By Simon Assaf
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A region transformed

This article is over 9 years, 6 months old
The Arab Spring has been marked by a series of momentous events that herald the beginning of an era of revolutionary change. The uprisings have transformed in weeks and months a region mired in decades of political stagnation. The revolutions contain the possibility of growing over to an even more radical social change. To understand this potential we have to examine the deep social changes that have transformed the Arab world, but this requires breaking with many of the ideas that have dominated our understanding of the region.
Issue 371

For many people the Arab revolutions are simply a “correction” in the struggle against imperialism. The overthrow of Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ali Saleh of Yemen have struck deep blows to imperialism. The uprising in Bahrain, which pits a disenfranchised population against a US and Saudi client regime, is seen in the same light. In this view, the uprisings in Libya and Syria are an aberration, for both regimes have found themselves at the sharp end of imperialism, and their revolutions, even if they are regarded as genuine expressions of discontent, are nevertheless seen as part of the manoeuvres by imperialism.

Fundamental difference

This is not simply about a difference of opinion, or varying interpretations of the strategy of imperialism, but a fundamental difference in the understanding of the nature of these revolutions. Those who hold to Arab nationalist, liberal and Islamist ideas see the revolutions through old glasses. For the Arab nationalists the revolutions are a chance to revive the anti-imperialist struggle, for the liberals they offer the prospect for the transformation of dictatorships into parliamentary democracies, while for the Islamists they are a continuation of an anti-Western struggle that began with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. For revolutionary socialists the revolutions pose the question of “permanent revolution”, of the real possibility of the struggles “growing over” into a socialist transformation.

To understand the origins of the revolutions we have to look into the social changes that have taken place in the region over the past few decades, changes that the old regimes were incapable of adapting to, either through reforms, or by neoliberal economic policies they enthusiastically embraced.

The Arab world is a different place from what it was 40 or even 20 years ago. Arab rulers no longer face a largely illiterate population existing off small parcels of land, but an overwhelmingly urban population that has to sell its labour power to survive. The lives of the youth who are making the revolutions are vastly different from those of their grandparents. They are more educated, more urban, more connected to world events, and have been politically shaped by common global movements – against globalisation, for solidarity with the Palestinians and in opposition to war.

These changes have dramatically altered social relations in the Arab world, yet the dominant political ideas remain those developed in a different era, with very different social relations. The era of anti-colonial struggles that began in Egypt in 1919 – and ended with Israel’s victory over Egypt in the 1967 war – shaped a set of ideas that centred on Arab nationalism, Islamism, Stalinism, anti-colonial struggles and the question of development. These ideas have not disappeared, but are being thrown into the cauldron of the revolution. What will emerge is as yet unknown, but the new era will undoubtedly give rise to new ideas.

Marx observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte “The beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”

Just as the revolutions of the past borrowed from the ideas of earlier era the revolutions of today are expressed in seemingly familiar language. But here the similarity ends. New social relations, and new class relations, are creating what one young Saudi described as the “revolution of the mind”, even if this revolution has not yet found mass expression on Saudi streets. And the facts of Saudi Arabia are startling. One study estimates that 95 percent of all Saudis in prison hold a degree. Meanwhile the same prince has governed Riyadh for 50 years, part of the octogenarian royal family that owes its power to a different world. This is an old generation in all senses.


According to the World Bank, in the early 1970s only 30 percent of Arabs lived in cities. By 2020, it is estimated that 70 percent of the region’s population will be urban – some 280 million out of 420 million people. This urbanisation has accelerated over the past decade. At the turn of this century there were 16 cities with a population of one million in the region; today it has reached 24, with six cities reaching five million.

The Saudi metropolitan areas of Mecca, Riyadh and Jeddah are home to 9.5 million people. Around nine out of ten Gulf Arabs live in cities. Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq will soon catch up. In the countryside, where once there were small isolated villages, there are now vast agribusinesses that are tied to global markets. These changes accelerated the drift from the countryside to the town. Over the past three years alone some three million Syrians have abandoned the village for the town, creating new neighbourhoods in cities such as Aleppo and Damascus. Even in Egypt, where the rate of urbanisation has been less dramatic, the Cairo metropolitan area has grown from 2.4 million in 1965 to about 11.5 million today. There is an urban corridor spreading along the Nile River from the Egyptian capital to Alexandria, some 200 kilometres to the north. It is a pattern repeated across the region.

