Anne Alexander interviews activists from across the Middle East and North Africa about their rebellious decade.
(This article appeared originally in the International Socialism journal on April 6th 2021)
Over the past decade, the Middle East and North Africa have experienced waves of popular uprisings that have turned the region into fertile ground for experiments in revolutionary mobilisation—and a laboratory for the horrors of counter-revolution.1 Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq have all witnessed mobilisations from below that forced major ruptures in the ability of authoritarian regimes to govern. These mass movements have claimed the scalps of presidents, ministers and heads of secret police. They have fractured armies and shaken state and party bureaucracies, sometimes forcing the state to re-establish sovereignty over its own territory with the aid of foreign powers. However, to what extent have these experiences pointed the way towards the potential for what Lenin called a “real people’s revolution”, one in which “the mass of the people, their majority, the very lowest social groups, crushed by oppression and exploitation, rose independently and stamped on the entire course of the revolution the imprint of their own demands, their attempt to build in their own way a new society in place of the old society that was being destroyed”?2
To mark the tenth anniversary of the first wave of uprisings in 2011, we asked activists from Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Algeria about the strategic lessons revolutionaries should draw from these mobilisations.
The storm breaks
The process began with the eruption of a mass movement in Tunisia. The downfall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came amid a general strike on 14 January 2011. Salam Ahmad, a Syrian activist now living in exile in Britain, had just begun a post as a teacher in the largely Kurdish-populated region of Afrin in northern Syria:
Like any young person in Syria and in the Arab world, I was part of a youth that aspired to have a better life, a better future for ourselves that would be full of dignity, full of humanity—and freedom, of course. Democracy, as well.3
Under the suffocating grip of the Ba’athist dictatorship, Salam and his colleagues could only secretly watch the drama unfolding on television pictures beaming in from around the region. “It was like dominoes. Ben Ali went, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak went, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was about to collapse,” he says. Then in March, the spark came to Syria. Children in Deraa, near the border with Jordan, were arrested and tortured for daring to tell the Syrian president “Now It’s Your Turn!” by graffitiing this slogan on the walls of their school. Protests by their parents and neighbours were met with shocking violence from the regime, turning a local confrontation into a national uprising:
When people were killed in Deraa and Aleppo, we would shout, “Oh Deraa, we are with you till death”. The regime was in complete shock because people were still taking to the streets despite the killing, detentions and torture. The more the regime killed, the more people were determined to take to the streets and bring it down.
A later wave of uprisings began in December 2018 with the emergence of a popular movement in Sudan, which became a nationwide challenge to a regime that had been in power for more than a generation. In Algeria too the rise of a mass, popular protest movement, known as the “hirak”, in February 2019, was on a scale “unparalleled in the country’s post-independence period”, says Hamza Hamouchene, an Algerian researcher and activist. “When we say ‘marches of millions’, it was truly millions of people. On some days, and especially in the early months of the uprisings, many observers estimated that 10 to 20 percent of all Algerians were on the streets.” The hirak’s demands for radical political change revealed a remarkable recovery of ordinary Algerians’ political agency despite the scars of repression, civil war and austerity that marked the previous two decades.
One common thread between the different uprisings is how escalating social crisis affecting wide layers of the population sparked small-scale acts of everyday resistance despite the intensity of political repression. In Sudan, the regime’s profligate military and security spending, coupled with the impact of the US-supported sanctions, had led the country to the verge of economic collapse by late 2018. Bakeries began to run out of bread, cashpoints out of money, fuel stores out of cooking gas. For many Sudanese women, this was the last straw. Muzan al-Neel, an activist and blogger based in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, explains:
Neighbourhoods were going out to protest due to water cuts and power cuts that went on for several days or weeks, garbage not being collected for several months, and so on. Of course, it was the women on these protests, because it was the women who were expected to do the work when these services were not available. They faced the violence of the state head on: the social violence, the legal violence, the economic violence. So the revolution made perfect sense to them.
