The Arab revolutions have shown an astonishing tenacity. They have overthrown some dictators and shaken others. Above all, they continue.
The struggle to democratise Egyptian society goes on. And revolutionaries in Syria have shown astonishing courage and determination despite more than 5,000 deaths at the hand of the state.
But how do we get a measure of the revolutions’ significance? It’s tempting to draw historical comparisons.
One most frequently made is with the revolutions of 1848, which started with the overthrow of the French monarchy and went on to shake the old regime throughout Europe.
This isn’t necessarily the most comforting comparison, because the old regime managed to hang on and crush the revolutions.
Some 20 years later, one leader of the extreme left in the 1848 German Revolution, Frederick Engels, reflected from his Manchester exile.
He wrote to another exiled revolutionary leader, his friend and comrade Karl Marx, “The complete oblivion of revolutionary-counter revolutionary causality is a necessary result of every victorious reaction. In Germany the younger generation knows absolutely nothing about ’48 … ; history comes to an abrupt stop there at the end of ’47.”
Engels was describing how the memory of the dynamic of revolution and counter revolution gets lost in a period of reaction.
One effect of this is that when revolutions return, they are viewed through a distorting lens created during the years when the counter revolution was victorious.
This is very true today, when the Arab revolutions—and the global economic crisis—have punctured the neoliberal era when unrestrained capitalism ran rampant and revolutions were consigned to the past.
And so attempts to read the revolutions are shaped by the myths of this period of free market reaction.
One of these myths is comparatively easy to demolish. This is the idea that the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt are the latest in a succession of “colour revolutions” that are spreading Western-style liberal capitalism throughout the world.
The obvious difficulty with this view is that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt took out rulers very closely aligned with Western imperialism.
Moreover their governments were praised to the sky by the World Bank for the determination and success with which they were implementing neoliberal economic policies.
Indeed, it was precisely the effect of neoliberalism in polarising and impoverishing Egyptian and Tunisian society and enriching a tiny elite closely interwoven with the regimes that drove the uprisings.
We can see this same dynamic at work in Syria. Even though he is at odds with Israel and the West, Bashar al-Assad has implemented economic “reforms” that have benefited a handful of business cronies.
But there are other myths that developed under the reign of neoliberalism, some among its critics. One of the most influential was developed by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri in their book Empire—that opposition to capitalism today is driven by an amorphous “multitude” that seeks to outflank rather than confront the citadels of economic and political power.
This myth is popularised in Paul Mason’s new book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere. Mason makes lots of good points. For example, he highlights the role played—not just in the Arab revolutions but also in the southern European movements against austerity and in Occupy—by a generation of unemployed graduates denied a future by the economic crisis.
But what is valid in Mason’s analysis is undermined by a rather naive enthusiasm for communication technologies and social media.
So he writes, “Once information networks become social, the implications are massive: truth can now travel faster than lies, and all propaganda becomes instantly flammable.”
Mason should take a look across the pond at how social media have been used to build up the presidential campaign of the free market crackpot and defender of states’ rights, Ron Paul. More generally, the Republican right has been highly successful in using information technologies to weaken Barack Obama’s presidency—and now to rubbish each other in the primaries.
Facebook, Twitter and the like have undoubtedly played an important role in allowing activists to communicate and organise. But, after Mubarak shut down the internet and the mobile networks, much older technologies—landline phones and TV (above all Al Jazeera)—stepped in during the decisive struggles that brought him down.
Now the Egyptian Revolution has developed into a fight against the regime over which Mubarak presided and that survived his fall in the shape of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf).
This has been driven by the confrontation between young working class revolutionaries and the forces of state power—the army and the riot police.
The revolutionary shabab (youth) may communicate by Twitter, but—unlike Mason or Negri—they understand that state power has to be overthrown, not by passed.
In plotting the future course of the revolutions, however, we have to confront one of the most strongly entrenched myths to emerge in the neoliberal era—Islamophobia.
So many people, even on the radical and revolutionary left, believe that the main beneficiaries of the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak have been the Islamists.
After all they—in the shape of Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt—have been the main victors in recent parliamentary elections.
Underlying this kind of pessimistic assessment are two errors. The first is treating the Islamists as a reactionary monolith. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood is a complex political formation with a long and convoluted history. It benefited from being the most consistent opposition to Mubarak during decades when secular forces—nationalists and Communists—were weak and discredited.
As a result of its success, and efforts like developing welfare programmes for the poor, the Brotherhood encompasses within its ranks very diverse and contradictory forces—from respectable and socially conservative businessmen to youth activists who have been stalwarts of the struggle on the streets.
This means, as the FJP enters into formal partnership with the Scaf, it will come under enormous pressure that will pull it in different directions. One of the most important will come from the economic crisis.
As the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists point out in a recent statement, “Foreign exchange reserves are fast draining away (down from $36 billion to $15 billion during the first year of the revolution). Inflation is rising in the absence of any mechanism to control rising prices. Unemployment is continually rising.
“And all this is happening in the context of a severe crisis of global capitalism which in turn reduces income for Egyptian capitalism from sources such as tourism, the Suez Canal and foreign investment.”
The second mistake is to take a snapshot of the revolutionary process at a given moment and present it as the finish point. In Egypt, as in earlier revolutions, consciousness changes according to varying rhythms.
A large minority of revolutionary youth now see the Scaf as the main enemy that must be smashed. But much wider layers of workers, peasants and urban poor are willing to give the junta and the Brotherhood a chance to reform Egyptian society, but are also sympathetic to the revolutionaries.
In which direction these layers move will determine the outcome of the Egyptian Revolution. Will they join the revolutionary minority in the struggle against Scaf? Or will they move rightwards—perhaps towards the Salafi ultra-Islamist puritans, who also did well in the elections?
The answer to this question will depend above all on whether the Egyptian workers’ movement can offer a way forward based on collective struggle against both the generals and the bosses.
So far we have seen new unions and very militant strikes. But it is essential that workers find their own organised political voice.
Despite the myths projected on the Arab revolutions, their future remains open. In the maelstrom of these struggles, all our history can be remade.