Counterrevolution and Counterrevolutionary Rehearsals Today
A Review of Jamie Allinson’s The Age of Counter-Revolution
October 27, 2022
As this review goes to print, leftist activist and popular intellectual Alaa Abd el-Fattah is in a critical state as his hunger strike of over one hundred days continues against the conditions of his detention within the walls of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s prisons. “Have we seen treason uglier than that committed in hope’s name?” wrote Alaa (as he is known) and prison- mate Ahmad Douma from Torah Prison’s Ward A.1Alaa Abd el-Fattah, and Ahmad Douma, “Graffiti for Two,” in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, Selected Works 2011–2021, trans. Collective (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2022), 169. Published in 2014, this haunting question and many of Alaa’s wider writings contain attempts to theorize counterrevolution from the standpoint of its victims and from within its prison cells.
Alaa and Douma probe the most disconcerting, if not surprising, characteristic of counterrevolutions: their popularity—and the corresponding “hopes” they compel in false exits, treacherous leaders, and chimerical rehabilitations of the past. Popular memories of the Egyptian developmentalist state and the officer core at its helm were certainly reactivated—and distorted—when then-General Sisi deposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically elected government and its president, Mohamed Morsi.
The regime’s repressive efforts are less camouflaged today in Sudan, where the country’s armed apparatus led by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan stands against the street and is openly backed by the US-sponsored Egyptian state and Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council. Despite their recent dominance, the popular and international components of counter-revolution most dramatically underline the phenomenon’s built and contingent character.
It’s here that the invaluable new book, The Age of Counter-Revolution: States and Revolutions in the Middle East by Jamie Allinson, intervenes. For Allinson, cofounder of Salvage magazine, revolutions do not fail passively. They are defeated by counterrevolutions. And the consequences of defeat are catastrophic: the deaths of over three hundred and seventy thousand people in Yemen, the displacement of millions in Syria as well as almost half a million deaths, the fracturing of Libya, the mass imprisonment of activists and protestors across the region. In the study of counter-revolutionary projects, there is a wager that grasping their architectures can help bring about their reversal.
Allinson examines the revolutionary uprisings of late 2010 that swept Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya in a matter of months. Each of these countries, he explains, experienced a revolutionary situation resulting from a mass uprising which split state authority between two competing blocs. At one end, this contest witnessed popular, collective experimentation in recomposing social relations at the grassroots. At the other, ruling classes had to find new ways of ruling when neither they nor the masses could go on with the old.
Ending this competition and those grassroots experiments in favor of ancien regimes of one stripe or another was the task of counter-revolution. For the latter to prevail, its leaders had to organize and execute projects from above, from below, and internationally, from without—their concrete configurations and developments contributing to three different trajectories explored in the book. Between unsteady, varied permutations of political revolution and counterrevolution in Tunisia and Egypt, militarized counterrevolution in Syria and Bahrain, or the state collapse of Libya and Yemen, maneuvers from embattled rulers, popular support, and external intervention all interacted to produce counterrevolution across the region.
Allinson’s book intervenes in debates about these revolutions which began just as the revolutions did. He argues that many assumptions about revolution and counterrevolution are too rooted in the twentieth century to make sense of the present. This made it easy for some to underestimate what democratic victories would require from popular movements and others to mistake where reaction against such a threat would be organized.
Allinson argues that the success of the late-twentieth century “liberal revolutions,” which isolated political revolution from its deeper social counterpart, demanded “a historically peculiar habitable zone: one in which powerful working class movements and their allies faced post-agrarian ruling classes.”2Jamie Allinson, The Age of Counter-Revolution: States and Revolutions in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 20. The latter’s landed predecessors, who could not rely on impersonal power and viciously resisted democratic transitions of any kind, were neutralized with the bourgeois revolutions of the twentieth century (Bahrain’s Khalifa monarchy being an exception). The political retreat of this class, however, did not mean the same for counterrevolution, which merely found different class fractions to play the part.
When the next revolutionary upsurge arrived—with more embattled industrial components—in late 2010, counterrevolution found its social and ideological base in the legacy of developmentalist regimes. Allinson draws here extensively on Sara Salem’s concept of their “afterlives,” finding its purchase in Egypt’s Nasserist state, Muammar Gaddafi’s jamahiriya, Hafez al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria, Yemen’s Northern predecessor, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), as well as Tunisia’s Bourguibist legacy. When these afterlives were of insufficient weight, as in Syria, or largely absent, as in the case of Bahrain, counter-revolution demanded the more direct role of external intervention.
