In 2011, the Arab world was gripped by a great awakening, a popular uprising for democracy unlike anything seen since 1848. No fewer than a dozen Arab-speaking countries witnessed upheaval, and in six — Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria — revolutionary movements threatened state power. In the end, all but one of these movements failed spectacularly. Only Tunisia was blessed with a successful democratic transition; Libya, Yemen, and Syria collapsed into civil war, and Egypt slid into a new era of despotism. Bahrain’s uprising was crushed by Saudi tanks.
The debacle has spawned several explanations. Liberal commentators argue that the uprisings did not receive adequate support from the “international community,” while many on the Left, pointing to the lack of “moderates” and secular leftists in the revolutionary ranks, question whether the uprisings held any emancipatory potential to begin with. Both claims, though, fall short of evidence. For example, the Tunisian revolution, the Arab Spring’s sole success story, garnered little foreign support. On the other hand, foreign powers were heavily invested in managing Yemen’s democratic transition, an intervention that proved so disastrous it set off a civil war. And the claim that the uprisings were Islamist in character from the beginning belies copious evidence from the ground, to the point where sections of the Left have resorted to Islamophobia or conspiracy theories to maintain this position.
Even if these claims were true, they’d only raise further, more vexing questions. If the uprisings failed because of insufficient support from Western powers, then why were these movements dependent on foreign support in the first place, especially when their historical analogs had been self-sufficient? And if the uprisings were doomed because of the dominance of fundamentalism, then why, in a region once in thrall to Arab nationalism and communism, is political Islam the argot of resistance today?
The standard critiques are correct, however, in recognizing that the uprisings don’t quite fit the classic model of democratic revolutions, in which parties and classes are the protagonists. Though the six revolutionary movements underwent quite different trajectories, they shared common organizational principles and ideology. In the initial stages, the revolutionaries expressed an aversion to political parties and centralization. The movements extolled leaderlessness, verging on horizontalism. “Revolutions of the past have usually had charismatic leaders who were politically savvy and sometimes even military genius,” wrote the liberal Egyptian revolutionary Wael Ghonim. But the new revolt, which he dubbed “revolution 2.0,” was a “truly spontaneous movement led by nothing other than the wisdom of the crowd.”1 At first, the uprisings were not comprised of political parties or institutions; instead, they were organized territorially — most famously in the occupation of public spaces like Tahrir Square in Cairo. Over time, though, the uprisings developed organizational and hierarchical structures, including neighborhood committees, local councils, and armed factions. Those participating in these bodies were united by kinship or geography, not through membership in a political party or by sharing a political vision. Focused on local service delivery, these new bodies resembled NGOs rather than traditional political parties. Classic left and liberal parties were unable to penetrate these structures. Eventually, these bodies were either taken over by Islamists or dissolved by the counterrevolutionary regimes.