Much of the writing on the Arab uprisings continues to suffer from the new think-tank-ish, self-important, semi-casual, sloppy-analysis syndromes. It is as if having a platform and a mandate are sufficient to produce sound knowledge. For the most part, the proof is in the pudding. Follow platforms and individuals across time and space and this becomes clear: zigzagging and pendulum-swing judgments and analysis, driven more by events and politics than by historical and analytical depth. Worse still, this sloppiness has extended to scholars who frequently opine on social media and electronic publication platforms that seek content quantity over quality in a mutually beneficial exercise. Rigorous analysis that stands the test of time suffers.
Extending beyond quick platforms, the deluge of books on the uprisings is staggering and qualitatively inconsistent across publications, with some coming out within the first year of these protracted events, yet they do not consciously address their own temporal (premature?) shortcomings. Other books are published within months of the emergence of new phenomena (e.g., ISIS) and extrapolate from that particular phenomenon to all cases that experienced an uprising. Finally, as I already shared, a continuing trend of erroneously addressing the uprisings, or the odd title “Arab Spring," as one event lingers, with insufficient attention to the vast variance across cases. For the most part, the best work on the uprisings has not been written yet, and for good reason.
To make things more complicated for sound knowledge production on the uprisings, tragically contentious cases such as Syria have caused seismic schisms that continue to undermine even serious discussion, let alone publications, on multiple levels, namely, politically, analytically, and socially. I will take them up in reverse order below. This essay is intended to serve as a starting point for a more comprehensive and annotated review of literature on the uprisings, with emphasis on the seemingly intractable Syrian case.
Protracted uprising cases have entered the social and discursive realm in an unprecedented and largely unproductive manner, even if quite instructive at times. Family and friends have been broken up both by diametrically opposed positions or even slight differences, signaling that the stakes are that high, although no one is sure what exactly these are. The Syrian case has had a particularly personal dimension, whereby the locus of contention between opposing observers almost shifted from differing on interpreting the conflict to simply differing with each other, often without keeping pace with developments on the ground. It is as thought the conflict was transformed from the actual battleground to social spaces and media, a phenomenon that requires more attention in due time. Often, such differences recall earlier frustrations, contradictions, and pent up resentments that have been severely exacerbated by particular cases, notably Syria.
More structurally, we can also observe a return in the social realm to the secular-religious debate or “tool,” as well as an odd resort to primordialism regarding the Sunni-Shi‘i divide, even if often based on politics and not an intrinsic commitment to sectarian content. While the former has been influenced by the Egyptian case as well as the emergence of the lslamic State (IS), the latter is mostly a continuation of regional political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The politicization of identities, tribal, ethnic, or otherwise, has also played a role across the region, particularly in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. While one can view some of these developments simply as a function of primordialism or even politics, it is important to recognize the new, often more independent, and less repressive context within which they are emerging. In some, not all, cases, it could very well be the beginning of perhaps the same long dialogues, debates, or conflicts under less restrained circumstances. However, the writing on such issues has been unnecessarily dominated by a negative view that essentialize and naturalize this politicization.
Another issue that receives little or parasitic attention is the impact of the slow collapse of states amid protracted violence on the fate of those who depended most on public sector employment and/or other forms of protection by the state, including women and other vulnerable communities. While this does not apply equally across the board, it is a reminder of one of the seldom-addressed functions or contributions of state public sectors. To elucidate a conservative take-away in the form of “order at any cost” from this observation is to miss the point: it is but one reason that helps us understand (shifting) positions and attitudes within protesting polities in relation to the state and its potential collapse, especially as uprisings turn sour, reviving the lesser evil argument.
Analytically, there seems to be strong and similar divides across microcosms as a result of calamitous escalation, counterrevolutions, and/or authoritarian retrenchment (with the potential exception of Tunisia). In academia and beyond, one sees a rather clear split between those who would like to interpret the uprisings as a first phase among a few, or many, to come, while others have, after a brief elation, restored their default culturalist lenses. Yet others were simply exhausted and disappointed, and gave in to generic pessimism fueled by an endemic feeling of powerlessness at several levels (personal, political, and/or ideological).
