Bernard E. Harcourt | On the Arab Spring: A Reader’s Companion

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“Indeed, it remains a question if what emerged during the Arab Spring were in fact revolutions in the sense of their twentieth-century counterparts.”

— Asef Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (2017)[1]

From Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, and Syria, to other Arab states such as Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and Yemen, a series of mass mobilizations, uprisings, and rebellions shook the Arab world in 2011 and rippled throughout the rest of the continents. The popular unrest was portrayed using a wide range of concepts: “Uprisings.”[2] “Revolts.”[3] “Upheavals.”[4] “Commotion.”[5] “Insurrectionary energies.”[6] “Revolutions.”[7] “Revolutionary episodes.”[8] “Revolution 2.0”[9] “Political revolution.”[10] “Long revolution.”[11] “Reformism.”[12] Even “Refolutions,”[13]—a mixture of “revolutionary mobilizations and reformist trajectories.”[14]  To some, it comprised a series of “true revolutions that was hijacked, manipulated, or stalled by the counterrevolution.”[15]

The multiplicity of concepts reflected at the time, and still today, a lot of confusion about what exactly happened and why. Were these revolutions, in the end? Or insurrections? Or rebellions? Recall that in Tahrir Square and around Egypt, the 18 days of upheaval resulted in over 800 deaths and thousands of injuries, following lengthy violent street battles. Mubarak was deposed after thirty years of autocratic rule, and stood trial. In Libya, Qaddafi and his son were killed, executed by rebels—Qaddafi’s lifeless body was trampled and defiled by riotous crowds. The uprisings in Syria led to a bloody civil war, still ongoing, of international proportions. Ben Ali in Tunisia was overthrown and replaced by the country’s first-ever democratically elected president. How should we understand the popular uprisings that produced these momentous events in the Arab world? Should we describe them using a single concept or different ones? Do we assess them by their outcomes—civil war here, a military coup there, or democratic elections? And how can we interpret an uprising, in its immediacy, when the outcomes are so indeterminate? Is it even possible to assess the uprisings in themselves, in isolation from their subsequent historical development? Can we even analyze them now, before we really know what they will ultimately lead to?

Coming on the heels of Uprising 1/13, which explored the modern concept of revolution as a form of social emancipation and transformation of social structures, and Uprising 2/13, which examined the fragmentation of that ideal through the proliferation of Maoist-inspired insurrectional models from the 1960s onward, we confront here mass protests that directly challenge our schemes of understanding. To think through the present, it seems, may be even more demanding than to conceptualize the past.

A central question arises: What models of uprising can we discern in the Arab Spring and how do the existing paradigms that we have already explored—revolution or insurrections—help us understand these upheavals?

Our readings offer guidance—different perspectives, perhaps, or a variety of ways to explore the Arab Spring as a form(s) of uprising.[16] They offer at least five objective lenses that allow us to focus on different levels of these historical events—each of which may provide a key to understanding the Arab Spring uprisings:

  • The importance of geo-political interests;
  • The ideological dimensions of the protest movements;
  • The place of domestic power struggles;
  • The contingency of political protest; and
  • The role of reformism in revolution

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1/  The larger geo-political context

Tariq Ali and Perry Anderson highlight the broader geo-political context within which the popular uprisings unfolded and, ultimately, were rechanneled. For Ali and Anderson, the mass mobilizations were instrumental in bringing about change, but that change was determined and controlled by the broader imperialist interests of the United States and Europe—interests having to do primarily with oil and national security and the maintenance and security of Israel.

Tariq Ali argues that the entire trajectory of Middle Eastern politics—from the lengthy rule of autocrats over the past decades to the rapid fall of Mubarak, Qaddafi, Ben Ali, etc., and the invasion of Iraq—are determined and primarily shaped by U.S. interests, specifically by “the intertwining logics of Washington’s jealous guardianship of the region’s oil and Israel’s grip over its Middle East policy.” (*2) Ali offers a close reading of the imperialist history of the region—and of the varying treatment of the different dynasties during the Arab Spring—to show the subtle variations of Washington’s impact on the region and influence on the life course of the different uprisings. Ali demonstrates, for instance, how Washington quickly entered into talks with the Egyptian army high command to make sure they would abide by the 1979 treaty with Israel. (*3) Neither Ali nor Anderson minimize the popular unrest. The Arab “uprisings” began, in Ali’s words, “as indigenous revolts against corrupt police states and social deprivation.” (*2; see Anderson *3) But they were quickly internationalized to control their outcomes. The “real politics at stake,” in Ali’s terms, are U.S. and Israeli interests in the region. (*5)

