Understanding the Arab rebellions: Adam Hanieh's 'Lineages of revolt'

Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East
By Adam Hanieh
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013

[For more articles by or about Adam Hanieh, click HERE.]

Review by Chris Slee

March 15, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The year 2011 saw uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They were portrayed in the Western media as rebellions against dictatorial regimes and for democracy. But that is only part of the story. Political discontent was combined with economic discontent, as reflected in the widespread slogan, “bread, freedom and social justice”.

Adam Hanieh argues that: “The popularity of this cry points to the numerous social crises that faced much of the region in the decade preceding the uprisings, a period marked by extremely high levels of unemployment, poverty, rising food prices, and the growing precariousness of daily existence. These intense social problems worsened in the wake of the 2008 global economic collapse” (p. 2; all page references are to Lineages of Revolt).

Hanieh argues that both the economic and political problems are a product of capitalism. “The unequal distribution of wealth is not an unfortunate consequence of wrong-headed economic policy or a ‘conspiracy’ of elites but rather a necessary presupposition of capitalist markets themselves” (p. 2). He also argues that the repressive regimes are a product of the specific nature of capitalism in the Middle East region: “The authoritarian guise of the Middle East state is not anomalous and antagonistic to capitalism, but is rather a particular form of appearance of capitalism in the Middle East context” (p. 9).

Conventional academic accounts of the Middle East tend to counterpose “the state” and “civil society”, deploring the weakness of the latter. Hanieh emphasises the centrality of class: “The essential class division is ... between those who own the means of production (capitalists) and those who have little choice but to sell their capacity to work in order to be able to meet their needs in the marketplace (workers)” (p. 6).

However, he adds that: “An emphasis on class does not mean that other divisions do not exist within a given society. Class formation is a process involving real human beings, and this means that the concrete conditions of class always carry specific characteristics – of gender, race, age, national origin, and so forth – that are given particular social meaning through their process of coming into being” (pp. 6-7).

Imperialism and the Middle East

Hanieh briefly traces the history of imperialism and the Middle East since the Second World War:

“The existing nation-state borders were largely a result of British and French machinations, which had divided the region into various colonies and assorted protectorates in the early twentieth century alongside the collapse of the Ottoman empire. World War II, however, had significantly disrupted these old colonial structures. A deep-seated yearning for independence had been percolating for decades and – with the weakening of British and French hegemony during and after the war – a resurgence of anticolonial struggles shook the established patterns of rule” (p. 21).

The imperialist powers tried to hand power to local leaders viewed as amenable to foreign domination in the framework of formal independence. But the rise of nationalism challenged this strategy. In Egypt a nationalist army officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the pro-Western monarchy in 1952, and went on to nationalise the Suez Canal in 1956.

Unions and leftist parties were also formed in various Middle Eastern countries: “In Bahrain, for example, where the first political party in the Gulf had formed in 1954, militant labor struggles occurred through the 1960s that culminated in a three-month uprising in March 1965, following the sacking of hundreds of workers at the Bahrain Petroleum Company. These struggles were led by Communist and nationalist leaders who fused agitation against the ongoing British presence in the Gulf with demands around worker and social issues” (p. 24).

Arab nationalist governments often used the language of socialism. However they repressed left parties and independent unions. Hanieh argues that “despite their rhetoric, Arab nationalist regimes acted primarily to strengthen capitalism and an emerging state-linked capitalist class – they had little to do with socialism” (p. 26). Arab nationalist governments provided the conditions for “national accumulation through state-distributed contracts, financial linkages, and trading opportunities. Within this structure the military took a preeminent position as the only state institution with the internal cohesiveness and organizational discipline to direct this transformation” (p. 26).

The Arab nationalist regimes did however introduce some reforms that met real social needs – “land reform, job security in the public sector, and, very importantly, provision of food and other subsidies to guarantee food access for the poorest layers of the population”. These reforms helped the nationalist regimes win mass support. “But their provision through the state, without any organs of real democratic participation or control (in fact in a context where mass participation was actively prevented), meant that they were always secondary to the principal goal of capitalist development” (p. 26).

