Capital and resistance in the Middle East

Issue: 143

Anne Alexander

A review of Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (Saqi, 2013), £17.99, and Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Haymarket, 2013), £14.99

These important books make a significant contribution to our understanding of the revolutions of 2011 in the Arab world. Written from a regional perspective, and both mobilising an impressive range of comparative data, they represent the most significant attempts yet to grapple with the theoretical challenges of analysing this immense popular uprising from a Marxist perspective. At a moment when mainstream accounts of the events of 2011 are airbrushing the word “revolution” out of their vocabulary, Achcar’s and Hanieh’s explorations of the long-term social and economic roots of the revolutionary crisis are very valuable.

There are, however, some important differences between their theoretical approaches. For Gilbert Achcar, “rentierism” and “patrimonialism” are central features of how capitalism operates in the Middle East. These particular social relations have become “fetters”, he argues, on the development of the productive forces, and the consequences of this blockage can be seen in the relative weakness of capitalism in the region. This is expressed in a range of factors including high levels of social inequality, low levels of investment, a large informal workforce, high levels of unemployment, particularly among young people, and low levels of women’s participation in the labour market.

The concept of a “rentier state” has been influential in academic writing on the Middle East, where it is adopted as a way of explaining the persistence of undemocratic regimes. According to this analysis, the revenues of a “rentier state” are largely generated through access to rents (such as income derived from control of natural resources including oil and gas reserves, or income the state derives from foreign powers by granting them access to strategically important locations such as land for military bases), rather than by appropriating some of the surplus value created in production from capitalists and workers through taxation. Economist and former prime minister Hazem Beblawi, in one of the classic statements of this theory, argues that this arrangement concentrates economic and political power in the hands of a tiny minority whose redistribution of wealth becomes the provision of “private favours through the ruler’s benevolence” rather than an expression of a social contract between citizens and government. Without the need for taxation to fund the state’s activities, citizens become “far less demanding in terms of political participation” and a “rentier mentality” spreads through society breaking the relationship between “work and reward”.1 In mainstream analyses of the state in the Middle East, the idea of a “rentier state” is often combined with the concept of patrimonialism. As Achcar puts it, this label is used for “an absolute, hereditary type of autocratic power”, which “appropriates the state for itself”.2 Thus the armed forces become the property of the ruler, and owe allegiance to him alone, not the state, likewise the state administration becomes the ruler’s personal fiefdom, and the state’s economic assets are his personal inventory.

Adam Hanieh, by contrast, draws a picture of the Middle East (or rather one part of it, the Gulf states) as a dynamic centre of capital accumulation, which is shaping the global economy by deepening trends towards the internationalisation and financialisation of capital. The Gulf’s capitalist class (which he persuasively argues is a pan-regional class rooted across the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] countries) also plays a critical role in driving forward capitalist development in the rest of the region.

He warns against reducing the Gulf to a “giant oil spigot”, where the presence of this strategic commodity is used as a substitute for analysis of the societies at hand.3 Rather the role and nature of Gulf capital in the Gulf itself and beyond are shaped by three distinctive processes. The first of these is the formation of a migrant labour force within the Gulf. The initial waves of migrant workers came from elsewhere in the Arab world, but have since been systematically replaced largely by workers from India and Bangladesh. The Gulf’s magnetic pull on workers from these countries is enormously strong: by 2002 some 95 percent of Bangladeshi overseas workers were in the Gulf. By 2007, 95 percent of all Indian labour outflows were to the same destination.4 Lacking basic rights and vulnerable to all kinds of abuses by employers and the state, the sweat of these “disposable” workforces makes the ascent of Gulf capital to the dazzling heights of the global elite possible.

Secondly, as the Gulf’s migrant working class began to form, so too did a local capitalist class, Hanieh argues. While the early phases of its development did indeed begin with the kind of royal gift-giving that appeared to belong to a “patrimonial” pre-capitalist era, over time giant capitalist conglomerates emerged spanning different circuits of capital accumulation in production, the circulation of commodities and finance.5 In the Gulf production is centred on oil and petrochemicals, as well as other commodities requiring massive inputs of energy such as aluminium, steel and concrete. The commodity circuit is focused on luxury goods and shopping malls—estimated to generate around $30 billion in sales annually by the late 2000s.6 The financial circuit has been increasingly dominated by large private equity firms that gather the richest of the rich to gamble on the international markets and buy into profitable firms.

