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The Mass Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa: Leaving the First Phase Behind


The wave of popular uprisings that started in Tunisia and continued with Egypt embracing North Africa and the Middle East has reached a new phase. Though one needs to analyse the situation in Egypt in the aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, there is no doubt that the process of mobilisation of millions and Mubarak’s eventual step-down in itself is already a serious source of inspiration in the eyes of other Arab peoples. New upsurges of mass movement that are taking place especially in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya are a demonstration of this fact. Whatever the short term results of this mass wave of revolt it is clear that there is a new era in this region unfolding and that nothing will be the way as they were so far. The social-political struggles to take place in this region in the period ahead and the kind of regimes to be established will be the focus of attention for revolutionaries as well as bourgeois political realm.

Although what we witness before our eyes is a series of mass revolts flowing basically from common dynamics (unemployment, poverty, corruption, oppression), this common ground is not and will not be the only determinant of the process taking place. Although they are simply called “Arab countries” or “Middle East” there are important differences among the countries of the region. It must be clear for instance that Tunisia on the one side and Saudi Arabia on the other cannot be superficially put into the same category. Thus there can be important differences in terms of the course of the process of revolt in this wide region and its outcomes.

But it is an undeniable fact that combined character of capitalist development and its role as a leveller have been functioning like a big cylinder particularly in the past quarter century. Combined capitalist development makes the fundamental processes of economy and on that basis the fundamental forms of living of societies in these countries more and more convergent. On the other hand on the same ground and as part of it great development of communication and interaction on a global level with leaps and bounds has accelerated this process.

Considering all these points, it is particularly important to examine the process in Egypt, because, besides being the biggest and most influential Arab country, it is the biggest and most critical link in the chain the whole world inevitably focused on. The process in Egypt has important and rich lessons especially from the standpoint of class conscious workers.

What happened in Egypt?

There was a big mass mobilisation for nearly three weeks which began on 25 January and came to a relative calm down after Mubarak’s step down on 11 February. Masses revolted essentially for reasons of unemployment, poverty, corruption and oppression and they took aim at Mubarak as the symbol of their sufferings. Although the demand for Mubarak’s step-down gave resolve and energy to the mass movement as he did not step down easily as Bin Ali in Tunisia, it became so much pronounced that brought the danger of mass movement falling into disorientation. The masses did vigorously fight back against the attacks of the order without letting themselves being intimidated. They did not retreat from their struggle despite near 400 deaths, many people get lost and more than 5000 injured. And Mubarak employed not only the tactic of stick but also of carrot. In an effort to pacify and divert the movement he made several concessions in different stages, but of no avail. In a word the mass movement waged a struggle in a great resolve and perseverance until Mubarak’s downfall.

And what was the result? After so much sacrifice power was not at the hands of popular masses. There was not a kind of situation which can be called dual power either. What we have is not even power passing over to certain political organisations or leaders that somehow took part in the struggle of the masses, though this may not be in conformity with the interests of the working masses. Instead, the military has risen to the position of open and direct executor of power, which had been the main pillar of Mubarak regime and the real focus of power behind curtains. And if we leave aside the strikes which are taking place in several towns, masses retreated to their homes to a great extent. Surely, this retreat cannot be regarded as a final retreat yet.

In order to understand the situation and developments in Egypt it is necessary to address two aspects of the matter separately. The outbreak of the mass movement, its driving forces, line of development, level of organisation, potentials, prospects ahead, etc., all these make up one side of the matter. And this is one element, and surely an essential element, in the equation which determines the entirety of the process. In order to correctly address this side of the matter it is necessary to discuss it in the framework of relations between spontaneity and consciousness. Then there is another element in the equation. We have processes taking place on the level of ruling classes, which make up the other side of the matter.

The relation of spontaneity and consciousness and assessment of spontaneous movements in this context is, so to speak, an eternal problem in the history of socialist movement. Without going deep into this question, we will deal with only a few points here. There are two main deviations that have arisen around this question. One approach has assumed an attitude of overestimating spontaneity, accordingly underestimating the importance of consciousness and organisation, and made its assessments of concrete cases as if spontaneity determines everything. The other approach has developed a deep sense of distrust and scorn toward spontaneous movement of masses believing that everything is determined by the will of those on top, conspiracies etc.

Today we observe the examples of both these tendencies in relation to the process of revolt embracing the Middle East and Arab world in general and Egypt as the main element of this region in particular. While one tendency describes every popular revolt as revolution in an easy way and spread empty illusions by portraying unorganised mass movement as a magician’s stick able to solve all problems, the other one underestimate the mass revolt, tending to portray the whole process as if a conspiracy staged from the very beginning by imperialism.

