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.

Civil Society Networks

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often derides her Russian or Chinese counterparts by urging them to get “on the right side of history.” In contrast, the U.S. position is summarized as follows: “don’t be on the wrong side of history, be on all sides of it.” U.S. policy makers for quite some time have known that authoritarian regimes are susceptible to rebellions and are untenable in the long term.[ix] Since many of these governments are allies, the U.S. did not want to hasten the inevitable, so it hedged its bets, supporting these governments while opening American diplomatic fronts to work with civil society.

Prior to the revolts, the U.S. used democracy promotion programs to directly or indirectly fund civil society groups, some of whom were critical of their governments, through organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House.[x] This is not to suggest that civil society groups in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, or elsewhere became stooges of the West once they initiated any contact with, or received funding from Western governments or civil society organizations.[xi] These groups exercise their own agency to use all resources available to them without necessarily being beholden to foreign interests. However, from the U.S. perspective, funding civil society organizations is not an exercise in altruism, but part of its larger foreign policy goals. The hope is that, in case a large revolt occurs, the United States can use the relationships, networks, and influence it develops within the opposition to attempt to influence or channel the outcome towards its interests.

Promoting Transnationally-Oriented Elites

The promotion of transnationally-oriented elites through military and economic aid is the second form of intervention by the U.S. This strategy is common in situations where protestors seek foreign support, such as in the case of Libya. In these situations, the rebels have to put forth a leadership, even if their movement had none initially, to ask for and receive support. To appeal to the U.S. or other western countries, this leadership has to be favorable to those countries’ interests, in the sense of favoring transnational integration. In return, the U.S., NATO, or the UN meets with these leaders and flies them to foreign capitals to attend “friends of” conferences, making them synonymous with the revolts. These figures then become the faces of the revolts. Beyond increased visibility, these elite factions are given material support through “aid” and the power to distribute that aid. All of a sudden, an elite faction is created among the rebels, which is anointed as their leader and empowered through external support. This promotion process sidelines other factions that would be opposed to transnational integration.


The possibility of co-optation stems from the separation of economic and political demands, which is usually the initial strategy to keep movements unified. This enables rising transnationally-oriented elites, hampered by the cronyism of previous regimes, to build alliances with the U.S. or other transnational bodies. This alliance gives these elites increased visibility and material power. Given that these movements were leaderless, a visible and well-resourced elite faction could potentially climb on to the stage and begin to speak and negotiate on behalf of the movement. Thus, one set of elites is replaced with another, undermining the emergence of more counter-hegemonic forces that could challenge the economic policies that have enriched the very few, and impoverished the vast majority of society. The end result is that the masses are left with only a shell of what can be identified as “democracy.”

Like a drum, the noise around periodic electoral rituals masks their hollowness, with promises of equity and justice. Democracy is limited to its hollow political form, leaving untouched the economic conditions of the people, which are left to the prerogative of global investors.


This analysis does not suggest that the Arab revolts are co-opted, that they will necessarily be co-opted, or that anyone who interacts with the U.S., the UN, NATO, or transnational institutions will automatically be co-opted. Rather, given the policies of the U.S. and others toward the Middle East, and the very characteristics of some of these movements, the Arab revolts are susceptible to co-optation. The current struggle in post-Mubarak Egypt is against the military and factions of the Muslim Brotherhood that are attempting to co-opt the revolt. [xii] A similar struggle is emerging in Tunisia.[xiii] This struggle will define the next stage of these revolts.

The specter of co-optation is a warning that the Arab revolts could have the unintended consequence of strengthening the Middle East’s integration into the global economy, by separating the economic and the political components of the movements. Therefore, it is likely that we will have new political regimes pursuing the same exploitative economic agenda of previous regimes under the guise of political freedom.

