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Banner in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011

Banner in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011. Photo: Public Domain

As part of a series looking back at the immense popular uprisings that began ten years ago, Susan Ram salutes the millions who set North Africa and the Middle East aflame 

It’s been ten years now since a remarkable chain of revolutionary uprisings caught hold across North Africa and the Middle East, dispatching a line of despots from Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the west to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the east.

The astonishing spread of these upheavals, and their speed of travel, is without precedent in recent times. From the lighting of the match in Tunisia in December 2010, the conflagration spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Oman, Jordan and Syria in the space of just three months.

For Marxist theorist and historian Perry Anderson, only three comparable concatenations have taken place in the past two hundred years: the Hispanic American wars of liberation between 1810 and 1825; the European revolutions of 1848-49; and the fall of the regimes in the Soviet bloc in 1989-91.

The significance and historical resonance of the Arab Spring uprisings was evident both to the millions who participated in them and to those watching from the wings or further afield. In the thick of the action in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the frontline of the Egyptian revolution and in many ways the epicentre of the spring events, Counterfire’s John Rees strove to keep pace with the complexity and exhilarating pace of what was taking place around him:

“I think people think the world is going to change,” he noted on January 31, 2011 – six days after the Egyptian revolution ignited.

“They have been under this dictatorship for 30 years, there are people who have been raped and tortured in prison, their families killed by the regime. They have done something absolutely extraordinary, and they think the whole world will have to change as a result of what they are doing – and, who knows, they may be right.”

For many on the left, the Arab spring appeared an augury of progressive things to come: perhaps a classic revolutionary moment, perhaps a playing out, in the Arab context, of the ‘new’ politics embodied by the movement of the indignados in Europe and of Occupy Wall Street across the Atlantic. For French philosopher Alain Badiou, the gargantuan mobilisations seemed to embody a “communism of movement” in which multiple dynamic elements – fighting, barricading, camping, debating, cooking, tending the wounded – were fusing in inspiring and sustainable ways. 

Within a short span of time, however, all that seemed heralded by the vernal eruptions of 2011 had withered or been brutally expunged. A tide of reaction and counterrevolution gathered force across the region; heroic democratic impulses were smothered by civil war and foreign invasion; in Egypt, there was a return to military dictatorship in its most virulent and brutal form.

Before examining the factors that weighed against this extraordinary effort by millions of oppressed and desperate people to turn their world upside down, it’s worth revisiting some landmark moments of the revolution they built.

The first wave

All began with a suicide: that of a pauperised vegetable vendor struggling for survival in Sidi Bouzid, a small Tunisian provincial town. On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire following yet another instance of harassment and humiliation at the hands of local police and municipal officials.

Within hours of his self-immolation, protests began erupting across the town, rapidly gathering pace and spreading outwards to other urban centres. Bouazizi's death was long and agonising; when he finally died on January 4, the conflagration sparked by his act roared into the national capital. In a matter of days, the country’s much-reviled leader, President Ben Ali, was forced into exile.

In these opening weeks of 2011, mass protests were erupting across Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and EgyptEven Oman, long viewed (from the West) as a tightly ruled oasis of tranquillity in a turbulent region, found itself pummelled by popular protest.

On January 25, Cairo experienced its first coordinated demonstrations, focused on the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. The regime responded with a clampdown in which mobile phone and social media networks were blocked, thousands of tear-gas and baton-wielding security personnel were let loose on protestors and hundreds of arrests were made. Even so, nothing could staunch the flow of furious protestors into Tahrir Square. On February 11, Mubarak stepped down, handing power to the military.

So the concatenation rolled on. By February 16, protests were erupting in the Libyan city of Benghazi, before spreading to Tripoli, the national capital. Meanwhile, protestors in Bahrain seized control of Pearl Roundabout, a public square surrounding an iconic sculpture not far from Manama’s financial district.

By early March, the revolutionary tide was lapping Yemen, exacting concessions, including a pledge to create a parliamentary system of government, from the country’s ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Next in line was Syrian dictator Bashar-al Assad, by late March confronting the largest and most determined protests seen in the country for decades.

Counterrevolution

But as quickly as despots were toppled, concessions towards democracy dangled and promises offered (in Egypt, a vow by the army, on January 31, to stand with the protesters), the counterrevolution was set in motion.

In Bahrain, the regime struck back with particular ferocity. On March 14, troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, invited in under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, descended on Pearl Square to smash the uprising. Martial law and a state of emergency were imposed by King Hamad, latest in a long line of sclerotic monarchs.

In Egypt, the crushing of the revolution, bloody and relentless, unfolded over a longer stretch of time, culminating in the overthrow of the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Since 2014, Egypt has been under the iron rule of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military intelligence director turned politician whose pleasure it has been to preside over one of the world’s most repressive regimes: a market leader in the business of torture, surveillance and the mass incarceration of political opponents.

Other states swept by the Arab Spring dissolved into civil war, succumbed to separatist pressures, became targeted by Islamic extremism, or confronted by Western military invasion. In the case of Libya, hopes for a new, democratised road ahead post-Gadaffi were soon trampled by the ‘stabilising’ military mission signed off by Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy. 

By 2013, it was evident that little had effectively changed in the institutional frameworks and ruling elites of the spring-swept Arab states.

Why did the people rise up?

What was it that impelled so many millions of working people across North Africa and the Middle East to take to the streets ten years ago? The answer lies in the volcanic social pressures that have built up in the context of what Perry Anderson identifies as the twin hallmarks of the region: the “unique longevity and intensity of the Western imperial grip” and the persistence of “the assorted tyrannies that have preyed on it since formal decolonisation.”

For the past century or more, this yoke has provided stability for the continuing exercise of Euro-American power across the region’s immense oil reserves and strategic emplacements. It has underwritten the enduring sway of despots of every stripe: from Saudi royals and the petty sheikhs of Oman and the Gulf to the nominally republican regimes (dictatorships by any other name) implanted in states from Algeria to Egypt.

Absent from this landscape has been anything resembling political democracy, any government deriving some degree of legitimacy from constitutional protocols and concessions to popular sovereignty. In a context of inexorably building pressures (reinforced by neoliberal policies and home-grown cronyism), people across the region confront escalating food prices, a calamitous housing crisis, disintegrating public services and catastrophic levels of unemployment, particularly among the young. Such pressures can only intensify in a continuing context of imperialist-backed despotism and repressive rule.

Two, three, many Arab Springs

For these reasons, the 2011 Arab spring should be understood not as an epic mobilisation that ultimately failed but rather as the opening round of a longer-term process: an existential, to-the-death struggle, involving millions of hard-pressed and desperate people, for a place in this world and an equitable, creative and mutually determined road ahead.

Two years ago, a fresh burgeoning of spring shoots, this time in Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon, once again exposed the wobbly foundations of Arab despotisms and the strategy of their Western enablers. Across the immense sweep of North Africa and the Middle East, underlying processes rooted in historic crises incapable of resolution by brutal, fossilized regimes will continue to play out, reproducing the conditions in which millions of people are prepared (or have no alternative but) to take to the streets.

Half a century ago, Che Guevara, underlining the importance of continuing the revolutionary struggle in oppressed regions of the world, imagined a scenario in which “two, three, many Vietnams” would whittle away at US hegemony.

In our times, “The people demand the fall of the regime!” – the great unifying slogan that issued from tens of millions of throats ten years ago – will continue to reverberate. To re-work Che’s analogy: there will be two, three, many Arab Springs.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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