Many of the great struggles of the past can be brought to mind by their year alone: 1917 and the Russian Revolution. 1968 and the French May. 1989 and the revolutions against Stalinism in Eastern Europe. 1979 and the fall of the Shah of Iran.
2011 is only a month old, but it already seems likely that it will be remembered as the year of the great revolt across the Arab world.
One dictator has been toppled already–Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after 23 years of iron-fisted rule. Another may be gone by the time you read this–Hosni Mubarak’s reign over Egypt hung by a thread at the end of January. In Jordan, Algeria, Yemen and elsewhere, other tyrants are facing their most serious challenge in decades.
No one can know the outcome of the struggles underway now. In Egypt, the ruling elite will try to find a new face to put in charge of a “peaceful transition,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pointedly called for–but will the masses accept a new face on the old order? Mubarak might still try to order a bloodbath–but would the military and the regime’s security apparatus follow those orders? Millions of Egyptians will rally around moderate opposition figures like Mohamed ElBaradei–but will the emerging working class movement push to the fore a more radical alternative?
No one knows the answers to these questions now, but we do know this: The revolt against the tyrants has put the word “revolution” on the lips of people everywhere and reshaped the politics of the Middle East and the world.
The images from the streets of Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere are electrifying–even the U.S. cable news networks, so used to peddling celebrity gossip and Washington’s political trivia, seemed to grasp the importance of the struggle before their eyes.
The scenes bring to mind Leon Trotsky’s famous words about the revolution he was a part of making in Russia: “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times, the state–be it monarchical or democratic–elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business–kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime.”
The early stages of such a revolution are unfolding today, and they have much to teach people around the world who have been radicalized by the failures of capitalism and awakened to the hope that the struggle from below–whether it comes on the streets of Tunis and Cairo, or Paris and London, or more modestly in cities in the U.S.–has the potential to change the world for the better.
According to just about every mainstream media analysis, the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia “came out of nowhere.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The struggles in these countries and elsewhere in the Arab world have been brewing for years, as Egyptian journalist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy told an interviewer for Al Jazeera. “[R]evolt has been in the air over the past few years,” he said. “Revolutions don’t happen out of the blue.”
In Tunisia, the wave of mobilizations that drove out Ben Ali are traced back to a single horrifying act. After police assaulted him and confiscated his stand, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university-educated resident of Sidi Bouzid who survived as a street vendor, set himself on fire. But this became the symbol for millions of people who felt their lives were pushed beyond endurance by a system of vast economic inequality and vicious repression.
This backdrop of grinding poverty made worse by the world economic crisis is as important to understanding events as the corruption of the regimes in Tunis and Cairo. In particular, rising prices for food–which have shot up several times in recent years not because of worldwide shortages, but because of financial speculation in rich countries–were tinder for revolt in Egypt in 2008 and again today.
Western political leaders now claim to be glad that Ben Ali was pushed out–and they sternly warn that reforms are necessary in Egypt. But the U.S. and other Western powers backed the dictators to the hilt before–and celebrated these countries, despite their vast gap between a wealthy elite and the impoverished majority, as economic “success stories” and models of stability.
But when the rebellions came in Tunisia and Egypt, they spread with incredible speed. So did the political questions they raised–anger over unemployment and high food prices quickly expanded into discontent over political freedoms long denied. In Tunisia, the chant of the demonstrators was “Bread, water and no Ben Ali.”
Nadia Marzouki of the Middle East Research and Information Project described Tunisia’s uprising as “an organic convergence of various currents of discontent,” ranging from the unemployed and poor residents of the country’s south to students, lawyers and professionals in the cities–with “each group harboring specific grievances and using its own symbolic vocabulary, but all united in overall purpose,” Marzouki concluded.
Once Ben Ali was toppled, the political differences between these social forces–rooted above in social class–emerged in the form of conflicts over what should come next. But the virtually unanimous hatred of Ben Ali gave the rebellion its seemingly universal character.
Likewise in Egypt, where Tunisia’s toppling of Ben Ali was the final inspiration for an upheaval that was years in the making, the determination to see Mubarak fall has been the heart of the mass protests. This turned the streets of Cairo and other cities into what the Russian revolutionary Lenin called the “festival of the oppressed”–as the images of struggle sent around the world by Internet make clear.
A wave of revolt that began with the self-immolation of a street vendor in a rural Tunisian town was crashing against a police state backed to the hilt by the U.S. government–one that had endured decades of previous challenges and seemed, just weeks before, to be firmly in control over a docile population.
In Tunisia, the Ben Ali regime recognized the threat represented by the mobilization and offered concessions, but too late. In Egypt, too, Mubarak dismissed the government and tried to install new figures not tainted by their association with his regime. But far from satisfying demonstrators, this only emboldened them to continue their protests. This is another echo of the great struggles of the past–the old order’s offer of reform can inspire confidence among the masses of people to fight for revolution.
After Ben Ali fled for Saudi Arabia, the country’s elite tried to impose a “unity government” that incorporated figures from the opposition, but left power in the hands of officials from the dictator’s old ruling party. This opened up a new stage in the struggle, with the rural poor organizing a caravan to the capital of Tunis to demand that the government exclude Ben Ali’s cronies.
