Samir Amin at 80: Waiting for More Revolutions

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Al-Akhbar Management

By: Mohammed Shoair

Published Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Samir Amin, the consummate Marxist activist and intellectual, turned 80 in the year of the "Arab Spring." He enthusiastically follows events in the Arab world, though he believes ‘revolutions’ are still to come.

Arab economist and social theorist Samir Amin turned 80 last month. When he was born, no one in Amin’s family expected he would live more than a few days. Amin was born prematurely and suffered from a deadly condition he managed to survive in the first critical months of his life. A peasant woman from Egypt’s Delta area saved his life by giving him a mixture of herbs. His parents, who were medical doctors, did the rest by preventing him from eating certain foods, like sweets, chocolate, and cream.

According to Amin, this is how he developed his sense of discipline: “Family friends were always really surprised about my strong will. I would reject a piece of cake while all the other children had their share of dessert.”

At a young age, Amin started on the road toward communism. At the age of six, he saw a child in Port Said looking for food in the garbage. He asked his mother about the incident, and she explained that “society imposes these circumstances on the poor.” With the enthusiasm of a child, he replied, “then I’ll change this society.”

This incident, along with his medical condition, had a profound impact on Amin’s life choices. At an early age, he was drawn to Marxist ideas. Even though his critics berated him for claiming that Marxism meant moving beyond Marx, he continued to insist that “as long as capitalism exists, so must a critique of the system. Since Marxism is the only effective means to understand capitalism, it too will continue to be relevant.”

Amin is indebted to his family for his intellectual development, particularly his grandfather, who worked as a railway engineer. His grandfather never achieved prominence because of his consummate opposition to the British occupation of Egypt. “He wouldn’t speak to the British unless they spoke to him in Arabic, despite excelling in the English language,” Amin says, adding “my father used to despise private property and was an avowed secularist.”

When the July 1952 revolution broke out, and the Communists, including Amin’s father, supported it, his grandfather warned them: “You are moving in the wrong direction; the revolutionary military officers are not only short-sighted, they are fascist Islamists as well.” Perhaps this is the reason why Amin believes that Gamal Abdel Nasser and his military cohort sidelined progressive political forces that had a different vision of Egypt’s future.

In 1957, Amin returned from France after earning a doctorate in political economy from the Sorbonne. He worked briefly for the government during its process of nationalizing the economy. He returned to Paris in 1960 after a crisis broke out between Abdel Nasser and the Communist movement. This is when his intellectual journey of struggle began, prompting his move from France to Mali, to Senegal, and then to the rest of Africa and the world. During this period, he wrote Nasserist Egypt and published it under the pseudonym Hassan Riyad. In his book, he argued that the absence of democracy was a central flaw in Abdel Nasser’s regime: “he nationalized politics and effectively abolished political parties, which created a vacuum that was readily filled by political Islam.”

What Makes a Revolution?

The recent Arab revolts were also a turning point in Amin’s life: “I did not expect what happened in Egypt. I noticed that anger was bubbling beneath the surface and thought this would lead to reforms. However, the regimes seemed incapable of gradual change, which lead to the outbreak of revolutions instead.” To be more accurate, he argues that what happened in Egypt “is merely a revolutionary step that must be followed by others for us to call what happened a ‘revolution.’ Three main objectives must be realized for change to be truly revolutionary: First, social justice, which will never materialize unless there is an entirely different economic policy. Second, real democracy, which is much more than just elections. It includes democratization of social relations, from the family to the workplace. And third, acquiring national sovereignty within the global system. Unfortunately, the revolution has yet to achieve these objectives, despite the fact that such goals are alive and well in youth activist circles.”

Amin thinks the greatest achievement thus far has been the realization that collective action can be a successful strategy, even after 40 years of autocratic rule. People had lost all hope and were turning toward individualism as the only viable solution. “The revolution,” he says, “proved otherwise.”

Amin warns that reactionary forces are hoping that the upcoming elections in Egypt will effectively mean the “death of the revolution.” According to Amin, they include Islamist groups and elements of the old regime working together in the interest of US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. “A shadow parliament must be established to include all the national forces seeking civilian rule in Egypt. Such a body can also help to represent local political forces and pressure the newly elected parliament, thus keeping the revolution alive.”

Amin predicts that the type of change in places like Morocco and Algeria will take a different form than that of Egypt and Tunisia. According to Amin, the Algerian and Moroccan regimes “understood what the [Syrian President Bashar Assad’s] regime couldn’t comprehend, namely that reform is better than confrontation. A few uprisings could happen here and there that would lead to reform. As for Syria, the regime has lost its legitimacy. Assad dealt with the crisis using brute force. Unfortunately, the Syrian opposition has no political program. Its only demand is the departure of Bashar Assad. A movement without clear and substantive demands will only open the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to take over.”

The situation in Libya, on the other hand, is more complicated. “Libya serves as a bridge in the region connecting the Arab east to the Maghreb. Accordingly, regional loyalties are very strong in Libya. And Gaddafi is like an acrobat, moving from the far left to the far right in a single day. It’s enough to read the Green Book to understand the scale of catastrophe the Libyans had to endure.” Contrary to what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, Amin says the situation in Libya amounts to a Western conspiracy: “The movement in Libya did not start with protests but with weapons, followed by an immediate NATO military intervention, which raises a lot questions.”

According to Amin, there are three factors that draw Western powers to Libya: “Securing their access to Libyan oil, the US’s desire to create an American military headquarters for the African continent, and French desire to get a hold of Libya’s groundwater reserves.” As for the Gulf, “a revolution happened in Bahrain, but was suppressed and under reported, despite Saudi support for NATO in Libya”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


I think amin's reading of the events in Syria is not that accurate. His misreading is influenced by the media . What is happening in Syria is clearly part of western conspiracy

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