Culture Can’t Explain the Arab Revolts

Violence and Representation in the Arab Uprising shows how the Arab revolts empowered democratic citizenship. But a focus on vibrant cultural creativity is no substitute for concrete analysis of political agency and economic structure.

A man walks past graffiti reading "The funds are gone" and "Congratulations" on a boarded up bank in Beirut, Lebanon. (Patrick Baz / AFP via Getty Images)

A full decade after the Arab Spring uprisings, and a few years after their successor events elsewhere in the Middle East, they are mostly remembered for their sad outcomes of civil war and the return to authoritarian regimes often worse than those ousted. In the early 2010s, many were enthusiastic about the prospect of the Arab Spring ending autocratic rule and bringing about democracies and representative governments. Optimists on the Left even dreamed of revolutionary new governments whose prime concern would be social and economic development for their populations, including major roles for marginalized people, youth, and women.

Since then, journalists have published detailed recollections and analyses, and students have written their dissertations on the subject. As the situation turned sour everywhere except Tunisia, interest waned and the Tunisian model was increasingly presented as the only success, despite its many difficulties and compromises. By the end of the decade, new publications either asserted the failure of the movements or else attempted to extract the remaining positive lessons for the future. The revival of uprisings in 2019 — in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan in particular — were praised by supporters as having drawn the appropriate teachings from the mistakes of the earlier part of the decade.

By 2023, Sudan had joined Syria, Yemen, and Libya as a country at war. None of the opposing armed factions in any of these countries would claim to be the heirs of the revolutionary youth movements of a decade ago. The main foreign interventions in all three, either open or covert, are from the leading states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — alongside Turkey. The main Northern powers, the United States and Europe, claim mediating roles, hoping to bring or return these various crises to negotiations that would lead to a form of peace and stability that would not threaten their interests or dominant neoliberal policies in general.

While the extreme authoritarianism of the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi administration in Egypt might lead some to wish for the return of Hosni Mubarak, its economic and financial difficulties seem unsustainable. The earlier unconditional support of the Gulf States has given way to conditionalities that al-Sisi is reluctant to accept, raising questions about his government’s survival. After a decade of war, with millions of Syrian refugees and millions more internally displaced, the Bashar al-Assad government has effectively regained control of most of Syria’s territory, if not its population, and has been welcomed back to the Arab League and, more importantly, won the support of most GCC states, in the face of (mildly embarrassed) silence from the West.

It is in this overall context that the outcome of the 2011 events in the Arab world is nowadays more often described as the “Democratic Winter.” The few new discussions of the period reflect different approaches and foci. Firmly within the framework of francophone academic analyses, Benoît Challand’s Violence and Representation in the Arab Uprisings is “as much an essay in historical and political sociology as it is an attempt to suture theory with practice and to suggest how Arab demoi have been sources of inspiration for theory-making.”

Addressing the rise of active citizenship that, through street demonstrations and the full-time occupation of public spaces by mostly young Yemenis and Tunisians, Challand’s overall conclusion is that,

during the independence eras, and due to a combination of domestic and Cold War factors, citizenship in the Middle East remained limited to a latent form. In 2011, citizenship reached a turning point, however: the burst of creativity and its demand for new channels for political participation, decentralization in particular, proposed paths for equal protection by, and restrained use of, the means of coercion. In so doing, this burst of transgressive democratic mobilizations in the Arab Worlds has assembled a unique form of cultural and political representation.

These comments certainly also apply to the other uprisings of the region.

The main asset of materialist analyses of revolutions is their grounding in objective reality and facts alongside the use of fundamental concepts like class and economic structure. Adopting a Gramscian approach, Challand’s analysis is “based on a multiplicity of methods: discourse analysis (of texts, posters, slogans, pictures, maps, etc.), interviews, ethnographic immersion in Tunisia, a compilation of datasets (on associations, new laws), interviews with Yemeni actors in the diaspora . . . and finally historical analysis.” However, its grounding in the experiences of Tunisia and Yemen suffers from factual inaccuracies that weaken his potential theoretical contribution.

Challand’s historical account up to 2010 insists on treating as similar Yemen’s relationships with the Ottomans and Tunisia’s with the French. Lacking additional background and knowledge, a reader would assume that the Ottomans fully controlled what later became the Yemen Arab Republic — whereas in reality their involvement and authority was never more than extremely superficial. Similarly, Britain’s relationship with the hinterland it controlled in the southeast of Yemen represented a particular form of domination, very different from the formal “assimilationist” colonialism of the French. Hence, equating them is historically inaccurate and consequently flaws his later analysis.

Challand’s descriptions of both parts of Yemen in the 1960s and ’70s are also misleading: while it is correct to say that the regime instituted in Sana‘a in 1970 after seven years of civil war was republican, the reality is that it included many leaders supporting the Imam who had been overthrown in 1962 with the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic, and it largely represented a defeat of the more radical aspects of the republican movement of 1962. In the South, the internecine war of 1967 took place before independence, a significant fact since the postindependence regime would have been very different, and certainly not socialist, had the British negotiated independence with the rival front that was defeated by the National Liberation Front in 1967. Misinterpreting President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s position post-1994 about the Yemeni Socialist Party, which was the opposite of what Challand states, is one of a number of additional factual errors that seriously undermine his argument.