Finally, Gulf capital has been shaped by a rapid process of internationalisation. Hanieh’s work is particularly valuable in documenting how the region’s capitalist classes are entwined in a “web of finance to the reproduction of capitalism in the Gulf”.7 This process is very closely tied with the deepening of neoliberal economic reforms. Gulf investors were involved in deals representing 37 percent of the total value of all privatisation in Egypt between 2000 and 2008.8 Egyptian agribusiness and agriculture are thoroughly penetrated by Gulf capital through control of the country’s largest dairy farm, largest packaged milk business, largest pasta producers, largest publicly-listed flour mill and companies controlling 50 percent of the commercial poultry market.9 Land, textile production and finance have seen enormous investments by Gulf capital in recent years. As Hanieh notes, Egyptian and Gulf capital is becoming ever more intimately intertwined, for example through joint participation in private equity firms such as Citadel Capital, which brings together some of Egypt’s biggest private capitalists with representatives of leading Saudi business groups, a UAE sovereign wealth fund, and the Qatari royal family.10

One point that emerges forcefully from Hanieh’s analysis of Gulf capital is the difficulty in separating “private” from “state” capital, thanks to the interpenetration of the capitalist class with the government bureaucracy11. In Egypt, likewise, the idea that the neoliberal era can be equated with a retreat of the state from the economy is a myth. As Revolutionary Socialist Sameh Naguib notes:

The policies of neoliberalism were never about dismantling or even reducing the role of the state in the economy, but rather about increasing the role of the state as facilitator of capitalist profit-making at the expense of the working class. This created an even more intimate relation between state and capital.12

The form of state capital which in Egypt has benefited most from the shift towards neoliberal policies is military capital while the fortunes of other state capitals, in particular civilian public sector manufacturing, have declined. In fact, it may be justifiable to claim that the rise of military capital as a distinct form of state capital in Egypt is a product of the period of neoliberal reforms. For, although military appointments permeated every level of the state bureaucracy under Nasser, and army officers played a key role in managing the drive to build up public sector manufacturing in particular, the military’s creation of its own manufacturing empire dates from the 1980s, at the very moment when state policies were moving towards disengagement from the public sector in preparation for eventual privatisation.

The investment choices of Egypt’s generals and the princes of the Gulf converge in interesting ways. The Egyptian military, like the Gulf conglomerates, sees the investment opportunities in agribusiness. As Robert Springborg details, under Mubarak’s charismatic minister of defence, Muhammad Abdel-Halim Abu-Ghazala, the armed forces expanded their economic activities in three key areas after 1981: manufacturing (especially, but not exclusively in weapons production); agriculture and land reclamation; construction and service industries.13 Under Abu-Ghazala the leadership of the armed forces found a new role—as directors of militarised industry and services. This period saw the creation of a massive manufacturing base for the military in the food industry through the National Services Projects Organisation (Gihaz al-Khidma al-Wataniyya) which by 1986 was responsible for 18 percent of the total value of food production in Egypt.14 Blessed with access to subsidised manufacturing inputs, vast tracts of state land, a workforce consisting of conscripts or civilian workers under military discipline and accounts which were completely outside the state’s normal auditing procedures, the military was (and continues to be) an attractive partner for private capital.

While the generals’ chicken farms may compete with Gulf-backed companies over control of Egyptians’ dinner plates, in other areas they are working closely in partnership, a point not explored in Hanieh’s analysis.15 One significant example of the interdependence of state (military) and private capitals of both Egyptian and Gulf origin is the “privatisation” of Alexandria’s merchant shipyard in 2007. The sale of the shipyard followed several failed attempts at privatisation during the 1990s, which had demonstrated the need for more government investment in the infrastructure surrounding the yard.16 Naturally the workforce had been “streamlined” and “restructured”. Some 3,600 workers were forced into early retirement on terms that benefited the government, rather than the workers themselves, who continued to protest that they had been cheated out of their full pensions as the sell-off date approached.17 The beneficiaries of more than a decade of preparatory work were not, however, private investors, but another part of the state, the Ministry of Defence.

