International Socialist Review ISR Issue 76, March–April 2011
The Middle East
THERE ARE few events that are truly historic, in the sense that they become the reference point for what comes years after. After the general strike of May 1968, the French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou said, “Nothing will ever be exactly the same.” What we can say with absolute certainty is that whatever happens in the Middle East in the coming weeks, months, and years, nothing will be exactly the same—not only in Tunisia and Egypt, not only in the Middle East—but in the world.
The first thing that is notable about the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts is that they reveal, after a long drought, the capacity of the masses to overthrow seemingly unstoppable, seemingly unshakable dictators. It is a lesson that will not be lost on the oppressed and exploited people of the Middle East.
Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, put it succinctly when he told the Christian Science Monitor, “On the psychological and symbolic level, it is a shattering moment. Remember that Mubarak was the public face of political authoritarianism in the Arab world. He had built one of the most feared security apparatuses, employing five million personnel.” One woman activist told an Al Jazeera reporter that she felt now that “anything is possible.” That sums up the feelings of millions of people in Egypt and the millions around the world who watched with rapt attention the three weeks of mass protest that toppled Mubarak.
The specter of revolution is haunting the military and monarchical regimes of the Middle East and their American and European backers, prompting reforms designed, they hope, to preempt revolution from below.
In Yemen, after protests inspired by Tunisia and Egypt broke out demanding the departure of president Saleh, he promised he wouldn’t run in the 2013 presidential elections. Saleh has also increased wages, reduced income taxes, and ordered the creation of a fund to employ university graduates, reduce tuition, and extend social security coverage. In the face of protests against poverty and high food prices, as well as several self-immolations, Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift the nineteen-year-old state of emergency, and has enhanced subsidies on basic necessities. In Jordan, days after firing the prime minister, King Abdullah dismissed his cabinet and appointed a new one—in response to five weeks of street protests against high unemployment and rising food prices.
Syria’s authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad claims that his country is immune from protest, but like the other countries of the Middle East, youth unemployment and rising food prices exacerbated by the cutting of subsidies, combined with years of state repression, may also create the conditions for protest there.
The point is that the masses have entered the fray and have shown themselves willing and able to take action to overthrow brutal dictators. The scenes in Tunisia and Egypt bring to mind Leon Trotsky’s famous words about the revolution, namely that it is “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”
The revolutionary wave has unfolded with amazing speed. In Tunisia, the revolution began on December 17 with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed Tunisian. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was driven from power on January 14—a process that took a month.
Beginning less that two weeks later, a revolt shook Egypt beginning on January 25 that led to departure of Hosni Mubarak on February 11—a period of less than three weeks. The scale of the success is prompting the Arab peoples of the region to discuss the dates when their own rulers should depart from power. Politics in the entire region have been transformed in a matter of a few weeks.
The revolts of Tunisia and Egypt have made mass, popular revolutions an actuality, something that can be seen and felt in the here and now. It makes real, for a new generation, things we have read about but perhaps not fully understood. The Russian revolutionary Lenin said of the 1905 revolution, that revolutions are “festivals of the oppressed and exploited.”
“At no other time,” he continues, “are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the narrow, philistine scale of gradual progress.”
One cannot read Lenin’s words without conjuring up images of protesters in Tahrir Square organizing makeshift clinics, mobilizing squads to clean the streets, improvising a defensive perimeter to fight off the paid thugs of the regime, handing out food and medicine, and all the myriad acts of individual and collective sacrifice to grasp what Lenin is saying.
We are so often taught that action of the masses is “mob” action; that it is mindless, chaotic, and something horrifying. Yet what we saw in Egypt was the opposite: that mass action raises people’s self-esteem, gives them a new found energy, confidence, pride, and sense of self-worth, all accomplished not through isolated individualism, but through collective solidarity and collective action around a set of common demands. One poster in Tahrir Square said: “We’d rather die with pride than live without it.”
The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions also reveal not just the possibility of revolution, but its necessity. Marx once said that revolutions are necessary not only because the ruling class will not give up power any other way, but also “because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
Take the question of sexual harassment. In a 2008 study done by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 83 percent of all women surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment. The revolution has changed that. Activist Asmaa Mahfouz, the young woman who made an important YouTube call on January 18 for the January 25 protest, said, “This is the first time in my life…I was not sexually harassed in a public square. The thousands of men in that square treated me like a human being.”
