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1 - Introduction

Another World Was Possible?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 May 2022

Jamie Allinson
University of Edinburgh


The uprisings that shook the Middle East in 2011 shaped the subsequent decade of civil wars, coups and political crisis. The ‘Arab Spring’ has, therefore, come to be seen as a failure – a failure of transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes. Such transitions were expected to follow the model established in the last quarter of the twentieth century, producing only political rather than social transformation. Rather than revolutions, however, the 2011 uprisings have come to be seen as at most unsuccessful revolts. The reasons for this failure are typically ascribed to peculiarities of the region, in the presence of Islamist oppositions, sectarian division and external intervention into relatively weak states. Yet the crushing of the Arab uprisings represents not an inevitable failure or defeat but success: the success of counter-revolution.

The Age of Counter-Revolution
States and Revolutions in the Middle East
, pp. 1 - 28
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

I always thought that something, in 1920–25, was almost born: Lenin, Freud, Surrealism, revolutions, jazz, silent films. All this could have come together. And then each followed its sporadic destiny. Isolated, they could all be strangled. It is only in my memory that they made up a world.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, war diary1

But one thing I do remember, one thing I know: the sense of possibility was real. It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

—Alaa Abdel Fattah2

Revolutions create worlds of possibility. Rarely, however, do the orders established in their aftermath reflect those imagined by their participants. From John Milton to Frantz Fanon, it is the tragic mode that dominates amongst reflections by revolutionaries on the results of the revolutions for which they fought. What came to be falls short of what could have been. One finds, in the titles of historical works on revolutions, the same words appearing and re-appearing with grim regularity: betrayal, loss, defeat and tragedy. The lesson learned, in the Western canon of political thought, is that it is better not to have revolutions at all, for to do so is to ‘stir up the great fountains of the deep to overwhelm us’.3

Few cycles of revolutionary upheaval have evinced more painfully this shortfall between initial hope and eventual despair than that which came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’.4 In late 2010, demonstrations and strikes – following the self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, in protest at police harassment – spread throughout Tunisia, eventually leading to the toppling of the dictator of that country, Zine el Abedine Ben Ali. Similar protest movements broke out in much of the rest of the Arab world. Three incumbent autocrats – Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ali Abdallah Saleh in Yemen – were forced from power, while a fourth, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, was killed by his opponents after a NATO-led aerial campaign against his forces combined with an armed uprising concentrated in the east of the country. Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Khalifa monarchs of Bahrain retained power but were forced to rely on external military intervention to regain control of their own territories. For a time, the example of these uprisings seemed to inspire imitation, or at least appropriation of their tactical repertoire, from Manhattan to Athens. In that brief moment, something of the air of a new ‘springtime of the peoples’ diffused from the Arab world to places culturally and geographically far distant.

The fruits of these struggles proved bitter indeed. Within three years of the initial uprisings, a revivified dictatorship held sway in Egypt, under the former Colonel General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; the Khalifas maintained their rule over a cowed dominion; and Libya, Yemen and Syria had slipped into civil war. The staggering barbarism of the latter conflict gave birth to a new form of authoritarian state, as the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) established itself in the borderlands between eastern Syria and western Iraq.5 The Middle East became, once again, the site of bloody military contest between great powers both within (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) and outside the region (Russia and the United States). This entanglement led, more than once, to the threat of global nuclear confrontation, not seen since the most perilous days of the Cold War. Where once Arab protestors had awakened emulation abroad, new forms of xenophobic reaction in Europe and the Americas took as their prime target the refugees fleeing the general crisis of order in the Middle East.

The combination of revolutionary wave and global crisis is not an unfamiliar one. The history of the ‘Atlantic revolutions’ of the late eighteenth century or of the conflagrations surrounding the Russian Revolution of 1917 is reminder enough of the strongly established relationship between war and revolution.6 Yet, the storm that burst forth in the Arab world in 2011 occurred in a global order accustomed to the idea that such concurrences were a thing of the past. Revolutions there might be, but these were expected to be largely peaceful, resolved by negotiated means and welcomed rather than opposed by the states of the international system.7

In retrospect, the Arab uprisings of 2011 appear as the moment in which this expectation collapsed. Increasing mass mobilisations became severed from the political transitions they were once expected to provoke. The Arab revolutions both initiated and prefigured a trend of global protest, accompanied by political polarisation, in the decade that would follow them. From the anti-austerity protests of southern Europe to the anti-racist ‘Black Lives Matter’ rebellions in the United States, amongst many other examples, apparently leaderless and spontaneous mass movements swarmed into streets and squares. The 2010s witnessed a wave of protest greater than any since that sparked by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Across the world, anti-government protests increased by 11.5 per cent year on year throughout the 2010s: all of the five largest demonstrations in US history occurred during that decade.8 The Arab uprisings thus represent not a regional exception but ‘a near-vertical inflection point in which two decades of relative calm instantly reversed into several years of elevated global unrest’.9 By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the world had become a far more ‘revolutionary’ place – in the sense of the prevalence of mass mobilisations overthrowing incumbent governments – than it had been a century before.10 Yet revolution in the sense of complete social transformation had – almost – vanished as a political horizon.

Rather than substantial social or even political transformation, the 2010s thus witnessed the birth and recrudescence of authoritarian and exclusionary politics. Former boosters of the ‘wave’ of liberal democratisation between 1975 and 2000 began to detect a decrease in both the quantity and quality of formal democracies.11 When the revolutionary wave returned to the Arab world in 2019, engulfing states such as Iraq, Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon, the protestors had learned from the experiences of their predecessors to insist on thoroughgoing transformations of their polities and societies, not the mere shuffling of personnel.12

To understand the fate of the uprisings of 2011 is therefore also to tackle the puzzle of why unprecedented levels of political mobilisation have brought forth – at the time of writing – such limited change. How did the Arab revolutions, filled with aspirations to social justice, freedom and human dignity, result in the furies of brutal repression, savage civil conflict and even the prospect of world war? This book is an attempt to answer this question and, thereby, the broader global paradox of increasing revolutionary mobilisation producing limited social and political transformation. The answer I give is that the Arab revolutions, like revolutions in general, cannot be said simply to ‘fail’: rather, counter-revolution must also succeed.

Counter-revolution intervenes between the revolutionary situations produced by mass uprisings from below and the eventual outcomes that issue from them. Nonetheless, little scholarly attention has been devoted to the phenomenon.13 This blind spot derives in part, as I illustrate in the second chapter of this book, from the association of counter-revolution with coercive relations of agrarian exploitation that had largely disappeared by the early twenty-first century. Rather than bind counter-revolution to such a particular historical context – to the trinity of throne, sword and altar familiar from Europe’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century revolutions – I examine how they bind opponents of revolution from ‘above’, ‘below’ and ‘without’ to pursue a policy of eradicating revolutionary movements. The historical legacy of previous revolutions from above, eradicating exactly that class of coercive landlords associated with previous instances of counter-revolution, provided one means to create a counter-revolutionary subject – and the competitive circuits of capital and geopolitical influence in the region provided another.

Such is the argument pursued in the rest of this book. In making it, I am claiming that the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain belong not solely to the history of the Arab and Islamic world but also to a category of phenomena that has been constitutive of global modernity: revolutions. This is, as we shall see, a controversial claim, when the revolutionary nature of these events has been widely disputed. Why attempt to make it at all? Is an explanation of the fate of the Arab uprisings based on counter-revolution even required?

