Disclaimer: Like everybody we are struggling to keep up with the events. This is just a sketch limited by the fragmented, partial and biased information we can find online and in print. The words “protest” and “protesters” are used in the widest sense here.
The Present Situation
The current revolutionary wave started 6 weeks ago in a poor working class suburb of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia when an unemployed man publicly burned himself after being abused and humiliated by police and public officials. Four weeks later the dictator Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Since then revolt has spread to Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and Sudan. Syrian youths are planning demonstrations and even in Albania protesters have gained confidence from Tunisian example. Now, the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak is struggling for survival and even the mighty Chinese government is taking no chances and censoring the word “Egypt” from the local Internet.
In Egypt, demonstrations have been the largest in generations. Protests started a week ago with the feeling everywhere that the “wall of fear began to collapse.”1 Since then the police have been beaten from the streets while their stations and ruling party headquarters were torched. Today, on the streets there is a feeling protesters have already won and the military is promising to not attack the massive crowds. Getting this far has not been easy since repression has been intense: besides the usual violence of beatings and tear gas, the State has employed live bullets and various gangs of thugs (many of them police officers, some just regular gangsters) to terrorize everyone while attributing it to “chaos”.
Crucially, the military in Egypt, much as in Tunisia earlier, is not being turned against the protesters. It seems the regime and it’s international allies are struggling to calibrate the level of violence. They are afraid to give in and afraid to further anger everyone. The ordinary soldiers on the street and protesting Egyptians are getting along fairly well (for how long is uncertain), so there is a possibility the military fears mutiny. At the same time, as long as the revolt remains restricted to political demands, the military leaders see a welcoming place for themselves in any new political order. No one knows if Egypt will follow a similar path to Tunisia, but that seems increasingly likely. The stakes are high: if the current regime gets kicked out, all dictators in the region will be in danger and the world order centered on US imperialism will be seriously damaged.
The most recent events in Tunisia represent this movement’s possible limits. After protesters, rioters and striking workers forced out Ben Ali, the interim government, staffed almost entirely by members of Ben Ali’s party, RCD (which he himself built) promised to hold elections in 90 days. No one took that seriously and continued to revolt until the interim prime minister and Ben Ali’s buddy, Mohamed Ghannouchi, kicked most of the RCD ministers out. At that point, the opposition political forces (very distinct from the self-organized masses) saw a good spot for themselves in the future government and called for return to order.
Remaining protesters were isolated and recently were seriously beaten back by the interim government. This seems to be the favored outcome for the US government and for the global ruling class: a new, gentler interim strongman if necessary and a controlled transition to multi-party liberal democracy to inoculate against the danger of social revolution. In the longer term, the ruling class hopes are misplaced. In Tunisia, in Egypt, and everywhere else, these powerful revolts exploded against the everyday misery of poverty and unemployment. To many workers and young people in the streets these daily problems appear to be caused by the corruption and kleptocracy of their local dictators. There is truth to that, but in the age of universal austerity honest liberal democratic governments are pushing more people into poverty just the same. Finally, there is no certainty that in Tunisia the revolution is done – the events of last 6 weeks have been unpredictable.
What Kind of Revolution?
Demands on the street make it clear these are political revolutions. In Egypt, “Mubarak out” is the basic slogan. These are genuinely popular revolts – nothing like the hollow color revolutions from before (“Jasmine Revolution” is not a popular term in Tunisia2 ). Looking at their tactics, composition, and organization these revolts appear to go much farther than change in government.
Everywhere, left-wing parties and non-hardline, populist Islamists, despite being the most prominent examples of opposition and having fairly decent reputations, have been left behind and mostly ignored by self-organized masses. Religious leadership is not desired by most demonstrators, who, according to one report, overwhelmed “Allah Akbar” by much louder chants of “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian.”3 Various trade unions and federations are playing a secondary, but significant part in these events. Generally they have not taken initiative. Most significant has been the Tunisian UGTT federation (being the second largest organized force after the ruling party) but even in their case, support for demonstrations and political strikes, according to one report, came from local and regional impetus against the wishes of the national executive. And recently UGTT has sided with the interim government.
Self-organization has been a great source of strength for the protesters. Many demonstrations were started on Facebook and publicized by phone and word of mouth. After initial clashes with police, protesters adjusted their tactics and taught each other how to outsmart the cops. When the Egyptian government disabled the Internet, neighbors went door-to-door quietly at night to invite everyone to join. On the streets people have shared food and medicine widely with other protesters in need and some have come prepared with medical supplies to tend to the injuries of strangers. Everyone describes powerful solidarity among the protesters and for many each new day brought new friends.
