A lecture by Adam Hanieh sheds light on where the uprisings that started in North Africa and spread to the Middle East in 2011, are today.
“What we are seeing is the emergence of new movements particularly among youth, new movements that are taking up the questions of political independence, orientation to mass struggles and left politics. These are movements that are not visible on the surface, they are not the kind of things you would see on the front pages of newspapers but they are present in Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the struggle [is continuing] over the last six months in all of these countries that I have mentioned where you see this kind of renewal of this kind of politics,” said Adam Hanieh, an author and senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Hanieh was giving the Abdulhay Ahmed Saloojee Trust Memorial lecture titled “Where to with the liberation struggles of the Middle East“. The liberation struggles he referred to were those that heralded the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, which started in Tunisia in 2011 that saw the toppling of Ben Ali and later, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
According to a leaflet published by the Trust, Abdulhay Ahmed Saloojee was born in India in 1927 while his family was already settled in Johannesburg. By the age of 15 he was already active in the Transvaal Indian Congress. He later enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand where he furthered his political interest and was one of the founding members of the Progressive Forum. The Progressive Forum attracted the attention of the state security apparatus and Saloojee was interrogated on numerous occasions and warned in terms of the suppression of Communism Act to cease his political involvement.
Speaking before the lecture, Bobby Wilcox from the Trust said that Abdulhay had a keen interest in the necessity of talking about democracy. “At the heart of our struggle in South Africa was democracy talking about what type of democracy we want. As a Trust we have decided to investigate struggles around the world. For example, tonight we will be talking about the struggles in North Africa and the Middle East and look at what kind of democracy they are looking for. Its about finding commonalities and offering solidarity to their struggles,” said Wilcox.
Factors that influenced the Arab Uprising
According to Hanieh, some of the underlying factors that influenced the uprisings that started in Tunisia and quickly spread to countries in North Africa and the Middle East included the peoples’ need for democracy. “You had autocratic states that deployed imprisonment, torture and use of security forces to give deep political control to the state.”
The second factor according to Hanieh which he warned should not be separated from the first, is the role that the governments in the region played in rolling out neoliberal economic policies since the 1980s. “The autocrats in the region came into power because they were supported by the military and financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In 2007 the World Bank awarded Hosni Mubarak the top performer in making it easier to do business, ” said Hanieh. It is a political analysis of neoliberalism in the Middle East and its connection to the uprisings that he writes about in his book, Lineages of Revolt.
“Around the time the uprisings took place, the unemployment rate was the highest than in any other region. There were also wealth inequalities. One cannot separate the political from the economic sphere in the region. The autocratic regimes were functional in the way neoliberalism developed in the region,” argued the Development Studies lecturer.
The third factor that contributed to the uprisings according to Hanieh was foreign intervention. “Imperialism played a big role in the way the uprisings unfolded. The Middle East plays a big role in the world economy because it exports oil and gas. Oil is the lifeblood of modern capitalism and that is the reason the Western powers are concerned about what happens in the region,” he said.
The global economic crisis that started in 2008 played a big role in the uprisings too. “It hit the region sharply and quickly affected workers [who were no longer] able to send remittances to their families. It also led to a drop in foreign direct investment (FDI),” he argued. The uprisings that started in Tunisia according to media reports started as a result of the self-immolation of a young unemployed graduate. Mohamed Bouzizi could not find a job so he resorted to hawking and when the police confiscated his goods he set himself on fire, an act of despair that angered a lot of especially young people and they started to protest.
Hanieh warned about looking at the factors as separate from each other, urging his audience to see the uprisings “as products of how the Middle East has been incorporated into the global economy.”
The role of Gulf countries in the region
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which is a regional intergovernmental political and economic union of Arab states in the Persian Gulf played a big role in creating the conditions for the Arab Spring. Its member states are United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia and Oman. “The GCC is modelled on the European Union even though they are not as advanced. All of the six states export oil and gas and politically they are ruled by monarchies or families that have been in power for many decades. All of them have been a key pillar of United States power and the European Union in the Middle East,” explained Hanieh.
“There is also another factor that we tend to forget when we are talking about the Gulf states and that is the question of migrant labour. Unlike any other place on the planet, more than half of their labour-force is made up of temporary migrant labour. Workers that lack citizenship rights and an ability to hold those rights in future. The residency of the workers is tied to their employment status. If they lose their jobs or the employer fires them, then they need to leave the country. The proportion of citizenship in the Gulf is small. In some countries not more than 10% of those in the country are citizens. This means in times of crisis they can simply send workers home. They do not have a problem of mass unemployment that other countries in the region have,” said Hanieh.
Hanieh also highlighted the way Gulf capital was internationalised by investors who started buying land and thus strengthened links between the governments and capital.
The aftermath of the uprisings
According to Hanieh, the region has since 2011 seen the acceleration of neoliberal policies in the region. He also argued that the internal displacement of people has been a feature of the Middle East and north African states after the Spring. “The weakening of the left and trade unions is also one feature of post-2011 uprisings, ” he said.
“It will also be interesting to see how the reconstruction of the region will be done in the near future. There are already talks of construction and infrastructure reconstruction by the IMF. It will be interesting to see who will be controlling that and what the response of the newer movements that are starting to talk about political independence and leftist politics will be,” he concluded.