The Vernacular Theory of the Arab Spring

The contrast between these expectations and the outcomes of the Arab uprisings led not to a reconsideration of the premises of those expectations but to a genre of commentary on the ‘failure of the Arab Spring’, or, in a favoured turn of metaphor, the passage from ‘Arab Spring’ to ‘Arab winter’.14 Such arguments reprised older forms of Orientalist reason, which see the politics of the Middle East as the outcomes of a cultural and religious heritage endogenous to the region. The explanations for the ‘failure of the Arab Spring’, in this reading, are to be found in a familiar trio of factors: the insufficient modernity of societies still structured by sub-national and tribal allegiance; the anachronistic influence of – Islamic – religious belief and hence the conflict between political movements that seek to impose such belief at the heart of the state versus those committed to ‘secularism’; and the gruesome outcome of the interaction between the latter two dynamics, the conflict between religious sects as the prime motive force of the politics of the region.

In such readings, the Arab Spring and its consequences belong not to a global history of revolution, counter-revolution and the changing forms of society that produce these phenomena but rather to a provincial history of the Arab and Islamic world. There is nothing to be learned from them that we did not already know. The bloody welter of conflict and repression that followed the uprisings was simply the endpoint of the twentieth-century attempt to suture a Western model of the rational sovereign state onto places where segmented identities of tribe and sect, not abstract nationhood, formed ‘the traditional organizing principle of society’.15 Spared – or denied – the destruction of tribal society wrought by Europeans on their longer-standing New World possessions, inhabitants of the post-colonial Arab states were fated to fall back on these older loyalties when the lid of state repression was lifted and all hell burst forth.16

The function of such repression, in this reading of the Arab Spring, was to keep at bay the most threatening bearers of the remnants of pre-modern society, Islamists.17 The Arab republics – for, with the exception of Bahrain, all of the states to have witnessed the revolutions of the Arab Spring belonged to this category – were indubitably brutal, corrupt and repressive: but they were, as an assumed recompense, ‘secular’. This term did not mean the constitutional injunction of the separation of the state from religious practice, for there is no Arab state that does not base its legal system on inherited traditions of religious jurisprudence. Rather secularism here meant the incorporation and management of the latter by the former, conceived as a form of ‘national progress’.18 Secularism served as a justification for undemocratic rule, since, as the outcomes of the contested elections that followed the Arab Spring showed, Islamists were likely to win them. In this view, the prospect of such victories threatened a ‘Westernised elite’ or ‘secular middle class’, who would then return to the side of the authoritarian militaries that promised to protect them.19 The principal contradiction in Arab societies, unfolding in the wake of the Arab Spring, is then rendered as that between ‘secular liberals’, seen as representatives of a global modernity, and Islamists seen as recalcitrant, if popular, hold-outs against that modernity.20

These two frames for viewing the Arab Spring and its aftermath – primordial loyalty and religious politics – come together in a third: the idea that what unfolded in the Middle East after 2011, both between and within states, was an all-out sectarian war, a continuation of the ‘oldest and bitterest clan feud’ in the Middle East.21 The dispute in question was the split between the followers of the Prophet at the very foundation of Islam, producing the schism between Sunni and Shi’a supposedly still being played out in the battlefields of Syria, Yemen and Iraq and in confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran the better part of two millennia later. US President Barack Obama, viewing the outcomes of the Arab Spring not as opportunity but as threat for the United States, declaimed in his final State of the Union address that ‘we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states’, the product of a ‘transformation’ of the Middle East that would ‘play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia’.22 For good measure, Obama reinforced the point in a later interview: ‘you’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organising principles are sectarian’.23 Nor was this argument restricted to the centre or right of the political spectrum. Some of the keenest critics of US foreign policy in the Middle East shared this analysis of post–Arab Spring conflicts as expressions of the primordial rift between Sunni and Shi’a.24

These arguments are at best inadequate, and at worst misleading, as explanations for the origins of the Arab Spring and the implosion that followed it. In taking for granted such categories of analysis as tribe, sect or Islamism – assumed to be endogenous to the region – they stand in a long tradition of ascribing invariant cultural characteristics to the Middle East and Islamic world and then explaining particular historical phenomena by means of the characteristics thus ascribed.25 Such explanations replicate broader errors in the human and social sciences: seeing the events of the present as natural and immutable and then reading the characteristics of that present back into the past, obscuring the ruptures between, and specificities of, different historical epochs.26

The point of this critique is not to say that Islamism, or sectarianism, or indeed tribalism, is unimportant in understanding the trajectories of the post–Arab Spring Middle East. Rather, it is to give them their due importance. When ‘Islam’, ‘sectarianism’ or ‘tribes’ are offered as the reasons for civil war or repression in the Arab world, they function not as explanations but as shorthand. None of these categories, any more or less than those of class or gender, for example, are objects in their own right: they are particular structures of relations that change over time, place and political context. All of the six revolutions examined in this book featured revolutionary Islamists and counter-revolutionary ones (not to mention the universal alignment of the religious scholarly establishment with the old regimes): secularists who took to the revolutionary barricades and those who fought for the old regimes – in some cases, these were the same people.

Likewise, co-sectarians could be found on either side of the revolutionary–counter-revolutionary divide. Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims certainly formed the majority of the participants in the Syrian revolution, for example (as they do the Syrian population as a whole), and Sunni Islamists eventually came to dominate the armed rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, an Alawi – but this affiliation placed no barrier to his firm alliance with the major portion of Syria’s Sunni bourgeoisie.27 Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announcing in Cairo in 2013 the overthrow of an elected Islamist president, was flanked not only by the Coptic pope and the shaykh of Al-Azhar but by representatives of the hard-line Islamist party, Nour.28 In Libya, where the tribe is an undeniable feature of social life, members of the same tribe were to be found on opposing sides of the barricades during the revolution of 2011.29 To take such categories as sect, tribe or Islam seriously means not to accept them as reified entities, causal agents in their own right, but as sites and means of historically constituted struggle.30

To understand the trajectories these struggles took, therefore, requires a different lens to that of the ‘vernacular theory’ of tribes, Muslims and sects as the prime movers of politics in the Middle East.31 I draw instead on the scholarly tradition that has done most to analyse and explain the causes, dynamics and consequences of revolutions: that of historical sociology.32 In so doing, I focus on a hitherto understudied phenomenon in the field, that of counter-revolution. In contrast to the narrative arc drawn between ‘Arab spring’ and ‘Arab winter’, wherein the catastrophes of civil war and renewed dictatorship follow popular uprisings like the turning of the seasons, I seek to restate the historically open-ended character of these revolutions. Their outcome, the victory of counter-revolutions across most of the region, cannot be assumed but must rather be explained. As Victor Serge wrote of the fate of the Russian Revolution: ‘to judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried with him since his birth – is that very sensible?’33

This change of focus, away from the failure of revolutions towards the success of counter-revolution, also implies a break with the existing understandings of political transition in the region. These understandings are twofold: one of democratisation from above, and its frustration, and the other of contentious politics from below.

Reluctant Democrats, Resilient Autocrats

The study of the politics of the Arab world, before and after 2011, has been dominated by a question of absence and failure: why had (most) Arab states failed to become democracies?34 The centrality of this question was honoured even amongst those who inverted its terms – for to ask why a state is successful at not being a democracy is still a question about democracy.35 The iterations of this debate and the positions staked out within it, thus, all revolved around a lack or gap evident when the political systems of the Arab Middle East were compared to those of other regions of the world. After an initial period of shock amongst scholars and policymakers, the revolutions of 2011 were expected to resolve the problem by closing this gap.36

The democracy that was missing in the Arab world, and which was anticipated to be provided by the uprisings, was of a particular kind. The guiding principles of this form of democracy, and therefore of the academic study of Arab un-democracy, were abstracted from the experiences of the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America and Eastern Europe. The first of these was that democracy was a universally applicable set of institutional arrangements for governance by freely elected officials, constrained by constitutions, and safeguarded by independent judiciaries.37 The second was that these arrangements could be successfully reached by a process of transition, negotiated between the willing elements of regime and opposition: mass mobilisation could only aid the ‘breakthrough’ to such a process.38 The third was that such a successful outcome is the product of variables distributed unevenly across states and therefore visible in comparison between them, rather than of particular histories of struggle.39

The hold of this mode of thinking about Arab un-democracy was brief, undermined both by events outside the academy and by its own contradictions. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003, garlanded with a popularised version of the democratisation thesis,40 was followed by an extension of the ‘democracy agenda’ to American policy in the region as a whole, with far from encouraging results. Iraq was soon braced by insurgency and civil war, while elections to the Palestinian legislature in 2006 (largely free) and the Egyptian Parliament (less un-free than past contests) in 2005 demonstrated only the strength of Islamist candidates. The prospect of wholesale democratisation in the region, especially in those states allied to the United States, where American voices would be most attentively heard, became less welcome to Washington.

