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Synthesis/Regeneration 55   (Spring 2011)

Tomorrow’s Tunisia and Egypt:
Reform or Revolution?

by Hicham Safieddine

Arab uprisings are taking place with the historical speed of light. I began writing this piece following the downfall of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali and closed with the imminent downfall of Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are not, as some armchair pundits have called the Tunisian one, Jasmine revolutions. They are ones of bread, bullets, blood, democracy and dignity.

Immediate and tangible gains have already been won in Egypt and more so in Tunisia, but the long-term outcomes are far from certain. Will they lead to revolutionary transformation of the political system or are they going to turn into reformist ones that simply curb the excesses of the neoliberal world order and imperial designs that largely produced them? And is there room for the resurgence of yet another dictatorship?

The answers to these questions depend on a multiplicity of factors, including the resiliency of the ancien régimes beyond the longevity of their immediate and tottering symbols, the severity of the objective socioeconomic conditions fuelling the mass movement, the perseverance of the rebelling forces and the type of leadership — or lack thereof — emerging in their midst, as well as the role of the military and the various political factions that were operating within varying constraints including leftist, liberal and Islamist forces.

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are ones of bread, bullets, blood, democracy and dignity.

Many commentators were quick to frame these events within the general global and specific local Arab orders. There is little doubt that the unfolding events have an umbilical link to the global economic crisis. But the line of causality is not one-directional. These transformations will in turn have grave implications for the global US-led imperial order. There is also no question that the common linguistic, political, cultural and social links within the Arab world have played and continue to play a key role in creating what is looking like a domino effect. But to treat all these movements as some single major event is to treat the Arab world as one cogent social unit in isolation from global forces and without differentiation of local ones. The cunningly similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt might exhibit cunningly similar pat-terns and trends, but they may end up with different results.

Lastly, under the current unpredictable conditions, any attempt to fit these upheavals into the straitjacket of classical revolutionary theory is very likely to obscure the potential new ways of thinking about 21st century revolts that the current events have furnished for us. Pending a fuller understanding of what happened and is happening, some general remarks about the causes, mechanisms and fates of the revolts and the emergent discourse surrounding them are in order.

Independent unions, the left and the “leaderless” paradigm

A defining feature of both uprisings is their apparent spontaneity. This is true in terms of the absence of a revolutionary vanguard in the classical Marxist-Leninist sense of the word. Rallies have been largely sustained by the iron will of ordinary people with nothing more to lose. But this “spontaneity” has both a history and a future.

…any attempt to fit these upheavals into the straitjacket of classical revolutionary theory is very likely to obscure…

In Tunisia, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) had historically — since the day of the first Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba — played an active role in popular protests (less so under Ben Ali), but remained short of antagonizing the regime. The union leadership, however, eventually succumbed to pressure from its membership bases and took on a pivotal role in mobilizing people and providing an organiza-tional framework for them in their one-month successful push to oust Ben Ali. Three ministers in the interim government set up by Ben Ali’s successor Muhammad al Ghanouchi hailed from the UGTT, but they resigned the day after the mass consensus for a total boycott of any interim governing body that included members or symbols of the ruling parties became clear.

Egypt, contrary to what the current sequence of revolts (Tunisia then Egypt) might suggest, has been witnessing an even more sustained series of popular movements including rallies, demonstrations and most significantly widespread strikes by the working class.

In the past three years, around 3000 acts of protest took place across the country. Following the 2005 rigged presidential elections, a judges’ uprising over the lack of judicial independence galvanized middle-class professionals against the regime.

The workers’ movement occupied center stage in 2009 with strikes turning into outright mutiny against the regime in the Delta town of Mahalla, home to the largest contingent of work-ers in the Middle East (an estimated 28,000). The workers’ uprising of 2008 gave birth to the first two independent unions in Egypt in over four decades, the unions of property tax collectors and of health technicians (a total of about 70,000 workers). The workers’ movement was soon joined by large swathes of civil society who were emboldened to escalate public forms of protest and transport them from mere rallies and small-scale sit-ins near association headquarters to a broader movement spilling into open public space. This was symbolized by the leading role of the 6th of April Youth Movement that called for civil disobedience actions in 2008 and for the January 25 “Day of Rage.”

What we are witnessing then (at least in Egypt) is not a spontaneous movement. Rather, we are witnessing the spontaneous transition from a grassroots protest movement into a populist mass one, a transition unmediated by elites (liberal, leftist, or Islamist) but by another mass uprising, that of Tunisia. And this is where the new social media can be situated as an agent rather than a producer of revolt. Egyptians watching the Tunisian uprising unfold became convinced that their unmediated grassroots protests were the right path to freedom. Social media sites disseminated this conviction across internet and other new media (like SMS or Twitter) users. All that was missing was the stamina to outlast the repressive state apparatus that had managed to stifle their earlier mini-uprisings in the past.

