Ten Years After the Arab Revolutions: What can we learn for today’s struggle?

photo credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy, journalist, photographer and Revolutionary Socialist

Revolutions swept through the Middle East and North Africa ten years ago. Often described collectively as the Arab Spring, this mass movements of millions of common people brought down regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It also precipitated civil wars such as that in Syria, while it was repressed countries like Algeria and Sudan where revolutions still burst out years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are important lessons us to draw today as activists from this historic wave of revolutions. We will dwell on four of these, at this point.

First, the revolution emerged within the context of a period of severe worldwide social and economic crisis and massive fightback of working-class people and youth. The financial crisis of 2008 destroyed the lives and livelihoods for millions of people across the world. Pockets of protests took place immediately, as governments put austerity measures in place to make poor people bear the costs of the crisis. In Iceland this snowballed into a nationwide protest that swept away the government the following year.

The Arab Spring grew on this soil and deepened the struggle, inspiring the growth and development of mass movements in other parts of the world, such as workers protests in Wisconsin USA, the los indignados in Spain, the Indignant Citizens Movement in Greece and the 2012 January Uprising in Nigeria.

Once again, we are living through a period of intense and systemic crisis of capitalism. Mass movements of historic proportions have already sprouted such as the global anti-racist movement after the killing of George Floyd and the EndSARS revolt last October. This is a period where the ripe fruits of revolution can be plucked by deepening resistance and fanning the flames of revolt.

Second, revolts and revolutions might arise in a spontaneous manner, often sparked by an otherwise isolated event, but they do not just simply “happen”. They have deep roots in years of mass struggle against exploitation and oppression, or the bursting out of pent-up anger of common people. For the Tunisian government had managed to suppress protests for years before Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, igniting a revolution. But there was mass anger against rising unemployment and worsening standards of living. And in Egypt, despite the old regime’s repression of protests and independent trade unionism there had been massive strikes and street protests in the ten years leading to the Egyptian revolution.

As activists we must join and help deepen ongoing resistance. Strikes, demonstrations, petition campaigns and all forms of independent rebellious activities against the bosses and governments must be supported. These are moments of preparation for revolution, building the confidence, capacities and imagination that inspire and drive the forces of revolution when one bursts out.

Third, revolutions have both political and social contents. The political in a revolution is for power to change hands. The social has to do with the material concerns of the revolutionaries, which for the poor, marginalised and oppressed include the need to overcome hunger, joblessness, insecurity and police brutality.

This dual character of the 2011 revolutions and revolutions in general make it doubly important for us to understand the social forces involved in a revolutionary movement. There are always several parties and groups involved in the ferment of revolution, representing the interests of different classes and factions of classes.

There will be factions of the same class of bosses in power but who have marginalised in the scheme of things, as well as middle-class elements who share the same immediate political aim of kicking out the regime wielding state power. And even members of the same regime could cross over to the popular side when they see that the government is drowning.

In Egypt for example, we saw the Muslim Brotherhood which was initially against the revolution become a key player in the movement in 2011. And even sections of the Hosni Mubarak regime were forced to put pressure on him to “resign”, rather than see a far-reaching revolution succeed. But the driving force of the revolution was the working-class whose strikes paralysed the economy, and the youths -unemployed, angry with the bleak future that faced them – who projected the power from below by taking the streets.

The social concerns of the poor classes for food, decent work and dignity are not felt by the rich and comfortable members of the upper classes who join the revolution. These representatives of the ruling and allied classes only want to use the heads of the exploited masses as battering ram to take over the steering wheel of our exploitation and oppression.

An important task for us as revolutionaries at all times but particularly so during revolutionary upsurges is to raise the banner of the working-class. The social concerns of the working-class people must be at all times be the central demands of the revolution. The are the living force of the revolution, they must not be reduced to objects to be used for political bargaining. The working masses must drive the revolution as its leadership, for us to win our total liberation.

Fourth, while revolutions often start as spontaneous uprisings, organisation is required to lead them to successful conclusion. The different social classes enter the revolutionary movement with their organisations and parties or aspiring partisan formations.

The primary defensive organisation of the working class is the trade union. There are general characteristics of trade unions. For example, the bureaucracy or leadership does not merely represent workers. It also plays a mediatory role between the bosses and rank-and-file workers. It has a stake in maintaining the system, and thus serves as a brake to the more revolutionary push of grassroots workers, as we have seen time and again with the NLC and TUC either calling off indefinite strikes at their peaks or even aborting strikes before they start as we saw last September.

Apart from this general trend, every trade union movement has some peculiar characteristics, reflecting the historic development of the country’s political-economy and class struggle. And in some of the most totalitarian of countries, there trade union movements have essentially been smashed or rendered totally sterile. This was the situation in countries like Libya and Syria, contributing significantly to the catastrophic wars the revolutions ended in.

The Egyptian Trade Union Federation established by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1957 was the official union centre, and fully in the pocket of the regime. In fact, it campaigned against the revolution. And its dissolution was one of the demands of the workers. But there was a swell of militant trade unionism from below from the mid-2000s.

Without the involvement of the pro-regime ETUF, workers organised more than 1,900 strikes, mainly at the workplace and regional levels, to fight privatisation and cuts in the funding of social services in the seven years leading to the revolution. In one of the most massive of these, textile workers at el-Mahalla called for the dissolution of the local ETUF body. However, despite these gallant struggles, the absence of an independent national trade union body undermined the capacity of generalised union coordination and concerted national expression of workers’ power.

The situation in Tunisia the dynamics of the trade union movement was a bit more complex. The central labour federation (UGTT), which is the largest national trade union centre never fully became an integral element of the state apparatus like the ETUF.

Its leadership was more often than not collaborationist, particularly from when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali emerged as the country’s president in 1987, helping to suppress bottom-up workers activism as much as it could. But there was a vibrant rank-and-file life within the movement, which could and quite often did put pressures on the bureaucracy, much as what we saw with the NLC and TUC bureaucracy in 2012. Spurred by momentum from below, it was thus able to concentrate the raw workers’ power into a nationally coordinated force in the revolution.

The importance of trade unions as the primary organisations of workers, and which legally or otherwise combine workers to withdraw their labour power in strikes cannot be overemphasized. But, as we noted earlier, they are essentially a defensive form of class organisation. The primarily offensive form of organisation of a class that which it uses to fight for power i.e., political parties.

For the triumph of revolutions, the need for mass-based revolutionary parties of working-class people, with socialist perspectives cannot be overemphasized. Such was not the case in the Arab Revolutions and will not happen automatically anywhere.

Mass-based workers’ parties, particularly when formed by trade union officialdom, will not necessarily be revolutionary (most often, they have been at best social-democratic). And the correct perspective alone is not enough for revolutionary parties to provide needed leadership for working-class people and youth.

Drawing on lessons from the Arab Spring at this crucial era of crises and revolts, building a massified revolutionary party, with deep roots in the working-class and our communities and with a clear-cut revolutionary theory, is the greatest task before us today. Hossam el-Hamalawy, a journalist, photographer and activist with the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists sums it up, saying “we need to be organised before revolution breaks out”.

by Baba AYE







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