Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said he was glued to the news from Tunisia.
“Literally days ago the regime seemed unshakable,” he said. “I feel like we Egyptians are a giant step closer to our own liberation.”
Struggles like that in Tunisia have often stimulated mass protest in other Middle Eastern states—sometimes with revolutionary implications.
In the 1950s army officers in Iraq forced out a corrupt pro-British monarchy, thinking they would rule the country. But filled with new confidence, Iraqis made a revolution in their own name.
Peasants seized land, national minority groups declared for autonomy and workers’ committees proliferated.
A process of “permanent revolution” was underway, in which each advance by the mass movement generated further radical change.
The permanent revolution crossed borders and challenged imperialist control across the region. No wonder that, as the Iraqi revolution gathered pace, the director of the CIA declared the country “the most dangerous place in the world”.
In 1977 police attacked students in Iran who were challenging the despotic rule of the Shah. It was the beginning of a similar mass movement involving peasants, national minorities and—crucially—workers.
Within a year workers organised a general strike, bringing an end to the regime.
Just like the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, Iran’s Shah seemed cemented into power. His secret police, the Savak, were active in every town and workplace. His torture chambers had claimed thousands of victims.
The protest movement gave confidence to millions of Iranians to demand change.
Under pressure from below, the Shah’s generals and police chiefs began to desert him. When workers’ committees took control of key industries, the state fractured and then collapsed.
The Iranian Revolution removed the most important ally of Western imperialism in the region. There were soon further uprisings in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Syria. The oil corporations and the US government faced a nightmare—that mass movements could seize the region’s oilfields and use the wealth in the interests of the people.
Egyptians in particular are following events in Tunisia closely. Over the past five years a new workers’ movement has been growing, challenging the Mubarak regime and its Ben Ali-style repression.
Egypt is central to US imperialist strategy. Any change from below will have momentous outcomes. Ben Ali has gone—can others take steps towards liberation?
See also Socialist Worker's series of columns on permanent revolution