The return of the Arab revolution

10 December 2019
Corey Oakley

Revolution, which poses the question of the overthrow of the existing order, of the dismantling of all the privilege and power of the ruling class, is the most important and necessary but also the most dangerous enterprise that can ever be undertaken.

Revolution rips the mask off. It lays waste to the idle platitudes that justify the status quo and reveals the truth about social relations. Slave owner against slave. Boss against worker. The state against the people. Oppressor against oppressed, as Marx famously wrote.

Only one side can come out on top. And if the old order is not toppled, it will make and mark its victory with an orgy of violence directed at those who dared rise against it. When the workers of Paris took over the city in 1871, establishing the Commune that provided the first model of workers’ self-government, the ruling elite responded by massacring them – killing an estimated 20,000 people. When general Pinochet, backed by the CIA, overthrew the Allende government and crushed the insurgent Chilean workers’ movement in 1973, 40,000 workers were rounded up and imprisoned in the national football stadium. Thousands were killed, many more jailed and tortured – as many as 130,000. More fled or were exiled – scattered to all corners of the earth. Millions of Chileans are coming together again today in a mighty new movement, but it has taken nearly half a century to overcome the savage legacy of that defeat.

It is the same story time and again throughout history. Counter-revolution is fearsome, bloody, unrelenting. It combines the thirst for vengeance of a class whose right to rule with impunity has been challenged with the unfettering of the apparatus of state violence, which in normal times exists mostly in the background.

The counter-revolutionary wave that ended the great Arab uprising of 2011 was on a par with the most brutal and bloody in history. In Egypt, the military coup that brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power massacred thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in its first days, and then almost immediately launched a crackdown on any and all elements opposed to it – executing thousands and jailing at least 60,000 in a vast, ever expanding system in which prisoners were routinely and systematically tortured and raped.

The most extreme example, though, is Syria. Because of the particular structure of the Syrian ruling class, in which the core of the state apparatus was intimately tied in with the ruling Assad family, the Egyptian option of a palace coup – in which the army removed the hated figurehead Mubarak in order to buy time to regroup and demobilise the popular revolt – did not exist. So, from almost the first day, the counter-revolution organised itself under the slogan “Assad, or the country burns”. Eight years of brutal civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, the implementation of that slogan has not just destroyed a country. It also stands as a terrifying example to the whole Arab world of how far the regional old order will go to stop any existential challenge to its rule.

In Syria, we saw every aspect of a strategy that, in different ways and to varying degrees, was carried out across the Arab world. Direct suppression by the forces of the old state: mass murder, imprisonment, torture, displacement. A cold-blooded propaganda war that smeared all opposition as Islamist terrorism and the product of foreign plots. Even worse was the implementation of policies designed to turn that propaganda lie into reality, encouraging in a thousand ways the transformation of democratic mass revolt into bloody sectarian warfare.

There were voices at the very start of the Arab revolution who argued that it was necessary to take the long view – resisting euphoria in response to the initial, seemingly unstoppable mass revolt, but also standing against the despair that set in as the old order struck back and revealed the very real weaknesses of the rebellion. I heard Gilbert Achcar sound this warning at a socialist conference in Cairo only weeks after the fall of Mubarak, just before the first chapter of the post-Mubarak period ended, when all sectors of Egyptian society seemed united behind the revolution. At that moment, he was arguing, alongside tiny numbers of others such as the leaders of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, against the general triumphant mood, insisting that the removal of Mubarak by the military was not the final victory of the revolution but the first step in the counter-revolution.

Later, as the intrigues of the old order became clearer, and the days of hope gave way to despair, Achcar and others argued that despair was as wrongheaded as blind optimism, that the counter-revolution might have succeeded for a time, but that the crisis in the system of Arab capitalism that led to the initial revolt was not only unresolved but in fact had become more acute, and the revolution would rise again.

I was one of those who accepted and propagated this argument. But at the high water mark of the counter-revolution, as the equally reactionary Islamic State and Assad regime carved up Syria between them, and the wider region was made up either of dictatorships that ruled with an iron fist, or countries devastated by brutal sectarian civil wars, it seemed as if the Arab revolution could remain buried for a generation. Indeed, in those bleak days, it was difficult to imagine any other outcome.

And yet here we are. In 2019, first in Algeria and Sudan, now in Lebanon, Iraq and even beyond the Arab world into the state that has nonetheless been at the heart of the Arab counter-revolution – Iran – mass revolt has returned with a vengeance. Even in Egypt, where the Sisi regime rules with incalculable barbarism, in September thousands took to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the iconic centre of the 2011 revolt, to demand the overthrow of the regime. They were almost all, as they surely knew they would be, arrested and thrown into jail. In the first days of the 2011 uprising, it was the same. Heroic, self-sacrificing young people took to the streets despite the police and the security service thugs, and without the protection of the millions who would later join the revolt. They knew they could be jailed or beaten or tortured or killed, but they did it because they felt they were not an isolated minority but the vanguard of an incipient mass revolt. They believed they were starting a revolution. They were right then, and they will be again now, though the path this time may be longer and more difficult.