These regimes underwent an evolution in the1970s and 1980s: “By the end of these two decades, the proclaimed goals of the Arab nationalist movement lay in tatters – Egypt had become a key US ally, and virtually all Arab states were laying the groundwork for strict neoliberal economic programs that would be launched under the auspices of the [International Monetary Fund] IMF and the World Bank” (pp. 26-27).

The imperialists used a combination of political, economic and military measures to overcome Arab nationalism and bring what had been relatively independent regimes back under their control.

Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel were early allies of imperialism in the region.

Saudi Arabia funded reactionary forces throughout the Middle East: “In return for Western military and political support, the Saudi regime was all too willing to move to undercut Arab nationalism through the corrupting influence of petrodollars, which could be used to back pro-Western forces in the region without a direct link to Western funding. In line with this logic, Saudi Arabia was encouraged to employ Islam as a regional counterweight to nationalist and left-wing organizations …” (p. 28).

In Iran, the US and Britain promoted a coup against the nationalist government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. After the coup, the Shah’s regime repressed nationalist and leftist forces, not only in Iran but also in the Arab states of the Gulf.

Israel, because of its settler population, was considered more reliable than any Arab state. In 1967 and 1973, Israel (with US aid) defeated coalitions of Arab armies, dealing a blow to Arab nationalism and preparing the ground for the subsequent turn by Arab regimes toward increased collaboration with imperialism.

Economically, the Arab states became increasingly linked to the imperialist powers through such mechanisms as aid, debt and free trade agreements. Arab governments increasingly adopted neoliberal economic policies.

Hanieh explains the link between neoliberalism and imperialist domination: “Imperialism is not principally a military project – despite the significance of force to the way it operates... Rather, imperialism is primarily about ensuring the ongoing subordination of the region’s political economy to the forms of accumulation in the core capitalist states of the world market. Seen in this light, neoliberalism is much more than simply a menu of ‘free market’ economic policies; it represents a radical restructuring of class relations that acts to facilitate and reinforce the region’s domination by external powers” (p. 46).

Recently China and Russia have been playing an increasing economic role in the Middle East, posing “a challenge to US and broader Western hegemony” (p. 44). But Hanieh warns that Russia and China share “a common interest in the stability of global capitalism. This means they have little interest in seeing a qualitative break with the patterns of uneven development in the Middle East, or with the region’s embrace of neoliberal reforms. Indeed, the entry of China and Russia into Middle East markets ... has been predicated upon the intensification of neoliberalism in places such as Iran and Syria” (p. 44).

Neoliberal policies

Hanieh gives some detail on the introduction of neoliberal policies in a number of Middle East countries. These policies, which were often included in structural adjustment programs drawn up by the IMF and World Bank, included privatisation, labour market deregulation, opening to the world market, and the development and restructuring of financial markets.

In Egypt, the number of workers employed by state-owned enterprises fell by more than half between 1994 and 2001. Many of the privatised firms were sold at less than market value. In 2008 Egypt was designated the “world’s top reformer” by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (p. 52).

Privatisation was accompanied by an attack on working conditions. According to Hanieh, “loan packages through the 1990s and 2000s identified ‘labor market deregulation’ as a top priority – explicitly targeting minimum wage laws, severance pay, regulations over hiring and firing, and payroll tax. In place of these regulations, governments were urged to promote the casualization of the workforce – described by the World Bank as a shift to ‘more flexible hiring and firing procedures’” (p. 53).

Import tariffs were cut, and restrictions on foreign investment were abolished. “In Egypt, sales of clothing by local producers fell by half between 2000 and 2004, as foreign competitors drove Egyptian firms out of the domestic market... As import barriers dropped, larger companies began to shift toward export-oriented production. Often these export industries were located in specially created economic zones, where labor and environmental laws were lax and foreign investments were granted preferential tax and other investment incentives” (p. 58).

Some state-owned banks were privatised and the banking sector was opened up to foreign banks. Neoliberal policies required repression: “The policies described above were met with repeated waves of popular protest, including large-scale demonstrations, labor and student strikes, and the emergence of new political forces. Overcoming this resistance was a necessary element to successful implementation of the neoliberal project, and it was accomplished through the consolidation of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes” (p. 64).