This external critique was accompanied by an internal one, with the emergence of ‘post-democratisation’ or ‘authoritarian resilience’ as trends in the study of Arab politics.41 The central point of these arguments was that scholars should, instead of seeking to explain why Arab states failed to approximate a democratic model, focus on how their ruling regimes actually operated: not to refer to a polar opposition between democracy and the ‘residual category’ of authoritarianism but rather to construct taxonomies of the forms, and explanations for the success, of the latter.42 Authoritarianism was not retreating but rather ‘upgraded’ and – the key term – resilient.43 Supplely deflecting external pressure, and incorporating domestic opposition, through a fascia of democratic reform, the regimes of Arab un-democracy were in fact consolidating themselves.

The outbreak of revolutionary uprisings in 2010–11 challenged both sides of the debate on Arab un-democracy. The initial sweep of the protests, their apparent lack of any pre-determined programmatic character and the appeal of their slogans to universal claims of citizenship and human rights seemed to herald the long-awaited ‘breakdown’ that would open the way to democratic transition.44 The variation in results of the uprisings – no leadership change in Bahrain and Syria; leadership change but only a reversed or failed transition in Egypt, Libya and Yemen; and a completed transition only in Tunisia – led to a reprisal of attempts to explain Arab un-democracy, reliant on the same array of factors as before 2011: most typically, monarchies, militaries, oil rent and religious identity.

Monarchical rule, or at least a previously assured inheritance of power, was associated with the absence or failure of the ‘breakdown’ moment to occur.45 Rents permitted either populations as a whole or the coercive apparatus to be bought off.46 Dictators were most likely to be deposed in states with relatively independent military institutions, able to separate their (and the state’s) interests from the immediate clique of the ruler.47 Tunisia’s exception was the result of a military both institutionally separate from the ruling party and family and with an institutional tradition of respecting civilian rule. Failed transitions, such as Egypt’s, resulted from badly designed processes, entrenching the split in oppositions between those who promoted and those who feared the electoral success of parties based on some form of Islamic identity.48 If not all such interpretations of the results of the Arab uprisings partook of so bold a rehabilitation of classical modernisation theory as the claim that ‘democracy comes only after certain developmental pre-requisites have been met’,49 the concept of the state as a variable remained central to all. In this reading, varying degrees of ‘stateness’, of the approximation to the ideal of bureaucratic, rational independence derived from Max Weber, give rise to the different outcomes of the uprising.50 The most effective and cohesive state, Tunisia, underwent the most extensive transition to democracy: the others, being to some or other extent ineffective and incoherent, produced more disappointing results.51

What is to be gained, and lost, by abandoning the rubric of democratisation versus authoritarian resilience for that of revolution and counter-revolution in understanding the Arab Spring? One must register first the congruence of such a lens with the experience of the Arab revolutions. Contrary to portrayals of these uprisings, especially in states opposed to Western dominance over the region, as an extension of the Bush-era programme of regime change by military means,52 these were indigenous popular revolts seeking a transition to a rights-based political order: the slogans ‘The people demand the fall of the regime’ and ‘Bread, freedom, human dignity’ attest to that reality. Where democratisation theorists err is in taking a standpoint from above and, without these popular movements, reading them through the experiences of the so-called third wave53 of democratisation of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

In such a framework, mass revolts are merely a precursor to the real business of transition pacts conducted between opposition and regime elites. The continuation of popular mobilisation may even inhibit the success of such a pact.54 In this model, the state is seen as a more or less neutral entity following a path – the transition – to liberal democracy. The failure to achieve that endpoint is then to be ascribed to the presence of obstacles, insufficiently democratically minded sections of the regime or opposition, who function as ‘spoilers’ of the process.55 What this perspective misses is that returns to authoritarianism, or indeed the suppression of challenges to it, are not ‘failures’ at all: they are successes, successes of repressing or reversing the popular movement against the power of the ruling elites concentrated in the regimes. At times, transition processes may themselves also serve to demobilise and disorganise such movements.56 From a vantage point inside the transition process, counter-revolutions become impossible to see.

This lacuna derives from the origin of democratic transition theory. The criterion against which Arab un-democracy was judged, and indeed rendered an object of international management, was a fundamental change that occurred in the nature of revolutionary contestation in the last quarter of the twentieth century. From roughly the Portuguese revolution of 1974–75, confrontational movements from below came – with some significant exceptions such as the Iranian revolution of 1979 – to seek mainly changes of political regime rather than social order.57 That is to say, they sought the downfall of particular regimes, dictators, cliques and cronies at most of the broader systems of authoritarian power that sustained these, and their replacement with some form of electoral democracy and guarantees of individual rights. As articulated by the leaders they threw up, if not always by all of the participants, these were revolutions to emulate, rather than overthrow, the existing model of capitalist democracy in the United States and Western Europe. The paradigmatic case of such revolutions was, of course, the Eastern European uprisings that caused the Soviet Union itself to collapse, ending the Cold War: just as consequential were the uprisings that ended autocracies – often erstwhile US allies – in large parts of Asia and Latin America. Initial studies of the Arab revolutions expected them to replicate these ‘non-violent’ revolutions with broad but shallow aims, and consequently few enemies.58 Daniel Ritter, the most rigorous exponent of this thesis, argues that mobilisations against regimes aligned with the US-led liberal world order – for example, in Egypt – take advantage of the rhetorical commitment to human rights consequent upon such alignment in order to topple them. No such restraint applies to regimes not so aligned, explaining the differential results of the uprisings.59

The Arab uprisings were quite different, however, to this model of the ‘long 1990s’,60 upon which the expectations of democratic transition were based. They were, contrary to popular perception, violent, divisive and generative of enemies at home and abroad.61 These divisions revolved around, even if they did not consciously express, the crisis of a particular economic model: unlike earlier transition pacts, the sense of chaotic disorder, and of what might ensue from the onrush of a ‘sea of angry people’, was quite real.62 The consequent campaigns of military, political and juridical repression were not ‘failures’ of an assumed transition process, but – at least pro-tempore – successful attempts to stanch this flow. If democratic transition is an imperfect lens through which to view this process, what of its contender, authoritarian resilience?

Again, the propositions of authoritarian resilience are far from empirically unsupported. The Arab Spring did not, with little exception, bring about the end of undemocratic dictatorships but, if anything, brought fiercer re-charged versions of them. In this sense, Arab authoritarianism could be said to be resilient.63 Yet neither the term nor the argument to which it refers quite captures the dynamics at work. ‘Resilience’ implies the flexibility and adaptability of an organism to new, potentially life-threatening conditions: in the case of the Arab regimes, the change in conditions was precisely the isolation enforced on them by the transition waves of the 1980s and 1990s, and the threat of US-led regime change after Iraq. Their resilience consisted of superficial adaptation to see off this challenge. The uprisings of 2011 brought a quite different, indeed more existential, threat and thereby a different outcome. No regime was left the same as before: an initial democratisation was either moderated (Tunisia) or overthrown (Egypt); the hold of the regime collapsed in civil war (Libya and Yemen); was maintained by external intervention (Bahrain); or a combination of the latter two (Syria). These were not moments of resilience but of deep recomposition. They necessitated not only some strategic tinkering by the central core of the regimes but the forging of a new compact, based around new forms of violent political exclusion.