It is of note that the two countries at the forefront of the revolt today, Iraq and Lebanon, were largely absent from the 2011 uprising. The recent history of civil wars in both countries somewhat insulated them from the unbridled hope that gripped so much of the region – people knew the price of political struggle could be extremely high. But now the situation is so desperate there is virtually nothing people will not risk. In Iraq, in what some have called the “Iraq October revolution”, nearly 500 people have been killed by security forces and pro-Iranian militias. The level of state violence has dwarfed that in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and even Libya in the first stages of the 2011 revolt. But the rebellion continues, and every week takes on even more the characteristics of an insurgency.

At the end of November, the Iranian consulate in Najaf was burned to the ground, a stunning rejection in the Shiite heartland of Iraq of what is (rightly) seen as Iranian manipulation and control of Iraqi politics. In response, almost 40 people were killed by the security services, a massacre by any measure. But while the security forces can carry out massacres – they have reportedly even used machine guns against demonstrators on multiple occasions – they cannot end the revolt. Whole segments of southern Iraq are now out of the control of the state, government buildings have been burnt to the ground, and revolutionaries have established roadblocks and barricades across and between major cities.

The other remarkable thing about the revolt being centred on Iraq and Lebanon is that these two states above all others have institutionalised the sectarian divisions that have been at the heart of the Arab counter-revolution. Lebanon’s political system has been explicitly based on a carve-up of state institutions between the powerbrokers of different sects since the end of French rule, a situation consolidated after the civil war. After the US invasion of Iraq and the dismantling of the Baathist state, the US, in semi-covert cooperation with Iran, established a similar system, a set-up that (along with the brutal years of occupation) was central to enabling the emergence of the Islamic State among the disenfranchised Sunni minority.
Now these systems, and the sectarian divisions that underpin them, are facing a fundamental challenge. Protesters are asserting their common identity and rejecting appeals to sect-based loyalties. In Lebanon, even Hezbollah, which for years has been largely exempt from criticism because of its almost universally acknowledged role as organiser of the national resistance to Israel, has not been spared. Hezbollah’s backing of Bashar al-Assad in the brutal Syrian civil war, and more urgently the central role it plays in the corrupt confessional power-sharing arrangement inside Lebanon, has deeply undermined its previously unshakable support. When Lebanese demonstrators chant “All of them means all of them!”, they are saying that no-one in the current system, not even Hezbollah, has immunity from the charges of corruption and self-enrichment that they accuse all elements of the political establishment of participating in.

In Iraq, the rebellion against Iranian domination of the political system is centred in Baghdad and the Shiite south, the community historically most linked to the Iranian theocracy. It is a nationalist movement in the best sense of the term, rejecting all foreign interference, of the US as much as of Iran. The government they are rebelling against is nominally Shiite controlled. But the essential truth the demonstrators insist on and make clear through their resistance is that the sectarian power sharing works only for a tiny clique at the top, who divide the country’s wealth among themselves.

At the start of December, the Iraqi revolt started to spread to northern Sunni cities such as Mosul, which until now, fearful of being portrayed as Islamic State supporters or terrorists, had remained quiet. Thousands of university students and their teachers rallied in solidarity with people in Najaf, and in protest at the massacre carried out in response to the burning of the Iranian consulate.

When mass protests erupted across Iran in November, Iraqi protesters chanted in solidarity as the Iranian regime shut down internet access across the country and massacred hundreds of poor and working class demonstrators. The thousands of people occupying Tahrir Square in Baghdad composed chants and messages insisting that theirs was not simply an all-Iraqi revolution that rejected the sectarian divisions stoked in that country by both foreign and domestic elites, nor even just an Arab revolution, but a true international, all-Middle Eastern revolution of the people against the corrupt rulers, spurning all divisions of religion, ethnicity, culture or nationality.

The return of mass revolt to the Arab world so soon after the counter-revolution that drowned the 2011 movement in blood, and while that counter-revolution continues in numerous countries, is one of the most extraordinary events in modern history. It signals both the depth of the crisis in Arab capitalism, and the deep well from which the 2011 revolt drew its strength. The Arab revolution – maybe now that the Iranian people are rising, we need to call it the Middle East and North African revolution – is not a blip on the screen of history. It is a deeply rooted revolt that will present one of the defining crises of world capitalism for many years to come.

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