Photo: Asmaa Waguih

The Revolutionary Wave of 2011?

  • January 26, 2011

People & Protest

What triggered the sudden popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt? And could the revolutionary wave that is washing across North Africa spill over beyond the Arab world and into Europe?

After Tunisian protesters toppled the autocratic government of President Ben Ali in a popular uprising of historical proportions, Egyptians are now taking to the street in a self-conscious effort to emulate the Jasmine Revolution of their neighbors. Could Egypt be headed down the same path? And can the ‘revolution‘ spread beyond North Africa – into Europe?

In all honesty, it remains too early to say. As multiple commentators have emphasized, Egypt is a much tougher nut to crack than Tunisia. Mubarak’s grip on power has traditionally been rock solid, and the key institutions of the state – military and police – are supposed to be much better organized in Egypt than they were in Tunisia.

That said, however, skeptics said the exact same things about Tunisia in the early stages of its revolt. Somehow, at some point, a tipping point was reached, the dams broke and the flood of popular discontent could no longer be contained.

Political revolutions are usually only fully understandable in hindsight. This does not mean, however, that we should simply stick with a narrow interpretation of revolution that fits our own particular liberal democratic worldview.

If we really want to understand the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, we have to know what gave rise to the discontent in the first place. If we want to predict whether or not the revolution might spread, we’ll have to analyze whether the causes of that discontent are being repeated elsewhere. Once we take this perspective, a radically new picture emerges.

So far, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have largely been cast as ‘liberal revolutions,’ uprisings of the enlightened younger generation against their archaic and despotic leaders. Demands for popular representation, liberal democracy and human rights are simply taken at face value, without any further investigation into the deeper causes of discontent.

Thus, without being aware of it, conservatives and left-progressives across Europe and the United States are fundamentally in agreement that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings fit into Fukuyama’s ‘End of History‘ straitjacket. Inevitable events that will lead the Arab world into the arms of enlightened modern civilization.

While it is certainly true that the more cosmopolitan, digitalized millennial generation in the Arab world is rising up to demand human rights and democracy, something crucial is still missing from this rather one-dimensional picture.

Think about it for a second: for three decades, Ben Ali and Mubarak sat comfortably on their presidential thrones. For three decades, their undemocratic despotism flourished. For three decades, the people kept silent, partly out of fear of being arrested and tortured, partly also out of sheer indifference and skepticism that change was even possible in the first place.

What’s different this time around? Why are these revolutions suddenly popping up everywhere? Why have people in Algeria been rioting alongside Tunisia for the past couple of weeks? Why are the Lebanese so angry? Why are people putting themselves on fire from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia? Why everywhere? Why now?

The answer must be found, at least in part, in structural global dynamics. Brutally high food prices and rampant youth unemployment are something relatively new, and an issue over which autocratic Presidents like Mubarak hold little leverage.

Remember the 2007-’08 food crisis, in the build up to the great crisis of global capitalism? Food riots broke out from Mozambique to Mauritania and from Cameroon to Egypt. This time is not just a re-run of those food riots – it’s their culmination into full-blown insurrection.

Just a few weeks ago, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN announced that food prices had reached record levels – higher even than those of 2008. At the same time, the price of oil is creeping back to $100 per barrel, and global youth unemployment is the highest it’s ever been.

Remember why Mohamed Bouazizi douzed himself in petrol and set himself on fire, thereby sparking the Tunisian revolution? Bouazizi was one of many youths whose future dreams have been shattered by rampant youth unemployment and unaffordable food and petrol prices. Bouazizi ended up in the street selling vegetables in order to support his family.

When police finally took away his vending cart, he literally ignited in fury and put himself ablaze in front of a government building. Autocratic police repression was the proximate cause that triggered his desperate act of protest – but the deep cause was the economic hardship caused by a structural dynamic in the global economy that systematically misallocates capital to the places where it’s least needed.

Because Bouazizi’s case is symbolic for the country more broadly, we have to see the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in the same light at Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Both were in a direct sense triggered by a repressive state system, but in a deeper more fundamental sense driven by the vagaries of global capitalism.

Food prices are driven up by speculators, unemployment was caused by a global recession which was itself the product of rampant speculation on the U.S. housing market. Austerity measures are imposed everywhere in order to appease foreign investors. Thus, the fact that Wall Street is celebrating record profit levels this year, is itself unequivocally related to the fact that Tunisian – and Greek, and Spanish, and British, and American – college graduates are struggling to get by.

In this respect, the North African uprisings are starting to look more and more like the early stirrings of a ‘revolutionary wave,’ with tsunami-like potential. Revolutionary waves are transnational events that are structural and systemic in nature. Revolutions begin occurring everywhere in rapid succession not just because of popular contamination, but also because the underlying roots of discontent are similar across different geographic and cultural contexts.

For example, the internal contradictions of Soviet-style communism led to the revolutionary wave of 1989, freeing most of Eastern Europe and Central Asia from the shackles of state-communism. The implosions were not separate, isolated events, nor were they simple instances of emulation. Rather, these events were systemically related through the failure of state-communism to meet the economic and political needs of the people.

Similarly, in 1848 – the year Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto – a wave of revolutions washed across almost every nation of Europe, overthrowing conservative bourgeois regimes left and right. The deep underlying causes of the revolutions of 1848 were a series of economic downturns followed by crop failure. As today, it was the internal contradictions of capitalism, alongside repressive autocratic rule, that gave birth to a transnational revolutionary wave.

Thus, while progressive Westerners like to believe that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were the result of Twitter, Facebook and WikiLeaks bringing a modern, liberal consciousness to the barbarian hordes of the Arab world, the reality is much more complex.

While it is true that the social media have been an enormously potent tool for self-organization, they simply do not carry the symbolic power of self-immolation or the motivational power of hunger or unemployment. We may now coordinate our revolutions over Twitter, but Twitter in and of itself will never cause a revolution. The internal contradictions of capital accumulation will.

This brings us to our last question: how likely is it that the North African revolts will spill over to the Arab world more generally – and perhaps even to Europe? While this remains utter speculation at present, it must be clear that the likelihood for a new revolutionary wave has never been as high as today, in 2011.

Not a single regime will escape the iron laws of global capital markets. No one escapes the greed of Goldman Sachs. No one can protect themselves against the inexorable rise of food prices and youth unemployment. This despair leads to anger, and the anger might just boil over into popular uprising, as is happening in Tunisia and Egypt right now.

Now let me make a speculative statement that will probably cause most people to frown in disbelief: the revolutionary wave that is about to gain momentum in the Arab world could just as easily spill over across the Mediterranean, engulfing crisis-ridden Southern Europe.

The moment speculators turn their sights on Spain and Portugal, the European sovereign debt crisis could entirely spin out of control. If the EU cannot save Spain, the IMF will be called in to ‘rectify’ the situation by condemning the local population to years of austerity-induced poverty in order to pay for a crisis caused by the bankers.

In a country where youth unemployment currently stands at 40 percent, and where passions traditionally run higher than they do in Northern Europe or the U.S., the IMF could turn out to be the very policeman who took away Bouazizi’s vending cart – the match that ignites a popular uprising.

To anyone who still believes that we are on a sustainable trajectory, I would point to Egypt and Tunisia. These events are not isolated to the Arab dictatorships. Bouazizi might well turn out to be the canary in our global coal mine.

One powerful line that has been circulating on Twitter best encapsulates this message: “Yesterday we we are all Tunisians; today we are all Egyptians; tomorrow we will all be free.” Still, we have to recognize that the road to freedom remains a long and arduous walk.

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