Taxes on corporations and the rich were cut. Spending on social services, education and subsidies for the poor were cut, while military spending increased. The results of neoliberal policies included high rates of unemployment and precarious employment, illiteracy and child malnutrition.

Agrarian neoliberalism

The book has a chapter on neoliberal policies in agriculture. The general trend has been to encourage the growth of big farms producing for the national and international market. Many smaller farmers have lost their land.

In Egypt, Nasser had set a ceiling on landholdings, redistributing excess land to smaller farmers. Rents were limited, and tenant farmers were given security of tenure if they paid their rent.

There reforms were reversed in the neoliberal era. Violent evictions became common: “According to an Egyptian agricultural NGO, Sons of the Soil Land Centre, 270 people were killed resisting dispossession from their land in 2010” (p. 82).


A chapter on “class and state in the West Bank” shows the impact of Israeli occupation on Palestinian society: “At the same time as Israeli colonization was a military project aimed at the fragmentation and destruction of Palestinian identity, it also changed the Palestinian economy. In the West Bank, this has meant a type of ‘hothouse capitalism’, in which the power of the occupation generated many of the same processes of social transformation noted in previous chapters. Rural inhabitants were dispossessed from the land and forced to join migrant labor markets. A capitalist class developed through subcontracting and privileged trade relationships with the occupation. In more recent years, Palestinian policy makers eagerly embraced a neoliberal model of development in close partnership with IFIs (international financial institutions). This is neoliberalism under occupation, one driven by an identical logic and reinforcing the same coincidence of poverty and enrichment as seen elsewhere in the region” (p. 121).

Gulf states

The Gulf states are usually seen just as “oil rich monarchies”, rather than as part of the global capitalist system. Hanieh argues: “the Gulf states have developed a particular form of political economy that remains, regardless of its specificities, fully capitalist and subject to the same dynamics as other neighboring states” (pp. 123-4).

One specific feature of the Gulf states is the extremely heavy reliance on temporary migrant labour: “From the 1970s onward, the temporary migrant worker population grew to a remarkable 50-70 percent of the labor force in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain, and to 80-90 percent in the remaining Gulf states. Denied rights of citizenship or permanent residency, migrant workers formed the lower ranks of a two-tier system dominated by a narrow layer of “nationals” who had access to public sector jobs, grants of land, free or cheap housing, and social services such as health and education” (p. 125).

The citizens of the Gulf states are themselves “stratified depending on proximity to the ruling family” (p. 124). “Ruling families distributed construction contracts for infrastructure, security and other oil-related activities; gave exclusive licensing, agency and distribution rights for foreign-produced imports; and provided cheap (and in some cases free) land to merchants from which they benefited handsomely following price inflation as urbanization proceeded” (p. 125).

The heavy use of migrant labour was in part a response to rebellion by local workers: “Through the 1950s and 1960s...the Middle East witnessed the emergence of powerful mass struggles in Iran, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere. These nationalist, leftist and anticolonial movements were also reflected within the Gulf Arab states, which were shaken by strikes led by oil workers who sought greater control over oil resources and an end to the extreme exploitation often found in the work camps of British and US oil companies” (p. 125).

The solution adopted by the Gulf states was to use temporary migrant workers without citizenship rights, who could be deported if they rebelled. Initially the migrant workers came from other Arab states, such as Egypt, but more recently many have come from other places such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Hanieh describes the growing wealth of the capitalists in the Gulf states and their increasing investments throughout the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Gulf capital was a major beneficiary of the privatisation of state-owned enterprises in these countries.

“The weight of the Gulf in the Middle East political economy points to the fact that any reversal of the patterns of neoliberal development in the Middle East requires challenging capitalism in the Gulf itself... Moreover, a vital element to challenging capital and state in the Gulf must be the defense of the region’s migrant workers” (pp. 143-4).

