Jade Saab (ed.), A Region in Revolt: Mapping the Latest Uprisings in North Africa and West Asia (Daraja Press and Transnational Institute, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Jade Saab (JS): The start of the Lebanese uprising on 17 October 2019 galvanized a lot of my writing and focus. It was preceded very closely by mass protests in Iraq and soon after in Iran, too. With the addition of Sudan and Algeria, both of whom had been waging struggles since earlier that year, it became clear to me that the region was going through a second wave of revolutions.
With these five countries now engaged in struggles for fundamental change, a regional perspective, which also preserved the individual contexts of each country, was needed. I also believed that these protests should be presented as a continuation of the 2010-2011 movements, in what was proving to be a long revolutionary arc in the region.
At the same time, I serendipitously came across a group called the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists. Within this circle, activists and academics were already writing extensively about the other uprisings. It was there that the idea for this book found fertile soil and agreement. With this vision in mind, eight writers, the majority from the Alliance, stepped forward to contribute. The outcome was five chapters written by activists and academics from each respective county—Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JS: When the 2011 uprisings in the region (the so-called “Arab Spring”) started, most coverage of the events were orientalist or reductionist, over emphasizing the role of and changes in information and communication technology, and presenting the uprisings as a sort of “awakening” of the people to democracy. This one-dimensional analysis ignored the history of the countries that made up the “Arab Spring,” as well as the key social actors fighting for change. Scholarship and media representation turned a blind eye to the political economy of each country, particularly how their subordinate insertion into the global capitalist economy was a major factor in causing those uprisings. The more radical aspects of those uprisings, demands for social equality, economic justice, and redistribution, were swept under a rug.
This project, to a large extent, is meant to fight against this superficial interpretation of politics in the region. It also seeks to highlight the 2019 uprisings and revolutions which have not received adequate coverage in western media—a result of uprisings in the region no longer being novel, as well as changes in global politics altering the ways in which the West is reporting (or not reporting) on them.
The book, apart from its introduction, is not written in a comparative style; however, any reader can surely make comparisons themselves. Instead, approximately half of each chapter is dedicated to exploring the history and economic conditions of each country. This allows the book to showcase the struggles that have helped shape each country and the social forces found today; it also ensures that the current uprisings and revolutions are not seen as a-historic or spontaneous events. This historical overview also presents a clearer picture of how social forces are currently divided, as well as how they emerged.
The second part of each chapter then elaborates on these social forces and answers questions of who is fighting these battles and how we can best understand their (often changing) political goals and aspirations.
Finally, every chapter concludes with the lessons we can draw from these uprisings and revolutions. This includes potential opportunities for the movements and reflections on what direction they should take or what kind of ongoing support they may need.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JS: My work focuses on the study of social movements, especially revolutionary movements with socialist goals. My approach is usually historic, focusing on successful and failed socialist revolutions. This project was a something of a break from my usual work, as it saw me apply my research to events as they were unfolding in the region—and especially in my home country of Lebanon.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JS: I hope that people involved in these various movements pick this book up. It is for this reason that we will be releasing an Arabic version of the book early 2021.
I would like to reach this audience for several reasons. First, our region often lacks solidarity between various nations despite a common language. The struggle of each country produces important lessons for the other and makes it clear that our countries share a common position in global capitalism, the source of many of our economic woes. It is only through solidarity that we can overcome them.
Second, by placing our current struggles in their historical contexts, I hope that a deeper understanding of the threats these movements face can be developed. This includes shedding some of the foundational myths that have helped secure power for the ruling classes in each country.
Third, class dynamics in these uprisings is hugely important. It is only through class analysis that a way towards success can be found, as it helps us understand how ruling classes successfully entrench themselves and how to best mobilize those who will dislodge them.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JS: Time permitting, I am hoping to work on an interview series with individuals from some of the main groups who have participated in the Lebanese uprising. The objective will be to better identify the political aspirations and perspectives of these groups, at time when a lull in such activities can be seen. Apart from that, I am continuing my research at the University of Glasgow into the role of ideology and the process of socialist revolutions, while also pushing forward with my organizing work as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.
J: You previously mentioned “changes in global politics.” What changes are these, and what impact are they having on the current protests?
JS: Much has changed since 2011. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, Russian geo-politics, and Chinese economic ascension have completely altered the context which allowed the superficial narrative of a natural expansion of liberal politics to be applied to the region during the “Arab Spring.” In addition to removing that frame, this context presents direct threats to the struggles in the region—including the destruction of Syria and the defeat of the revolution there, and the continuous civil wars in Libya and Yemen. The resulting plight of refugees, in addition to the rise of the far right around the world, all pose impediments to the success of these uprisings.
These factors pull together so that present uprisings, combined with the wave of anti-austerity protests around the globe in 2019, constitute a further threat to western dominance over the region. This has motivated many commentators to push back against such movements with greater force, eagerly declaring them dead on arrival with the hope of avoiding such a risk.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5: “The revolutionizing nature of the Lebanese uprising,” pp. 121-124)
By the end of the 72-hours deadline, the uprising had managed to occupy all major public spaces and continued to shut down major roads leading to a de-facto general strike. When the PM gave his speech, it wasn’t to resign, but to announce a reform package that included a cut to ministers' salaries, a capital injection into housing loans which have previously been stopped, the closure of some state institutions and a reduction in the budget of others.
