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Chapter 7 focuses on the two entities most often considered instances of revolutionary state formation after 2011 and which came into conflict with one another: the ISIS caliphate founded across Syria and Iraq, on the one hand, and the autonomous cantons ruled by the Kurdish PYD party in ‘Rojava’, or the Kurdish areas of north-eastern Syria, on the other. The chapter acknowledges that in attempting to create new forms of state – ‘democratic confederalism’ in the case of Rojava, and a Sunni Caliphate in the case of ISIS – these instances do resemble previous cases of revolutionary transformation. Yet their relationship with the revolutionary uprisings of 2011 is more complicated. In the case of ISIS, the chapter demonstrates that the caliphate is better thought of as a form of counter-revolution against that uprising, while in Rojava the PYD maintained an ambiguous relationship with the regime against which it was directed. For both the PYD and ISIS, international intervention proved decisive as the former were able to ally with the United States to defeat the latter – only then to suffer Turkish invasion once US support was withdrawn.
This chapter outlines the conceptual framework used in the book. Contrary to understandings of revolution based on their outcomes – on which basis the uprisings of 2011 are excluded from the definition of revolutions – this chapter argues that only a more open definition can encompass the phenomenon of counter-revolution. Adopting instead the idea of a revolutionary situation, the chapter outlines different forms of counter-revolution as a project of preventing or turning back a revolution through closing a revolutionary situation. Counter-revolution, the chapter demonstrates, cannot rely solely on the elite of the old regime but requires a popular base as well as external support. To succeed, therefore, counter-revolutionaries must unite the ‘counter-revolution from above’, ‘counter-revolution from below’ and ‘counter-revolution from without.’ Yet the social basis of such alliances has changed. Whereas the classic forms of European and colonial counter-revolution relied upon agrarian classes (sometimes united with urban capitalists and the lower middle class) supported by external powers, post-1975 democratising political revolutions were characterised by the absence or acquiescence of such classes and the encouragement of a liberal international order under US dominance. The Arab uprisings, by contrast, faced competitive regional counter-revolutions waged by financial and security elites – bolstered by the inheritance of previous revolutions from above.
Chapter 6 focuses on Libya and Yemen, both cases in which the former ruling dictator was removed – and eventually in both cases killed – but the result was the fragmentation and near-collapse of the state accompanied by direct and competitive foreign military intervention. Although ‘tribalism’ is often presented as a common factor in producing this outcome in both states, the chapter presents a materialist account of the tribe: just as in the case of the sect, tribal identification and forms of mobilisation acquiring their importance from previous forms of political economy. In both Libya and Yemen, the inheritance of previous revolutions from above – Gaddafi’s in Libya, and the anti-monarchical and anti-colonial revolutions of the 1960s in North and South Yemen, respectively – also shaped the revolutionary-counter-revolutionary conflicts after 2011. Although the NATO campaign in Libya in 2011 has been taken as a paradigmatic case of humanitarian intervention, assimilating the uprising to mid-2000s US policies of ‘regime change’, this chapter demonstrates that in both Libya and Yemen counter-revolutionary external intervention has been much more substantial and consequential.
Using the concept of a revolutionary situation as a turning point in which previously accepted social structures and relations are in flux, this chapter demonstrates the profoundly revolutionary nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Tracing the history of the revolutionary situations in each case – Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen – the chapter demonstrates how mass uprisings of historically remarkable size and breadth established new forms and sites of sovereignty and challenged existing social relations. These included mass, class-based revolts rooted in dissatisfaction with decades of neoliberal economic policy in the region, and the rejection of hierarchies of gender and sect. These revolutionary situations often produced a new sense of expanded and collective selfhood, which would then require counter-revolutionary violence to be eradicated. This chapter, thus, outlines the revolutionary situations that post-2011 counter-revolutionaries sought to end.
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.
This chapter focuses on Egypt and Tunisia, as the two states experienced political revolutions after 2011. In Egypt, the brief political revolution was overturned by the counter-revolution of 2013, while in Tunisia an unsteady democratic transition was achieved at the cost of the social demands of the uprising. Using the framework of counter-revolution from above, below, and without, the chapter demonstrates how counter-revolutionaries in both states were able to rely on the inheritance of previous anti-colonial revolutions from above to build a base of support – one aided by the record of Islamist parties once in power. The greater independence of the organised working class in Tunisia hampered a more fully counter-revolutionary outcome: while the external influence of the EU was concerned with fostering political revolution against social revolution. In Egypt, by contrast, the military as the core of the state was supported by a coalition of Gulf states already financially well-embedded in the country’s ruling class and pursuing a policy of outright counter-revolution.
The conclusion returns to the general questions raised in the first two chapters of the book. Reiterating and summarising the argument about counter-revolution from above, below and without, the chapter turns to the transformation in revolutions that occurred after 1975 – initially towards political revolutions and transitions towards liberal democracy, and then towards mass, urban-based uprisings frustrated by counter-revolutions. Drawing on the work of Mark Beissinger, the chapter shows that, far from being regionally unique, the Arab uprisings were the beginning of a decade of increasing mass protest that did not bring forth profound social – or in many cases, political – transformation. Nonetheless, as the example of the return of the slogans and tactics of 2011 with new forms of learning in uprisings in the region before the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate, the success of counter-revolution cannot be assumed.
This chapter focuses on Syria and Bahrain, states in which the ruling regimes of 2011 managed to retain power: albeit in the case of Syria at the cost of more than a decade of civil war. Acknowledging the great differences between the two states, the chapter highlights the similarity in the role of sectarianism and external intervention: binding the counter-revolutions from above, below and without. The chapter presents a materialist understanding of sectarianism, however, as the product of both particular forms of political economy and counter-revolutionary strategy. In Syria, this produced a cross-sectarian ruling elite, albeit with an Alawi core, that nonetheless had profoundly sectarian effects: whereas in Bahrain, sectarianism served more straightforwardly as a prop of the Khalifa ruling house. The Syrian counter-revolution could also rely, albeit to a lesser degree, on the inheritance of the previous revolution from above and the promotion of an ideology of development and modernisation. In both states, narratives of external intervention – Western, Zionist or Iranian – served to strengthen the counter-revolutionary cause, while extensive outside support for counter-revolution – mainly Russian and Iranian in Syria, Saudi and Emirati in Bahrain – made up for the limited appeal of the counter-revolution from below. This chapter focuses on Syria and Bahrain, states in which the ruling regimes of 2011 managed to retain power: albeit in the case of Syria at the cost of more than a decade of civil war. Acknowledging the great differences between the two states, the chapter highlights the similarity in the role of sectarianism and external intervention: binding the counter-revolutions from above, below and without. The chapter presents a materialist understanding of sectarianism, however, as the product of both particular forms of political economy and counter-revolutionary strategy. In Syria, this produced a cross-sectarian ruling elite, albeit with an Alawi core, that nonetheless had profoundly sectarian effects: whereas in Bahrain, sectarianism served more straightforwardly as a prop of the Khalifa ruling house. The Syrian counter-revolution could also rely, albeit to a lesser degree, on the inheritance of the previous revolution from above and the promotion of an ideology of development and modernisation. In both states, narratives of external intervention – Western, Zionist or Iranian – served to strengthen the counter-revolutionary cause, while extensive outside support for counter-revolution – mainly Russian and Iranian in Syria, Saudi and Emirati in Bahrain – made up for the limited appeal of the counter-revolution from below.