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This is Chapter Five of a forthcoming book:

“The Dialectic and the Detective: The Arab Spring and Regime Change in Libya”

By Julian Samboma,, March 2018

“Economists explain how production takes place in the above-mentioned relations, but what
they do not explain is how these relations themselves are produced, that is, the historical
movement that gave them birth.” Marx: The Poverty of Philosophy


The “Arab Spring” is a term coined by Western media to refer to the wave of mass protests
and uprisings which rocked several nations in the Middle East and North Africa from late
2010. Others have referred to them as the “Arab Revolutions”.

Tunisia was the first to erupt, on 18 December 2010, followed by Egypt, on 25 January 2011.
i, ii
The governments of both countries, which incidentally flank Libya on the north-west and
the east respectively, were toppled within a month of the commencement of the uprisings.

Generally considered to have taken hold in six countries – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria,
Bahrain and Yemen – the so-called Arab Spring is alleged by sundry academics,
commentators and reporters to have been a series of spontaneous, grassroots “revolutions”
against authoritarian governments in the region. iii

Given that the street protests in Libya followed immediately upon the heels of the revolts that
toppled the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, these learned people jumped
on a bandwagon emblazoned with the legend: “Libya – an outgrowth of Tunisia and Egypt”.

In a perfect example of this, one writer, states: “The 2011 Arab Spring seems to offer new
evidence of a domino theory – one event spurring another event. Libyan youth, inspired by
the toppling of two long-time dictators in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt in January and
February, started peaceful protests to pressure Muammar Gaddafi to leave”. iv

Not surprisingly, we find the old canard about “peaceful protests” here again. However, what
preoccupies us now is this forging (fudging?) of a link between the uprisings in Tunisia and
Egypt, on the one hand, and the Libya protests, on the other. Were the latter actually
manifestations of this Arab Spring. In fact, what exactly was this phenomenon called the
Arab Spring?

To answer this question we need to conduct a dialectical examination of the Arab Spring and
see what conclusions spring up (pun intended!). It follows that the Arab Spring represents

Marx’s “chaotic whole”, “the real-concrete” in this investigation into the Arab Spring. We
will abstract for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt; we will call them, respectively, the
Tunisian Revolt and the Egyptian Revolt.

We should mention from the outset that we are not giving any noteworthy consideration to
the uprisings in the other Arab countries. This is because, although dialectical
interconnections may exist between all of them, those uprisings took place after the Libyan
uprising and, therefore, could have no conceivable bearing on the genesis of the latter. (Also,
we will be referring to the “Tunisian Revolt of 2011” – as opposed to 2010, when the
uprising actually started. This is done for analytical convenience, as the uprisings in Egypt
and Libya started in 2011. In any event, ex-president Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.)

The uprising in Tunisia was triggered after Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate
selling vegetables, set himself on fire when his inventory was seized by police. After days of
localised protests, another jobless man protested by electrocuting himself in the same town,
Sidi Bouzid, where figures, according to the London Guardian, revealed an unemployment
rate of 25% for male and 44% for female graduates.v

For the Tunisian Revolt, we abstract from the common sense perception – abetted by
mainstream media – that the uprising was a reaction against domestic dictatorship, and
examine instead the part which poverty and economic hardship played in triggering the social

As those initial protests unfolded, images of demonstrations and heavy-handed security

measures by the authorities were deployed on social media to organise more and increasingly
larger protests and demonstrations across the capital, Tunis, and other urban centres. They
eventually tipped the by-now tottering government over the edge and the president had to flee

Well into February, over a month after Ben Ali fled the country, protesters called for a “day
of rage”, to force the resignation of the new prime minister.vii

If you were beginning to suspect that the uprising may have been triggered primarily by
poverty and economic matters than by anything else, then you are on the right track. In 2016,
five years after Tunisia’s so-called revolution, London’s Financial Times reported that the
death of another young man in the Kasserine district of Tunis had triggered protests like those
of the so-called Arab Spring.

