Ten years since the ‘Arab Spring’- key lessons for socialists

Mass protest at Tahir Square, Cairo, 25 January 2012 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The year 2011 began with mass protests spreading across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) which shook the ground beneath the feet of the region’s many autocratic regimes. The decades-long dictators – Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – who had appeared firmly entrenched, were swept out of power by magnificent movements of young people and workers that inspired others around the world to struggle for their demands.

The initial trigger was the tragedy of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight in protest at his daily struggle for a living income and against police abuse.

There followed an immense eruption of anger by working people and the poor, against poverty, inequality, corruption, repression and humiliation.

In particular, high unemployment – Bouazazi lived in Sidi Bouzid where the unemployment rate was officially 30% – low wages and the escalating cost of food and other basic goods fuelled the discontent. It was so universal across the region that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were followed by uprisings in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria.

While the news of Mubarak’s fall was being greeted by working people in Egypt and across the globe, members of the CWI (Committee for a Workers’ International, which the Socialist Party in England and Wales is part of) were on the streets of Cairo with an Arabic language leaflet putting forward some important steps to consolidate the victory.

It urged “no trust in the military chiefs and no participation in any government with leaders or officials of the Mubarak dictatorship”. This was a key issue because the military leaders were moving quickly to take the helm, giving false assurances to the protesters that they would oversee the desired fundamental change.

The CWI leaflet fully supported the need to secure democratic rights, including political freedom and the right of trade unions to organise and take industrial action; and called for “trial before popular courts of all those involved in the Mubarak police regime’s repression and corruption”.

How could all this be done? By “urgent formation of democratic committees of action in the workplaces and neighbourhoods – particularly in working-class and poor neighbourhoods – to coordinate the removal of all remnants of the old regime, maintain order and supplies and, most importantly, be the basis for a government of representatives of workers and the poor”.

Such a government would need to take the main industries and services into public ownership and break completely with capitalism – a system only offering a nightmare existence for much of humanity.

Moves to create local committees of activists were taking place, as were important steps forward in building independent trade unions. But these developments alone were not sufficient; also they were outpaced by the determined steps taken by the military leaders and other representatives of capitalism to re-secure their system.

History has shown that no capitalist class – whether its type of government and state rule is brutal or more benign – will simply hand power over to the majority in society when faced with rebellion. Without concrete steps to remove “all remnants of the old regime” as the CWI argued for, capitalist rule inevitably continued in Egypt and Tunisia with just changes of government and personnel being implemented at the top.

With no mass workers’ party in existence to offer an alternative, the Egyptian general election in 2012 led to the Muslim Brotherhood forming a capitalist government, headed by the Brotherhood’s leader Mohamed Morsi that was never going to satisfy the demands of the revolution.

After one year, following massive protest demonstrations, it was removed in a military coup, which paved the way for today’s military-led, authoritarian regime headed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Based on decaying capitalism, his regime has only delivered an even worse situation for working-class and middle-class people than existed under Mubarak.

Less than a quarter of Egyptians recently surveyed in a Guardian-YouGov poll said that their lives are better now than ten years ago. Fearful of the next revolution, al-Sisi has stepped up imprisonments and killings of people opposing the regime. But the titanic events of 2011 showed that when the majority in society rise up and fight back together – as conditions today are laying the basis for again – no amount of state force can hold them back.

In Tunisia too, life for most people hasn’t improved over the last decade. The western capitalist media paints that country as having had a fairly successful transition from dictatorship to democracy, and notes the existence of a trade union movement that even under Ben Ali was independent of the regime.

But the limited freedoms won by the 2011 revolution are being eroded, and protests have re-emerged against unemployment – at a higher rate now compared with 2010 – and declining living standards. Working class areas in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, and across the country, have seen an eruption of angry young people on the streets, against the backdrop of mass unemployment and crumbling services.

The hopes for fundamental change that drove the 2011 uprising have been destroyed by the failure of the numerous line-ups of capitalist government since then to solve any of the acute problems: poverty, corruption, regional disparities, terrorism and more.

Not surprisingly, there are now mixed moods, with some expressing utter despair and thinking that democracy and stability aren’t compatible. This is reflected in increased support for a party led by a supporter of Ben Ali’s regime, the Free Constitutional Party.

Revolution and counter-revolution

As well as the shattered hopes in Egypt and Tunisia, counter-revolutionary developments over the last decade have included the revolt in Bahrain being crushed with the aid of military force from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes, and the terrible civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya. The interventions of various imperialist powers around the world, attempting to promote their own interests, have played a major role in worsening those wars.

There were also the conquests by Isis, which although now largely reversed, have not eliminated the threat posed by its right-wing jihadism and terrorist methods.

However, the period since 2011 has also encompassed new protests and movements in the region. A tremendous revolutionary movement took place in Sudan in 2018-19 which led to the removal of President Omar al-Bashir.

Nine days before his fall from power, president Bouteflika had been forced out of office in Algeria after an extensive protest movement swept across that country.

Massive discontent erupted in Lebanon in 2019 and large-scale protests have been ongoing there, with the anger increased following the corruption and failings surrounding the terrible explosion in Beirut’s port last August.