However, more refined analytical disagreements that did not descend to the level of unproductive or personal contention have proliferated: these are the most productive and enduring ones that will survive the wave of Facebook and Twitter “activists” and “trolls,” most of whom will eventually find their way back either to their pre-uprisings political coma or to their parochial echo-chambers. This does not mean that well-meaning observers who rise above pettiness and personalization are immune to producing analytical faux-pas. What continues to be in short supply is a systematic and historically informed analysis of the factors that brought various societies to a boil, more or less, at that particular moment. A corollary objective is to identify the factors that influenced the trajectories of different cases. The fact that the human cost of the uprisings, their diversions, and their suppression has been calamitous is all the more reason to take analytical pause in judgment.
Finally, there is an increasingly pressing need for the uprisings to be conceptualized more broadly in historical terms lest we peg analysis on empirical developments: for instance, as this path can take many forms, what is the relationship between repression, state institutions, (de)development, societal divisions, class and gender relations, external foreign policies, and mass discontent/mobilization? What kind of historical eras, periods, or junctures might be eclipsed by what sort of new configurations? How best to characterize the uprisings from a longue durée vantage point? Both the aforementioned micro and macro levels of analysis, respectively, should help us understand and account for the variance among the cases in which mass uprisings erupted and between them and the other Arab countries—if this categorization is at all relevant.
For those taking stock of writing at the academic, journalistic, policy-oriented, and even social media levels, it has become clear that the uprisings (at different times depending on the case in question) have been encumbered by politics and polemics. Once more, it is arguable that the better analysis is yet to come, not least because of emerging opportunities for research and local initiatives for data gathering: it is also significant that new balances of power, begotten by ample violence, displacement, and the loss of life and limb, are curiously spurring more sober reflection and reconsideration.
Politically speaking, the state of writing on the uprisings is becoming increasingly dire. Early on, hopes were built and partially fulfilled. They were then gradually and, in some cases, brutally shattered, ushering in what I have called “the pessimistic turn” in 2012-2013. Eventually, the breaking points that crystallized views were 2013 and 2016. With war dragging in Syria and Yemen, where some external protagonists of rebellion in one case curiously reversed positions in the other; with Libya in tatters; and with a full re-entrenchment of authoritarian rule in Egypt and, much earlier, Bahrain, we began to see the beginning of the end of the first phase of the uprisings.
Whether writers were following all or some of the uprisings, and whether they were following closely or sporadically based on news cycles, it was late 2016 that culminated in a new phase of divisions in the uprising, with the exception of Tunisia. Indeed the ostensible crushing of the last remaining metropolitan stronghold of the rebels in Aleppo in December 2016 was a critical juncture in the Syrian uprising, one that many considered to be an ostensible end of the first phase of the conflict.
Spurious analysis, marked by defeatism, blame games, and political jockeying masquerading as moral criticism and righteousness became the order of the day in the last months of 2016. The conceptualizations and convictions that were discussed in previous years became axioms to many: “lesser evil” dictatorships vs. Islamist unknowns, “rebellious” imperialism vs. “reactionary” resistance, Sunnis vs. Shi`a, and everyone vs. “terrorism” won the highest marks. The lack of a long view and analysis of slow-moving factors over extended periods of time gave way to instant scholarship that was produced and reproduced based on events and even particular battleground outcomes.
Significantly, we all observed how the uprisings became arenas for settling political scores, for inhabitants and observers, regardless of whether or not they involved direct external intervention. This phenomenon should not be dismissed quickly, no matter how ugly, petty, and absurd some of these practices were. It reflects unresolved issues and deep-seated convictions from the pre-uprising period as well as new contradictions, uncertainties, and the rebalancing of power in the regional and global arenas. Even though it is easy to condemn the internecine spitefulness and smearing that especially characterized the Syria debates, this heightened emotional state is a function of the aforementioned unresolved issues and contradictions/changes. The final blow that intensified this state of analytical and political environment is empirical: i.e., the profound notion of powerlessness vis-à-vis the retrenchment of despotic orders, however each case is colored by its own peculiarities. People/observers took to the most raw and half-baked forms of opining, as the polemics surrounding the crucial Syrian case informs us.
