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The Arab Spring two years on

Marcus Halaby analyses the great – and as yet uncompleted – Arab revolutions of 2011, debunking a number of myths and proving the relevance of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution today.

Revolutions are always unexpected events as far as their timing, form and immediate causes are concerned. Revolutionaries spend decades advocating them, and their whole political lives trying to prepare themselves and the most advanced section of the masses for them, but even the most far-sighted and committed revolutionaries will be caught off-guard by the sudden outburst of anger, mass activity and popular initiative that is the hallmark of all genuine revolutions.

Nevertheless, once begun, they follow certain general laws, conditioned by the specific histories and material circumstances of the country and region.

As Lenin famously put it, revolutions happen when, firstly, the lower classes “do not want to live in the old way”, and when, in addition to this, the upper classes are unable “to rule and govern in the old way”; when “it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change”, leading to “a crisis in the policy of the ruling class”, which creates “a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth”.

The trigger for this is often enough that “the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual”, with the result that “there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time’, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action”.

The great – and as yet uncompleted – Arab revolutions of 2011 have proved to be no different. The revolutionary struggles that took place in the Arab world during the 1950s and 1960s confronted a fragile system of independent states that had only just been created, one of a patchwork of retrograde monarchical or “notable” regimes, brought to power by foreign imperialists, within borders the latter had drawn to divide the spoils of the region in their own conflicting interests. Whereas the Arab revolutions of the 21st century confronted a very different order: one characterised by entrenched and apparently “stable” dictatorships, many of them in place for decades and set to reproduce themselves for another few decades more. Indeed in the decade or so before the outbreak, Western commentators used to smugly proclaim that the “Arab street” was an extinct volcano. But they too – as Pompeii and Herculaneum found out – have a nasty habit of proving those who build on their slopes wrong.

Where once the slogan of “Arab unity” served as a rallying cry for a struggle against the old British and French colonial powers, the new US imperialism and the racist colonising Israeli state, today the popular revolutionary slogan has been one or another variation on “ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam”: “the people want the downfall of the regime”.

Capitalism in crisis

In this case, the immediate cause of the increased “suffering and want of the oppressed classes” has been the global financial and economic crisis of 2008/9. Although a crisis that affected almost every country in the world, it is one in which the Arab world has accentuated all the existing problems of the capitalist system’s inability to absorb and pacify an increasingly educated and articulate generation of youth – with social aspirations to match – under systems of rule that provided them with little or no legal outlets for their discontent.

If the Arab revolutions of the last century took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, and were in turn influenced by the hostile or friendly response of the Soviet and American superpowers, then this wave of revolutions has taken place against the backdrop of the failure of neoliberal globalisation to raise the living standards of the masses as a whole, the decline of the hegemonic American superpower, and the revival and rise of its imperialist rivals, Russia and China.

And this is after a decade in which the US, intoxicated by the hubris of being the sole global superpower and after a decade of murderous sanctions on Iraq under Saddam, had invaded and destroyed first the Afghanistan and then the Iraqi regimes as well as backing to the hilt Israel’s bloody suppression of the September 2000 Palestinian Intifada. These events, combined with US support for a fraudulent “peace process” that allowed Israel to accelerate its theft of Palestinian land, fatally undermined the prestige of its Arab allies.

Soon no Arab regime could reckon itself entirely safe. Regimes in both pro-Western Egypt and Tunisia and “nationalist” Libya and Syria, both oil-rich Bahrain and Libya and poor and backward Yemen, have seen the aroused masses threaten their continued existence or bring it to an end. Even  “traditional” Arab monarchies, Jordan and Saudi Arabia  (each less than a century old) feared disruption.

The notable exceptions have been Palestine and Iraq, politically divided and under foreign occupation; Lebanon, with its patchwork of sects nervously watching the revolutionary civil war in Syria and divided as to which side to support; Algeria still dominated by a military-based regime that bloodily crushed the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s; and oil-rich Qatar, whose apparently “benevolent” ruling autocracy has allowed its pet television station Al Jazeera to act as the voice of a few suitably “moderate” contenders for power in the new post-revolutionary order.

Like all revolutions, the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions quickly developed their own myths: that revolutions can be “peaceful”; that these revolutions were made by “the whole people” against regimes that lacked any real support; and that the apparently spontaneous and “leaderless” character of these revolutions demonstrates the irrelevance of old-fashioned political parties and programmes.

Myth of the “peaceful” revolution

Riding high on the successes of these two initial revolutions, and in the expectation that this pattern would be repeated elsewhere in the Arab world, these three interlinked myths found retrospective justification (at least in the eyes of some Western commentators) in the pedestrian writings of Gene Sharp, a run-of-the-mill liberal-radical US academic. His ideas on “nonviolence”, recycled from Tolstoy, Thoreau and Gandhi, have in turn been recycled by liberal-radical academics the world over as the very latest “new” strategy, which condemns the “old left” notion of revolution to the dustbin of history.

