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The “Great Arab Revolt” of the Twenty-First Century

Reflections on the Ongoing Upheaval in the Arabic-Speaking World
Gilbert Achcar

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Source: La lettre, no. 35, December 2012

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1One question is immediately raised by any attempt to analyse the ongoing events in the Arab region, that of how to refer to them.

2The most satisfactory term is “revolutionary process”: it puts the emphasis on the potential of the uprising without making a definitive judgement on its results, by stressing that what was set in motion by the December 2010 demonstrations in Tunisia and gradually spread to the whole region is still far from over. The uprisings that the region has witnessed have not been limited to their political democratic dimension in the confrontation with regimes that were or are all “authoritarian”, to varying degrees. The development deadlock crippling the economies and societies of the Arab world is the underlying cause of the events. This deadlock is illustrated both by the particularly weak growth of the average regional GDP per capita over the last few decades, and by record unemployment rates in the Arab world, particularly among women and the youth, with an over-representation of graduates among the unemployed.

3These socio-economic factors are at the root of the social discontent which the anti-democratic or despotic practices of the incumbent regimes have considerably exacerbated, up to burs­ting point. The reason for this deadlock lies with the specific nature of the prevailing mode of production in the region. The Arab crisis is a response to a stalemate which goes back much further than the current global economic crisis, even if this has compounded the problem. Development in the region is first and foremost blocked by the predominance of rentier, patrimonial or neo-patrimonial states, in a general climate of arbitrariness and insecurity that inhibits long-term productive private investment and encourages the quest for short-term profit in speculative operations. This private-sector reality, combined with the reduction of state investment within the framework of the global domination of the neoli­beral paradigm for the last thirty years, explains the regional crisis.

4Regional and international political factors have added to this socio-economic picture. The region’s oil wealth sealed its fate as the centre of particular attention by the powers that had the privi­lege of tapping into those resources before others. Great-Britain in the small monarchies of the Gulf, as much as the United States in the Saudi Kingdom, have consolidated ultra-archaic socio-political systems in order to secure their long-term control.

5The George W. Bush administration however broke away from this tradition of stabilization of archaic regimes, thinking it was thereby drawing lessons from the 9/11 attacks. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, followed by the campaign to “promote demo­cracy” launched by the administration in the region, have contributed to destabilising it.

6This turning point in Washington went hand in hand with a new openness to the Muslim Brotherhood, the main organized movement of regional political opposition. Until the end of the Cold War, the United States had collaborated with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of their joint struggle against communism and Arab nationalism. The first war led by Washington against Iraq in 1991 had resulted in the two parties splitting. However Qatar, having become the Muslim Brotherhood’s main sponsor after its split with the Saudi Kingdom, played a facilitating role in the thaw that served as a prelude to the new entente between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood with the Arab uprising. The brotherhood’s role in the region has been strengthened by the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera, a property of Qatar, whose contribution to the politicization of regional public opinions and to the uprising itself cannot be emphasized enough.

7The “Arab spring” erupted against this general backdrop. The different dynamics of the uprisings in the various countries are partly due to the nature of the social and political actors in each case: the decisive role played by the labour movement in Tunisia; the labour strikes in Egypt; tribal and/or religious factors in the other countries. It is also due to the nature of the states in terms of the composition of their armed forces and their degree of allegiance to the power in place. These factors have made the difference between situations where the movement was able to remove leaders through the political struggle and those where the uprising resulted in a civil war.

8The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in certain countries cannot stop the revolutionary process. These parties do not have programmes comprising convincing answers to the profound crisis in their countries. They adhere to the same economic policies that inspired the toppled governments. The presidential election in Egypt revealed the ground lost by the Muslim Brotherhood in the space of a few months, just as it revealed the potential of the “third force” opposed to both the old leaders and the new ones. The driver of the crisis and uprising in the Arabic-speaking world will continue to run. It is still far from coming to a halt.

Prof. Gilbert Achcar was invited by the Faculty on the proposition of Prof. Henry Laurens

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Gilbert Achcar, « The “Great Arab Revolt” of the Twenty-First Century », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 12 décembre 2018. URL :

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Gilbert Achcar

Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London, United Kingdom)

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