The return of the Arab revolution

Issue: 130

Alex Callinicos

In the winter of 1939-40 the German Marxist critic Walter Benjamin wrote a remarkable text known as “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In it he attacked the widespread belief on the left that socialism would come about inevitably, as the fruit of historical progress. “Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion it was moving with the current,” he wrote. Revolution is not the appointed result of humankind’s “progression through a homogeneous empty time”. Rather, “it is a tiger’s leap into the past,” which mobilises the memories of past suffering and oppression against the ruling class. And Benjamin concluded by evoking the fact that, in the Jewish Messianic tradition, “every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter”. 1

Revolution, in other words, is not a predictable outcome of a forward historical movement—it is a sudden, unexpected irruption into a history that is a “single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage”.2 Benjamin wrote these words at a very dark historical moment, “midnight in the century”, when the Hitler-Stalin pact seemed to symbolise the death of all radical hope. But they fit the revolutions that have swept through the Arab world since mid-December like a glove. Exploding apparently out of nowhere, quite unanticipated, an explosion of resentments deeply compacted over decades, they are not simply rewriting the political map of the Middle East, but have a much broader historical meaning.

In the first instance, the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and their reverberations elsewhere in the region mark the unforeseen return of the Arab revolution. Starting with the seizure of power in Egypt by the Free Officers Movement in July 1952, the Arab revolution gripped a Middle East still dominated by British and French imperialism. After he had emerged triumphant in the internal Egyptian struggle, Gamal Abdel Nasser didn’t simply successfully confront the colonial powers and seize most of the assets of the Egyptian propertied classes. He appealed to the widespread consciousness throughout the region of belonging to a single Arab nation transcending the political boundaries dividing the various states emerging from the colonial era. In 1958 Nasser proclaimed a United Arab Republic involving a short-lived union between Egypt and Syria. He waged a prolonged proxy war with Saudi Arabia, then as now the citadel of Arab reaction, in North Yemen, and his followers played an active part in the great Iraqi Revolution of 1958-63. The pan-Arab Nasserite Movement of Arab Nationalists was a training ground for the more radical leaders of the Palestinian resistance.

Already in retreat, Nasserite pan-Arabism experienced a decisive defeat when Israel triumphed over Egypt and the other Arab states in the Six Day War of June 1967. Nasser died a broken man three years later. Arab national consciousness survived in the increasingly degenerate forms of the Ba’athist dictatorships in Iraq and Syria and, much more positively, in the solidarity shown to the Palestinian struggle. But its persisting strength has been shown in the speed with which the revolutionary virus spread from Tunis after the fall of Zine El Abdine Ben Ali on 14 January to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. Indeed, the ripple effects have been felt in Iran, itself an increasingly influential force in the Arab world, stimulating a revival of the Green Movement. It was to prevent the spread of this revolutionary virus that the autocracies of the Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops into Bahrain in mid-March.

But no historical repetition is ever simple. Nasser’s pan-Arabism sought to unite the Arab world against both Western imperialism and the Arab private bourgeoisie and landowners. It came against the background of massive popular mobilisations in both Egypt and Iraq in the late 1940s and early 1950s that threw Britain’s client regimes in these countries into what proved to be terminal crises. But it was also a project relentlessly pursued from above, in which the Free Officers, and increasingly Nasser personally, sought to maintain control, manipulating, dividing and brutally repressing popular forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Communist movement.3 In contrast, the Arab revolutions of 2011 have been driven by popular rebellions from below. As commentators have repeated to the point of cliché, they have not been the property of any political party or movement, and have been driven by democratic aspirations given body in the forms of self-organisation that have rapidly emerged in all these struggles.

What we are seeing is a renewal of the classical political form of revolution. Innumerable social theorists and media figures have over the past 20 years proclaimed revolution dead, whether because of the definitive triumph of liberal capitalism in 1989 or thanks to the onset of “postmodernity”. At one stage it seemed it would survive only in the debased form of the “colour revolutions” through which one gang of oligarchs would depose another under the banner of democracy and with Washington’s strong material and moral support.

Yet, despite all the chatter about the role played by Facebook and Twitter in the Arab upheavals (debunked by Jonny Jones elsewhere in this issue), what is striking is how much the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt conform to a pattern first set during the English Revolution of the 1640s and the Great French Revolution of the 1790s—popular mobilisations, elite divisions at the top, battles for the loyalties of the armed forces, struggles to define the political and economic character of the successor regimes, and further, potentially more radical movements from below. In Libya at the time of writing we see an even more elemental drive by Muammar Gaddafi and the revolutionaries confronting him each to amass enough fighters and firepower to inflict a decisive victory on the other, initiating a civil war whose outcome remains uncertain and that has now been used to justify the latest imperialist intervention in the Islamic world. Revolution is a 21st century reality.

The economic crisis claims political victims

Of course, it is much too simple to say that the Arab revolutions came out of the blue. To take the most important case, Egypt, a collective study by a group of scholars from the radical left (including several contributors to this journal) published less than two years ago plotted the economic, social and political contradictions, and the rising movements of resistance pushing the regime of Hosni Mubarak towards “the moment of change”.4 Marx himself insisted that “it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”.5 It is one thing to identify the structural contradictions destabilising a given society, quite another to predict when and how these will fuse to detonate a political explosion.

But we are dealing here with a transnational wave of revolutions and therefore the detonating contradictions can’t simply be located at the national level. Indeed, the best place to start is surely the global economic and political crisis. About a year ago Susan Watkins, the editor of New Left Review, wrote: “Perhaps the most striking feature of the 2008 crisis so far has been its combination of economic turmoil and political stasis”.6So far” now seems the operative part of this sentence. As we pointed out in response, severe structural crises such as the present one have to be seen as protracted phenomena, passing through a succession of different phases.7

A similar view has recently been expressed by two Marxist economists whose explanation of the crisis is different from that developed in this journal, Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy:

A common feature of structural crises is their multiple facets and their duration. It is, for example, difficult to tell exactly how long was the Great Depression or how long it would have lasted had not preparation for the war boosted the economy. The macro-economy collapsed into the Depression itself from late 1929 to 1933. A gradual recovery occurred to 1937, when output plunged anew. The war economy, then, thoroughly changed the course of events … Most likely the same will be true of the contemporary crisis. Once positive growth rates prevail in the wake of the contraction of output, this will mark the entrance of a new phase, but certainly not the resolution of the tensions that led to the crisis. A lot will remain to be done. Will positive growth rates be decent growth rates? When will the disequilibria of the US economy be solved? How will the government debt be paid? Will the dollar support international pressures? The establishment of a new, sustainable course of events will be a long and painstaking process.8