This necessity of forging a popular base to overcome the revolutionary challenge leads us to a further account of the politics of the Middle East, before and after 2011, one that looks not from above but below. Such works turn away from the focus on the centralised politics of regimes and oppositions that characterised both the search for democratising tendencies and the explanation of robustly non-democratic realities. Often in response to the outbursts of popular struggle that preceded the greater conflagration of 2011, these works concerned themselves with the ruled rather than the rulers. How did they fare in the face of revolutions that appeared at first to vindicate their approach, only to fall into calamitous results?

The Dark Side of Contention

The study of politics from below seemed an initial counterweight to the failure of political scientists to foresee the Arab uprisings.64 Eyes trained on the continuous traditions of popular resistance and mobilisation against state power would be likelier to grasp both the nature of the rupture wrought by such mobilisation, and its continuity with previous forms of unruly and informal politics. Rather than accept the notion of politics in the Middle East as a series of regional particularities to be explained, this shift of focus extended existing general frames of understanding to the popular politics of the Arab world before and during the uprisings.65 This turn to politics from below functioned in two, by no means incompatible, registers: one concerning power, domination and resistance, in general, and the other the tactics and forms of mobilisation by which power is contested.

The wellspring of the former was to be found in a reworked understanding of the concept of political power, one with its roots in the genealogies of Michel Foucault and the subaltern histories and ethnographies of EP Thompson and James C Scott. In this understanding, power is distributed in seams, lodes and webs rather than a consolidated bloc.66 The resistance to it thereby takes the form, not of direct confrontation but of more quotidian measures – the ‘prosaic constant struggle’ waged by means of ‘foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage’.67 Evading, mocking and stymieing the operations of power here constitute an ‘infra-politics’ of continual resistance.68

Before 2011, such acts of everyday resistance co-existed with more readily visible kinds of mobilisation: representing, in Asef Bayat’s words, a ‘social nonmovement’ of speech and practice in public space.69 The strength of such ‘nonmovements’ was registered by their absence, in states such as Syria, wherein inhabitants followed careful rules of public loyalty to the regime, not in order to resist but to survive.70 In 2011, movement and ‘nonmovement’ suffused one another to form collective, revolutionary subjects rooted primarily amongst the ‘popular forces’ of urban centres.71 The revolutions, therefore, took on a capillary, horizontal or ‘leaderless’ character:72 one welcomed as the confirmation of the birth of a new kind of revolution, a multitudinous movement of the squares at odds with older hierarchies of programme and organisation.73

This concern with the dynamics of mobilisation – and non-mobilisation – found a more systematic form in the application of variants of ‘Social Movement Theory’ and ‘contentious politics’ to the Middle East before and after 2011. Delineating the latter as a general phenomenon of ‘interactions in which actors make claims bearing on other actors’ interests, leading to co-ordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties’,74 social movement theorists seek both to describe and to explain the activities of these claim-making collectivities. Such collective actors consist of the campaign of contention itself, drawing upon the ‘social bases’ of organisation, finance and ‘cultural frameworks’ to make their claims.75 ‘Political opportunity structures’ – some shift or opening in the governing regime – offer these movements the chance to make their contentious claims, in which they make use of a repertoire of tactics undergirded by certain ‘cultural frames’, such as the symbolism of freedom or non-violence.76

The extension of Social Movement Theory, and the study of contentious politics, to the Middle East occurred before 2011: this continuity allowed the revolutions to be understood as part of a stream of contention that preceded them amongst workers, democracy activists and the urban poor.77 Tilly and Tarrow provided such a reading themselves, seeing in the Arab Spring an instantiation of their concepts of political opportunity, actor constitution, alliance-seeking and radicalisation.78

Careful scholarship has begun to excavate the relations between contentious politics within states, and geopolitics between them.79 Nonetheless, as John Chalcraft notes, the very breadth of ambition of Social Movement Theory, as well as the sophistication of its descriptive taxonomies, is won at the expense of contextual distinction.80 Such distinction is particularly important, as Social Movement theorists acknowledge, in the midst of ‘a revolutionary situation’ wherein ‘many actors…mobilize for action’.81 Distinguishing not just how they mobilise but why and to what end, in such a situation, requires greater attention to counter-revolutionary actors than hitherto offered by the contentious politics approach.

Such ‘counter-movements’82 have rarely formed the focus of study in Social Movement Theory. With few exceptions,83 the study of regime responses in Social Movement Theory – that is to say, policies of counter-revolution – are not linked to the building of counter-movements that support and extend those policies. The formation of such links, reaching down from the heart of the ancien regime into the ‘popular forces’ and outward to circuits of regional and global inter-state competition, will be the subject matter of this book. I am concerned not with how a system of power is evaded or subverted but how it is re-constituted after a collapse:84 not just with the making of contentious claims on regimes but their victory over those who make such claims. For that reason, I focus not on the general dynamics and mechanisms of movements and contention but on the specific form of revolution and counter-revolution, as these were visible in the Middle East after 2011.

Absent Revolutions, Passive Revolutions, Counter-Revolutions

This book, of course, is not the first to address the question of the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary events of the ‘Arab Spring’. Three broad streams in the literature may be identified. The first, to which I have already alluded, simply maintains that these were not revolutions because they did not issue in successful, profound and enduring social change. The second adopts a Gramscian approach to see the 2011 uprisings open-ended revolutionary situations that nonetheless issued – particularly in Egypt – in hybrid forms of revolution such as ‘revolution-restorations’ or ‘passive revolutions’. The third explicitly treats the Arab Spring and its aftermath through the lens of counter-revolution, as I do in this book. What then is distinctive about my approach and why is it worth adding yet another work to the already existing literature on the subject?

The first set of literature stands against my argument that rather than simply being failed uprisings, the outcomes of 2011 must be understood as (largely) successful counter-revolutions. The point is made concisely by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley: ‘[t]his [the 25th of January uprising in Egypt] is not a revolution’ because it brought neither revolutionary personnel nor revolutionary ideology to power.85 This argument is echoed and extended by Hugh Roberts, who characterises the Egyptian uprising, for the same reason, as ‘the revolution that wasn’t’.86 Further complicating the picture, the regimes that the uprisings sought to topple often considered themselves, or their origins, to be revolutionary. Opposition to such regimes could itself then be argued to be counter-revolutionary, as the same author argues in the case of Libya: a ‘counterfeit revolution passed off as the real thing’ or perhaps a ‘counter-revolution’ based on ‘toxic identity issues’ and the dominance of ‘the Islamist aspect of the Libyan rebellion’.87 Surveying the wreckage of civil war in his own country and across the region five years after the outbreak of the revolutions, Adonis, Syria’s greatest modern poet and noted opponent of the uprising of 2011, summed up this genre of commentary: ‘[t]he important thing is the outcome of revolutions, not their beginnings’.88

Works based on more solid sociological foundations have reached the same conclusion: that despite the evident challenge these uprisings posed to the ruling regimes of the states in which they occurred, and the self-conception of the millions of participants in them as thuwwar – ‘revolutionaries’ – these uprisings must be necessarily excluded from revolutionary status on the grounds that they had failed to match established criteria of revolutionary success.89 For example, Brownlee, Masoud and Reynold’s survey of the Arab Spring explicitly takes as its yardstick ‘Skocpol’s…definition of revolutions as a rapid, structural transformation of the state (and, for social revolutions, society)’ and according to which ‘neither Egypt nor the other Arab Spring cases clear the bar’.90 Robert Springborg, likewise, characterises the Egyptian uprising as a ‘brief moment of mobilization’ in a ‘few urban areas’.91 For authors such as Joel Beinin and Sean McMahon, an Egyptian revolution has yet to occur – on the Skocpolian grounds that revolution means the building of a new social and political order brought about by mass mobilisation.92