The article said: “Thousands took to the streets in the region’s towns for several days in
scenes reminiscent of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, which was also triggered by the death of
a young man amid frustration over joblessness and corruption.” viii

The above article by the Guardian mentions a so-called “devil’s pact” under which Tunisians
had for many years tolerated autocratic rule as long as their economic needs were met. We
should also add that the Ben Ali regime comprehensively tackled the threat from radical
Islam. This strategy relied heavily on strong and often heavy-handed security tactics, which
also came in handy when the target was secular political dissent.

That this so-called devil’s pact had broken down and the government had fallen back on the
security establishment to hold things down is reasonable conjecture. A corollary of this was
that, if at all the opposite had been the case previously, the people’s economic needs were
certainly not being met by the regime at the time of the uprising.

The aggressive implementation of IMF-imposed policies had caused havoc on the economy
and led directly to the impoverishment of millions of people. ix Unlike some other countries
in the region, Tunisia does not have oil revenues with which to bribe its impoverished masses
into docility. As a result there is a consistent record of anti-austerity protest in the country,
most notably the Bread Riots of 1984 and labour union-led unrest in the 1990s and in 2008. x

If we now conceive our unit of analysis, the Tunisian Revolt, as a Marxian Relation
extending backward and forward in time, its historical character suddenly becomes clear, for
it can be traced back decades to union-organised strikes and demonstrations against
government economic policies – policies which have meant successive series of
ideologically-driven privatisations of state enterprises, and the epidemic levels of mass
sackings that attend them; the Relation can also be projected forward to protests and
demonstrations which have taken place since the so-called revolution.

We have already mentioned the “Bread Riots” of 1984, which followed massive hikes in
prices of basic foodstuffs after the then government implemented imperialist-imposed
“economic reforms”. xi Those unrests were spearheaded by the General Union of Tunisian
Workers, the UGTT, as was the 1978 General Strike, which was to protest growing
unemployment rates and declining living standards of the working people. xii, xiii

One consequence of the Ben Ali government’s heavy-handed security measures against
militant Islamism during the 1990s and early 2000s was a clampdown on civil unrest, which
meant there were few anti-government protests and demonstrations in that period.

That slack, however, was picked up in 2008 – and again in early 2010 – when the UGTT led
anti-austerity demonstrations in the country’s Gafsa mining region. xiv From the foregoing
we can see that the when conceived as a Relation, the historical character of the Tunisian
Revolt extends backward to the Gafsa protests of early 2010 and 2008, and then further back
to the 1984 “Bread Riots” and the General Strike of 1978.

After that, we can extend the Relation forward in time, to arrive at the Kasserine riots of
March 2016 against poverty, unemployment and corruption, as reported in the
aforementioned Financial Times article. Still extending the Relation forward, we arrive at
today’s Tunisia, where, from 3 January 2018 – the 34th anniversary of the 1984 Bread Riots –
the country was rocked by more than two weeks of violent protests, triggered once again by
economic concerns, this time against increases in bread and grain prices blamed on IMF
economic diktat. xv

So, even if our friend the Sceptic had tried to limit the historical character of the Tunisian
Revolt of 2011 by arbitrarily imposing a cut-off point at the 2008 labour unrests, the suffering
masses have made it unequivocally clear that the 1984 Bread Riots represent an earlier

moment in the perpetual process of anti-imperialist resistance, whose outward appearance is

protest – and violence – against the local agents and symbols of international capital.

As the protesters of the 2018 Bread Riots don the old costumes and slogans of the 1984
Bread Rioteers, we may recall Marx’s remarks in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that
“the awakening of the dead… served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of
parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its
solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk

We can now see very clearly that the 1978 Tunisian General Strike, the 1984 Bread Riots, the
labour unrests of 2008 and early 2010, the Kasserine riots of 2016 and the 2018 Bread Riots
are all, each and every one of them, expressions of the Tunisian Revolt of 2011 looked at
from different vantage points. Or, which is another way of expressing the same thought, they
are all moments in the same process.

As we saw in our study of the 2011 Libyan protests, the appearance or form of the Relations
will change over time, given their immanent contradictions and interconnections, exhibiting a
different phenomenal form at various moments in the process of their mutual interaction. But
their essence will remain identical. That essence, as we have demonstrated above using the
dialectic, is the destruction of imperialism, mediated through an assault on its local structures
and representatives.