Crisis and revolution

The 2008 global financial crisis caused the intensification of the social devastation predating the crisis itself. Unemployment increased even further. Popular revolts erupted, beginning in Tunisia in December 2010, and spreading across the region. Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak were overthrown quickly when their armies abandoned them.

In other cases the autocrats were able to hold onto power. In Yemen, after nearly a year of protests, which were violently repressed, the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over power to his vice-president, but the regime remained essentially the same.

In Bahrain, protests were suppressed by troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The government also used divide and rule tactics to foster divisions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, as well as between migrant workers and Bahraini citizens.

In Libya, NATO intervened to “co-opt the direction and leadership of the rebellion itself” (p. 158). Gaddafi, who had begun implementing neoliberal policies in the preceding decade, was replaced by another neoliberal government.

Hanieh argues that the Western powers are attempting a similar policy in Syria: “The roots of the Syrian uprising lie in an attempt to overthrow an autocratic regime presiding over a highly polarized neoliberal economy. Yet, as was the case with Libya, Western governments – acting in conjunction with regional allies such as the Gulf and Turkey – will clearly attempt to push the uprising in a direction amenable to their long-term interests” (p. 161).

One result has been the growth of religious sectarianism: “Unsurprisingly, the Gulf Arab states, headed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have led this attempt to find an ‘entry card into the Syrian opposition’, through means such as financial support and limited arming of various Islamist groups. Despite the fact that these groups represent a very small minority of the movement against Assad, their access to foreign funds and weapons has accentuated a dangerous sectarian discourse that threatens to undermine the Syrian uprising” (p. 262).

Hanieh argues that the successes of the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt built on the results of previous struggles: “In Tunisia and Egypt, the strength and prominence of labor movements, expressed through strikes, demonstrations and the emergence of new workers’ organizations, provided a social force capable of decisively confronting the old regime. In other cases, where this earlier history of struggle was largely absent and movements faced much sharper repression, the uprisings took on a more mixed character. This opened them up to being diverted by Western powers, often exploiting and encouraging preexisting ethnic, sectarian, tribal, or parochial divisions. In the case of Libya, this took the form of direct military intervention, in which large parts of the previous state elite simply switched sides” (p. 163).

Summing up, Hanieh says: “The popular movements that erupted in 2011 represented much more than the overthrow of despised dictators. Of course the protesters were centrally united around demands for authoritarian regimes to end, and the demonstrations encompassed a very wide variety of social layers (including, in some cases, elements of the upper classes). But … (the) battle against political despotism is inevitably intertwined with the dynamic of class struggle. These uprisings reflected not just a crisis of regime legitimacy or a concern with political freedom, but were – at their root – confronting the outcomes of capitalist development itself” (p. 164).

Hanieh discusses the attempts of the Western powers to contain the upsurge and promote an “orderly transition”. He also discusses the reactionary role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He argues that “the conservative brand of Islam promoted by the Gulf and articulated by Islamist movements such as the MB is a key component of the counter-revolutionary dynamic. The spread of reactionary ideas toward women, religious minorities, Shi’a, and so forth is an essential feature of the ideological battle against the revolutionary movements – one that acts to splinter and weaken solidarities” (p. 171).

The book was written before the July 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. Hanieh recognised the existence of conflicts between the army and the brotherhood, but downplayed their significance: “The conflicts between the MB leadership, the military, and the old Mubarak allies remain, but these are best seen as competitive struggles within and between fractions of the same Egyptian capitalist class and state apparatus. At root, they represent similar class interests and are united against the popular movement” (p. 171).

We can agree that both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are hostile to the struggles of the working class and the oppressed, but the coup shows that the conflicts within the capitalist class can be very intense.

Hanieh finishes on an optimistic note: “Yet despite the best efforts of Arab militaries, Western powers, and political forces such as the MB, it would be wrong to judge the enormous changes that have ensued in the Middle East as aborted or in terminal decline. The root causes of the uprisings remain unaddressed, and the potential for a renewal of struggle is ever present...The millions of people who took to the streets for the first time in 2011 have themselves been radically transformed... These uprisings have irrevocably changed the political consciousness of an entire generation” (p. 173).