Reviewed by Jared Bly
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