The myths that tumble with tyrants

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The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have set the entire region ablaze with revolt. Mark L Thomas opens our coverage by considering the historic significance of these events


Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt - the Arab world's most populous country - are of historic importance. They have set the whole region on fire as protests have spread from Yemen to Jordan to Iran. As we go to press the fate of the heroic uprising against Gaddafi's regime in Libya is unclear. Even the small Persian Gulf state of Bahrain is being shaken by mass revolts at time of writing. Further upheavals and revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East cannot be ruled out.

But if the immediate political reverberations of the events of January and February are clearly visible on the streets, the ideological fallout is no less significant. The fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak at the hands of a vast mobilisation by the Egyptian masses has struck a powerful blow to many of the dominant ideological assumptions of our age.

Democracy

The brutal US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were accompanied by loud talk of a "clash of civilisations". The Islamic world in general - and Arabs in particular - were held to be incapable of internally generating democracy. Democracy could only be brought in from the outside - by F16 fighter planes and the US marine corps.

But this was always a lie. It was not "Islamic culture" that stood in the way of democracy in the Middle East but the suppression of political freedom by dictatorial regimes fully backed by the US and the West over decades. It is the Arab masses themselves who are the force capable of bringing democracy to the Middle East and beyond - as is now being proved in practice.

But as one myth is swept aside another is resurrected. The famous claim made by Francis Fukuyama in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that liberal democracy had triumphed historically is being dusted off to suggest that Tunisians, Egyptians and millions across the region are really yearning after "American" values.

US support for Ben Ali and Mubarak, as well as the ongoing backing for dictators and sheikhs who (for the time being at least) remain in their palaces, is something of an embarrassment for this argument, though it hasn't stopped the likes of former leading neocon Paul Wolfowitz and the Financial Times newspaper from making it. They all agree that liberal democracy represents the outer limit of possible social change.

In fact, of course, even the battle for democracy is by no means over in Tunisia or Egypt. The key to securing it will be the deepening of the wave of workers' struggles that have marked both revolutions. This development also challenges the widely accepted claim that the spread of neoliberal globalisation has destroyed the collective power of workers as footloose capital and insecure employment supposedly erode their bargaining strength. The opposite is the case. Globalisation has created powerful new concentrations of workers around the world. The Egyptian working class in 2011 is far bigger and makes up a far greater percentage of the population than the Russian working class that overthrew the tsar in 1917.

But the role played by workers, especially in Egypt, opens up possibilities that were largely absent, or at least much weaker, in the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Indonesia in 1998, Serbia in 2000 and Argentina over the winter of 2000-1 (let alone the string of "colour revolutions" in former Soviet states, which were often little more than manoeuvres inside the ruling class encouraged by the competing imperial powers).

It is this return of the organised working class to the centre of political revolutions that can throw up struggles that have the potential to go beyond the framework of liberal democracy and to strike blows at exploitation and the hierarchy of class. "Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken," wrote Rosa Luxemburg about the strikes that swept Germany after the overthrow of the monarchy in November 1918.

The first phase of the Egyptian Revolution is over. The popular unity that seemed to stretch across classes - with even a section of the capitalist class in some sympathy for the demands for reform, or even for Mubarak to go - is likely to be replaced by growing class polarisation (Mohamed Tonsi, on page 13, shows this has already started to happen in Tunisia).

Long ago Karl Marx noted this feature of revolutions. Writing about the way the February 1848 Revolution in France, which enjoyed support across the classes, gave way to the bloody battles of July, when the bourgeoisie turned its guns on the workers, he noted:

"The February Revolution was the nice revolution, the revolution of universal sympathies, because the contradictions which erupted in it against the monarchy were still undeveloped and peacefully dormant, because the social struggle which formed their background had only achieved an ephemeral existence, an existence in phrases, in words.

"The June Revolution is the ugly revolution, the nasty revolution, because the phrases have given place to the real thing, because the republic has bared the head of the monster by knocking off the crown which shielded and concealed it."

Workers' power

The working class in Egypt today is vastly more powerful than in France in 1848. But key tasks ahead: deepening the strike wave, of electing workers' councils that link together workers across factories and industries, which can become the embryo of organs of workers' power and of a more decisive confrontation with the core of the Egyptian state machine. This will involve the attempt to break the army along class lines.

In this sense the revolution in Egypt has not yet reached the scale of February 1917 in Russia, where workers' councils were set up immediately (drawing on the memory of the first Russian Revolution in 1905) and the Petrograd garrison mutinied within days.

But the potential for a democratic revolution to "grow over", as Leon Trotsky put it in his theory of permanent revolution, into a fight for a socialist revolution can already be glimpsed in Tunisia and Egypt.

The hope is that this process can continue and become stronger and in turn renew the belief that the real alternative to liberal democracy lies not in authoritarian versions of capitalism, from China to Iran, but the abolition of capitalist exploitation itself.