A review of Revolution is the Choice of the People: Crisis and Revolt in the Middle East and North Africa, Anne Alexander (Bookmarks, 2022), £12
Since 2019, the world has been witnessing a “third cycle of revolt”, following the anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s and the mass movements against neoliberal capitalism and authoritarian regimes that broke out in 2010-11.1 In the two more recent cycles, the Middle East and North Africa has been key. Experts on the region have been surprised by the extent of the waves of protests and strikes; the dominant academic paradigms had assumed stability. Hence, scholars have been quick to turn their focus to the success of the brutal counter-revolutions that have contained and overturned these revolutionary processes, such as the one led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. Many academic and journalistic accounts read as though the region, if left to its own devices, is simply destined to be ruled by dictators and monarchs; a short Arab Spring is almost naturally followed by an “Arab Winter”, with all its desolation and passivity. The recent revolutions in Sudan and Algeria, starting respectively in 2018 and 2019, challenge this mainstream view, and they have consequently received little attention.
Anne Alexander’s Revolution is the Choice of the People is a welcome rejoinder to these ideas in full, book-length form—and one that is firmly grounded in the perspective of international socialism. It takes up the events since 2010-11, integrating them into a detailed analysis of the region’s political economy and protest movements. As well as intervening in current debates and providing a basis for theorisation of the revolutions in the region from a Marxist perspective, the book also offers an accessible, non-academic record of the revolutions. The major lessons derived from this are relevant for both Middle Eastern and North African activists as well as those outside the region.
The historical roots
Alexander’s starting point is a brief reminder of what Lenin famously understood as the defining features of a revolutionary situation. In such a situation, neither the ruling class nor the lower classes can continue as before, and the latter take to the streets; for revolution to emerge, the people must intend to overthrow the existing government. This schema sets the structure of this review. In the first part, I will discuss Alexander’s analysis of the long-term causes of stagnating politics from above. In the second part, I will discuss the revival of working-class struggles in the region. In the final part, I will be concerned with Alexander’s thoughts on the fate of the revolutions. I regard this book as an excellent contribution, so I will summarise only the main arguments and then focus on providing some further reflection, largely based on the Tunisian experience.
After giving an overview of how what I will call the “Dignity Revolution” (she does not use the term “Arab Spring”) has unfolded in different countries, Alexander is concerned with broader economic and political change since the colonialism of the late 19th century.2 During the colonial period, foreign powers integrated the Middle East and North Africa into the world market as a subordinated region by orienting its economies towards exporting natural resources, agricultural products and low-end industrial goods. Although it is often forgotten, she points out that—as well as Palestine and Algeria—Tunisia and Libya were also settler colonies. Anti-colonial resistance was carried out through sporadic mass uprisings, but these were too weak to go beyond what Marxist theorist Tony Cliff called “deflected permanent revolution”; that is, the working class in these countries failed to provide the sort of leadership necessary to lay the foundations for socialism during the course of their struggle against the colonial order. Instead, “Sections of the lower middle class seized control of the state and used it as a lever to accelerate capitalist development”.3 After gaining formal independence in the 1950s and early 1960s, these new political elites were confronted with economic malaise and had a weak international standing. State-led development, inspired by the Stalinist model in the Soviet Union, was introduced in order to catch up with the West and was supposed to provide a solution to the region’s problems. However, the contradictions of this economic paradigm resulted in high levels of debt and the disastrous war of 1967, when Egypt, Syria and Jordan were defeated by Israel. The collapse of this model ultimately made way for a new approach, “infitah” (openness), which was centred on economic liberalisation and leaning on the United States.
The transition from state capitalism to infitah, and then eventually to fully fledged neoliberalism, was not a smooth process. Workers fought the regimes’ structural adjustment in the factories and on the streets, as evidenced by the Egyptian bread riots in 1977 and the Tunisian general strike in 1978. However, a revolutionary alternative only emerged in Iran during this period. Alexander decides to highlight the ongoing relevance of deflected permanent revolution here, possibly in response to previous debates, but I would also stress that the crisis at that time was very deep.4 The enormous desperation of the one-party states led a new generation of dictators (and monarchs) to come to power and pave the way for neoliberal reforms. Real conflicts between reformers and the old guard, which was much more haunted by the uprisings in the 1970s and 1980s, emerged in the upper echelons of these states and continued over the next decades. Relatedly, Alexander attributes the ultimate end of Tunisia’s state capitalist experiment to opposition from landowners in the late 1960s. We should, however, also remember Tunisian peasants’ resistance to forced collectivisation and the student movement that emerged in March 1968 against the dictatorship of President Habib Bourguiba.
