chapter  8
The geopolitics of revolution: Assessing the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in the international context
Pages 26

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have often been compared in media, academic and policy discussions. This comes as little surprise considering their numerous commonalities, including geographical and temporal, as well as in terms of the content of claims made by revolutionaries and in the forms their contentious political action has taken. Additionally, there is increasing acknowledgement of the incomplete nature of both revolutions, as well as the resilient institutional, discursive and material forms of state power that each contested. This chapter will delve into an aspect often overlooked in these comparative analyses: features of the shared geopolitical context in which both uprisings took place, and the dynamic relationship between this and the types of revolutionary subjectivities and claims expressed by activists in each country. In doing so, the chapter will probe links drawn by Tunisian and Egyptian activists between the domestic and international structures that are seen to (re)produce repressive forms of state power. Considering the recent history of US hegemony in the region, this analysis will focus particularly on US imbrications in the complex power-and-resistance dynamic that culminated in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, as well as their subsequent political and socio-economic trajectories. This chapter starts from the premise that there is a dynamic and coconstitutive relationship between domestic and international politics. The marginalization of the uprisings’ international dimensions from dominant academic accounts is perhaps a reflection of orientalist and, later, regional studies legacies. Analysis of West Asian and North African (WANA)1 politics has often been hamstrung by the narrow analytical categories these legacies have produced. Such legacies have resulted in the tendency to ghettoize ‘Middle East’ politics and deny them their proper place in a broader international context of theory and praxis. In this sense, the WANA uprisings represent a redoubtable challenge, not only to repressive structures of domestic and international power, but also to the forms of knowledge production that sustained them: the ‘régime du savoir that extends in its longevity from the British colonization of India in the eighteenth century to the US-led invasion of Iraq in the 20th century’ (Dabashi 2012: 44). As Dabashi (2012: 44) contends, any epistemologically sound account of the uprisings should therefore aspire to the ‘suspension’ of this regime, as well as of

the ‘manners and modes of inherited knowledge’ with which it is associated: an endeavour requiring nothing less than a ‘liberation geography’. This chapter aspires to contribute to the project of liberation geography, though veering from Dabashi’s premise by emphasizing an analytical framework that acknowledges ongoing forms of (neo)colonial structural inequalities in the international system. It will argue that in locating the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in the international context, a space can be opened up for a broader conceptual comparison across both time and place. This can establish parallels between numerous instances of mobilization across the region over past decades, challenging various forms of political and socio-economic injustice perpetuated by both domestic and international actors. It can also help to elucidate their place within an emerging global movement of resistance, from Occupy Wall Street to the Indignados, Syntagma Square to Taksim Square. Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences, protesters across the world have taken to the streets to express resistance to the atomization, inequality and reduced spaces for meaningful social interaction and political participation that have become symptomatic of the neoliberal national security state. Using in-depth interviews with a wide range of civil society actors in both Tunisia and Egypt, as well as documentary analysis, this chapter will examine the relationship of two key facets of their geopolitical context: the hegemonic diffusion of first the neoliberal and second the national security state paradigms, considering the discourses, legal-institutional structures, policies and practices in which they are embedded. In doing so, it aims to elucidate how domestic processes and systems of governance interact, as Amar (2009: 7) writes, ‘with changing class orders, developmentalist governance frameworks, security agendas and patterns of transnational technological innovation and financial circulation’. The chapter points out the role of Western states in particular in contributing to the violence of neoliberal authoritarian governance, and thus seeks to challenge the authoritarian-democratic binary that has been central to maintaining global inequalities. In highlighting the international context in which both uprisings have unfolded, this chapter does not seek to diminish the agency of domestic actors. On the contrary, it highlights the key role played by Tunisian and Egyptian activists, movements, syndicates, political parties and others in challenging the political, social and economic pathologies of neoliberal authoritarianism. For although international factors may help to explain some of the setbacks experienced by both uprisings, it is important to remember that hegemony – whether in its domestic or international variant – is never complete (Chalcraft 2014). Ongoing popular mobilization in both Tunisia and Egypt continue to identify and exploit the interstices, inconsistencies and contradictions within hegemonic neoliberal and national security state policies and practices, challenging the international configurations of power which (re)produce and sustain them. This chapter will therefore examine the role of external factors in the ‘repertoires of contention’ employed by activists in the context of their revolutionary mobilization. It will reveal the ways in which external actors, including states,

instutitions and more elusive structures of power, are evoked in ‘claims making routines’ by activists in the course of their contentious politics (Tilly and Tarrow 2006: 16). It concludes with some preliminary assessments on overlaps as well as divergences between the two uprisings, focusing again on the international dimensions.