Tunisia and Egypt: Reassessing two "revolutions"

posted 26 Apr 2011, 10:34 by Admin uk   [ updated 26 Apr 2011, 11:03 ]

 by Nadim Mahjoub

 In both Tunisia and Egypt the potential of a revolutionary change was palpable on 14 January and 25 February respectively, those days saw two Arab dictators give up power under the pressure of a mass movement, which rapidly took the regimes in the two countries by surprise. This refuted the propaganda of the Islamist threat that the Arab regimes, as well as the Western counterparts, have used to protect and further their "national" and strategic interests.

It is not a coincidence that cumulative factors, internally and internationally, have led to the most profound social explosions the Arab world has never seen. The global ‘great recession’ served to deepen the conflicts between classes and unleashed new revolutionary layers, the youth, the unemployed and the marginalised, to demand change. What was needed was a spark and it came from the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. On the 17 December 2010 a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who was harassed and humiliated by the police and a municipality employee, got his wares confiscated on the claims he did not have a vendor's permit, self-immolated himself in front of the local government building.

Bouazizi died in the beginning of January, but his act was a catalyst for an uprising and a beginning of a revolutionary movement that engulfed not only Tunisia but other Arab countries too. Other men and women emulated Bouazizi's act. Three months on after a mass movement was able to force the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt to sacrifice Ben Ali and Mubabrak, the situation in both country is still fluid, both regimes have been weakened and the masses after achieving some gains are filled with mixed emotions; of hope and uncertainty; of determination and doubt; of cynicism and good will.

Politically speaking, and without falling into a single tailor-made definition of revolution, history has provided us with at least three types of bottom-up regime change: the reformist change, the insurrectional change and the 'regime implosion'.

The reformist change happens when an opposition movement exerts pressure on the existing power to carry out reforms (of laws and institutions) within the framework of the existing system; the political elite and the ruling class is compelled to make concessions, though the change in general may turn out to be superficial or even gradually be taken back. Such a change was the one that Mexico (1910-1929) and Brazil (1964-1985) , for example, witnessed when they got rid of dictatorship. One might argue that the "Green Movement" in Iran is attempting to achieve such a change.

A second type of change takes an insurrectional character. Over a relative long period a revolutionary movement throws up a leadership and organisation with a project aimed at overthrowing the existing order, proposing a new social and political structure. During the revolutionary process the pressure from below causes cracks to open up in the regime, splits occur in the state apparatus, some sections of the regime defect to the side of the revolutionary movement, alternative organs of power emerge leading to a state of ‘dual power’. A violent battle between two opposite forces ends with the take over of the state by the revolutionary forces. The Russian, the Chinese and the Cuban revolutions are examples of this type of change.

A third type of revolutionary change happens when a regime implodes under the pressure of a mass movement that strangles the regime through strikes and civil disobedience until the regime collapses. The Ceausescu's regime in Romania, for example, collapsed amid chaos and violence. The Libya could have experienced the same process had the movement succeeded in toppling the regime in Tripoli before any foreign intervention took place. In the case of Romania in 1989 the brutal Stalinist regime was replaced by a very different political and economic system: a capitalist one.

In Tunisia and Egypt powerful uprisings were linked to previous unrest that developed over several years into the revolutionary movement of 2010-11, but without a revolutionary organisation in the classical sense and form. After compelling the ruling elites and imperialism to remove the authoritarian rulers in both countries, the most advanced layers of the movement now call for an overthrow of the entire regime in both countries. Under this pressure a process of "dismantling" of some institutions has begun. However, the method and the actual process of this 'dismantling' has been marred by manoeuvres and manipulation from the old order seeking to hold power, and thus success so far has been limited.

In Tunisia and Egypt the movement has been peaceful and civil, violence came from the regimes and its counter-revolutionary forces. The movement put constant increasing pressure on the state apparatuses through its marches, sit-ins, rallies, strikes and finally a general strike, until Ben Ali had to be flown outside the country, and Mubarak resigned.

However, the opposition in both countries has not achieved in creating a state of ‘dual-power’ where revolutionary organs on a national level threaten to take over state power. What we see is an interim government in Tunisia which calls for a constituent assembly, a major demand of the opposition. In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), ‘has taken up’ the task to carry out reforms. In both countries these reforms consist mainly of the freedom to form political parties, a rewriting the constitution, the organisation of free elections, etc in order to establish democratic governments.

There is a parallel with 1989 in that we are witnessing revolutionary mass movements that encompass several countries simultaneously. These protests are fighting against dictatorships and for democratic rights. They are inspired by each other, they feed off each other’s successes, and they adopt slogans from each other. In this sense the revolutions emulate 1989. But one also might draw parallels with the 1848 revolutions in Europe, where the working class began to emerge as a major political force in revolutions that demanded democratic rights, constituent assemblies, and end to autocracy.

