The Reawakening of the Arab World: Challenges and Change in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring

Reviewed by Yousef

Samir Amin, The Reawakening of the Arab World: Challenges and Change in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 233 pp., $20.40.

Samir Amin is best known for his 1989 book, Eurocentrism, a seminal entry in critical theory on the Middle East which remains essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the political and economic problems facing the region today. Amin’s present book places the Arab Spring into the theoretical framework of EurocentrismIt insightfully argues that the uprisings of 2011 fit into the long struggle for emancipation in the Arab Middle East that goes back a century.

The Reawakening is a rigorous and expansive materialist analysis of the Arab world’s history from the advent of the capitalist world system right up to the Arab Spring. In the first two chapters, “An Arab Springtime?” and “The Geostrategic Plan of the US in Trouble,” Amin lays the foundation for his broader argument by analyzing the post-2011 developments in each country that has experienced an uprising, focusing on the role that imperialist and sub-imperialist powers have played in shaping events He then goes back into Eurocentrism’s territory, effectively situating the present-day Arab world in a broad historical context extending from the decline of Islamic civilization, to European colonization, to the Bandung Era of state-led development (1952-1975), and finally to the neoliberal “drift” that created the social conditions which led to the Arab uprisings.

Chapters three and four, “The Middle East as Hub of Ancient World System” and “The Decline: The Mamluk State, the Miscarriage of the Nahda and Political Islam” serve to position contemporary developments within Amin’s broader historical argument that the relationship between Islamdom and Europe was inverted as the capitalist world system replaced the tributary system. The Arab world in particular stood as the first major obstacle to European dominance of world trade, owing to its geographic position at the intersection of key trade routes. This dynamic produced a hostility on the part of the West that “has been pursued and has found expression in a particularly neurotic attitude towards Muslims which generated in turn a similar response in the opposite direction” (120).

But the tensions that characterize the contemporary relationship between the Arab world and the West center upon the key contradiction of bourgeois modernity. The universalist promise of modernity—that human beings “make their own history”—is made impossible by the constraints of the political and economic system which that promise birthed: world capitalism. The spread of those systems across the world in the 18th and 19th century necessitated the subjugation of the Arab world to European powers, and facilitated the Nahda or Arab Renaissance in response, which posited that the Arab world needed to return to its authentically Islamic roots in order to reverse its subordination to Europe. This nostalgia for the past is, for Amin, “the result of a violent and justifiable revolt [against modernity] that becomes neurotic and powerless” (131) as it unconsciously internalizes the Eurocentric distortion of modernity. That this “truncated” modernity experienced in the peripheries of the world system invites such culturalist ideological responses is crucial to understanding Islamism in the contemporary landscape.

The peripheralisation of the Arab is followed in Amin's analysis by “Leap Forward: The Bandung Era and Arab Popular Nationalisms” and “The Drift of the National Popular Project towards ‘Re-Compradorising,’” which provide a useful summary of the successes and contradictions of the state-led modernization efforts of the Bandung Era regimes. The “drift” away from this project, towards the nihilistic neoliberalism that characterized the last four decades in the Arab world came in the wake of Egypt’s policy of infitah or “opening” of the economy, and abandonment of its anti-imperialist positions in favor of alignment with the US and a separate peace with Israel. This opened the way for other “national populist” Arab regimes from Algeria to Syria to embrace the logic of neoliberalism in response to economic and social problems caused by the contradictions of state-led industrialization and an unfavorable turn in the international economic order.

Neoliberal restructuring laid the foundation for the social explosion in 2011, as fiscal solvency in the service of national debt took priority over the regimes’ social commitments. In many ways the current crisis in the region is the political fallout of the decades-long collapse of the social and economic modernization project that characterized the Bandung Era, through a region-wide embrace of neoliberal economic logic. The abandonment of political and social commitments also facilitated the rise of Islamism as an oppositional discourse, creating an ideological binary between the old regimes and Islamist opposition movements that dominates the politics of the region to this day. Amin’s conclusions, including an interesting revamping of pan-Arabism to suit the dire conditions of the present, as well as his proposal that the region de-link from the global economy are surely worth considering.

The problem of Islamism is perhaps the central question raised by the Arab Spring. Amin’s broad historical approach is essential to addressing it. However, Amin’s analysis of Islamism often sits alongside an over-emphasis on the role of the United States. The Arab Spring, which took the West completely by surprise, has severely eroded the grip of US hegemony in the region, demonstrating precisely how weak American influence has become. While it is undoubtedly a goal of US policy to support economic liberalization and oppose any challenge to its hegemony in the region, its efforts surely pale in comparison to the deep ideological crisis caused by the collapse of Arab nationalism. Furthermore, while US policy objectives and those of the Gulf States, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), are broadly in alignment, the events of the Arab Spring have widened the divergence among the goals of these actors. The US detente with Iran in the final years of the Obama administration demonstrated this divergence with the KSA most clearly, and the KSA and Qatar competed with each other for regional influence by backing opposing parties during the early period of the Arab Spring.

Islamism as an ideology can best be understood through an analysis of the material and social conditions created by the collapse of state-led industrialization and subsequent embrace of neoliberalism by the Arab regimes. Overall, The Reawakening provides such an analysis and is therefore, despite its overemphasis on the influence of the imperialist powers, a must read for those looking for a deeper understanding of the Arab Spring. The left needs, above all, to come to terms with an ideological milieu in the Arab world that reflects the tragic failures of a generations-old emancipatory struggle.

Reviewed by Yousef Khalil The New School New York City