Yet this is not a return to the state capitalist policies of the Nasserist era. Rather neoliberal reforms have created a new amalgam of state and private capital. A glance at the order books of the Alexandria Shipyard illustrates neatly that this amalgam is increasingly composed of transnational and regional as well as local state and private capitals. One of the yard’s biggest clients in recent years has been Nile Cargo (formerly the National River Transportation Company), part of Nile Logistics, a platform company owned by private equity firm Citadel Capital, which, as we noted above, brings together Egyptian and Gulf capital.18

It is of course no accident that Saudi and Emirati funds are bankrolling Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s counter-revolution in Egypt. The bulk of the capitalist class in the Middle East’s most dynamic region of capital accumulation is working hand in glove with the leaders of the most dynamic state capital in Egypt (which happens to also be the armed core of the authoritarian state) to halt the revolutionary process that began in 2011. A disorienting aspect of this process for some on the left has been the fact that the organisation receiving the heaviest blows from the military has been the Muslim Brotherhood. Both Achcar and Hanieh’s books were published long before the overthrow of Mohamed Mursi by the army on 3 July 2013, so at one level it is not surprising that their critique of the Muslim Brotherhood in power should focus on the role that the Brotherhood seemed to be playing in facilitating and deepening collaboration with both the Egyptian military locally, and Gulf capital regionally.

Achcar argues that it was the Brotherhood’s mobilisation of big business, and not its Islamist version of state welfare, which defined the social character of Mursi’s regime.19 Hanieh comes to similar conclusions, arguing that conflicts between the MB leadership, the military and Mubarak’s allies during 2011-12 are “best seen as competitive struggles within and between fractions of the same Egyptian capitalist class and state apparatus”.20 Hanieh sees the Muslim Brotherhood as representing an “attractive partner” for Western powers in their quest to stem the tide of revolution, because of the Brotherhood’s willingness to work with the military, their enthusiasm for neoliberalism and strong connections to the regional powers of the Gulf, the latter being a “key element to a further deepening of the Gulf’s political penetration of the state apparatus”.21

In Achcar’s case, underlying this perspective is an analysis of Islamist movements in general that sees them as “reactionary responses” to the problem of underdevelopment and unevenness between the core and periphery of global capitalism that seek to “roll back the wheel of history”.22 Their social base is to be found among the traditional middle classes and intellectuals but neoliberalism has reinforced the appeal of Islamist movements, by creating spaces for them to act as substitutes for state welfare services.23

Achcar and Hanieh’s critique of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in power invites reassessment in the wake of Mursi’s fall although they advance much valuable detail about the nuances of the organisation’s relationship with Qatar, and the composition of the Brotherhood’s business elite.24 Their emphasis on the integration of the Brotherhood’s leadership into the wider Egyptian ruling class understates the degree to which the Brotherhood was politically marginalised under Mubarak even if some of its leaders were economically incorporated into the neoliberal regime.

The Brotherhood, it is critically important to emphasise, was by far the largest political organisation in Egypt outside the old ruling party and in 2011 had never been tested in power, not even in local government. It had only once, in the 2005 elections, won more than a handful of parliamentary seats, and this brief period of respite from repression had ended with the 2010 parliamentary elections where the ruling party had reasserted complete control of the electoral arena. The fact that it took a revolution to force open a space in which the Brotherhood could even begin to play a meaningful reformist role (in the sense of advocating reforms which the organisation might be in a position to test in practice) underscores this point. Even though the Brotherhood’s programme of reforms was weak and hesitant, a reputation untarnished by the dirty business of actual government was an invaluable asset in mobilising the hopes of millions of Egyptians who believed that the political system could be changed from within.

There is a lot of work that still needs to be done in order to understand better how the Muslim Brotherhood’s organisational base developed during the initial phases of the revolution between 2011 and 2013. While in power, the Brotherhood clearly did alienate sections of its working class support precisely by following the neoliberal policies that Achcar and Hanieh describe. The Brotherhood’s increasing willingness to order direct repression of strikes and social protests played a key role in some cases. Tareq el-Beheiry, a Salafist activist and one of the key leaders of the Cairo bus workers, provides a neat example of this process. In June 2012 he mobilised thousands of votes for Mursi during the epic presidential contest with Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. Just a few months later he was arrested for leading a strike and denounced by the very people he had brought to power.25 Yet, in the heat of the battles of 2012-13 over the constitutional amendments and the reform of the judiciary, the Brotherhood appears to have consolidated some elements of its lower middle class base of cadres, at least according to eyewitness accounts of their counter-mobilisation to defend the presidential palace from protesters during December 2012.26

As Chris Harman argued in an influential essay written in 1994 in the wake of the bloody repression of the Algerian Islamist movement, such contradictory elements are a defining feature of Islamist movements.27 In contrast to a perspective that sees Islamist movements as ultimately one homogenous, reactionary bloc, analysis of such movements must always be rooted in an assessment of the context in which they arise and the specific configuration of social forces they mobilise. Moreover, as Sameh Naguib argues in a powerful critique of the Egyptian left’s attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood written before the revolution, failure to make such an assessment has often led to tacit or active support for the state’s attempts to crush Islamist movements, a mistake which has been repeated by the majority of the Stalinist left since July 2013.28

