Events in the Middle East and North Africa have posed the question of what revolutions achieve. Media commentators are keen to point out that the prospect of a new military president means Egypt is reverting to “business as usual”.
The message is that the revolution was merely a blip in the normal running of society and it hasn’t really changed anything.
At the same time the struggle against dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria is locked in a bloody conflict with no sign of victory.
From the first days of the Arab revolutions Socialist Worker has argued a revolution must be seen as process. This process can take place over a period of time, sometimes years.
That doesn’t mean revolution is a series of cumulative changes that gradually develop into a socialist society.
Nor is the process predestined to always go forward.
Instead, as the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt wrote after the 3rd anniversary protests, “Great popular revolutions are like the tides of the sea—they ebb and flow, with victories and defeats, with continuous battles from the first moment between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution.”
Millions of ordinary people have taken part in this historic struggle. They have camped out for days, marched, struck and demonstrated.
They achieved the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, one of the world’s most powerful and vicious dictators.
Their inspiring fight for “bread, freedom and social justice” showed they were more than mere cogs in a system beyond their control.
People’s expectations were raised—they glimpsed the potential to shape their own history.
Without the revolution Mubarak, backed by his Western allies, would have ruled until he died. His son would have taken over and carried on his ruthless regime.
No Western politician would have raised any questions about workers’ rights, the price of bread for Egypt’s poor or torture in Egypt’s prisons if the masses hadn’t taken to the streets.
The counter-revolution has the upper hand right now, but it can’t simply wipe out the experience of the last three years of revolt.
The tragedy is the state maintained its power. The workers’ movement was unable to mobilise its full potential and the masses lacked sufficient political organisations to push struggle forward.
Some who fought against Mubarak have settled for a rotten compromise with the state. This betrayal exposes pessimism about the potential of the masses to win real and lasting change.
Repression and treachery can derail the struggle but the contradictions of the system have been exposed, and they will generate new struggles.
As one protester told Socialist Worker in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2012, “The poor are still poor. Life has to change. That is what this revolution is about.”