Regardless of the outcome, and despite possibly deferring the alternative reality they conjured in Tahrir square, in Taghyir square, in Lu’lu square, and in Martyr square, the revolts created new imaginative impulses. New dreams were born, new desires were discovered, and a memory of a moment where the “present wavered”[xiv] was etched in every participant’s psyche. This memory haunts us constantly, whispering of an alternate reality. This is an imminent, yet ever-present  reality of grassroots democracy, egalitarianism, and non-commodified human relations, which for a moment existed in these spaces. It is a reminder against despair, because it challenged the totality and the arrogance of the system and the greatest myth it tells about itself – that it is without alternative.

The revolts of 2011 rekindled peoples’ dreams, although these are now on the brink of being deferred. Nevertheless, they accomplished the great feat of frightening those in power, whose authority is now under siege by the “presence of subversive forces and alterative values striving to become social facts. That indeed can make the present waver, make it not quite what we thought it was.” [xv] Resistance is not limited to the episodic ruptures witnessed in 2011, but continues in the everyday struggle of living, where exploitation has made life unlivable.


[i] It is important to note that these traits came about and manifested themsleves distinctively in different countries. For a more thorough analysis of the 2011 revolts see James L. Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[ii] For further reading on everyday resistance in the Middle East see Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010).

[iii] Globalization has become a catch all phrase used to describe drastic changes witnessed starting in the 1970s to the present. However for political economists this term specifically refers to changes in global production, finance, and distribution. These changes are often refered to as neoliberalism, a set of policy packages that aimed to privatize the public sector, ease the flow of commodities and capital, and create export driven economies. For further reading on globalization see Richard P. Appelbaum, and William I. Robinson, eds., Critical Globalization Studies (New York: Routledge, 2005).

[iv]William I. Robinson, “Globalisation: Nine Theses on Our Epoch,” Race & Class 38, no. 2 (1996); Ash Amin, Post-Fordism: A Reader (Oxford; Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994).

[v]William I. Robinson, “Beyond the Theory of Imperialism: Global Capitalism and the Transnational State,” Societies Without Borders 2 (2006), 5-26.

[vi] Stephen Gill, “New Constitutionalism, Democratisation and Global Political Economy,” Global Change, Peace & Security 10, no. 1 (1998), 23-28.

[vii] Jonathan Morrow, “Iraq’s Constitutional Process II: An Opportunity Lost,” (Washington: USIP, 2005); Herbert Docena, “Iraq’s Neo-Liberal Constitution,” Foreign Policy in Focus, September 2, 2005, available at http://www.fpif.org/reports/iraqs_neoliberal_constitution (accessed on March 28, 2012).

[viii]Herbert Docena, “How the Us Got Its Neoliberal Way in Iraq,” Asia Times (2005); Docena, “Iraq’s Neo-Liberal Constitution,” Asia Times, September 1, 2005, available at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/GI01Ak01.html (accessed on March 29, 2012).

[ix] William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy : Globalization, Us Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 66-72.

[x]Richard Falk, “When an ‘NGO’ Is Not an NGO: Twists and Turns under Egyptian Skies” Al Jazeera, last modified on Feb. 21, 2012, available at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/02/2012217132230738823.html (accessed on Feb. 25, 2012).

[xi] This line of reasoning has been used by authoritarian regimes to discredit oppositional movements, even at the risk of exposing their own hypocrisy, when regimes such as that of Mubarak were among the largest recipients of US aid.

[xii] Jason Hickel, “Neoliberal Egypt: The Hijacked Revolution,” Al Jazeera, last modified on Mar. 29, 2012, available at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/201232784226830522.html (accessed on Mar. 29, 2012).

[xiii] Matt Kennard, “Neoliberals, Not Islamists, Are the Real Threat to Tunisia,” The Guardian ( Mar. 31, 2012), available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/31/neoliberal-islamist-tunisia-economy (accessed on April 1, 2012).

[xiv] Avery Gordon, “Some Thoughts on the Utopian”, in Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power and People (London: Paradigm Press, 2004).

[xv] Ibid., 129.

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