Therefore, embattled ruling classes carried with them foreign rearguards (for example, the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council), which took over some extreme functions of bygone landed classes. As a result, social and political revolution in the region today cannot be separated from one another; attempts to do so produce, as seen in the period in question, not revolution but counterrevolution.
Allinson reminds readers that the dense map of civil war, which emerged particularly in Syria but elsewhere too, in Libya and Yemen, is historically consistent with revolutionary situations, rather than an exception of recent times. In building a theory of foreign counterrevolutionary interference, Allinson leans on arguments developed in International Relations. These claim that revolutions threaten sovereignties both within and beyond their borders, the developments of which have implications for interstate competition as well as, of course, for the existence of states themselves.
But because these are not just any states but capitalist states, their counterrevolutionary projects could perhaps be elaborated further with more explicit help from Marx. Foreign counterrevolutionary intervention is a dramatic confirmation of two important ideas about the social relations and processes that “capital” denotes. The first is that the continuity of capitalist social relations demands continuous reserves of “force” and “means of violence,” for the simple reason that private property does not defend itself.3Colin Barker, “Value, Force, Many States and Other Problems: Part 1” rs21, May 10, 2019.
The second is the relatively recent thesis that capital is a social relation dependent upon the existence of not just one capitalist state, but many.4Colin Barker, “A Note on the Theory of Capitalist States,” Capital & Class 2 (1978): 118–26. Capitals are co-constitutive of one another via competition, as they are with the competitive state forms to which they give rise. This more fully captures the calamitous and reified contest of foreign intervention named in the book as well as the similarly competitive (and lucrative) nature of repression between domestic state apparatuses, which Allinson insightfully observes elsewhere.5Jamie Allinson, “US Empire and Autocracy in the Middle East,” Haymarket Books, May 24, 2022, video, 1:27:14, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf30lzByj9c.
If how revolutions are defeated also shape how the next ones begin, Allinson is compelled to ask, as he does toward the end of the book, “where is counterrevolution going?” One implication of recent revolutionary defeats, Allinson submits, is the retreat of Israel from its historic place as the region’s central geopolitical divide. One wonders whether growing consensus at the level of regional alliances around Israel—a state whose establishment could be said to mark the region’s most important example of counter-revolution and has dutifully played the part since—might make Palestine’s anticolonial struggle more socially explosive in the coming decade.
Popular solidarity with the Unity Intifada of 2021 has gestured as much, particularly in the delegations that crossed borders to join in. Moreover, the consolidation of counter-revolution through a deeper integration of ruling class participants (for instance, the Abraham Accords), while promising stability in the short-term, may also come to tie the region’s movements from below more closely together.
Historical conjunctures are also likely to shape counterrevolutionary trajectories. Allinson locates this revolutionary period within the breakdown of neoliberal infitah regimes and acknowledges, with worthy reservations, the rational kernel of Joshua Clover’s identification of reproduction, rather than circulation or production, as the locus of recent class uprisings. Perhaps without sufficient space to explore climate ruination in the book, though he has done so elsewhere poignantly, Allinson leaves it to the reader to speculate about the trajectory of counter-revolution on a heating earth, the implications of which will be many for the Middle East and North Africa.6Jamie Allinson, “Against Summer,” Salvage, August 13, 2020.
That ruling classes relied on memories of past regimes and outside intervention indicates the poverty of their tools in constructing new ways for capital to rule. While Allinson argues, correctly, that ruling classes found, through counterrevolution, new ways to rule in one sense, we might also usefully probe the absence of any substantial break with the policies of the infitah era. This is another reason to see passive revolution or revolution from above, as Allinson does, as inadequate to characterize what were counterrevolutionary processes.
The Egyptian state’s inability, for example, to subdue Islamist rebels in the Sinai, the continuously moribund state of its armed forces and its growing domestic crisis, all suggest the decreasing returns of counter- revolution in anything beyond preventing revolution itself.7Aslı Bâli and Joel Beinin, “US Empire and Autocracy in the Middle East,” Haymarket Books, May 24, 2022, video, 1:27:14, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf30lzByj9c. Climate catastrophes that intensify political crises of food and water sovereignties are not likely to make matters easier for either ruling or working classes, nor are their pandemics, which genuinely stretch state capacities. If anything, more outside, competing interventions and even cruder methods of domination may be the rule in the future for resolving challenges from below.