One female demonstrator in Cairo described a surprising absence of sexual harassment in the crowds and automatic respect from male strangers – a previously unimaginable experience for her in Egypt4 , a country infamous for sexual harassment in the streets. Although women have been a minority in these protests, they are now taking to the streets in greater numbers to replace the men.
Besides changes in interpersonal relations, there have been many instances of powerful political self-organization. Both in Tunisia and Egypt, workers in factories, newspapers and other workplaces kicked out their bosses and CEOs and replaced them with self-management by worker committees or in some cases by new, more popular bosses.5 Almost overnight there arose numerous neighborhood committees to guard against government-sanctioned thugs and looters. Similar committees have taken to cleaning and otherwise running their communities. Some committees are arresting any police officers that pass through their areas. One tweet from Egypt said: “I don’t know why did we have police in the 1st place.We seem to be taking good care of each other,organizing traffic,cleaning streets.”6
In Egypt, Union members from many industries have created a new trade union federation and are starting to form factory committees to “defend” their workplaces (the word can also be translated as “occupy”) and to organize a general strike.78 In Egypt and elsewhere in the region there have been various strikes, including general strikes restricted to cities or internal regions. In Suez, public servants have gone on indefinite strike until Mubarak resigns.
In Egypt and Tunisia numerous police stations, ruling party headquarters, banks and residences of ruling party members have been burned and looted by protesters. The police have been beaten from the streets by demonstrators fully willing to attack them and burn their vehicles. Bedouins have charged police stations and looted their weapons to defend themselves against State violence. In Libya, protesters upset by lack of housing took direct action and squatted 800 vacant lots.
In Egypt, looting is a complicated matter right now since some of it is sanctioned by almost all protesters (ruling party headquarters), some is condemned by nearly everyone (non-rich people’s neighborhoods, museums) and some of it is more controversial. For example, supermarkets and malls have been looted and it’s not clear if it was done by people looking to help themselves, to share and enjoy the products or by gangsters looking to terrorize and profit. It’s not clear if working class Egyptians are warming towards expropriation of commodities. Often looting and terror has been hysterically exaggerated by local and Western media to demonstrate the dangers of a revolution.
From this distance, it is difficult to determine the composition of the protests. The mainstream media is not the best source of information when it comes to class struggle (they believe everyone cares about “opposition leaders” as much as they do) and it seems that most protesters, regardless of their relation to wage labor, are not that class conscious. So this information is very tentative. It appears that in Tunisia the revolt started in the suburbs where poor and unemployed workers live. The protests and riots grew in strength there before spilling out onto the rest of the country, moving from the periphery (poor suburbs) inwards (downtown Tunis) and drawing-in higher and more affluent social levels as they surged. After industrial and public sector workers joined, their actions dealt big blows to the regime.
In Egypt it appears that the first protests were organized by non-politicized middle class young people on the Internet who hated the dictatorship and were inspired by Tunisia. Demonstrations grew faster than anyone expected and quickly drew in all sympathetic social strata. So far, committees from rich and poor neighborhoods seem to be collaborating and fighting the same fight. The question of looting is dividing them as the poor understandably don’t care for the property of retailers and the rich, while wealthier Egyptians are considering the advantages of Mubarak’s rule as their property is threatened.9 Egyptian soldiers are conscripted so they must share the same social position as the protesters.
The insurrectionary situation in North Africa and Middle East is complicated, contradictory and constantly changing. There are many examples of working class self-organization effectively displacing state power and reason to believe these hopeful developments could spread. At the same time, there are many shades of opportunists looking to benefit from the situation and to channel popular power and anger into support for one or another politicians. All possibilities seem open at this time. Regardless of what happens tomorrow the revolts of the future will find strength in present events.
- http://egyptianchronicles.blogspot.com/2011/01/jan-25-reactions.html [↩]
- http://www.arabist.net/blog/2011/1/17/why-you-shouldnt-call-it-the-jasmine-revolution.html [↩]
- http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2011/1/29/live_from_the_egyptian_revolution_by_sharif_abdel_kouddous [↩]
- http://ma3t.blogspot.com/ [↩]
- http://twitter.com/3arabawy/status/32034766249271296 [↩]
- http://twitter.com/monasosh/status/31766566227939328 [↩]
- http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2011/01/new-independent-labor-union-in-egypt.html [↩]
- http://intheabsenceoftruth.noblogs.org/post/2011/01/31/two-revolts-egypt-part-ii/ [↩]
- http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/world/africa/31classwar.html?_r=2&hp [↩]