Tunisia was therefore a tinderbox on a countdown to ignition; the spark was provided, quite
literally, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. In essence, the revolt was not a
clamour for Western-style, one--person/one-vote democracy, nor was it a reaction against
President Ben Ali, the neocolonial presiding officer.

On the contrary, it was a reaction against the neoliberal economic diktat of international


It was universally reported in bourgeois, or Western corporate media that what was taking
place in the land of the pharaohs in early 2011 was an uprising against bloody, entrenched
dictatorship. It all started on 25 January, we were told, after people responded to social
media calls for a so-called “day of rage” against the Mubarak regime.

Here is a typical report, from the London Telegraph, on the same week the revolt erupted:
“After nearly 30 years of dictatorial rule, Hosni Mubarak has begun to make concessions.
The question is whether the sacking of his cabinet and his promise of reform will assuage his
opponents or merely amplify their call for his removal.”xvii

The reason for the protests, the article goes on to enlighten us, is the “decades of repressive
and corrupt rule which has failed to create sufficient jobs”. When we take another random
article from another imperialist-friendly organ we find yet another offering based on the same

A fellow called Duncan Green wrote a piece for the Guardian about “what caused the
revolution in Egypt”. In his lofty opinion, the revolt was a reaction to repression and
“torture”.xviii He dances around the principal cause so much that you wonder whether he was
dizzy by the time he finished this offering. Blaming everything from repression and Mafia-
style rule to corruption, joblessness, foreign policy and, yes, torture, we were left pondering
why he didn’t just chuck in the kitchen sink while he was at it.

Reading these misguided, fallacious and reactionary offerings, the message a tourist from
Mars would send to folks back home is that the people in the land of the pharaohs were very
unhappy because one of the pharaohs’ children, a very bad man called Mu-Barak, was
refusing to vacate the royal palace. And, to cap it all, he was not giving them work, was
locking them up and spending too much money on his family and friends.

In accordance with our dialectical methodology, we do not trust these hand-me-down

conclusions from our good friends in the bourgeois media. Following that methodology, our
next abstraction, the Egyptian Revolt, will treat political repression as but a phenomenal, or
cosmetic, aspect of the uprising, and abstract for economic hardship as the dominant factor
driving popular discontent in the country.

After trawling the public record, we came upon an item on the website of the Qatari-based,
imperialist-friendly news channel, Aljazeera. Once in a while – and in spite of themselves –
they do report the truth! The item said that the Egyptian people were protesting “against
poverty, unemployment, government corruption and the rule of President Hosni Mubarak,
who has been in power for three decades”. xix

There was certainly a ring of truth about this, given that it not only gave primacy to economic
motivating factors, but also placed autocratic government last in a list of the protesters’
grievances. This accords with the driving force in our abstraction being primarily economic
in nature.

Not wanting to be accused of succumbing to Vulgar Marxism or “economic determinism”,

we must emphasise that we are not highlighting the economic to the exclusion of other
factors. We are simply saying that, although other factors may have played a role, poverty, or
economic hardship, was the primary motive force. This position is in accord with the
dialectic; it is analogous to the dialectical axiom that a complex process has one primary or
main contradiction, although it is subject to other, secondary contradictions.

We saw earlier that, for Marx, to grasp the concept of capital was to see capital as a historical
event conditioned by a particular set of circumstances. Thus, our method demands that, as in
the case of the Tunisian Revolt, we treat the Egyptian Revolt as a Relation that extends

backward and forward in time. The public record again provides us with previous instances
of anti-government protests which were rooted in economic grievances.

As in Tunisia, Egypt had been reeling from the consequences IMF so-called structural
adjustment programmes, which hinged on privatisations, massive sackings and drastic cuts in
spending on healthcare and education. Their impact on a rapidly growing population already
experiencing galloping youth unemployment is open to reasonable conjecture.