It would not take long, however, for all three of these myths to be shattered. The revolutions in Libya, Syria and Yemen all developed into civil wars, opening the way for imperialist military intervention in Libya’s case, imperialist diplomatic power-broking in Yemen’s case, and 60,000 dead and a million displaced in Syria’s.

In tiny Bahrain, the question of violence – state violence – would become decisive, as a Saudi-led invasion force imposed order in a quid pro quo for allowing NATO to bomb Libya, although even this has not entirely put an end to popular protest.

Moreover, the myth of nonviolence was not true even in Egypt and Tunisia. In both countries, protesters battled the police and torched government buildings, among them the Cairo headquarters of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. In Tunisia, the protests included calling a general strike, which provoked a split in the state’s repressive apparatus – a decisive moment in all revolutions – with the army fighting Ben Ali’s snipers as he fled the country.

And in Egypt, around 800 people were killed in the 14 days of the uprising, as the regime unleashed its unofficial thugs, the baltagiya, to counter the early defeat of its police force and the paralysis of an army infected by the popular mood. Since that time, the new military regime has carried out other attacks, most notably against Coptic Christian protesters outside the Maspero television station, inflicting on the Egyptian people a blood sacrifice that certainly demands retributive justice if its perpetrators are to be prevented from doing it again.

In fact, the enthusiasm for “nonviolence” really amounts to applauding the masses for not having taken up arms. But it is precisely this fact that has allowed the Egyptian and Tunisian ruling classes to try to manage the transition back to capitalist stability, leaving many of the dictatorial power structures in place even after the dictators have fallen.

And those doomsayers on the international left, who have written off the Syrian and Libyan revolutions because they have developed into civil wars, demonstrate at best naïve pacifism or, worse still, a cynical realpolitik that can only recognise a revolution’s legitimacy if it quickly achieves victory. What would they have made of the Russian Civil War if they had lived through it?

Democratic phase of the revolution

It is certainly true that all the Arab revolutions have seen “the people” come out onto the streets: that diverse collection of students, youth, workers, urban poor, shopkeepers, traders and educated professionals, who despite their varying material interests had a shared experience of corruption, brutality, incompetence and sheer contempt at the hands of the state. It is not for nothing that “dignity” has been one of the most important slogans of all the Arab revolutions.

This, in turn, is a common feature of the initial phase of all revolutions that begin with “democratic” demands. As the German revolutionary Frederick Engels wrote of the Vienna uprising during the European revolutions of 1848: “It is the fate of all revolutions that this union of different classes, which in some degree is always the necessary condition of any revolution, cannot subsist long. No sooner is the victory gained against the common enemy than the victors become divided among themselves into different camps, and turn their weapons against each other.”

Moreover, he regarded this tendency towards class struggle not as a matter for regret, but as the motor force of history, adding that: “It is this rapid and passionate development of class antagonism which, in old and complicated social organisms, makes a revolution such a powerful agent of social and political progress; it is this incessantly quick upshooting of new parties succeeding each other in power, which, during those violent commotions, makes a nation pass in five years over more ground than it would have done in a century under ordinary circumstances.”

Contrary to the popular myth, it was not just “the people on the streets” but also the action of the workers that forced the hand of the state apparatus in Egypt and Tunisia in ejecting their figureheads: mass strikes and the threat of mass strikes.

In Syria, this split between the poorer and better-off layers of the people – which in Egypt became apparent only after Mubarak’s departure – was visible from the outset, as Bashar Assad’s regime rallied to its side that minority of the population who had benefited from a decade of corruption and neoliberalism.  It also mobilised those elements of the Alawite, Christian and Druze minorities who could be panicked with the prospect of Sunni sectarian retribution in the event of the secular Ba’athist regime’s fall.

In Libya and Bahrain, both dependent on a workforce of foreign migrants lacking in any rights and possessing no conscious stake in the country’s political future, the indifference of such a large part of the working class to the democratic demands of the “native” workers and petty bourgeoisie weakened the revolution. In Libya’s case, this paved the way for the NATO-led effort to control the revolutionary surge, reinforced by the murderous pogroms of African migrants and black Libyans.

Leading the revolution

It is, however, the myth of “leaderlessness” that remains the most difficult to shake off. Karl Marx once noted: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” And the legacy of Stalinism in the Arab world – both its adaptation to bourgeois nationalism and the tendency of some Arab regimes to imitate Stalinism’s worst features in power – certainly weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the Arab left.

It should not, perhaps, be surprising that the working class movements of countries that have suffered under decades of political repression were not able to develop institutions of their own – in particular political parties – that were capable of asserting consistently the interests of the working class and the need for its political independence from “the people” as a whole.