Anderson shares this view: what is most characteristic about the history and politics of the region is the long imperial history and its continued hold over the Arab present. What sets the Middle East apart, Anderson writes, is “the unique longevity and intensity of the Western imperial grip on the region, over the past century.” (*1) And it is this long history that explains both the longevity of the former despots in the region (41 years for Gaddafi, 29 for Mubarak, 23 for Ben Ali), as well as their rapid and sequential fall. For many years, the autocrats guaranteed U.S. and European interests with more certainty than democratic elections would have ensured. As a result “Imperial and dictatorial logics remain[ed] intertwined.” (Anderson *3) But the social pressures exploded in 2011 as a result of the crises of inequality, unemployment, and misery—blowing the lid off the kettle. The combustion aimed at the existing regime and its downfall—the most common outcry was for the fall of the despots: “Al-sha’b yurid isquat al-nizam” or “The people want the downfall of the regime!” (Anderson *3) In this context, Washington ultimately continued to control the levers, maintaining good relations where it felt it needed to, and fomenting regime change elsewhere—willing as ever to find an Erdogan to replace a Mubarak or a Ben Ali (*4).

2/  The question of ideology

By contrast to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist insurgents of the post-war period, the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring were predominantly reformist, Asef Bayat argues, and they led more of a “refolution” than a revolution: a mass uprising whose goal was not so much to put in place a new regime, as it was to get the old regime to reform itself. These were not, Bayat contends, revolutionary take-overs of power and state apparatuses, but rather demands that the political system reform itself. On his view—signaling Foucault—the people in Tahrir Square were communicating that “We will not be governed like this anymore,” they were not seizing power in order to put in place a new form of government. In effect, the revolutionaries were reformists, as were the ensuing uprisings.

The problem, according to Bayat, is that the radical and militant ideologies of the 1960s and 70s (anticolonial, Marxist-Leninist, and militant Islamist) had given way to a pervasive neoliberalism and complacency that replaced those ideologies with belief instead in “the individual, freedom, rights, civil society, free market, and legal reform.” (18) For Bayat, the fault lies in “the spread of postmodern thought in academia” that “further constricted efforts to imagine grand ideas, utopian orders, and universal values…” (18-19). The fault lies in Michel Foucault, responsible for  our “quietism.” (19) Identity politics undermined radicalism—echoing recent critiques of identity politics by Mark Lilla. Recognition replaced redistribution. And all these ideological weaknesses produced new anarchists who were horizontal, structureless, and leaderless.

The real effects of neoliberalism in the Arab world may have contributed to the social pressures that erupted in the Arab Spring by creating greater inequalities and popular dissent, but the pervasive ideology itself simultaneously demobilized and deradicalized the opposition. (23) It demobilized class struggle and the ambitions of redistribution. It even demobilized the Islamist movements, leading them away from anti-imperialism and toward reformist politics. (26)

In the end, the Arab uprisings lacked an intellectual anchor or ideology—such as, for instance, radical anti-imperialism or anti-capitalism. Pulling a page from Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia, Bayat writes that “Arab revolutionaries were preoccupied more with the broad issues of human rights, political accountability, and legal reform.” (11) And ultimately, the uprisings have not fundamentally broken with the old political and social order (with the exception of Tunisia, 11) What we saw were movements characterized by “their lack of ideology, lax coordination, and absence of any galvanizing leadership and intellectual precepts [that] have almost no precedent.”[17] It is this demobilization that explains, for Bayat, why there was “no significant shift in the structure of power and state institutions or economic vision, even though a spectacular uprising did succeed in toppling an entrenched dictator” in Egypt. (15) Bayat continues:

