Prof Gilbert ACHCAR: Considerations on State and Revolution in the MENA Region

The Arab uprisings have led to a new political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa that challenges a variety of notions about this region which has long adhered to a deep-rooted status quo and history of social and political quiescence. Regarding the consequences of these political and social transformations, contrary to their expectations, neither the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, nor in Syria, Yemen, nor in Libya have brought about a constructive image of the future of the region. In the case of Syria (patrimonial), for instance, such changes have even eroded the fundamentals of statehood itself, while questions revolving around the legitimacy of the state and state institutions in Egypt (neo-patrimonial) have seen a rapid increase, particularly within the context of representation, the rule of law, and so on. Yet, in spite of these, Libya is the only state dismantled utterly. It seems that there is an apparent resilience of the state system in the region. Hence, the Arab uprisings have marked a turning point in discussions of the state in the region.


Trying to explain the leading causes of the uprisings and of course, the subsequent resilience of the state system in the Arab world has been a huge question mark since the very beginning of the uprisings. There are many attempts to explain why the region-wide uprisings emerged in the Middle East in 2011. Recent years have witnessed growing literature describing the causes of Arab Uprisings with particular reference to the political economy, authoritarianism, social media, civil society, social movements and contentious politics perspectives. For some of the Middle East specialists, most of the explanations -particularly the analyses based on neoliberal assumptions- about the social and political explosions that we witnessed in the Arab world are “ready-made, lazy” answers. These scholars argue that the concept of the “Arab state” should be explored with its own peculiarities. Likewise, as our project pursues a new language and analytical frameworks to facilitate greater understanding and contribute to discussion in research, being aware of the alternative explanations has been one of the fundamental purposes of our project in order to achieve more accurate and comprehensive conception about the dynamics of the disintegration of the state in the Middle East.


For the very reason, Prof. Gilbert Achcar’s seminar on May 17, 2018, was an instructive and thought-breaking one for the Project aiming to work towards conceptual and analytical vocabularies which would be more adequate to the situation than common recourse to culturalist and post-colonialist explanations, by lending keen attention to social dynamics, political economy, conjunctural developments and the global setting of comparable events elsewhere. Dr. Achcar, a well-known intellectual on Middle East politics, gave a stimulating seminar by primarily emphasizing the peculiarities of Arab states. His latest two books, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013); and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016), in which he explains emergence of the shock waves of the Arab uprisings and the subsequent counter-revolutionary waves through a radical, non-orthodoxy approach were already contributory to the Project.


It is evident that the weakly institutionalized state mechanisms of European origin have since come to develop their own particular historical and cultural traits in the Arab World. Rulers generally employed their respective state apparatuses as a means of consolidating their power, which was not internalized by all members of the citizenry but only by a few ruling elites, royal families, military establishments, and various privileged groups. In the face of limited social acceptance and a lack of legitimacy, the ruling state apparatus has been confronted with various ontological challenges from certain tribal, ethnic, religious, and social groups which have resisted, and at times clashed with state rule. In this context, ruling elites have resorted to certain ‘carrot and stick’ policies to consolidate state rule over the society. As one such policy, co-optation has aimed to enhance the state’s legitimacy by incorporating critical groups and figures into the political structure, thereby attempting to widen its social base. Alternately, a specific method of keeping the state apparatus stable despite its exclusive nature has often taken the form of rentierism in which citizens cede certain social and political rights, notably the right to participate in politics, in exchange for welfare provisions and exemption from taxation. For Dr. Achcar, rentierism is one of the overwhelming features of state system in the Arab world. Moreover, the state’s instruments of outright coercion have frequently been employed to ensure the maintenance of the state apparatus.


In one sense, as argued by Dr. Achcar the various ruling strategies, including rentierism, patrimonialism, and coercive authoritarianism have rendered state structures relatively stable under the shadow of oil money, military establishments, and pro-regime judiciaries. However, these ways of ensuring state authority have in fact come at the expense of the social establishment of the state given that state-building is essentially a social experiment and that sound state-mechanisms require a broad social base on which they can survive and flourish. Despite the seemingly established and strong facade of the state apparatus, it could be said that the Arab state has never been a product of natural growth based on “its socio-economic history” or “cultural and intellectual tradition”. Instead, it can be considered a ‘fierce state’ which has often employed coercive power to preserve itself, but not in the sense of a ‘strong state’ which is equipped neither with “infrastructural power” enabling it to penetrate society via such effective mechanisms as taxation, nor “ideological hegemony” ensuring social legitimacy. That is why, in Dr. Achcar’s words “Arab uprisings can only be considered as the beginning of a long-term revolutionary process”. Mere neoliberal analyses, to Dr. Achcar, are misleading to explain the crisis in the region, we should rather focus on a deep systemic-structural crisis in the region while analyzing the developments.


For Dr. Achcar, the MENA region is the only geopolitical set of rentier and plainly patrimonial states in the world. From his analytical perspective, this critical peculiarity (politically determined capitalism) also affects the region's neo-patrimonial states and results in a particular modality of capitalism, in which reliance upon the private sector to lead development is doomed to fail. During the seminar, he particularly underlined the fact that this peculiarity also makes the prospect of radical sociopolitical change by peaceful process highly improbable. As the main thematic areas of the project involve a number of parallel, analogous or intersecting trends such as the atrophy and devolution of state functions, including some informal patrimonial and private actors; structural marginalization and socio-economic, cultural and geographical segmentation, Dr. Achcar’s seminar and the discussions following the seminar were quite precise for the core themes of the project.




Prof Gilbert Achcar has degrees in Philosophy (ESL, Beirut), Social Sciences (UL, Beirut) and a PhD in Social History/International Relations (University of Paris-VIII). Before joining SOAS in 2007, he taught and/or researched in various universities and research centres in Beirut, Berlin and Paris. His many books, published in a total of 15 languages, include: The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2002, 2006); Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky (2007, 2008); The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010); Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (2013); The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013); and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016).