CWI School: Drawing the lessons from the revolutions in North Africa

Life and death struggle with the process of counter-revolution.

Starting in Tunisia in December 2010, spreading to Egypt and shaking dictators across the region in the following months, the idea of revolution was put on the agenda of workers and youth across the world. The process of revolution has not stopped since then but is in a life and death struggle with the process of counter-revolution.

The late experiences in the region have shown once again that independent working class organisation and a socialist programme for action is the key to revolution – and to holding back the forces of counter-revolution. Where workers’ organisations were weakest at the time of the 2011 uprisings, tribal and religious sectarian forces have come to the fore.

A commission at the CWI European summer school examined these developments and the question of how to advance the revolution. Dali from Al-Badil al-Ishtiraki (Socialist Alternative), the Tunisian section of the CWI, introduced the discussion.


In January 2011 streets and factories were occupied by huge numbers of workers and youth. The Tunisian prime minister was desperately attempting to organise a transition from the dictatorial rule of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to a new capitalist government.

The working class base of the powerful trade union federation, the UGTT, had a tradition of independence and of struggle against the Ben Ali regime. Its leaders could have formed a workers’ government and prepared the way for a democratic workers’ state. But, strongly linked to the regime as they were, they refused to do so, claiming it would ‘frighten off’ the people. Instead, both the left and union leaders put forward various versions of the idea of “stages” – first stabilise capitalist democracy, then at some point in the future would be the time for socialism. The capitalist state clung to power. This prepared the way for the growth of reaction, including through the rise of terrorist attacks.

The Salafist assassinations of left leaders Chockri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013 sparked 24-hour and 48-hour general strikes and huge angry demonstrations. Working class power was vividly demonstrated, with new opportunities to overthrow capitalism and bring about a government of working people and poor. The UGTT leadership should have used the militancy shown and called for the formation of democratic workers’ committees of struggle – as had developed in several areas – to link up and form a new revolutionary workers’ government.

Similarly, at Belaïd’s funeral, while demonstrators chanted “Power is for us!”, the first words of the main leader of the Popular Front left coalition was “Sleep comrade, sleep” – deeply disappointed the crowds listening. On both occasions the government was able to stabilise itself again.

The Bardo museum terrorist massacre in March this year was another turning point. The government called a ‘national unity’ demonstration led by politicians of the establishment parties. The UGTT participated but without trade union flags, so appeared as followers of politicians attacking working class people’s livelihoods instead of as an independent force.

Large strikes of teachers and health workers since then show that the working class has still not been defeated. Despite the Sousse beach massacre providing the government the excuse to bring in further repressive measures, it is still unable to go all out against the working class.

Leaders of the Popular Front, which contains many of the most active revolutionaries, youth and trade unionists, lack a clear programme to take the movement forward. The CWI calls for defence against terrorist attacks, isolating the terrorists, through democratic non-religious and non-tribal control of armed resistance, linked to a socialist programme.


In contrast to the UGTT’s independent tradition, the undemocratic Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was led by supporters of the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime. Although workers played a huge role in the demonstrations and occupations that brought Mubarak down, they did not do so as an organised class. This allowed others to take the leadership of the revolutionary movement – liberals who supported capitalism, the Muslim Brotherhood that initially opposed the uprising, and then the armed forces when the Brotherhood was discredited after a year in power.

The same ETUF leaders remain in place. Their May Day message this year was “Egypt’s workers reject striking and confirm their commitment to social dialogue with the government and business owners as a mechanism to achieve social justice…”

President Abdel al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt has been able to push counter-revolution further than in Tunisia. Repression has returned, including imprisonment and torture of activists, as under Mubarak. Strikers are branded as terrrorists. Sisi has used the mood of exhaustion and disappointment at the lack of improvement in daily life since the revolution, together with fears about the growth of Islamic terrorism, to maintain his support.

The lack of mass working class opposition, held back by the ETUF leaders, and also mistakes of some of the independent trade union leaders, has allowed Sisi to get away with this so far. Independent trade unions grew rapidly in the months after the revolution, from barely 50,000 to 2.5million. But their most prominent leader, Kamal Abu Eita, joined Sisi’s government and subsequently opposed strikes.

Nevertheless, in recent months there have been several strikes and the large working class will move into action again. Independent working class organisation, including trade unions and a mass party with members in all the major factories and working class areas, together with a revolutionary socialist programme, would stop Sisi’s counter-revolution and carry through the socialist change needed to end poverty, lack of basic services and insecurity.

International impact of revolution

The discussion at the school was broadened by several contributions. The clashes between Berbers and Arabs in Algeria, where 25 were killed in Ghardaia on 9th July, were described. In Morocco the ‘Movement on the Road ’96’ protest against pollution and water theft by the Imider silver mine has continued since 2011. The local Berber population has been occupying a camp at the mine, which is owned by the monarchy. Libya, where working class organisation was weakest at the time of the uprising against Gaddafi, and which was bombed by NATO, has disintegrated under tribal warlords.

The impact of the North African revolutions on the rest of Africa was highlighted with a contribution on Burkina Faso. The Tunisian CWI statement after the Sousse massacre impressed socialists in Sudan and elsewhere.

The commission showed that the CWI’s analysis gave confidence to members in the region, who are beginning the task of building the forces needed to ensure that future opportunities for the working class are not lost. A socialist Tunisia would have an even bigger impact across North Africa and beyond than the uprising that began in December 2010.

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August 2015