As we argued, “a prolonged economic crisis will put pressure on bourgeois political structures, exposing their fault lines”.9 This is precisely what has happened with the Arab revolutions. The fault lines are at once economic and political. Egypt under Mubarak and Tunisia under Ben Ali were both poster boys for neoliberalism in the region. The World Bank, in its September 2010 country brief on Tunisia, couldn’t contain its enthusiasm:

Tunisia has made remarkable progress on equitable growth, fighting poverty and achieving good social indicators. It has sustained an average 5 percent growth rate over the past 20 years with a steady increase in per capita income and a corresponding increase in the welfare of its population that is underscored by a poverty level of 7 percent that is amongst the lowest in the region.10

While more measured in its praise of the Mubarak regime, the bank still acknowledged its “solid track record as one of the champions of economic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa region”.11 In fact, Egypt can claim to have pioneered neoliberalism in the Global South. In 1974 President Anwar Sadat announced the policy of infitah, economic “opening” to foreign investment and trade, that marked a radical break with Nasser’s drive to state capitalism.12 Mubarak took this policy further, agreeing on an Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programme with the international financial institutions in 1991. One of its key planks was Law 96 of 1991, which repealed the rights given to tenants under the Free Officers’ 1952 agrarian reform allowing the old landlords and their heirs to return and dispossess peasant households.13

Despite talk by the Mubarak regime during the 1990s of a “Tiger on the Nile”, the Egyptian and Tunisian economies experienced no “miracle” under neoliberalism, remaining heavily dependent for foreign exchange on textile production vulnerable to Chinese competition and on tourism. Despite some growth, liberalisation brought very sharp economic and social polarisation that put pressure on the corporatist structures that had been built up under Nasser and his Tunisian counterpart, Habib Bourguiba. Anne Alexander observes that in Egypt under Nasser:

workers were offered a social contract where in return for renouncing their political independence they could expect some gains, such as subsidised housing, education, other welfare benefits and relative job security. Nasserist rhetoric, particularly in its late phase, idealised workers for their contribution to national development. But the Nasserist state crushed independent workers’ organisations and in their place built an official trade union federation which was subservient to the government.14

But, Alexander continues, “the reforms of the 1990s and beyond fractured the Nasserist system”. On the one hand, poverty, inequality and unemployment have grown in Egypt. In 2010 the International Labour Organisation claimed that 44 percent of Egyptians lived below the international poverty line of $2 a day.15 The previous year Ahmad El-Naggar estimated that “the total number of unemployed…amounts to 7.9 million and the true unemployment rate is now 26.3 percent, and some estimate the rate in the 15 to 29 age group is over three times that figure”.16 Rising unemployment, particularly among the young, is a regional problem. Even the World Bank’s own more detailed research contradicts the upbeat headlines. A report, poignantly dated 15 January 2011, the day after Ben Ali’s fall, acknowledged:

In the Middle East and North Africa, the youth unemployment rate at 25 percent is the highest in the world. But that statistic alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

World Bank researchers are finding that the actual number of jobless people between the ages of 15 and 29 in the region could be much higher. Many young people who are out of school and out of work are not reflected in the statistics because they are not looking for work.

Young urban males, in particular, are at a serious disadvantage in the labour market, with many underemployed, employed in off-the-books informal work, or not working at all.17

On the other hand, a tiny layer of super-rich have amassed vast wealth and power. Joel Beinin writes that in Egypt “the holders of the economic portfolios” in the government of Ahmed Nazif, appointed prime minister in July 2004, “were Western-educated PhDs in the entourage of Gamal Mubarak, son of the president. They promoted a second wave of privatisation and enacted other measures to encourage foreign direct investment, such as reducing to zero the tariffs on textile machinery and spare parts”.18 The 25 January Revolution forced even the New York Times to acknowledge the real nature of this liberalisation:

On paper, the changes transformed an almost entirely state-controlled economic system to a predominantly free-market one. In practice, though, a form of crony capitalism emerged, according to Egyptian and foreign experts. State-controlled banks acted as kingmakers, extending loans to families who supported the government but denying credit to viable business people who lacked the right political pedigree.

Ahmed El-Naggar, director of the economic studies unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said government officials sold state-owned land to politically connected families for low prices. They also allowed foreign conglomerates to buy state-owned companies for small amounts. In exchange, he said, they received kickbacks.

At the same time, the government required foreign investors to form joint ventures with Egyptian firms. Families with close ties to the governing party formed the Egyptian half of the lucrative joint ventures.19

The symbol of Egyptian crony capitalism was Ahmed Ezz who, thanks to his friendship with Gamal Mubarak in particular, was able to buy a privatised steel firm cheaply and end up controlling two thirds of the Egyptian steel market. He also became a member of parliament and ran the thuggish campaign of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in the flagrantly rigged legislative elections of November 2010. The Tunisian equivalent was provided by the Trabelsis, Ben Ali’s in-laws, who used their family connections to enrich themselves. According to Transparency International, between them the Ben Alis and Trabelsis controlled 30 to 40 percent of the Tunisian economy, around $10 billion. Leila Trabelsi, the ex-president’s wife, is accused of fleeing to Jeddah with 1.5 tonnes of gold bars in her luggage.20

Thus neoliberalism in the Middle East meant, not the separation of economic and political power implied in the abstract idea of the free market, but its fusion. This was no longer state capitalism: now political connections allowed those at the top to amass vast private wealth. The effect was to direct economic and social grievances to the pinnacle of the regimes, where the corrupt interpenetration of elites was so flagrantly on display.

