The ‘Arab Spring’ and other American seasons

The uprisings have raised great economic expectations on the part of the majority of Tunisians and Egyptians.

In Libya and Syria, the dictatorial regimes "which served US interests faithfully for a long time" retained a certain measure of independence in domestic and foreign policy [EPA]

The dubbing of the uprisings in the Arab world by western governments and media as an “Arab Spring” (it is said that the American journal Foreign Policy coined the term first) was not simply an arbitrary or even seasonal choice of nomenclature, but rather a US strategy of controlling their aims and goals.

There have been a number of uprisings in the past several decades in the Arab World, foremost among them the Egyptian uprising in January 1977 against President Sadat’s austerity measures, which Sadat dubbed an “uprising of thieves” and the West dubbed “bread riots”, the Sudanese uprising against the US-backed dictator Ja’far Numeiri in 1985, and the Palestinian uprisings of 1987-1993 and 2000-2004 against Israeli occupation (which brought the word “intifada” into global usage), but none of these merited the term “Spring”.

The only Arab precedent is the so-called 2000-2001 “Damascus Spring”, which referred not to a popular uprising but rather to debates in political salons among liberal Syrian intellectuals of varying political backgrounds calling for liberalising the political system following the death of Hafez al-Asad in June 2000 (a feeble attempt to refer to the Saudi-backed March 14 movement’s 2005 demonstrations as the “Beirut Spring” did not bear much fruit).

Liberalising regimes

While the first use of “Spring” was used in reference of “The Spring of Nations”, describing the 1848 European revolutions, the term “Spring” as a reference to liberalising regimes deemed dictatorial has an American Cold War anti-Soviet genealogy. It was used most prominently to describe a series of reforms taken in the period 1966-68 in Czechoslovakia that would later be reversed by the Soviet invasion of the country in August 1968. 

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The “Prague Spring” (also said to have been first coined by the American journal Foreign Affairs) unfolded for the benefit of the professional, managerial and technocratic classes (including industrial managers and state bureaucrats) created by the post-War Czech communist system and to the detriment of the Czech working class, which opposed it completely ever since these economic measures started to be advanced.

Indeed, Czech workers’ real wages had the slowest rate of growth across socialist and capitalist Europe in the period 1961-1966, which was not the case for the technical and managerial personnel whose wages increased in the same period by 42 per cent more than workers’ wages.

Indeed, the so-called Prague Spring at the time consisted mostly of the liberalisation of the economy, which is precisely why the West championed it and why it continues to be deployed ideologically as the inaugural political Spring that served western interests in the Cold War period. As such it was hoped it would be more of an American than a Czech Spring. 

Moreover, the Prague Spring was a top-down process, beginning from within the regime itself and led by members and leaders of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, most prominently, Alexander Dubcek, and did not necessarily trickle down except to the managerial and professional classes and the intelligentsia but not to the majority of people.

Czech workers and unions vehemently opposed the liberalising reforms, which chipped away at the rights of workers, by staging strikes, slowdowns and protests beginning in 1966, while Dubcek and his allies among the liberalising economists would later defend the wage differential and the liberalisation of the economy as a principal way of fighting the “mediocracy”. Indeed, American television programmes were then imported for Czechoslovak TV to assist in the ideological attack on workers and the poor and to champion the managerial class.

While within Czechoslovakia the Prague Spring was championing Slovak nationalism and even separatism, in foreign policy, the regime began to warm up to NATO countries, especially West Germany. Czechoslovakia also began to distance itself from Third World struggles and scaled down aid to Egypt right after the 1967 war and to Nigeria in the middle of the Biafra War, with articles sympathetic to the Zionists appearing increasingly in the Czech press (reform journalist Miroslav Galuska who became Minister of Information and Culture under Dubcek went as far as proposing the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel), developments which brought much joy to Israel and its supporters at the time.

Ending the isolationism 

All this is to say that, unlike the Prague Spring, the uprisings in the Arab world have been protesting the effects of neoliberalism which increased impoverishment of the poor and middle classes and the disappearance of the social net that protected some of them in previous decades, censorship and control of the media, the unpopular alliances with Israel by the regimes as well as US sponsorship and training of these repressive Arab dictatorships in most Arab countries, and lack of official solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and the continued lack of accountability and representativity.

Moreover, those staging the uprisings saw themselves as reconnecting with other Arabs and ending the isolationism of country-specific nationalisms that the dictators promoted and which separated Arabs from one another in their struggles for democracy. 

