‘The Reawakening of the Arab World: Challenge and Change in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring’ reviewed by Jared Bly

Reviewed by Jared Bly

About the reviewer

Jared C Bly is a translator and PhD student in philosophy at Villanova University. Aside from …

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Samir Amin’s latest book on the revolutionary foments in the Arab world, The Reawakening of the Arab World: Challenge and Change in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring (2016), provides a timely voice in contrast to the obfuscated discourse of the Western media regarding the Arab Spring and its ensuing political developments. Such discourse is marked by a pronounced contradiction that at once emphasizes the urgency of confronting ISIS (Daesh) as a global terrorist threat while simultaneously decrying the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, the purported atrocities of Assad’s regime, and the devastating effects of Russia’s military intervention on the civilian population, most recently in the embattled city of Aleppo. Amin’s analysis cuts against ideological reactions of this kind with a detailed historical and social examination of the concrete situation in this region, and shows, primarily with regard to Egypt and Syria, how Western imperialism has throughout the 20th century aimed at stifling the modernization of the Arab world. The aforementioned ideological contradiction is just one effect among many of Western imperialism’s ongoing engagement with the periphery zone of the greater Middle East. The book also examines the concrete conditions in Libya, Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria inter alia. According to Amin’s diagnosis, the general strategy of the Western bloc involves, through various means, destabilizing the social conditions of the Arab World while nonetheless permitting a high degree of economic neoliberalization to take root.  

There are two intertwined theses that structure Amin’s overall project. First (1), he insists on the importance of democracy and processes of democratization in the ongoing struggles of the Arab world. However, his vision of democracy, as one might suspect, differs substantially from the simple representative version championed by contemporary liberalism:

Democratization is a process that cannot be reduced to a static and definitive formula like the contemporary ‘representative democracy’ which is generally proposed (multiparty, elections, human rights). It is about all aspects of social life and not exclusively the management of political life of a country. It concerns the relationships between individuals, within the family, in the work place, as well as the relationship between these and the economic, administrative and political decision makers. (160)

Amin advocates a form of democracy that is socially deeper and more multi-dimensional than any typical electoral apparatus or juridical guarantee of free speech. As such, the democratization of these struggles does not in any way coincide with the hasty performance of elections, as was the case in the Egyptian revolution with the relatively rapid election of Mohammed Morsi, or even, to a certain extent, in the events following the ousting of Ben-Ali in Tunisia. As Amin points out, accelerated ‘democratization’ movements of such a variety actually facilitate the more subtle influence of Western imperialism.

Amin’s second principle argument (2) foregrounds the direct alignment of Western Imperialism with the various forces of political Islam. This strategy on the part of the West is historically evidenced as early as the 1920s whenever Britain allied itself with the Muslim Brotherhood after World War 1 and supported their various plots for increasing their political power and influence in Egypt. This strategy also includes collusion and alliance with the regimes of Wahhabi fundamentalism on the Arabian Peninsula, and the material support of the other militant jihadi factions fighting in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. As previously mentioned, Amin’s voice is quite ‘timely’ insofar as his strong critique of the political Islam provides nothing short of a breath of fresh air when faced with the paralyzing indecision of liberal hypersensitivity. In regards to this, Amin maintains that mainstream liberal ideology is continually stifled by the false choice between either supporting obscurantist and barbaric militant groups or falling into what he calls “the trap of Islamophobia” (231). The liberal overdetermination of identity categories, what Amin names elsewhere as the ‘liberal virus’, ends up blinding a leftist analysis to political Islam’s real effects. Hence, he contends that the reality of political Islam is the cultural obverse of Eurocentrism and, in a distorted if not subterranean fashion, actually works to the pragmatic benefit of neoliberal capitalist imperialism.