Reflecting the “combined” nature of capitalist development, neoliberalism’s emergence in the region was no total rupture with the past. Instead, it involved a continuation of key features of the previous state capitalist order, which were combined with a new paradigm aimed at fuelling private capital accumulation to the detriment of the broader population. This process produced close ties between capitalists and the state, often involving corruption and nepotism, alongside the deterioration of public services. Despite these wide-ranging effects, Alexander rightly questions the success of neoliberal reforms; similarly to the state capitalist model before it, the new paradigm failed to revive the region’s economies. Meanwhile, the influence of foreign powers such as the US was consolidated. Elite politics manoeuvred itself into stagnation.
The period between independence and the Dignity Revolution saw two further important changes. First, during the 1970s and 1980s, political Islam began to replace the left as the central challenger of the authoritarian regimes in the region. Unfortunately, many accounts of this process simplistically cast Islamist parties as representatives of capital. For instance, according to French-Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar (who will be known to readers of this journal for his debate with Alex Callinicos on the character of the war in Ukraine), Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood stands for “the common interests of all categories of Egyptian capitalism, big and small, not excluding the segment of it that collaborated with the old regime”.5 By contrast, Alexander provides a more nuanced view, showing how political Islam also managed to gain influence among the lower classes. In countries such as Egypt, Islamist activists were able to participate in party work, which contributed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral success after the fall of the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The second important development that Alexander traces is the rise of regional powers such as Turkey, Israel and the Gulf states. Interestingly, the advance of these states has been made possible by their divergence from neoliberal orthodoxy. Still, much of the economic growth underlying the increasing influence of these powers, above all the Gulf states, is based on speculative sectors, potentially undermining their future stability and the imperialistic expansion of their interests. The book also points to the links between the climate crisis and the rise of the Gulf States, whose massive oil and gas exports fuel global fossil capitalism and its ecological destruction. Alexander conceptualises these emerging powers as sub-imperialist, although the definition of this term, as well as what it implies with regard to the hierarchies and conflicts within the inter-state system, is unclear.
Workers fighting back
It follows from Alexander’s classical Marxist framework and her definition of crisis that the antagonism between workers and capital is central to understanding the region. Indeed, when we survey the successes and failures of mass movements in the region, the power of the working class shows itself to be indispensable. This will hardly be news for readers of this journal. However, many academics and journalists still believe that revolutions and processes of democratisation are the result of a desire for freedom that is inherent to capitalists and the capitalist system. Alexander argues something very different—the success of movements for democracy depends on the assertiveness of workers against capital and against the capitalist order as such. This orientation means that her interest is concentrated on the dynamics emerging from below, which even some Marxists writing on the Dignity Revolution tend to neglect.6
One of Alexander’s many insights, which is of utmost relevance for both activists in the region and those in the Global North, is that “neoliberalism has not only left a legacy of defeat, but also created objective conditions for popular revolt”.7 During the neoliberal period, the working class in the Middle East and North Africa grew and became concentrated in expanding workplaces and urban areas. Neoliberalism may have been a reconfiguration of the capitalist system, but it “was still capitalism—and capitalism needs workers”.8 Restructuring of the working class included the proletarianisation of a layer of educated professionals who faced worsening conditions in the public sector; this development proved crucial because public sector employees have the potential to attack the state directly through their workplaces. Teachers, among other public sector workers, have been at the frontline of the struggles that have emerged since 2010-11 against the region’s regimes, and the industrial working class has not remained quiet either. Importantly, Alexander devotes a whole chapter to the prominent role of women in the revolutions, looking at how women have been drawn into the workforce but, due to their specific role in capitalism, have also been particularly negatively affected by neoliberal reforms.
