‘How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of Middle East Uprisings’ reviewed by Idir Ouahes

Reviewed by Idir Ouahes

About the reviewer

Idir Ouahes is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Exeter looking at …

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Richard Heydarian has put together a useful book that weaves together economic, political and social trajectories of revolution in the various Arab countries. Despite this, the book demonstrates shortcomings in certain respects. The title of Heydarian’s new book on the Arab Spring will be the first aspect of this book to raise eyebrows among left-of-centre readers. The notion that (really existing) capitalism ‘failed’ a region inevitably incurs the question: where has it ‘succeeded’? Where, indeed, has it been doctrinally applied in a free market sense? Do categories such as success and failure tell us anything about the nature of its socio-economic impact?

Other, more superficial, shortcomings are apparent. A common quirk of historians is to begin reading the book from the back, with an examination of its sources. Doing so reveals 18 footnotes in a 185 page book (albeit several political studies are cited in-text throughout). Several of these reference online quotation websites; footnote one of chapter two, for instance, cites www.george-orwell.com quotes. Footnote four of chapter three cites globalization research from ETH Zurich (http://globalization.kof.ethz.ch/) by simply listing the website, when in fact the self-same website asks readers to cite its data as an article and gives an example. Another footnote, cites a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois from brainyquote.com. Needless to say the veracity of the quotes on these websites is subject to misinterpretation give the importance of context.

Putting aside these initial shortcomings, the content of the book provides a useful introduction situating the Arab world in the context of world development in the past 50 years. Chapter one is a short, if somewhat sprawling, outline of the Arab Spring as it erupted. Much of this outline is based on readings of other authors, for instance an article by Fouad Ajami is cited to outline the historical background of the Arabs being ‘failed’ by ‘capitalism’. Ajami, more a polemicist than a historian, could have been supplemented with a variety of available histories of Arab protest, syndicalism and democracy.

In chapter two, Heydarian describes the “desert of discontent that swept across the Arab World as it was left behind by rapidly developing neighbours Turkey, Iran and Israel.” In this second chapter, a narrative begins to develop that persists throughout the book. Heydarian places an emphasis on blaming Arab leadership for making poor decisions on wealth redistribution in favour of economic nepotism and political autocracy. Such a view certainly has a degree of merit, yet it misses the flipside of historical developments, which more focussed accounts can outline. For instance, the strongman regimes of Syria since the 1950s have been accompanied by a growth of basic education, and healthcare. Indeed, ignoring the importance of ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ interactions with Syria and the Middle East as a whole results in a limited picture of the region’s dynamics over the past 70 years.

Chapter three emphasises the fiscal squeeze that the great recession imposed on the autocratic governments of the region. However, the complexity of the picture is once again passed over in this chapter. The uprisings in the Arab world occurred in 2010-11; not 2009 when the recession spread. The core Arab world exports to Europe, fossil fuels and raw materials, were less significantly affected than in other regions. Further, the evident economic sparks of the 2010 protests, namely the lack of job opportunities and very high prices of commodities (particularly cooking oil and sugar prices in the North African uprisings) were structural and cyclical problems. Similarly, the first signs of organised protest were partly from new avenues, such as social media-organised youths, as well as longer term, hardened, trade unionists. The role of oppression should have equal place to economic considerations.

Because it seeks to thread together so many elements, Heydarian’s book evidently passes over a range of historical contexts. For instance, various minorities such as the Berbers and Kurds would disagree with the term ‘Arab’ Spring itself, even if it occurred in what must be realistically termed the Arabophone or Islamicate world. Despite the key role of the Nafusa mountain Berbers in the ouster of Gaddafi and the ongoing Kurdish Spring, the former has no mention while the latter is discussed on two pages.

Another element is the sense of the Spring representing a singular break in Middle Eastern developments. It was certainly unique in its scope and may yet become unique in its outcomes; yet it fits within a much longer-term pattern of overt and covert protest, just as 1848 represented a limited burst in a much longer trajectory. In the shorter term, for instance, one can think of the trade union protests at Mahalla in Egypt and Gafsa in Tunisia. Going further back we can find events such as the 1988 Algerian uprising, the Palestinian Intifada and earlier protests for democracy that go back as far as the colonial era (for a scholarly account, see Elizabeth Thompson, Justice Interrupted). Historical inaccuracies are evident, Heydarian suggests that Nasser “cashed in” on the Suez Canal which was nationalised after what he terms a “risky military campaign,” an interesting term for the 1956 aggression. He adds that Nasser “cultivated strong ties with oil-rich Arab brethren like Saudi Arabia,” another quirky way to describe neighbours who fought a proxy war in Yemen in the 1960s (45).

Instead of beginning with the Spring and going back to the sources of Arabophone world dissatisfaction, destabilisation and deviations, this account seeks to make a coherent project with a set framework in mind. The core of Heydarian’s argument, that capitalism “failed” the Arab world when it took a wrong turn toward the neoliberal ‘shock doctrine’, does not place the important developments of the last four decades within their proper context. Certainly, the post-1970s order may have encouraged crony capitalism in the region, (64) and this represents a useful condensation of the main socioeconomic trends for the Arab world and the political pressures they fomented until the outbreak of 2011. However, this approach equally has methodological and analytical shortcomings.

First, the decision to focus on a top-down approach that emphasises the unleashing of a post-industrial global capitalist world, with its medley of ‘investment’ instruments and fiscal austerity, as the root cause of the Arab Spring can provide only a partial picture. This method overemphasises the actions of Western decision makers. Large sections of the book focus on the well-trodden narrative of Western neo-liberalisation. An account of such decisions made by Egyptian, Tunisian and other governments in the 1970s and onward would be refreshing. Such an account would give agency to the local rulers- rightly making them more than simple puppets. So too, can the agency of those organising on the ground be considered as the fundamental other side to what Heydarian rightly describes as a dialectic between market and social forces. Yet trade unions and strikes are listed only once in the index; despite their major role as the foundation of dissent against autocratic Arab states.

Seemingly paradoxically, an analytical fault is that there is not enough consideration of the long-term impact of Western intervention in the region. As mentioned before, accounts such as Elizabeth Thompson’s, researched the impact of European domination in quashing early aspirations for democracy in the 1920s and 1930s. It is notable that even Salafi Muslim leaders of that generation, such as Rashid Rida, at least considered the possibility of participation in the democratic process. Other long-term European factors with an impact on the region’s makeup are the formation of frontiers that divided local peoples without care for circulations and locally envisioned spaces; a policy that, in fact, continues to have a negative impact on the region to this day. Another fundamental legacy of mandate and colonial rule is the establishment of entrenched states collecting information on every element of social life, from education to transport.

Heydarian has produced an interesting account that seeks to bring together various facets of a complex region into a coherent narrative of Arab leadership failure and economic exploitation. Though this may be useful as a basic introduction to the region, the study of social events and structures does not easily bend to the wish for analytical clarity. It is important for readers to build on this introduction to broad developments over the past half-century by researching the more complex and sometimes contradictory developments, aspirations, trends, systems and circumstances of the Arabophone world.

23 May 2016

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