In general, political Islam proliferates social stagnation, hamstringing any real democratic stirrings in these regions. Although the theological inflection of this ideology lends itself to collectivist formations, they nonetheless fail to articulate a social project beyond the immediate seizure of power and the expulsion of former regimes. Amin points to a common trend whereby political Islam socializes such populations, usually coded in terms of a nostalgic ‘return to tradition’, so that they become compatible with installation of comprador capitalism from abroad. The reality on the ground is that these societies remain fettered to a medieval way of life while simultaneously opening their floodgates to neoliberal economic reform. The second part of this claim is perhaps evidenced most saliently by Paul Bremmer’s neoliberal economic restructuring of the Iraqi state apparatus after the 2003 US invasion. In this vein, Amin insists that the theocratic backwardness of political Islam, especially with their insistence on institutions such as sharia law, creates social conditions favourable to the development of crony capitalism, while causing truly progressive social developments to flounder in perpetual stasis. This critical stance does not in any way amount to an irreverent denigration of the contributions and greatness of the Islamic cultural heritage. Rather, Amin sees a modern secularism vis-à-vis social conditions as an indispensable component of a successful revolutionary movement. In sum, Amin convincingly dispels any lingering illusions regarding the fact that complicity with political Islam is the chief interventionist strategy of the White House by offering a clear account of the concrete conditions in the greater Middle Eastern conjuncture.

The book is divided into 6 individual chapters and contains a brief introduction and conclusion. One downside to this work that must be noted is the rather loose organization of the chapters. The two arguments mentioned above are rendered somewhat diffuse and therefore are reiterated in several different forms throughout the book. Although, depending on what the reader is looking to gain, this aspect of the work might actually turn out to be a positive characteristic, inasmuch as Amin carefully fleshes out each of his main points with respect to the concrete historical, social and political details of the struggle under consideration. The first chapter, as Amin himself admits, is in fact the only piece written entirely in the aftermath of the Arab Spring proper, and is thus the most theoretically honed in terms of the argumentation presented. Chapter 2 dives deeper into the historical and contemporary specificities of the Egyptian revolution and the counter-revolutionary forces of Muslim Brotherhood operative therein.

Chapter 3 definitively stands apart, contending that the Middle East was actually an ancient hub in the world tributary system. This chapter seems particularly out of place given the general thrust of the other sections. However, it does offer an updated theory of history in a similar vein as the work of Immanuel Wallerstein. The editorial omission of this particular chapter would have nevertheless made for a tighter and more unified work overall. Chapter 4 and 5 return to a historically focused register, detailing the roots of both the current variety of political Islam employed to manage periphery capitalism, presaged in the politics of the Mameluke state, as well as the failed revolutionary potentials of the Bandung era in the Ba’athist states and in Nasserite Egypt. Chapter 6 reiterates the strategies of Western imperialism’s attempt at consolidating a comprador bourgeois class in the Middle East via its alliance with political Islam. The discussion of Sudan in this section is of particular interest given the relative lack of attention this area receives, aside from the highly distorted clap-trap that irrupted around the crisis in Darfur. Amin notes how Sudanese society has a still flourishing leftist culture and remains an unexamined potential site for revolutionary activity.

