Friday, February 25, 2011

The relevance of the ‘bread riots’ thesis for the Arab 1989

The first months of 2011 witnessed a remarkable emergence of ‘people power’ on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi and Sana’a and many other capitals. People in North Africa and the Middle East have voted with their feet and hands to confirm their complete and utter rejection of the authoritarian rules of their regimes’ game. Spurred on with the aid of new and emerging transnational media like the Qatar-based news network Al-Jazeera and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution has showered other countries in the region with the sparks of civil revolt. As this is being written, these sparks are visible in Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, and Morocco and of course Libya. Amazingly enough, these popular revolutions were not forecast on the political radar screen of any government, intelligence agency or think-tank around the world before they began erupting first in Tunisia and then elsewhere. Their trajectories and eventual outcome outcomes are as of yet unknown and unforeseeable, although what is quite clear is that they are the harbingers of a bottom-up reconfiguration of politics across the Arab Middle East that will empower civil society to challenge the political conditions of its existence more directly than ever before.

These extraordinary upheavals have done much to sink the coffin nails into the staid and antiquated orientalist arguments that Middle Eastern societies are content with and unwilling to challenge repressive, authoritarian governance and corrupt, unaccountable political and economic elites. It is in the context of these developments that the work of distinguished Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki should be analyzed more carefully, for in its argumentation and rationale it actually presage not just the collapse of these regimes on the basis of social revolts but also formulate a thesis of democratization based on the transformational power of these uprisings. Against the wind of much scholarship, which holds the effects of bottom-up uprisings and so-called ‘bread riots’ in a negative light with the likely outcomes being a slide into uncontrollable anarchy, further authoritarianism or the emergence of religious fundamentalists, Sadiki insists that these outcries of public anger are spaces of socio-political transformation which can rock the political foundations of repressive regimes to such an extent as to give vital oxygen to processes of political liberalization and ,in fact, democratization.

In his thesis of the democratizing potential of bread riots or riots in which the economic compact between rulers and ruled is violated, Sadiki contends that these are not just ‘rebellions of the belly’ or outbursts of spontaneous and apolitical anger. Rather, he reframes them as consciously political struggles for social justice and civil rights which have their grounding within the moral economy of Islam. Numerous koranic inscriptions prescribe a principled and conscientious relationship between the individual and his material world taking into full consideration the material inequities in society, especially befalling its weakest members (Sadiki 2010: 202). In reference to bottom-up uprisings of socio-economically motivated anger, Sadiki focuses on two specific interest groups. Firstly the khubz-istes, from the Arabic word for bread, whose deferent apathy erupts into anger when their daily livelihood comes under threat, and then secondly the hit-istes, literally, those leaning against the wall – in other words, the despondent and youthful unemployed.

The first group may be repeatedly co-opted by authoritarian regimes that maintain their place within the socio-economic system on a short-term basis. However, the hit-istes represent a much more volatile and impoverished social stratum which is most likely to sustain a social revolt with its pent-up frustrations at their inability to attain any type of meaningful and dignified future. Sadiki theorizes that these social groups come into conflict with the powers of authority at a critical juncture when the compact that maintains their grudging subservience to the state collapses. He terms this consensus as the ‘dimuqratiyyat al-khubz’ (democracy of bread). Thus, economically-motivated uprisings should not just be seen as short-term cries of frustration but rather politically-conscious expressions of anger and protest against ‘social inequality, corruption, nepotism, authoritarianism, and regime incompetence’ (Sadiki 2010: 215). As the cost of living for the majority of the population mushrooms against a backdrop of economic stagnation and malaise with the steady and progressive reduction of state subsidies for subsistence commodities, the contract between the state and these various groups is worn thin and its legitimating function for oppressive authority is eroded.

"It is against the backdrop of economic malaise that khubz-istes and dissident forces take to the streets en masse. In these protests the people’s taste for participatory politics is nurtured, and their dissidence is unleashed by directly challenging political authority. The rebellious street binds together political dissidents, marginals, the unemployed, and the disillusioned youth. They acquire a spontaneous solidarity and, in their common consciousness of being actual or potential victims of the regime, they direct their anger at high status and regime symbols." (Sadiki 2010: 214)

Although Sadiki is wary of assigning a definitive causal relation between these economically-motivated but politically-conscious social unrests and ensuing dynamics of political democratization, he points to the collapse of Sudan’s al-Numayri regime in 1985 and the political reforms that were introduced in Algeria and Jordan in the late 1980s as a result of bread riots, although the reforms were rolled back eventually. The recent collapse of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes can be added to this list now too with a strong possibility of others joining them soon enough. It is this rare but extremely relevant focus on the dynamics of bottom-up, civil societal democratization contained within social unrest that provides a unique lens through which to interpret and contextualize the current developments in the Middle East. It distinguishes Sadiki and his work from the brunt of contemporary academia, although his scholarly interests and publications are diverse and focus centrally on the politics of resistance against social injustice and political hegemony. As an avid contributor to Al-Jazeera English, his articles are full of wit and disdain at the way in which authoritarian regimes and their Western hegemonical backers have denied and continue to deny their people the means to create for a dignified future. Simultaneously, he champions the role of social activists, civil society movements and the ordinary people on the street in their aspirations to have a genuine voice in how to shape this future.


Larbi Sadiki (2010) Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections Without Democracy, Oxford University Press - http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Politics/ComparativePolitics/MiddleEast/?view=usa&ci=9780199562985

Larbi Sadiki (2011) ‘The 'bin Laden' of marginalisation’, Al Jazeera, Jan. 14 - http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/01/201111413424337867.html

Larbi Sadiki (2011) ‘Tunisia: A democratic roadmap’, Al Jazeera, Jan. 18 - http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/01/201111895219875257.html

Larbi Sadiki (2000) ‘Popular uprisings and Arab Democratization’, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 23(1), pp.71-95

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A politics of inclusion: An Interview with Saad Eddin Ibrahim

Given the recent upheaval's in Egypt the interview with Egyptian human rights activist Dr Saad Eddin Ibrahim in FPC Senior Research Associate Alan Johnson's 2008 book 'Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews' is worth revisiting (found on page 176).