Saturday, 12 February 2011
Making history: the dynamics of revolution in Egypt
Yesterday's jubilant scenes in Tahrir Square marked the culmination of two and a half weeks of mass demonstrations, confrontations with the security forces and hired gangs of the corrupt old regime, and growing workers' unrest. Not only in Cairo but right across a country of 80 million there is a mass popular movement.
It reminds us that popular revolt can shake the world and make tangible what until recently seemed impossible. The swiftness is striking: revolution, while an on-going process, can achieve in days or weeks what polite lobbying or reformist manouevring fails to do over many years.
This is an extraordinary victory, celebrated in every city and town of Egypt, and an inspiration to people worldwide.
There were tensions inside the army, with soldiers clearly in no mood to defend the Mubarak regime and shoot down the revolutionary movement in the last couple of days. This is precisely because the revolution runs so deep in Egyptian society - it is a genuine movement of the masses.
In recent days the growing labour unrest has demonstrated a further strengthening of the movement, extending the popular revolt from streets to workplaces. It raises the spectre of challenging economic, as well as political, power. The raising of independent working class demands appears to be a growing phenomenon.
Revolutions are often assumed to be violent. In Egypt there was violence - from a weak and desperate regime, clinging to power, lashing out at those who dared challenge it. It was the violence of counter-revolution, not revolution. The revolutionary movement was peaceful, its strength to be found in numbers, self-organisation and determination.
It was, nonetheless, necessary to assert a willingness to challenge bastions of state power: state TV, the presidential palace. The defenders of the old order had to be made to tremble. These sites of centralised state power couldn't be ignored indefinitely.
A revolution doesn't just change political or social conditions. It raises the confidence and consciousness of all those who take part. The previously passive or fearful - those nowadays often dubbed 'apathetic' - become actors on the stage of history.
The last few weeks, in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond, represent the Arab masses' assertion of their own power. Millions have transformed themselves from the object of history into the subject of history. This means things can never be the same again.
The fall of Mubarak is what all the demonstrators wanted. At first it was a demand raised uncertainly, as if it was too much to hope for, but the chorus grew louder and became universal. Mubarak made promises, attempting to divide protestors and weaken opposition, but it didn't work. Protests continued to grow; the resolve to topple the tyrant increased.
Now the challenge is to send the whole decaying regime the same way as the president himself, to end Mubarakism along with Mubarak. We can expect some democratic reforms at the least, but the outcomes remain uncertain. The army is temporarily in charge, with the expectation of democratic civilian rule to follow. How much further the process goes depends on popular mobilisations and the demands they raise.
Egypt is hugely significant for the whole region. Tunisia, where the revolutionary process continues, was the catalyst. It offered inspiration and hope - most importantly, the removal of Ben Ali showed you could actually win the fight to topple a seemingly invincible head of state.
The last few weeks have seen mass movements take action in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan. Political leaders across the region are terrified. So they should be. Mass demonstrations are expected in Algeria today.
Nobody can predict what exactly will now happen in the wider Arab world: will 2011 become a year of revolutionary upheavals? The fall of Mubarak could become comparable to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall - not only a real change in itself, but a symbol of much larger geopolitical transformation.
Of course, the dramatic changes of 1989-91 - while an advance in ending the repressive regimes of the old Eastern Bloc - reconfigured global relations in the favour of US imperialism. New markets were opened up to mainly Western corporations and neoliberal policies, while there appeared to be a new (and unchallengable) American hegemony. It was "the end of history", in Francis Fukuyama's famous phrase.
This is different. American power - already somewhat fragile in the Middle East, following its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan - is threatened by the Egyptian revolution. It has been interesting to observe the subtle shifts in tone and message from the US State Department over the last fortnight, from cautious support for Mubarak to recognition that their loyal ally is finished.
In Wahington - and the same applies in Tel Aviv, London and elsewhere - political leaders and diplomats hope for a continuation of business as usual, with a few modifications. Omar Suleiman, the vice president who announced the resignation of his old boss, is trusted by the US, who desperately hope he can preside over a 'peaceful transition'.
The Egyptian people may not, however, settle for continuing as an unwavering ally of American imperialism. Western leaders have rushed to welcome a new era of greater democracy and freedom, but they propped up the old order - with diplomatic, military and financial support - for three decades, indifferent to the vast majority of the country's people. You can now taste their fear.
The revolution also causes further damage to the credibility of the Bush/Blair doctrine that foreign military intervention brings human rights and democratic rule to the Middle East. Popular revolution, not war and occupation, is the way to remove an undemocratic regime - and all without the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
The centrality of the Middle East to US imperialism, i.e. the dominant global political and economic power, means this revolution is important for the whole world, not just the Arab region. Whatever happens next in Egypt, we are seeing new possibilities open up in front of us.