The global economic crisis then tightened the screws. Juan Kornblihtt and Bruno Magro write:

The structural weakness appeared in all its magnitude with the 2008 crisis. The springs which had enabled the small boom collapsed as a whole. If we focus on Egypt, we see that remittances from emigrants fell by 17 percent compared to 2008, tourism also went from a rise of 24 percent in 2008 to a fall of 1.1 percent in 2009 and the Suez Canal revenues fell by 7.2 percent compared to 2008, because the travel passages fell by 8.2 percent and tonnage of goods transported decreased by 9 percent. The situation in Tunisia was not very different: its growth of GDP decelerates from rising at 6.33 percent in 2007 to 4.5 percent and 3.1 percent in 2008 and 2009 respectively, while exports of goods fell by 25 percent, largely due to the decline in textiles and apparel and petroleum-related products.21

The crisis made itself felt in the Middle East through higher unemployment, especially among the young. But a particularly important role has been played by surges in food prices. In the lead up to the 2008 financial crash there was a sharp rise in the rate of inflation, particularly for basic commodities. Hermann Schwartz argues that this marked a turning point in the development of the crisis, when China ceased to exert downward pressure on world prices by supplying a flood of ever cheaper manufactured goods. “The Chinese export successes also implied rapid Chinese growth and, thus, increasing Chinese calls on global raw materials and in its [sic] own supplies of semi-skilled labour. Raw material prices started rising in 2004 and Chinese wages started rising in 2007. China, thus, started exporting inflation rather than deflation”.22

The recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-9 is being accompanied by a similar rise in the rate of inflation. As Schwartz argues, increases in demand, particularly in China and the rapidly growing “emerging market” economies of Asia and Latin America, have played a role in these inflationary episodes, but these are massively amplified by financial speculation. Higher food prices hit the world’s poor hard. According to Michel Chossudovsky:

from 2006 to 2008, there was a dramatic surge in the prices of all major food staples including rice, wheat and corn. The price of rice tripled over a five year period, from approximately $600 a ton in 2003 to more than $1800 a ton in May 2008… The recent surge in the price of grain staples is characterised by a 32 percent jump in the FAO [United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation]’s composite food price index recorded in the second half of 2010. 23

The scarcity and cost of bread were, for example, an important factor in the strike wave that swept Egypt from 2006 onwards, preparing the way for the 25 January Revolution. The cost of living, along with the privileges of the elite, has been endlessly cited by street protesters across the Middle East. The potentially explosive situation that developed in the region is dramatically evoked by Larbi Sadiki, writing as the Tunisian rising, sparked by the suicide of Mohamed Boazizi, brought down Ben Ali:

It is not the Quran or Sayyid Qutb—[the Muslim Brotherhood leader] who is in absentia charged with perpetrating 9/11 despite being dead since 1966—Western security experts should worry about. They should perhaps purchase Das Kapital and bond with Karl Marx to get a reality check, a rethink, a dose of sobriety in a post-9/11 world afflicted by over-securitisation.

From Tunisia and Algeria in the Maghreb to Jordan and Egypt in the Arab east, the real terror that eats at self-worth, sabotages community and communal rites of passage, including marriage, is the terror of socio-economic marginalisation.

The armies of “khobzistes” (the unemployed of the Maghreb)—now marching for bread in the streets and slums of Algiers and Kasserine and who tomorrow may be in Amman, Rabat, San’aa, Ramallah, Cairo and southern Beirut—are not fighting the terror of unemployment with ideology. They do not need one. Unemployment is their ideology. The periphery is their geography. And for now, spontaneous peaceful protest and self-harm is their weaponry. They are “les misérables” of the modern world.24

But it’s important to stress that, though the economic mechanisms and the political context are different, the Middle East isn’t the only region where the crisis is generating significant struggles. The spread of austerity across Europe provoked serious resistance in 2010, from the general strikes in Greece to the student explosion in Britain. The near-demolition of Fianna Fáil, the historical party of southern Irish capitalism, in the general election of February 2011, leaving Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance as the main opposition to the new Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, is another sign that the situation isn’t exactly one of “political stasis”.

But one of the remarkable political developments so far this year has been the explosive emergence of a mass movement in Wisconsin seeking to block Governor Scott Walker’s drive to slash public sector jobs and scrap collective bargaining rights for state workers. This is a direct consequence of the sweeping successes the Tea Party movement helped to secure the Republicans in last autumn’s mid-term elections. Now right wingers like Walker are installed in state capitols—and in the Congress in Washington—and are seeking to realise the Tea Party’s dream massively to shrink “Big Government”. As Megan Trudell suggested might happen in our last issue, the effect has been to provoke massive social and political polarisation, not just in Wisconsin, but in other mid-Western states where similar assaults are being mounted on the public sector and organised labour.25

The contrast between the giant demonstrations blockading the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin and the relative small mobilisations that the Tea Party has been able to mount in response indicate the problems that the austerity offensive—initiated by the Republicans but also embraced in more moderate terms by Barack Obama—may face. A Gallup opinion poll showed that 61 percent of Americans opposed the Walker plan, with those earning less than $24,000 a year 74 percent against, those on $24,000 to $59,000 63 percent against, those on $60,000 to $89,000 53 percent against, and only those on $90,000 and upwards 50 percent in favour. A Washington Post blogger commented that these figures suggest that the Republican strategy of targeting public sector workers as the new “welfare queens” may be backfiring:

I think it’s fair to speculate that the focus of Walker’s proposal on rolling back long-accepted bargaining rights, and the massive amount of media attention to it, may have reframed the debate and refocused the public’s attention in a way that is undermining the right’s previous advantage on questions involving public employees. This isn’t to say the right doesn’t still have the upper hand in some ways. And Walker very well may win in the end. But the landscape has clearly changed in an unexpected way.26

Now the emerging anti-austerity movement in the United States isn’t the same as the Arab risings. Not only is the margin of material survival much greater, but there exist mediating structures—in particular, the Democratic Party and the trade union bureaucracy—whose absence in the Arab world greatly restricts the ruling classes’ room for manoeuvre in the face of the mass risings. Nevertheless, despite the differences in local political and social geologies, the shockwaves of the crisis are making themselves felt globally.27

A crisis for the West

There have been moments in history where revolution spread in a region or around the world as if it were a wildfire. These moments do not come often. Those that come to mind include 1848, where a rising in France engulfed Europe. There was also 1968, where the demonstrations of what we might call the New Left swept the world: Mexico City, Paris, New York and hundreds of other towns saw anti-war revolutions staged by Marxists and other radicals. Prague saw the Soviets smash a New Leftist government. Even China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution could, by a stretch, be included. In 1989, a wave of unrest, triggered by East Germans wanting to get to the West, generated an uprising in Eastern Europe that overthrew Soviet rule … similar social and cultural conditions generate similar events and are triggered by the example of one country and then spread more broadly. That has happened in 2011 and is continuing.28

These are the words of no Marxist, but of George Friedman, founder of the American “strategic intelligence” website Stratfor. The scale of the revolutions and rebellions in the Arab world justifies these historical comparisons. But there is an immediate difference that sets 2011 apart from its most immediate predecessor, 1989. The revolutions that swept away the Stalinist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe strengthened Western capitalism in general and US imperialism in particular. By contrast, the Arab revolutions—and above all the upheaval in Egypt—are a dagger directed at the heart of American imperialism.

