North Africa, West Asia

'The people want', but what do they want?

Maged Mandour

The famous slogan “The people want the downfall of the regime” follows a notion promoted by Arab autocrats to give the illusion of change and hinder the development of post-revolutionary strategy.

Maged Mandour
26 August 2015
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square anticipating Mubarak's speech. Shawkan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square anticipating Mubarak's speech. Shawkan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

“The people want the downfall of the regime”: the famous slogan that erupted during the Arab Spring unified the Arab world. It is now enshrined in the mythology of an organic national unified “people” against the autocrats, creating an “imagined community”, as Benedict Anderson phrased it, where people located within the boundaries of nation states are unified in an organic whole, with no stratification.

Ironically, this followed a notion promoted by Arab autocrats themselves; that all power is disseminated from a central figure, usually the head of state, and all the ills of society are concentrated in the hands of this one man. All state institutions follow his every whim. This created the illusion that once the head of state had been removed, the struggle would be over.

Although this had a unifying effect, it limited the scope of the protest movement to narrow reformist goals. It also retarded the development of a post-revolution strategy that would carry on until one class or social group was able to oust the other from the power centre.

One only needs to look the major revolutions in other parts of the world to understand the need for social grouping. The French revolution, for example, was seen as a struggle between the Third Estate, a diverse social group, and the nobility and church. Even the Jacobins and the Girondists each claimed to represent a certain social group within the revolutionary movement. Another example closer to the Arab world is the Iranian revolution; Khomeini claimed to represent what he called the 'mostazafin', or the weak of society, which included the urban poor and the merchant class.

In both cases there was recognition that the nature of the struggle stemmed from the domination of a certain social class, and as such of its long-term nature. This nuanced understanding of the revolutionary process was essential for the success of these movements.

Comparatively, in the Arab world, such processes did not unfold. The protest movements failed to understand the social foundations of their systems. For example, the Egyptian protest movement failed to understand on a wide scale that the struggle was against the military-crony capitalist class, not against Mubarak per se. This gave the military the opportunity to manipulate, marginalise and fragment the movement, especially after the coup of 2013. Egypt was split into two camps, those who support the military takeover and those who oppose it. 

In some cases, this lack of understanding of the social dynamic has led to the sectarianisation of the conflict. The most obvious case is that of Syria. This partially stems from the lack of awareness that one of the pillars of the Assad regime is the urban Sunni middle class—without their support the regime’s ability to survive would be seriously jeopardised. The struggle should not be framed as a struggle against the Alawite community and other minorities, but rather as a broad based struggle that crosses sectarian lines, against the Assad regime and the social classes it represents.

The notion the ‘people want’ may appear benign on the surface, but it reflects a weakness in the protest movement across the Arab world. The inability of the protest movements to develop this consciousness and the prevalence of this simplistic idea of the unity of the people can be attributed to class consciousness, which can only develop during a protracted struggle against other social groups within the realm of civil society. It also indicates the protest movements’ low level of intellectual development, and lack of vison for its nature and goals.

Before the eruption of the Iranian revolution in 1979 there was a long-term struggle against not only the Shah, but also the social pillars of his regime. This struggle was led by the intellectual Ali Shariati, as well as others whose ideas contributed to the development of Khomeini’s ideas and paved the way for the eruption of the 1979 revolution. As such, the protracted struggle within the realm of civil society was essential for the success of the revolution. During this long-term struggle, revolutionary ideology was attached to a certain social grouping, named the 'mostazafin' by Khomeini, who pitted against the shah, the military, and the new bourgeoisie, which was emerging as part of the shah's 'White Revolution'. This was also reflected in the actions of Khomeini; after the success of the revolution, he recognised that the military was a repository of support for the shah and commenced a purge campaign—especially within the air force—and established the revolutionary guard to protect the regime.

This notion of struggle was also recognised by the Nasser regime. After taking power in Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser started to eliminate the social pillars of the old monarchy. This was done through the 'agricultural reform act', where the land of the gentry was redistributed among the peasants. This created political support among the peasantry and eliminated the power concentration of the landowning elite, the main pillar of support for the now-defunct monarchy.                

Arguably, the notion of an organic 'people’, although attractive and unifying, can only weaken and mystify the goals of the protest movements across the Arab world. The protest movements need to recognise that the nature of the struggle is against other social classes within their own societies, and as such 'the people' as a whole do not exit. The appeal to the people allows for the rise of national chauvinism, which can be exploited by opponents, who also appeal to 'the people' but seem to be much more aware of the nature of the struggle. Egypt is the most notable example; Sisi’s regime appeals to nationalist pride, and opponents are vilified and labeled as “traitors” to the nation.

The protest movement can manoeuvre if it appeals to specific social classes and groups with broader concepts of emancipation and freedom, as well as specific group demands. This, however, is not an appeal against coalition building, which is a necessary step in the revolutionary process, but rather an appeal for the need to understand that being everything to everyone means that you are nothing to anyone.

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