As a result of these processes, strike waves began to take shape in the mid-2000s in Egypt and Tunisia. These new workers’ movements confronted their respective regimes, including the co-opted trade union bureaucracies. A few years later, Sudan and Algeria had similar experiences. Alexander’s unique comparison of several countries allows her to observe that, once the revolutions broke out in the 2010s, working-class activism made the advancement of democratisation from below more likely and limited the scope for counter-revolution. A negative confirmation of this thesis is Syria, where the involvement of the organised working class in the revolutionary process was relatively weak. This opened the way for a destructive counter-revolution that saw years of deadly civil war and the survival of the vicious regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
According to Alexander, strikes have been significant for broader movements in three respects. First, they act as a learning experience for the masses. Second, they enable public protest, maintaining and deepening resistance. Third, they can act as a final blow to already dysfunctional mass organisations such as state-controlled trade unions and the “zombie parties” associated with dictators. I think that there is room for a fourth point; through struggles for direct economic demands, rather than primarily political demands, workers have been able to impose limits on capital accumulation and the success of neoliberal structural adjustment. This has certainly been the case in Tunisia which, as Alexander emphasises, has the most organised labour movement. Overlooking this aspect might be related to her (understandable) focus on the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), Tunisia’s famed trade union federation. The UGTT is almost exclusively active in the public sector, but it is the private sector—tourism, mechanical, textiles and clothing, and the electrical and electronic industries—that has emerged as the driving force of the economy since the 1970s. Strikes in these sectors were much more hidden and less organised but, due to their ability to disrupt key sectors of value creation, were no less influential. They thus contributed significantly to the crisis in the late 2000s.
The state and party politics
Some Marxist accounts read as if the social and economic troubles of the Middle East and North Africa began with neoliberalism. For instance, in her recent book on the political economy of Egypt, researcher Angela Joya describes the state capitalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled the country from the 1950s until 1970:
The Nasser era represented a unique period in the history of modern Egypt where, for the first time, the propertied classes faced a serious challenge from those who controlled the state and the interests of workers and peasants formed the core of the state’s policies.9
Thus, one solution could be to somewhat go back to those years, at least in economic terms. As we have seen, however, Alexander objects to this logic, arguing that many of the problems that fuelled the Dignity Revolution originated in early post-colonial development and within the global capitalist system as such. Therefore, she contends, the whole capitalist system must be overcome—and that the means to achieve this have already emerged.
Relying on Lenin’s State and Revolution, Alexander argues that the capitalist state needs to be smashed and replaced by new democratic institutions constructed from below. She compares the revolutionary experiences of people in Egypt, Syria and Sudan, which all involved the creation of councils to coordinate strikes and protests as well as sometimes organising the meeting of the basic needs of daily life. In most accounts of the Dignity Revolution, these developments are simply ignored. Due to this, the reconstruction of state power after the fall of the dictator is often presented as having been without alternative. Of course, although alternatives to the capitalist state have arisen, they have so far failed to go far enough. In Egypt, revolutionaries established new institutions in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and founded independent trade unions, but these ventures remained isolated; struggles in the workplace failed to link into broader street politics. In Syria, ordinary people were able to partially replace the centralised state in rural areas, but they were unable to paralyse its apparatuses in the larger cities. Moreover, the absence of workers’ struggles in the Syrian public sector weakened the revolutionary process. In contrast, Sudanese revolutionaries successfully established neighbourhood councils throughout the country and achieved national coordination. However, only a minority sees these bodies as an alternative to the capitalist state.
These developments (especially those in Sudan) point to the feasibility of socialist revolution in the 21st century. Yet, Alexander highlights a further necessary condition for overcoming capitalism: a revolutionary party rooted in the working class, oriented towards permanent revolution and against the capitalist state. Revolutionaries must expand the “process of disruption and construction”, especially as it arises at the workplace, seeking to accelerate the dynamics of the revolution by reinforcing its economic and political aspects as well as exploiting the social tensions created by the uneven and combined development of capitalism. Alexander states that no party capable of these tasks has been able to lead the masses during the Dignity Revolution. This is despite important attempts by activists, such as the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt, to build such an organisation. Alexander’s book is thus an encouragement for revolutionaries in all parts of the world, including the Global North, to learn from these failures and become engaged in party building as early as possible.