What transpired in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, I argue, were neither revolutions in the sense of the twentieth-century experiences (i.e., rapid and radical transformation of the state pushed by popular movements from below) nor simply reform (i.e., gradual and managed change carried out often from above and within the existing structural arrangements) but a complex and contradictory mix of both. In a sense, they were “refolutions”—revolutionary movements that emerged to compel the incumbent states to change themselves, to carry out meaningful reforms on behalf of the revolution. (18)

3/  The domestic struggle for authority

Tala Asad returns to Arendtian themes of  authority to reexamine the fate of the Egyptian uprising—and raises as well important questions about the role of the spiritual, religion, and tradition in revolutionary uprisings (e.g., the purported Islamic Awakening in Egypt (169)), questions that we will return to and explore deeply in the context of Uprising 6/13 on Foucault in Iran.

On Asad’s view, the uprising in Egypt reflected an aspiration to create a new democratic tradition, but did not produce a new foundation because it got co-opted by the military. As a result, in Asad’s words, “the solidarity it generated was evanescent.” (184) No new tradition was born. Instead, the military high command, hand-in-hand with capitalist interests, stepped in to fill a vacuum of authority. On this key question of authority, Hannah Arendt had failed to recognize, Asad contends, “that coups d’état belongs to the same family of political violence as revolution.” (183)[18]

The military high command killed the revolutionary potential in Egypt, thereby creating a new authority. The protesters initially and mistakenly viewed the military as their saviors, but all along the military saw things very differently: “They understood that it was not the uprising that undermined state authority but the erosion of state authority—of its credibility—that had allowed the popular uprising to explode and the military to move in.” (185) For Asad, the uprising never created a new foundation because the military and capitalist interests reconstituted the authority of the state.

For Asef Bayat as well, the counterrevolutionary forces had to be interpreted predominantly through the lens of the “deep state,” especially the police and intelligence services, rather than the tentacles of US imperial interests (see, e.g., 16-17). “All revolutions,” Bayat writes, “carry within themselves the germs of counterrevolutionary intrigues.” (16) Bayat recognizes the larger geopolitical interests, and his history of the Iranian Revolution reflects the US role in both installing and deposing the Shah; but the focus of his analysis is more on the deep state and domestic struggles for authority.

4/  The contingency of protest

Soha Bayoumi and Sherine Hamdy present yet another facet to the uprisings: their quotidian aspect and fortuity. Bayoumi and Hamdy show how physicians got swept into the mobilizations, many of them experiencing a kind of political awakening out of their more mundane existence, others getting pulled into the stream further because of their prior commitments to social justice and improved health care.

In their study, based on interviews with physicians who were members of “Doctors Without Rights” and “Tahrir Doctors” during the occupation of Tahrir Square and later during “The Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street,” Bayoumi and Hamdy document how so many of their subjects became implicated in the uprisings as a result of their being assaulted and victimized by the police while playing the role of the neutral first aid responders. They became politicized despite their purported neutrality precisely because of the violations of that neutrality. (229) Others were radicalized by witnessing the violence inflicted on the protesters. (232) Drawing on Peter Redfield’s writings and on their many interviews, Bayoumi and Hamdy suggest that “the simple act of witnessing can both serve as a source of knowledge and forge one’s alliances and guide one’s moral compass.” (233)

What their interviews reveal is the haphazard and fortuitous ways in which individuals often get involved in protest movements and uprisings—by witnessing, by playing a neutral role, by accident. These doctors, for the most part, were not radical militants, nor even necessarily reformists. To be sure, they were not initiating or leading the protests (for the most part); and they were not (for the vast majority) the vanguard of the movement. But they contributed to the revolutionary episode in the process of getting implicated.

The documentary Tahrir: Liberation Square (dir. Stefano Savona, 2012), shown on October 12, 2017, at the Maison Française, somewhat confirmed this view of the uprising. It followed a handful of passionate Tahrir Square protesters who nevertheless seemed, at times, to vacillate and who, like the subjects described by Bayat, had no roadmap for what might come after the downfall of the regime.

5/  Reformism and revolution

Safwan Masri focuses on Tunisia, the exceptional case—what he calls “An Arab Anomaly,” insofar as it was the only uprising that produced, so far, lasting regime change: from an autocratic leader, Ben Ali, who maintained power for over two decades, to the country’s first-ever democratically elected president, with a new constitution and fair parliamentary elections.

What explains the Tunisian anomaly, Masri maintains, is precisely the people’s reformism. In effect, Masri turns Bayat on its head: the revolutionary uprising in Tunisia could only, and did only, succeed and produce real regime change because it was tilled on soil that was reformist by actors who were reformists. It is precisely “Tunisia’s remarkable culture of reform, which dates back to the nineteenth century and is rooted in a progressive and adaptive brand of Islam” that accounts for the success of the revolution. (xxvii)

In effect, according to Safwan Masri the driving force of the successful regime change in Tunisia was in fact a certain reformism that has marked the country for a century, that transformed the educational system, and that brought about a coexistence of religion and secularism. Masri points to a number of dimensions—women’s rights, educational reforms, a strong labor movement. Women, for instance, achieved the right to vote and run in elections as early as 1957, and the right to abortion in 1973 (two years before France). (11-15) “Reformism,” Masri writes, “has been critical to the nation’s evolution into a progressive and tolerant society.” (xxvii)

Masri eschews broad political theoretic claims (xx), but nevertheless, his book proposes one: a history of reformism may facilitate the success of a popular revolution. “A country where certain liberal conditions existed—women’s rights, modern education, and religious moderation—might just have a better chance than most to transition to democracy.” (xix) This makes Tunisia an exceptional case—predisposed to democracy by its culture of reformism—that is unlikely to replicate in the other Arab nations. There were other possible contributing factors, Masri notes—a homogenous population, lower geopolitical importance, stable boundaries predating the colonial period, an easier post-colonial transition. But the key factor, Masri argues, is a history of reformism.

What is to be done?

As Talal Asad’s essay and the very title of Tariq Ali’s intervention from 2013, “Between Past and Future,” suggest, Hannah Arendt’s writings on tradition and authority loom large in these conversations. You will recall that her essay “What Is Authority?” was published in a volume of her own titled Between Past and Future. Talal Asad explicitly draws the link to Arendt’s essay, which, he writes, “traced a very specific concept of tradition that was central to European history, in which it was bound closely to both authority and religion, such that undermining of the one inevitably led to the undermining of the other two.” (181) Modern society, for Arendt, destroyed tradition, and in the process, authority.

Arendt remarked that “authority has vanished from the modern world,” (91) and, as a result, that “we are no longer in a position to know what authority really is.” (92) The problem, in Arendt’s view, was fundamental and foundational to our current human condition:

The fact that not only the various revolutions of the twentieth century but all revolutions since the French have gone wrong, ending in either restoration or tyranny, seems to indicate that even these last means of salvation provided by tradition have become inadequate. Authority as we once knew it, which grew out of the Roman experience of foundation and was understood in the light of Greek political philosophy, has nowhere been re-established, either through revolutions or through the even less promising means of restoration, and least of all through the conservative moods and trends which occasionally sweep public opinion. For to live in a political realm with neither authority nor the concomitant awareness that the source of authority transcends power and those who are in power, means to be confronted anew, without the religious trust in a sacred beginning and without the protection of traditional and therefore self-evident standards of behavior, by the elementary problems of human living-together. (141)

A kind of despair attaches to this idea of the demise of authority—a despair that, today, seems to accompany so many reflections on the Arab Spring (with the exception perhaps of Safwan Masri’s book on Tunisia.) Asef Bayat emphasizes this “despair that came to afflict so many activists in postrevolutionary moments” (27). Masri too recognizes how, across much of the Arab world, the Arab Spring “quickly turned into a dark and stormy winter, crushing all hopes for better lives and representative governments for those who had challenged the repressive status quo.” (xxv)

Against this despair, Talal Asad argues instead for more polyvalent forms of political engagement that contest authority at different levels or, in his words, that would “address numerous overlapping bodies and territories.” (212) This would mean not always seeing conflict and aiming resistance at the same target—at times focusing on matters of national citizenship, at others of religious faith, and still at others of local governance.

Asad reminds us of the remark Foucault made in the context of the Iranian Revolution: “Concerning the expression ‘Islamic government,’ why cast immediate suspicion on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ suffices, in itself, to awaken vigilance.” (206) It is vigilance across the board that would be called for—without any specific privilege to tradition, to the national, or to the local: multiple different strategies of resistance at various different levels. Asad sees in this a way out, not only out of the failure of the Egyptian revolution, but more generally for us all. These problems, he notes, reflect a “tragedy not merely of Egypt but of our time.” (214)

Others, such as Tariq Ali and Perry Anderson, point us back to earlier, more radical strands of revolutionary thought and practice. For Anderson, writing in 2011, what was missing in the Arab Spring was a stronger strand of anti-imperialism. The only way for the Arab revolts “to become a revolution,” Anderson wrote in 2011, is for the region as a whole to reneg on the Camp David Accords. “The litmus test of the recovery of a democratic Arab dignity lies there,” Anderson concludes (*5).

Tariq Ali, for his part, points us back to Lenin as a guide to rethink uprisings—especially in his most recent book The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution (2017). For this seminar, Ali specifically pointed our attention to Lenin’s April Theses, originally pronounced by Lenin at meetings of soviets in Saint Petersburg in early April 1917, so in between the first revolution of February 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

The April Theses were, as Ali reminds us, a clarion call to action and to order at a time when the Bolshevik leadership was adrift—a provocative, “explosive,” and extremely controversial call for a second, truly socialist revolution to overcome the first, bourgeois political revolution. (151, 164) At that time, Lenin called on his party members to unleash that second revolution—in terms that would have had a special resonance in Egypt in 2011:

“The specific feature of the present situation in Russia,” Lenin wrote at the time, “is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.” (*2)

These words, Ali notes, “paved the way for the revolution in October 1917.” (10) They paved the way for the kind of vanguard, leaderful revolution that, it seems, was consciously avoided by many in Tahrir Square, and latter in Zuccotti Park. The contrast could not be sharper.

The question this raises, ultimately—in the face of political leaders like Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, or Rodrigo Duterte—is the proper role for leadership on the other side of the barricades. This is a question we will explore in the context of Uprising 3/13.


Tariq Ali, “Between Past and Future,” New Left Review 80, March-April 2013.

Perry Anderson, “On the Concatenation in the Arab World,” New Left Review 68, March-April 2011.

Talal Asad, “Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today,” Critical Inquiry 42 (Autumn 2015)

Asef Bayat, Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring, Chapter 1 (Stanford University Press, 2017)

Soha Bayoumi and Sherine Hamdy, “Egypt’s Popular Uprising and the Stakes of Medical Neutrality,” S. Cult Med Psychiatry (2016) 40: 223

Safwan M. Masri, Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly (Columbia University Press, 2017)

Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution (Verso 2017)

Hannah Arendt’s “What Is Authority?” in Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Viking Press, 1961)

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution,” aka “The April Theses,” Pravda No 26 (April 7, 1917)


[1] Bayat 2017:2.

[2] Ali 2013:*1; Anderson 2011:*3 and *4; Asad 2015:181 and 184; Bayat 2017:8 and 10; Hamdy and Bayoumi 2015:223; Masri 2017:5.

[3] Anderson 2011:*3 and *5;

[4] Anderson 2011:*1 and *4; Bayat 2017:1 and 2;

[5] Anderson 2100:*3.

[6] Ali 2013:*1.

[7] Bayat 2017:2, 8, 9, passim; Masri 2017:xix.

[8] Bayat 2017:1.

[9] Bayat 2017:16, quoting Wael Ghoneim.

[10] Bayat 2017:15, quoting Gilbert Achcar.

[11] Bayat, drawing on Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, London 1961.

[12] Masri 2017:xxvii.

[13] Bayat 2017:17.

[14] Bayat 2017:27.

[15] Bayat 2017:15.

[16] Note that Bayat 2017:8-10 provides a short chronology of the Arab Spring uprisings; Masri 2017:1-3 for the Tunisia uprising;

[17] Bayat 2017:2.

[18] Asad adds that coups d’état differs from revolution only “in being a challenge from within the governing elite—one that aims to change only the rulers of the state not the system itself, but that legitimates itself in terms of necessity (saving the nation and ensuring its progress).” (183)