By disqualifying the ubiquitous forces of political Islam from the list of potentially legitimate revolutionary programs, Amin delivers a somewhat dismal prognosis for the present revolutionary conjuncture of the Arab World: “The decline of senile capitalism—that is, the autumn of capitalism—does not automatically bring about advances toward a better alternative perspective—‘the spring of people’” (231). This observation appears to be quite accurate, especially in the case of Libya which, after the triumphant NATO intervention in the name of the ‘Libyan people’, is now a failed state. Moreover, a political power vacuum has now opened there that will only be filled, at least if we stay the present course, by further sectarian radicalization. Yemen too seems to be heading in this same general direction. Of course, another example that confirms the disquiet of Amin’s conclusion is the Syrian crisis. The present political discourse on Syria, at least as far the West is concerned, sets into stark relief the polarizing contradiction that Amin persistently highlights. This is of course the fundamental contradiction imposed by global capitalism, manifest in the various ideological positions, between the financial centre of imperialism and the exploited periphery. In terms of ideology, the way forward is framed as the inexorable choice between supporting barbarous radicalism on one hand, or an acceptation of neoliberalism’s economic agenda on the other. For Syria, this amounts to bifurcating their society’s future into the equally unappealing dead-ends of either supporting one of the many jihadist factions or returning to Assad’s autocratic style of governance. Nevertheless, given that any hope of a truly leftist mobilization within the FSA has mostly crumbled before the military strength of groups such as Al-Nusra and ISIS, as well as the fury of Russian airstrikes, a complete cessation of interference with Assad’s regime seems to be the inconvenient truth that international left ought to embrace if we are indeed serious about our commitment to an anti-imperialist stance. This is the difficult conclusion that Amin seems to imply yet he nevertheless remains hopeful for the prospects of socialism and democracy in greater Arab world in general, as does the author of this review, despite the formidable challenges that the current struggle presents. 

4 November 2016

One comment

  1. Western thinkers, including Marxist thinkers (I’m thinking here of Alain Badiou’s recent book, Our Wounds Are Not So recent), always presuppose that what the non-Western world wants is Westernization, which means democracy, free markets, and pluralism, and therefore also presuppose that political change must follow a Western, Marxist, leftist- or neo-liberal form. Which then carries the corollary that religion, whether Christian, Muslim, or tribal/indigenist, is either irrelevant, or worse, a direct impediment to socialist progress. But I’m afraid that the non-Western world does not always share those presuppositions, and continuing to impose a Western, Marxist, or multicultural neo-liberal agenda upon them won’t finally result in progressive social change.

    In the Postwar period, Soviet-sponsored Marxist/Leninist military regimes (the Algerian FLN, Nasser’s Egypt, the Vietcong etc.) competed with Western-backed democratic capitalist regimes for control of the Third World (Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East), forcing non-Western countries to choose between what those non-Western countries finally realized came down to two different versions of Western-style modernization, often resulting in brutal suppression of indigenous religious culture, as also happened under 19th & 20th C. Western imperialism. But non-Western countries appear to have finally rejected both versions of Westernization, and appear to want, not a Western-style revolution, but a non-Western-style revolution, supported by a non-Western indigenist culture, complete with traditional religion, whether Muslim or otherwise. But in the Middle East, this, I think, means a Muslim revolution (like the Iranian Revolution?) with a specifically Islamist culture, closer to Mohammed’s religious revolution against the Meccan elite (the Quraysh), than to a Western-style Marxist revolution, with the final goal of a Muslim community (ummah) of complete social equality, like Marx’s ideal of ‘true communism,’ but with a specifically religious base. This doesn’t mean, I don’t think, that Marxism is irrelevant to political change in the Middle Eastern world, it simply means that following the Post-Stalinist Khrushev model of Marxist/Leninist national liberation struggle, imposed by a Westernized party elite upon the Muslim masses, isn’t going to work. And neither will a Western-backed multi-culturalist neo- or leftist-liberal revolution, also promoted by a Western elite cadre, especially if that is perceived as a method of Westernization. And that, I think, is the lesson of Arab Spring and the Syrian catastrophe.