The prehistory of the Algerian hirak is also shot through with the struggles of the poor and excluded, argues Hamza:
The Algerian revolution is not just a middle-class uprising. The popular classes from marginalised neighbourhoods, the unemployed youth and the working poor are all involved, marching for freedom and voicing their anger at their social and economic exclusion as well as the processes of pauperisation they are subjected to. Many of the famous and poignant slogans and chants were the invention and creation of this “youth without horizons” that suddenly saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
The road to revolution
Muzan argues that the myriad struggles of the poor, oppressed and marginalised in Sudan left a legacy in personal terms: an understanding of the need to fight. In a cell crowded with women and girls who had been arrested on the streets, she heard stories of the struggles that had preceded their participation in the revolution:
They had already fought so much even before they got onto the streets. You don’t start fighting when you get onto the streets and meet the police and national security. These are not the first enemies that you have met. No, you have already fought against your family, and you’ve even fought with people walking on the street for your right to be in public spaces. I don’t just mean to protest either. Women have to fight every day in order to take public transport from their homes to their workplaces. Having to fight was not as new to the women as it was to the men.
The years before the uprisings were also rich in experiments in popular organising. In Sudan, the “resistance committees” that emerged in neighbourhoods and workplaces as the key organisational form of the popular revolution during 2019 had their roots in previous attempts to mobilise. Sami Halim, one of the editors at Gidaam, a radical left website in Sudan, describes this prehistory of the revolution:
In September 2013, there was a fierce uprising, primarily in Khartoum. It was very wide and very popular. There was looting, burning and smashing, confrontation with the police and so on. At that time, some committees organised themselves to call for demonstrations. They made speeches to the people and distributed some pamphlets. But the uprising was too short to make resistance committees spread.
The crushing of the 2013 uprising failed to entirely wipe out these efforts at organising. Within a couple of years, activists were back, trying to rebuild. It was not just in deprived neighbourhoods that social struggles paved the way for the uprisings—strikes shook key public sector workplaces too. Sami explains:
Informal workers constitute a majority of wage earners in all sectors including the service sector. However, there are, for instance, about 7,000 registrar doctors and about 13,000 to 14,000 trainee doctors. Their major strike in 2016—the second in six years—was a benchmark, offering guidelines on how to organise industrial action. Knowledge like that had been eradicated after the coup that brought President Omar El Bashir to power in 1989.
Several of the uprisings which erupted in 2011 also followed years of struggle by organised parts of the working class, says Mahmoud Hussein, a revolutionary socialist activist from Egypt:
In Egypt in 2008 there was an uprising in the city of Mahalla, which workers had a key role in triggering. At the same time there was an uprising in the Gafsa phosphate mines in Tunisia. We saw the strong growth of the workers’ movement in Egypt and Tunisia even before that, with mobilisations by teachers and doctors in Tunis, and then the miners. In Egypt there were strikes by textile workers, followed by strikes in almost every town between 2006 and 2008. The workers’ movement was strongly on the rise. That wasn’t the case in Libya, Syria and Yemen.4
The ways in which workers organised themselves in Egypt during these strike waves prefigured some of the forms of mass protest during the uprising itself, and key lessons about how to mobilise were learnt from workers’ struggles. Mahmoud describes this process:
The wide participation of women in the workers’ protests and demonstrations, the creation of mechanisms of organisation and the formation of committees for provisions, security and stewarding of demonstrations and sit-ins—all of these things appeared in the revolution. The workers’ movement was a school for developing forms of organisation. To some extent, experiences such as the occupation of public spaces and the formation of provisions committees transferred over from the workers’ movement to the revolution in January 2011.