Contentious discussions and writing on the Arab uprisings abound, but perhaps most polemical debates are the by-product of the Syrian case. One dominant source of polemics is the consistent, if largely superficial, attack on “the Left,” proceeding mostly from a liberal camp with ostensible leftist vocabulary. Those attacks imagined the Left as both the arbitrators and decision-makers in conflicts where they somehow betrayed the people (e.g., Syrians) by siding with dictators, particularly in Syria. At the same time, some leftists were also held to account by what can be dubiously labeled leftist hardliners for siding with imperialist efforts and countries such as the United States.
This discursive myopia/confusion should not be dismissed nor taken too seriously. It should not be dismissed because it does raise the issue of ample contradictions within what can be patently considered leftist voices. On the other hand, in most cases it should not be taken too seriously because it emanates less from a genuine concern about leftist politics and much more from a political standpoint that is too often indifferent to such politics. Though this is a topic worthy of a separate treatment, the bottom line is that, for good reason, a superficial understanding of the left dominates discursive debates, and self-proclamations about who and what is left are unaccountable, especially while conflict is underway. After all, the “left” is not one political party with a restrictive platform.
In all cases, a new dubious taxonomy emerged to depict variants of the left that are hierarchically categorized based on levels of guilt and complicity (either in reference to imperialism, rebels, or dictators). Besides the obvious contradictions that any cursory observation can spot (e.g., support by known “leftists” of patent dictatorships like Syria, or of US policies/patronage), this entire exercise is largely ephemeral as the coming years will reveal. It is odd that otherwise well-regarded writers partook in this amorphous fad of lamenting the left.
This is not because the left, however conceptualized, should not be critiqued. On the contrary, it should be, and any serious rebuilding of revolutionary or emancipatory fervor in the coming years must include such diligent self-criticism. Rather, it is mainly because many of those who are being critiqued and, amusingly, the equivalent proportion of those who are critiquing, often do not have a record of commitment, or paper trail, or legacy that can be considered “leftist” in the most classical senses. Both have substituted classless anti-imperialism and even reactionary nationalism for leftist principles. The farce became that liberals and “progressives” (in a Trump world, this category is especially stretched/distorted) are standing in as gate-keepers of the left: a temporary concern for populism, vague notions of social justice, and lip-service support for the poor stood in for robust class analysis at the local, regional, and international levels. The end result is that these attacks were misplaced and inconsequential.
Predictably, this disfiguration of the left under its new liberal gatekeepers invited analysts who never identified with the left to join in. In that space, everyone and their mother and uncle from multiple and contradictory positions chimed in on indicting the left, while consistently exaggerating its actual impact (on anything, really) and ignoring the fact that regional and global powers that have long ago considered the “left” a cute little discursive toy do not effectively recognize its existence.
Yet, the “left” is portrayed as the problem for renegade reactionaries and liberals: a perfect diversion from engaging in comprehensive criticism and self-criticism of the actual conditions, actors, relations, and positions that animated the outcomes of the uprisings, particularly in Syria. Interestingly, in that debate, debaters claim their sharp views represent most Syrians and that their opponents do not know Syria or proceed from axioms alien to the concern of Syrians: i.e., that they oppose imperialism at the expense of the Syrian revolution, or that they support a revolution that represents imperial interests. Both dominant views obscure more than reveal in the case of the Syrian uprising as I have tried to illustrate elsewhere.