Part of the contribution of this book is to demonstrate the empirical inaccuracy of these arguments. As the evidence in Chapter 3 demonstrates, the Arab uprisings were, in fact, convulsive episodes that shattered existing state structures or forced their re-composition. They were also ‘carried through by class-based revolts from below’. In the breadth and rapidity of their spread and the severity of their consequences, they equal, if not outdo, the wave of protests that brought down the former Soviet bloc, as well as many previous revolutionary waves. If the study of revolutions cannot encompass such events, then it must become a very circumscribed sphere of knowledge indeed, excluding from its bounds such instances as the German revolution of 1918–20, the Spanish revolution of 1936–38, the Chinese Revolution of 1926 or the Hungarian uprising of 1956 – turning points without which neither the history of revolutionary movements nor of the twentieth century as a whole could be understood. The failure of such episodes to issue in lasting political or social transformation should form the starting point, not the end, of enquiry.

As I discuss further in the second chapter, this empirical flaw reveals the analytical one. To define revolutions by their endpoints implies, as Brecht de Smet notes, the fallacy of selecting cases on the dependent variable. If we only analyse successful revolutions, how can we know why revolutions succeed or fail? Moreover, the success of counter-revolutions becomes inexplicable from this standpoint.93 If it is a requirement of the definition of revolutions that they be successful, then successful counter-revolution becomes a conceptual impossibility. A counter-revolution can only occur against a revolution – but if a revolution is reversed, then it drops from its former revolutionary status. The thing that reversed it can, therefore, no longer be considered a counter-revolution, rendering the argument nugatory. Reflecting this impasse, founding works of the sociology of revolution, such as those of Skocpol or Jack Goldstone, treat counter-revolution as empirically vital but conceptually negligible. Counter-revolutionaries, through their armed opposition to revolution, play essential roles in the historical narrative of revolutionary outcomes but occupy little or no space in the theoretical frameworks offered to explain them.94 Adonis may well be right that revolutionary endings are more important than revolutionary beginnings, but without an account of counter-revolution the reasons for those endings slip into obscurity.

There is another way of treating the outcomes of the 2011 uprisings, which is to see them as hybrid, deflected or co-opted forms of revolution. The most prominent version of this argument is to be found in the work of Brecht de Smet. Rather than restrict the meaning of revolution to successful instances of profound social change brought about by mass mobilisation from below, De Smet argues that ‘a process should [not] be deemed a revolution or not solely based on its objective outcomes’.95 The Egyptian revolution, De Smet maintains, represents instead a ‘passive revolution’, in Gramsci’s terms. Passive revolution refers to the incorporation of subaltern demands and personnel by the ruling class through a process of ‘trasformismo’ – new projects of national modernisation – that emerge from moments of revolutionary crisis.96 Such a transformation is achieved by a military ‘Caesarism’ presenting itself as a resolution to the contradictions of a society in organic crisis while in reality remaining bound to its ruling class.97 Cihan Tugal’s account of the rise of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party as a ‘revolution-restoration’ that absorbed the ‘Islamic challenge to capitalism’ posed by the 1979 Iranian revolution, only to founder in the Egyptian case, draws upon a similar theoretical apparatus.98

This book shares with De Smet the view of the Egyptian revolution (and broader Arab revolution) as an open-ended process that was trapped between ‘social’ and ‘political emancipation’ by its own failure to produce durable institutional form and hence was vulnerable to counter-revolution.99 Our differences lie in the application of the ideas of passive revolution and counter-revolution. As Anne Alexander and Sameh Naguib note, the usage of the former term to describe the Egyptian military coup of 2013 stretches the concept in unproductive ways.100 ‘Passive revolution’ typically refers to the attempt, both impelled and mediated by geopolitical competition, for ruling classes to neutralise threats to their domination by re-organising social relations ‘from above’.101 I agree with Roberto Roccu that the core of the latter refers to a process of ‘fulfilment’ and ‘displacement’ of revolutionary demands in an international context that requires ‘restructuring on the national scale’.102 Counter-revolution, although always incorporating elements of revolutionary form, does not fulfil revolutionary demands but rather abnegates them and attempts the political exclusion or physical destruction of their authors. The international context – states allied to the counter-revolution – here does not impel but rather impedes and reverses social transformation. Therefore, counter-revolutionaries face a different problem to that of passive revolutionaries. As explicated in the next chapter, counter-revolution always involves re-composition and never a simple return to the past. Yet in the case of the Arab counter-revolutions, although these have incorporated in some cases elements of mass support, they have not so incorporated revolutionary demands but rather defeated them. To focus on passive revolution, therefore, directs our attention to an overextended concept – whereas counter-revolution is an understudied phenomenon, distinct from trasformismo.

If passive revolution represents one way of understanding the outcomes of 2011, another is to see them as hybrids of reform and revolution. In works with identical titles in different languages, Asef Bayat and Fawaz Traboulsi characterise the uprisings as ‘revolutions without revolutionaries’: effusions of mass protest, to be sure, but lacking in the programmatic clarity and leadership that had distinguished previous revolutionary movements.103 For Bayat, the uprisings represent a novel combination of ‘revolutionary mobilizations’ and ‘reformist trajectories’ that were nonetheless radicalised by acts of collective claim-making from below. These struggles, rather than cohere into a challenge to the existing social order, led to the vulnerability of the ensuing to transitions to counter-revolution from within and without.104 The argument put in this book does not dispute this claim of the vulnerability of the revolutions but insists that the other side of the equation, the relative strength of the counter-revolutions, must also be explained. In doing so, I seek to go beyond existing works, such as those of Jean-Pierre Filiu and Gilbert Achcar. Both these authors identify the Arab counter-revolutions with the particularly personalistic forms of authoritarian rule – ‘patrimonialism’ for Achcar, a modern version of Mamluk rule for Filiu – prevalent in the region.105 Although concurring with Achcar’s statement that the Arab uprisings faced not the ‘classical binary opposition of revolution and counterrevolution’ but rather the dual counter-revolution of the old regimes and Muslim brotherhood, I set this understanding of counter-revolution within broader theories of revolution, expanded in Chapter 2.

Having criticised the arguments of others on the Arab revolutions, it is only appropriate here to set out the bases of my own. This book proceeds from my two-decades-long engagement with two interlinked academic and political commitments: the tradition of critical Marxist analysis, on the one hand, and an identification with the struggles for equality and liberation in the Middle East, on the other. Such commitments are of obvious relevance to a work concerning revolution in the Arab world. In making these commitments explicit, I hope to add rather than subtract from the robustness of my conclusions. No work of social inquiry is written without such commitments behind it, and those that maintain otherwise merely render implicit premises that ought to be available for critique.

In adopting a Marxist conceptual framework, I follow Hanna Batatu in seeing ‘class’ as a relationship, not an a priori characteristic or category of person.106 In capitalist societies, the central class relation is the sale and purchase of labour power in order to accumulate value; however, the historical struggle over this relationship generates ‘polar’ collectivities with particular observable institutions and identities, origins and endpoints.107 Amongst these are such collectivities as the organised and urban working class, and the class of labour-dependent landlords discussed in Chapter 2 as the historical supporters and antagonists of democratising revolutions. The expansion of capitalist relations is ‘uneven and combined’, however, meaning that there are no pure examples of such relations or the collectivities they generate.108 Therefore, as I demonstrate in the discussion of sectarianism in counter-revolution, forms of collectivity commonly thought of as pre-capitalist and primarily symbolic may, in fact, rest on eminently material bases. Moreover, these relations are not confined to the boundaries of one state but, as explicated in Chapter 2, extend to a globally competitive hierarchy of states – a competitive hierarchy that compels not merely military readiness but forms of accumulation necessary to sustain it.