And the Tunisian and Egyptian events have transformed the way many think of the Arab world. They have torn the veil off the racist image of Arabs and Muslims presented in Europe and the United States that has been used to demonize the people of the region as the “other.” The common refrain that the people of the Middle East are tolerant of dictators, unprepared for democracy, and prone to Islamic violence, have all been shattered by the events of the past weeks. The February 7 Gallup poll showing that 82 percent of Americans were sympathetic to the pro-democracy protesters is significant in this regard.
Remember that it was only a few years ago that we were told democracy could only come to the Middle East at the point of American arms. That, after all, was supposedly what the war in Iraq was designed to accomplish. It has not been American weapons, but democratic movements against U.S.-backed dictators that are creating change in the region. Indeed, Egypt’s revolt has clearly revealed, the Obama administration and the European Union stood not with the protesters, but with the regime.
After Mubarak’s fall, President Obama made a speech praising the Egyptian people, saying: “The people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”
Yet in the weeks before Mubarak’s resignation, the Obama administration refused to call for Mubarak’s ouster, refused to withdraw U.S. military aid to Egypt, and stressed throughout the need for an “orderly transition.” It put its support behind Vice President Omar Suleiman, a man who headed up Egypt’s rendition and torture program for the United States, who unleashed the thugs on protesters, refused to lift Egypt’s thirty-year-old emergency law, threatened a coup against protesters, and said that the Egyptian people were not ready for democracy. WikiLeaks leaked cables from the American embassies in Cairo and Tel Aviv that indicate that Suleiman was the Egyptian official working with Israel to contain the Palestinian movement, and he was Israel’s choice to replace Mubarak.
In the end, the Obama administration did what U.S. governments have always done when a dictator client falters—wait to see if he can hold onto power, and then when it is clear he cannot, quietly work behind the scenes to usher him out the door—in order to preserve as much of the regime as possible, buttressed by the Egyptian Army.
The Middle East already stood prominently as a centerpiece for United States and European imperialism well before 9/11, chiefly because of its massive oil reserves. And certainly after 2001, much of U.S. policy was shaped around a program of attempting to both dominate the region, combat “Islamism,” and, as a byproduct, maintain certain friendly regimes in office. The Washington-promoted neoliberal economic policies of these regimes enriched a few, impoverished many, and at the end of the day, the whole question of democracy turned out to be a complete red herring.
The last thing Israel or the United States wants in Egypt is real democracy, any more than it wanted it in Gaza when a free and fair election put Hamas in power. Chief among U.S. concerns will be to ensure that any Egyptian government will maintain its peace treaty and close cooperative relations with Israel. We would do well to remember the words of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger after the election of Salvador Allende in Chile (who within years was murdered in a CIA-backed military coup): “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
The Middle East revolution is a process that will not end with the removal of a few individuals from power. We are entering a new phase characterized by the fact that while certain dictators may be gone, the regimes—and the armed forces that sustained them—remain. That is true in both Tunisia and Egypt, where the state bureaucracy, the army, the courts, and the old politicians still remain.
While those at the top attempt to reshuffle the deck chairs on the ship of state, the popular movements already have entered a period of debate, of differentiation (between a spectrum of class forces who want either to halt the revolutionary process or take it further), and of further struggle over the future course of the revolution. For ordinary Egyptians—landless peasants, workers who want the right to form independent unions and the right to strike, women who want to be treated with respect, unemployed youth who want jobs—the revolution means more than the right to vote for the next president in a free and fair election or the lifting of the emergency law, though these things are crucial and the masses will have to remain vigilant to ensure they happen. For more moderate, bourgeois opposition groups, free elections and the end to Mubarak’s stranglehold on the nation’s wealth may be enough.
There is a revolutionary process underway, driven by the huge mobilizations of the mass of Tunisians and Egyptians. It is a decisive moment in the rebirth of mass revolt and raises the specter of revolutionary developments internationally. How far it goes depends especially on the ability of the working class—whose strikes in the final days of Mubarak’s rule were key to his downfall—to take center stage. As Egyptian socialist blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy writes, “[W]e have to take Tahrir to the factories now. As the revolution proceeds an inevitable class polarization is to happen. We have to be vigilant. We shouldn’t stop here… We hold the keys to the liberation of the entire region, not just Egypt.”
What follows are accounts written as events unfolded. They are not meant to be a definitive analysis of events but rather chronicle the first weeks events that have transformed the Middle East, particularly in Egypt. To that end, we are publishing a series of reports from Egypt written by ISR editor Ahmed Shawki, who was in Cairo in the days leading up to Mubarak’s fall, and Egyptian socialist Mostafa Omar, who was in Tahrir Square when the dictator fell.