2011 Arab Spring: Revolutionary uprisings swept the middle east

Tahrir Square, Cairo, during the 'Arab Spring' (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The catastrophic situation in Gaza follows years of grim events across the Middle East. Just 13 years ago a very different outcome was possible. The ‘Arab Spring’ could have set the region on a different course, ending poverty, war and despair.

Mass uprisings took place in the Middle East and North Africa, toppling long-standing dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Fearsome security forces could not save them. In Syria, President Assad survived by fostering sectarian divisions and with military backing from Russia and Iran. Mass protests also took place in Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Sudan and Israel.

Yet despite these movements, the ruling classes survived, replacing some ageing dictators but not loosening their grip on the economy. Exploitation of working-class and poor people for profit continues. Poverty, lack of decent public services , minimal democratic rights and now war, remain.

Could a socialist federation of the Middle East have been won? What lessons can be drawn for future struggle? David Johnson looks back at some of these events

On 17 December 2010, a 26-year old Tunisian vegetable street seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, had his cart,  scales and produce confiscated by the authorities and was publicly beaten.

In debt after buying that day’s produce, without money to bribe officials, and with a family depending on his takings, in desperation he stood in front of the town hall, shouting: “How do you expect me to make a living?” and set himself on fire.

Protests began in his town within hours. With 30% unemployment, poverty, corruption and police oppression, thousands identified with Bouazizi’s plight.

He died almost three weeks later, by which time protests had swelled and spread around the country. All workers and poor people in Tunisia suffered during President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship, in power since 1987.

Despite repressive laws, with police firing on demonstrators, by 14 January Ben Ali’s position had become untenable. With other members of the corrupt and fabulously wealthy Trabelsi family, he fled the country.

State-controlled and privately owned media censored news but these events were shown on satellite TV. Ben Ali’s downfall electrified workers and youth throughout the region. They too identified with Bouazizi, also suffering under authoritarian regimes protecting ruling elites.

These regimes were in turn backed financially and with military supplies by the US and other imperialist powers. ‘Democratic’ governments happily turned a blind eye to police brutality, sham justice, torture and fraudulent elections in return for protection of their financial interests in the region.

Historic repression

President Hosni Mubarak, previously the Air Force commander, had ruled Egypt since 1981. Throughout that time an ‘Emergency Law’ was kept in place giving police extended powers, suspending constitutional rights and legalising censorship. Opposition political activity was banned. Gatherings of more than five were prohibited. Indefinite detention without trial and civilian trials by military courts were permitted.

Despite these harsh restrictions, protests and strikes could not be held back forever. In 2000, after the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) broke out, marches and rallies erupted in Egypt. Demonstrators chanted slogans such as “We haven’t forgotten you, Palestine; we are also occupied!”

Egypt was the biggest recipient of US arms in the Middle East after Israel. When the US and Britain (under ‘New Labour’) invaded Iraq in 2003, Mubarak dutifully supported his Washington backers. 40,000 protesters demonstrated and occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo for ten hours. Battles with police continued the following day. For the first time chants against Mubarak were heard on the streets.

A group of activists from these demonstrations began organising together, mostly students and left-wing activists. Their campaign, ‘Kifaya’ (Enough), bravely defied police repression with protests demanding Emergency Law abolition and full democratic rights.

However, as they mostly did not take up issues like low pay, poor schools, health services and housing, they got little active support from the wider working class. But their audacity and determination helped raise workers’ confidence to fight back.

Mubarak’s son, Gamal, a US-trained investment banker brought into his father’s Cabinet, pushed through a privatisation programme. New owners attacked workers’ long-standing terms and conditions. From 2004 onwards, strikes grew in number and militancy.

As well as other obstacles, workers had to battle against trade union leaders. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation was, in effect, another branch of the repressive state. Its leaders were state-appointed – policing the members instead of fighting for them. Nevertheless, it had four million members in key industries.

In 2006 a strike broke out at Mahalla al-Kubra, the largest factory in the Middle East. 3,000 women workers began the action, marching round the huge site chanting: “Here are the women! Where are the men?” They were joined by the rest of the 27,000 workforce, demanding a bonus of two month’s pay. After five days they settled for a 45-day bonus.