My adoption of such a framework represents a political as much as an intellectual commitment. In relation to the events analysed in this book I was, if not an active participant, certainly not a neutral observer. Much of the material I collected for this book began in conversation with such active participants, and in the visits I made to the region between 2011 and 2015, as well as in solidarity work in the UK. Vesting, from the outside, some of my own political hopes and aspirations in the uprisings may suggest a lack of scholarly neutrality, but, as I have noted, such a thing is, in any case, a chimera. If my – and others’ – hope that the uprisings might pass beyond the boundaries of political change into more fundamental social and economic transformation was disappointed, so too were the aspirations of more mainstream democratisation theorists and, indeed, of most Islamists. This commitment has provided the spur to reflection on the aftermath of the revolutions that constitutes this book. This reflection will only be of use to the activists of 2011 and their inheritors if it follows the conventions of scholarly rigour in conceptual coherence and evidential substance. Such are, in any case, the grounds of legitimate intellectual critique – rather than a claimed neutrality concealing implicit premises.

The Argument

The question raised by this reflection, and which this book seeks to answer, is therefore ‘why were the Arab counter-revolutions successful?’ From this question follow subsidiary enquiries: how did regimes – in at least half of the cases of the Arab revolutions – that appeared so classically coercive, lacking in popular legitimacy, ‘patrimonial’ and therefore ripe for demise, manage to re-establish themselves?109 Why, nonetheless, did they differ in their trajectories, producing a political revolution in Tunisia, coup and political counter-revolution in Egypt, military counter-revolution in Bahrain, and civil war in Syria, Yemen and Libya?

None of these outcomes was foreordained. The answers to them can be sought only in tracing the historical processes, interactive and open-ended, of the revolutionary uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath. The analytical framework by means of which I both justify the definition of these phenomena as ‘revolutions’ and specify the nature of the counter-revolutions against them follows in the second chapter. That framework, drawing from the work of Arno Mayer and Charles Tilly, concentrates on the question of how the counter-revolutionaries attempt to go back to ruling in the old way – or something like it – when a significant proportion of the population are in rebellion against that rule. Successful counter-revolutionaries, I argue, manage to unite a policy of repression, or military conquest, with a political movement that reaches beyond a ruling clique. Through both symbolic and material means, they unify counter-revolution ‘from below’ and ‘above’ to build a counter-revolutionary collective subject, creating alliances ‘from without’ between both states and movements that recompose previously existing regional and international orders.

The story of these revolutions and counter-revolutions holds significance beyond the history of these six states, and indeed beyond the Arab world as a whole. Welcomed at first as the long-awaited extension of the era of global liberalism to a region that had failed to embrace it after the end of the Cold War, they marked instead the very endpoint of that era. The very transformations wrought in and between Arab societies after the Cold War, atomising and disorganising the social forces most favourable to overturning authoritarian regimes, while establishing new regional bonds among competing ruling classes, proved propitious for the counter-revolutionary project.

The counter-revolutions that suppressed the Arab uprisings put paid to the notion of liberal revolutions, revolutions having neither socially transformative aspirations to achieve nor powerful enemies to oppose them, as the route to an anticipated historical endpoint of free-market democracy.110 Such liberal revolutions fell within a historically peculiar habitable zone: one in which powerful working class movements and their allies faced post-agrarian ruling classes (now reliant on abstract domination rather than personal power) that saw no reason to reject their moderate demand for political democracy.

The Arab revolutions were fought by different protagonists. Organised workers were certainly crucial to some of them, such as Tunisia, and there an outcome closer to the ‘transition pact’ of democratisation emerged. Strike waves of historic proportions also featured in the Egyptian and Bahraini uprisings. For the most part, however, the Arab revolutionaries formed a socially diverse, if largely plebeian, subject that emerged from the informal labour markets and precarious living conditions of the neoliberal infitah era. Their social demands were made typically at the level of reproduction (housing, services, and a life free from police oppression) rather than that of production. Peasant struggles over land were notable by their scarcity. The Arab counter-revolutionaries consisted not of a squirely ancien regime but a composite financial-security elite integrated with the competing regional sources of capital in the Gulf and outwards to their extra-regional allies. These linkages, and the ideologies of sect, tribe and nation they enabled, were vital for the success – differing in degree and kind, of course – of the counter-revolutions. The historical legacies of previous revolutions from above, conducted against coercive landowners, provided the material for building such linkages and was a source of confusion for outside observers who see ‘revolution’ as a trans-historical phenomenon.

In Chapter 2, I provide an analytical framework for understanding revolution and counter-revolution as historically specific processes. As I demonstrate, there is always a tension between these two concepts, reflecting the dual understanding of revolution as, on the one hand, deeply transformative social and political change and, on the other, as mass revolt from below. Working through, rather than attempting to obscure, this tension, I offer a provisional definition of counter-revolution relevant to the Arab Spring as a project, supported by social movements and international alliances, attempting to reverse a revolution, and by extension to prevent revolutionary movements that have already gained some momentum from coming to power.111 In so doing, I am guided by the historical sociologist Arno Mayer’s approach to the European counter-revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, albeit in a different historical context. In particular, I focus on the process Mayer highlights: how the ‘counterrevolutionary’s dilemma’, of fusing together the elite of the threatened order with a mass base, was solved. Such fusion takes place in revolutionary situations conceived as historically open-ended processes, the explanation of which requires unifying collective action, structural transformation, symbolic and material orders, and domestic and international alliances.112 Counter-revolutions are also bound to particular historical contexts, although not determined by them. Previous instances of counter-revolution drew strongly on the persistent power of coercive landlord classes; in the Arab cases, however, the inheritance of post-colonial revolutions from above that dissolved such classes provided the adhesive to build a counter-revolutionary subject.

To posit the operation of Arab counter-revolutions also means claiming the existence of Arab revolutions. In the third chapter of this book, I substantiate this claim that each of the cases examined – Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen – constituted profound revolutionary situations. If these revolts did not produce ‘a basic transformation of…class structures’113 in the societies concerned, they nonetheless produced profound political changes and frequently alternative political institutions that prefigured or enacted different forms of rule. These matched the competing and incompatible claims to rule defined by Charles Tilly as the sine qua non of a revolutionary situation.114 In one state, Tunisia, the result was a fundamental change of political system to an electoral democracy. In another, Egypt, a similar systemic political change, producing the country’s first-ever elected presidency, was initiated only to be reversed. In a third, Libya, the head of the old regime, was toppled and elections held but over a fractured polity: a not dissimilar outcome held in Yemen, albeit with more restricted electoral input. In a fifth, Syria, the existing regime was at one point reduced to controlling one-fifth of the country’s territory and a variety of new governing institutions – some roughly democratic, others not – temporarily established in the remainder. Only Bahrain failed to witness such changes, but at the high point of the revolt in February 2011, in which security forces lost control of the streets and highways of the country. In each of these, I demonstrate how existing hierarchies of workplace, gender and sect were unsettled and how the revolutionaries prefigured a new form of expanded political self. The question then is not whether these events were revolutions but how those revolutions ended in failure or defeat.