Back to Square One
Not only has the spurious writing on the uprisings persisted, but it has also regressed in quality, paralleling the regression of conditions in the Arab world. Generally speaking, there is talk of corruption, unemployment, and other negative indicators often hand-picked from something like the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report. Almost all ills are pinned squarely on authoritarian rulers, as though they exist in a vacuum. One finds very little about the political connections of these rulers with their regional and international supporters/bankrollers. Nor is there much about the institutions that rewarded the adoption of neoliberal-like policies no matter the cost to the larger population.
In effect, there is little to no consideration that the Arab uprisings were also a voice of protest for those whose life-chances have been devoured by their local elites and the politics the latter pursued as individuals (moguls), groups (with external connections), networks (informal economic cliques between business and state officials), and/or institutions (e.g., the army in Egypt). It is as though the youth bulge, unemployment, and opposition politics are completely detached from the development policies that autocratic darlings adopted, imposed, and pursued. To be sure, data such as arms purchases in contrast to spending on development are thrown around as though they are detached from questions of accountability (if not worse) on the supplier’s/seller’s side—instead of recognizing at the very least the complicity involved. The cursory words/homage that are sometimes presented to address measures of complicity of external actors, states, and processes are actually problematic because they do not figure in the final calculus—we end up with lip-service liberal critique of elitism.
Additionally, as time goes by, the uprisings are somehow collapsed into a negative monolith, just as they were from the diametrically opposite euphoric angle early on, under the dubious banner of the “Arab Spring:” both characterizations are caricatures of reality. We increasingly see little mention of the diversity of cases and peoples, except in passing, as though it is a detail. It turns out that premature perceptions of both success and failure dull analytical vigor.
Once more, instead of historical depth, analytical and empirical fads informed by “policy-oriented” politics and fortunes came to the fore: suddenly, the depiction of the generic desire for democracy of everyone in the Arab world is substituted by the catch-all “Sunni anxiety” factor. This trending variable side-steps or eliminates all other divisions, including those between ruler and ruled, in which the majority of Sunnis in the Arab region were actually primarily suppressed by “Sunni” elites that belong to a different class, long before conspiracy theories about Shi`a trying to take over the region. Moreover, one finds that the countries that are often depicted as causing this anxiety are Shi`i majority countries, including Iran and Iraq, where similar claims of “Shi`i anxiety” can be made.
Also gone is the talk of the delayed stances and actual positions of the US and UK governments vis-à-vis the six uprisings (e.g., whose side they were on, and when): late comers to Tunisia and Egypt’s peoples’ side, against the people in Bahrain, wary of the Yemeni uprising and far more interested in profits than people in Libya. Such stances reinforce the historical external accountability, yet both the stances and the accountability are deleted or reduced to details. The case that demonstrates the lack of attention to external (specifically western) factors is Syria. Syria’s dictatorship was never Europe’s or the United States’ cup of tea. After initial hesitation very early on, they actually supported the uprising, directly or indirectly. Curiously, external support to prop up the Syrian regime, whether it is Iran, Russia, or Hizballah, is not jettisoned. While all these regimes—not to mention the other dictatorships that western powers continue to support—deserve more than overthrow for their decades-long crimes, the writing and opining/analysis is increasingly comporting with pre-uprisings foreign policies of western governments. None of this portends well for the future of democracy or even accountability in the region.
Finally, and in relation to presenting a monolithic social blob (with the exception of talk of Sunni anxiety), often not a word is uttered about gender, bodies, and space. In short treatments, even if it is unreasonable to dwell on everything in detail, it is incumbent on analysts at least to address the issue areas, and leave readers with a need to explore, not an artificial sense of satisfaction that re-catapult us to the culturalist-authoritarian boogeyman/framework. It is almost like everyone has lost their mind. As the prosecutor in the Egyptian play, A Witness Who Saw Nothing, says after the witness disclosed that he was not paying attention, “the case is to be re-opened”, (يعاد افتتاح المحضر), or back to square one.
[This article is one of six contributions to the Jadaliyya roundtable on Arab Uprisings. Click here to read the introduction or read other contributions].