Mubarak left office.
From Maha Abdelrahman, "A Hierarchy of Struggles? The `Economic` and the `Political` in Egypt`s Revolution"
The question which now looms large over Egypt’s future is whether elements of the old regime, which are still well entrenched, particularly in the state apparatus, together with Egypt’s new ruling elite can succeed in their efforts to reduce the revolutionary process, unleashed a decade ago, to a limited process of liberal democracy with the minimal concession of occasional and symbolic electoral participation.
Despite the enormous power of these forces, the process of radicalization, which different groups and their struggles have undergone, indicate that the battle for the future is not going to be easily settled. After all, the millions of Egyptians who have taken to the streets for over a decade, during the mass uprising of January 2011 and in its continuing aftermath have not been protesting, taking huge risks, and sacrificing their lives so that one variety of crony capitalism is replaced by an untrammelled neoliberal capitalism which is determined by a national elite in consort with Western governments and international financial institutions. With no measures to redress their lived injustices, long-ignored demands and ever-deteriorating living conditions, it is hard to imagine how those millions could be convinced to go back to their homes and give up their fight for both political and economic justice.
From Rabab el-Mahdi, "Labor Protests in Egypt: Causes and Meanings"
Through their protests, strikes and other actions, workers and state employees are hastening the rupture of the populist–corporatist ruling pact which has bound successive Egyptian regimes to society since 1952. By challenging the hegemony of the state-dominated union, and pushing for demands beyond moral economy, labor is nurturing a different and more vibrant civil society based on collective organization in place of one dominated by professional organizations (non-governmental organizations) and state-run unions. Moreover, such challenges point to the importance and possibilities of mass organization, particularly when compared to the “closed door” tactics adopted by established opposition parties and political movements.
From Habib Ayeb, "Social and Political Geography of the Tunisian Revolution: The Alfa Grass Revolution"
The Tunisian revolution has clearly constituted a real political surprise inside as well as outside the country. No specialist, observer or politician, Tunisian or non-Tunisian, really predicted this revolution, either for Tunisia or for any other country of the region. Of course, many have anticipated social rebellions and outbursts of unrest in one country or another, particularly as a response to sudden price increases—as happened in Algeria at the end of 2010—or to other governmental political decisions or actions. But no one expected a revolution.
[Excerpted from Turmoil in North Africa: A Radical Assessment of the Uprisings Since the End of 2010, special virtual issue of Review of African Political Economy, edited by Ray Bush, by permission of the editor. Copyright © 2013 Informa UK Limited. For more information, or to read the full issue online until December 2013, click here.]