This article originally appeared in Red Flag on March 1, 2021
The announcement that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned took just 30 seconds. The news electrified the streets of Cairo, then surged across the Middle East and the rest of the world. No-one needed the message translated; the cries and tears of elation from the people congregated in Tahrir Square said it all. A tyrant of 30 years who had been the envy of many of the world’s dictators had fallen at the hands of millions of his victims.
The revolution in Egypt, just one of many across the Arab world in 2011, achieved what so many had never thought possible. The heroism of the students, the workers and the poor, who rose up to fight for a new society, transformed world politics. They inspired international movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Indignados movement in Spain, and they provided one of the greatest modern examples of the potential of people’s revolutions.
Though the revolutions were eventually defeated, they remain a touchstone for socialists, confirming so many of our arguments about the nature of society and how to change the world.
It all began in Tunisia, where a desperately poor street vendor set himself on fire to protest against harassment by police. Within days, demonstrations against poverty, the police and the government had spread to almost every city in the country. The explosive nature of the protests took everyone by surprise, coming after a period of relative quiescence. This highlighted something: while most people can appear to accept the injustices that plague society, their grievances can quietly build. Sometimes, all it takes is a spark to turn resignation into burning rage.
Within weeks, the movement had spread to almost every Arab country, from Morocco to Yemen, Syria to Bahrain. Marxists are often accused of being utopians for expecting revolution not just in one country, but in many at once. Yet the Arab revolution proved that revolutions pay no attention to borders. Activists in various countries chanted in solidarity with one another and raised each other’s flags, drawing links between their struggles. In one memorable act of solidarity with Palestine, Egyptian revolutionaries stormed the Israeli embassy and tore down the despised colonial flag.
The beating heart of the movement was located in the permanent occupations of public squares in major cities. These squares gave glimpses of a new type of society, activists organising the provision of free food, health services, security and other essentials. Music and poetry were common to all the occupations, and street art flourished as people reclaimed and repurposed public spaces.
The squares also became places in which activists could experiment with new ways of making decisions. Daily assemblies discussed the practicalities of maintaining the occupations, debated the attitude to take to various parties and state institutions and planned future actions. In Syria, the revolution forced the government to retreat from whole parts of the country, allowing Local Coordinating Committees and other newly formed councils to become de facto governments. This flourishing of grassroots democracy demonstrated the collective organising capacities of workers and the poor—a feature of all mass struggles.
Students and recent graduates played an important role in all of this, their youthful enthusiasm catalysing the broader struggles. Their capacity to occupy the streets for weeks at a time was vital to giving the movement its dynamism, and their preparedness to risk death for the cause inspired others to join them.
This revolutionary energy was essential, but the working class was decisive. It is no coincidence that the two countries in which the revolution advanced furthest were Egypt and Tunisia. Both had sizable union organisations that led mass strikes prior to and during the revolutionary events. The Tunisian General Labour Union had more than half a million members and its structures, in particular its local representatives and activists, provided the institutional backbone of the revolution.
In Egypt, unions were less established prior to the revolution. But organised workers had led many important strikes and protests in the lead-up to it. The first mass strikes inspired by the Tahrir occupation occurred on 30 January, less than two weeks before the president resigned. Before long, every industry was on strike, including the tax collectors. Importantly, workers with huge potential power in the textile industry, and in Suez and Port Said, were at the heart of this insurrectionary strike wave. The generals soon realised the writing was on the wall and forced Mubarak out.
Every revolution is a product of unique circumstances and speaks to the universal experiences of poverty, oppression and violence under capitalism. They tend to erupt when millions of people decide that they can no longer put up with life as usual and when the ruling establishment can no longer control the discontent in the usual ways. Both of these conditions were present in 2011.
Capitalism has turned the Middle East into a living museum of human misery. Despite possessing the largest reserves of oil on the planet, it is one of the poorest parts of the world. Decades of colonialism were finally ended by vibrant and quasi-revolutionary independence movements, but the opportunity to establish societies based on democracy and equality was squandered. Instead, a series of repressive regimes were established. Some were called monarchies, others preferred to be described as republics, but all were capitalist dictatorships.
