2011 will go down in history as a revolutionary year akin to 1848 and 1968: a year in which ordinary people round the world rose up against their governments and ruling elites – their respective 1%s.
Politically speaking, the year began on 17 December 2010 when a young vegetable seller called Mohamed Boazzizi set fire to himself in the southern Tunisian city after police confiscated his stall. What followed was unpredicted by any commentator, left, right or centre. The tone of the first Reuters report make this clear:
Police in a provincial city in Tunisia used tear gas late on Saturday to disperse hundreds of youths who smashed shop windows and damaged cars, witnesses told Reuters.There was no immediate comment from officials on the disturbances. Riots are extremely rare for Tunisia, a north African country of about 10 million people which is one of the most prosperous and stable in the region.
Twenty two days later on 14 January, after riots, demonstrations, violent clashes with security forces and finally mass strikes had spread across Tunisia, the country’s dictator, Zinedine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years with full support from the West, fled to Saudi Arabia. The Arab Spring had started.
Eleven days later on Tuesday 25 January vast numbers of Egyptians poured onto the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. They were, of course, met with brutal repression but they fought back. It was the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution. All the commentators agreed that the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, would not be a push over like Ben Ali.
However, by Friday 28th, after three to four days and nights of intensive street fighting and many deaths, the hated police were defeated: in Cairo where the people claimed and held Tahrir Square; in Suez where the main police station was burned down, and across Egypt. The police fled the streets. Mubarak was on the rocks.
Then on Wednesday 2 February Mubarak and his regime counter attacked. They mobilised thousands of ‘supporters’ – in reality paid thugs and plain clothes police – to launch an all out assault, on horses and camels, with machetes, iron bars, whips and rocks, on the people of Tahrir. It became known as ‘the Battle of the Camel’, but once again the people, thanks to great courage and great numbers won the day.
Still Mubarak clung on, infuriating the people with speeches in which, despite rumours that he would resign, he insisted he would continue. Street demonstrations became ever larger – it has been estimated that, all told, 15 million people took part. Then on 9-10 February, the Egyptian workers began to go on mass strike. This was the coup de grace. On 11 February the military dumped their leader. It was only 18 days after the start of the revolution, four less than it took to remove Ben Ali.
On 16 February protests against Gaddafi began in Benghazi and quickly turned into an uprising. On the 25 February there were mass protests – ‘Days of Rage’ – in cities right across the Middle East., including in Sana’a in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Iraq (where six were killed), in Jordan and also back in Tunisia and Egypt. At this moment the march of the Arab Spring seemed unstoppable and it has to be said that if the rest of 2011 had continued the way it began we would all be living in a very different world today.
Unfortunately, as well as ordinary people, there are also rulers and ruling classes and they fight back. The Gaddafi regime, in particular, fought back with terrible ferocity. In Tripoli his armed forces remained loyal and he simply mowed the Libyan revolutionaries down in the Square. By 20 February over 230 were dead. The rebels gained control of Benghazi and other cities but Libya was divided and in the civil war that followed Gaddafi’s superior conventional forces gained the upper hand to the point where they were threatening Benghazi. Meanwhile the Bahrainis of Pearl Square, like the Egyptians of Tahrir before them, were in the process of overwhelming their local police force.
At this point the forces of Western Imperialism, fronted by Sarkozy, took the initiative. In mid-March, under the guise of a ‘humanitarian intervention’, they mounted a sustained air assault on Libya which eventually had the effect of destroying the Gaddafi regime and handing power to the Transitional National Council, while simultaneously taming and putting a pro- western stamp on the Libyan Revolution. Meanwhile the Saudis, in what was probably a coordinated move, marched into neighbouring Bahrain and crushed the revolution.