In Chapter 4, I take up the first form of how these revolutionary situations were closed: Tunisia and Egypt, states that experienced political revolution and counter-revolution, respectively. In Egypt, the counter-revolution occurred by the traditional means of military coup, followed by a vigorous campaign of arrest, torture and massacre – first directed against the Muslim brotherhood, then against wider circles of opposition. In Tunisia, such an outcome was avoided only by the political participation and return at the ballot box of the counter-revolutionaries, the azlam of Nida Tounes, who formed an administration in coalition with their erstwhile Islamist opponents, Ennahda. Demonstrating how counter-revolutionaries must unite their forces ‘from above’ and ‘below’, I show how in Egypt, the co-ordinating core of the military state, the SCAF, was able to rely on the heritage of state-led revolution from above to split the revolutionary coalition and bring a part of it over to support their counter-revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood’s willingness in power to suppress the ongoing revolutionary movement added to the counter-revolution. In Tunisia, the azlam relied on a similar appeal to secularist nationalism against Ennahda, again drawing on a previous revolution from above that had transformed agrarian relations. The strength of the workers’ movement, however, allowed it to broker a compromise, cemented by shared economic policies, between the two. In both cases, I trace how counter-revolution from without operated mainly through financial and diplomatic support but was primarily divided between the Saudi-GCC axis aiming to prevent any form of popular representative democracy as represented in their view by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari-Turkish MB axis likewise seeking to profit from such political revolutions but prevent social ones.

In Chapter 5, I take up the cases where the existing regimes were able to isolate and crush the revolutionary uprisings, albeit at great cost: Syria and Bahrain. In Syria, this consisted of an all-out war by the regime against the territories liberated from its control, combined with a massive campaign of arrests, tortures and assassinations of the original revolutionary activists and the release of Islamist insurgents who would sectarianise the revolt. In Bahrain, the Khalifas adopted a scaled-down version of this policy, complete with the semi-military occupation of restive Shi’a villages, but only once assured the support of the occupying forces of the GCC. In this chapter, therefore, I deal with the question of sect and sectarianism in building a counter-revolutionary subject. In Syria, the regime was less sure of a popular basis but was able to suture the support of many non-Sunnis to the pre-2011 coalition of a new bourgeoisie embedded in the security apparatus and most of the older Sunni business class: a cross-sectarian elite to which sectarianisation nonetheless proved a useful counter-revolutionary strategy. The Bahraini monarchy relied upon far more open sectarian mobilisation of Sunnis, bolstered by the outside help of the GCC. In both of these cases, counter-revolution from without was particularly salient: in Syria, a threefold competition between a Russian-Iranian-Hizballah axis supporting the regime, and an opposing camp divided by Saudi and Qatari-Turkish loyalties. The United States vacillated between the first and second axis – I demonstrate that American policy in Syria was a symptom not of US hegemony, but decline. In the case of Bahrain, a far more straightforward direct intervention by GCC forces under Saudi leadership was necessary to put an end to the revolutionary situation.

Chapter 5 deals with those cases where neither revolution nor counter-revolution could be said to have triumphed but rather led to state collapse. In Yemen, the unresolved grievances of the unification and civil war of the 1990s were overlaid with a sectarian understanding that transformed the difference between the Shafe’i and Zaydi schools of jurisprudence into a ‘sectarian conflict’ seen through the gaze of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tehran. In overwhelmingly Sunni Libya, tribal networks (and to some extent ‘ethnicity’) offered a means of mobilisation for militias on both sides of the civil war although only Field Marshal Haftar claimed the mantle of the ‘Libyan National Army’ and pre-2011 command structure. As with sects, this chapter expands on ‘tribes’ as systems of material and symbolic distinction rather than political protagonists. In both of these states, competitive external intervention again played a crucial role. In Libya, the NATO bombing campaign aided the overthrow and eventual murder of Gaddafi but then produced a division between those who wanted, on an Islamist model, completely to restructure the Libyan state and those who wanted partially to preserve or revive it: the latter coalescing around the counter-revolutionary officer Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In Yemen, a counter-revolutionary settlement was found under GCC auspices that would, in effect, preserve the old regime while sidelining Ali Abdallah Saleh – resulting in the paradoxical outcome that at least some of those opposing the old regime ended up (temporarily) on the same side as its former figurehead.

In the sixth chapter, I take up those attempts that did emerge at remaking a ‘revolutionary’ state in Northern Syria: the autonomous administration of ‘Rojava’ ruled by the PYD and the ‘caliphate’ of the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham. The first I show to have been the closest thing to a social revolution to have emerged from the uprisings, but fatally flawed by its separation from the wider Syrian revolution (a separation in which the Arab chauvinism of the mainstream opposition played a large part). The second, contrary to most other interpretations, I see as a counter-revolutionary force. For although its project of a universal, novel, violent transformation resembles that of previous revolutions, ISIS lacked the popular base that both (outside of liberal ideology) characterised those revolutions and actively suppressed that popular revolutionary movement to the benefit – if not always the connivance – of the Assad regime. Indeed, ISIS’ success was inconceivable without the counter-revolutionary strategy of the regime it nominally opposed, and the sectarianisation of the Syrian uprising that resulted from it.

In the conclusion, I return to the broader implications of revolution and counter-revolution in the twenty-first century. Beginning with a balance sheet of the counter-revolutionary decade in the Middle East, I return to the global paradox of an increase and broadening in revolutionary uprisings since the 1980s accompanied but revolutionary outcomes, in the sense of deep social transformation, became almost non-existent. The continued relevance of this insight can be seen in the cycle of struggles of which the Arab revolutions were seen as a paradigm case: the 2011 ‘movement of the squares’ whose non-hierarchical and spontaneous character was allegedly repeated in protest movements across the decade, leading up to a renewal of the Arab revolutions themselves in Sudan Algeria, Lebanon. Yet these latter uprisings, and it might tentatively be noted the renewed Black rebellion in the United States under the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’, seemed to have learned something from the previous movements: that transformation could not be limited just to this or that personnel but could target an entire system.

The lessons of the Arab counter-revolutions for such movements are threefold, I conclude. First, that the moment of transition to limited liberal democracy via mass mobilisation has passed: the separation of political from economic and social transformation has turned into a hardened rejection of even the former. It is no longer possible, as it was in the latter twentieth century, to expect moderate demands of democratisation to be granted so long as more substantive social change is foregone. Second, counter-revolution is no longer to be found amongst the reactionary defenders of a decaying rural order – landlords or clerical obscurantists – but emerges from composite financial and security elites with a significant degree of mass appeal based on previous phases of capitalism, not pre-capitalist society. Finally, international counter-revolution cannot be seen through the mid-twentieth century division between ‘imperialist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ nor on the liberal post-Cold War of a benevolent US hegemony ushering new democracies into the fold: counter-revolution is equally likely to issue from Washington and from its competitors.

Methods, Argument, Cases

The above argument belongs to the tradition of historical sociology that adopts as its method the comparison of historical cases of revolutionary situations using sociological and political categories – such as class, sect and state form – to develop explanations of the origins and outcomes of those situations. The mode of comparison I use, however, necessarily differs from the most common method used by historical sociologists: the method of similarity and difference derived from John Stuart Mill. The essence of this method consists of the conceptual identification of variables present or absent in a universe of cases of the outcome of interest, and the correlation of these variables with that outcome. The researcher is then able to identify which variables form a minimum of necessary and sufficient conditions for the outcome: so that, for example, we may conclude that revolutions do not occur without the presence of a fiscal crisis of the state or cultures of political opposition.