The reason is well explained by Friedman:

When Egypt was a pro-Soviet Nasserite state, the world was a very different place than it had been before Nasser. When Sadat changed his foreign policy the world changed with it. If the Sadat foreign policy changes, the world changes again. Egypt is one of those countries whose internal politics matter to more than its own citizens.29

Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world, Cairo its cultural capital. Egypt’s pivotal geographical position, at the junction of the Maghreb, the Mashreq (Arab East), the Gulf, and sub-Saharan Africa, means that when it changes, the ripple-effects are felt over a very wide area. Nasser’s revolution from above and his confrontation with Western imperialism not only launched the wave of pan-Arab nationalism, but helped to conjure into existence the Third World as a political entity—post-colonial states that (pace Friedman) refused to align themselves firmly with either the US or the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Similarly, when Sadat moved Egypt rightwards in the early 1970s, the impact was felt on a very wide scale. This shift wasn’t just economic—infitah. At least as important was the geopolitical revolution consecrated by the Peace Treaty Sadat signed with Israel in March 1979, which led to Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. In the preceding 30 years Egypt had fought four wars with Israel, the most recent of which, in October 1973, had caught Israel on the hop. Peace with Egypt protected Israel’s southern flank. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “crucially, Egyptian military forces were excluded from the Arab-Israeli conflict, so that Israel could concentrate its attention (and its military forces) on the occupied territories and the northern border”: a generation of peace in Sinai allowed the Israel Defence Force to wage war on Lebanon and Gaza.30

Egypt under Sadat and Mubarak became, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the basis of the system of alliances through which the US has maintained its hegemony over the Middle East. The Mubarak regime proved its value to Washington in many ways: helping to orchestrate the alliance against Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War; intelligence cooperation against the Islamists (Wikileaks cables reveal how highly the US embassy in Cairo valued Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence chief and short-lived vice-president); renditions for torture in Egypt’s prisons (Suleiman seems to have played a literally hands-on role here);31 and maintaining the blockade on Gaza. In exchange, the Egyptian armed forces that remained the basis of the regime received their annual “strategic rent” of $1.3 billion in US military aid.

But the links between the West and the Arab dictatorships are much more extensive than the US-Egyptian axis, fundamental though it is. They have been exposed by the rich crop of scandals the revolutions are producing. The most prominent victim so far is Michèle Alliot-Marie, sacked as French foreign minister after her intimate relationship with the Ben Ali regime came to light. Le Monde commented (maybe rather too generously to Alliot-Marie, who had been involved in Tunisian property deals via her elderly parents):

Viewed from Tunisia, the troubles of Michèle Alliot-Marie seem almost secondary. During the Ben Ali era, Franco-Tunisian acquaintances were, in fact, so frequent, so familiar that they became part of Tunisians’ everyday landscape. There was, these last twenty years, a “French tradition of supporting the dictator”, says Ridha Kéfi, editor of the online journal Kapitalis based in the Tunisian capital. If “MAM” has been caught out, it is because she, like plenty of others, gave way to the atmosphere of tranquil connivance that had been established between Paris and Tunis.32

Britain and the US, by contrast, were deeply involved in intense efforts to court a much less promising candidate for neoliberal restructuring, Libya, once Gaddafi had come to terms with them in 2003. These included the debauchment of the reputation of the London School of Economics and of the name of Ralph Miliband through the relationship developed particularly by LSE’s “Centre for Global Governance” with Seif al-Islam Gaddafi.33 Ex-LSE director and ideologue of the Third Way Anthony Giddens mused after a Libyan jaunt in 2007: “Will real progress be possible only when Gaddafi leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite… My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades’ time would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking”.34

But the drive to integrate the Gaddafi regime in the world economy went much further. The same year, Business Week reported that Michael Porter, Harvard Business School guru and author of The Competitive Advantage of Nations, was part of a project organised by the Boston consultancy Monitor Group “to create a new pro-business elite” in Libya. 35 Among the other American intellectual grandees mobilised by Monitor Group to make the pilgrimage to Tripoli and exchange banalities with the Gaddafis were Francis Fukuyama, Richard Perle, Robert Putnam, Joseph Nye and Benjamin Barber.36

The very depth of Western engagement even with the Arab dictatorship with the longest history of past confrontation with the US and his allies may help to explain the vehemence with which Barack Obama and David Cameron denounced Gaddafi once the revolt against him began—and also perhaps the speed with which Cameron was willing to run up the flag of “liberal interventionism” that had been so discredited by association with George W Bush’s and Tony Blair’s military adventure in Iraq. By helping to deliver the coup de grace to Gaddafi, the Western powers might gain some leverage in an important oil producer, but also belatedly win some credit for supporting the struggle for democracy in the Arab world.

It is remarkable how the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention and “responsibility to protect” is being pumped up, as if the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan had never happened. The Western powers’ record of closely allying themselves to the Arab dictatorships should make it amply clear that their intervention in Libya is not to support the revolution, but to rebuild their domination of the Middle East and North Africa.

But they have a big hill to climb in trying to rebuild their credibility in the Arab world. The Pew Global Attitudes Project’s 2010 survey of attitudes to the US found Egypt at the bottom of the table, with only 17 percent having a favourable attitude towards America, down from 30 percent in 2006, when Egypt was first polled (interestingly, both Turkey and Pakistan also recorded the same 17 percent low).37 Even though both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood have promised that the Peace Treaty with Israel remains sacrosanct, any future Egyptian government that is—to place the bar as low as possible—more responsive to public opinion than Mubarak’s was will be less compliant with American wishes.

