Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya shake world order

March 18, 2011

From the March-April 2011 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

The revolutionary movement that began in Tunisia in December, when 26-year-old street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest at the confiscation of his unlicensed vegetable cart, has shaken the world. The overthrow of dictators Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt has inspired new hopes from Beijing to Wisconsin. The new human relations manifest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square became central, within weeks, to discussions of youth, labor, and other movements around the world.

Across the Maghreb and Middle East there have been demonstrations and uprisings, from Bahrain to Algeria to Morocco, Sudan to Yemen to Iran. The revolts have included some of the lowest and deepest layers of the oppressed people in the region and, as a result, have seen the ruling classes of the world tremble, and scramble to catch up. Revolutionaries have been stirred to the marrow of our bones.

In Tunisia, protests coalesced around the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) and beyond this, councils were spontaneously formed to manage daily life within the rebellion. As a resident of Kasserin described: “After the withdrawal of the special forces, the city could turn and function without the presence of the state apparatus, which had also fled… We have been in a situation of permanent, open general strike for 15 days… It’s the local committee, which is basically a strike committee, that makes all the decisions… During the most difficult days, the bakeries distributed bread for free and we all took to the street to chase off Ben Ali’s police.”

Since Ben Ali fled Jan. 14, mass demonstrations have continued calling for the uprooting of all traces of his rule. His successor, Mohammed Ghannouchi, was forced out of office Feb. 27.


In Egypt, the current movement built upon years of profound labor unrest. This was apparent in the youth of the April 6th Movement who played such a large role in initiating the Jan. 25 protests across Egypt. They initially came together in 2008 in support of textile workers in Muhalla al-Kubra who had called for a national general strike. That strike was initiated by working women, which gives a sense of just how deep the passion was that this movement unleashed. As one man said this year, “This isn’t about cutting some branches. This is about tearing up the tree by the roots.”

Across the region, the rebellions are fueled by economic crises–unemployment, lack of food and housing–but also represent a clearly articulated desire for a new way of living. The demonstrations have been organized by youth, who make up a huge percentage of the population. They include women, who are also determined to take control of their own destinies. Women, who are evident everywhere in the struggle in Tunisia and Egypt, and men as well are determined to stop religious fundamentalists from hijacking their revolution as was done in Iran 1979. Crowds in Tahrir Square chanted, “No to the [Muslim] Brotherhood, no to the parties. Revolution of the youth.”

Indeed, something new was being created in Tahrir Square. It was a form of direct democracy, that reached beyond merely formal freedom to genuinely new human relationships. Working class demands run through the whole time from Jan. 25, when those who called the first march on Tahrir Square recruited protesters in poor neighborhoods by focusing on issues like the minimum wage; through Jan. 30, when the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions was created by several independent unions (a recent development themselves) and other workers’ organizations, and called for a general strike; to Feb. 8-11, when a nationwide strike wave helped force the army into acceding to the demand for Mubarak’s removal.

Women, too, were present in a new way. They were present as active and equal, as thinkers, fighters and debaters. As Salma El Tarzi, a 33-year-old filmmaker, said, “I was one of many women, young and old, there. We were as active as the men. Some acted as nurses and looked after the wounded during the battles; others were simply helping with distributing water. But there were a great number of women that were on the front line hurling stones at the police and pro-Mubarak thugs. Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir. When the men saw that women were fighting in the front line, that changed their perception of us and we were all united. We were all Egyptians now. The general view of women changed for many. Not a single case of sexual harassment happened during the protests up until the last day when Mubarak stepped down. That is a big change for Egypt.”

As one commentator described it, “The Caireans…have implicitly brought into focus the idea of the ‘right to the city’ as a collective project of social transformation. They were not stopped by fears about maintaining order, nor by the police and the state’s paid murderers, nor by threats of a coup. Instead they organized a continuous occupation of a city’s central square by tens, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of people, defending it, feeding it, nurturing it, articulating it, developing it, as their daily work.”[1]

As a young occupier declared, “You feel like this is the society you want to live in.” Or as a 62-year-old engineer, said: “I will never vacate this square until the demands of the people are executed by the military leaders. We cannot have a half-revolution, we need a complete revolution.”


As in Tunisia, the question remains: what happens next? The U.S., European and Middle eastern rulers would like to see the army in control of a “transition” to bourgeois democracy–a great step backwards. They want the initiative taken out of the hands of the masses, who have been so magnificent in rising to every challenge. It is only the deepening of that self-activity which can create the basis for workers’ control of production, for breaking the law of value and establishing a new society where the division between mental and manual labor can be ended. With it, a real banner of freedom can encourage the rest of the world to break away from capitalism and its crises–as has already begun to happen.

A new struggle is underway in Egypt, as in Tunisia. On one side, it is a struggle by the masses to defend, extend and deepen the content of the revolution. On the other side, the rulers will try to cut it short, to remove the initiative from the masses and channel everything into “democracy building.”

The despised emergency law will only be revoked, says the Army, when Tahrir Square is liberated from liberators. President Obama calls this scenario “a credible transition to democracy.” It must be opposed, whether promoted by outside forces, the Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, El-Baradei or some new party.


Libya’s 42-year ruler, Muammar Qaddafi, has added another level of complication. Situated between Tunisia and Egypt, with many of the same issues, it was inevitable that Libya would also explode. But Qaddafi, in his armed assault against that country’s freedom movement, has done services for the world’s rulers that Mubarak or Ben Ali did not do.

Only a ruler who spoke the language of revolution, without the substance, could confuse the issues enough that the old world of misery and oppression could regain a foothold within the moment. Qaddafi poses as an anti-imperialist, despite his friendships with ruling class politicians from Blair to Berlusconi; he has failed to use Libya’s oil wealth for the benefit of the people; he has aggressively promoted the “favorable investment climate” there, through his son Saif al-Islam; and he has denied basic human rights, while lamenting the ouster of that “good man” Ben Ali.

Yet a part of the Left, following Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, still buys Qaddafi’s act, despite the fact that the only place his Green Book has ever taken root is among the international “Third Position” of neo-fascism.

By pulling the focus of discussion back to militarism, war and “humanitarian intervention,” his actions help to pull the discussion away from revolutionary initiatives of the masses, and back down well-worn paths of counter-revolution. The U.S. rulers don’t much care about the Libyan people, one way or the other–but they would love a long, dragged out war of words in which the ruling class postures and takes center stage, spotlit in red by the Libyan blood Qaddafi provides.

Despite having lost control of Eastern Libya, along with other strategic areas, Qaddafi for now maintains enough military resources to crush protest demonstrations in Tripoli–at the cost of hundreds killed–and to bomb rebel-held towns and cities. He is not shrinking from crimes against civilians. What has limited his ability, to a great extent, is the defection of a large part of the Libyan army to the rebels. Some pilots have also refused to bomb their fellow citizens.

Meanwhile Netanyahu, Ahmadinejad, the Saudi royals and the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain can breathe a sigh of relief that they are not the ones playing that role, yet.


The U.S. allies Israel and Bahrain, a monarchy close to Saudi Arabia, have made no secret of their fear of revolution.

The Gulf nation of Bahrain has seen demonstrations that included large percentages of its population. The majority Shi’a are ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy, and Bahrain is the base to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Protests that began with demands for reform escalated to calls for the end of the monarchy following a series of brutal attacks by security forces that left many dead and injured.

The monarchy has made some concessions, but demonstrations continue. Many open questions remain, given even greater weight by the presence of the U.S. military and the movement’s possible effect upon Saudi Arabia’s restive Shi’a population.

The Israeli government made no secret of its support for Mubarak. It has depended on the existence of dictatorships both to serve as threats to justify its own crimes of occupation, and as deal-making partners–in this respect, President Netanyahu and Israel’s Right would prefer Mubarak to his assassinated predecessor Sadat, and both to Nasser, leader of the 1952 Revolution. The sight of Arab revolutions fills them with horror.

In Palestine, the fear of genuine revolution was seen in the way demonstrations in support of the Egyptian movement were initially suppressed by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. But the same stirrings among youth, workers and women that have exploded elsewhere are also stirring among Palestinians. This was articulated most clearly in the recent Manifesto of Gaza Youth (see “Gaza youth shout out,” Jan.-Feb. 2011 N&L).