A wave of working-class revolt arose in Iran in 2018 and more struggles have taken place there since, including in recent weeks. In addition, smaller-scale movements have taken place in Iraq, Jordan and Morocco.

The term ‘Arab Spring’ was from the start only a short-hand expression because the 2011 revolts included non-Arab participants. Over the last decade, non-Arab struggles in the region have been added to, especially with the protests in Iran, a majority Persian country.

All the uprisings stem from the increasingly intolerable conditions endured by workers and the poor across the region, with the largely young-in-age populations facing virtually no prospect of securing a decent living.

With the economies in crisis, living standards for the majority are being driven into the dirt, made worse by the elites’ immense creaming off of wealth, the austerity edicts of the International Monetary Fund, the effects of climate change, and now the added horror of lost jobs and lives due to Covid-19.

A January 2021 report by the World Bank stated: “The income shock from the pandemic is expected to increase the number of people below the $5.50 per day poverty line in the region [MENA] by tens of millions this year”.

So conditions for the mass of people are desperate and rage will continue to spill over into revolts and revolutions.

Achieving change

One lesson learnt from the 2011 events that have been apparent since then in protesters’ slogans, is that it’s not enough to just remove a president or government.

In Algeria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, demonstrators have called for the whole political elite and system to be removed. They have also rejected sectarian-based division. This was particularly the case in Lebanon, where the movement recoiled from the entrenched political system of ‘divide and rule’ sectarianism.

Last year’s formation of a military-dominated coalition government in Sudan after the old regime was overthrown illustrates the key issues that arise after a dictatorship is defeated.

The burning questions that still need to be addressed across the region are: What can replace the present political systems, and how can it be achieved? This poses the need for mass political parties to be built that serves an opposite purpose to the pro-capitalist parties, that have complete independence from them, and that put forward a programme of removing not just the present political structures, but the system that underlies them: capitalism.

The class in society that can build and successfully lead such parties is the working class, as it has no interest as a class in the maintenance of capitalism. Also, as the main class under capitalism that produces goods and delivers services, it has the potential power – through general strike action – to bring the capitalist class to its knees.

It was common for activists during the 2011 uprisings to view the idea of building political parties as unattractive, because of the political and bureaucratic degeneration of left and workers’ parties in previous periods. But the uprisings and revolutions in the MENA countries over the last decade show the limits of spontaneous, disorganised movements, and the need for workers to organise well, industrially and politically, at the local, regional and national level.

To help guard against political degeneration, their organisations need structures that enable discussion and debate at all levels – and decision-making by elected representatives who are fully accountable to those who elect them. This means that rank-and-file members must be able to correct or recall their representatives at any time if they consider it necessary.

Organising against brutal, despotic regimes is, by its very nature, work under difficult conditions. There are valuable lessons to be learnt from history, including from the methods and structures adopted by the Bolshevik party in Russia in the years before 1917 when under repressive, draconian Tsarism. Today, electronic communication can be a great help but isn’t a panacea, especially as authoritarian regimes can disrupt it.

Alongside the need for mass workers’ parties, preparation is needed for them to become armed with revolutionary socialist ideas, vital for unifying the movements around the common goal of real, fundamental change and democratically discussing and mapping out the steps needed to achieve it.

Plenty of guidance can be gained from studying past revolutions, from the 1871 Paris Commune (which has its 150th anniversary this year) to the Russian revolution in 1917 which succeeded in overthrowing capitalism, and later revolutions during the 20th century: in China, Spain, Chile and Portugal, to name a few.

Important lessons from history include how to deal with capitalist states’ military and security forces. In Egypt’s 2011 revolution the army leaders found the rank-and-file soldiers to be unreliable for countering the protesters, as coming from working-class backgrounds they were sympathetic to the calls made to support the movement. The CWI leaflet mentioned above advocated the formation of democratic rank-and-file committees in the armed forces and police to ensure the officers couldn’t use those forces against the revolution.

Invaluable political and organisational guidance will also be learnt by reading and discussing Marxist writings, especially by Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Marx himself, who all based their ideas on the Marxist analysis of capitalism and previous societies and on the workers’ struggles during their lifetimes and before.

Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’ is highly relevant to the MENA region today, as it explains why the capitalist classes in the economically less developed countries can’t introduce the capitalist ‘democracy’ of the more developed countries.

A Marxist approach is also essential to avoid the serious error of left or workers’ organisations advocating ‘popular fronts’ or alliances with pro-capitalists, in effect tail-ending them, as happened at times in both Egypt and Tunisia during the events of 2011-12.

On the contrary, it’s essential that workers’ movements stay independent of all capitalist interests and resolutely oppose them. The full force of the movements needs to be directed at bringing about genuinely democratic and revolutionary constituent assemblies, where representatives of workers, small farmers, young people and the poor can agree on a programme for the transformation of society on a socialist basis.

Only then will it be possible for the many million dreams of a better future to be turned into reality, and for the ordinary people of the region to share out the wealth and build new societies based on cooperation, environmental sustainability and the well-being of all.


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