The negative reasons why millions invested their hopes in the Brotherhood relate to the weakness or absence of the political alternatives. The Brotherhood’s electoral success in 2011 reflected not only the legacy of the organisation’s long history in opposition to the regime, but also the advantages conferred by access to organisational resources and funding that their opponents lacked. Secular reformists such as the liberals Ayman Nour and Mohamed ElBaradei who, like the Brotherhood, had been marginalised or persecuted by the old regime, had no organisation that could even begin to compete with the Brotherhood on a national level. Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserist figure with the biggest national profile, began the revolutionary period in a similar position. Sabahi rejected the option of building an independent organisation, instead focussing on creating a relatively loose coalition of supporters, the Popular Current, which was quickly infiltrated in many areas by elements from the old ruling party. The revolutionary youth groups and the very small forces of the revolutionary left likewise lacked the organisation and numbers to compete with the Brotherhood on the electoral terrain.

Nor, did it turn out, were the Brotherhood’s reformist or revolutionary opponents capable of using their influence outside the electoral arena in order to maintain the momentum of the revolutionary process. The secular reformists, principally the liberals and the Nasserists, as exemplified by ElBaradei and Sabahi themselves, formed an alliance with figures from the old ruling party such as Amr Moussa, who had fallen out of favour with the regime in the immediate pre-revolutionary period. The National Salvation Front gave political direction to the massive waves of street protests that engulfed Mursi in November-December 2012 and June 2013. Although its members lacked the organisational forces to mobilise for them directly, it was the politics embodied by the Front’s leadership that prevailed. This included an even more insipid version of the Brotherhood’s milk and water reformism. Rather than advancing a political programme of their own and mobilising their supporters for expanded democratic and social rights, the Liberals and Nasserists instead opened the door to the political rehabilitation of the military and the security forces, under the cloak of defending the “independence of the judiciary”. The final catastrophic consequences of this approach played out in the crisis of 30 June 2013 and its aftermath, when the military intervened against the Brotherhood in order to turn the wave of protest against Mohamed Mursi in a counter-revolutionary direction.

Searching for the revolutionary subject

The outcome of the wave of protest which led to Mursi’s downfall illustrates the validity of a point that Achcar discusses at length—the conjuncture of the objective conditions for revolution are not in themselves enough to ensure its subjective realisation: “If this popular uprising is to set a process of revolutionary change in motion, the rebellious masses must be capable of organising to that end and acting effectively to achieve it”.29 As Achcar rightly notes, in the case of the explosion of the uprisings themselves, a new combination of subjective conditions played a critical role in setting in motion revolutionary uprisings capable of disrupting part of the state apparatus and causing it literally to “lose its head”. The most important of these was the eruption of workers’ struggles on a regional scale not seen for decades, despite the problems caused by the inhibiting role of the trade union bureaucracy in Tunisia and the lack of workers’ organisations independent of the state in Egypt. However, it was when these largely localised social struggles combined with the political frustrations of a different layer of young activists who turned to social media as a way of expressing their anger at the regimes that a process was set in motion that would culminate in the downfall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Egypt’s Mubarak in January 2011.

Although Achcar is overoptimistic about the “democratic” properties of the internet and social media,30 which has turned out to be an enormously effective platform for the counter-revolution as well as a crucial weapon for revolutionaries, he is right that access to online tools and spaces played an important subjective role by showing a frustrated generation of young people that they were not alone.31 In the Egyptian case, the use of Facebook groups, such as the one set up by activists to support the call for a general strike on 6 April 2008, to aggregate and visualise dissent was particularly important because of the weakness of non-Islamist political organisation opposed to the regime. In that particular case, despite repression of the main organisers of the group, a loose online network did develop into an important “offline” organisation, the 6 April Youth Movement.

However, the outcome of the crisis of June-July 2013 demonstrated the political limitations of a similar combination of a rising tide of workers’ struggles with a media-driven campaign led by young activists. In 2008-11 the novelty of that combination gave the revolutionary process an apparently unstoppable forward momentum, taking the regimes by surprise. Egypt’s experience in 2013 showed that without deeper and wider forms of revolutionary organisation, neither were enough to form the subjective element necessary for a breakthrough to a new phase of the revolutionary process. Worse than that, some leading activists in the Tamarod movement against Mursi and the independent unions proved highly susceptible to political co-option by counter-revolutionary forces, shown by the transformation of figures such as Mahmoud Badr into cheerleaders for military dictatorship and the appointment of independent trade union leader Kemal Abu-Eita as minister of labour.32