The great sit-ins and street marches that characterised most of the uprisings would expand on this model, creating liberated zones in the heart of major cities where ordinary people could finally express themselves politically, organisationally and creatively. “The re-appropriation of public spaces creates a kind of an agora where people discuss, debate, exchange views, talk strategy and perspectives, criticise one another or simply express themselves in many ways including through art and music,” explains Hamza:
This opened new horizons for resisting and building together. Cultural production took on a new meaning because it was associated with liberation and seen as a form of political action and solidarity. The liberatory process is a transformative one at the same time. We can witness this in the euphoria, energy, confidence, wit, humour and joy this movement has inspired after decades of social and political suppression.
As Muzan notes, the revolutionary mobilisations created a sense of shared purpose, and opened the eyes of millions to the identity of their common enemies in the state. This began to break down the ideological grip of racism and xenophobia on a mass scale for the first time. In Sudan, this meant rejecting the regime’s scapegoating of people from Darfur, who had been targeted by the El Bashir regime and the Janjaweed militia in a genocidal campaign of mass killings in the decades before the revolution. In January 2019, the regime announced the discovery of a Darfuri “terrorist” cell and televised “confessions” by a group of students who it claimed were involved with organising the growing protests. Muzan recalls the shift in popular consciousness shown by this event:
Only ten years ago, this would have worked. It would have worked perfectly so that Khartoum’s mothers would have told their children not to join these protests because they were organised by envious Darfuris. I was surprised by the reaction myself as people raised the chant against El Bashir, “You’re racist and arrogant. Now the whole country is Darfur.”
The recognition of these divide and rule tactics led to reflection on how the regime had tried to make people complicit in its crimes, all too often suceeding to some extent. “There was a sense of guilt too,” says Muzan:
You could see this in the chants—there was one that said specifically, “We apologise to Darfur for the bloodshed.” This sentiment was there in how people were talking. For instance, during the sit-in when women from Darfur came in buses to feed everybody. The vibe around that event was apologetic. The people at the sit-in just wanted to apologise to these women and say, “We’re sorry that we didn’t believe you.”
Workers and the uprisings
The huge protest camp created by Sudanese activists outside the Army High Command on 6 April 2019 had clear echoes of similar scenes in Egypt in 2011, where the Tahrir Square sit-in became for many the iconic image of the revolution. However, this led some Egyptian revolutionary activists to overemphasise the mass sit-in as a model for revolutionary action, argues revolutionary socialist activist Hossam el-Hamalawy:
They saw it as the silver bullet that brought down Mubarak—that’s what they believed at the time. As for the local and the international press, I don’t think I need to really explain to you their obsession with Tahrir. From the revolutionary side, and from the media side, Tahrir held such an iconic status. For me, I am proud of having taken part in the Tahrir occupation, but I don’t have the same fetish. I am very well aware that it wasn’t us in Tahrir who brought down Mubarak. It was mainly the industrial action which spread throughout Egypt during the last week of the uprising.
For Mahmoud, the scale and depth of the workers’ rebellion after 7-8 February played a crucial role in the crisis of the regime:
Workers occupied workplaces at Suez Fertilisers, Suez Steel, the Rose al-Yusuf magazine and Al Gomhuria newspaper. The postal workers and the Cairo public transport authority bus workers went on strike. Even though they did not announce directly that they were joining the revolution, the revolution allowed workers to strike for their own demands, particularly in workplaces where strikes and protests had happened previously. The week before the fall of Mubarak, there was essentially a general strike, although there was no central organisation. By 11 February, the pressure on the regime had become unbearable, making it impossible for him to keep power. Workers from the Suez Canal had gone on strike, and the strike wave had reached the airports and ports. These are critical institutions.
Like the Egyptian and Tunisia revolutions before it, the Sudanese uprising involved mass strikes taking place alongside and in solidarity with the huge sit-ins in 2019. The Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group for Sudanese trade unions, became one of the leading organs of the movement. March 6 saw the first attempt at a national general strike, followed by much more widely supported strikes on 28-29 May. Another took place on 9-11 June amidst an attempted crackdown by militias and parts of the military linked to the old regime.
