“The age of revolutions is over,” my grade nine teacher in Iran told me. He suggested I was wrong to say that the people of the Arab world would rise up to overthrow their dictators with their own power. He probably said so after having read some paraphrased version of Fukuyama’s famous article “The End of History?,” explaining to us how things like popular revolution were “so yesterday.”
Looking at the early years of this century, one might have been forgiven for believing that. The only region of the world that saw massive revolutions in this period was Latin America, and these revolutions were far from normal, mostly revolving around socialist leaders being elected by the ballot box.
But if you didn’t get the clue from the recent rise of revolutions in Iran, Thailand, and Kyrgyzstan in the last couple of years, the rise of the magnificent revolutionary movement that began in Tunisia, and which is beginning to rampage across the Arab world, should be proof enough.
The importance of these events can’t be overemphasized. Relying on their own power, Tunisian masses fought the cruel, Western-supported regime of Zine al Abidine Bin Ali and made him flee the country in less than two weeks. This was the first time ever that an Arab despot was overthrown by a popular revolution. Before, it was said that something like this couldn’t be done. All the Western proponents of “democracy” were happy to back dictatorial regimes in the region and were confident that these regimes would remain in power. Right before Mr. Bin Ali had to pack his suitcase, The Economist, the most far-sighted paper of global capitalism, said: “Tunisia’s troubles are unlikely to unseat the 74-year-old president or even to jolt his model of autocracy.” After this was proven wrong, it was the turn of all “experts” to predict why this revolution would never spread to other Arab countries. Stephen M. Walt, one of many “distinguished” right-wing pundits for the journal Foreign Policy, wrote an article that could be judged by its title: “Why the Tunisian Revolution Won’t Spread.” There were specific articles saying why Egypt, especially, was “stable” and immune from all of this!
Next thing you know, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians fill Cairo’s Liberation square demanding the immediate overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, another corrupt ally of Western imperialists. As I write these words, Mubarak still clings to power and has unleashed his goons on the revolution. As the battle over Egypt’s fate goes on in the Liberation Square, even Barack Obama has had to ask the old American ally to let go and leave power immediately. Similar movements are going on in Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Morocco, and Algeria. One thing is clear: the Arab world will never be the same again. A revolution has engulfed the region.
But what now?
This is, of course, the easy part of the revolution. Dictators may flee, but the question remains on what will replace them, and what will become of people’s quests for democracy, equality, dignity, and justice.
A few observations can be made.
One is the conspicuous absence of Islamic fundamentalists in these revolutions. A fairy tale that we were told by the Western governments was that the only alternative to the despotic Western-backed regimes in the region would be Islamist theocracies like Iran’s. However, now that the actual revolutionary movement of the masses has started, how many calls do you hear for the establishment of Sharia Law? It is clear that the demands of the revolution are for revolutionary democracy and not Islamic theocracy.
And if you thought this revolution was about supporting Islamist forces against the more pro-Western forces, just consider this fact: when there were demonstrations in support of the Egyptian revolt in the West Bank and Gaza, they were both suppressed; respectively, by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and Islamist Hamas government. This led Omar Barghouti, a well-known Palestinian activist, to say: “Fatah and Hamas agree on so little; at the core of that little common denominator lies repression of dissent and suppression of freedoms.” The same could be said of the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who have been dealing with their own revolution for the past two years, and are dead scared of the latest developments.
But if Islamists are not to fill the vacuum, who is?
Pundits — especially those who argued for stability — are now talking about “orderly transition.” What they have in common with the dictators of the region is their call on the people to exercise “restraint.” Basically, not overthrow the whole regime and hasten “stability.” As I write these lines, Egyptian masses are learning a bitter lesson about what happens when you don’t arm the revolution. Dozens of goons, many of them policemen who shed their uniforms, “spontaneously” (but are strangely well-armed, and riding horses and camels) attack people, killing dozens, and injuring hundreds.
Who is to take power in the midst of this chaos?
There is a lot of advice being bestowed on the Arab masses right now. Our very own Clifford Orwin, who teaches political science at U of T but is also a fellow at Stanford University’s notorious Hoover Institution, mused in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail that, “It’s hardly an accident that the only functioning Arab democracy, albeit a struggling one, is Iraq,” and reminded us that “democratic self-government” in Tunisia and Egypt “may well require the same intensive international nurturing.”
Thanks, but no thanks, Professor Orwin. Take your advice to your right-wing pals in the United States. If there is one thing that the Egyptian masses have learned it is that the only power they can trust is their own. They should storm the barracks, arm themselves, and set up neighbourhood councils all over the land that could convene a genuinely democratic assembly to decide the fate of their own country. The first decision of such an assembly would be to take over the unjustly acquired wealth of dictators and capitalists and start a society in which people truly run their own lives.
An Arab revolution has started with a quest for democracy. It will not stand still until it has established complete political and economic democracy, which might as well be called socialism.
Arash Azizi is co-chair of the Marxist Discussion Club