Arab Jacobins? The Rebirth of Hope in Arabia Felix

Raza Naeem*

The 2011-2012 Arab uprisings, which have succeeded in toppling tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, and a genuinely popular leader in Libya, are still in a state of flux. However, what cannot be doubted is the importance of this seminal event in the history of a still-young 21st century, both for the internal dynamics of these countries as well as Western (read United States) imperial influence there. It must be remembered also that this is not the first time that popular mobilisations have occurred in the Arab world: in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Egypt, it was the nationalist military which emancipated the country from foreign domination as well local clients of the latter, while popular mobilisations happened later; the pattern was to be repeated across the Arab world in Iraq, Syria, (North) Yemen and Libya, and given added impetus and support by the success of the Algerian resistance against the French, and victory for the communists in South Yemen against the British. Yet while the key difference between the events of the 1950s and 1960s and what is happening now in the Arab world as we meet is that in the latter case, it is now the people themselves who are liberating themselves from the militarised model of a one-party state that came to dominate the Arab world since the last four decades. So, these uprisings are as much the result of the failed nationalist uprisings in the Arab world in the middle of the twentieth century as a reaction to dictatorship and the Western support that buttressed it for decades.

In the author’s opinion, the Arab uprisings are more reminiscent of the revolutions of 1848 that struck fear in the hearts of every European monarch from the Bourbons to the Austro-Hungarian empire. This comparison is more apt, for example, than the preferred comparison in the mainstream Western media with the anti-communist uprisings of Eastern Europe in 1989. The reason is that the 1848 revolts, like the Arab revolts, occurred in long cycles over decades; in the case of the former, the longue duree from the time of the French Revolution in 1789 to 1848 adopted liberty, equality and fraternity as its slogans, while in the latter case, the period in Arab history which inaugurated the uprisings of the 1950s has now come full circle with the Arab Spring uprisings. Also, like their European  counterparts, the Arab Spring uprisings are also about liberty, equality and fraternity: the Arab masses want freedom from decades of oppressive dictatorship, want social and economic justice from the immiserising policies of the World Bank, IMF and EU imposed by these dictatorships and want so for all the Arab people beyond national frontiers. This last is exemplified by the rapidity and spontaneity with which the revolutionary infection spread from Tunisia to Egypt and across the Arab east, including the Gulf States. The uprisings of 1989, on the other hand, reversed many of the progressive achievements of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe to institute the dictatorship of capital, which though allowing for multi-party elections, has opened up these countries to the mercy of the neo-liberal market system.1 Also, like in the European revolts of 1848, the first round of the Arab Spring has gone to the people: and like the former, the counter-revolution has asserted itself in the shape of the imperialist invasion of Libya, the brutal crushing of the uprising in Bahrain and the continuing control of the military in Egypt.2

So when and how did the Arab Spring begin? It began in Tunisia, which for most of the twentieth century, remained largely on the periphery of the Arab world.3 In 1989, the founding father of modern Tunisia Habib Bourguiba was pushed aside by his Interior Minister Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, with the support of the French and Italian secret services. He proceeded to set up a police state in the country, banning all opposition and dissenting media, and opened up the country to the World Bank and EU, and in so doing became the poster-child of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus. While the tourists could only see the tranquillity of the country’s Mediterranean beaches and liberated women, Ben Ali’s policies destroyed the self-sufficiency of the Tunisian peasant and made the country a sort of empty shell where more and more Western and Arab elite poured money, but which ended up benefitting a tiny elite surrounding the extended Ben Ali family.4 As a result, and especially in the wake of the worldwide recession following the Wall Street crash of 2008-2010, Tunisia became more dependent on international loans.5 The tragedy of the vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi, who burnt himself to death to protest against drastic conditions of unemployment, was a case in point.6 Following his death, people spontaneously came out in the major towns and cities to protest the death, which soon became an anti-regime uprising. Despite an offer of French mercenary help, the despot fled to Saudi Arabia.7 What had helped was the fact that the post-independence Tunisian nationalist elite had managed to educate a big layer of the population, which helped in the emergence of a sizeable middle class.8 Also, Ben Ali had deliberately kept the size of the army small, for fear of a military coup against him.9 This latter eventually worked to the benefit of the protesters. Since the ouster of the despot, elections have been won by the Islamist al-Nahda party, which has had a different evolution in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its various variants across the Arab world.10 So far, the party has been making all the right noises to the Western media about its democratic credentials, but its recent pronouncements on banning of alcohol have been making the emancipated women and the middle class very uncomfortable. However apart from its conservative social vision, it remains to be seen whether the party has an enlightened economic and political programme to redress the excesses of the Ben Ali regime.

