Four years after the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, how do the Arab revolutions stand?
This was the theme of a fascinating conference in London last weekend. It was organised by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Solidarity Network, the Egypt Solidarity Initiative and Bahrain Watch.
The current picture is grim, dominated by Isis’s activities in the Middle East and North Africa, and its imitators’ in Europe. And the state-led counter-revolution’s brutality is feeding the growth of the armed jihadi groups.
The latest issue of the London Review of Books carries a terrifying report by Cairo-based writer Tom Stevenson. It documents the vast system of official and unofficial prisons into which opponents of the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi disappear.
The speakers at the opening plenary—leading Arab Marxist academic Gilbert Achcar, Maryam al-Khawaja from Bahrain and revolutionary socialist Sameh Naguib from Egypt—all stressed the importance of taking a historical perspective. They stressed that the revolutions have to be understood as a long-term process, in which there are advances and retreats.
Clearly we are now living in a moment of retreat. One of the challenges is unravelling the complexity of events as they unfold. The huge demonstrations against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi that swept Egypt on 30 June 2013 are an example.
Coming against the background of a massive strike wave, 30 June looked at the time as a continuation of the revolution. But it was also the launch pad for the counter-revolution. Days later the military removed Mursi and took power.
In retrospect, the extent to which el-Sisi state-managed 30 June has become clearer. Vast numbers of the Egyptian middle classes took to the streets that day, rallying round the army and its promise to restore order. The revolutionary movement that emerged on 25 January 2011 was swamped.
This experience reinforces two ancient lessons. Social revolutions such as England in 1640, France in 1789, and Russia in 1917 represent the class struggle on the most intense scale. They are a clash of social forces in which the counter-revolution as well as the revolution can mobilise a mass base.
Secondly, modern social revolutions—socialist revolutions—can only succeed as what Karl Marx called revolutions “against the state”. But Mursi sought political power through an alliance with the military. He thought he was using them, but it was they who used and discarded him.
As Gilbert noted, counter-revolution takes two forms in the Arab world today. One is the established regimes—el-Sisi, the Gulf despots who bankroll him, Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The other is represented by the jihadi fighting organisations, most notably Jabhat al-Nusra Front in Syria, and Isis which now controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
One fascinating workshop was devoted to this second form of counter-revolution. Joseph Daher from Syria and Sameh from Egypt stressed how the regimes have played on sectarianism—Muslims against Copts, Sunni against Shia Muslims—in order to fragment and weaken the revolutionary challenges they face.
This has created the context in which Isis has grown, though it would be a foolish mistake to portray it as a creature of Western imperialism or the regimes. Isis has exploited the chaos and suffering caused by the US-British invasion of Iraq and the Iraqi regime’s and Assad’s sectarian policies.
It builds on Al Qaida’s Salafi purist Sunni Islam. But it goes much further, building an army and now seeking to carve out its own territorial state amid the ruins of Syria and Iraq.
And it uses a theatre of cruelty to both intimidate its enemies and to attract recruits. But the workshop was told about examples of resistance to Isis and about developing internal divisions over whether to continue expanding or to consolidate existing gains.
But the most important conclusion of the day was that the counter-revolution will not last. The original risings were the product of the enormous social and economic contradictions that developed because of neoliberal reforms being implemented in the region.
These contradictions still exist and they will explode again. We must be ready for them.