Bruised by the Iraq debacle and the economic crisis, and preoccupied with China’s rapid rise, US policy-makers show a rueful awareness of the limits of their power. A fortnight after Mubarak’s fall Robert Gates, the outgoing defence secretary, chose West Point, where in June 2002 George W Bush first outlined his “Doctrine” affirming America’s right of pre-emptive attack, to declare: “In my opinion, any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’, as General MacArthur so delicately put it”.38

Gates also was quick to pour cold water on Cameron’s ill-briefed talk of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. Though the Obama administration eventually backed the UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of air power against Gaddafi, it is clear that the US has no great stomach for military intervention in Libya. Obama’s shift may have been intended to compensate for its acquiescence in the bloody clampdowns on protesters in Bahrain and Yemen. The Saudi-initiated intervention in Bahrain represents the collective rejection by the Gulf sheikhdoms of the policy adopted by a weakened US of welcoming the democracy movements and using them to help push through neoliberal “reforms”. The Financial Times commented on Gates’s speech:

The US is a different country today after ten years of war, struggling with record deficits and suffering from “intervention fatigue”, in the words of Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

In such a context, Mr Gates’s statement about the madness of dispatching US ground troops overseas simply seems like common sense. “It is a very rare admission of something that is all too true but very rarely articulated by someone of that stature,” said Aaron David Miller, a former state department official.39

US caution contrasts with panic in Israel, whose strategic position is potentially very seriously compromised by the 25 January Revolution. After Mubarak’s fall the head of an Israeli think tank admitted: “Our whole structure of analysis just collapsed”.40 Ari Shavit, a columnist in the supposedly liberal daily Haaretz, was positively incandescent with rage…at Washington:

The West’s position reflects the adoption of Jimmy Carter’s worldview: kowtowing to benighted, strong tyrants while abandoning moderate, weak ones… Carter’s betrayal of the Shah [during the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9] brought us the ayatollahs, and will soon bring us ayatollahs with nuclear arms. The consequences of the West’s betrayal of Mubarak will be no less severe. It’s not only a betrayal of a leader who was loyal to the West, served stability and encouraged moderation. It’s a betrayal of every ally of the West in the Middle East and the developing world. The message is sharp and clear: The West’s word is no word at all; an alliance with the West is not an alliance. The West has lost it. The West has stopped being a leading and stabilising force around the world.

The Arab liberation revolution will fundamentally change the Middle East. The acceleration of the West’s decline will change the world. One outcome will be a surge towards China, Russia and regional powers like Brazil, Turkey and Iran. Another will be a series of international flare-ups stemming from the West’s lost deterrence. But the overall outcome will be the collapse of North Atlantic political hegemony not in decades, but in years. When the United States and Europe bury Mubarak now, they are also burying the powers they once were. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the age of Western hegemony is fading away. 41

In the rapids of revolution

The very shrillness of Shavit’s denunciation betrays the fear of a client state that one day it too may be “betrayed” by the imperial power. Tariq Ali expresses a much more measured judgement: “American hegemony in the region has been dented but not destroyed. The post-despot regimes are likely to be more independent, with a democratic system that is fresh and subversive and, hopefully, new constitutions enshrining social and political needs. But the military in Egypt and Tunisia will ensure nothing rash happens”.42

Assessing this judgement requires us to pay closer attention to the revolutions themselves. In what sense can these upheavals be described as revolutions at all? Trotsky in the preface to his great History of the Russian Revolution famously writes: “The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”.43 By this criterion, the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya all thoroughly qualify as revolutions. All were driven by mass initiatives from below: in Egypt above all the magnificent self-organisation in Tahrir Square was on display to the world.

To say that these revolutions have been based on the self-organisation
of the masses isn’t the same as describing them as purely spontaneous, as Chamseddine Mnasri does in his article on Tunisia elsewhere in this issue. Predictably enough, the strongest version of the latter claim has been made by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri:

Even calling these struggles “revolutions” seems to mislead commentators who assume the progression of events must obey the logic of 1789 or 1917, or some other past European rebellion against kings and tsars… The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it…the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre—that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power.44

Although Hardt and Negri are eager to proclaim the novelty of what they therefore refuse to describe as revolutions, a remark that Antonio Gramsci made in 1930 fully applies to their argument: “it must be stressed that ‘pure’ spontaneity does not exist in history… In the ‘most spontaneous’ movement it is simply the case that the elements of ‘conscious leadership’ cannot be checked, have left no reliable document”.45 In fact, it is quite possible to demonstrate “the elements of ‘conscious leadership’” present in the Arab revolutions. Thus in Tunisia, even though the leadership of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) were locked into the Ben Ali regime, affiliated and regional unions had become increasingly restive during the 2000s, took part in the developing uprising as it spread across the country, and forced the executive to call a general strike on 14 January. 46

The Egyptian 25 January Revolution was prepared for by a decade of movements—in solidarity with the second Palestinian intifada, against the Iraq War, for democracy in Egypt itself, and culminating in a strike wave described by Beinin as “the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in over half a century. Over 1.2 million workers and their families have engaged in some form of action”.47 The initial “day of rage” on 25 January was organised by activists who had been involved in these different movements—human rights campaigners, liberals, left Nasserites and revolutionary socialists. Once the confrontation developed in Tahrir Square, they were joined by youth cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though the official leadership still held back.

Of course, the fact that the 25 January Revolution was initiated and organised by very narrow circles of activists doesn’t explain why the demonstrations in late January unleashed a mass rising when the numerous earlier protests called by the same milieu attracted a few hundred or, at best, thousands. The sheer accumulation of grievances and the example of Tunisia may help to explain the difference, as may also the impact of the November 2010 elections, so flagrantly rigged that the opposition Islamists and Nasserites represented in the previous parliament withdrew from the second round in disgust. But the sheer unpredictability of revolution is nothing new: notoriously, the fall of the tsar in February 1917 took Lenin by surprise. The dynamics of the Egyptian upheaval reveal, not the lyrical insurgency of the centre-less multitude, but rather what Gramsci called “a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organised and directing will of the centre converge”.48

In the case of the initial Egyptian uprising, the “centre” was at once quite small and politically heterogeneous. The one respect in which Hardt’s and Negri’s theory of the multitude fits the Arab revolutions is that the movements that have driven them were, to begin with at least, relatively undifferentiated socially and politically. But once again this is a common feature of the early stages of revolutions. So too was the limited content of the upheavals—the removal of autocratic rulers and of the regimes over which they presided.