The victory raised workers’ confidence further. Two million workers took part in 3,000 strikes and industrial actions between 2004 and 2010, the largest working-class movement in the Middle East for decades.

The single largest collective action of this movement was the 2007 strike by 55,000 real estate (property) tax collectors. After three months of strikes and a 13-day sit-down protest in front of the Finance Ministry, involving 5,000 workers a day, they won a tremendous 325% pay rise. These workers went on to form Egypt’s first independent trade union.

Mahalla workers geared up to strike again on 6 April 2008 demanding, among other things, a big increase in the national minimum wage. The strike was blocked by heavy policing on the factory floor, but later that night there was a pitched battle between 40,000 residents (in a city of 500,000) and security forces. Police used gunfire while posters of Mubarak were ripped down and destroyed, as was repeated on a national scale in 2011.

The prime minister went to the factory the next day, addressed a mass meeting and announced a 30-day wage bonus. The regime zigzagged between repression and concessions, trying to extinguish flames beginning to threaten its continuing existence.

Without a workers’ party, the political vacuum was partly filled by the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s oldest and best-organised opposition to the regime had built support over many years by providing social services and filling some (very large) gaps in the welfare system. Despite illegality, the Brotherhood leadership mostly avoided police crackdowns by avoiding economic issues or directly confronting the regime.

Food and drink prices rose 21% in the year to March 2010. Strikes, sit-down protests and demonstrations became daily occurrences. Women workers (now 40% of the workforce) often played a prominent role. A number of significant victories won unpaid wages and pay rises.

After the vicious murder of 28-year old Khaled Saeid, dragged from an internet cafe by police while posting about police corruption in June 2010, 5,000 workers and youth marched in Alexandria. State thuggery was enraging, rather than intimidating in the way it had for decades.

Mass protests

Following the tumultuous events ending with Ben Ali’s downfall in Tunisia, several Egyptian campaigns called for demonstrations on 25 January 2011, starting events that led to Mubarak’s downfall.

15,000 demonstrated in Cairo, with around 25,000 attending at least eight other protests. These did not disperse after a few hours as usual but grew late into the night, resisting police tear gas, water cannon, baton charges and rubber bullets.

More gathered each day, occupying city squares across the country. Instead of a few hundred brave demonstrators running for shelter from police attacks, as in the past, thousands were heroically charging back against the police. Like a cornered rat, the regime became even more vicious. At least 846 were killed and many more wounded by police weapons during the 18 days that followed.

Most armed forces ranks were conscripts from poor backgrounds. Senior army officers could not rely on them to fire on the huge crowds. Appeals were made to soldiers to stand with demonstrators against the police, but not clear calls to break with senior army officers, organise a soldiers’ union to end low pay, elect officers and join with workers to build a new socialist society.

Many workers took part, although mostly not present as organised blocs from their workplaces. Strikes began to develop. Fearing the movement could result in workers taking over their workplaces, the ruling class split between Mubarak and those who feared their entire system would be swept aside if they didn’t ditch him.

Middle layers in society had moved decisively against his regime, joining with workers who were beginning to put their class stamp on these mighty events. The fearsome state machine could not suppress this revolutionary situation.

Concrete questions were being posed as the revolution unfolded, however there was no political organisation proposing clearly what needed to done to lay the basis for a secure victory.

Neither the capitalist class nor the working class were fully in control. The masses occupied Tahrir Square. But the state still controlled government offices, the Bank of Egypt, Stock Exchange, broadcasting headquarters and other key buildings nearby.

A revolutionary party would have argued for these to be taken over, with urgent development of democratic workplace and neighbourhood committees. These could have linked up to become a government of representatives of workers, small farmers and the poor.

That could have guaranteed democratic rights and organised a real parliament, a revolutionary constituent assembly, to decide Egypt’s future. A workers’, small farmers’ and poor people’s majority could have implemented a democratic socialist programme. Nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management, enabling a socialist plan to be drawn up, would have changed the system.

In Mubarak’s place?