This urbanisation has dramatically changed social relations. As Chris Harman noted in his 2002 article Workers of the World, “The spread of urbanisation is associated, necessarily, with the increasing dependence of people on the market for a livelihood. A family of small peasants may be able to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as subsistence farmers, almost entirely out of the direct product of their own labour. City dwellers are unable to do so. They are likely to starve unless they can sell something – their own labour or products of their labour – however meagre. And even in the countryside recent decades have seen the growing importance of production for the market.”

Urbanisation is marked by a rise in literacy, creating an educated generation. This is a different world to the stifling social relations of village life. According to Unesco, “the literacy rate is higher among the youth than adults. Youth literacy rate (ages 15 to 24) in the Arab region increased from 63.9 to 76.3 percent from 1990 to 2002….In 2004 the regional average of youth literacy is 89.9 percent for male and 80.1 percent for female.” The Arab world has seen internet usage grow a thousand-fold over the past few years. New ideas, new information and “online activism” are available to a mass of people who up until ten years ago were fed censored information by state-run media.

Poverty trap

This young and educated urban population, however, is trapped by poverty. According to the International Labour Organisation “even if young people have jobs, working conditions are often very poor: low wages, little social protection, lack of secure contracts and career prospects, and weak or lacking trade unions to give them a voice”.

The cities themselves are made up of complex classes, the centre of which is the fast growing working class. Within the same family there could be a peddler, a low-level public sector official, a factory worker and an unemployed graduate – all educated, all underpaid, and all under the age of 25. This close proximity of urban living means that they can influence, and be influenced by, each other. The growing power of the Arab working class makes it possible for it to lead the other poor classes because of its centrality to the process of production.

This generation came of age in 2002. I reported from Beirut for Socialist Review at the time on the unprecedented protests against Israel’s reinvasion of the West Bank. We were struck by the age of the demonstrators as well as their lack of political inhibitions: “All Catholic schools in Lebanon were on strike. Shi’ite Islamic activists and French-speaking Christian school students marched on the same demonstration. Secondary school students organised meetings and voted to strike. They marched from school to school and sat down outside Burger King restaurants. In Bahrain the students ransacked a McDonald’s burger bar. In Egypt a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet was set on fire. In Syria unofficial marches began, and the demonstrators clashed with the hated secret police. School students would sing and chant slogans on the way to school.”

These protests were the biggest in generations and spread from Morocco to Yemen. A call for the boycott of US goods in protest at the invasion was spread by text message across Saudi Arabia. This kind of action among Saudis was unheard of and some Saudis even travelled to Qatar to join anti-Israel protests there. Across the region schools and universities rose in anger, clashing not only with the security forces, but with the established opposition movements they considered to be out of touch and compromised by their relationship to the regimes.

Those school children at the heart of the 2002 protests have now grown up and made revolutions. What we witnessed then marked a political awakening – one that would be further shaped by the 2003 global anti-war movement, Hizbollah’s victory over Israel in 2006, Gaza’s defiance under Israeli siege, and the dramatic rise of the workers’ movement triggered by the 2006 strike wave in the Egyptian industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra. These convulsions marked a sharp break from the era of defeat and fatalism, and foreshadowed the coming revolutions.

These social changes have not only transformed the lives of ordinary people, but created a modern Arab capitalist class tied into a global system. This class owes its position to the liberation of the Arab world from direct colonial rule, and its subsequent economic and social transformation.

Ibn al-Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, was largely ignorant of the world beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Not so his grandchildren, who are at home in Western capitals, are educated in elite universities and invest in everything from the London property market to football teams and blue chip companies. After his death officials discovered that the bank account of Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was almost empty. By contrast Hosni Mubarak’s wealth was measured in billions of dollars. This is not simply that Nasser was more honest (although that is true) but reflects the rapid development of a new ruling class since the end of the colonial rule.