The impact of rapid population growth cannot be overestimated. During the 30-year rule of
Mubarak, the population nearly doubled, reaching a staggering 76 million people. The
neocolonial economy could not support this level of growth. xx

The popular response to increasing poverty in the country was a series of trade union-led
strikes from 2006 to 2008. In 2006 alone, according to a report by Canada’s Centre for Social
Justice (CSJ), tens of thousands of workers were involved in 220 major strikes and
demonstrations – the largest strike wave in decades. xxi

Protests and demonstrations against increasing poverty and declining living standards have
continued under the new, “post-revolutionary” political dispensation. This is explained by
the fact that the economic situation has worsened since the fall of Mubarak. According to
figures from 2013, 25% of Egyptians live below the poverty line, with 24% hovering just
above it. xxii The trend continues to this day.

In August 2012 several revolutionary organisations, including the Egyptian Communist

Party, called for a protest against an IMF loan agreement. xxiii And only last year, so-called
“Bread Riots” broke out across the country, in March 2017, after the government cut food
subsidies as a condition to secure an IMF loan. xxiv Just in case you were wondering, there
was a previous Egyptian “Bread Riot”, this time in 1977. xxv

And, surprise of surprises: “The [1977 Bread] riots were a spontaneous uprising by hundreds
of thousands of lower-class people protesting World Bank and International Monetary Fund-
mandated termination of state subsidies on basic foodstuffs.” xxvi

Here again, exactly 40 years after the first Bread Riots, we see the masses appropriating the
old costumes and slogans of the first bread riots to inspire contemporary struggles, just as we
saw in the Tunisian case.

As to local feelings about the IMF, Caroline Freund, former chief regional economist at the
World Bank, the IMF’s partner-in-crime, said: “[T]he view on the Egyptian street of the IMF
was not positive. You can see that from the Gallup polls, the public don’t want an IMF

Based on these material facts of anti-IMF, anti-austerity popular activism, we can perceive
the historical character of the Egyptian Revolt as extending way back to the original Egyptian
Bread Riots of 1977 – which happened three years before Mubarak became president – and
then extending forward in time to the “post-revolutionary” protests of 2012 and the 2017
Bread Riots after his downfall.

Just as labour and capital are expressions of the same relation seen from opposite sides, so the
2011 Egyptian uprising – when perceived as a Marxian Relation from different poles –
becomes the 1977 Bread Riots, the 2006-2008 labour union protests against IMF
conditionalities, and the anti-government protests that have been fought since Mubarak’s exit.

They are all moments in a singular process. Not only are they dialectically interconnected,
these Relations also share an identity as anti-IMF protests, in other words, manifestations of
the class struggle against international capital. They all have this defining characteristic,
which goes back to their origins in a particular set of conditions – one defined by poverty
resulting from discredited neoliberal policies. In a word, their essence is anti-imperialist.

Three paragraphs above we highlighted the fact that, as an abstracted Relation, the Egyptian
“Revolution” of 2011 (incarnated as the 1977 Bread Riots) took place three years before
Mubarak became president, and again after he was removed from office (incarnated as the
2012 anti-austerity protests, and as the 2017 Bread Riots).

If anything, this simple fact demonstrates the objective reality that the so-called Egyptian
“revolution” was, in essence, not a revolt against the political dictatorship of Mubarak, but
rather a revolt against the economic dictatorship of imperialism. Further, this “simple” fact,
which was previously “hidden” from common sense, has been stripped butt-naked by the
judicious deployment of the Marxian dialectic.

This is as true of the Tunisian Revolt as it is of the Egyptian variant. Imperialism and its
mass media and academia – “bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors” – have performed
all manner of intellectual acrobatics to convince us that they were “only” revolts against
autocracy. On the other hand, some of these writers may simply be ignorant of the truth.
But, just as bourgeois jurisprudence maintains that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, these
writers had better banish that ignorance by swotting up on the dialectic.

This recalls Engels’s remarks about Marx’s method “making the most difficult problems so
simple and clear that even bourgeois economists will now be able to grasp them”. xxviii
Indeed, now that we have used that very method to point the way, perhaps these bourgeois
writers on the Telegraph, Guardian and elsewhere will be able to grasp the issues and desist
from further inflicting their schoolgirl (or schoolboy) errors on the unsuspecting.

© Julian Samboma,


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