Salem Ben Yahia, a filmmaker and former political prisoner in Tunisia, was surely speaking for the demonstrators on the streets of Cairo as well when he told the Guardian: “We don’t want our revolution hijacked. We forced a dictator out the door, and now he’s come back in the window…Police have already shot at us and beaten us to stop us protesting, but we come back again like a tide.”
This dynamic illustrates a lesson that all great social movements of the past have learned: The struggle for freedom and democracy can’t be left to those at the top. Capitalism is supposed to promote democracy, according to its defenders, but the business and political elite of the U.S. and other nations are perfectly willing to tolerate dictatorship if their interests are best served that way. Achieving genuine democracy–in Tunisia or Egypt or the U.S.–depends above all on the struggle from below.
As in every previous social upheaval that has shaken the old order, a critical question asserted itself in Tunisia and Egypt: How to overcome the armed force of the state that the rulers use to maintain their grip on power?
Ben Ali’s regime depended on a huge security apparatus–some 150,000 police out of a population of 10.6 million–and the dictator ordered these forces to put down the first protests by whatever means. But rather than be intimidated, demonstrators only became more determined. They battled police and confronted the military when it was deployed.
News footage of the protests in Tunis and elsewhere showed a scene common to every revolution–of protesters trying to engage with rank-and-file soldiers and convince them not to fire on them.
When the revolt spread to Egypt, the same scenes were repeated. Mubarak’s police attacked demonstrators with their usual savagery, but they were pushed back–and eventually forced to retreat from the streets for days at a time.
Egypt’s military has been armed to the teeth by the U.S., but here were the tanks manufactured in the U.S. and sent to Washington’s most important Arab ally to bolster the imperialist order in the Middle East–now surrounded by a sea of protesters who reached out to poorly paid Egyptian soldiers to call on them to join the revolutionary movement.
The top brass of the Egyptian military recognized the threat. Their forces remained deployed through the last week of January, but seemingly with orders not to attack. Meanwhile, the top military officials were part of the scramble to find a façade for the “peaceful transition.”
Of course, the Egyptian military is no ally of the struggle for democracy, and its forces may still be called upon to crack down. But no matter what follows, the scenes in Cairo and elsewhere at the end of January echo similar ones in Russia in 1917 and every other revolution–where the masses have confronted the rank and file of the army and convinced them to not turn their guns on the people.
As for the police, when they were defeated in the first street battles in Tunisia and Egypt, the regime gave them new orders–to act as terrorists, carrying out violence in the hopes of causing enough chaos to derail the revolution. In Tunis following Ben Ali’s flight, witnesses described squads of security officers driving around the city, wreaking mayhem. In Egypt, reports suggested that at a large part of the looting and violence breathlessly reported by the media was instigated by security forces.
But here again, the movement from below responded. In Tunisia, according to blogger Dyab Abou Jahjah, “people have organized themselves in committees that have spread all across the country in every neighborhood and in every city, and started patrolling the streets and protecting the people.”
Revolutions can start with the toppling of a hated dictator, but they don’t end there.
The fall of a U.S.-backed stooge like Ben Ali and the democratic changes won in the aftermath should be celebrated, but with the understanding that new questions will come to the fore. Those questions will reveal differences among the opponents of the old order–over how far the revolution should go and what comes next.
In Tunisia, the new government is promising to prosecute the kleptocracy around Ben Ali that looted the country, but it has no answers for the desperation of people like Mohamed Bouazizi, forced to scrape by in a country with great natural wealth. A government without Mubarak in Egypt may promise free elections, but it won’t curb the power of the rest of the elite, much less respond to the demands of ordinary Egyptians for a better life.
How these next challenges are answered by the mass movement that shook the dictators will determine the future.
Demonstrations in the street can’t be the only answer in confronting them–the movement will need organization that goes beyond this kind of mobilization. It will need to exercise economic power–the power of the working classes of Tunisia, Egypt and beyond to paralyze the production of wealth that their rulers depend on.
The working people of Tunisia and Egypt have confronted hated dictators, but they have an even greater power to challenge the whole system of exploitation and oppression. The demonstrations that rocked the tyrants can be the stepping-stones for the struggles of the future–the first taste of action that can give confidence that further change is possible.
The outcome of the struggles taking place now will determine the shape of the future Tunisia, the future Egypt and more besides. It will be important for every fighter for social change, everywhere in the world, to engage in the discussions to come–with the goal of building a movement to transform a society that can’t provide a decent living standard for workers, whether they live in Detroit or the Nile Delta.
One more lesson of past struggles flows from this–the importance for socialists to be organized to make our voices heard in the struggles to come.
The socialist vision of a new society based on workers power–a world where inequality and injustice are ended forever–shows the alternative to the crisis-ridden capitalist system, and how that system can be transformed. But that alternative needs to be made part of all the struggles in society, whether in Tunisia or Egypt or the U.S., if it is to become a guide for the future.
That’s why it’s important for socialists everywhere to be organizing and building our numbers–as part of waging the struggles of today, as well as looking ahead to the fight for a new world.
2011 will certainly be remembered as the year of rebellion in the Arab world. Right now, it’s a year of possibilities that we can look forward to with a renewed sense of optimism, thanks to the struggles of the people of Tunisia and Egypt and across the Middle East.
This article was originally published on SocialistWorker.org.