Gilbert Achcar is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. He has written extensively on the Middle East and North Africa.
Socialist Resistance interviewed him on March 8, 2011, about the Arab uprisings. An edited version of this text will appear in the April issue of our magazine.
Libya is dominating the headlines right now. What are the social and political forces involved? Can they win?
When we compare the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia on the one hand with what is happening in Libya and — much less violently — in Yemen, we can see the differences between countries with quite different degrees of modernisation. Tunisia and Egypt are countries with social structures of a capitalist character, whereas in Libya and Yemen, you still have the very strong role of preindustrial forms, in particular tribalism, which is the most archaic form of social organisation. You have a strong role of tribal allegiances and structures in those countries. In the case of Yemen, it could be argued this is due to an overall archaism of the socio-economic structure of the country, which is indeed one of the poorest Arab countries.
Libya is a good illustration that the persistence of such structures is not the effect of culture (as with culturalist-Orientalist explanations), but the effect of deliberate exploitation of the tribal factor by the ruling elite in order to consolidate their power. Gaddafi has been doing that to the point where he has increased the role of the tribal factor in Libyan society compared to what existed before he took power.
The form that events are taking — a quasi-civil war — is a result of the fact that Gaddafi has a social constituency based on his exploitation of tribal factors, plus of course the money — Libya is an oil state and that makes a big difference. The regime can buy itself a constituency of locals and also, seemingly, of mercenaries. Here you find a mass of people — some mercenaries, some who have become mercenary-minded — facing an uprising. If they had a degree of political principle you would think that they would be on side of the uprising — but that is not the case. So they have probably made some calculation: if they join the uprising, they wouldn't win anything materially speaking, whereas fighting on the side of Gaddafi, they have the prospect of getting money.
That is why events are taking this shape in Libya. His people are not animated by ideology but by material interest. They will fight, if they think they can win, and they have the weapons and material resources. And so it's very difficult to predict the outcome because it would entail a prediction about the military factor. Now, foreign intervention could change the balance of military forces. But, the Gaddafi side did organise themselves and went on the counteroffensive and recaptured some of the territory in the west which they had initially lost. If the uprising regains the initiative and manages to make military advances, the morale of the government forces could collapse… but at this point it's a matter of military means.
Clearly the West is thinking about intervention in Libya now because oil interests are at stake. But are there reasons why the West might be cautious about intervening?
People will understand that any plan for intervention is due to the fact that there is oil. But at the same time this is the only instance of an uprising that has turned into war, out of all the uprisings across the region. I think the West would be very cautious about intervening because the insurgents themselves have made it clear they don't want any direct military intervention by anyone. By intervention we mean land intervention: that is rejected at this stage by the uprising itself. There is no legitimacy for such a move — it would be considered as an imperialist intervention. If the uprising gets to a point of needing foreign support, I don't think anyone, even from an anti-imperialist perspective, could object to the delivery of arms to the uprising, or even the operation of a no-fly zone, if the rebels ask for it — but there should be no land deployment. Anything leading to the presence of foreign forces on Libyan soil should be opposed and rejected as very dangerous, especially when we know the appetite and ambition of foreign powers in region, when we know the price the US has been prepared to pay in order to occupy Iraq, for reasons that are obviously related to oil. We don't want to see something of the same kind developing in Libya.
What are the common factors in the revolts in the Middle East? For example, they all seem to be in opposition to military dictatorships which kowtow to imperialism and suppress their own people.
The social and economic roots of these uprisings, of the shock waves that have spread over the whole Arab region — hardly any Arab country has been left out — the roots are quite clear. Unemployment is endemic in the region — the highest rate in the world is in the Middle East and North Africa. Poverty, on the other hand, is uneven. Even in countries where the eruptions are taking place, there is a big difference between the very high levels of poverty in Egypt, the extremely high levels in Yemen, and quite low levels in Tunisia. So it is not the absolute level of poverty that is at the origin of the movement, but more the frustration created by social inequality. These are societies with a high proportion of young people, also one of the highest proportions in the world. All this has been aggravated over the last few years by inflation in a region where minorities are getting very rich from the sharp increase in oil prices, whereas for the majority the only effect this has is a rise in prices, even oil prices. When you combine that with the political frustration that stems from the fact that you have despotic governments and there is no way for people to express their anger by peaceful, political means, then you understand the whole region has been a set of powder kegs for a very long time. If anything, the question is more "why did it take so long to happen," rather than "why did it happen"? It was in need of a leading experience — showing that people going into the streets and overcoming their fear can manage even to overthrow a dictatorship. Tunisia provided the revolutionary spark.
