The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have shattered a number of the myths that have dominated thought about politics and international relations for years.
They have shattered first and foremost the myth that the age of revolution ended in 1989, with the fall of the Soviet bloc regimes. In this myth, the whole history of revolutions, begun in 1789 with the French Revolution and extended by the Russian in 1917 was ended by the irony of history, revolutions to put an end to revolution. 1989 is over.
In a related myth, revolutions of the 1776 sort (at least as the liberal version of 1776 goes, leaving out any aspects of class conflict or radicalism) may still happen, bringing liberalism and free markets, because people want only the kind of society the US has, political freedom, leaving out all social demands, indeed openly rejecting these. In this myth 1989 was a good revolution, but all the ones for the two centuries after 1789 were bad. Hannah Arendt politics is over.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have also shattered the myth, implicit and never spoken out loud that contemporary regimes supporting neoliberalism and backed by the United States could crush any large popular movement with military repression – the recent coups in Thailand and in Honduras, and the ferocious repression of the gigantic protests in Iran last year, and the terrifying and bloody repression that followed each suggested that no matter how large and well organized, in a neoliberal world the military would support regimes against the people and fire on them. Under such circumstances, and given the gap in firepower between today’s armed forces and the common people (Tea Party fantasies not withstanding), revolution would be swept into the dustbin of history. Instead, the Tunisian and Egyptian people have rediscovered the key – not, as in Thailand, dependence on elite connections with even well-meaning pro-democratic officers – the killing of a sympathetic general by pro-government snipers sealed the fate of Red Shirt demonstrators there. Rather the key is mass encounters between the people in the streets and ordinary soldiers, friendly encounters and calls for solidarity, so that the troops are won to the popular cause. When this is possible, and Tunisia and Egypt have shown that it is, there is no government that is invulnerable.
This has been possible in part because of the relations between the people and the military in these countries, but also because they reject the 1776=1989 model – they have, instead combined economic demands – the protests began over price rises – with political ones – Mubarak’s regime must go. In other words, these are revolts based on class struggle. Class solidarity, between people in the street and soldiers who share their hardships, or at least whose families do, changes the odds. In Tunisia the role of labor has been apparent – a union has led the struggle post- Ben Ali to demand that the old regime’s leaders be forced out of any new government. In Egypt, the past three years have seen a historic strike wave, involving nearly every sector of worker and often outside formal union channels. That workers as such, or their organizations have not had so far a particular role in the revolt does not change that the context in which this takes place is one where the main opposition in the streets to the government over the past couple of years has been workers protests and the current protests grow partly out of the experience gained in these struggles. Formal unions are mostly government party-affiliated or co-opted in Egypt, though recently some independent unions as in Tunisia have been formed. We should look to their increased role in the next phase of struggle there.
This brings us to another point, specific to the Arab world. These two countries’ peoples have also shattered a myth that is closer to home than those referred to so far: the myth of the “Arab Street”. This racist phrase so beloved of American journalists is meant to avoid reference to the Arab people, the Egyptian, Iraqi, Palestinian people, or to their working classes. It dehumanizes, it demeans, and it suggests that at best such peoples could only mass in the streets with inchoate demands, but cannot organize themselves to make history on their own initiative, with their own demands, with their own logic. A related aspect of this myth is the myth in Europe especially of immigrant workers, especially those from North Africa, as passive, reactionary or politically irrelevant. The conservative vision is that they are a menace to European or even Christian civilization (as if such things existed), and the liberal version sees these immigrant workers as “poveri Christi” to use the Italian phrase – as the poor, in need of succor and charity, or as part of organized crime networks, or as tools of the latter, as anything, but not as comrades in struggle. I recall telling a conference of labor union delegates in Italy some years ago that immigrant workers would play a crucial role in labor struggles there as they have for years now in the US, and the reaction was “these guys, these Magrebini – these North Africans? You have to be kidding!”
