of Gilbert Achcar’s latest book ‘Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab
Uprising’ (2016) is derived from Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks’: “The crisis
consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be
born, in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.
written as a sequel to his previous – and more detailed – book, ‘The People
Want’, ‘Morbid Symptoms’ qualifies as a stand-alone work of immense
importance in its own right. Focusing largely on Syria and Egypt (the latter
case-study has intriguing similarities with Pakistan), ‘Morbid Symptoms’
skilfully explains the mutation of the ‘Arab Spring’ – though Achcar prefers
the term ‘uprising’ – into an ‘Arab Winter’.
rejecting the culturalist explanations of the Arab world’s democratic deficit,
Achcar foregrounds two key factors to describe the mutation of the ‘Arab
Spring’ into an Arab nightmare. First, he highlights the patrimonial and
rentier character of the Arab states caught in the whirlwind of ‘Arab Spring’.
Achcar argues that not only were the optimistic perspectives projected in 2011
proved to be flawed, a comparison with the fall of Stalinist regimes across
eastern Europe in 1990 was equally problematic because these perspectives and
analogies ignored, among other factors, the character of the Arab states.
the exceptional state system in the East European countries was dominated by
bureaucracies instead of propertied classes. Bureaucrats in these states could
sense an improvement in their privileges. In fact, top bureaucrats could
contemplate “their own transformation into capitalist entrepreneurs” under
market capitalism. Hence, a relatively peaceful change.
Arab states, “ruling families ‘own’ the state... to all intents and purposes;
they will fight to the last soldier in their praetorian guard in order to
preserve their reign”. According to Gilbert, these states are run by an
interlocking trilateral ‘power elite’ – consisting of military and political
institutions, and the state bourgeoisie – whereby every segment of the power
elite is bent upon fiercely defending its access to the state, the main source
of privileges and profits.
explains the different trajectory of the Arab Spring in Tunisia/Egypt and
Libya/Syria. In the former cases, the states were dominated by institutions. In
the latter, the states had become family fiefdoms. In Tunisia/Egypt,
institutions let go of individuals (Mubarak and Ben Ali) when they became
liabilities in order to preserve institutional integrity.
factor that catalysed the mutation of the ‘Arab Spring’ into an ‘Arab Winter’,
claims Achcar, was a situation of: “one revolution: two counter-revolutions’.
In this equation, the ancient regimes constituted one counter-revolution while
the other was such regional powers as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. This
regional dimension of counter-revolution has translated into the ascendency of
Islamic fundamentalism lavishly bankrolled by these three countries. A mutual
rivalry between these three patrons of Islamic fundamentalism further
complicated the situation leading to “the highly convoluted development of the
Arab revolutionary crisis, compared to which most other revolutionary upheavals
in history look rather uncomplicated”.
epitomises these complexities where a ‘secular and socialist’ (at least an
original self-designation) Ba’athist regime has been shored up by Iranian
Ayatollahs and the Hezbollah, apparently on sectarian grounds.
Assad regime, in turn, has facilitated the rise of Isis, a fanatical, anti-Shia
force targeting Iraq – also Tehran’s ally since 2005. In fact, Isis has been
Syria’s “preferred enemy”, says Achcar. Ironically, Isis is also a thorn on the
side of the Saudis. Consequently, the House of Saud has re-adopted its
estranged violent child: Al-Qaeda – at least, in Syria.
resistance against Isis and their control of Rojava forced Turkey to support
Isis, at least tacitly and temporarily. Ankara, along with Doha, has been supporting
the Muslim Brotherhood while the Syrian Brotherhood and Isis have been at
daggers drawn. However, Erdogan – under US pressure – also facilitated the
Kurdish resistance (another complex story) against Isis.
is that Assad and allies (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah) as well as their rivals
(Saudis, France, the US, Turkey) have been pounding Syria in the name of
fighting Isis (Achcar explores these paradoxes). However, none of them has
seriously engaged Isis. In the process, an unbearably heavy price has been paid
by the Syrian people. Achcar describes it as the “abandonment of [the] Syrian
Syrian people have been abandoned by the superpowers, notably the US. Achcar
shows that the Syrian resistance, often ridiculed by knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialists’
as a US proxy, has been abandoned by Washington. The US policy, argues Achcar,
has been guided by two concerns: the Iraq experience and Israel.
In view of
its Iraq misadventure, Washington single-mindedly pursued a Yemen-like solution
in Syria. The idea was to retain the Ba’athist apparatus minus Assad. This
policy not only proved to be counter-productive, but also inflicted a heavy
toll on the Syrian masses. Second, Washington did not adequately arm the
resistance in view of Israeli security; weapons capable of downing Assad’s jets
might tomorrow be deployed to hunt down Israeli jets.
points out the abandonment of the Syrian people by the knee-jerk
‘anti-imperialists’. “When disastrous failures of imperialism happen at the
cost of terrible human tragedies, there can be no schadenfreude from a truly
humanist anti-imperialist perspective”. Before pointing out the confused
silence of these anti-imperialists over US support for Kurdish forces, he
wonders why the US arming the Syrian opposition is so harshly judged. Is it
that anti-imperialists want US support only when their favourite troops are
leading the fight?
attention of puritan ‘anti-imperialists’ in Pakistan, this reviewer would also
suggest they pay keen attention to the role of brotherly Muslim countries
(Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar), assiduously documented by Achcar, in destroying
Syria (and Libya). Likewise, for the attention of secular supporters of the
Assad regime, Achcar has sizeable evidence not only on the murderous character
of the Assad regime but also on how the primary responsibility for the Syrian
tragedy lies with Bashar. The Ba’athist regime turned a peaceful intifada into
a military affair. It also orchestrated inhuman hunger-sieges and massacres.
For instance, of 56 sectarian massacres, 49 were conducted by the Ba’athist
regime and its allies.
comparison, the march from Tahrir Square to the presidential palace in Egypt
was a cakewalk. The relatively peaceful overthrow of the Egyptian pharaoh five
years ago did not owe to any Gandhian inclinations he espoused. As mentioned
above: unlike Syria and Libya, Egypt is not owned by a family. Rather, an
institution (the military) dominates the state.
Mubarak became a liability, he was sent packing. The military stepped back,
only to recuperate and stage a comeback. An analogy can be drawn here with
1988’s Pakistan. But Brother Morsi read it as the Egyptian army’s Turkish
moment under Erdogan. That was a fatal misreading, and in two years, a
counter-revolution – spearheaded by El-Sisi – was successful.
Achcar analyses the Morsi government’s disastrous policies as well as the
disastrous role of the Egyptian Left in facilitating-by-default the
counter-revolution, what might intrigue the Pakistani readership is the
performance of Brother Morsi as president.
Brotherhood’s Pakistani apologists have been casting Morsi as an anti-Zionist
and anti-American leader, overthrown unjustly through Washington’s
machinations. Here is a brotherly chutzpah: On becoming president, Morsi wrote
to his “great and dear friend” Shimon Peres to express his “strong desire to
develop the affectionate relations that fortunately bind our two countries”,
while wishing Israel “prosperity”.
Gilbert Achcar was the reviewer’s PhD supervisor).
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor.