Gilbert Achcar, professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, delivered a lecture Wednesday evening on the roots and dynamics of the 2011 revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Achcar started the lecture with a presentation of development data, comparing the MENA region to other developing regions, drawing particular attention to figures on average annual growth rate, population growth and unemployment rates.
“There is a lack of development even in relative terms in the region . . . the problem translates above all in the region in record unemployment rates,” he said. “Here the difference is striking. It is by far the region of the world with highest rates of unemployment, and this has been confirmed over decades.”
He highlighted youth unemployment, where the figures are even larger, yet showed evidence against the perception that the proportion of youth in the total population is higher than in other regions around the world.
Achcar moved from his exposition on general conditions in the MENA region to identify “crony capitalism” and “despotism” as roots of the 2011 movements.
“The reason for all this . . . is the kind of capitalism that we find in the region, which is crony capitalism at its worst,” he said. “There is little incentive for private capital to get into big or long-term investment. Most of the kind of capitalism you have is hit-and-run kind of capitalism.”
Achcar indicated that countries that combine corruption and despotism tend to have the strongest protest movements. According to Achcar, the question to be asked, however, is not how the revolutions occurred but why they took so long, given the region’s conditions.
“This was no lightning in the blue sky or anything of the kind — this was expected,” he said. “Of course no one could have predicted the form of it.”
This form was largely shaped by satellite television, namely Al Jazeera, as well as social media.
“Revolution in communication technology is very much at the center of the way it spread . . . not the cause, but the way it spread,” he said, describing the moniker “Facebook revolution” as “caricatural.”
Achcar also favored the term “revolutionary processes” over “revolutions.”
“I would call what is happening a revolutionary process, emphasizing process,” he said. “It really indicates that we are going through a process and it is far from finished.”
Achcar described the process as “uneven.” He stated that Tunisia and Egypt completed stage one, which consisted of toppling its former rulers Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. The remnants of their regimes however, remain.
“The mass movement was able to overthrow, topple the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “This is the correct characterization, because it’s only the top of the iceberg — the person most closely representing the despotic character. This has been done while the regime in both countries is still there.”
Achcer emphasized that although the protests across the MENA region share common roots and features, differences between states and societies have led and will continue to lead to differences in how the revolutionary processes unfold.
“Certainly what started in December 2010 in the Middle East and North Africa won’t be stopping anytime soon . . . it’s a protracted process . . . the outcome of what we are seeing will be determined by whoever comes to prevail,” he said.
Professor of history Joel Beinin moderated the question and answer session following the lecture.
Attendees posed questions about geopolitical factors, implications for Lebanon in wake of the Arab Spring, the different approach to reform in Morocco and Jordan, the nature of democratic transformations, U.S. regional policy, local workers’ movements, the relationship between capitalism and sovereignty and future scenarios for Syria.
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, CDDRL Program on Arab Reform and Democracy and Stanford Humanities Center.