Such a vision negates the capacity of peoples in Arab countries to be agents of their own, and of world history, and to change the world. It helps legitimize the rule of authoritarian strongmen, dictators and monarchs, and it sustains Israeli and American domination of the region. Instead, we have seen, literally on television, Arab people as individuals and as collective actors, moving with discipline, dignity, and organization, making completely and irrefutably legitimate demands and taking control of their fate, their countries and their own government into their own hands. It is harder to demonize, dehumanize or see as irremediable enemies people whose courage and heroism you have seen with your own eyes bringing about democracy in their lands.
This of course, completely demolishes the arguments for the US invasions of Afghanistan and more directly to the point Iraq. The Taliban and the regime of Saddam Hussein were terrible and repressive, but no more so than those of the Shah of Iran, Ben Ali or Mubarak. They could have been overthrown by their own people. So these regimes, and the one in Iran despite the setback last year for opposition protesters who may learn some lessons from Cairo about how to win over the troops, even were we to accept the twisted logic and falsified data the US has presented to support military intervention in these places, could have been overthrown by their own people, just as Mubarak is on the brink of being.
None of this is negated in the event that the army stays with Mubarak or enough of it to keep him in power for now, for we know that the possibility of his fall is a real one, and any tactical errors on the part of the movement in the streets won’t change that fact.
The myth that the New York Times only recently re-enforced with a ridiculous article stating that throughout the region the only opposition, even the only politics was that of extremist political Islam has also been demolished. This is important for several reasons: first, we have seen mass popular protest in which religious politics has been at most muted and often even absent, so non-religious political action exists in Arab countries and will be even more important in the near future as a result of these revolutions; second, for those attached to extremist political Islam, their strategy, often based on elite organizing, paternalistic social services to the poor leading to recruitment opportunities, and on links with some high-up sectors of the regimes and militaries – their entire strategy for social change has been pushed aside.
Anyone watching now knows that popular revolt can get rid of the regimes that crush the people of the Middle East, not the Islamists; that organized labor, students, and other actors have come to the fore also means that the monopoly on political action by either dictators or their Islamists opponents is ended. This means that people do not need to decide between a choice of dictators or Islamic radicalism, between war or terrorism. A whole new world has opened up first of all for the people of the countries that have made these revolutions, then for other Arab countries, then arguably for other predominantly Muslim countries, and then for those in the West who believed the myth, indeed the lie that they needed to support the Mubaraks of the world or would be faced with Islamic terrorism. Even now, Fox News, supporters of Israeli occupation, and conservative American commentators are desperately trying to find that the Muslim Brotherhood are more important in the Egyptian revolution than they have been or to claim that these and forces like them will come to power afterward. So people should not allowed to rebel against repressive dictators to demand democracy because the US and Israel are worried that extremist Islamist will take power even though that is not what people are demanding. Amazing.
Finally, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions shatter the myth that the current neoliberal world, dominated by global governance institutions that allied with governments everywhere impose austerity and a political economy that results in the most massive concentration of wealth and income in a few hands ever in every country and worldwide will last forever. It won’t. It will suffer the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali. It may happen one country at a time, or a sufficient critical mass may lead to a global political crisis of the Davos ruling class, of global governance as an undemocratic regime on the side only of the rich. Already Greece, Ireland and many other countries in Europe have seen protests that go right up to the brink of where Tunisia moved on to. It is clear that the strikes and revolts in those countries were against governments that impose neoliberal austerity and do so as part of a larger network dominated by the IMF and EU. In Albania, Algeria, Yemen, and elsewhere people have even in the past few days taken to the streets to call for governments to resign and protest against the austerity programs and price rises associated with them. Massive strike waves in Egypt, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa and many other countries in the past year or so have led to new experience of struggle and the capacity of people to act collectively.
At some point a critical mass will be reached, enough countries with enough protests and revolutions will make the current global regime based on wealth for a few, exploitation and want for billions impossible to sustain. It has started. The year 2011 may go down in history with other great revolutionary dates as the start of a great change. The Twenty-First Century might not suck after all in the end. Create two, three, many Tunisias and Egypts!
STEVEN COLATRELLA lives in Padua, Italy.