To this we might add, however, that the possible nucleus of such a movement did at least exist in Egypt and Tunisia, in the form of small socialist propaganda groups and the beginnings of an independent trade union movement. It is no accident that it was possible to do this under “authoritarian” regimes like Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s, but not under “totalitarian” regimes like that of Gaddafi’s Libya or Assad’s Syria.

Similarly, it should not be surprising that masses that have come of age under the rule of dictatorships legitimised by a ruling party with a monopoly on power, occasionally spouting “socialist” or “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, should be sceptical or even hostile to the idea that a party is necessary to provide political leadership to the revolutionary masses, to ensure that the working class and its allies do not have their struggle stolen from them by elements of the old order, or by new elites in the making. Their experience was of parties as bureaucratic institutions for exercising dictatorship, rather than for overthrowing and smashing it.

Nevertheless, the absence of such a “leadership” – a revolutionary workers’ party – has affected the outcome of revolutionary struggles in all of the Arab countries currently in revolt.

In Egypt it would mean that the Muslim Brotherhood – slow to support the uprising, but quick to respond to Mubarak’s calls for “dialogue” and equally quick to support the military junta that took power from Mubarak’s hands – would be the principal beneficiary of the military’s staged transition to a form of “constitutional” rule, allowing the old guard to preserve their privileges and unaccountability.

In Libya, it would allow those elements of the Gaddafi regime who switched sides early enough to appoint themselves as the revolution’s leaders – and to use this opening to appeal to the imperialist powers to tip the scales in their favour.

And in Syria, it meant that fractious bourgeois opposition politicians in exile would take the political initiative, with regards to the future shape of any post-Assad regime. In their case this meant no initiative at all, as “leaders” without any following on the ground scuttled from one foreign power to another in the hope of bypassing the Syrian people – first in the guise of the Turkish-sponsored Syrian National Council and then the Qatari-sponsored Syrian National Coalition.

However, the development of the Local Coordination Committees and the emergence of a mass movement of armed civilians and military defectors acting in defence of the Syrian revolution show that it is entirely possible for the masses to spontaneously throw up leaderships of their own, bypassing the bourgeois exiles and exercising an authority that rests on their representation of real material forces engaged in an active struggle with the regime.

Party and programme

But it is precisely in the course of such a “spontaneous” development that a political party is needed, to contend for influence amongst the masses with all the other currents, ideologies and social layers that are thrown up and temporarily given power by the revolution: conservative and liberal, secular and Islamist, civilian and military, intellectual or plebeian, traditional and modernist.

What should its programme consist of?

In the first instance, it should express in the most consistent possible form the democratic content of the revolutionary struggle now taking place: for full political freedom and an end to one-party rule; for freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, against censorship; for the right to protest; and, crucially, the right to strike.

It should call for a thoroughgoing purge of the state apparatus to remove the placemen of the old regime, and the punishment of torturers, those guilty of corruption and those with blood on their hand. It should demand the disbandment of all those elements of the security forces that have committed crimes against the people and the replacement of the police with a mass popular militia to defend the revolution, in place of the old standing conscript army with its officer corps and its elite units.

Its crowning demand should be a call for a sovereign constituent assembly, based on free and fair elections, universal suffrage and a secret ballot. A provisional government, based on the revolutionary committees and the organisations of the workers, peasants and youth, should ensure that this assembly could freely debate and determine the social and class character of the new state.

But, going beyond this, its programme should also recognise that such democratic demands will not be achieved unless the working class comes to the head of the revolution, and acts as the central axis around which the nation reconstructs itself.

To do this, it will be necessary to raise the social demands of the working class and its allies in the peasantry, the urban petit bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia: for the reversal of the neoliberal policy of the last decade; for the seizure of privatised state enterprises; for measures to protect the unemployed and impoverished against immiseration; for pensions for the families of the revolution’s martyrs, and compensation and adequate medical care for the many tens of thousands of injured; for a massive house-building programme including compensation and reconstruction to re-house those displaced or whose homes and districts have been destroyed; for a reduction of the working day and an effective prohibition on child labour to fully absorb the unemployed and economically dislocated; and for a programme of public works to address the regime’s criminal neglect of the rural regions.

Rejecting the siren calls to respect the unity of the whole people by sacrificing the interest of the workers and the poor, a party armed with such a programme will have to recognise that its fulfilment will demand transcending the boundaries of private ownership of the means of production, of the fields and the factories. It will need to recognise that the revolution’s completion will require not just the overthrow of a regime, but the overthrow of capitalist social relations.

In place of the diplomatic politicking of the exiles, shuffling the pack to see which foreign power’s protégés and which current or defected elements of the old regime might be able to sit together in a future government, the new party will state openly its goal: for a revolutionary government of the workers and peasants.

This is the programme of the permanent revolution, one originally sketched out by Leon Trotsky in Russia in 1905, and actually put into practice in 1917. And today’s Arab revolutions will either have to go down this road, or risk facing a defeat that will set back the cause of both political and social freedom in the Arab world for another generation more.


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