The likelihood of success of nonviolent action when faced with state brutality is probably the main theoretical and analytical issue faced by the millions wanting to put an end to the dictatorships and autocratic regimes that dominate the region, closely followed by the type of rule and economic policies essential to establishing more equitable societies. Challand’s concept vis populi, defined as “the collective force of the people” as a form of “democratic” force is useful in the analysis of the events of 2011 and later.

Demonstrators manifested vis populi when they insisted on being peaceful in the face of government violence in Yemen in 2011, and in Tunisia far more recently. Used to discuss popular cultural interventions and language such as posters, slogans, and drawings, the concept’s relevance with respect to the actual power struggle could have been given far more attention. The people “criticize the use of violence by state entities but refuse to perpetrate physical destruction (except on buildings, police files) or the killing of persons. Vis populi is the force, the will of the people, not the violence of the people.” It is interesting but insufficient to note the contrast between the “active” citizenship of the militants of 2011 and the “latent,” “curtailed,” or negative citizenship imposed by the authoritarian regimes, against which the popular movements fought to develop an active citizenship.

The determination of demonstrators to remain nonviolent has been a major feature of the 2019 movements in Algeria and Sudan as well as of the earlier ones in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria (for the first few months of that struggle). The issues raised by the rejection of violence, largely neglected in this volume, would benefit from more attention in the future.

During the 2010–2020 period, political transformation in both Tunisia and Yemen was still possible. Radicals still hoped to bring about fundamental structural changes to politics in these countries. Although Challand is right to address the use of cultural activities in supporting political messages and mentions some of the positive achievements of the period, he is insufficiently critical of the weaknesses of the programs and policies militants proposed for the future. Revolutionary leadership was missing: the negative slogan of getting rid of the existing political system required a positive vision about the kind of society and polity with which demonstrators wanted to replace it.

As many of Challand’s ideological references are Marxist, the absence of any discussion of the major issue of the movements’ lack of alternative economic programs, and in particular the fact that there was no explicit challenge to dominant neoliberal economic policies, is surprising. In other words, there is little reference to the economic structures that determine political choices and constrain outcomes.

Since 2014, the only way to look at developments in Tunisia and Yemen or, indeed, in the other Middle Eastern states where anti-government movements were active in the past decade is by examining their revolutionary legacies. This volume’s analysis effectively stops in 2020, which particularly affects Challand’s treatment of Tunisia, as he gives the impression of believing that Kais Saied’s government might not return to full autocracy and authoritarianism, which, by 2023, it had clearly done.

Given the narrowing space — gradually in Tunisia and more suddenly in Yemen after the internationalized war started in 2015 — for open political action, Challand focuses on artistic expression and civil society activities during this period, giving some interesting examples of action that he optimistically describes as “attempts . . . to renegotiate social roles in a more democratic manner,” suggesting that people felt more able to express their views, certainly in Tunisia where there were serious challenges to authorities and particularly at the local administration level.

In Yemen, he discusses the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which, in his view, offered a new discourse and demonstrated “a new political imaginary . . . connecting people of lower class [and] political extraction, and put them on a putative equal footing.” While I am not as skeptical of the quality of the NDC as some others, few would be as positive about its ability to represent all Yemeni social strata as Challand is. Certainly one of the few positive aspects of the eight years of war that started within a year of the end of the NDC has been the emergence and strengthening of Yemeni civil society organizations. Few of them are directly political, due to the repressive authorities on all sides, but they have developed great capacity and competence focused on humanitarian and development activities at the local level. This has provided opportunities for people to practically demonstrate their concern for social and economic as well as environmental issues. In these sectors, activists can partially avoid political repression while also actively improving living conditions, albeit within oppressive political environments. Despite these positive features, the leading role of internationally educated elite cadres must be recognized.

There is little doubt that citizens of Arab countries still desperately seek political change, and their views and needs must be addressed to lead to more equitable economic and social policies. Repressive politics, the deteriorating environmental situation, and worsening poverty all call for change. This was shown in the popular uprisings in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria since 2019, all of which demonstrated many lessons learned from 2011. But it is also clear that the defeat of autocratic regimes requires far more innovation and a renewed effort to connect political citizenship with socioeconomic rights. Addressing the long-term negative impact of neoliberalism is a fundamental element of future success. Just as few had predicted 2011, the next uprisings against oppressive social and political structures in the Arab world may be nearer than many predict. Certainly most of these countries’ populations are suffering unacceptable economic conditions and political repression.

About the Author

Helen Lackner is the author of Yemen in Crisis: Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope and Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. She worked in rural development and lived in the three Yemeni states for fifteen years.