Do the revolts involve injured national pride, and anti-imperialist or anti-Zionist feeling?
The national dimension has been present in the way that the discontent has been simmering over the years in these countries. For instance, in Tunisia there have been expressions of solidarity with the second Palestinian intifada and movements against the invasion of Iraq. You had the mobilisation against a planned visit by Ariel Sharon to the country. Among youth and students, the anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist inspiration has been quite present. In Egypt, this is even more the case — the return to street protest a decade ago was inspired by the second intifada, by the invasion of Iraq and by the collusion of the Egyptian government with Israel in strangling Gaza. That being said, we can't say that the current explosion is about this aspect of things. It comes as a side issue in relation to the core of the movement, which is not about that. When you look at the mass rallies in Egypt, there was only a very low proportion of posters at major demonstrations related to this — what people were focusing on was the immediate target, the dictatorship. First and above all, it's a democratic uprising, secondly, there is a social dimension — a fight for social and economic demands, and thirdly you have a national, anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist dimension, which is present, but will be more prominent at a later stage than it has been up to now.
Is Pan-Arabism back, in some sense?
The way that this shockwave that started in Tunisia spread to the whole region is an indication of the powerful osmosis that exists among the countries of the region, for cultural, linguistic, and geopolitical reasons, and this has been very much enhanced by modern technology, satellite TV, and of course the internet, so we have had a reloading of Arab national consciousness through the movement. It was quite clear in the movement in Egypt and Tunisia that we are all part of a revolution which is spreading not only to other cities but to neighbouring Arab countries. Now, is this comparable to what existed in the fifties and sixties? I would say: yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the feeling of belonging to a national entity has been reloaded, but no, in the sense that this consciousness takes quite different political forms this time. It is not about identification with one charismatic leader embodying the nation — it's much more grassroots — a networking kind of perception. Nowadays, the generation entering the struggle is not looking forward to some big leader, some Bismarck who will unify the Arab nation. Instead, what they might consider is unification through a democratic process resembling European political unification, if we put aside its neo-liberal content. But I am speaking just of the idea of confederal unity, of democratic unity. This idea is shared by many in the region. For the time being, there is the sense of unity in struggle — we have the same kind of enemies, the same kind of causes, therefore we have a strong sense of solidarity.
Would an alliance like ALBA, led by Chavez, be a source of inspiration in this respect?
For processes like those in Latin America, you need left wing regimes — but we are not there yet in the Middle East. We are still in the initial process of democratising, which has not really produced revolutions. There are revolutionary processes which are ongoing; they have not reached their final outcome. So, for the time being, they cannot really be called accomplished revolutions — they are unfinished revolutions. There are as many if not more elements of continuity with the old regimes as there are elements of discontinuity — you have both.
How is all this affecting Palestinians? It used to be said the road to Jerusalem lay through Amman, or Damascus, etc., in other words, that the development of a wider Arab revolution was necessary in order for the Palestinians to liberate themselves.
Palestinian society has also been affected by the wave of uprisings but it won't take the same form there because the problems are different — this is very sadly a territorially divided society. The major focus for action is precisely this division. The central slogan in the Egyptian movement is "the people want to overthrow the regime"; the equivalent that has been put forward by some forces in Palestine is: "the people want to end the division." What does this mean? It means they want a democratic solution to the dead end that they have reached; it would mean elections in both the West Bank and Gaza, and deciding political issues through elections, instead of these two governments holding onto power, each in its "own" territory.
Women have played a leading part in the uprisings, especially in Egypt, where more than half of university students are women. Can we say this is a new factor in Arab politics?
