Perry Anderson in New Left Review:
Mass demonstrations by unarmed citizens, nearly everywhere facing repression by gas, water and lead with exemplary courage and discipline, have been the lance of the uprisings. In country after country, the over-riding demand has gone up in a great cry: Al-sha’b yurid isquat al-nizam—‘The people want the downfall of the regime!’ In place of the local despotism, what the huge crowds in squares and streets across the region are seeking is essentially political freedom. Democracy, no novelty as a term—virtually every regime made ample use of it—but unknown as a reality, has become a common denominator of the consciousness of the various national movements. Seldom articulated as a definite set of institutional forms, its attractive force has come more from its power as a negation of the status quo—as everything dictatorship is not—than from positive delineations of it. Punishment of corruption in the top ranks of the old regime figures more prominently than particulars of the constitution to come after it. The dynamic of the uprisings has been no less clear-cut for that. Their objective is, in the most classical of senses, purely political: liberty.
But why now? The odious cast of the regimes in place has persisted unaltered for decades, without triggering mass revolts against them. The timing of the uprisings is not to be explained by their aims. Nor can it plausibly be attributed just to novel channels of communication: the reach of Al-Jazeera, the arrival of Facebook or Twitter have facilitated but could not have founded a new spirit of insurgency. The single spark that started the prairie fire suggests the answer. Everything began with the death in despair of a pauperized vegetable vendor, in a small provincial town in the hinterland of Tunisia. Beneath the commotion now shaking the Arab world have been volcanic social pressures: polarization of incomes, rising food prices, lack of dwellings, massive unemployment of educated—and uneducated—youth, amid a demographic pyramid without parallel in the world. In few other regions is the underlying crisis of society so acute, nor the lack of any credible model of development, capable of integrating new generations, so plain.
Yet to date, between the deeper social springs and the political aims of the Arab revolt there has been an all but complete disjuncture. In part, this has reflected the composition of its main contingents so far. In the big cities—Manama is the exception—it has not, on the whole, been the poor who have poured into the streets in force. Workers have still to mount any sustained general strike. Peasants have scarcely figured. That has been an effect of decades of police repression, stamping out collective organization of any kind among the dispossessed. This will take time to re-emerge. But the disjuncture is also an effect of the ideological limbo in which society has been left by the same decades, with the discrediting of Arab nationalism and socialism, and the neutering of radical confessionalism, leaving only a washed-out Islam as a passe-partout. In these conditions, created by dictatorship, the vocabulary of revolt could not but concentrate on dictatorship—and its downfall—in a political discourse, and no more.