Yet the emergence of organised workers as a revolutionary force in Sudan was in some ways counter-intuitive. The country’s labour force is dominated by the agricultural sector, trade, services and small-scale production. There are no large concentrations of industrial workers similar to those that played an important role in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Algerian uprisings. Sami explains:
The working class is a very tiny minority of the population. The unemployment rate is about 20 percent. Many of the people who are unemployed are young, university graduates and so on. Wage rates are very low. Unemployed young people have organised themselves in the neighbourhoods where they live. Other young people organise in the neighourhoods were they work in petty production and small trades.
Syria offers a tragic counter-example to Egypt and Sudan, even though the revolution was rooted in working-class and poor areas. Ghayath Naisse is a Syrian revolutionary socialist activist living in France. He sees the regime’s terrible vengeance on the uprising’s heartlands in the poor and working-class neighbourhoods of the major cities as a confirmation of the revolution’s social base:
Today, in the Damascus region the working class has been wiped out in the areas where the popular classes used to live. It no longer exists; this is an empty space, a desert. You will find the same thing in Homs and Aleppo, where the industrial zones of the east of the city were flattened. This demonstrates that the motor of the revolution was the working class.
The Syrian regime learnt from the mistakes of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, argues Ghayath. “The lessons from Egypt and Tunisia were to prevent people from gathering in major city squares. At all costs they had to prevent this.” On the rare occasions when protesters did manage to break through in large numbers, the regime’s response was unspeakably violent, Salam Ahmad notes:
People occupied the Clock Tower Square, a famous landmark in Homs and tried to make a Tahrir Square. They had tents, they distributed blankets, they started praying, they started eating there. Homs is a multi-confessional city, so there were a minority of Alawites but most were Sunni. They tried to call for people to come onto the streets, but the regime replied by committing a massacre.
Forced out of the city centres, the revolution went underground, back to its roots. “Local coordination committees” mobilised activists across the country in courageous protests every Friday. Social media created possibilities for national networks to emerge, at least at the level of slogans and demands agreed by young activists online, says Salam:
They conducted a virtual vote for that. On one Friday they named the protests, “Solidarity with Hama—Sorry for Being Silent about the Massacre for 28 Years.” Then they voted for it, and you saw people in Kobane raising banners in solidarity with Hama. People in Homs, Deraa, Damascus and across Syria all had the same name for the Friday demonstration.5
Yet the legacy of the regime’s success in creating what Salam calls a “kingdom of silence” in the decades before the revolution proved difficult to overcome. Critically, what was missing in the Syrian case—but which did appear in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and Sudan—was mass self-activity and organisation among workers in key public services. The regime’s ideological grip on these key public institutions had not broken down, argues Salam:
Whoever was planning to strike to demand their rights would be informed upon by their colleagues, and they would be detained and tortured. Society was atomised through the professional associations. People would proudly claim to be part of the trade unions or the teachers’ syndicates, but these organisations were controlled by the Ba’ath Party and the security and intelligence services.
This meant that even one year into the revolution, the regime could still mobilise tens of thousands of workers from public services and state institutions to fill the streets with crowds cheering for the dictator. Activists like Salam were forced to join these rallies, mouthing slogans of praise for the regime during the day, but by night they would secretly organise protests in support of the revolution:
One day, I was called by the head of the school to submit my identity papers, and he took my details and gave them to the Ba’ath Party branch in the nearest town. They would send us a minibus to go to Aleppo and show our support for the leader. If I didn’t go, the regime would come and get me.
The main square of Aleppo, Saadallah al-Jabri Square, was full. University students, university lecturers, university staff, school teachers, school students. All the state institutions were gathering there, and a helicopter was, of course, livestreaming the rally. If you watched the television it was saying, “The people of Aleppo came together to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad. They came to show their support for the leader, confirm their willingness to stop the conspiracy and show their love for their homeland.”
