A single act of resistance in Tunisia last December sparked a revolt that has brought down two dictators and continues to sweep across the Middle East and North Africa.
Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on 17 December in Tunisia after police refused to let him set up his vegetable cart. His death lifted the lid on the fury and bitterness of ordinary people across Tunisia.
The country was home to a brutal 23 year old dictatorship and many thought no one would ever dare to resist. But suddenly protests erupted everywhere. Workers began to strike.
Even faced with police batons and tear gas, people stayed on the street, chanting “We are not afraid”.
Eventually, on 14 January, the dictator Ben Ali was forced to flee. It was the first time in decades that mass protest had forced out a Middle Eastern leader.
People across the region saw what ordinary people could achieve—and they took the fight to their own governments.
In Egypt, home to the most powerful working class in the region, mass protests began against dictator Hosni Mubarak, a key Western ally. He tried to smash the revolt with his state security forces.
Mubarak’s thugs tried to terrorise protesters. But they refused to back down and resisted attempts to force them out of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the centre of the revolution.
Mubarak tried to hold on to power, but after 18 days he finally fell—to celebrations across the world.
In both Tunisia and Egypt, action by workers was key. Trade unions called the big demonstrations in Egypt. And strikes by hundreds of thousands of workers were the final straw for Mubarak.
Rulers everywhere panicked. They saw mass movements tossing dictatorships aside and feared for their futures.
The wave of protest reached the most unlikely places. Unprecedented protests hit Oman, Kuwait and Qatar. In almost every other country across the region—including Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and Lebanon—discontent exploded.
Some rulers desperately tried to buy people off with concessions. They increased wages, put limits on food prices and promised to create jobs. At the same time they used violent repression—repression made possible by the West.
It was Western arms companies that sold the tear gas, bullets, tanks and guns to Middle Eastern dictators—and Western governments that authorised the sales. They continue to this day.
In this way, the West has intervened in all of the struggles taking place across the Middle East. It has decided on more open intervention in Libya—bombing cities to enforce its “no-fly zone”.
David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama tell us that they are intervening to save lives in Libya.
In reality they are desperately trying to reassert Western control over the region.
The West has watched two of the regimes it supported fall. It doesn’t want any more to go the same way or risk people getting into government that are less “reliable”.
The West’s intervention will make it harder for people in Libya to win their revolution. But it does not make it impossible.
There have been some bloody setbacks over the past couple of weeks. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia sent in troops to attack protesters. In Yemen, troops massacred more than 52 people last week and injured hundreds more.
But resistance continues. And elsewhere, more protests are erupting. Thousands demonstrated in Syria last week chanting “We are a people infatuated with freedom”.
Mourners called for “revolution” at funerals for murdered protesters on Saturday.
Tens of thousands protested in Yemen’s capital Sanaa on Sunday following last week’s massacre.
The president responded by sacking his entire cabinet and on Monday senior military figures defected to the opposition.
Thousands took to the streets of cities across Morocco on the same day, protesting against corruption and demanding civil rights.
And more than 5,000 people in Iraq demonstrated in support of people under attack by government and Saudi troops in Bahrain last week.
The ongoing Middle Eastern revolt shows a number of things. First, the immense power that ordinary people, and particularly workers, have. Tunisia and Egypt show that the state can’t always contain protest, no matter how well-armed and well-resourced it is.
Second, it shows the ruthless determination of the ruling class to keep power by any means necessary.
Finally, it shows that revolutions are a process. The revolt isn’t over—there is constant struggle. Things can rapidly move forward one day only to be set back a few days later. Even when the movements face setbacks, the struggle can continue.
For socialists, the important thing is to learn the lessons of the revolt— and spread them.