Nevertheless the Arab Spring was by no means exhausted. Mass struggles escalated in Yemen and then in Syria, struggles which continue, at the cost of thousands of martyrs, to this day. In both cases the dictators, Saleh in Yemen and Azzad in Syria, clung on with great brutality and determination, and in both cases the popular movement has shown immense courage and resilience with the result that in both there has been a kind of deadly stalemate. At the time of writing the regimes appear to be slowly disintegrating, but so far the revolutions have not yet seen the mass strikes that were decisive in Egypt. At the same time there are rumblings of revolt in Saudi Arabia itself.
On 15 May things took a different turn. The spirit of Tahrir Square leapt across the Mediterranean to Spain when thousands of protesters set up camp in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, proclaiming that ‘They (the politicians) don’t represent us!’ and demanding ‘Real democracy now’. When the police beat the protestors the movement took off like wildfire and squares right across the Spanish state were occupied, with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, mobilised in their support. As they said ‘Nobody expected the Spanish Revolution’.
Next, less surprisingly, the revolt started to interact with the already high level of workers’ resistance in Greece. More mass demonstrations, riots, and general strikes followed as the crisis of Greek capitalism rapidly intensified.
Another unexpected development in the Summer was outbreak of mass protests over housing and other issues in Israel. Then in September the struggle made the leap across the Atlantic in the shape of Occupy Wall St. Again it was police repression, especially the arrest of 700 demonstrators on Brooklyn Bridge on 1 October, which fuelled the flames and led to ‘Occupys’ across America. Crucially organised labour identified with and actively supported the struggle, producing the highpoint of the Oakland General Strike of 2 November.
In Britain the struggle has also been rising. The past year has seen mass student protests, a 750,000 strong trade union anti-cuts demo in March, a big public sector strike on 30 June, the August riots, and now an even bigger strike on November 30. With 2 million workers out this was the largest strike since 1926, won huge popular support [61% according to a BBC poll] and was accompanied by unprecedented demonstrations nationwide, eg 20,000 in Bristol, 10,000 in Brighton, 10,000 in Dundee. In Northern Ireland there was the important development of 10,000 or so Catholic and Protestant workers uniting in Belfast. The week before there was the small matter of a general strike in Portugal.
While all this has been happening the Egyptian revolution has deepened and developed. From a struggle against Mubarak it has become a struggle against the military, the independent unions have grown and – so far- all attempts to crush the movement by force have been heroically repelled.
The explanation for this global tidal wave of revolt is essentially very simple. The international capitalist system is in profound crisis and the 1%, the ruling class, everywhere is trying to make the rest of us pay for it and in place after place people are fighting back. From Tahrir to Oakland we are feeding on the inspiration of each other’s resistance. Confidence is rising and for the first time in a generation revolution is back on the agenda.
For us in Ireland this raises a question. We have been hit harder than most by the crisis and attacks of the 1%, so why has there not so far been mass revolt? In February we saw an expression of mass discontent at the ballot box with the election of 5 United Left Alliance TDs but there have not yet been masses on the streets. The answer seems to lie in the interaction of three factors- the legacy of the Celtic tiger, the years of trade union/government social partnership and the shameful refusal of the union leaders to initiate resistance – which together have led to a certain mood of bitter resignation.
But here we need to remember that in any wave of struggle, 1848, 1968 or 2011, there are always places or times when little seems to be happening – not just Ireland but Sweden and Russia for example (though there is unrest growing in China) – and this can easily change. [Since this was written, as if to prove the point, mass protests against Putin have erupted from Moscow to Vladivostok] ‘Nobody expected,’ Tunisia or Egypt or Spain or Occupy Wall St. And resignation is not agreement, it suddenly turn into its opposite when an unforeseen spark gives people the confidence that what they do will make a difference.
One thing is certain the year and years to come will see many such sparks. The economic crisis of capitalism, merging with the crisis of climate change is rapidly becoming a crisis of the whole of humanity. So the great slogan of Tahrir Square ‘Revolution until Victory!’ has the potential and need to become a slogan for us all.