The stakes are even higher in Egypt, which has historically been one of the lynchpins of Western foreign policy in the region.11 In contrast to Bourguiba’s Tunisia, Egypt has always been central to the Arab cause for most of the twentieth century, more so during the long period of Gamal Abdel Nasser.12 Nasser’s defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israel war spelled the end of Arab nationalism as a progressive mobilising force for the Arabs13 and gave way to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region as a whole and Egypt signing a peace treaty with Israel as well as abandoning the most progressive aspects of Nasser’s regime. First, Anwar Sadat and then Hosni Mubarak slowly dismantled the welfare state which had existed in the country in Nasser’s time; their embracing of Israel was rewarded generously by their Western patrons with military and economic aid.14 As a result of Mubarak’s infitah policies, the majority became progressively poorer and the chief beneficiary of the latter’s support became the opposition Muslim Brotherhood;15 the Brotherhood has a history of collaborating with the Egyptian regime against the leftist and communist groups in the past, with Western patronage. When the uprising finally broke out, Mubarak and his coterie was assured of another rigged election victory as well as the expected succession of Mubarak’s son, Gamal. An ineffectual opposition movement called Kefaya and a more powerful labour movement had been active since 2006 to challenge the status quo; but it was only when the army withdrew its support from one of their own that Mubarak was toppled.16 So what made it possible? The week Ben Ali was toppled in Tunisia, a national conversation sparked off in Egypt: How had the Tunisians done it? Surely if they could do it, the Egyptians could also do it!17 Mubarak was swiftly replaced with a hastily-appointed Vice-President, General Omar Suleiman, by most respectable accounts, a torturer.18 Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood was not part of the initial protest wave against Mubarak, and only reluctantly joined in at the prodding of some of their younger members. They also benefitted from having opened a secret channel of diplomacy with the US State Department since a decade ago and with the military-led Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which replaced Suleiman. As expected, the Brotherhood won the elections amid an increasingly insecure atmosphere dominated by the SCAF, with thousands of people being arrested19 and deliberate targeting of the Coptic minority. So far the Brotherhood has not come up with an economic and social programme to alleviate Egypt’s problems, although the military regime has applied to the IMF for another loan. The former have also assured Israel and the West that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty would not be altered.20 However the model which several top leaders of the Brotherhood have advocated is the Turkish model, and not just because an Islamist government is in power there, which is a member of NATO, does mostly what Washington tells them to do and where the army is still a dominant presence in national affairs.21 So Thomas Friedman and his like need not worry too much.

While the mainstream media in the West continue to take an interest in the fate of the Arab Spring in the bigger states like Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, in at least two cases, reporting on the uprising and the oppression inflicted against the protesters has totally vanished. One of these cases is Yemen.22 The poorest Arab state, it is sometimes unfairly mentioned as the birthplace of al-Qaeda.23 The country until recently was ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been little more than a Saudi-American client in his entire tenure. When protests spontaneously broke out against his regime following the victorious uprising in Tunisia, the dictator responded by brutally crushing the protest movement on one hand and dallying over handing over power to a successor. He had by then become so unpopular that Yemen quickly became the only Arab country where protests became a daily occurrence.24 However most of the mainstream media whitewashed the history of the country to paint it as a land of beards, burqas and tribes. Yemen was two countries before its re-unification in 1990: the north was Ottoman territory before the collapse of the latter which gave way to a medieval imamate which ruled with an iron hand claiming divine sanction; while the south was a British colony. In both parts of Yemen, however, democratic uprisings attempted to overthrow the imam and the British, respectively, in the 1940s and 1950s.25 Both the struggles bore fruition, first, in 1962 in the North when the imam was overthrown by Nasserist army officers while in 1967, communists took over the leadership of the nationalist struggle and threw out the British, proclaiming a Marxist republic in the country. While the North soon descended into a tribalist republic, in the south serious reforms were carried out like female emancipation, land reform and free provision of health, education and housing. However partly as a result of factional struggles and partly as a result of Saudi interference, no serious alternative to the status quo took place in Yemen, and a hasty ‘re-unification’ of the country was  brought about with Saudi and American blessing to counter the plucky little godless people’s republic in the south; Saleh came along with the package deal. I decided to visit Yemen in 2010 after reading of frequent reports in the mainstream Western media about a massive al-Qaeda presence in the country. Prior to my visit I had warned against the ahistoric and grossly generalised depictions of the country that became a staple of mainstream media in the West following the arrest of a Nigerian bomber who wanted to bomb a flight to Detroit and who had spent time in Yemen.26 I got a chance to visit the country in May that year, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the country’s reunification. I was warned by several friends not to travel to the south, due to ‘security reasons’, but I chose to disregard it and went to Aden, the south’s biggest city. I was not prepared for what I saw upon my arrival. There were hardly any women to be found on the streets, except the ones in burqas.27 I later questioned the leaders of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP)28 about the scale of this retreat and they confessed their helplessness to defending even their own legacy in the south in the face of Saudi clerics sent from across the border, with Saleh’s encouragement. In fact, there is now an open secessionist mood in the south owing to the fact that ‘reunification’ simply meant the importation of the Northerners into the south and their subsequent takeover of land, property and colonial villas belonging to southerners. This scepticism extends to the uprising against Saleh in the north, which has not really addressed the plight of the south so far. I then asked around about the al-Qaeda presence and was told off politely. However when I persisted in my enquiry, a deputy to the YSP leader beckoned me to come nearer and whispered in my ear, ‘The office of al-Qaeda in Yemen is located in a tiny building next to the presidential compound ‘. In other words, Saleh blackmailed the West regarding al-Qaeda in return for money; the al-Qaeda presence in the country is no more than a few hundred people. In fact, during the last days of his dictatorship, the army deliberately laid down arms in many southern areas to let this exaggerated al-Qaeda presence capture whole towns to create an image of chaos. Despite reneging on earlier promises to step down, Saleh agreed to allow elections to be held in mid-February 2012 to pave the way for a successor in return for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family. This was the preferred Saudi-American solution to ensure that a real structural transformation does not take place; and there is considerable distrust regarding both the Saudi and American roles in destabilising democracy in Yemen on the streets of Sana’a, especially among the youth. At the time of this writing, the Islamist Islah party constituted the largest opposition party and looked set to win the maximum seats in the upcoming elections, like its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. However, it is unclear what else elections will achieve apart from electing an incumbent Vice President as the country’s next leader, someone who had been part of the dictator’s coterie. An interesting footnote to this situation was provided late last year when the Nobel Peace Prize recognised the efforts of one of Yemen’s leading protesters, Tawakkol Karman, and made her a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.29 Whoever wins power in Yemen as a result of the Arab Spring has an urgent task of healing the country, since it is still possible for the country to go the Bangladesh route and for the south to become an independent country. As I have warned before, Yemen has a history of uprisings and revolutions, both in the north and south, and the agendas of both the republican (in the north) and socialist revolutions (in the south) yet remained unfulfilled; it is the only way the promise of unity can be realised short of pandering to Saudi-US plans of continuing with its protectorate status under Saleh. The people of the country will not be content for a very long time, and it is this promise which gives hope that the country may not yet turn into another Saudi vassal state.

Events in the Arab world therefore are in a state of flux but what cannot be denied is the fact that the Arabs have a long and deep historical consciousness; they maybe oppressed, jailed, beaten, tortured and humiliated, but they will always eventually rise up against those who do so. To paraphrase the great Syrian poet Adonis:

A time between ashes and roses is coming
When everything shall be extinguished
When everything shall begin

* The writer is an independent writer and communist activist living in Lahore, Pakistan and presently at work on a political and cultural history of post-Arab Spring Yemen. He can be reached at:


1 It is interesting to note how the same failed system is now under siege from mass protests in England, Greece, Spain and Portugal, which were never part of the communist bloc.

2 Some over-ambitious commentators have even labeled the election victories of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia as a counter-revolution and ‘hijacking’. This then naturally leads them on to pine for the dictatorial era.

3 The way in which the Tunisian founding father Habib Bourguiba cut deals with the French and threw in his lot with the Israelis and Saudis rather than Nasserism in the 1950s and 1960s largely contributed to that reputation.

