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Was The Egyptian Revolution Really Revolutionary?

November 4, 2014

Was the "Arab Spring" truly revolutionary? That's a question posed in this slim new book out from Berghahn Books.

Was the “Arab Spring” truly revolutionary? That’s a question posed in this slim new book out from Berghahn Books.

In his introduction to the new book The Arab Spring: Uprisings, Powers, Interventions  (Berghahn 2014), author and editor Kjetil Fosshagen poses two key questions:

  • Were the Arab revolutions truly revolutionary?
  • Is there any evidence of coherent structural social forces that can be theorized and explicated to explain the many events collectively labeled “the Arab Spring”?

Fosshagen’s answer to the first question is clearly “no,” and his reasons for saying no are based on his “yes” to the second question.

He sees the Arab Spring as offering significant parallels with Europe’s 1848 “Spring of Nations,” uprisings which began as popular revolts but ended with an aristocracy of the financial and industrial elites and, ultimately, the emperorship of Napoleon III.

And just as Marx analyzed these events in his classic essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” so Fosshagen believes the early successes and (what he sees as) the ultimate failures of the Arab Spring can be understood through a classic analysis of relations of production.

[NOTE: Readers who are not familiar with Marx–if you only read one work of Marx–and you can’t get through Das Kapital (and who can?), you should read “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” It’s a far more important work than the Communist Manifesto (which I had to read in Junior High School).]

Of course, its easy for a Marxist to ask questions like whether a revolution is truly revolutionary because he can measure it against an external objective fact: did the revolution fundamentally restructure social relations, especially as they relate to relations of production, labor, and the distribution of wealth?

Interestingly, while the authors of chapters on Libya (Michael Humphreys), Palestine (Sobhi Samour) and Bahrain (Thomas Fibiger) share this pessimism, Fosshagen’s gloomy outlook toward the outcomes of the revolution is not shared by either of the two authors of chapters on Egypt

Paola Abenante discusses Tahrir Square as a crucial symbolic space, a heterotopia that stands for all spaces in which the state and the status quo are being contested. At the least, she sees a transformation in how people perceive public spaces as sites through which they can speak back to their government.

One of the ways they do this, Abenante says, is through public statements like grafitti. And that’s the subject of the third chapter by Pnina Werbner, Martin Webb and Kathryn Spellman-Poots.

These authors take for granted the revolutionary potential of the Arab Spring and use this to explore the importance of aesthetics and poetics as dynamic forces in 21st century popular global political communication. The chapter is a much-abbreviated version of the introduction to their excellent new edited volume The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest (Edinburgh University, 2015).

The Arab Spring is a slim book, part of Berghahn’s “Critical Interventions” series. The book is smaller in area than some smart phones, and runs only 114 pages; no essay is more than 5000 words.

I have a complete review of this book forthcoming in a recent issue of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale.


Abenante, Paola. 2014. Tahrir as Heterotopia: Spaces and Aesthetics of the Egyptian Revolution. In Arab Spring: Uprisings, Powers, Interventions. Kjetil Fosshagen, ed. Pp. 21-32. Berghahn Books.

Fosshagen, Kjetil, ed. 2014. Arab Spring: Uprisings, Powers, Interventions. Berghahn Books.

Werbner, Pnina, Martin Webb and Kathryn Spellman-Poots, eds. 2014. The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Werbner, Pnina, Martin Webb and Kathryn Spellman-Poots. 2014. Beyond the Arab Spring: The Aesthetics and Poetics of Popular Revolt and protest 2010-2012. In Arab Spring: Uprisings, Powers, Interventions. Kjetil Fosshagen, ed. Pp. 33-46. Berghahn Books.

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