The uprisings that exploded across the Middle East and north Africa from the end of 2010 inspired people across the world who want a better society.
But four years after this “Arab Spring”, those revolutions have faced serious setbacks or been crushed. In Egypt, a counter-revolution led by the military dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has launched a brutal crackdown on any opposition.
And in Syria, the revolution has degenerated into a bloody and seemingly endless civil war between the fragmented brigades of the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian regime and the viciously sectarian Islamists Isis.
This was the context for a conference organised by the Egyptian Solidarity Initiative in London earlier this month.
Joseph Daher, an activist from the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current, spoke at the conference. He described how attempts by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to divide the revolution had paved the way for the growth of Isis.
“The Syrian regime tried to present the revolution as a Sunni uprising,” he said. “It crushed the democratic secular activists of the Syrian revolution.
“At the same time it liberated all of the different Salafist reactionary people and groups from prisons. This allowed Isis to expand in Syria.”
Joseph explained that the deliberate encouragement of sectarianism proves that it is wrong to see conflict between religious groups as the product of centuries-old disagreements.
He said, “Sectarianism is something that has been believed to have existed throughout history in the Middle East and North Africa.
He ridiculed the idea that “hatred between Sunnis and Shias is because they had a dispute 1,000 years ago, and that therefore what you have in Iraq and Lebanon is a consequence of this.”
Instead he argued sectarianism is a policy “used the by the ruling class and the bourgeoisie to put aside any kind of social class perspective.”
And he also blamed the growth of Isis on the effects of Western imperialism, particularly in Iraq.
“You can look at the Quran and the history of hundreds of years and you won’t find a reason for Isis as some racists try to do,” he said. “But you can find its origins notably in Western imperialism.
“We can’t understand Isis without coming back to the history of Iraq. We can’t forget the ten years of sanctions, and the British-US invasion in 2003 that completely destroyed the fabric of Iraqi society.
“The policy of the US was to enforce a sectarian political system in Iraq. And the US played a humongous role by repressing trade unionists and implementing neoliberal policies.”
Joseph said that a popular movement against the US-backed regime of Nouri al-Maliki could have allowed the Iraqi people to unite across religious lines.
But when the movement was crushed, Isis was able to move in. Between 2011 and 2013 in Iraq you had different popular movements,” said Joseph. “These movements tried to create a kind of national perspective which different communities could join.
“But they were crushed through sectarianism and Maliki’s repression, especially towards the Sunni minority.
“Isis started to expand after the crushing of the popular movement. They were able to appeal to the frustration of a section of the Sunni minority.”
Joseph argues that because of this, fighting Isis also means taking on imperialism and the regimes that use sectarianism to crush revolt.
“The way to fight Isis is definitely not by bombing it. This is partly how it was created—by Western imperialism and Western bombing. The fight against Isis cannot be reduced to simply Isis—we also have to fight the regimes of our region.”
Egypt is the most powerful regime. It was also the state where the power of the revolutionary opposition developed furthest.
Egyptian revolutionary socialist Sameh Naguib also spoke at the conference. He agreed that the rise of Isis and sectarianism was linked to failure of the revolutions to break through.
He explained that the defeat of the Egyptian revolution is one of the reasons that Isis has been able to grow. “Isis comes in the context of a counter-revolution. It comes in the context of the failed revolutions”, he said.
“When these revolutions did not achieve their aims—you start getting Isis. There is a connection between Sisi on the one hand and the theatre of cruelty that you find in Isis. The more violent and horrible he becomes the more violent and horrible they become.”
In turn, the Sisi regime has been able to point to the atrocities carried out by Isis in Iraq and Syria to divide Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt. It’s also using them to justify its own repressive measures against the opposition.
“The argument is simple, and Sisi comes out and says it openly,” Sameh explained.
“He says, ‘Do you want to be like Syria? Look at what’s happening to the Christians in Syria. In Iraq most Christians have left or been killed.’
“That is why Sisi in nearly all of his speeches now talks about the Copts, and talks about the army protecting Copts. He talks about Islamists being a threat to national unity.
“So you have something that was central to the revolution—an anti-sectarian, secular side of the Egyptian revolution—destroyed.”
The association with Isis is extended to anyone who opposes the regime. They openly say, ‘Yes, we’re not particularly democratic right now. We have a security problem, there is terrorism.
“And the only way we can face this threat is by letting the army do its job.’
“Therefore not only are the Muslim Brotherhood Isis, but anybody who stands against the army is Isis.
“Anybody who tries to say we want democratic rights, we want workers’ rights is Isis, is Muslim Brotherhood, is trying to destroy the country.”
For Sameh, the answer is to attempt to rebuild the revolutionary movement. “In the early days of the revolution a main feature of the big demonstrations was that Christians were a central aspect of what was happening,” he recalled.
“This meant that the movement had a secular democratic aspect to it that made it impossible for Islamists, for example, to separate the two communities.”
Despite the brutality of the Sisi regime, Sameh says there is still potential to challenge it. He explained that the military regime is not as strong as it appears.
“The counter-revolution is in trouble. It’s able to carry out all this violence against the Egyptian people, against the Muslim Brotherhood, against other opposition forces.
“But Sisi relies completely upon the old regime. This is a serious problem for him, but it was exactly that machinery that caused the revolution.”
Neither are the events of 2011 forgotten by the Egyptian people. “Hundreds of thousands of young people experienced an actual revolution. This experience has not evaporated,” Sameh said.
“And we see bursts happening all the time. These bursts are happening because the regime is in trouble. For example on the anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian revolution there were demonstrations of tens of thousands of young people in a working class district of Cairo.
“The demonstrations were so unexpectedly big that they were able to break through police lines—the first time since the original revolution of 2011.”
But there are also dangers. The Egyptian state responded to the anniversary demonstrations with brutality.
Police fired birdshot at protesters, while snipers fired down on the demonstrations from helicopters. At least 18 people were killed.
Sameh says this emphases the need to learn from the mistakes made during the previous revolution.
“We need a lot of political work to prepare for the next revolution,” he said. “There are coming episodes in this revolution and we need to learn from our mistakes and from our weaknesses if we are going to succeed in the next revolution.”
Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution
by Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny, £16.99
The Egyptian Revolution: a political analysis and eyewitness account in a pamphlet
by Sameh Naguib, £3.00
Isis and counter-revolution: towards a Marxist analysis
by Anne Alexander, International Socialism journal 145 bit.ly/1ArWkJ9
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk