A revolution deferred

As we remember the Arab Spring, the starting point should not be that it failed, but that it’s incomplete. Watch it live on Youtube and subscribe to our Patreon for the archive.

Sunset prayer in Tahrir Square, November 2011. Image credit Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

This year marks 10 years since the Arab Spring began as a protest movement in North Africa and the Middle East, transforming the region and ushering an era of social upheaval still with us today. Writing in the New York Review of Books, the Moroccan journalist Aida Alami distills the postcolonial dilemma that spurred the uprisings and which still afflicts African states today: “Most of these countries had won independence from Western colonizers after World War II, only to find themselves ruled by corrupt tyrants. The hopes and wishes of ordinary men and women were never taken into consideration, and these societies were governed for decades by fear.”

These societies, including those south of the Sahara, are still governed by fear. While we unpack the legacy of the Arab Spring and the regimes it challenged, the leader of one, increasingly oppressive regime in Tanzania met his bitter end. On Wednesday, Tanzanian president John Magufuli died allegedly of heart disease. Having begun his presidency on a hopeful note as a corruption busting resource-nationalist, he ended it as an authoritarian, COVID-19 denialist. Magufuli’s rule in many ways simply replayed a leadership script written into post-liberation Africa: appropriate anti-colonial rhetoric to indigenize capitalism, make modest redistribution to the masses, and weaponize this to consolidate the regime’s power.

It was this script that the Arab Spring challenged.

Much of the anniversary-related commentary on the legacy of the Arab Spring fixates on how this challenge failed. We are told to look at Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and especially Libya—things haven’t changed, or they are much worse than before. But, the mistake of this diagnosis is its assumption that the historical process started by the Arab Spring is complete. We are still in the interregnum from which it started, and for Iranian-American scholar Asef Bayat, the Arab Spring typified the political mobilizations characteristic of the interregnum, what he calls the “non-movement”—“Non-movements refers to the collective actions of non-collective actors; they embody the shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leaderships and organizations.”

For Bayat, the post-2008 outpouring of non-movements constitute “revolution without revolutionaries”—but the journal Endnotes turns this on its head, noting that instead, “we are witnessing the production of revolutionaries without revolution, as millions descend onto the streets and are transformed by their collective outpouring of rage and disgust, but without (yet) any coherent notion of transcending capitalism.” From the Arab Spring itself to moments like #FeesMustFall, the non-movement provides the organizational form for a disorganized age. As uprisings re-emerge on the continent—from #EndSARS in Nigeria, to the re-emergence of protests in Tunisia, protests in Senegal, and the return of student protests in South Africa—they all make the crucial connection between economic stagnation and escalating police brutality—the question is whether from that, sustained critiques of capitalism will emerge.

So, joining us on the next AIAC Talk to explore how much longer the revolution will remain deferred, are Nihal El Aasar and Zachariah Mampilly. Nihal is an Egyptian independent researcher currently based in London and Zachariah is the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, which is part of the City University of New York.

The sort of  questions we want to ask them are summed up by the ones motivating the book Zachariah co-authored in 2015, Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change: “From Egypt to South Africa, Nigeria to Ethiopia, a new force for political change is emerging across Africa: popular protest. Widespread urban uprisings by youth, the unemployed, trade unions, activists, writers, artists, and religious groups are challenging injustice and inequality. What is driving this new wave of protest? Is it the key to substantive political change?” For example, what remains of some of these popular protests, like the Sudan Revolution (which Amar Jamal has eloquently written about for Africa Is A Country). And notwithstanding the importance of international solidarity, as Nihal explains, might we also be in a moment that necessitates stronger continental solidarity too? Can we replicate the pan-Africanism of the 20th century, or has the nature of globalization made that impossible?

Stream the show the show on Tuesday at 18:00 in Cairo, 16:00 in London, and 12:00 in New York on YouTube.

On last week’s show, “Unearthing the past”, we first spoke to Enver Samuel, the director of Murder in Paris, a new film about the murder anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September, as well as Evelyn Groenink, who is the author of the book from which the film heavily draw, Incorruptible. Then, we spoke to Madeleine Fullard, who leads the Missing Person’s Task Team, an organization that emerged from the TRC and which is responsible for finding the remains of murdered anti-apartheid activists.

Clips from that episode are available on our YouTube channel, but as usual, best check out the whole thing on our Patreon along with all the episodes from our archive.

Further Reading