It is a big fallacy, an inexcusable mistake, to overlook the limitations of spontaneous mass action and general lack of organisation. Such people tend to overlook or underestimate political manipulations of the ruling classes, imperialist powers’ designs, their efforts and potentials to contain and orient the process. By doing this they do not serve masses’ true interests. Because it is impossible to understand the current state of affairs in Egypt if one ignores these factors.

For instance, how can worshippers of spontaneous mass movement answer this question: how come masses retreated before the military which is the most essential prop of the regime while they fought Mubarak with a great anger and resolve, fought back heroically the other armed forces of the regime which attacked them? The answer cannot be fear. Because masses have already showed that they did not fear to fight courageously the police forces (both secret and open), lumpen-fascist gangs backed by them and snipers. Besides, masses also showed a certain level of watchfulness in that they managed to stave off Mubarak’s carrot and stick tactics. But owing to the limits of spontaneity the mass movement could not break the ideological hegemony of the military and this led to failure in defeating the cunning tactic pursued by the military in the course of whole process. The worshippers of spontaneity overlooked this cunning tactic employed in a most conscious manner, and without doubt within imperialist masters’ knowledge, by the military.

Getting rid of Mubarak and abolishing the constitution and parliament now the military is directly in power. And they pursue, as can be expected, delaying tactics as best as they can, turning a deaf ear to the demands of mass movement. Even on the question of lifting the state of emergency which has been in force for 30 years they do not promise anything more than saying “we’ll see what we can do”, they give the most critical ministries in the new government they appointed to the same ministers in Mubarak’s time, they turn a deaf ear on the question of amnesty to political prisoners. True, it is a difficult option for the military to continue with an open military dictatorship at this stage after so much has been lived. It is highly likely a new constitution will be written, new elections be held, and a new parliament be formed. But there is no exact dates specified for these, and, most importantly, nobody knows the content of new constitution. Without a new and more powerful mass upsurge that would squeeze the military in a more direct way then it will be highly likely that we will end up with a military tutelage covered with a parliament as shawl and marketed as “democracy revolution”. It would be day dreaming to expect a constitution from the military that would do harm to its power advantages and privileges, especially when one bears in mind that it has a quite important share in Egypt’s economy both directly and indirectly, that most of the governors who run provinces and other heads of local administration are retired generals and officers.

In conclusion, the fact that power has fallen into the hands of the military in a direct and open way despite great mass mobilisation is due to the general lack of organisation of the mass movement and lack of organised revolutionary socialist forces inside the working class to provide a leadership to it. But this is not the only adverse consequence. From the standpoint of imperialists they managed to prevent the whole process from going out of hand. Moreover, unless the process does not go beyond this point, this state of affairs will be utilised by imperialism to implement its long held plans for the region.

The attitude of imperialism

What was the Western imperialist powers’ attitude towards this process? Although there was a certain difference of attitude on the part of a few imperialist powers depending on the country at issue, the general mood in the imperialist media was supportive. Imperialists have not been in a negative attitude towards mass movement itself and its main demands. The only thing they worried about was the possibility of mass movement going out of control. They emphasized the tyrannical character of Mubarak regime and masses’ aspiration for democracy, and branded the mass movement as “pro-democracy” in a positive way. Even they quickly branded the process as “revolution”.

Overall, with respect to the course of process so far and the situation reached imperialists seem to be satisfied with the current state of affairs, let alone being not worried very much. And what is the meaning of this? Does it mean that all these mass revolts embracing whole Middle East and North Africa have been staged and conducted in a planned way by imperialists? No! It means only that one should not fail to see the course of events and the state affairs are not against their interests so far. As a matter of fact, this process of spontaneous revolt launched by peoples on the basis of their real problems is seized on by imperialists to turn it into an opportunity to implement their grand designs prepared for long.

It must be clearly established that great imperialist powers have three fundamental redlines in relation to the Middle East. First and most fundamental one is surely to make sure that the kind of developments that would do a long-term harm to basic workings of capitalist system in the region do not happen. Secondly, to make sure that the kind developments that would increase the influence of Iran do not happen. And third, not to let Israel’s security fall into danger. All these express “what should not happen” from the standpoint of imperialists. They are redlines called properly. And it is clear that the course of the process of popular revolts in the region so far has not violated these lines. And even there was not very much demands or slogans about these issues heard in the mass demonstrations.

On the other hand, it is no secret that imperialism has certain long-term plans, that is, a “what should happen”, about the region. Imperialism’s actual and long-term targets, long on the table, impose a transformation into a more secure and efficient structuring in the region with a view to improving the control over the resources and geopolitics and creating new areas of capitalist investment. It should never be surprising at all to see a deeper integration of these countries into the capitalist world system and even efforts to rejuvenate the outmoded capitalist system by way of transforming this vast, dynamic and fruitful region.

