American Univesity of Beirut

Arab Uprisings Under the Lens of Critical Development Studies

​​​​​​​Gilbert Achcar​

Under the Lens of Critical Development Studies​

The revolutionary wave that engulfed the Arabic-speaking world in 2011—starting in Tunisia and extending to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, while shaking most other countries—inaugurated a historical period of upheaval, which has manifested itself in the profound social and political instability that has gripped the region ever since, including civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, economic crises, social protests, and a second wave of uprisings in 2019 in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. What follows is a brief assessment of the central topics in the investigation of the upheaval from the perspective of critical Development Studies, followed by a bibliographic survey of the field and the sketch of a research program.

The State of the Field Today

The study of a period of social revolution such as what started with the 2011 chain of events dubbed the “Arab Spring," which was instigated by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor on December 17, 2010, offers an exceptional perspective and magnifying lens for the study of the region's development. The study of such a moment of historical upheaval requires the mobilization of the whole range of social sciences in the best tradition of development studies as a multidisciplinary discipline. Whereas initial appraisals of the 2011  Arab Spring mostly perceived the events from a political science perspective and its subfield dedicated to “democratic transition," it soon became clear that the regional events actually belonged to a different category, that of historic revolutionary crises. The regional crisis was indeed no less social than political, involving a wide range of grievances, including social and economic grievances, issues of vertical inequality (between classes and social categories), gender inequality, and horizontal inequality (between culturally formed groups, such as sectarian, ethnic, or racial inequalities).

The issue of social inequality has become a key dividing line separating international mainstream approaches from those of critical scholars in the fields of development studies, political economy, and other social sciences. Beyond the upheaval's translation into political protest against various oppressive regimes, the divisive question may be enunciated as follows: Is it fundamentally a revolt of the middle class for better access to market and freedom of enterprise in a region characterized by a particularly low level of social inequality or is it a revolt of poor and middle-income social layers against poverty, huge inequalities, and the lack of formal jobs and social prospects?

Closely related to the above discussion is the assessment of the impact in the Arab region of the set of measures generally grouped by critical scholars under the label “neoliberalism," i.e. the economic paradigm that has gradually been enforced by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) since the 1980s and was famously summarized in 1989 with regard to Latin America under the label of “Washington Consensus" (Williamson, 1990). Whereas the IFIs have argued that the Arab region's social and economic problems stem from a lack of sufficient economic liberalization, and have accordingly advocated since 2011 an even more radical implementation of the range of measures constitutive of the “Washington Consensus," critical scholars have argued that reforms inspired by this paradigm are among the main causes of the Arab region's social and economic crisis and that they should accordingly be replaced by new developmental policies of which the state and the public sector, rather than the private market, should be the driving force.

Critical Readings in the Field

In contrast with the IFIs, a few more progressive intergovernmental institutions that are part of the United Nations system usefully laid the ground for a critical approach to the Arab region's political economy. These primarily consist of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), especially its series entitled Arab Human Development Report produced between 2002 and 2009, as well as the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and its equivalent for Africa, including North Africa, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). A critical perspective on development issues is also to be found among the publications of non-governmental research centers such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, or the Cairo-based Economic Research Forum. Even in the literature produced by the IFIs themselves, one could find critical voices, mostly expressed in Working Papers that have no official status. In such cases, the critique is at its most radical when it is about a regime whose central ruler has been overthrown (Rijkers, Freund, & Nucifora, 2014). It may also happen that IFI official reports include useful post-mortem critical assessments of aspects of the region's economic regimes.

The 2011 Arab Spring has naturally led to an intensive production of writings by critical scholars analyzing the uprisings from a perspective wholly or partly rooted in political economy and critical development studies. A list of relevant articles published in academic journals since 2011 is beyond the scope of this survey.

Books emphasizing the role of neoliberal reforms in producing the upheaval: Achcar, 2013; Hanieh, 2013; Gerges, 2014; Heydarian, 2014; Salih, 2014; Talani, 2014; Chalcraft, 2016; Kadri, 2016; Said, 2017; Ayeb and Bush, 2019; Olmsted, 2020; Radwan, 2020; Saab, 2020; Gelvin, 2021.

Books assessing the peculiarities of state and business in the Arab region: Achcar, 2013; Hertog, Luciani and Valeri, 2013; Grawert and Abul-Magd, 2016; Hanieh, 2018; Diwan, Malik and Atiyas, 2019: Hinnebusch and Gani, 2020; Kamrava, 2020; Elsayed, 2021.

Books dedicated to individual countries that were theaters to uprisings or massive protests and which assess them from a critical developmental perspective. Egypt: Bush and Ayeb, 2012; Korany and El-Mahdi, 2012; Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014; Abdelrahman, 2015; Beinin, 2015; Achcar, 2016; Abul-Magd, 2017; Ayeb and Bush, 2019; Sayigh, 2019; Adly, 2020; Weipert-Fenner and Wolff, 2020; Brown, Hatab and Adly, 2021; Springborg, 2021. Syria: Hinnebusch and Zintl, 2015; Matar, 2016; Hinnebusch and Imady, 2018; Daher, 2019; Matar and Kadri, 2019; Wedeen, 2019. Tunisia: Beinin, 2015; Rivetti and Di Peri, 2016; Yousfi, 2018; Ayeb and Bush, 2019; Weipert-Fenner and Wolff, 2020. Yemen: Lackner, 2014; Brehony and Al-Sarhan, 2015; Lackner, 2017.

The above bibliography is limited to the English language as it is addressed to a readership whose only common language is English. There is, of course, a vast literature in Arabic and in European languages other than English on the topics discussed in this note.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Seen from the perspective of critical development studies, the Arab upheaval is the result of a deep structural crisis that has only worsened since it manifested itself politically in 2011, inaugurating a protracted period of instability, including uprisings, revolutions, counterrevolutions, and wars – the ingredients of what has been described as a long-term revolutionary process (Achcar, 2013). The study of this historic upheaval is hence necessarily a work in progress: The field is huge as it involves an area spreading over two continents, which has already witnessed popular uprisings in half of the states that comprise it—Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. Exploring the many problems that affect the region's development from the diverse angles of economic growth and modernization, human development, and social and gender emancipation, as highlighted by the uprisings, is still very uneven between the various affected countries, and only at an early stage for those of the second wave of 2019. Questions to be addressed include: How could similar problems of lack of economic growth occur despite different sets of economic conditions such as availability of natural resources, GDP per capita, scale of enterprises, etc.? How did the impact of reforms inspired by the neoliberal paradigm compare in different countries? What role did the labor movement play in the upheaval, particularly in countries where it has been less researched than in Tunisia and Egypt? What determines the different role of women in the various uprisings? To what extent did horizontal inequalities, such as sectarian or regional, overlap with vertical, i.e. social, inequalities? In addressing all such questions, it is important to keep in mind that a truly critical perspective in social sciences is one inspired by a dedication to the value that has been and is still central to the regional uprising: equality between all citizens, whether juridical, political, or socio-economic.


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