4 The full story of the kleptocracy of the Ben Ali family is told in Beatrice Hibou’s perceptive recent study The Force of Obedience.

5 According to WikiLeaks, Ben Ali’s family owned 50% of Tunisia’s productive economic assets.

6 Sidi Bouzid, where Bouazizi died, is a small town of about 50,000 people of which up to 50% of the population between the age of 15 and 21 were unemployed. Two more suicides had occurred in Tunisia before Bouazizi’s, but were not reported in the Tunisian media.

7 Saudi Arabia is always a good place for these tyrants because their bank accounts can be easily accessed there, and there are regular flights between Riyadh and Geneva. 

8 The literacy rate in Ben Ali’s Tunisia was 75%, and the middle class was estimated to be about 80% of the population.

9 The army’s size is about 30-40,000.

10 Al-Nahda is untainted by having collaborated with the former regime in its oppression, since all of its leadership was in exile; but the same cannot be said of the tainted parent in Egypt as well as its surrogates in Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Libya, all of which have wilfully collaborated in the past with the regime or the West, or both when it suited the latter’s interests. Only Hamas acquits itself more honourably (it is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood).

11 The other three states are Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, not strictly in that order.

12 He was also the last Arab leader to attempt to unite the Arab world, for which the West never forgave him, even unsuccessfully trying to topple him in 1956. It wasn’t called ‘regime change’ then.

13 However, the more serious reasons had to do with the fact that he maintained a one-party state in the country in a top-down model without serious opposition. Even the communists dissolved their independent organisation to join his party, with disastrous consequences.

14 Egypt has been receiving $1.5 billion annually in military aid from the US, the highest such aid for any country.

15 The Muslim Brotherhood also has a comprehensive welfare program for provision of free food, medicine and education among their constituencies, which provides a powerful alternative to a state which has steadily been withdrawing from providing the same.

16 In fact, the prominence of the Egyptian labour movement in the anti-Mubarak protests has been noted not just by leftist commentators, but by Robert Fisk. It also helps challenge the dominant narrative of the uprising as being a middle-class ‘Facebook/Twitter’ phenomenon.

17 The Tunisians have always been regarded in the Arab world as incredibly soft Arabs, lotus-eaters and pleasure-seekers, while Egyptians have a proud history of insurrection: 10 major uprisings in the last 130 years, contrary to the image presented in the mainstream media of the latter being very patient people.

18 The most comprehensive account of Gen Suleiman’s renditionary exploits can be found in Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side.

19 Some 13,000 people have been detained by SCAF since the toppling of Mubarak, which is more than the number detained during the Mubarak dictatorship.

20 This humiliating treaty forbids Egyptian soldiers from moving inside Egyptian territory without Israeli permission.

21 Plus the fact that NATO’s Islamists are very comfortable with Israel, despite a few occasional noises, as well as actively blessing and aiding the counter-revolution in Libya and Syria, and the fact that the mass movement was repeatedly crushed in Turkey following coups in 1960s and 1980s.

22 The other case being the gas station of Bahrain.

23 It could be counter-argued with equal fairness that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, having renounced his Yemeni ancestry long ago.

24 Even when someone helpfully fired a rocket which injured the dictator and forced him to leave for treatment to Saudi Arabia, it was not enough to prevent him from making a return. Added to that is the fact that the first seven presidents of Yemen have all been assassinated.

25 In 1948 a constitutionalist uprising in the North led to the assassination of the imam, followed by other uprisings in the 1960s; in the south massive strikes were led by the strong trade-union movement against the British in Aden.

26 That article, Yemen’s Memories of Resistance and Revolution was published in January 2010 in the US, India, Pakistan, Yemen and even South Africa, and merited two radio interviews on alternative media in the US.

27 And this was a country where in 1960s emancipated women publicly burnt the burqas and were derided as ‘prostitutes’.

28 The successor to the National Liberation Front communists in the south.

29 Karman is an ex-member of the Islah party and while her social vision remains conservative, the Nobel Prize helped to shatter for the time being the stereotypes of the country in the mainstream Western media. Prior to being honoured, Karman had been camping out in Sana’a’s main square in opposition to Saleh and had not seen her family for the last nine months. It would be interesting to see in the coming months whether she attempts to become a part of the country’s political process and charms her way to challenge the rich and powerful elite, like her powerful predecessor, the Biblical Bilquis, Queen of Sheba.

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