The capacity of workers inside the state machinery to repurpose it to aid popular mobilisation was one of the major differences between the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Algeria, and those in Syria and Libya. Coupled with strikes in critical industries and infrastructure such as transport, communications and financial services, the rebellion of public service workers temporarily disrupted the circuits of state power at critical points in the uprisings. This took place on 12-14 January 2011 in Tunisia, from 7 February 2011 until at the least the end of the month in Egypt, and during the strikes of 28-29 May and 9-11 June 2019 in Sudan. In Algeria there was a general strike between 10 and 15 March 2019 that played a central role in snapping the ties binding the regime to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the ailing frontman it had relied on for more than 20 years. He was forced to resign just weeks later.
Yet the Algerian struggle also revealed obstacles standing in the way of integrating workers into the leadership of the revolutionary movement, says Hamza:
The General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), the biggest trade union in Algeria, is affiliated with the regime and has played a reactionary role, going against workers’ interests. During the early stages of the uprising, there was a movement inside this union to re-appropriate it and remove its corrupt, pro-regime leadership. Trade unionists protested in several regions, forcing the general secretary to step down. His replacement, however, was no better. Independent labour unions have participated in the current revolutionary dynamic, but unlike in Tunisia and Sudan, their role has been very limited. For example, in April and June 2019, at a time when the military high command was rejecting any transitional period and insisting that presidential elections be held urgently, these independent unions failed to campaign for strike action in order to force the military to yield. Instead, a confederation of autonomous unions was calling for a short democratic transition of just six months.
In Egypt, too, a fundamental paradox became apparent. Organised workers were at the heart of the social aspect of the revolution, and their intervention had played a critical role in forcing the removal of Mubarak. However, after 11 February 2011, they only played a marginal role in the ongoing political struggle for radical change. The Islamist opposition parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the various Salafist currents, mobilised some workers to vote for their candidates in parliamentary and presidential elections but refused to meet their social demands. Once in office, the Brotherhood repressed strikes and worked in concert with elements of the old regime to revive the old state-run trade union federation as a competitor to the independent unions.
According to Mahmoud, the weakening impact of workers’ mobilisations on the trajectory of the revolution was connected to the relative inexperience and novelty of the new independent trade unions in Egypt. The first of these were founded only two years before the uprising began. The explosion of independent unions in the wake of Mubarak’s fall did begin to fill the organisational vacuum, but it did so unevenly. Hossam argues that although they were born in revolutionary times, many of the new unions had little appetite for a political battle with either the ruling military council or the newly elected Islamist parties despite efforts by revolutionary activists to win them to the idea of a general strike in February 2012:
Throughout 2011, the independent union federation grew in size. This was partially because of industrial militancy and some heroic struggles in the workplaces. But it was also because the process of forming a union became much easier after the political liberalisation following the fall of Mubarak. Sometimes it was purely a logistical or legal operation, unlike before 2011. So imagine such an independent union suddenly being asked to go on strike over political demands in a very tense atmosphere. I don’t think workers would respond to that sort of strike call.
There was also a suspicion of some political activists who attempted to instrumentalise workers’ action for their own ends but failed to stand up for workers’ demands, notes Mahmoud:
They presented the revolution as being about changing the constitution and having parliamentary and presidential elections. So there was a loss of confidence. For instance, there was a call for a general strike on 11 February 2012, but there was no response from workers. The political movement failed to relate to the workers movement after the revolution, and that was the most dangerous thing for the revolution. The revolution lost its social aspect. The workers’ movement was the social aspect of the revolution. It had succeeded in pushing the revolution to its widest extent in January 2011 when strikes and workplace occupations were spreading.