Security regimes and securing the revolutions

The outlasting of the state security apparatus was no easy feat in both countries. Ben Ali and Mubarak had constructed an elaborate repressive state apparatus of mammoth proportions. In Tunisia, the number of police was close to 150,000 in a country of 10 million (that is almost one soldier per 67 citizens).

This is where the new social media can be situated as an agent rather than a producer of revolt.

In Egypt, police members often outnumbered any protesters prior to the current upheaval, and there are more than 10,000 political prisoners languishing in Egyptian prisons. The state also constantly resorted to regiments of plainclothes paramilitary forces (baltagiyyah) to instigate violence, sow fear and surreptitiously arrest protest leaders.

Both police forces have been equipped with US-made anti-riot weapons, including lethal ones. The full force of these killing machines was unleashed on people in both countries but failed to turn the tide of anger and defiance facing them. Protesters were highly aware of the role of police in the regime’s survival. Attempts to create an atmosphere of chaos by security forces were met by the formation of popular safety committees to protect the neighborhoods from looting and vandalism in both countries, albeit with varying degrees of success. Police stations were torched or abandoned.

Both police forces have been equipped with US-made anti-riot weapons.

But outlasting the police is not equivalent to crushing the repressive state apparatus to a point of no return. There are signs that the regimes and some unwitting social commentators, in both countries, are slowly trying to reintroduce the police force as an arbiter of the peace by claiming it can be put to good uses such as traffic control. All these attempts must be rejected wholesale and any display of authority or force must remain in the hands of organized popular committees if a redeployment of these troops in the face of the revolutionary mass movement is to be avoided.

Historically, the Egyptian army has maintained a non-tarnished reputation among the Egyptian people and continues to enjoy their trust. Its credibility is being tested as it now takes on a more frontline role. Unlike Tunisia, the army’s bureaucracy in Egypt is also more intimately linked to the executive arm of the state due to the strategic role Egypt plays in sustaining the US imperial order in the Middle East (the other two state pillars of this order being Israel and Saudi Arabia). Losing Egypt as a key ally will have long-term and profound repercussions on the entire US enterprise in the Middle East including that of supporting Israeli apartheid.

The world’s shifting of gaze away from Tunisia might also have similar effects and encourage counter-revolutionary forces to emerge there. This is why long-term success is contingent on the recognition and tackling of two major features of the societies in question. The first is the deep-rooted neoliberal policies that have created the economic malaise underlying it. The second is the failure of the two waves of nationalist movements in the 20th century, against the Ottoman imperial order and the European colonial order, to produce democratic and socially just political regimes by and for the people.

Unequal development and unproductive capital

On the economic front, reported high rates of growth and prosperity by the World Bank and other so-called world bodies in both countries masked the ugly truth of unequal development and unproductive capital. In Tunisia, unem-ployment soared to 18% (reaching a whopping 32% in Sidi Buzid, the site of the first protests in Tunisia). Uneven investment in tourism and other global-market-oriented industries along the nar-row coastal strip captured over 80% of total investment. In Egypt, close to 40% of Egyptians are estimated to live under the poverty line. Uneven urban sprawl has left close to 9 million living in the slums of Cairo alone. In the city of Suez, an epicenter of the current revolt, the canal’s trade traffic ($90-million in 2009) did not stop the gap between rich and poor from widening as the import of foreign labor and export of some industry due to rampant corruption in the bureaucracy fuelled local anger to a boiling point.

All of this, coupled with rising world food prices and the decreasing ability of global South countries to produce their needs (Egypt, home to the great Nile River basin, is a net importer of food), exposed the vulnerability of these states to global economic turmoil. The hinterland seemed to be hit harder but also organized more actively in the face of these realities. In Tunisia, the revolt was sparked in the central town of Sidi Buzid and mass protests in the cities of Tatawin and Sfakis among others were flagships of union and popular committee organizing.

The active and even vanguard participation of the country’s hinterland in both instances is another important feature of these revolutions and a possibly distinctive one in relation to the traditional divide of urban versus rural. In Egypt this is more so with the presence of a high concentration of urban centers in the Nile delta and the Red Sea coast (Dumyat, Mansurah, Suez, Ismailiyah) that connect the capital to the rural hinterland and thus act as nodes of unequal distribution of neoliberal goods (like education without employment). They are also a testament to the degree of centralization of power in the capital that this neoliberal order claimed to undermine but reinforced in the global South.