The hypocrisy of the U.S. veto of a UN resolution condemning Israel’s illegal (as even the U.S. government admits) West Bank settlements demonstrates once again the counter-revolutionary commitment of this country’s rulers. It was the diplomatic corollary of those “Made in U.S.A.” tear gas canisters that littered Egypt’s streets.


It is imperative to recognize in this great mass upsurge for freedom the living Subject that can transcend the old categories of thought. It is vital not to be pulled in by ideological spectacle, whether of a false “revolutionary” like Qaddafi or the order-mongers of the bourgeoisie. This is what can make revolutionary philosophy a way forward, as uniting theory and reality.

The revolutions in the Middle East are the living movement of world history. For the moment they can even be considered its central pivot.

The question of the day is the one that has been central to the development of Marxist-Humanism as a philosophy of revolution: What happens after the revolution? The “leaderlessness” of all these revolts makes clear that masses of people in motion are not seeking yet one more “leadership,” whether generals, clerics or parties.

Specifically, women are seeking new kinds of relationships that go beyond the very concrete limitations set by Egypt’s history. Workers in Egypt and Tunisia are fighting for human dignity along with more concrete demands, and it has brought them together with youth who are seeking a place in a world with no future for them.

All these demands, and more, open vast historic vistas that call for profound changes in the structure of everyday life. They unfold before a backdrop of world capitalist crisis that resonates on multiple frequencies with connections between struggles.

We are back at the kind of radically questioning moment that Raya Dunayevskaya pointed to at the start of the modern era, when Karl Marx, in 1844, transformed G.W.F. Hegel’s revolution in philosophy into a philosophy of revolution. Like today’s revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, young Marx was looking beyond “factionalism”–which party ran the government–or merely political changes, toward the revolutionizing of life itself: creating new relations between men and women, nature and industry, human beings and our work. By 1850 Marx had defined this as “permanent revolution.”[2]

Current events are bringing Marx’s act of philosophic creation to vivid life.

Then as now, “The class challenge to the rulers, from below–the development of the class struggles that came into the open during the last year of Hegel’s life and developed into full-fledged revolutions in Marx’s time–marked the beginning of a totally new age and therefore also of philosophy: ‘the nature of the fact and of cognition.'”[3]


It is a very significant step that new Leftist parties–formerly illegal–are forming beside newly independent union federations. There will surely be independent Marxist thinkers, as arose from Iran’s 1979 revolutionary experience.

Marxist-Humanists bring our own history to that dialogue. This includes the post-1968 development that Dunayevskaya described this way: “These were not just ‘factional struggles’ but historic-philosophic tendencies in a very new form that at one and the same time caught the historic link to Marx and had an original contribution to record. That theory was needed, that there could be no revolution without a philosophy of revolution, was shown by the fact that De Gaulle, without firing a single shot, succeeded in aborting the great 1968 revolt in France….The youth in revolt had not betrayed; they thought they were very original in rejecting ‘factional struggles’ and insisting, instead, on more and more activity. But they didn’t achieve what they were after. So this time we had to find the link from theory and not only from practice.”[4]

It is the masses making history that clarifies the role of revolutionary organization at such a moment. That role is nothing more or less than the comprehension of history as the human struggle for freedom and self-determination, in order to project the necessary conditions for a truly free human society–the many paths to reach that needed new society will not be easy to work out. [5]

–March 5, 2011


1.Nigel C. Gibson, “Egypt and the revolution in our minds,” 2/17/2011 Pambazuka News
2.“While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible, and with the achievement, at most, of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent… not the improvement of existing society but the foundation of a new one.”—Karl Marx, “Address to the Communist League,” March 1850.
3.Raya Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao, p. 45.
4.Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, p.xxviii.
5.“That which Hegel judged to be the synthesis of the ‘Self-Thinking Idea’ and the ‘Self-Bringing-Forth of Liberty,’ Marxist-Humanism holds, is what Marx had called the new society. The many paths to get there are not easy to work out.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, p.xxxviii.)

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