Women are also playing an important role in Tunisia — where there is an even stronger tradition of women's struggles than in Egypt. Both in Egypt and Tunisia, women have been an important component of the struggle. In Egypt, in particular, we see some relation between the non-violent form of the movement and the involvement of women, because violent movements, especially in this part of the world, make the involvement of women much more difficult. I always make a comparison between the first Palestinian intifada which peaked in 1988, and the second intifada (2000-05). In the first, the demonstrators limited themselves to throwing stones. In this first intifada, women played a very prominent role; compare that with the second intifada, which was very much more militarised, and from which the contribution of women disappeared. Now, we have seen the revolutionary processes in Egypt and Tunisia take the form of non-violent mass mobilisations, which has facilitated the participation of women. But the fact that women are on the street, joining in the demos, has created in a country like Egypt, in particular, new freedoms for women in the movement; they have felt liberated in the movement; they have felt Tahrir Square and other mobilisation spaces to be spaces of freedom for women, of freedom from harassment; and they could do things like smoking that they wouldn't previously have dared to do in public. That is no guarantee that women's rights will be taken into consideration in the outcome of events. The awareness of that became very sharp in Egypt when the military junta formed a committee to draft a new constitution and did not include any women. This created resentment among many women who are present not only in the movement, but in the organising groups, especially in left and liberal networks, so as a result of that we saw the initiative of calling for a massive women's march today in Egypt
[After making a phone call to Egypt]
Unfortunately it appears that the mobilisation today was not built in the way that it should have been — that is by addressing women workers, of which there are huge numbers in the factories, who have been very combative over the last few years and have come to the fore again in workers' strikes that started shortly before the fall of Mubarak. So in the absence of this sort of appeal, just relying on Facebook proved ineffective. It seems that this mobilisation in Cairo has failed. Now, more radical people say that we need the mobilisation of that contingent of working class women without which such an initiative could not be really significant. On the other hand, we've seen that today in Gaza and the West Bank there have been protests organised by Palestinian women against the division of the two territories, and that's a very positive sign.
Do what extent do working class people in the Middle East have access to media like Facebook? The social media have clearly played a significant role, but to what extent do they reach into the population?
They reach the population through the fact that you have a lot of militants and activists who are connected to these technologies — it's not a privilege of the middle class. I can testify that often people from modest backgrounds, politically conscious and active people, manage to get connected — and through those networks, word can spread. But it's an illusion to think that you can just call for an event to happen and it will take place. You need a physical network of people relaying the idea and organising for it and spreading the idea. This call in Egypt for a women's march just on the basis of Facebook etc., and without a strong prior level of determination on the part of a constituency to go into the street — if you call for a demo in a country where you have a huge resentment against the regime, you have a chance of people coming out; but on the issue of women there is not the same degree of awareness as on the dictatorial character of the regime — so this needed more preparation and needed to be based on sections who were the most combative and had already been mobilised in struggle, and these were working class women. That's one lesson of this process.
You might expect a socialist to ask this question: what are the chances for the democratic revolution to grow over into a socialist revolution? For example, the January 14 Front in Tunisia, bringing together left nationalists and socialists, demands not only democratic elections, but an economy that breaks with neo-liberalism.
This is not only a socialist question; it relates to the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution! We don't even have a thorough democratic revolution yet, so we're quite far from a social revolution. What is on the agenda is not that this revolutionary process would turn into a socialist revolution. We can see no forces to embody that, to lead it. And this could not be a Facebook revolution — it would have to be built. The most important outcome of these events, that is not only possible, but also likely, is that you have a social radicalisation, as you have in Egypt, and that this radicalisation creates the ground for the building of a new left which might become strong enough to be a contender for political power and a major player not only in the streets but also, if there are going to be democratic elections, in the electoral arena. In a country like Egypt, in particular, there is an independent union movement — which is now at a very advanced stage in its formation. Independent unions are being built all over Egypt on the basis of a wave of strikes, but not only strikes — there is an organisational process going on, which is very important for the future, especially in Egypt where there was no independent working class self-organisation for decades…
So that is where we are: a democratic revolutionary process involving a certain degree of social radicalisation, but with no immediate prospect of arriving at the point of socialist revolution. There is a democratic process that is still unfinished, still ongoing, that needs to be radicalised, even from the democratic point of view. As we know from historical experience, there is no consolidation of democracy without the working class finding a political agency and intervening in the political process. After all, if you take Britain, the workers' movement has been decisive in the implementation of political democracy, from the Chartists onward. It's absolutely clear that one key condition for the implementation and consolidation of bourgeois democracy in this country (Britain) has been workers' political intervention. Therefore, to prepare for future social struggles, the decisive point is to build an independent workers' movement and build a new left. No doubt everything that has been happening over the last few weeks and months is creating tremendously improved conditions for this dual process of construction.