The reform package itself was immediately rejected by protesters who saw it as appeasement meant to replace genuine reform. A system that has done nearly nothing to improve the quality of life in three decades was not going to suddenly find the will to do so now.
In response to all this, the Army assumed its historic role and claimed neutrality saying that they will stop any act of violence against protestors and refuse to forcefully remove protestors or clear roadblocks. In reality, this proclamation was rather flexible. Although the army stopped a motorcycle convoy of government supporters from clashing with protestors the night of their announcements, at others point they did clear roads for ‘humanitarian reasons’.
In the week following the Prime Minister’s speech, a general state of civil disobedience continued, as too did the de-facto general strike. All major roads were blocked and mass attendance in the country’s squares led to a carnivalesque atmosphere with music, dancing, DJs and fireworks at night. Public squares saw a sort of life in them that had been forgotten. The streets became a school, various public squares and tents the classroom. There were daily public lectures on the economy, the constitution, history, the importance of public spaces. In these ‘classes’ you could see attempts at the creation of a new Lebanese identity away from all myths of sectarianism and reconstruction. Protests were also organized across the world by Lebanon's diaspora communities.
Displaying signs of shock and confusion, the ruling class resorted to televised speeches to calm or cast doubt on the protests. The president, Michel Aoun, expressed willingness to negotiate with speakers for the movement. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, in a series of speeches stood firmly against the resignation of the government. He eventually asked his supporters to withdraw from the streets while claiming that the uprising was being manipulated by foreign powers. Known TV personalities tried to draw parallels between the protests that preceded the Civil War and the current uprising, stoking fears of what may happen in the event of a political vacuum.
Every political speech was met with an outpour of people onto the streets. The speeches became fuel for protestors. On one hand, they were received as confirmations of the most prominent slogan of the uprising: “Kiloun yani Kiloun” (all of them means all of them). The insinuations that the movement was externally funded was met with ridicule, especially since it was being spearheaded by a party that openly flouts the fact that it is almost exclusively funded by Iran. As for claims that the movement threatened a return to the civil war, this was met with the slogan “you are the Civil War, and we are the popular revolution”. For many participating in the protests, the uprising signaled the end of the Civil War era, not the start of a new one.
The apparent willingness for the government to negotiate with representatives of the movement also led to the overt rejection of any sort of leadership. What reverberated through the movement is the idea that no one can speak on behalf of the uprising, and anyone claiming to do so is a fraud. This is not surprising, those involved in the organizing efforts were drawing lessons from the 2015 mobilizations which saw leaders arrested and subjected to sustained media campaigns. This rejection popularized the slogan, “the people do not negotiate, they demand”.
On October 29, the Prime Minister resigned. Hours earlier however, a large group of Amal and Hezbollah supporters rampaged through downtown Beirut, attacking everyone in their way. They set fire to protesters' tents and to the symbol of the revolution, a clenched fist erected in the main square. Attacks on protestors in other areas also took place after the speech with acts of public vandalism and intimidation including gunfire. This happened as thousands of protesters poured into the streets to celebrate the resignation.
The resignation of the Prime Minister, while one victory, also had weakening effects for the uprising. Some protestors withdrew from the streets, seeing the resignation of the PM alone as a Sunni loss. The Prime Minister’s resignation also emboldened the President and his party supporters. His previous messaging of reform through the legal process meant that he and his party now solely occupy the mantle of reformism.
The government began promoting the rhetoric that the uprising was itself causing and exacerbating the country's dire economic situation. Citing the uprising's refusal to negotiate with the government, the latter gave security forces the mandate to ensure that roads remain open. There will be no more de-facto general strikes, and the absence of a labour movement meant that a genuine general strike could not be enacted
The uprising was also struggling with some of its own contradictions. Through the rejection of any leadership, the uprising has chosen to place itself in a reactive position limited to negative demands - pushing for what they do not want instead of actively building an alternative that reflected what they wanted. Possessing veto power unfortunately assumes that mobilization is limitless, a grave miscalculation. This also disqualified the creation of structures of resistance that could be amenable to popular demands, such as revolutionary councils organised on a democratic basis.
The second contradiction was found in the movement's claim of being ‘non-political’, As such, the demand of the creation of a transitory technocratic government presented an impression that Lebanon’s problems were purely scientific. This assumption would cost the movement dearly as we shall later see.
The uprising, at this early stage, also seemed unwilling to contest other government institutions. Trusting the army’s neutrality and refusing to attack or discuss how the complex networks of clientelism and private-public conflicts of interest between politicians and banks, construction companies, universities, hospitals and media companies were going to impact the progress of the uprising. Thus, the legal routes to change were given priority instead of direct action.
The contradiction and limitations of the movement can easily be attributed to the immaturity of the forces of the ‘civil movement’ and its preoccupation with electoral politics and the absence of labour or radical institutions that can form a unified strategy. However, formulating a unified positive program also presented a risk of ‘dividing the street’, where those who do not agree with some political aims may just abandon the uprising altogether.
With these structural limitations in place, it is understandable that the uprising coalesced around negative demands through a united front while leaving the ‘political’ tasks to be dealt with after the space for it has been created. That is, after the ruling class has been set aside and a new electoral law that allows for new ‘politics’ to enter the arena.