Three years later: Was it a revolution?

Scepticism and disappointment have regained the upper hand after the popular uprising in 2011.

Arabs, with a deep awareness that the old order cannot be maintained, emerged in the political arena in 2011 [Reuters]

Three years ago – to the surprise of both Arab intellectuals in their ivory towers and Western experts expounding on the passivity of the Arab masses and their lack of desire for change and democracy – the Egyptian people, followed the Tunisians by taking to the streets. In a fortnight, they brought to an end a dictatorship that had seemed unshakable. The peaceful nature of the changes, which had its martyrs but no large-scale massacres, astonished the world.

Three years later, scepticism and disappointment have regained the upper hand; and those same Arab intellectuals and Western experts now hold forth on the “Islamist winter”, the backwardness of the masses (in Egypt, some argue seriously about whether or not to give rights to the illiterate), on a “Western plot” and the impossibility of changing the Arab world. They even support the slogan of the old regimes: “better the military than the Islamists”.

Was it a revolution?

With hindsight, how can we analyse what really happened in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011? Was it a revolution? The ease with which Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell created an illusion: This was only a first step. We could even say that if these two presidents fell so easily, it was precisely because the old regimes are still in place. In other words, most of the ruling class of Egypt and Tunisia realised they could sacrifice the two rais (presidents) without putting their own privileges at risk. Large fortunes, the often corrupt businessmen, the deep state, as well as the upper levels of the bureaucracy, were all resigned to the departure of the dictators: Accepting it was the best way to try to hang on to their privileges, and most importantly, avoid a deeper revolution.

This leads us to reflect on the difference between the situation in these two countries and Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has managed to convince an essential part of the ruling classes that his downfall would lead not only to the loss of their privileges, but also to their physical liquidation.

Why did he succeed where Ben Ali and Mubarak failed? Many factors were at play. First, the brutal determination of the power bloc which, after some hesitation, welded around him. But the militarisation of the uprising, the arrival of foreign jihadi fighters, the inability of the opposition to “reassure” the minorities and at least a part of the elite, all facilitated al-Assad’s manoeuvres and allowed him to don the flag of “the fight against the jihadists”.

In Egypt, the victory reflected by Mubarak’s departure did not signal the demise of the former state. Its deep reform, first and foremost the reform of the interior ministry, and responding to the aspirations of the population for social justice (let us recall the role of workers’ strikes in both Tunisia and Egypt), required a strategy for the short and medium term. Not only have the opposition forces been unable to formulate a realistic programme – beyond the incantatory invocation of Nasser and his model, which no group or party explained how, under current conditions, it will be applied. They were also unable to define a strategy of gradual transformation of the state apparatus that would have purged the key figures of the former regime while “amnestying” others. Not having a clear programme had been one of the strengths and weaknesses of the movement from January to February 2011.

Revolution in progress 

If we compare what happened in the Arab world to the great revolutions in the history of the 20th century, it should be noted that in the Arab world, there were no political parties or ideology, either then or now, that were capable of mobilising the masses (as in Russia in 1917 or Iran in 1978-1979) in order to break the old state apparatus and build a new one, making a clean sweep of the past. That is a fact. Some may regret it, others rejoice, but it is a reality that will not change in the coming years. Arab revolutions look more like a process, with advances and retreats, than a major break between a “before” and “after”.

It is ironic that the interior minister appointed by Mohamed Morsi is now orchestrating the brutal repression against the Brotherhood.

In this process, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who participated in the demonstrations of January-February 2011, behaved essentially like a conservative force in the sense that they sought a compromise with the old state apparatus, as in the military establishment and the police. It is ironic that the interior minister appointed by Mohamed Morsi is now orchestrating the brutal repression against the Brotherhood.

Once elected, and despite promises made to revolutionary forces in order to achieve victory in the second round of the presidential election, Morsi continued in this way. He was encouraged, it must be said, by the hesitations and delays of the opposition represented by the National Salvation Front, and the rapprochement between it and the forces of the old regime. Finally the Muslim Brotherhood, through their own mistakes and sectarianism, allowed the comeback of the old regime as many Egyptians accepted and eventually justified the July 3 coup.

However, despite the support given to the military in the first weeks following the coup, and despite the repression (or because of it), it is clear that the new government – a facade for the military – is incapable of building on whatever solid ground may exist. Especially since neither in terms of economic and social field (the country now lives on aid from the Saudis and the Gulf states), nor in terms of freedoms (the new law on demonstrations destroys a hard-won right obtained by Egyptians), is the government capable of meeting the demands of the revolution of January-February 2011.

People power

Out of this grim observation, we could be led to believe that what took place in the Arab world was not a revolution (or even that it was a Western plot to destroy the region). However, 2011 in fact marks the emergence of the Arab peoples in the political arena, with their deep awareness that the old order cannot be maintained, that the Arab world cannot remain isolated from the rest of the world, and that states must comply with their citizens’ demands for freedom, social justice and dignitiy. Beyond the advances and setbacks, this is a major transformation.

In his Left-wing communism, an infantile disorder (1920) Vladimir Ilyich Lenin described a revolutionary situation: “It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph.” If we stick to these criteria, the situation in the Arab world is revolutionary.

Alain Gresh is editor of Le Monde diplomatique and a specialist on the Middle East. His books include The PLO, The Struggle Within (Zed Books, London, 1986), Un péril islamiste? (Complexe, Bruxelles, 1994), Israël-Palestine, vérités sur un conflit (Fayard, Paris, 2001).