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The Prague Spring, in contrast, which was a top-down process and not a popular revolt, had the exact opposite agenda – namely, removing the social net from workers and the poor, reducing the institutional protections of workers, seeking alliances with the West, promoting local anti-federalist nationalism, refusing solidarity with popular struggles, liberalising the media, the arts and public expression to allow more western influence in the country and to end agitation on behalf of the working class and, not least, enriching and privileging the new dominant managerial class.

True, the Prague Spring sought these changes under the rubric of liberating national politics from the autocratic grip of conservative elements in the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the unpopular Soviet hegemony, hoping to exchange what the Soviets insisted were human rights, for what the West calls human rights, but it did so only for the purpose of seeking to be part of western hegemony and for the benefit of the new Czech technocracy, including a class of mediocre intellectuals of the calibre of Václav Havel. It is this new “mediocracy” that the Prague Spring sought to bring about. 

The Soviets, who throughout this process supported the neo-liberalising Dubcek against the “conservative” Antonin Novotny whom Dubcek deposed with Soviet support in January 1968 (Brezhnev had in fact visited Prague in December 1967 at the invitation of Novotny but ended up siding with Dubcek in supporting Novotny’s removal), invaded in August principally out of fear that the exit of Czechoslovakia from the Warsaw Pact and its joining NATO would constitute a major threat to Soviet and East European security (let us keep in mind that the Soviets did not invade Yugoslavia, Albania or Romania when all three sought to end Soviet hegemony in their countries as none of them sought to join NATO in the process).

That all of this was part of the old Cold War rhetoric is not immaterial to the current western propaganda about what is unfolding in the Arab world today, especially as the Prague Spring would later be seen as the precursor to the 1989 revolutions that ended the Soviet system in its entirety, replacing it with neoliberalism across the continent, and as a precedent to the so-called Arab Spring.

Indeed, it would be this neoliberal model that the West insisted on and the African National Congress accepted to maintain economic apartheid in South Africa as the condition to allow the end of political apartheid in 1994. The recent killings of 44 South African black miners and the injuring of scores more by the South African police is the latest manifestation of this arrangement.

Violation of human rights

The Soviet/US struggle over defining human rights is now the stuff of Cold War history given the US victory in the Cold War, but a brief review is necessary. While the US insisted that having the right to work, to free or universally affordable healthcare, free education, daycare and housing (which the Soviet system granted in the USSR and across Eastern Europe as substantive and not merely as formal rights) are not human rights at all, the Soviets, in the tradition of socialism, insisted they were essential for human life and dignity and that the western enumerating of the rights to free speech, free association, free movement, freedom to form political parties, etc., were “political” and “civil” and not “human” rights, and that in reality in the West, they were at any rate only formal and not substantive rights except for the upper echelons of society and those who owned the media and could access it and who could fund election campaigns, etc.

Moreover the Soviets argued that it was essential for humans to have human rights in order to be able to access civil and political rights in a substantive manner and that granting formal civil and political rights while denying substantive human rights amounted to granting no rights at all. Perhaps most important in this regard is that the post-World War II US definition of human rights did not encompass in the 1950s and 60s the rights of African Americans to vote, to receive the same social services as whites, and not to face officially institutionalised racial discrimination – all of which were referred to in the US lingo as mere “civil rights”. 

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Indeed Malcolm X’s insistence that US violations of the human rights of African American citizens should be taken up by the United Nations who had the power to impose sanctions on the United States as a racist state earned him much opprobrium and a much lesser status in later official commemorations than Martin Luther King, who was ultimately satisfied with limiting the Black struggle in the US to the arena of “civil rights”.

While in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most Soviet and East European citizens had hoped to end the autocratic systems of their ruling Communist Parties and gain western-style political and civil rights, they wanted them not instead of but in addition to retaining those human rights that the Soviet system guaranteed them. 

In the end, they lost all their existing human rights and gained very little western political and civil rights, and even the modicum of rights they did gain were more formal than substantive and subjected to the vagaries of neoliberal financial and class power.

This brings us back to the demands of the Arab peoples in their ongoing revolts. Denied both sets of human rights, Soviet- and American-style, the majority of those revolting in the Arab world are demanding both. The revolts have included a coalition of groups, secular and religious, and social classes with separate and complementary demands. Let us begin with the revolts against US-sponsored Arab regimes.