Perhaps a minimal preview of this interaction was offered in Algeria during the second wave of uprisings, where weekly demonstrations of the Hirak forced the removal of the National Liberation Front’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, following his attempt to stand for a fifth presidential term in 2019. The task of limiting and reversing the movement’s influence fell to General Gaid Salah—playing a somewhat similar role to Egypt’s General Sisi and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya—with the support of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The FLN is another case of a former anticolonial developmentalist regime, but one whose legacy became more closely associated with French colonialism during the Algerian Civil War, especially after the party’s ruthless repression of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) following their decisive electoral victory in 1992.
Indeed, the Algerian experience in the 1990s and that of the wider region in the 2010s suggest a resemblance between the afterlives of Allinson’s developmentalist regimes and that of the FLN, whose afterlife also extended that of French “secularism.” Support for state repression against the FIS among parts of the Left at the time may have rehearsed such support for counterrevolutionary state violence and maneuvers roughly three decades later, particularly in Syria and briefly in Egypt.8Hugh Roberts, “The Left and the Algerian Catastrophe,” Socialist Register 39 (2003): 152–71.
While Bouteflika, who came to power with military support during the civil war, fell to a determined street movement, the latter’s too-common response to the Covid–19 pandemic would, as elsewhere, prove disastrous. With the ceasing of weekly demonstrations, the Hirak’s momentum against the wider government was broken, and crucial space was granted to state repression of activists.9Selma Kasmi, “Voices from the Middle East: The Future of the Hirak Movement in Algeria,” interview by Muriam Haleh Davis, MERIP, April 27, 2020. Today, the FLN remains in power, represented by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, despite Covid–19 claiming the life of General Salah.
Allinson’s approach has the advantage of taking the first wave of uprisings as a single revolutionary process. In doing so, he offers an implicit critique of a narrow methodological nationalism which permeates much writing and thinking on the first wave of MENA revolutions. Solidarity with popular, democratic aspirations in Egypt, for example, was unproblematic while the same was often out of reach for Syrians, who echoed similar calls in mass numbers, even during its first months in 2011.
If revolutions are international processes, as Allinson argues, then selective solidarity with one of them and not all is both unacceptable and a category error. This is not to say every protest movement may be worthy of the Left’s automatic support; indeed, in the case of Egypt’s tamarrod and other examples of popular counter-revolution, they deserve the opposite. Nor is it so difficult to imagine such movements developing in reaction to something more progressive across a border. But the assumption that foreign conspiracies produced these revolutions, whether by Iran in Bahrain or the US in Syria (where this genre of accusation is not new), cannot explain their revolutionary situations, the depth of developments that followed, nor the dynamics governing them.10Fadi Bardawil, Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 88.
Such a position is even more problematic in a region where class formation in recent years has tended to produce revolutionary situations in multiple countries at once. This is not to deny the continuing relevance of a national theater or national questions posed by imperialist blocs (US- or Russian-led), though the legacy of twentieth century revolutions should indicate that these were answered inadequately. As the stark picture of the alliance of forces still unable to subdue the Sudanese street suggests, popular power remains the strongest means of defending the oppressed’s pursuit of national, food, water, and further sovereignties.1111 Mike Davis has possibly located some version of this within Marx’s discussion of counterrevolution. See Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory (London: Verso, 2018), 155–78.
Indeed, Sudan as well as Tunisia represent useful cases where counterrevolutionary projects remain unstable or have yet to accomplish the entire suppression of popular power. Following disillusioning competition between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes over Islamist and Bourguibist versions of European Union and International Financial Institution-enforced neoliberalism, Allinson points to the continuing wave of protests over the course of the decade, culminating in Kais Saied’s 2019 electoral victory. Despite Allinson’s narrative ending there, Saied’s 2021 coup against the Tunisian parliament and the July 2022 referendum on his powers suggest the gains of the political revolution are fragile and will require more thoroughgoing social agendas to defend.
In Sudan, popular struggle first removed President Omar al-Bashir from power in 2018, as well as his one-day replacement Lt. Gen. Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, leading to the formation of a joint military-civilian government. After a predictable coup ended this deal, and with the knowledge of recent counterrevolutions nearby, still-marching mass movements have yet to fully integrate with the Sudanese state or to accept anything less than complete civilian rule. A new form of the state has in fact become a subject of popular debate through the circulation of the Revolutionary Charter for People Power at the movement’s grassroots.1212 Sara Abbas and Shireen Akram-Boshar, “The Future of the Resistance Committees in Sudan,” Spectre, April 14, 2022. This shared experience of resilient strength and initiative from below—expressed either through the Tunisian General Labor Union or Sudan’s neighborhood-based Resistance Committees—confirm Allinson’s thesis that social and political revolution today will resist the separation they briefly underwent in the recent past.
There are logical problems with defining the existence of revolutions by their success, which, as Allinson shows, make it difficult to study counterrevolutions in the first place. He rightly places emphasis on revolutionary situations, whose fleeting, singular spaces allow social relations to be reworked in the service of self-emancipation. Whether these scenes of a different kind of society universalize themselves in revolutionary success is ultimately secondary to their meaning. And here, Allinson only makes explicit what’s been implicit in the Anglophone left’s approach to its canonical but also unsuccessful revolutions of the past, such as those of 1848.13Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965–1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 6–7.
Nevertheless, there are possibly additional political stakes to a debate on definitions: would-be revolutionaries must be able to recognize that a revolution—or counter-revolution—is happening before it is over. They must do so if they intend to seize on the historical alternatives or “worlds of possibility” that revolutions make available if only for a brief time, and which counterrevolutions seek to liquidate permanently.14Allinson, Age of Counter-Revolution, 1. This subject matter, as Allinson warns, is no distant object for US readers who may have seen partial glimpses of these scenes during the Black Lives Matter summer of 2020, and whose lack of heroic championship by the Left was followed by unanswered counterrevolutionary rehearsals soon after.
In his co-authored essay “Graffiti for Two,” Alaa resolves the problems posed by hope and despair by rejecting illusions in either. This move is not so different from Gramsci’s, writing from within his own counterrevolutionary prison in fascist Italy. But perhaps the undefeated Sudanese Revolution, with the most sophisticated and resilient forms of popular power witnessed in recent memory, may yet offer resources for “optimism of the will.”
In an older book, The Age of Revolution by the socialist historian Eric Hobsbawm, one finds that, despite appearances, the Bolsheviks’ wager on a swift sequence of international revolution was no innovation or mere spasm of effervescent Leninism. Its roots date to the French Revolution, as well as those of 1848, and Allinson pushes it even further back to Cromwell.15Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (London: Abacus, 1977), 87. It would certainly be another treason committed in hope’s name to deny that this remains counterrevolution’s weakest link.
Something of that may live on, originally theorized, in another passage from Alaa, reflecting on his trip to Palestine in 2012 amidst revolution in Egypt:
Gaza stands fearlessly, calling out to us: …Come, for I have the last wall: if it falls, so will every wall and every warden and every jailer in Egypt as in Syria. Look for the walls, the enemy is always behind them, and the truth always lies before them.16Alaa Abd el-Fattah, “Gaza: On Being Prisoner to Your Own Victory,” in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, 105.
- Alaa Abd el-Fattah, and Ahmad Douma, “Graffiti for Two,” in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, Selected Works 2011–2021, trans. Collective (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2022), 169.
- Jamie Allinson, The Age of Counter-Revolution: States and Revolutions in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022),
- Colin Barker, “Value, Force, Many States and Other Problems: Part 1” rs21, May 10, 2019.
- Colin Barker, “A Note on the Theory of Capitalist States,” Capital & Class 2 (1978): 118–26.
- Jamie Allinson, “US Empire and Autocracy in the Middle East,” Haymarket Books, May 24, 2022, video, 1:27:14, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf30lzByj9c.
- Jamie Allinson, “Against Summer,” Salvage, August 13, 2020.
- Aslı Bâli and Joel Beinin, “US Empire and Autocracy in the Middle East,” Haymarket Books, May 24, 2022, video, 1:27:14, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf30lzByj9c.
- Hugh Roberts, “The Left and the Algerian Catastrophe,” Socialist Register 39 (2003): 152–71.
- Selma Kasmi, “Voices from the Middle East: The Future of the Hirak Movement in Algeria,” interview by Muriam Haleh Davis, MERIP, April 27, 2020.
- Fadi Bardawil, Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 88.
- Mike Davis has possibly located some version of this within Marx’s discussion of counterrevolution. See Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory (London: Verso, 2018), 155–78.
- Sara Abbas and Shireen Akram-Boshar, “The Future of the Resistance Committees in Sudan,” Spectre, April 14, 2022.
- Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965–1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 6–7.
- Allinson, Age of Counter-Revolution, 1.
- Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (London: Abacus, 1977), 87.
- Alaa Abd el-Fattah, “Gaza: On Being Prisoner to Your Own Victory,” in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, 105.