In the early, heady days of 2011, pundits and policy makers alike were caught out as the uprising that toppled two pro-Western regimes spread to adversarial regimes in Libya and Syria. Counter-revolutionary actors quickly took advantage of openings in the latter two countries to get ahead of events that were seriously threatening the international order in the region.
That order, it is often forgotten, was characterized by decades of nearly an unrivaled American hegemony. And it had never seemed more entrenched and ossified than it was in December 2010, before thousands of people rose to challenge it.
The hope and optimism that many on the left felt in those early days has since been eroded by the victories of a coordinated, repressive, and blood-soaked counter-revolutionary wave over the past few years. The Syrian regime is inching closer to achieving a full military victory, el-Sisi’s Egypt has become more repressive than Mubarak’s, and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, are openly acknowledging their alliance with Israel, something that would have been impossible before the uprising was contained.
These setbacks led to a renewed pessimism and revisionism about the events of the Arab Spring, on both the left and right.
Pro-regime arguments collapse the politics of the Syrian war, and indeed, the entire region into a geopolitical binary. Actors are judged worthy of support by their perceived alliance or hostility to Western interests. Elaborate facades of analysis can be constructed upon this foundation, but they only serve to liquidate the agency of the mass of people in question and reduce whole societies to monolithic entities defined entirely by their perceived position vis-a-vis the West.
Implicit in this argument are deeply Orientalist assumptions about Arabs and Muslims. The prospect of change in Arab and Muslim societies raises the specter of chaos; the “inevitable result of the irruption onto the scene of a culturally and politically backward people unable to understand any language other than a quasi-atavistic obscurantism,” in the words of the late Samir Amin.
The right has never hidden its agenda for the region or its preference for authoritarian governments. It is not difficult to critique the arguments put forward by columnists that attribute the problems the region faces to “the disease of the Arab mind” which needs an “iron fist” to be kept in line.
On the left however, the impulse to criticize Western foreign policies has led some down strange analytical corridors, where they end up internalizing and inverting the very discourses they seek to criticize. The struggle for human emancipation and all its constituent parts and expressions—rights, democracy, dignity, security—serve as nothing more than rhetorical flourishes, to be exaggerated or ignored depending on whether the regime or movement in question is perceived to be in support or in opposition to a Western ally.
Those on the right that buffoonishly justify support for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman find their discursive mirror image in those on the left that support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
From either end of the political spectrum, these arguments begin to fray when the uprisings are viewed from a proper, regional perspective. Nearly every regime in the entire region—from those that are hopelessly reliant on Western countries like Jordan, to those that frequently fall into confrontations with them, like Libya or Syria—experienced remarkably similar protest movements, animated by similar economic and political grievances. As Gilbert Achcar argued in his 2013 book, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, the levels of oppression and type of regime may vary, but these regimes shares similar economic and political characteristics, which constitute the “peculiar modalities of capitalism in the Arab Region.”
The fact that the Arabic chant “ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam,” was taken up by the protestors everywhere they took to the streets, from Tunisia in December 2010 to Sudan and Algeria in 2019, is a testament to this inter-connectedness, and an expression of solidarity across borders that recognizes a mutual struggle against similar oppressors.
The central demands of the mass of people across the region are the same: the fall of the regime and the unequal social order that it perpetuates.
So how does one end up developing different positions in relation to the different uprisings or the regimes they challenged? How does one support the uprising against Ben Ali or Mubarak but oppose the uprising against Gaddafi, or Assad?
The key to sustaining these arguments is to cleave the developments in question from their regional context. This is the only way to give coherence to a position that prioritizes the very narrow interests of one regime over the interests of the mass of people.
That is the lens through which policy makers in Western capitals and their counterparts in the mainstream press view these events. Inverting that lens is not a sufficient or critical response.
It is easy to be reflexively pessimistic and argue that the alternative to the status quo could be worse, but events in Algeria and Sudan show that the mass of people are still a force to be reckoned with and that the region is still far away from a return to authoritarian stagnation.