The Arab Uprisings and the Blossoming of a 'Global Imaginary'

By Tristan Smaldone
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 1/3 |


The social uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that unfolded in late 2010 and early 2011 were the catalyst for a political awakening that soon after encompassed the globe. The same logic that allowed for localized social populism to flourish, in these cases, was at play in the subsequent blossoming of protest movements around the world. In Jacques Lacan’s terms, a ‘social imaginary’ or illusive unity was constructed, forming into a counter-hegemonic force of global proportions. This conceptual framework has been integrated into Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe’s discourse analysis, with particular relevance in Laclau’s theory of ‘equivalential chains’, the psychological unifier that allows for heterogeneous group identities to form into powerful populist expressions and articulations. This study will both demonstrate the potency of these formations, such as those that swiftly displaced embedded dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, but also their unique ability to de-territorialize, and spread into what will be discussed here as the ‘global imaginary.’

The recent proliferation of pro-democracy populism emerged as backlash against globalization, the encroachment of neoliberalism, and rampant political corruption. The uprisings in the Maghreb region of North Africa, beginning in late 2010, were the catalyst for these movements, which spread mimetically throughout the world. Described as ‘subversions of the modernist frame’ (Hale 2014), a blossoming street level politics was produced, demanding accountability and an immediate response from the ruling order. This response, however, varied from case to case, ranging from internal disbandment and state collapse, to violent military suppression.

Tunisian Protest Poster

Tunisian protest poster.
Image: Michael Thompson CC-2

A post-Marxist discourse analysis is undertaken in the following pages, revealing internal dynamics of power and the external influence of international actors, who helped fuel a revolutionary dialogue and the shaping of an emancipating ideology. Tunisia and Egypt are used as case studies in this analysis, exploring the interplay between particularistic demands and universal expressions of dissatisfaction. The goal is not to over-determine or ascribe valuation, but rather to complicate the descriptive logic and grammar being put forth in the existing discourse.

First, an analysis of the key grievances of protestors is used to demonstrate the complexity of these nascent social movements. Second, a radical constructivist approach will be used to reconcile these particular demands with broader commonalities, discussed here as the global imaginary.1 Finally, the virtue and significance of this ideological order is further problematized in order to understand and embolden its potential for promoting democratic pluralism at the global level.

Language and Ideology

Within the internal logics of these uprisings was a rejection of leadership, universal ideology, and social hierarchy (Durac, 2012; Moghadam, 2014; Singerman, 2011), with neither a unitary subject to act as a signifier nor any metanarrative to contain its message (Hale, 2014). People who participated in the protests and occupations, many of whom were young, also consisted of feminists, non-secular groups, people from different class backgrounds and conflicting ideologies, who found solidarity in their demands for justice, freedom, and dignity (Singerman, 2011; Litsas, 2013; J. Ismael & S. Ismael, 2013; Guessomumi, 2012).

During these expressions of resistance, a particular social imaginary was generated, a symbolic identity, forming around the unified position of alterity. The diversity of people, coming together in near spontaneity, demanded an immediate positioning of morality to allow both for a non-violent stasis to unfold and the articulation of a novel ethico-political standing. Judith Butler describes stasis as a corporeal occupation of public space, ranging from small encampments, to gatherings of thousands of people at a time, coming together with the purpose of unnerving the status quo, which in some cases led to the unseating of formidable dictators. 2

The gatherings and sharing of public space, happening at the beginning of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, were relatively peaceful, temporarily dissolving significant social and political barriers that had served to divide gender, race, and class into antagonistic signifiers. Solidarity, in the uprisings, encompassed multiple social and political movements, such as those seeking women’s rights, the recognition of Islamist political parties, and an end to autocratic neoliberalism.

The Pathology of Neoliberalism

To the extent that globalization has been conditioned by the advancement of the neoliberal project, our global interdependence is reducible to the mechanisms of market rationalism and competitive capitalism. The prevailing system has been criticized for placing more worth on the economy than on social values or other moral considerations within societies, subjugating ideology, passion, and political expression, through the indifference of technocratic mandates (Outhwaite & Ray, 2005, p. 118-119). As the following analysis will show, the hyper rational mechanisms of neoliberalism often depend on realpolitik relationships that are fundamentally amoral and antithetical to popular sovereignty.

Its clear that unrest in the Mahgreb region was partly a socio-political reaction to this neoliberal program being levied on North Africa and the Middle East by the United States and other Western governments (Collins & Rothe, 2014; Moghadam, 2014; Pratt, 2012). This realpolitik alliance has both supported liberalized autocracies in the region for decades and generated widespread economic inequality. Egypt in particular, has fallen victim to this program under conditional loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which have inflicted stringent economic reforms on the country for over a decade.

While the Mubarak regime welcomed this new capital, it negatively affected the economic climate for the majority of people in Egypt. Wages were driven down in the public sector, markets were deregulated, public assets were sold off, unemployment grew, and the economy became more dependent on the informal manufacturing sector (Singerman, 2011; Guessomumi, 2012).