After a few years of redistributive policies, the post-colonial governments quickly enmeshed themselves within the existing networks of economic and political power. As economic and political crises ravaged the region, governments made terrible cuts to workers’ wages and social welfare, privatised crucial public assets, and reduced subsidies for necessities such and food and fuel. By 2011, these policies had generated anger and misery in equal measure. In Egypt, for instance, 49 percent of people lived on less than two US dollars a day, according to a report published by the Japanese Institute of Developing Economics. The IMF estimated that unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa was the highest of any region in the world, at 10 percent overall and 25 percent for young people.
Fearful of their own populations, the Arab regimes had expanded their repressive capacities in the years prior to the revolution. One researcher, Brecht De Smet, calculated that 2 million Egyptians—more than 3 percent of the population—were employed by the police in 2010. This was in addition to the large and powerful military that sourced billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from the West, which has always preferred reliable allies to genuine democracy.
So when activists began organising, they immediately were met with violence. The first challenge was posed by police forces that had terrorised people for decades. Large battalions of cops attacked unarmed crowds with water cannons, plastic-coated steel bullets, toxic gas and live ammunition. They hired thugs to harass, murder and rape activists, and then hypocritically used reports of such crimes to discredit the movement and intimidate people from joining. Nevertheless, the police proved no match for the protesters and were soon driven off the streets.
But the ruling class had other, more subtle lines of defence. Duplicitous pro-capitalist political parties pretended to side with the revolution, but ultimately backed the status quo. The regimes and their loyal media played on fears of economic collapse to justify the repression of “selfish” strikers and protesters. Activists were accused of being stooges for foreign powers, even when it was patently obvious that foreign powers were backing the regimes.
Worst of all, the regimes weaponised sectarian and ethnic identities to make it harder for the movements to spread. The Assad regime in Syria kept leftists imprisoned while releasing extreme Islamists, who the government knew could be used to discredit the movement. Later, when ISIS emerged from the wreckage of the US invasion of Iraq, the Syrian government—backed shamefully by many on the Western left—depicted the entire revolution as a jihadi plot. In Saudi Arabia, hostility to its regional rival in Iran was mobilised to justify counter-revolutionary military action in Yemen and Bahrain.
The brutality unleashed by the old order was sufficient to crush the revolutionaries. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented 387,000 deaths since 2011, with another 88,000 civilians tortured to death in detention. Physical force has always been the ultimate guarantor of capitalist power. When local power proved insufficient, foreign powers—most importantly the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran—sent in their armies to “assist”. In every case, their involvement destroyed the possibility of a democratic outcome.
Perhaps nobody speaks to the experience of the Arab revolutions better than the late Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg. She also lived through a failed revolution, in the course of which she was murdered. In her final article, dedicated to defending the defeated struggle, she explained that “revolution is the only form of ‘war’ … in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats’”. What she meant is that those who experience the highs and lows of revolution can, regardless of the outcome, learn lessons that will aid them in future struggles. In fact, without going through defeats, they can never learn the political lessons that will allow them to be victorious.
Luxemburg argued that the capitalist order is built on sand, and that the revolution will return for revenge. The reason is that capitalism is incapable of meeting the needs and desires of the vast majority of people. On top of this, it occasionally goes into profound crises that make life absolutely unbearable. Given these facts, it is inevitable that people will rise up and fight, though it is unclear when.
It’s tempting to be pessimistic, given the outcome of the world-shaking events that have gone down in history as the Arab Spring. The situation of workers and the poor is now worse than before the revolutions in every country bar Tunisia, where a fragile parliamentary regime remains.
But the Middle East and North Africa remains in crisis. Economic inequality continues to grow, democratic freedoms are non-existent, and COVID-19 is ravaging populations that for the most part lack access to public health. The World Bank put youth unemployment at 27 percent last year, higher than before the revolutions. This is not simply a moral indictment of capitalism in the region, it reflects a long-term economic malaise that prevents the elites from buying off their populations in any meaningful way.
This explains why, in the last few years, a new wave of struggles broke through the political paralysis produced by the defeats of 2011. The renewed courage of activists—in Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon, to name but a few—organising against regimes prepared to murder their own people is extraordinary. Once again, young people have led the charge. Once again, organised workers have been a key force. Once again, the defiance, passion and bravery of the revolutionaries has shown that the struggle cannot easily be crushed.