    After Obama’s Cairo speech, Western-style movements for politically progressive social change (Western-sponsored or not) sprang up in the Muslim world (Tunisia, Egypt/Tahir Square, & Syria), but (in Syria and Egypt especially) were met with crushing repression by the Western-backed political elites, despite the superficial call for Muslim activism from the West; and the West not only failed to stand up against that crushing repression, but, I’m afraid, secretly supported it—as, for example, when the Western-backed Egyptian Tahir Square protests resulted in support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi’s election, they were followed by a Western-backed coup by Fatteh el-Sisi, which immediately crushed the Muslim Brotherhood and arrested Morsi, sentencing him to death, thus predictably resulting in renewed Muslim terrorism in the Sinai. In Syria, the Syrian uprising of 2011 was met by the most horrible repression by the Assad regime; but despite Obama’s spineless red-line speeches, the West did nothing to support the Western-style Syrian revolutionaries, and the Syrian revolutionaries were forced to call upon the Islamist factions to protect them against the Assad regime’s mass murder. The result, in Syria, was that the Western-backed socialist progressive factions(the Nasserite-like Free Syrian Army) were discredited, and Islamist factions (Nusra Front) took over the struggle, which then became polarized into the traditional terms of the Muslim civil war: Sunni Arab factions (the Islamic State, for example) vs. Shiite or Alawite factions (Hezbollah, Iran, etc.); and the Western countries and Russia have responded to that situation, not by attempting to stop the Muslim civil war, but by arming both sides, setting them against each other, and standing back and watching the slaughter (if not actually carrying out the killing themselves). Which, I’m afraid, has been typical of the divide-and-rule approach of Western imperialism to the non-Western world, for thousands of years, and hasn’t changed much, even in the 21st C. Westernized, globalized, multinational capitalist world.

    The West and Russia both refuse to recognize that a Western or Post-Soviet Russian agenda is not acceptable to either side (except, opportunistically, to the Assad regime, to stay in power), and that the Muslim world wants a specifically Muslim revolution, with a Muslim (not necessarily Islamist) State, only the Muslim world can’t agree on whether it is to be Sunni or Shiite; and that’s a decision that has to be made by Muslims, not the West, which only creates chaos and mass slaughter by supporting both sides of the Muslim civil war. The only solution, then, is for the West to stop attempting to impose Western-style (Marxist, leftist- or neo-liberal) political change on the Muslim world, and allow the Muslim world to find its own way to a Muslim-style revolution and Islamic-based politically progressive change, with the help of those Westerners who are sympathetic to the Muslim world and capable of understanding its aspirations without imposing a Westernizing agenda on it.

    My thinking here comes from my own A-Ha moment! in Western American, when I read former American Indian Movement (AIM) activist, Russel Mean’s article, “The Same Old Song,” which said that for Native Americans, Marxism was simply another Westernizing agenda, which attempted to impose Western political culture on Native Americans, at the cost of cultural genocide against Native American traditional religious culture. But that does not mean that the American Indian Movement (however tragically suppressed by the dominant American culture) could not or did not benefit from a Western Marxist-style political activism (the New Left?) which understood and supported the specific goals of a Native American progressive political agenda. I’d like to think that Western (Marxist?) activists who sympathize with and support politically progressive social change in the Muslim world (and even maybe an Islamic Revolution, although not in its Iranian form…) could help the Muslim world out of the horrible situation created by the Western-sponsored Arab Spring and the Western-created international war on terror. But I’m afraid that will only happen when Westerners accept Muslim political change on its own terms. And those terms, I think, are specifically Muslim (if not necessarily Islamist) and distinctly religious, and won’t be changed by Westernization, whether Marxist, leftist, or neo-liberal.

    In brief: Western imperialism, I’m afraid, has always been, and is now, in favor of Western-style modernization of the non-Western and Muslim worlds. I don’t believe the West supports political Islam (the Islamic State?), which is, instead supported by the Saudis (if Sunni) or Iran (if Shiite), and I think the West only supports radical Islamic factions insofar as the West uses political Islam against itself to kill more Muslims. Instead, I think the West supports Westernizing, modernizing regimes, however brutal, militaristic, or reactionary, which are good for Western business and Western capitalism, even if just for the Western technocratic military-industrial complex. And I’m afraid I do also think many Muslims actually do want a Muslim religious society and an Islamic revolution, and not a Western secular State (even if so-called socialist, progressive, or democratic), and eventually the Western elites will have to accept that. But I confess, I am simply responding to this review, and haven’t read Samir Amin’s book; and I would be glad to be corrected if I am misreading or mistaken on these points. Thanks for the review.

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