And one of the main pillars of this transformation is to change current archaic political regimes in the region and establish more functional parliamentary structures. To what extent this amounts to democracy or freedom is a different matter. Imperialism does not want this out of its love for democracy and freedom but because they anticipate that the anger building up in the Middle Eastern peoples would give rise to big explosions and that these explosions might go out of control. They are aware that rigid despotic structures fuel this anger and that these structures cannot be flexible enough in situations of crises. Of course imperialism wanted this transformation to be via reforms from above in a completely controlled manner, without turbulence, and they were mildly pushing in this direction, preparing plans and projects. Famous Greater Middle East Project is the general framework of this initiative. Within this framework the local rulers in the Middle East were receiving suggestions for long and reactionary Arab regimes including Saudi Arabia started doing some token “reforms”. But it is clear that this much is not enough to pacify the building anger of the broad working masses. On the other hand conflicts among imperialists, different tendencies within U.S. ruling class and most importantly the vested interests of the local rulers disrupt the implementation of plans which may look nice on paper. Mubarak’s stubborn resistance despite all suggestions and his attempt to play the card of “if I go, it would be hell for you all” is a clear example of this reluctance.

One must also keep in mind that the situation in the Middle East, in a more concrete and direct sense, has come to an unbearable stalemate from the standpoint of Western imperialism. Therefore it is generally a preference for them to see this stalemate is overcome in a way that does not harm their interests or go out of control anyway. The method of military intervention from outside, that is bare force, does not seem to be as easy as before because of its so many “unwanted side effects” that emerged afterwards. The imperialist military attack on Iraq and its subsequent invasion have not yielded satisfactory results for imperialists. Despite whole imperialist pressure on it, Iran’s influence over Iraq and the region in general has been increasing since. On the other side, Israel is becoming more and more isolated and loosing ground. Under these conditions, fall of dictators by the kind of popular movements that do not cross redlines and advent of “democracy” to the region may well be turned into a lever to overcome the aforementioned stalemate and contain and squeeze Iran with a move of “democracy”.

Due mainly to the lack of adequate proletarian revolutionary organisations in those countries where the revolts took place, the proletarian character, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist element of the mass movements have been very weak. Of course experience will show how situation will develop in the period ahead. But because of these weaknesses involved in the current situation the risks mentioned above are abundantly there. Therefore there are heavy tasks up to the revolutionary forces in these countries in raising the consciousness and organisation of the mass movement, making thus sure to build a more powerful mass movement. Only by this way the mass revolts will not be contained within limits of only ousting dictators and can make their way forward to overthrow the regime itself and further on capitalist order.

Hollowing out of the concept of revolution

As we mentioned above, bourgeois forces and their media throughout the world, particularly those liberal ones, started soon to describe the process of uprisings in the region a “revolution”. They were quick to label the revolt in Tunisia “jasmine revolution” and in Egypt “papyrus revolution”. They were also very enthusiastic about discovering many other revolutions such as “internet revolution”, “facebook revolution”, “youth revolution”! Overall, most of the bourgeois media across the world, particularly the media based in imperialist centres, is full of cheerful revolution-loving.

It is significant that bourgeois media is embracing the concept of revolution in such an enthusiastic way despite there is not a serious change to deserve this concept. Truly, there has yet been no change other than the stepping-down of Bonapartist dictators with their huge fortunes, who have already outlived their expiry dates and increasingly become an annoyance for imperialists. The old state apparatus is still in its place with its core institutions. Except a few people almost all officials in top ranks of the old order are all in their places. Moreover they are administering the “period of transition.”

That the reactionary forces of capitalism keep on repeating the concept of revolution in a positive way despite these bitter facts must be a warning sign for every conscious worker with a thinking head. The fact that they become revolution-lovers means, among other things, a conscious hollowing out of the concept of revolution particularly when one thinks of the fact that revolutionaries fighting for revolution all over the world have been, and are being, subjected to unimaginable attacks, repressions, persecutions of the forces of bourgeois order, including its media.

It is no wonder that in a period of deep crisis of capitalism and revolutionary struggles on a world scale that we entered by the beginning of new century, imperialist propaganda machine seeks to implant a watered down concept of revolution of its own into the consciousness of the masses in place of a real one. The masses are told “Look, a revolution is something like this, and you made it!” Thus they try to prevent masses from waging struggle for a genuine revolution and even imagining it in a realistic way.

We should not omit here the nauseating emphases on “internet” and “youth” in bourgeois media all over the world. There must be no doubt that these emphases represent a conscious attitude aimed at promoting non-organisation, detachment from life and streets, non-class concepts, apoliticism. It is really disgusting to hear that everything happened thanks to “internet”, that is, thanks to “virtual world” rather than real world, while masses were fighting in streets sacrificing hundreds of deaths, thousands of injured with real demands and aspirations like job, food, freedom and dignity. We have to see here that the most concrete target is to divert people from the idea of organised struggle. “Look” they say, “even a revolution can be accomplished by loose networks of communication through internet!” Is there a need then for the outmoded organised revolutionary political activity, for sweating in the actual flow and difficulties of real life?