Trotsky wrote: “History has known…not only social revolutions, which substituted the bourgeois for the feudal regime, but also political revolutions which, without destroying the economic foundations of society, swept out an old ruling upper crust (1830 and 1848 in France, February 1917 in Russia, etc)”.49 What we have seen so far in the Arab world are political, not social revolutions, and, moreover, ones that have so far succeeded in removing rulers rather than their regimes. Hence George Friedman’s initial debunking response to Mubarak’s fall:

What happened was not a revolution. The demonstrators never brought down Mubarak, let alone the regime. What happened was a military coup that used the cover of protests to force Mubarak out of office in order to preserve the regime. When it became clear on 10 February that Mubarak would not voluntarily step down, the military staged what amounted to a coup to force his resignation. Once he was forced out of office, the military took over the existing regime by creating a military council and taking control of critical ministries. The regime was always centred on the military. What happened on 11 February was that the military took direct control.50

The kernel of truth in this statement is that, in Tunisia as well as Egypt, the army stepped in to remove the president and attempt to restore order. Moreover, Mubarak’s fall came against the background of conflicts between him and the military over the presidential succession. In September 2008 Margaret Scobey, US ambassador to Egypt, reported in a cable released by Wikileaks:

Contacts agree that presidential son Gamal Mubarak’s power base is centred in the business community, not with the military. XXXXXXXXXXXX said officers told him recently that the military does not support Gamal and if Mubarak died in office, the military would seize power rather than allow Gamal to succeed his father. However, analysts agreed that the military would allow Gamal to take power through an election if President Mubarak blessed the process and effectively gave Gamal the reigns [sic] of power. XXXXXXXXXXXX opined that after Gamal became active in the NDP in 2002, the regime empowered the reformers in the 2004 cabinet to begin privatisation efforts that buttressed the wealthy businessmen close to Gamal. In his estimation, the regime’s goal is to create a business-centred power base for Gamal in the NDP to compensate for his lack of military credentials. A necessary corollary to this strategy, he claimed, was for the regime to weaken the military’s economic and political power so that it cannot block Gamal’s path to the presidency.51

Gilbert Achcar has pointed out that the power of the military as an institution gave the Egyptian and Tunisian ruling classes and the Western imperialist powers room for manoeuvre lacking in Libya. In the latter case, Gaddafi’s systematic policy of hollowing out the state apparatuses and his highly personalised family autocracy have meant that his removal proved to require armed insurrection and the destruction of the existing state.52 The Arab dictatorships embrace in fact a spectrum of political forms, ranging from quite complex and institutionalised regimes such as Egypt, which in recent years has offered some space for legitimate opposition, to much more personalised autocratic forms of rule, often combining a reigning family with a sectarian social base: the latter is to be found in Saudi Arabia, where a monarchy transferred between the ageing sons of Ibn Saud is legitimised by the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, and “republican” Syria, where the presidency was successfully passed from father to son, and is sustained by the minority belonging to the Alawi sect of Shia Islam.

As Libya shows, the family autocracies are likely to be particularly tough nuts to crack. The Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, told reformers in 2003: “What we won by the sword, we keep by the sword”.53 King Abdullah was sufficiently worried by the popular movements in neighbouring Bahrain and Yemen and the stirrings of dissent inside his own realm to announce on returning from convalescence on 23 February $36 billion of “social investment”.54 But on 14 March the Saudi National Guard moved into Bahrain, after protesters had overwhelmed the local riot police.

The differences in state form are important, as are the divisions within individual regimes, in conditioning the possibilities for change in different countries. But they do not alter the fact that the decisive factor in the Arab revolutions has been, to repeat Trotsky’s words, “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”. Trotsky adds:

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime… The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis—the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations.55

Trotsky here highlights a key feature of revolutions: that while they revolve around decisive episodes where control over state power is settled, they are processes that unfold in time. The Russian Revolution of 1917, which took eight months from February to October, was in fact relatively brief. The Great French Revolution lasted just over five years, from the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 to the Thermidorean coup in July 1794, while the German Revolution took almost as long, from November 1918 to October 1923.56 The different phases of these processes, with their advances and retreats, victories and defeats for the forces of revolution and counter-revolution, and for left and right within the revolutionary camp, represent a learning process for the masses. The “successive approximations” onto which they latch in pursuit of a solution to their problems can lead to the progressive radicalisation of the masses and a decisive transfer of political power that inaugurates a social revolution.

But there is nothing inevitable about this outcome. The closest equivalent to such a process in the Arab world, the Iraqi Revolution of 1958-63, started with the overthrow of the monarchy by nationalist army officers led by General Abd al-Karim Qasim, but, very differently from Egypt in 1952, gave rise to a massive popular radicalisation that mainly benefited the Communist Party, which won considerable support within the army itself. But in May 1959 the party leadership backed away from making a bid for power, in part because of pressure from Moscow, which regarded Qasim, like Nasser, as an ally in the Cold War. The resulting demobilisation and fragmentation gave the initiative to the Ba’ath, which staged a coup with CIA support in February 1963 that toppled Qasim and subjected the Communists themselves to bloody repression.57

There is a strong case for saying that Mubarak was removed by the US and the military to prevent a deepening radicalisation taking place. A comparison with the other great revolutionary process in the modern Middle East, the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9, is illuminating. Confronted with a rising wave of mass protests and strikes, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi clung to power, relying on increasingly savage repression. The Shi’ite tradition of commemorating the dead 40 days after their death meant, as Ryszard Kapu’sci’nski puts it, that “the Iranian revolution develops in a rhythm of explosions succeeding each other at 40-day intervals. Every 40 days there is an explosion of despair, anger, blood. Each time the explosion is more horrible, bigger and bigger crowds, more and more victims”.58

On 8 September 1978 the shah declared martial law and his troops slaughtered thousands of demonstrators in Tehran. Mass strikes spread from the strategically crucial oil industry to other sectors. The cumulative effect of successive bloody mass confrontations on the streets was to erode the morale and cohesion of the army. This meant that, when the shah was finally bundled into exile in January 1979 under US pressure, mutinies spread through the army, and the generals were too weak to prevent a successful insurrection at the beginning of February, organised by radical left and Islamist guerrilla groups.59

This was the kind of scenario the Egyptian generals were keen to head off. During the week starting 6 February 2011 the “multitude” began to develop a sharper class profile: the Egyptian workers’ movement, hitherto involved as individuals in the mass movement, but invisible as a collective, began decisively to move centre-stage, launching a strike wave that continues to the present. According to the Washington Post, “by midweek, confronted with growing throngs in Cairo, labour strikes and deteriorating economic conditions, top military and civilian leaders reached an apparent agreement with Mubarak on some form of power transfer”. But he reneged on the deal in his television speech on 10 February, provoking a furious popular reaction. Obama responded with a statement that, in effect, called for him to go. For the Washington Post:

it was a crucial shift for a White House that had been the scene of sometimes heated exchanges between aides who pressed for a strong message of support for democratic change in Egypt and others who worried that doing so could disrupt the traditional government-to-government relationship with a key ally.

There was a discernible change in Cairo, as well. Within hours of Mubarak’s speech, “support for Mubarak from [the] military dropped precipitously,” said a US government official who closely tracked the events.

“The military had been willing—with the right tone in the speech—to wait and see how it played out,” the official said. “They didn’t like what they saw… By the end of the day, it was clear the situation was no longer tenable.”

