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By Kailash Srinivasan
"Democracy is on the march."
That phrase is endlessly peddled across media outlets and the official organs of power. Accompanying it is the image of "color revolutions"—Tulip, Cedar, Orange. Easily digestible media-friendly movements. Unsurprisingly, then, the latest events gripping the Middle East have brought back this rhetoric, as evidenced by the State of the Union address this week, in which President Obama stated his support for the Tunisian people, and today's speech by Hillary Clinton calling on the Egyptian government to cease its repression of civil society. Mohamed Al-Baradei might even be the West's Arab Vaclav Havel.
And yet, the entire interpretive framework that reduces the demonstrations to a "youth revolt" against "corruption" and for minimal freedoms misses what is truly going on all across the Maghreb and parts of the Mashreq. The men and women of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and the other authoritarian regimes are taking to the streets for a notion of justice and social solidarity that is larger than just elections. Here are countries that have been at the losing end of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus and are protesting their economic, as well as political, plight.
Of course, there is something obviously true in the dominant view. The strength and vitality of the protests are in large part due to the active role of students and the youth. In Egypt, it is no coincidence that the tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons are being deployed mostly against young men. In Tunisia, where everything began, it was a 26-year-old whose self-immolation sparked the riots that toppled Ben-Ali. In Yemen, one of the four sites of protest in the capital city of Sana'a is the university.
If there is a “moment of truth” in the youth revolt narrative, there is an embarrassment of riches in the anti-autocracy narrative. Hosni Mubarak is the Leonid Breznev of Nasserism—a stagnant, corrupt, and nepotistic ruler whose security services placed a stranglehold on civil society reminiscent of the heyday of East Germany. Even now, the police have killed or injured several demonstrators and the situation looks like it will get more violent before it gets peaceful.
In Yemen, the 32-yearlong regime of President Saleh has alienated wide swaths of society, creating a country both extremely poor and extremely militarized (the only state with a higher guns per capita rate than the United States). The stories in the other states are repetitive to the point of banality. The Hashemite monarchy never had the resemblance of popular support and the rest of the regimes of North Africa grounded their sovereignty in the police, not the people.
If all this is true, then what is incorrect? It is in failing to realize that these are struggles not only for a minimal sense of elections and freedom, but also against rampant poverty and economic inequality. The narrative of democracy on the march is not necessarily a progressive narrative, but also those of posh elites married to the Washington Consensus. Americans saw it first-hand in the run-up to the Iraq War, in which democracy promotion was itself a justification for a predatory war. While it was easy for progressives to dismiss the Bush Administration as cynically manipulating democracy rhetoric, one should not mistakenly believe that Democrats are somehow more sincere when they use it. The foreign policy is the same fortification of neoliberalism and hollow democracy.
The Middle East is no different in this regard. The trade unionists, opposition members, and youth activists who are bearing the brunt of the police repression are not the only ones who want democracy. There is another group who vehemently support democracy in the region. They ride in yachts, are immeasurably wealthy, and imitate Western mores since they are associated with affluence. They support democracy because it is “enlightened opinion” against Arab backwardness. They are, in short, favorable to a certain form of democracy whose formula is elections plus privatization. The poor can democratically-elect their immiseration.
This has already happened. The 1989 democratization of the ex-Comecon saw the political aspirations of East Europeans met, but not their demands for economic justice. Russia saw democracy, but today it is essentially owned by eight or nine oligarchs.
These are not, then, only youth revolts or mere agitations for elections. It is about a greater notion of justice and social solidarity. An earlier In These Times piece already went through the strong participation of labor in the Tunisian protests.
There is a similar situation in the other countries, with “Bread and freedom” a popular slogan in Egypt. Yemen is currently the poorest country in the region with a highly unequal society and an economy mismanaged by its elite. This is not another round of “color revolutions” strictly limited to public freedoms and personal liberties. This is to forget that the spark of the uprisings have been those who cannot find jobs, who are criminally exploited and cannot earn enough for themselves or their families. They are as much revolts against the economic order of which the U.S. is the standard-bearer as they are against personal repression.
There is, in the end, a need to democratize the democratization narrative. The progressive aspects of that narrative must be emancipated from its current role as a self-serving Western fiction.