While there is no space to explore this point properly here, this does not mean that no other outcomes were possible.33 Nor does it mean that the regime can be certain it has restored the kind of “stability” that its backers in the Gulf crave. The enormously important experience gained in building organisation at a workplace level has not been wiped out by the current counter-revolutionary turn of events. This was demonstrated by the eruption of a new wave of strikes involving up to 250,000 workers demanding the implementation of the national minimum wage in February 2014. Despite El-Sisi’s confident expectations of crushing all resistance, nearly a year after the military intervened against Mursi both secular and Islamist opponents of the military were still capable of seizing opportunities to protest.34

Achcar and Hanieh’s books play a very valuable role in deepening our understanding of why the revolutions of 2011 erupted. Their work also highlights the contradictions at the heart of the revolutionary process that mean that January 2011’s promise of deep social and political transformation remains unfulfilled. Combining the best of such insights with strategies for building revolutionary organisation capable of realising that promise is going to be immensely important to revolutionary activists across the region in the months and years to come.


1: Luciani,1990, pp87-89.

2: Achcar, 2013, p77

3: Hanieh, 2013, p123.

4: Hanieh, 2013, p125.

5: Hanieh, 2013, p132.

6: Hanieh, 2013, p135.

7: Hanieh, 2013, p143.

8: Hanieh, 2013, p138.

9: Hanieh, 2013, p139.

10: Hanieh, 2013, p141.

11: Hanieh, 2013, p136.

12: Naguib, 2011, p5.

13: Springborg, 1989, p107.

14: Springborg, 1989, p.113.

15: See Marshall and Stacher, 2012, for more on the relationship between military and transnational capital in Egypt.

16: Lavelle, 2004, p176.

17: Ibrahim, 2007.

18: Citadel Capital, 2012.

19: Achcar, 2013, p176.

20: Hanieh, 2013, p171.

21: Hanieh, 2013, p171.

22: Achcar, 2013, p119.

23: Achcar, 2013, p121.

24: Achcar, 2013, p130; Hanieh, 2013, pp170-171.

25: Muhammadain, 2012.

26: This point is based on discussions with revolutionary activists who participated in the protests at the al-Ittihadiyya Palace in December 2012, protests that were attacked by Brotherhood activists mobilised from across the country to defend Mursi.

27: Harman, 1994.

28: Naguib, 2006.

29: Achcar, 2013, p144.

30: Achcar, 2013, p165.

31: Aouragh and Alexander, 2011.

32: Badr, 2014.

33: See Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, for a more detailed account of the role of the workers’ movement in the Egyptian revolution.

34: See Pratt, 2014 for a detailed report on student protests during 2013-14.


Achcar, Gilbert, 2013. The People Want: a Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (Saqi).

Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny, 2014, Bread, Freedom and Social Justice: the Workers’ Movement and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed) (forthcoming).

Aouragh, Miriyam, and Anne Alexander, 2011, “The Egyptian Experience: Sense and Nonsense of the Internet Revolution”, International Journal of Communication, volume 5.

Badr, Mahmoud, 2014. “Reply to Egypt’s detractors”, Ahram Online (27 April),

Citadel Capital, 2012, “NRTC to Receive 10 River Barges Assembled by Alexandria Shipyard” (17 July),

Hanieh, Adam, 2013, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Haymarket).

Harman, Chris, 1994, “The Prophet and the Proletariat”, International Socialism 64 (autumn),

Ibrahim, Ayman, 2007, “Ummal al-tirsana bayna ta’suf al-idara wa tawata’ al-niqaba”,
(23 May),

Lavelle, Kathryn C, 2004, The Politics of Equity Finance in Emerging Markets (Oxford University Press).

Luciani, Giacomo, 1990, The Arab State (University of California Press).

Marshall, Shana, and Joshua Stacher, 2012, “Egypt’s Generals and Transnational Capital”, Middle East Report, issue 262,

Muhammadain, Haitham, 2012, “Yawm ma’a shaykh tariq … wa ‘ummal al-naql al-’am”, AlIshtaraki (18 September),

Naguib, Sameh, 2006, Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun: Ru’iya ishtarakiyya [The Muslim Brotherhood: A Socialist View] (Cairo, Centre for Socialist Studies).

Naguib, Sameh, 2011, The Egyptian Revolution (Bookmarks).

Pratt, Nicola, 2014, Egyptian Universities on the Frontline of Protest (Egypt Solidarity Initiative),

Springborg, Robert, 1989, Mubarak’s Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order (Westview Press).