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New Journal Issue Focuses on Egyptian and Tunisian Revolts

June 17, 2011

How are we to understand the tensions between pushes for democratization and economic reform that motivated the ongoing revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia?

That’s the question posed in the latest issue of Middle East Report. Entitled “North Africa: The Political Economy of Revolt,” the articles focus on teasing out the meanings of the delicately intertwined political and economic orders whose futures are being decided at stake in the revolutions.

One of the widely circulated slogans during the revolution was John F. Kennedy’s ” “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The Making of North Africa’s Intifadas by Laryssa Chomiak and John P. Entelis essentially makes this argument by comparing authoritarian structures in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and arguing that Tunisia revolted because the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was the most oppressive. Presumably the authors are only explaining part of the story of how the revolutionary “virus” (their term) got started; I’m not persuaded this argument holds up for Egypt and the Gulf states.

Another paper, Tunisia and Egypt.  Understanding the Political Economy of the Arab Revolts by Omar Dahi offers a crucial description of the economic underpinnings of the revolutions. Following the guidance of the neoliberal  “Washington consensus”, Egypt and Tunisia transformed their national development policies away from direct spending on the poor toward reforming the economy by reducing direct spending on the poor and creating more “market-friendly” environments. It’s the devastating consequences of these policies that pushed the populace into revolt, Dahi argues. (A similar argument by Walter Armbrust in Jabaliyya can be read here for free).

The spirit of Tahrir Square is explored in a nice little paper by Jessica Winegar entitled Taking Out the Trash.She follows the voluntary work crews cleaning up the square, and   explores the meanings of this simple act. On the one hand, cleaning up the trash is a literal enactment of the people taking care of the center of Cairo because they have reclaimed it, an act that can only be understood in the context of decades of indifference to dirt, litter and pollution by most Egyptians. But it is also symbolic of the growing sense that they are taking out the political trash that has polluted their country for so long.

But the revolution spawned in those 18 days in Tahrir is not won by any means. One of the most memorable images in Tamer Shaaban’s viral video was of the apparently working class man on his way to Tahrir Square shouting that there was no work, no money to feed and clothe his children, no future for them in Egypt. The global media focused on cosmopolitan class–the Wael Ghoneims and Nadia Idles and Aalam Wassefs and Gigi Ibrahims and Mahmoud Salems–because they are articulate in English and have what appear to Western audiences as moderate, rational (Westernized) sensibilities. But the revolution was in a large part the creation of working class people desperate for economic change. In Striking Back at Egyptian Workers, Hesham Sallam argues that Egyptian elites have rallied to emphasize political reform but blunt the social justice demands of the revolution. This article is offered free on-line.

Another powerful symbol of the uprising that seems to be at risk in the emergent new Egypt is that of Muslims and Christians working, praying and struggling together for a better future. In Sectarianism and Its Discontents in Post-Mubarak Egypt, Mariz Tadros documents the rash of anti-Christian violence in the country after Mubarak’s downfall and describes five distinct positions people are taking toward the sectarianism, and speculates on what these narratives mean for the future.

Middle East Report offers interdisciplinary analysis of the Middle East, focusing on political economy, popular struggles and foreign policy. It has been published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) since 1971.  They also publish a free on-line selection of articles as the Middle East Report Online.

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