Mubarak was told Friday [11 February] that he must step down, and within hours, he was on his way to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.60

But the problem facing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that supplanted Mubarak—and behind it the Egyptian ruling class and the White House—is that, in Egypt as in Tunisia, the revolution is driven by a combination of material and political grievances that cannot be assuaged by the purely cosmetic changes on offer from the successor governments, both initially headed by prime ministers appointed by the fleeing president.

This logic became visible in Tunisia immediately after Ben Ali’s fall, with continuing protests driven by the desire to get rid of the entire regime, most notably with the demand to purge the government of all members of the old ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD). But what we have seen develop in both Egypt and Tunisia is a much broader process of what Philip Marfleet elsewhere in this issue rightly calls saneamiento (cleansing), after the version that developed in Portugal after the Armed Forces Movement overthrew the right wing dictatorship in April 1974.

One of the first democratic impulses after the overthrow of an authoritarian regime is the drive simultaneously to purge the state apparatus and hold it to public account. Frequently this targets the old regime’s secret police—the DGS (Direccão Geral de Segurança) in Portugal, or the Stasi (Ministry of State Security) in East Germany after the 1989 Revolution. Exactly this process is unfolding today in the Arab revolutions. Thus in early March the headquarters of the State Security Investigation Service (SSIS) in Nasr City, near Cairo, was stormed, along with many of its other offices, mainly to prevent the destruction of secret documents. In Tunisia protesters simultaneously forced the interim government actually to dissolve State Security, while the RCD has been suppressed by court order. In the copycat pattern that is a striking feature of the two revolutions, as they gain encouragement from each other, the Egyptian interior minister ordered the SSIS disbanded on 15 March.

The mass movement won other victories, once again more or less simultaneously, forcing out the prime ministers inherited from the old regime in both countries. In the abstract, therefore, the thrust of these struggles has been political, seeking to push the process of democratisation much further and faster than either the Egyptian military junta or the Tunisian interim government would like. But the problem is that, because of the form that neoliberalism has taken in the Middle East, it is very hard to separate politics and economics. Tearing up the roots of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes will mean cutting deep into the political economy of Egyptian and Tunisian society. The Egyptian army is directly vulnerable because, in a holdover from Nasserite state capitalism, it controls an economic empire estimated at several percentage points of Egypt’s national income.61

There are two possible scenarios ahead for both these countries. One is Portugal 1974-5—where the revolution was initiated by a progressive military coup, but the drive for saneamiento after 50 years of dictatorship promoted social and political polarisation and the radicalisation of both workers and rank and file soldiers. Portugal came closer in the 18 months after the Armed Forces Movement seized power to socialist revolution than any other Western European country since the 1930s. The left was only defeated by a Europe-wide mobilisation of reaction fronted by social democracy and orchestrated by the US. The other scenario is offered by Indonesia after 1998, where the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship (another case of crony capitalism centred on the ruling family) at the height of the Asian economic crisis opened a new space for mass mobilisation from below, but ultimately stability was restored with the introduction of a liberal-democratic political façade.

Plainly the Western powers and the Egyptian and Tunisian ruling classes would prefer the Indonesian scenario to the Portuguese. But the fusion of economic and political power in neoliberal Egypt and Tunisia and the appalling material situation of very large sections of the population in both countries make this very hard to pull off. The economic pressures on the mass of the population—unemployment, especially among the young, the rising price of food and other basic commodities, to which must be added the disruptive effect of the revolts themselves on sectors such as tourism—are a continually destabilising factor.

Moreover, in Egypt we see the workers’ movement gaining in strength and self-assertion, mounting strikes and occupations around a variety of economic and political demands. Following the initiative described by Marfleet elsewhere in this journal, a preparatory conference of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions met on 2 March.62 In addition to the strikes, a plethora of protests have developed over social and economic issues ranging from rents to the price of butane gas. These economic struggles, coming as they have against the background of the 25 January Revolution, aren’t in conflict with the political struggle. On the contrary, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her classic analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1905, they are mutually reinforcing:

But the movement on the whole does not proceed from the economic to the political struggle, nor even the reverse. Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes. And that applies not only to each of the great mass strikes, but also to the revolution as a whole. With the spreading, clarifying and involution of the political struggle, the economic struggle not only does not recede, but extends, organises and becomes involved in equal measure. Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action.

Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position and their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely. The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval; it forms, so to speak, the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength, and at the same time leads the indefatigable economic sappers of the proletariat at all times, now here and now there, to isolated sharp conflicts, out of which public conflicts on a large scale unexpectedly explode.

In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places; and thus the economic and the political factors in the period of the mass strike, now widely removed, completely separated or even mutually exclusive, as the theoretical plan would have them, merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is precisely the mass strike.63

Out of this dynamic interaction between economic and political struggles there is the potential that, as Trotsky put it, “the democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution”.64 Of course, the Egyptian ruling class is unlikely meekly to stand by in the face of this process. What methods can they use? The junta could employ the forms of direct counter-revolutionary coercion that Mubarak unsuccessfully tried against the protesters in Tahrir Square at the beginning of February. The army has been quietly arresting and
torturing activists, some of whom have been given five-year prison sentences by military courts. Attacks by gangs of thugs on women demonstrators on International Women’s Day (8 March) and simultaneously on members of the Coptic Christian minority in Moqattam, north Cairo, were interpreted by some activists as the SSIS hitting back.65

A combination of repression and divide and rule may just allow Gaddafi to hang onto power in Libya, but it is unlikely to work, certainly in the short-term, in Egypt, given the proliferation of mass struggles and popular organisation there. Committees to defend the revolution have been formed in different neighbourhoods and workplaces. The alternative would be to try to develop the mediating political structures—what Gramsci called the “trench systems” forming the “very complex structure” of bourgeois democracy—that have been at best marginal in Egypt since the Free Officers decisively crushed their opponents in 1954.66

Egyptian liberalism—represented by Mohamed ElBaradei, Ayman Nour, and the historic Wafd Party—is almost certainly too weak a reed on which to lean. The Muslim Brotherhood is quite another matter. The object of much Islamophobic speculation in the West, the Brotherhood is in fact a highly ambiguous and heterogeneous formation that has taken a number of different forms: the mass anti-colonial movement of the 1940s and 1950s was crushed by Nasser, but the Brotherhood has revived since the 1980s as what Sameh Naguib describes as a “populist political force”, building up the strong base in the universities and professional syndicates and in poor neighbourhoods that allowed it to win nearly 20 percent of the seats in the relatively open parliamentary election of 2005.67 The Brotherhood’s revival took place, incidentally, at the same time as the regime’s murderously successful campaign to crush the armed jihadist groups, elements of which went on to help form Al Qaida.