High rates of growth and prosperity masked the ugly truth of unequal development and unproductive capital.

The linking of these economic hardships to the corrupt and comprador class of indigenous business elites has become part and parcel of the revolutionary message. Several families of this ruling cabal have already got the message and have fled the two countries. In other words, the neoliberal malaise was rightly situated in the po-litical sphere of dictatorship, censorship, corrup-tion and repression and not simply in a contemporary “malfunction” of market dynamics as neoliberal theory would have us believe.

This is why both movements are vehemently opposed to any compromise with the regime despite the desperate attempts of the elites to create such a compromise. Both regime and elites have failed. The slogans of the demonstrations clearly expressed this reality with their theme of bread, freedom and justice. Their demands are centered on the end to emergency laws, the dissolution of existing ruling bodies like parliament, and the redrafting of a new constitution.

Commentators were quick to point out that there were no Islamist slogans and thus that the revolution is a secular one. This is true to an extent. But Islamists may eventually take a larger role in the political process, more so in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood has lost credibility on the street but has preserved its vast organizational and leadership structures that can eventually fill the power vacuum on the ground. Hundreds of their members have been released from prison and are reportedly taking on more active roles among the popular committees for health, safety and welfare.

The secular-Islamist divide is an outdated formula.

But the secular-Islamist divide is an outdated formula that creates a binary highly absent among many of the youth that hail from a new gen-eration with a much more nuanced understanding of the religious and the secular. Yet this fluidity of revolutionary visions doesn’t mean it is a post-ideological one befitting our postmodern era. These claims simply confirm that its emergent ideology doesn’t fit neatly into existing categories and is in the process of coalescing.

It is in the slogans and demands of the demonstrators that the nucleus of an ideological creed lies and where revolutionary tendencies within the masses might seek guidance. Yet, slogans will not be enough in the long run and remain far from delineating a clear program or paradigm that addresses the profound agricultural, financial and political transformations necessary to protect the revolution from being co-opted by calls for reform or repeating the mistakes of the nationalist state-led reforms of the mid-20th century. Until such a paradigm emerges, every effort should be made to prevent any attempts by the regime, the co-opted elites or external forces from sabotaging a happy ending for a shining tale of two — and maybe more — peoples’ revolutions.

The counter-revolution strikes back

The wave of Arab revolts continues to spread its wings across North Africa and the Middle East. Countries like Libya, Yemen, Ba-hrain and Syria are now the new epicenters of the revolt. But the collapse of the Egyptian regime ushered in a new phase of struggle marred by an increased militarization and internationalization of the conflicts.

The peaceful and large-scale nature of the mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt and a hesitation by the military to embroil itself in the standoff guarded the revolts against the specters of civil strife and blatant external intervention. Not so in Libya or Bahrain. In the former, Gaddafi’s total intransigence and enlisting of the full force of the army against his population transformed the non-violent mass movement into armed revolt later backed by Western powers. In Bahrain, US-backed Gulf monarchies bent on nipping any dissent in the bud teamed up and invaded the small island to crush the uprising by force. Conditions in Yemen resemble those of Egypt and Tunisia the most, with popular protests reaching a critical mass and high-ranking army personnel defecting to the uprising’s side, but Yemen’s ruler Ali Abd Allah Saleh is eager to turn the army’s interference to his advantage.

An increased role of the military is also now in place in Egypt, where the interim military council has failed to meet all the demands of the revolt such as lifting the emergency laws. Calls for a new constitu-tion have been replaced by what many see as cosmetic amendments to the existing one approved in a referendum held March 19. Proponents of the changes set the stage for presidential and parliamentary elections.

In Syria, where there is zero tolerance to any form of dissent in comparison to Mubarak’s Egypt, small-scale protests with modest demands are growing into bigger ones and spreading into different cities following the brutal suppression of street protests which began in the southern town of Deraa.

Another complicating factor is the heterogeneous confessional, tribal and ethnic makeup of communities in the new epicenters of the revolt. These are not motivational factors in the uprisings, but they are structural contradictions that exist and that regimes are eager to foment to sow division and veer the uprising off its initial agenda of freedom, democracy, and social justice.

The financial, military and diplomatic resources of these regimes, Saudi Arabia chief among them, and their Western allies have now been more efficiently mobilized and are certain to create a counter-revolutionary tide that will be hard to handle. But there still are higher hopes that the determination and persistence of ordinary people that have so far proven the best antidote to such attempts will ultimately prevail.

Hicham Safieddine is a Toronto-based researcher and journalist. This article first appeared in the Canada-based Socialist Project’s The Bullet.

[4 july 11]

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