“To think that the Middle East of the 2000s means to think of our world starting from its ‘elsewhere’”

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:18:42

revolution et etat de violence.jpgReview of Hamit Bozarslan, Révolution et état de violence. Moyen-Orient 2011-2015, CNRS Editions, 2015


Revolution and violence and not from revolution to violence. According to Hamit Bozarslan, in the Middle East the years from 2011 to 2015 are not marked by an abrupt transition from freedom to chaos (according to the overused image of transitioning from Arab spring to Arab winter), but they are part of a single historical cycle, unpredictable in its beginning but not in its results. One could argue that it is too easy to be a prophet when things are over, but this critique would miss the point.

Already in 2012, in fact, Bozarslan was taking into account the possibility of riots’ drifts and hijackings. He was not doing it out of prudence or pessimism, but because, as a pupil of the great François Furet, he knew the revolutionary dynamics very well and knew that “the democratic revolutions are not always happy revolutions.” It is not a coincidence that his reading owes much to the lesson of the French Revolution of 1848, from which not democracy, but Bonapartism was born. Bozarslan also benefits from his studies on the history of violence in the Middle East, from which he derives the evidence of a region already deeply undermined by decades of authoritarianism, jihadist Islam and war. Against the background of this intertwining of revolution and violence, the figures of three great thinkers and “muses” of the book, stand out: Ibn Khaldun, Marx and Tocqueville.

After the introduction, the path made of seven chapters starts with the backdrop of 2011. The author explains how the revolution gave birth to a “people” through a triple coalition that “no one had negotiated and that was lacking a formalized existence”: between the capital and the provinces; between working class and middle class; between generations. In this context, while “most of the actors [...] adapted quickly to a new order, temporary but yet very dense”, the Islamists seemed overtaken by the events because “unable to draw from their revolutionary heritage, long since abandoned; they were not able to offer anything other than what they were already upholding: neoliberalism and conservatism” (p. 67).

The second chapter sheds light on the transition in Tunisia and Egypt from the success of the revolutionary challenge to the distress of the transition, i.e. on the time in which “to the tyranny of the revolutionary moment, which was unitary, succeeded the revolutionary subjectivities that were plural, contradictory, indeterminate and all potentially ‘radicalisable’” (p. 91). Along this route, the path of revolution got stuck because the main political actors, both Islamist and secular, disregarded the social questions, which had been at the heart of the crisis, to engage in an exhausting kulturkampf. Meanwhile, amid the population’s increasing struggle and the desire to return to order, there was a growing “Bonapartist” temptation.

In the end, the focus shifts to the spread, in a domino effect fashion, of the revolutionary appeal to the rest of the Arab world, an appeal “received each time in a particular local context that may present extremely strong contrasts with the revolution’s matrix land” (p. 109). In the second part of the book (chapters 4-7), the analysis focuses on the forms of power and violence in the Middle East. Here too the difference between Tunisia and Egypt, and countries such as Libya, Yemen and Syria emerges. In the first ones, the state is rearranged according to the pre-revolutionary models; in the second ones it is reorganized “in the form of a paramilitary force on a gigantic scale, even when this means to devastate the whole country” (p. 174), becoming, in such a way, “the main actor of destabilization, if not destruction, of the territory entrusted by the Westphalian system”(p. 175).

Precisely the Westphalian system and its collapse are the theme of the fifth chapter, in which Bozarslan examines the current state of violence in the Middle East in its historical roots. In the 80s, “apparently the states were still ‘holding on’; after having martyred and then emptied of all political significance their left-wing opposition, they were able to handle their Islamist oppositions by channeling them into Afghanistan or domesticating them. [...] However, it was a façade of stability” (p. 193), destined to be challenged both at the supra-regional level by the “transhumant” actors (as the jihadists) and at the micro-local level.

Then the inquiry moves from institutions to society, dragged into the abyss of disintegration by the States’ collapse. Of course, this is not a general phenomenon. Where the state resisted, as in Egypt and Tunisia, society also resisted, even if marked “by the violent consequences of their kulturkampf” (p. 219). But, where the state was overwhelmed by violence, society collapsed into a bloody religious conflict (Iraq and Syria) or dissolved due to the establishment of qaedist-type entities or to the fragmentation produced by the militia (Libya, Yemen, the Sahel region).

The eighth and final chapter is a suggestive reflection on the body, violence and cruelty in the Middle East in the 10s of the twenty-first century. The body is in the first place the male but powerless one of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-sacrifice started the Tunisian revolution; or it is the “hairy” and “militarized” one of jihadists and militants, “exhibited under the influence of ‘pop culture’, ‘wargames’ and American action movies” (p. 237).

But it can also be a female body, which although “does not have the attributes of courage of the male body, yet it imposes itself for its visibility and challenges, in front of everyone, the patriarchal – not to say macho – references” (p. 237). Yes, violence is the “ancient one”, and yet it is “transformed into new forms by the very fact of being exercised now in partially destroyed societies, or against them.” The cruelty that comes from this, and that produces as the sole answer a “reverse cruelty”, creates an inhuman system of gift and counter-gift in which you lose “any ethical obligation, and therefore any kind of ethos” (p. 250). It is the tragic reality of the Middle East today, and its fall in what, quoting Norbert Elias, Bozarslan calls “de-civilization.” It would be illusory to think that this process does not have anything to do with us: “To think that the Middle East of the 2000s - notes the author of this great and disturbing fresco - means to think of our world starting from its ‘elsewhere’, which, to tell the truth, we have no reason to relegate to simple ‘elsewhere’.”