However, no analogy is sufficient to explain an event. What has been achieved in Tunisia and Egypt amounts to a huge triumph. In future it will be a reference point for social transformations of world historic importance. The social layers that participated in the revolutionary movement, the youth, the unemployed, the workers, the students and sections of the middle class, have demonstrated the power of the downtrodden. Above all this brought to the surface the revolutionary character of the overwhelming majority of the youth who represent the largest age group in the Arab world.

Political parties and independent organisations have mushroomed (more than 50 in Tunisia and the number is growing), people have removed a number of officials or rejected newly appointed ones in local areas, a trade union federation has been established in Egypt, a union for the unemployed graduates have been created in Tunisia, the State Security apparatus has been officially "dissolved" (in Egypt the secret police HQ was stormed by protesters), the Chamber of Deputies in Tunisia and People's Assembly and Shura Council in Egypt have been dissolved, public spaces have become arenas for political discussions and workshops, embryonic neighbourhood committees which emerged in the first few weeks still exist in Tunisia. In the slums of Cairo the first organisation of the residents has been formed, the workers are involved in daily struggles, organising sit-ins and strikes, demanding wage increases and better conditions (a strike by the street cleaners went on for 3 weeks in Tunis and other towns until the workers won part of their demands), demand for an elected editorial board of the Tunisian National TV has been raised… All these processes reveal that society is experiencing profound revolutionary transformation.

Because the revolution has not adequately challenged state institutions, the regimes continue to stand. Even though they are weak, they utilise their ability to manoeuvre, manipulate, and entangle and thus entice and compel the opposition to work within the existing institutions. In Tunisia, it is the interim government (a one that was not born from within the revolutionary movement) has called for a constituent assembly and initiated a committee of parties and individuals called the High Committee For the Realisation of the Revolutions' Objectives, the Democratic Transition and Political Reform. Although Ben Ali's party the RCD, was officially dissolved, it has now been resurrected into a handful of separate political parties. The new arrangements make the Islamist Alnahda and the RCDist parties, the most well-organised and funded parties. These are the parties most likely to benefit in any future elections. There are unconfirmed reports of a possible alliance between these two poles.

In Egypt a referendum to modify the constitution has been organised. The Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party (Mubarak's party) remnants, who are in favour of the constitutional amendments, have been the best organised forces and are likely to emerge as the main beneficiaries. However, only a minority of the eligible voters voted in favour for the proposed constitutional amendments (41.2 % turn out and 22.73 % voted No). Those who oppose the amendments want a completely new constitution. In Tunisia it is a wing of the bourgeoisie headed by the PM Essebssi that advocates a ‘liberal’ economy and political freedoms and works work alongside the “technocrats” and the old officials behind the scenes to make sure that things do not go beyond reform. In Egypt it is the army that is holding power and claiming to carry out reform ‘on behalf of’ the revolutionary masses.

As in any profound revolutionary movement is difficult to read and predict the future of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. In both countries the army played a decisive role in preserving the old order against the revolutionary momentum of mass unrest. Thus while the presidents fell, the state regime did not follow the fate of the ruling clique. The outcome has been an unstable equilibrium: the revolution is holding neither power nor determining the decision-making process, simultaneously, the army is not controlling power, as it wishes. The army in Tunisia played the role of a balancing force appearing to stand between the classes, but in reality it contributed to the preservation of the regime. In Egypt the army is at the head of the counter-revolution, but claims neutrality. It is an inseparable wing of the dominant class in Egypt and it controls up to 45 % of the Egyptian economy.

Thus we have a transitional situation with two main forces pulling towards two different directions: the counter-revolutionary forces have been weakened, but are still nested in the army. This institution retains its anchor and support in the market and in wider society. These forces want to prevent any fundamental change from occurring as a consequence of the revolutionary movement, and wish to do everything possible to sustain and reproduce the same fundamental socio-economic order, but one with minor changes. They seek to balance the interests of the ruling class that they represent, and the interests of imperialism (including the Israeli state) to which it is inextricably linked whilst holding the masses in check with democratic and constitutional manoeuvres.

On the opposite side, there are the masses that have begun a revolutionary process and want a real change of the regime. These masses have proved that life is richer than theoretical frames. They have achieved these changes without a leadership in the classical revolutionary sense. These are the masses who organise themselves on a daily basis to gain spaces and rights making many mini-revolutions in the process. They are establishing their own independent organs and trying to push reform forward by exerting pressure both outside and inside existing institutions. For that reason, it would be accurate to describe what is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt as a revolution that seeks to reform the existing order.

22 April 2011