With the so-called ‘Arab revolutions’ celebrating their second anniversary, the riots and mass demonstrations of the last few months and weeks in Egypt and Tunisia are a reminder that despite the departure of the dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak, nothing has been resolved. On the contrary, the economic situation has got worse, bringing growing unemployment, poverty and attacks on the working class. Meanwhile the reigning authoritarianism, the violence and repression being handed out to the demonstrators, is no different from what went on before.
Immense anger and courage....
Tunisia, where the young Mohammed Bouazizi’s suicide unleashed the ‘Arab spring’ in 2011, is going through a deep social, economic and political crisis. The official unemployment rate is 17% and for months now there have been strikes in many sectors. The anger which has been expressed openly and massively on the streets of a number of towns in the last few weeks didn’t come from nowhere. Back in December, unemployed youth clashed violently with the police in the town of Siliana, protesting against the austerity programme announced by president Moncel Marzouki. The repression and the wounding of 300 demonstrators, some of them by buck-shot, led to solidarity demonstrations in several other cities including the capital. The Tunisian president declared that “we don’t just have one Siliana. I am afraid that this will be repeated in a number of regions”.
More recently it was the murder of the secular opposition figure Chokri Belaïd which pushed the population into the street, while at his funeral 50,000 people called for “a new revolution” and demanded “bread, freedom and social justice”, the main slogan of 2011. In a dozen towns there were attacks on the local police stations and the HQs of the Islamist party in power, Ennahda. The army was called in to control the mass demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid where the ‘jasmine revolution’ began two years ago.
To calm the situation and recuperate the movement, the UGTT, the national union confederation, called a general strike, the first for 35 years in Tunisia, while the government put on a show of changes at the top in anticipation of the legislative elections in June. At the moment, the tension seems to have died down but it is clear that the anger is not going away, especially since a promised loan from the IMF will involve new, drastic austerity measures.
In Egypt the situation is no better. The country has defaulted on its payments. Last October, the World Bank published a report which expressed its “disquiet” about the proliferation of strikes, with a record 300 in the first half of September. At the end of the year there were many anti-government demonstrations, in particular around the referendum organised by the Muslim Brotherhood to legitimate their hold on power. Since 25 January, the day of the second anniversary of the ‘Egyptian revolution’, the protests have widened. Day after day, thousands of demonstrators have denounced the living conditions imposed by the new government and called for Morsi to get out.
But once again it has been anger over repression which has lit the fuse. The announcement on 26 January of the death sentence against 21 supporters of the al-Masry football club in Port Saïd because of their involvement in the drama at the end of the match on 1 February 2012, where 77 people were killed, sparked off a new wave of violence. The peaceful demonstrations called by the National Salvation Front, the main opposition force, resulted in scenes of urban guerrilla warfare. On the evening of 1st February, at Tahrir Square and in front of the presidential palace, thousands of demonstrators took part in a pitched battle with the forces of order. On 2nd February there were still thousands throwing stones and molotovs at the forces protecting the building. In one week, the violent repression of the demonstrations resulted in 60 deaths, 40 of them in Port Saïd. A video showing a man whose clothes had been torn off him and was being beaten by the police further inflamed the demonstrators. Despite the curfews imposed by the regime, demonstrations took place in three towns along the Suez Canal. One demonstrator declared: “We are on the streets now because no one can force his words on us...we will not submit to the government”.
In the town of Ismaïlia, apart from the marches, football matches were organised to defy the curfew, and the HQ of the Muslim Brotherhood was torched.
Faced with the extent of the anger, the police, fearing for their own safety, demonstrated in 10 provinces on 12 February, demanding that the government stop using them as instruments of repression in the troubles sweeping the country! In December, a number of them had already refused to confront the demonstrators in Cairo and had declared their solidarity with the protests.
...but without a perspective...
The themes which can be heard in all these demonstrations are “Ennahda, out!” and “Morsi, out!”, just as, two years ago, it was “Ben Ali, out” and “Mubarak, out!”. But while at the beginning of 2011 there was great hope for change, in a royal road to ‘democratic’ freedom, in 2013 the mood is of disenchantment and anger. However, at root, the same democratic illusions remain because they are strongly anchored in people’s minds. This is maintained by a powerful ideological barrage which now points the finger at religious fanaticism as being the cause of the repression and the assassinations, when in fact this hides the continuity in the repressive apparatus of the bourgeoisie. We have seen this strikingly both in Tunisia and Egypt, where the regime has not hesitated to use repression against the popular demonstrations when it was powerless in the face of workers’ strikes. Illusions will always be paid for in blood. After the departure of the ‘secular’ dictators’, we’ve had religious leaders, ‘democratically’ imposing another dictatorship, this time justified by Sharia law. All the focus has been on this but it’s the same old dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and its state, the same oppression of the population, the same exploitation of the working class.
The belief that you can change life by choosing this or that clique of the bourgeoisie is an illusion, and it paves the way for repression and state violence. This is particularly true in countries which for decades have been run by backward bourgeois factions, propped up by the developed countries. None of these factions have any viable perspective or any credible economic programme to offer, as we have seen from the coalitions that have come and gone in these two countries. Poverty has accelerated and generalised, with the agrarian crisis – and thus the food crisis – reaching unprecedented levels. It’s not that these leaders are especially stupid, but the countries they run are in an impasse and this is a reflection of the dead-end reached by the whole world capitalist system.
“The people want another revolution” cried the young unemployed in Siliana. But if by ‘revolution’ you mean just changing the government or the regime, while waiting to be devoured alive by the next bunch in power, or if you focus merely on street battles against this or that bourgeois faction, when you are disorganised in the face of professional killers armed by the big powers, you are only preparing your own suicide.
That the populations of Tunisia and Egypt have raised their heads again is a result of the fact that there is a strong working class composition in both countries. We saw this clearly with the multiplication of strikes in 2011. But this is why it’s all the more important for the working class not to get dragged into the clash between pro- and anti-Islamists, pro- and anti-liberals. The continuation of the strikes shows the potential strength of the proletariat, its capacity to defend its living and working conditions, and we should welcome its enormous courage.
...unless the struggle develops in the central countries
But these struggles can’t offer a real way forward if they remain isolated. In 1979 in Iran we saw a series of workers’ strikes and revolts which also showed the strength of the proletarian reaction. But cooped up in the national context, and with an insufficient maturation of workers’ struggles on a world scale, these movements succumbed to democratic illusions and got caught up in conflicts between bourgeois gangs. It is above all the proletariat in the west, because of its experience, its concentrated nature, which bears the responsibility for putting forward a real revolutionary perspective. The movements of the Indignados in Spain and Occupy in the US and Britain explicitly claimed continuity with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, with their courage and determination. The slogan of the ‘Arab spring’, “we are not afraid”, must indeed be a source of inspiration for the world proletariat. But it is the beacon of workers’ assemblies in the heart of capitalism, responding to the attacks of capitalism in crisis, which can offer an alternative that aims at the radical overthrow of this system of exploitation which holds nothing in store for us but poverty and barbarity.
The working class should not minimise the real weight it has in society, both because of its place in production but also and above all because of what it represents for the future of the world. So while the workers of Egypt and Tunisia need to avoid being misled by the mirage of bourgeois democracy, the workers in the central countries can play a crucial role in showing the path through the desert. The proletarians of Europe have the longest experience of confronting the most sophisticated traps of bourgeois democracy. They have to gather the fruits of this historic experience and take their consciousness to a higher level. By developing their own struggles, by affirming themselves as a revolutionary class, they can break the isolation facing the desperate battles taking place across the planet and renew hope in a new world for the whole of humanity.