The importance of building a revolutionary party can perhaps be seen by focusing on the development of the Tunisian Revolution. During the revolution that broke out in late 2010, workers managed to put the bureaucracy of the UGTT under pressure and committees for the defence of the revolution emerged on a local and national level (although these were less developed than those that have grown out of the Sudanese Revolution). Once the dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali crumbled, in contrast to other countries analysed by Alexander, the counter-revolutionary forces appeared much weaker. The police disintegrated, and the army had only played a subordinate role in the regime. However, in recent years, Tunisia has seen the containment and pushing back of the democratic gains of the revolution, with President Kais Saied assuming sweeping new powers after a coup in 2021 and a constitutional referendum that took place on 25 July 2022.
What went wrong? Tunisia illustrates almost perfectly why a revolutionary party is needed. Even if the ruling class is helpless and the people have just made a revolution, the idea that it must be “deepened” to achieve their common goal—dignity—is far from obvious. Instability drives people into the hands of those who promise that the state, and a reformed capitalist economy, can serve everyone. Liberal democracy’s failure in Tunisia shows this form of governance has real difficulties addressing the contradictions created by the uneven and combined nature of development in North Africa.
As Alexander shows, counter-revolution in the Middle East and North Africa has almost always relied on the military to crush protests and strikes. Movements must respond to this by aiming to divide the military, drawing ordinary soldiers and lower ranks onto their side, as experiences from other parts of the world have demonstrated. A point that Alexander makes particularly well is that militarism is deeply rooted in imperialist rivalries over control of the region. Her already convincing analysis here might have been further strengthened by an exploration of the shifting interplay between regional and international rivalries over the past few decades and how this influenced the Dignity Revolution. This might include looking at the roles of Iran and Russia, which have taken advantage of the weakness of US imperialism in the face of regional upheavals and the rise of China. It might also analyse the role of Germany, which has become a dominant power in Europe and a new Western actor in North Africa, for example, through its troop deployments in Mali. All this would underline why internationalism is key. It is not only because the Dignity Revolution has inspired and fuelled struggles in the Global North; it is also because “our” exploiters and politicians in the West have fought the desire of the people in the Middle East and North Africa for dignity. This point cannot be made clear enough, especially for readers who are politically active in imperialist countries.
None of my comments should or can diminish the value of this work. Alexander has written a brilliant book that provides new arguments for a Marxist reading of the Dignity Revolution and sets out its crucial lessons. There is no other study that traces the struggles and potentials of the working class across countries in the post-colonial history of the region in such detail. Alexander not only impresses with her profound knowledge of the region (the whole book comes to more than 400 pages) but also with her accessible style of writing. This makes the book suitable for students, activists and everyone interested in the region and in radical politics. Hopefully, translation into other languages, particularly Arabic, will follow soon.10
Sascha Radl is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.
1 Choonara, 2019.
2 The term “Arab Spring” is, of course, more familiar, but Alexander does not use it for two main reasons. First, non-Arab populations have also been involved in the mass protests (for instance, Kurds in Syria and Amazigh people in Algeria). Second, it does not make explicit that we are dealing with revolutions. Still, I believe that we need an alternative term that makes clear the revolutions in the region over the past 12 years are not just a sequence of purely national events. Instead, these revolutions have had common demands in the face of a crisis of global capitalism. The demand for “dignity” (karama), raised across the region, can perhaps symbolise this.
3 Alexander, 2022a, p139.
4 For these debates, see Alexander and Naguib, 2018.
5 Achcar, 2013a.
6 Examples of this include Achcar, 2013b, and Hanieh, 2013. Despite this weakness, these two authors pioneered the revival of Marxist political economy as a tool for analysing the Middle East and North Africa.
7 Alexander, 2022a, p236.
8 Alexander, 2022a, p236.
9 Joya, 2020, p52.
10 A German translation is already available—see Alexander, 2022b.