The upper ranks of the Egyptian army are no longer simply aides-de-camp to British or French officers, but have their own interests buried deep in their economic and political position. Egypt’s army controls a vast business empire with extensive factories, workshops and investments. The Egyptian capitalist (or any other in the region) is not the old landowner, but the factory owner who no longer has to squeeze rent out of malnourished peasants using techniques unchanged for a millennium, but pumps profit out of the labour of workers in modern factories.

The growth of Arab capitalism has altered its relationship to imperialism. From the 1930s through to the 1970s this relationship was one of master and servant. Now these ruling classes have their own interests, and the capital to back them up. The wave of revolutions that began in the 1940s and 1950s challenged colonial rule, but the relative weakness and small size of the Arab working class at the time opened up space for radical elements within the middle class to place themselves at the head of the struggle, and eventually constrain it. At the time the Marxist Tony Cliff called this phenomena “deflected permanent revolution”.

Imperial powers would eventually make an accommodation with this class through offers of development, access to markets and investment. To buy the loyalty of an ambitious “colonel” was relatively trouble-free in an underdeveloped society. The “colonel” in turn could bribe the urban notables, landlords and tribal sheikhs to win the allegiance of the largely illiterate villagers.

From humble beginnings

This aspirant middle class rose from humble beginnings to preside over the transformation of society and economy, and in the process raised itself to the level of the global capitalist class. While their parents were born into lower middle class families smarting at the lack of development, second-class citizenship and colonial rule, their children are born into privilege, offered the best education and groomed to become part of a modern capitalist class.

The gulf between this new ruling class and its subjects grew wider as the society around them underwent a transformation. This process accelerated with the introduction of neoliberalism over the past 20 years. According to a 2009 study by the Boston Consulting Group, millionaire households own more than half of all wealth in the Middle East, while the majority of people live on precarious wages at the mercy of the markets. This wealth is not “trickling down” but sitting in overseas investments – 65 percent of Saudi wealth, half of UAE and Kuwaiti wealth, 45 percent of Tunisia’s wealth and a third of Bahrain’s, Lebanon’s and Morocco’s wealth is sitting in Western banks.

The rise of Arab capital is not simply the achievement of a few “businessmen”, but has occurred on a national scale. The Saudi oil industry is a powerful expression of this trend. In 2005 Saudi Aramco was estimated to be worth more than the oil giant ExxonMobil. The company that was originally owned by a group of major US oil corporations had by 1980 been effectively nationalised by the Saudi state. These are no longer ignorant desert sheikhs lapping up oil dollars, but global players with global reach. In 2010 tiny Qatar topped the list of global investment in real estate (some 14 percent of Qatari citizens are millionaires). This class is also present in Syria and in Libya. The deep gulf between the rulers and the ruled transcends “reactionary” and “progressive” regimes.

The space for deflected permanent revolution has closed, and the Arab revolutions are facing the question of power in its most naked and unashamed form. The Arab ruling classes no longer have an interest in resisting imperialism, but only in rebalancing their relationship to it. During Nasser’s era Arabs had to fight colonial powers to gain any control over national resources. Today they are free to invest, build factories or gamble on the stock markets.

These social changes mean that the nature of the revolutions today is markedly different from those of the anti-colonial era. The picture today is not one of an alliance between an angry population and aspirant middle class desperate for development, but rather one of deep antagonism between an urban population and a ruling class at ease with (and part of) global capitalism.

The workers’ organisations that are mushrooming in the Arab Spring are fundamental to understanding how these revolutions can develop. Reflecting on the 1848 revolutions, Marx wrote, “No class of civil society can play this [revolutionary] role without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternises and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative, a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the claims and rights of society itself, a moment in which it is truly the social head and the social heart.”

Ripe for transformation

There is nothing automatic about the Arab Spring growing over into socialist revolutions. But these revolutions have appeared at a historical stage that is ripe for such a deep and radical transformation. The development of new ideas will emerge out of the experience of the revolutions themselves, its sudden turns, peaks and troughs, street battles, strikes and debates. The revolutions are not respecting borders and are oblivious to the “posturing” or past glories of Arab rulers. It is in these struggles that the vast and young Arab working class has the possibility of making itself the “social heart and the social head”.

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