The media has declared the Arab revolutionary wave finished. Commentators say the only beneficiaries have been Islamist groups or the military, and that new dictatorships are taking the place of old ones. Many of those writing off the revolutions never believed that ordinary people could overthrow repressive regimes and shape society.
Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman wrote that supporting the struggle for democracy “feels morally better”. But he said in the case of Egypt this is “both unrealistic and in the short term dangerous”.
There is no doubt that the situation across the region looks different to the heady days of January 2011.
Then we saw magnificent struggles of ordinary people changing the political map of the world. An 18-day uprising led to the downfall of Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak.
He still faces charges of complicity in the murder of protesters during the uprising, but has now been released from jail.
The first democratic and free elections after his fall delivered a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Mursi. But now the army is back in open control, alongside many of Mubarak’s old regime.
In Syria, the revolution began after the arrest of school children caught painting revolutionary slogans on a wall. Today 100,000 Syrians have been killed in a long bloody fight between the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces. And the West is threatening air attacks.
The first of the revolutions broke out in Tunisia. Here the elected ruling Islamist Ennahda group is blamed for the murder of two leading leftist political activists in recent months.
In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi has gone. But the grassroots revolt against him became bitter and bloody as the regime doggedly refused to go. The military intervention of Western powers made the situation worse.
And although Gaddafi has gone the legacy of the conflict is the fragmentation of civil society, and an infrastructure in tatters.
These are serious setbacks for the revolutionary upsurge. But it is a mistake to conclude that it has ended.
Revolutionary Socialist Gigi Ibrahim said of Egypt, “The Revolution is far from over. We’re going to be under the iron fist of the state for a while, but that doesn’t mean we give up on the revolution. Just like we did under Mubarak, the army and Mursi, we will keep fighting.”
In Bahrain, where repression has been vicious, thousands took to the streets in protest last month.
In Tunisia sit-ins and mass demonstrations have been taking place in the capital since 26 July demanding the fall of the current government.
A revolution is not a moment in history—it is a process of struggle between great social forces that can take years to unfold. The ruling elites in every society will always fight to defend their power and position when challenged.
It is this fightback from the ruling classes in the region and in the West that we are witnessing at the moment. The revolutions began as great cries of rage from millions who had suffered generations of tyranny, exploitation and oppression.
Egypt is the biggest and most important country in the region. Mubarak was a key ally for the West and poster boy for the imposition of neoliberalism. The people at the bottom of society suffered the most.
In a country of over 80 million people almost half lived on £1.30 a day and suffered the constant threat of state violence and harassment.
These people had most to gain from toppling the hated regimes and they were joined by great movements of ordinary people across different sections of society who wanted change.
Two of the most powerful and entrenched decades-old dictatorships, in Tunisia and Egypt, fell in a matter of weeks.
The struggle was not confined by national borders and the regimes in Yemen, Somali, Libya, Bahrain and Syria all faced mass opposition on the streets.
These opening pages of a new era of revolt saw the greatest unity of revolutionary forces. Once dictators fell, a process of differentiation began.
There are those that see the introduction of parliamentary democracy as most important. For the poorest, the desire for freedom is bound inextricably together with the fight for jobs, decent pay, housing and healthcare—for freedom from grinding poverty.
For socialists, at the heart of every mass revolt is the possibility of going further than simply winning economic and political reforms.
Reforms are vital and make a real material difference to people’s lives. But mass revolutions with workers at their core have the potential to transform the way the world is organised and turn society upside down.
The situation in Egypt is testimony to the dynamic of revolution. If people’s expectations of change are not fulfilled they will be driven to continue to fight.
So the Brotherhood, for decades criminalised, imprisoned and tortured by Mubarak’s state, was the biggest and most rooted organisation in the country in 2011. This is why it won the first election victories of the revolution.
Yet this was not enough to stop it being ousted only one year on. People were not prepared to wait until the next
elections while they became poorer and Mursi entrenched the power of the rich and the military.
The 30 June demonstrations this year saw the Egyptian masses come out in the streets in their millions to demand the ousting of Mursi.
This had been preceded by weeks of unprecedented levels of workers’ struggles.
He went, but the revolutionary forces that wanted to use the opportunity to push the revolution forward were simply not strong enough.
Now the military is back stomping its boots all over the revolution. The Brotherhood faces repression once again from sections of the ruling class they had been cooperating with for the past year.
Mursi used Mubarak’s state to crack down on opposition to his rule.
Now Mubarak’s state has marched back out of the shadows and managed to co-opt some sections of the revolutionary movement in its support.
The Western imperialist powers welcome these setbacks for the revolutions. They see any prospect of the mass of ordinary people gaining control as a serious threat to their interests in the region.
They have scrabbled around to find ways to divert, crush or smother the deepening of the popular revolts.
They have claimed to support the struggle for democracy in some cases while backing dictators, for example in the Gulf States, in others.
David Cameron’s first visit to Cairo after Mubarak fell was a prearranged Middle East tour with arms dealers looking to pursue lucrative contracts with repressive regimes.
He and other Western politicians want to spin their interventions as being almost philanthropic.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Their hypocrisy is limitless. These regimes have heavily armed state forces because the West arms them.
The forces of British or US imperialism can never act as a friend of revolution. That’s why the argument that Western bombs in Syria will never be humanitarian is so important.
The desperation of the West and its allies, including Saudi Arabia, to intervene shows that they understand that the revolutionary process is not over.
The Saudis are promising billions in aid to the Egyptian army as they see it as the best chance of choking the revolution in this most populous and important country.
This means that the revolutions face a serious threat of counter revolution by forces within their own national ruling classes. And they face interference by imperialist forces and their proxies.
But the hope for a better future, the thirst for justice for the martyrs who died in the struggle and the struggle to survive remain potent forces.
The experience of mass uprisings cannot simply be put back in a box. Layers of society have been politicised and emboldened by the struggle.
Sectarian divisions have been challenged and women have been at the centre of struggles, despite intimidation and assaults by state thugs.
People have tasted the possibility of liberation.
Today the forces of reaction are successfully imposing their will. But the conditions and ingredients that created the revolutions have not gone away.
Nor have the people who had the courage and audacity to take to the streets when their tyrannical rulers appeared invincible.