Western states and corporations, who were willing to blind themselves to the oppression and violence of authoritarianism, endorsed the thirty-year rein of President Mubarak. The West viewed Egypt as a strategic economic and political partner, who would both help promote a free-market system in the region and create a stable opposition against rising Islamic fundamentalism. The flood of Western capital, from the United States in particular, was contingent on strategic military access to the Suez Canal, along with Egyptian airspace, and the convenience of secrecy within the regime that made Egypt a prime location for detention, interrogation, and torture of suspects in the ‘War on Terror’ (Collins & Rothe, 2012).

The strategic cooperation between the West and liberalized autocrats in the Maghreb region has embittered Tunisian citizens for decades. The neoliberal reforms in this country began when Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali came to power in 1987 and initiated a widespread privatization program. Throughout this period, Ben Ali took commissions off profits from foreign investors to build his personal empire (Durac, 2013). His brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi, assumed control over private airlines, radio stations, car assembly plants, and real estate development companies. Much of this information was withheld from the public until Wikileaks published classified diplomatic cables from the U.S State Department, which highlighting the corruption and nepotism between Ben Ali and the Trabelsi family (Schraeder, 2012).

The Feminist Vanguard

While the rejection of neoliberalism was a central concern in the ethos of the Arab uprisings, the advancement of women’s rights was also an important factor in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Mahgreb region during this tumultuous time. In many instances, women protesters were on the frontlines of the revolutions (Ibnouf, 2013), where traditional gender norms seemed to be in temporary suspension, replaced by an unprecedented level of solidarity between men and women (Johansson-Nogues, 2013). On several occasions, female protesters in Egypt performed the audacious role of fraternizing with Mubarak’s Central Security Force, reversing the allegiance of soldiers. 3 This display of fidelity produced a popular protest slogan that was echoed in city squares around the country: “The people and the army are one hand!” (Ketchley, 2014).

Despite the expansion of women’s organizations that has been taking place throughout the Maghreb region for several decades now, efforts to undermine existing patriarchic oppression and gender inequality have suffered at the hands of empty political rhetoric and unenforced laws. In Tunisia and Egypt, the rhetorical championing of women’s rights by Mubarak and Ben Ali served more to reinforce the economic development programs that relied on funding from the West, than to effectuate actual social or political advancements for women (Moghadam, 2014; Pratt, 2012).

The Middle-East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which developed as part of the Bush administrations War on Terror policy, lists women’s empowerment along with the promotion of democracy and free-markets, as its basic pillars. To the extent that many women’s organizations in the region, along with those concerned with the promotion of democracy, rely on MEPI and other Western Government funding, their success has been contingent on the enactment of political and economic reforms (Moghadam, 2014; Pratt, 2012). This exemplifies part of the basic paradox of conditionality that often plagues the efforts of Western foreign aid and intervention. The specific implications of hollow democracy promotion, which proceeded and engaged in the Arab uprisings, will be looked at next.

Despotic Nurturing and the Masquerade of Democracy

During the first three years of the War on Terror, the US allocated around US $592 million to the MEPI. The amount of US foreign aid to Arab autocracies in the Middle East and North Africa during this period totaled US $13.3 billion. As the war raged on, democratization and developmental benchmarks became secondary in importance to the reliance on stability in these regimes and their assistance in counter-terrorist efforts. The agenda of democracy promotion was further forsaken under President Obama, as ties with the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were strengthened, while funding for civil society initiatives in these countries was cut (Selim, 2013).

While the West’s interests in democracy promotion waned in the Maghreb region as the War on Terror progressed, and its reliance on and support of authoritarian leadership in Tunisia and Egypt deepened, political dissent in these countries was met with increased suppression. Civil society organizations in both states were undermined, the participation of communist and religious parties was suppressed under façade electoralism, and political dissent was met with violence, imprisonment, and torture (Durac, 2013; Collins & Rothe, 2012).

A point of paramount significance in the political developments in Tunisia and Egypt was the release of classified US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks. On 28th November 2010, two hundred and twenty of these cables were released to major newspapers in five countries around the world, including the New York Times. Highlighted in these documents, were conversations between the US State Department and embassy’s in Tunisia and Egypt, which clearly detailed human rights violations, gratuitous nepotism, corruption, and political suppression taking place under these regimes. Although much of the information was already apparent to those who had suffered under the oppression of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the cables underlined a contradictory narrative between the promotion of ‘Western’ democracy, and complacency on behalf of the United States, in its impetuous relationship with autocratic leaders throughout the region (Mabon, 2013; Nederveen, 2012; Schraeder, 2011).

By early December 2010, local newspapers in Tunisia were running articles on the leaked cables. Less than three weeks after their release, and several hours after the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vender named Mohamed Bouazizi, the nation erupted in protest. Sit-ins, demonstrations, marches, and strikes swept over the country, spreading throughout the region. Within a month, Ben Ali was ousted. In Egypt, the Wikileaks cables helped legitimize the actions of protesters. Attention from the international media, then served as external reinforcement. It took only 18 days of uprising to remove Mubarak from power.

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