The majority of the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt as well as Bahrain and Yemen, and even Jordan, have demanded not only political and civil rights, but also economic rights; thus their demands include the erstwhile Soviet-granted human rights (what western “Human Rights” organisations call “Economic and Social Rights”) and what the West continues to call “human rights”. Labour unions, students, teachers, women’s groups, youth groups, peasants, the rural poor, professional members of the urban middle class, workers and the impoverished and unemployed, have all been part of these revolts.

Uprisings in the Arab world

While the US and western media have tried to champion the professional, managerial and upper middle class elements that support neoliberal economics (including the billionaire Naguib Sawiris and the Google executive Wael Ghonim in the case of Egypt), little attention has been paid to the massive strikes, slowdowns, work stoppages, marches, rallies and confrontations with police and army soldiers by workers, teachers, peasants and the unemployed poor across all five countries.

The uprisings in Egypt and across the Arab world consist of wide class-coalitions, with differing and contradictory demands being advanced by the various classes: the upper-middle class professionals and executives want western-style rights to advance their class interests, while the lower classes, the workers, the teachers, the peasants and the impoverished urban and rural classes want both Soviet- and western-style rights.

In Egypt, the rich and upper middle-class segments of the revolution quickly joined the military after the fall of Mubarak in calling on workers and the poor to cease all strikes and work-stoppage actions, to stop the massive demonstrations which are “disrupting” the economy (Sawiris prominently and continuously made public calls to that effect and refused to join the demonstrations in Tahrir Square), and have not supported the major demand of the poor for a minimum wage, the latter key demand is strenuously opposed by the Egyptian business class (the Islamists and the secularists among them) which supported Mubarak and which feigned changing sides after his overthrow.

In Tunisia, the security services of the new elected regime have violently repressed the demonstrations by the poor demanding social justice.

These demands are also the source of major concern for the US. While the US and its client regimes may be forced to institute measures of representativity and accountability, these can be manipulated, as they are in the West itself, to ensure that the elite and the new professional and managerial classes always remain in charge, which cannot be said for the social justice agenda, which requires actual redistribution of material wealth and cannot be as easily manipulated. 

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The leadership of the Islamists and the secular liberals who have won electoral victories in Egypt and Tunisia (the successful crackdown in Bahrain and the ongoing ones in Yemen and Syria have left them out of power) has shown willingness to discount the economic rights agenda for now and indeed to fight against it.

In those countries whose regimes were not full clients of the Americans, the situation was markedly different. In Libya and Syria, the dictatorial regimes, who have served US interests faithfully for a long time, with Gaddafi coming under full US imperial sway in his last decade in power, retained a certain measure of independence in domestic and foreign policy, to which the US never acceded.

Sponsoring counter-revolutions 

Hence, unlike the rest of the Arab world where the US and its West European allies quickly moved from sponsoring the dictators to sponsoring the counter-revolutions to restore them or a similar regime in their stead (Yemen) and then later moved to establish a new alliance with the victorious Islamists (in Egypt and Tunisia), they opted to support the uprisings in Libya and Syria and take them over rapidly to ensure an outcome that serves their interests (France, Italy and the United Kingdom secure the oil while the US hopes to move its AFRICOM military command headquarters from Stuttgart to Libya once the dust settles).

While in Libya, the takeover was quick and successfully executed, in Syria, it ran into trouble on account of the differing nature of the regime and the opposition and the class coalitions that support them.

What the US and the new regimes in Tunisia and Egypt are debating at the moment is how much representativity and accountability the new system should have and whether granting certain measures of representativity and accountability could lead to future unpredictable demands for economic rights by the majority of the people in both countries, which could further threaten the interests of the US and its local regime and class allies.

The recent visit by the head of the International Monetary Fund to Cairo to discuss Egypt’s request for $4.8bn could result, as in the South African precedent, in introducing further contractual and legal bans on improving the lives of the poor in the country. The next few months will clarify the final arrangement of governance in both countries, especially in light of the increasing and mobilised popular opposition to any anti-democratic measures in both of them.

The uprisings have raised great economic expectations on the part of the majority of Tunisians and Egyptians (not to mention other Arabs across the region) who languish in utter poverty thanks to neoliberal economics, and who are no longer shy in pressing their economic agenda to centrestage.

The battle of the seasons is on; while the Americans are pressing on for an American Spring in the Arab world that will only be experienced as another American-sponsored Summer drought for the majority of the people of the region, the Arab peoples are working to transform the recent uprisings into nothing short of a cold American Winter.

Joseph Massad teaches Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York.