The third reason for the failure to make the connection between economics and ideology is largely psychological, arising out of the above. In certain countries, notably Syria in the late 1960s and Lebanon before and after its civil war, the once downtrodden rose to power. They treated the country's economy as if it were booty wrested from their former overlords – now their time had come to do with it as they wished.
Bread and social justice – the true face of the Arabellion
When the revolutions of the "Arab Spring" came, they did so against a clear economic and class backdrop, albeit they were cloaked with revulsion at the ruling elites, whose corruption, self-enrichment and authoritarian ways had reached unprecedented levels. Bouazizi set himself on fire and sparked a revolution in Tunisia on purely economic grounds, charged with a deep sense of injustice.
Egyptians rebelled against Hosni Mubarak's regime in search of freedom, for sure, but also in search of bread and social justice. Indeed, I would even say that ordinary people joined this overwhelming revolution, which started on the Internet, only because of the miserable living conditions imposed on them by Mubarak's regime and his clique to meet the conditions of the International Monetary Fund.
The same is true of the way opposing forces lined up in the civil wars that were acknowledged as such in Lebanon and later in Iraq following the U.S. invasion and the crumbling of the Baathist state’s steely grip. "Deprivation" is also the slogan with which Imam Musa al-Sadr initiated the Shia political movement in Lebanon, which later produced both Amal and Hezbollah.
The Shia in Iraq used similar messages in their political/military organisations, which took advantage of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's repressive regime to grab power, reflecting the huge sense of hardship and an overwhelming desire to make it right in whatever way possible.
Politics of division
For their part, Yemen and Sudan can look back on decades of political persecution, mismanagement and the neglect of state structures and certain regions. As a result, Sudan has broken down into a Muslim and a Christian state. Yemen could also be threatened with division, even if its denominational borders do not yet correspond to the division of territory.
Syria is the country which has paid the most over the past 7 painful years in a conflict which is clearly sectarian in character. There in particular, the economic dimension has played a decisive role in mobilising the poor on the one hand and paralysing the middle class on the other, although they both belong to the Sunni majority and the regime's Alawite denominational background is clear.
The self-serving economic policies of the state and the prolonged drought in the Euphrates Valley in the early noughties contributed to a burning sense of injustice and unfairness. The loudest protests came from the poor agricultural belts around cities like Damascus and Aleppo, and from smaller towns where the local economies are closely linked to agricultural and livestock production such as Homs and Hama.
Whilst these protests may have taken on an often extreme sectarian flavour, we should not forget their social and economic roots. This realisation is not only a necessary part of the analysis of what exactly triggered the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but also, and this is even more crucial, of what can be done to tackle and eliminate these fundamental problems at the root.
© Qantara 2018
Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton
Architect and historian Nasser Rabbat is Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Islamic Architecture Program at MIT in the United States.