After Mubarak was forced to resign on 11 February, senior armed forces officers clung on to government control in the absence of a revolutionary alternative. The CWI distributed a leaflet in Egypt outlining concrete steps that needed to secure the revolution’s victory (see ‘Egypt: CWI leaflet distributed in Egypt after February 12’).

Already in March 2011 a law, the first of a number of anti-union measures, limited the right to strike and in June 2011 an attempt was made to ban strikes. But the strength of the workers’ movement at that stage meant this could not be implemented. Strikes and demonstrations continued.

Those who had been most involved in the pre-2011 struggles put much effort into the struggle for a democratic constitution and free elections.  These democratic demands needed to be linked to a wider programme to address issues such as low pay and a lack of public services.

And for millions who survived as day labourers or street traders, ongoing instability disrupted their opportunities to earn enough to keep their families each day. Fatigue with revolution, which had not produced real lasting changes, was starting to grow.

An election was held for a new president in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi winning, although with only 25% of first round votes (on a 46% turnout) and 52% of second round votes (52% turnout).

It quickly became clear to a large majority that nothing was improving (except job prospects for Muslim Brotherhood members). Within twelve months, a petition to oust him collected 22 million signatures, followed by demonstrations of up to 17 million – even more than came out against Mubarak.

But still there was no workers’ party rooted in workplaces, with a socialist programme to meet the needs of all workers, the poor and the middle classes, and with a leadership that understood the tasks required for workers to take power and transform society.

President Sisi

Once again, the armed forces filled the vacuum. The military arrested Morsi in July 2013, appointed an interim President and quickly moved to crush the Brotherhood. Hundreds of their members were massacred while they occupied public squares, branded as “terrorists”.

However, the leader of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions was appointed Minister of Labour in the new military government, despite significant opposition within the Federation. He thereby accepted responsibility for its actions, until dismissed when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became President in March 2014. And it was not long before strikers were also arrested and charged as “terrorists”. In 2015 strikers in public services were criminalised. Democratic rights have become even more restricted than under Mubarak.

Sisi attempted to fire up the ailing economy with mega-construction projects like widening the Suez Canal and building a new capital city. But Covid hammered the tourist industry. Devaluations and then the Ukraine war hiked up food prices. All but the wealthiest have been hit by rising inflation.

Egypt’s government is massively debt-laden and has needed four International Monetary Fund bail-out loans with strict conditions – cutting state spending on essential food and fuel subsidies, and privatising many military-owned companies.

Sisi’s popular support is sinking fast, and his support from senior armed forces officers could be threatened if they lose their well-paid retirement posts in military-owned companies. A presidential election was due in Spring 2024, but he brought it forward to 10-12 December 2023, planning to get it over before making more cuts.

Not that he is worrying about the result. A candidate with two million Facebook followers and a programme seeming to offer some respite from falling living standards was prevented from standing – and is now charged with breaking electoral law. The remaining three other candidates offer no serious threat to Sisi.

But five days after announcing the early election, war erupted in Gaza. This was certainly not what Sisi wanted. He has continued Mubarak’s agreements with the Israeli government, including gas sales and restricting the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

To ease growing pressure for Palestinian solidarity, a demonstration supporting Sisi’s condemnation of the war was officially organised on 20 October. Buses were laid on for government employees and state-run trade unions also organised members to attend.

However, hundreds marched to Tahrir Square, breaking through police cordons. “Bread, freedom, social justice” was chanted –  the 2011 uprising’s slogan – along with slogans of solidarity for Palestine. No further demonstrations have been allowed.

The movement that ultimately brought down Mubarak showed repression alone will not save a regime supporting the rich while the rest suffer. But a socialist alternative needs explaining and building for. This needs a party based in the working class, with members in all key workplaces, universities and housing areas.

All the conditions for a socialist Egypt and Tunisia were present in 2011 except the existence of such revolutionary parties. Had the working class succeeded in gaining power, the rest of the Middle East and North Africa could have followed, including the Israeli working class. The nightmare that is now taking place could have been prevented. Steps need to be taken now to build such parties, in preparation for the further uprisings and revolutionary opportunities that will develop in the Middle East and worldwide.

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December 2023