A dream haunts the people of the Middle East. Since the decline of the Ottoman Empire, this dream has motivated movements seeking collective dignity, whether nationalist, internationalist, right wing, left wing, Islamist, secularist, or others. In the midst of the anti-colonial revolts in the 1960s and 1970s, this dream was articulated as that of independence, self-reliance, self-sustenance, equality, and justice. This dream was never realized for reasons beyond the scope of this article.
One’s dreams are harder to tame than one’s body. The dreams of people throughout the Middle East are part of the affective structures that keep them going, that inspire their everyday resistance, and alarm regional leaders to build ever more extensive security states. This past decade we witnessed new movements brewing amidst these lost dreams, movements that became visible to the rest of the world when they exploded in open revolts across Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Oman, and Iran.
As people march in the streets and occupy main squares, their dreams are in danger of being deferred once again. The form that many of the revolts took, combined with the interests and strategies of the U.S. and other Western powers, make the revolts susceptible to co-optation by elites. This assertion might be premature given that these struggles are currently unfolding; these processes are neither finished nor inevitable. This analysis is not an attempt to explain, describe in full, or in anyway fully represent the different movements. Rather it aims to sound a preliminary alarm given observations of common trends across the region.
Common Strategies of the Revolts
There are three traits shared by many of the revolts in the past year: 1) they were relatively spontaneous; 2) a single party or leader did not lead them; and 3) they used unifying slogans focusing on political demands.[i]
Last year, those who showed up on the 25th of January in Tahrir Square in Cairo, or on the 14th of February in Benghazi, never imagined they were going to a protest that would eventually call for, and eventually bring down, their respective governments. The revolts in 2011 started with seemingly uneventful protests that organically grew into movements of masses of people. And yet, to call these protests “spontaneous” or an “awakening” ignores the more complex nature of reality in the Middle East. The revolts are more accurately described as relatively spontaneous. Relative, because they were based on the infrastructure built by earlier protests movements, and the everyday resistance of people that went unnoticed.[ii]
The revolts were not initiated by a specific party or a leader. This is also a relative statement, given that while groups like the April 6th movement in Egypt, the Wefaq party in Bahrain, union activists in Tunisia, and countless human rights groups were part of the protests, the mobilizations outgrew any organization or party and their capacities to control the throngs of people. It is thus hard to speak of any of these movements as having a party or leader at their inception. This made the movements hard to tame initially, since there were no leaders to buy off, imprison or eliminate.
Lastly, the demands of the revolts were broad enough to include a wide array of social groups and classes. The protesters were direct in their demands: “the people demand the fall of the regime.” Their political objectives aimed at the pinnacle of power to unify society under the movement. This enabled the revolts to include everyone – rich, poor, leftist, secular, and Islamist.
These common characteristics are some of the factors responsible for the success of the revolts, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. However, for every tactic and strategy of a movement, there is also a weakness. Therefore we must ask what the interests are of the U.S., the European Union, NATO, and other transnational governing bodies in the region, and how these interests guide their policies moving forward.
Foreign Interests in the Region
There is no doubt that short term geopolitical concerns drive part of American foreign policy. There is a reason why the United States treated Bahrain and Yemen differently from Iran or Syria. But beyond geopolitics, at a political economic level, the United States’ foreign policy goals not only aim to further its strategic interests, but ultimately to maintain and further entrench global capitalism.
Global capitalism refers to the current phase of capitalism, which was arrived at through the process commonly referred to as “globalization.” Globalization is defined here as the drastic neoliberal restructuring of the state and the economy.[iii] The result was the development of global, transnational capitalism – global because production has become global, as assembly lines are no longer housed in one factory, one city, or even in one country, but rather span the entire world in a global commodity chain.[iv] The U.S. state apparatus – particularly its diplomatic and military power – has evolved to protect and promote the process of neoliberal globalization. [v]
Short and medium term geopolitical interests are part of larger economic goals. We cannot understand them separately. At the current juncture, the forms of political organization in a state– whether monarchical, dictatorial or democratic– or its social and cultural issues – such as the role of religion in the polity – are secondary to the economic question of integration into global capitalism. Thus the underlying operative concerns, from the vantage point of the U.S., are: 1) do particular states favor and work towards integrating themselves into global capitalism?; and 2) are they able to provide enough stability to allow for capital accumulation?
To better illustrate this point, let us imagine a state, fully integrated globally, with an export driven economy open to global investors. This state, regardless of its political form, is accountable to and disciplined by the “market forces” of global capitalism.[vi] If the political elite of the state attempt to introduce socialist policies or Islamist ethics that would oppose financial products, there would be no need for the U.S. to stage a coup d’état to replace the elites. Rather, investors would pull their capital, government bonds would plummet, the cost of loans would skyrocket, the currency would lose value, imported products would become expensive, and, since the economy does not produce for national demands, the commodities that the public depends on would become inaccessible. This is how the market disciplines a state in our time.
Thus, if our interests are the promotion and maintenance of global capitalism and capital accumulation, the most efficient way to control a state is no longer to colonize it, or to prop up puppet regimes, but rather to implement neoliberal reforms. Global market discipline can take care of the rest.
Unfortunately, these circumstances are not hypothetical, and are very real. For instance, the strategy of the U.S. occupation in Iraq followed this scenario. Between 2003 and July 2004, the U.S. enjoyed full control over the Iraqi state. It implemented a transitional constitution, imposed 112 laws, and heavily interfered in the drafting and negotiating of the permanent Constitution.[vii] The laws passed, which were meant to outlast the occupation, focused on the economic foundations of the country. Questions of religion, Islamism, and governance were left to Iraqis, while they rewrote laws regarding the economy such as banking, investment, taxes on foreign goods, stock exchange laws, patents and trademarks, to name a few.[viii] They built a state vulnerable to market disciplining, a state that would do the economic bidding of global capitalists, regardless of whether it was formally dominated by Islamists, communists, or members of the Iraqi Chamber of Commerce.
U.S. policy makers were just as surprised by the 2011 revolts, along with the now toppled Arab leaders. Given the situation, the U.S. attempted to influence the direction of the outcome by tapping into the civil society networks it had developed over the years, and by promoting elites favorable to transnational integration from among the ranks of protesters.