The Brotherhood’s solidly bourgeois leadership has been divided between advocates of the alliances with more secular opposition forces that saw it cooperate with Nasserites and revolutionary socialists in the Cairo conferences against occupation and imperialism and support the Kifaya democracy movement in the middle of the last decade and political quietists favouring an accommodation with the regime. The latter were in the ascendant before the 25 January Revolution, but this did not prevent Brotherhood activists joining the rising. The essentially bourgeois character of the Brotherhood meant that it has taken an ambivalent attitude towards the strike wave. But undoubtedly many workers have supported it in recent years as the most powerful opposition force.

The historical development of the workers’ movement in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century was characterised by a combination of “workerism”—militant class organisation on economic issues—and “populism”—support for multi-class nationalism in the struggle against British imperialism. This allowed the liberal nationalist Wafd to become, as Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman put it, “the hegemonic ideological and organisational force in the labour movement”.68 Though the Wafd’s dominance was undermined by Communists and the Brotherhood after the Second World War, the strength of anti-colonial nationalism (which in their own ways both these tendencies supported), combined with a mixture of repression and economic reforms, allowed Nasser to reduce the Egyptian working class to a subaltern position in his state capitalist regime.

The situation in Egypt is very different today. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood’s organisational resources and the very political and social ambiguity of its political message—”Islam is the answer”—mean that it could play a decisive role in preventing the development of independent working class politics in Egypt. The danger the Brotherhood poses is thus less the Islamist “radicalisation” obsessing the likes of Tony Blair, but its potential as a conservative force (though playing such a role would cause divisions in its ranks). This underlines the foolishness of rhapsodies about the “centre-less” character of the Arab revolutions. If the more radical elements in the movement refuse to organise politically, other forces are very unlikely to be so self-denying. In fact, a plethora of new Egyptian parties are being formed in the wake of Mubarak’s fall, fortunately including the Democratic Workers Party.69 The fate of particular initiatives such as this one depends on many contingencies. But, although a very small and weak force, revolutionary socialists have played an important part in the 25 January Revolution and the development of the Egyptian workers’ movement. If they help Egyptian workers develop a clear political voice of their own, then dramatically greater revolutionary possibilities will open up throughout the Middle East.


1: Benjamin, 1970, pp260, 263, 266. Thanks especially to Philip Marfleet as a source of analysis and information.

2: Benjamin, 1970, p259. For a critical discussion of the “Theses”, see Callinicos, 2004, chapter 5.

3: See, for example, Batatu, 1978, part five, Beinin and Lockman, 1987, chapters 13 and 14, and Gordon, 1992. I have also benefited from reading a draft chapter by Anne Alexander on the interaction between the mass movements and the Free Officers in Egypt and Iraq, and am grateful for her very helpful comments.

4: El-Mahdi and Marfleet, 2009.

5: Marx, 1971, p21.

6: Watkins, 2010, p20.

7: Callinicos, 2010, pp6-13.

8: Duménil and Lévy, 2011, p22.

9: Callinicos, 2010, p6.



12: See, for example, Waterbury, 1983.

13: Bush, 2009.

14: Alexander, 2011.

15: Al-Malky, 2010.

16: El-Naggar, 2009, p42.


18: Beinin, 2009, p77.

19: Fahim, Slackman, and Rohde, 2011.

20: Lewis, 2011.

21: Kornblihtt and Magro, 2011.

22: Schwartz, 2009, p110. See also pp164-171.

23: Chossudovsky, 2011.

24: Sadiki, 2011.

25: Trudell, 2011.

26: Sargent, 2011.

27: David McNally argues the Great Recession is provoking a “Great Resistance”, though some of the most important examples he cites-Bolivia 2000-5 and Oaxaca 2006-actually predate the onset of the crisis-McNally, 2011.

28: Friedman, 2011c.

29: Friedman, 2011a.

30: Chomsky, 1999, pp194-195.

31: Soldz, 2011.

32: Beaugé, 2011.

33: Shamefully, Seif Gaddafi spoke about “Libya: Past, Present, and Future” in a “Special Ralph Miliband Event” on 25 May 2010:

34: Giddens, 2007.

35: Business Week, 2007.

36: Pilkington, 2011.

37: Pew Research Center, 2010.

38: Gates, 2011.

39: McGregor, 2011.

40: Gardner, 2011b.

41: Shavit, 2011.

42: Ali, 2011.

43: Trotsky, 1967, volume 1, p15.

44: Hardt and Negri, 2011.

45: Gramsci, 1971, p196.

46: Temlali, 2011.

47: Beinin, 2009, p77.

48: Gramsci, 1978, p198.

49: Trotsky, 1972, p288. See, for further discussion of this distinction, Callinicos, 1991, pp50-66, and, of the related distinction between democratic and socialist revolutions, Rees, 1999.

50: Friedman, 2011b.


52: Talk at International Socialism seminar on Egypt, Tunisia, and Revolution in the Middle East, London, 22 February 2011; video at

53: Gardner, 2011a.

54: Allam and Khalaf, 2011,

55: Trotsky, 1967, volume 1, p16.

56: On the latter, see Harman, 1982, and Broué, 2006.

57: Hanna Batatu’s massive account of the origins, course and consequences of the Iraqi Revolution is a historiographic masterpiece. See Batatu, 1978, pp985-986, for King Hussain of Jordan’s account of the CIA’s role in the February 1963 coup.

58: Kapu’sci’nski, 1982, p114.

59: See Marshall, 1988, chapter 2, and Poya, 1987.

60: Warrick, 2011.

61: Clover and Khalaf, 2011.

62: Charbel, 2011.

63: Luxemburg, 1970, p185.

64: Trotsky, 1969, p278. Neil Davidson was therefore a little premature when he recently described “permanent revolution” in this journal as a “historical concept”, though he contradicted himself a couple of pages later, referring to the “inherent instability” created by the uneven and combined development of global capitalism as containing “the possibilities of permanent revolution”-Davidson, 2010, pp195, 197.

65: Ozman, 2011.

66: Gramsci, 1971, p235.

67: Naguib, 2009, p114.

68: Beinin and Lockman, 1987, p450; see generally part two. For a discussion of the dialectic of workerism and populism in the South African context, see Callinicos, 1988, especially pp191-194.

69: Shukrallah and El-Abbas, 2011.


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