At the same time these points of highlight go hand in hand with the emphasis on “youth” which is another aspect of this matter. It is striking that this general systematic emphasis on youth is made in a way to impose an abstract perception of youth stripped of its class character. It is an indisputable fact that youth are a major part of these mass revolts. First, throughout whole modern history youth have always been on the forefront of and predominantly in great mass movements. Therefore there is no sensible reason to place a particular emphasis on youth and speak of a “youth revolution” in relation to these current revolts. It is much more nonsensical to speak of “youth revolution” when you consider that 60 percent of the population of the region is below 30. That is, youth form majority of these societies. And there is a more important question to ask: who are these youth? The thing with these youth is not that they know to use computer and internet, but that they make up a broad layer of the working class condemned by capitalism to a very high level of unemployment. They revolted not due or thanks to internet, but because they are jobless workers proper, they have been driven to desperation by capitalist system in their prime of life. In fact, is not the fact that Tunisian youth who set himself on fire and became a symbol and spark of the whole process a vindication of this? What has that this youth set himself on fire got to do with internet and facebook?

Let us make something clear before closing this matter. The unemployment of young population is generally a very serious problem in all capitalist countries in recent years. Unemployment rate among the young is higher than the general rate of unemployment and unemployment among educated youth is similarly higher than the general average. And unemployment is not the only problem. Those youth who seem to have jobs are condemned to precarious/insecure forms of work in an ever increasing rate than the general. So what we are talking about here is precisely the working class youth the plight of which is described above in broad lines.

While the bourgeois media on a global scale try to water down the concept of revolution, there are also some on the socialist left who unfortunately provide help to the bourgeoisie in that. They did not hesitate to brand immediately the mass revolts as revolution. Of course they do not do that for the purpose of banalising the concept of revolution. But to the extent that they have an influence on the working class and youth who have sympathies with socialist ideals they play a counterproductive role. Because, praising spontaneity in a way to completely play down the importance of the element of consciousness and organisation and glorifying every popular revolt unnecessarily as revolution lead in the final analysis to either disappointment or apathy. And the eventual result is a discrediting of the concept of revolution when one sees, after so many “revolutions”, no tangible change in the state of affairs implied by this concept. Those socialists who made this kind of approach a habit diagnosed every single mass revolt across the world as “the beginning of revolution” since for instance 2001 Argentina, and now there is no trace of these “revolutions”.

Socialists do not need to brand every mass revolt as revolution in order to reveal their importance and fight to push them forward to revolution. Lenin was saying the following: stop praising spontaneity and instead focus on your duties ever growing with the development of spontaneous movement. What is crucial here is to correctly identify a revolutionary situation. There is no doubt that a revolutionary situation emerged in Tunisia and Egypt in the sense that Lenin described. And as Lenin said revolutionary situations are objective situations independent from any subjective will.

If there is a revolutionary situation in a country it is self-evident that the main task before revolutionaries is to put all their efforts to turn this situation into revolution. But it is useful right here to remember Elif Çağlı’s warning: “One should not get it wrong, there is no rigid wall between a revolutionary situation and a revolution; therefore one should never regard the relation between these two different levels of maturity of the development of revolutionary struggle in a scholastic manner. In a revolutionary situation the task up to revolutionaries is not to let themselves immerse into lifeless debates whether it is ‘a revolutionary situation or a revolution,’ but to put every efforts to further the preparations for revolution. One should not forget that a revolutionary situation may be turned into reverse or it may be advanced into a successful revolution with the efforts of the revolutionary vanguard. And this is precisely the fact that one must focus on in such critical situations.” (Crises of Capitalism and Revolutionary Situation, Tarih Bilinci, p.76)

Likewise Lenin immediately after his famous passage where he makes a definition of a revolutionary situation, while emphasizing on the one hand the nonsense of speculating on whether the general revolutionary situation in Europe would evolve into a revolution or not, he stresses what duties socialists must focus on in such a situation: “Will this situation last long; how much more acute will it become? Will it lead to revolution? This is something we do not know, and nobody can know. The answer can be provided only by the experience gained during the development of revolutionary sentiment and the transition to revolutionary action by the advanced class, the proletariat. (…) no socialist has ever guaranteed that this war (…), that today’s revolutionary situation (…) will produce a revolution. What we are discussing is the indisputable and fundamental duty of all socialists—that of revealing to the masses the existence of a revolutionary situation, explaining its scope and depth, arousing the proletariat’s revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary determination, helping it to go over to revolutionary action, and forming, for that purpose, organisations suited to the revolutionary situation.” (The Collapse of the Second International, CW, v.21)