The achievements made by the applications of this method are not to be gainsaid. Nonetheless, I do not adopt it here, choosing instead to conduct an ‘incorporated comparison’ of the Arab counter-revolutions.115 My reason for so doing derives from the most powerful objection to the Millian approach: that it collapses accounts of historical processes, which themselves exert an influence on later events, into isolated units that can then be compared with one another for the absence or presence of previously defined variables.116 Although powerful in elucidating the conjunctions of these variables – such as peasant insurrection plus international pressure plus intra-state crisis leads to revolution – this strategy tends to founder on the historical interpenetration of variables and cases. It is inconceivable, for example, that the Chinese revolution of 1949 would have occurred in the way that it did without the prior instance of the Russian Revolution of 1917: nor that either would have done so without both the example of the French 1789, nor the global century of state-building, imperialism and capitalist industrialisation it inaugurated.117 For revolutions, and especially counter-revolutions, ‘their order is constitutive of their structure’.118

The particularities of the phenomenon of counter-revolution, and of the revolutionary wave that broke in the Arab world in 2011, make this point particularly pertinent. With the exception of Bahrain, all six of the states that experienced revolutionary uprisings in 2011 had been ‘populist authoritarian’ republics, and undergone a transition – of varying depth – to ‘post-populist’ forms of rule combined with neoliberal economic policies.119 This ‘universe’, of Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt and Yemen, also by definition shares an antecedent condition: a revolutionary situation. There had to be a revolution in order for a counter-revolution to occur. The unfolding of these revolutions over time was intertwined with one another: Tunisia gave an example to Egypt, which gave an example to Libya and then to Syria and so on. The interlinking of these sequences is even more marked in the progress of counter-revolutions. Counter-revolutionaries, as Kurt Weyland has noted, learn from the mistakes made by their counter-parts in the earlier stages of waves of revolution and co-ordinate their responses accordingly.120

The Arab counter-revolutions cannot, therefore, be treated as units separate from each other, an analysis of the variations which would then provide generalisable causes for their outcomes. It is not possible to fit them into a quasi-experimental design in which factors are held constant. Nonetheless, their outcomes did indeed differ: how is one to provide an explanation of them that may illuminate problems beyond the history of the cases themselves? I adopt the method of incorporated comparison of these counter-revolutions: the ‘cases’ are the counter-revolutions themselves, not the states in which they occurred. This is an important distinction, because although the revolutions were directed within and against national political structures – the ‘regime’ and the ‘people’ that desired its downfall were conceived in national terms and partook of particular national histories of revolt and rebellion – the revolutions both emerged from and were influenced by global and regional processes.

In speaking of these particular global and regional historical processes, how far can the experiences of the Arab revolutions be generalised? The universe of counter-revolutions studied in this book is limited, and as I demonstrate in the following chapter, revolutions are series of events rather than entities in their own right. They cannot be understood outside of their historical context, which they also illuminate. In the case of the Arab revolutions, that context is the history of infitah: the turn away from models of state-led national development and towards policies of privatisation, free-market reform and a merging of private wealth with state power.121 Of course, that regional turn formed part of a global tendency later denoted by the – somewhat capacious – concept of ‘neoliberalism’.122 This era, which preceded the revolutions, weakened the social forces most often associated with both social revolutions of the classic kind, and more limited political revolutions for democracy: the organised labour movement, and a rebellious poor or landless peasantry.123

This regional instance of a global process of structural transformation produced three main results: the disorganisation and ‘precariatisation’ of wage-earners, the transformation, and indeed downgrading, of the ‘agrarian question’ with different effects in different countries, and the promotion of circuits of accumulation whose core in the Middle East lay in the oil-producing Gulf, both the Sunni Arab monarchical autocracies and the Shi’a Islamic Republic of Iran. These results provided propitious grounds – not inevitable success – for counter-revolution.

By setting out this incorporated comparative approach to the substantive cases to answer the question of the counter-revolutionary’s dilemma, I attempt to get beyond a series of binary distinctions in the social science of revolutions – that between structures and agents, between material and symbolic orders, and politics within versus politics between states.124 The Arab revolutions, I argue, broke out because of a structural crisis: that of the infitah era. They marked, therefore, an inflection point: not the consummation of the rights-based revolutions of the ‘long 1990s’, but their ending. The reaction against those policies provided not, for the most part, a vision of the future beyond them, but largely a form of nostalgia for the past of national independence and state-led development that preceded them, or of their Islamist mirror image. The confluence of global liberalism and US predominance that marked the first decade after the fall of the Soviet Union had, by 2011, been replaced by a more varied topography of international and regional alliances: competing power centres in the Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, overlain with the regional ambitions of Qatar and Turkey and a renewed rivalry between Russian and the United States. As a consequence, the centrifugal effect of revolutions on international alliances, pitting counter-revolutionary intervention against besieged revolutionaries, was replaced by competing alliances of counter-revolutionary force.

Yet, as the claim that ‘another world was possible’ indicates, none of this necessarily led to the triumph of counter-revolutions. These were the result of open-ended contests between particular collective subjects, constituted through and not before the revolutionary moments, which were bound together by both material and symbolic appeals. Sectarian identification, as well as the dichotomy between ‘secularism’ and Islamism, formed a vital part of the forging of such subjects – but these were neither un-changing and pre-existing identities nor operative on the purely symbolic realm. In states such as Syria or Bahrain, for example, sectarianism was a material as much as a symbolic relationship. Likewise, the claim of the Egyptian SCAF to be defending a Nasserist inheritance against the Muslim Brotherhood found an audience in the independent trade union movement as much because of a symbolic identification of the role of Egyptian workers in national-developmentalism as of any material consideration.

Nor is it possible to divide domestic from international factors in the building of counter-revolutionary subjects. Where, as Eric Selbin has demonstrated, revolutionary narratives offer ‘compelling stories’ in which the revolutionary subject is the protagonist,125 the counter-revolutionary one is one of reaction, reversion and defence. The hero of the counter-revolutionary narrative is, almost always, the state in its violent and coercive form: the nation conceived as a continuous, organic and inviolate community whose social arrangements nonetheless require constant vigilance and defence binds the alliance of counter-revolution from above and below. Not only the structural crisis of infitah but the long-term experience of inter-societal hierarchy, in the trauma of attempts to ‘catch-up’ or regain past status embodied in Nasserism or Ba’athism, gives social substance to counter-revolutionary narratives of the nation as embattled historical subject. In a shorter time-scale, the particular policies adopted by counter-revolutionary states – the forms of military, diplomatic or financial support they extend – often proved decisive to a particular revolutionary situation.

In the chapters that follow, I seek to trace those policies and their success: the story of how the open-ended processes of revolutionary uprising in 2011 became instances of renewed authoritarianism and civil war. The sources on which I rely are mainly secondary ones, leavened with interviews, speeches and news reports. I have also relied upon collections of personal testimony. This choice of sources reflects not an absence of data from the Arab revolutions but rather an overabundance: the easy availability of smartphones and social media made these the most recorded revolutions in human history. In the face of this flood of primary evidence, and constrained by the necessity of drawing some form of comparative conclusions about the cases, I have relied on the prior sifting efforts of others – choosing historical-sociological breadth over ethnographic and archival depth.

The objective of this historical comparison is not to insist on any inevitability either of the course of the revolutionary process or its outcome but rather to find the reasons for those outcomes in the historical narrative, in the context of the structural transformation that preceded them. Those reasons reflect contingency and interaction but within an overall frame, both inherited from the past and reconstituted during the revolutionary period. At the heart of this endeavour lies the problem of counter-revolutionaries seeking to maintain or restore their rule over a society that has risen against them.

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  • Introduction
  • Jamie Allinson, University of Edinburgh
  • Book: The Age of Counter-Revolution
  • Online publication: 06 May 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
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  • Introduction
  • Jamie Allinson, University of Edinburgh
  • Book: The Age of Counter-Revolution
  • Online publication: 06 May 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats

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  • Introduction
  • Jamie Allinson, University of Edinburgh
  • Book: The Age of Counter-Revolution
  • Online publication: 06 May 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats