From Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria to the countries of North Africa, such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the anger, the desire to change the unbearable reality, the mass movement, and the process of reorganization of the political space are all present. What seems to be lacking, however, is a progressive revolutionary ideology that would be capable of not only abolishing direct political suppression, but also reshaping the exploitative social relations. The peoples of Near East and North Africa have the capacity and the will to change their world, but how big will that change be? Is it too unrealistic to expect a revolution that could reshape societies fundamentally, i.e. not only the representatives of the ideological superstructure, but also the relations of production, to use Marx’s terminology? If this is a progressive revolution, will it be able to exceed the aim of abolishing dictatorial regimes to create a more radical transformation of the societies of the Middle East? I think so far what is lacking is a grand progressive ideology, but is it possible for a new social and political vision to be emerging as the cross-national revolution continues? That is the hope. This article however, for the most part, expresses the less optimistic interpretation of what seems to be happening. Part of what determines the boundaries and the nature of a historical event at the moment of its occurrence is our (we who do support the event) own expectations, interpretations, utopias, criticisms, and doubts. My own wish is that this movement will not only target the dictators and their institutional apparatuses, but the entire exploitative social order including class and racial relations.
After the last presidential elections in Iran, many Iranians were angry enough to make a revolution, but what happened fell short of a revolution. That is so not only because they did not succeed in changing the repressive regime, but because many of them had no idea whatsoever what the next Iran should roughly look like, even though for the most part the ultimate hope was the collapse of the Islamic regime. In Tunisia and Egypt, the uprisings did accomplish their goal, but those goals were not ambitious enough to go beyond the removal of the two dictators and their immediate circle from the political scene. Some revolutionaries in both countries to this moment are determined to continue their struggle until the removal of the entire group of the ruling politicians. However, it seems that many Egyptians and Tunisians still have too much faith in the army. The Egyptian army produced Egypt’s three dictators since 1956, and Tunisia’s two dictators – since 1957 – enjoyed the support and protection of the Tunisian army during their prolonged rule over the country. There is no such a thing as a good army. An army is inherently suppressive and violent. What makes this truth undetectable by some people is their unfortunate nationalist and patriotic attachment to the armies of their countries.
At any rate, what appears to be certain is that the era of traditional tyrannies, represented by the absolute power of an individual dictator, such as Mubarak and hopefully the theocratic tyrannies as well, have already started to end. But the coming era will bring its own disappointments to the oppressed and marginalized groups who, due to their desperation, are perhaps too hopeful about the new era. These movements are far from accomplishing a redistribution of wealth, changing the existing relations of production, bringing about any kind of economic justice, or confronting racial, ethnic and, religious discrimination. The reason this is the case is not only that the riots lack a progressive revolutionary ideology, but also that the nature of the class identity of the “revolutionaries” themselves make the movements lack a grand dream of the future of the social relations.
The riots are led by the middle class educated youth whose demands and dreams are relatively conservative. These are mainly present or former students whose motivations do not go beyond two main ideological territories: nationalism and liberalism. Arab, Persian, and Turkish nationalism have never made the situation even for the Arabs, Turks and Persians, respectively, any better. There is no reason to think Arab nationalism is going to accomplish any progressive goals in the post-tyrannical era. As far as the minorities or the demonized Other is concerned, the above nationalisms have been at the heart of the most common forms of Middle Eastern fascism. One of the reasons Arab dictators became unpopular among their peoples was precisely that they were not as aggressive as their people’s wished them to be against Israel. We have to remember Saddam Hussein was the most aggressive of all Arab dictators both internally and externally, and for that very reason he was the most popular among Arabs.
Liberalism, being the other main ideological motivation of these movements, bears some promise of economic reform, yet that reform is not necessarily going to be in the interest of those who have already been economically exploited in the era of tyrannical despotism. Thanks to the twentieth century model of despotism, the basic promises of liberalism are still a utopia in the Middle East, and thus even the poor hold a great irrational hope in it. Being able to mock the head of the state publicly is still a great dream of many Middle Easterners, but the new totalitarianism, that of the market, yet to be experienced. I am not trying to undermine the legitimate appeal of freedom of speech for people who are deprived of it, myself being one of them for a long time; rather, I emphasise the fact that these movements could have aimed at a more profound destruction of the existing reality and a greater improvement of the social conditions if there were a stronger presence of the radical left.
The model for the majority of these revolutionary youth in Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran is the Western liberal democracies as the ideal form of state. What we are witnessing are not revolutions in the direction of social and economic justice but movements of political reform in the direction of liberal democracy.
In Iran and most Arab societies nationalism and liberalism are the dominant ideology. In the case of Iran, the Western governments do not hesitate to show empathy and symbolic support to the movement. In the Arab world, however, the Western governments do not necessarily want so called “free and fair elections” in the Western fashion. The Western countries have two major fears of free elections in the Arab countries. The first is the fear of the rise of the Islamists to power, and the second is the fear of the rise of Arab ultra-nationalists, both of which will be hostile to Israel. In Iran, however, because the state is already an Islamist one, and is openly hostile to Israel, the West prefers a secular nationalist regime which, unlike Arab nationalism, would certainly not be a threat to Israel. In the Arab countries, almost any change is a change towards the worse as far as the interests of Western liberal capitalism are concerned. Hence, from the point of view of Western Liberalism, represented by the Western governments, the problem is precisely the scenario of Arab countries with so called “free and fair elections”.
Once more, liberalism is shooting itself in the foot. This is so in two senses: according to the Western liberals’ own fears, the outcome of the rise of liberalism elsewhere in the world, or at least in the Middle East, creates major crises for Western liberalism, and, hence, liberalism as an ideology is far from bringing about a peaceful stable world, which means that the liberal project of globalization is an unavoidable failure. This, if anything, supports the grand Marxist thesis maintaining that the dominant ideology in any society is the ideology of the dominant class, which in turn reinforces the theory of historical materialism according to which the state, laws, religion, and normalized moral values are the ideological outcome of a more fundamental set of structures represented in the forces, modes and relations of productions. As long as the bases of human to human exploitation exist, which produces and reproduces social contradictions, more and more revolutions are to be expected. I share the Western liberal’s distrust in and fear of Islamism and ultra-Arab nationalism, but apparently, liberalism itself is a fundamental part of the problem. Not only that, but it is also reaching a historical deadlock, which is created mostly by its own inherent contradictions. This deadlock might take a few decades until it will make the global capitalist system collapse, but what is evident now is that the dragon has already started eating itself away from the tale.
Everything capitalist liberalism did in the twentieth century in order to defeat its true rival, communism, has later blown up in its own face. It is not too unrealistic to think that capitalism’s current reaction to the outcomes of its own older reactions will bring back a new and stronger form of communism. Even though the current revolutions do not embody such an advanced form of communism, perhaps its historical grounds are just being formed now in the womb of this historical moment.