Revolutionary activists also found it difficult to relate to workers in the electoral arena that had opened up as a result of the uprising. A significant current refused to engage in electoral battles at all. This cut them off from many workers in the process, believes Hossam:
Elections were part of the political process, but the revolutionary left took a very ultra-left stance to the elections. I was definitely for the boycott of elections throughout 2011 and during the presidential election. I revised my own stance and I now know this was a mistake.
Even the Democratic Workers Party, a new party led by well-known campaigner Kamal Khalil and including activists from different revolutionary left currents, favoured an electoral boycott. This made little sense to workers, argues Hossam.
Following Mohamed Morsi’s narrow victory in the presidential elections of June 2012, the revolutionary process began to unravel. Just over a year later, the military intervened after massive protests calling for Morsi to go. This ushered in a vicious and bloody counter-revolution, returning Egypt to a dictatorship even more brutal than the Mubarak regime. This was not what most revolutionary activists expected as the outcome of the massive popular mobilisation against Morsi on 30 June 2013. Mahmoud explains:
There was a huge mobilisation that had both a social aspect and democratic aspects. Many political forces found it very difficult to believe that the counter-revolutionary forces could control this mass mobilisation. This left the revolutionary forces with very little margin within which they could confront the counter-revolution. That was one side of the problem. The other side was the consolidation of a state of Islamophobia, a feeling of terror about the Islamist forces, which spread widely in society, including among large sections of the middle class that were fearful for their lives and their living conditions. This meant that on 30 June, the revolutionary forces were not in the majority. In fact the opposite was true. The mobilisation was largely middle class: the people we call “the sofa party”. It had a conservative nature and wanted stability. Additionally, the security forces had stabilised since 2011 and were working in a way that wasn’t obvious, mobilising thugs and organising police strikes. This created a state of terror in many places in 2013.
In Sudan, workplaces have remained sites of intense struggles since the revolution. Like Egypt, new examples of workers’ organisation emerged from the strikes and protests, according to Sami. The picture in terms of the democratic mandate and accountability of Sudanese workplace resistance committees is mixed. Their leadership inside the workplace rests on the standing of the activists involved rather than on formal elections. There has also been a tendency for multiple, competing resistance committees to emerge in some workplaces, adds Muzan. “Cleansing” the workplaces of the old regime’s supporters is complicated by the efforts of the transitional government to control the process through bureaucratic moves aimed at stifling initiative from below. A new trade union law, supported by the Sudanese Professionals Association, is another example of this, says Sami:
The whole process of writing and passing the law is undemocratic. It is conducted by old unions, non-governmental organisations and “experts” behind closed doors. The majority of workers know very little or nothing at all about this law. This policy is totally against the workers. It puts them at the mercy of the state and ignores their agency as active participants in the public sphere. Reforms come through struggle from below not as gifts from above. They want passive people not militant workers.
Experiments in revolutionary self-government?
In Sudan’s neighbourhoods, the original birthplace of the resistance committees, the situation is also complex. Elements of popular, revolutionary democracy compete with efforts by the transitional government to co-opt and bureaucratise the committees from above, argues Sami. The old regime relied on a network of “popular committees” at a neighbourhood level; these were an integral part of the machinery of government, acting as patronage and surveillance networks for the ruling party. Since the revolution broke out there have been mobilisations and sit-ins calling for local democratic elections, and some areas have forced changes via a popular democratic process. This has involved mass public education campaigns about the role of democracy, followed by local elections for a “change and services committee” carried out with ballot boxes in public squares. All this has occurred despite the opposition of the transitional government, which is attempting to impose local government officials from above by appointment. Young revolutionary activists have taken on a role in the political oversight of the new committees, explains Sami:
There are two separate organisational bodies. The resistance committees recognise themselves as the political branch and the change and services committees are everyday service centres. Change and services committees are more widely recognised by the people of a neighbourhood.
In some neighbourhoods, this has translated into a degree of popular, democratic control over the provision of basic goods at a local level. Sami details the situation:
The main arenas that the change and services committees are working in right now are the management of the everyday distribution of wheat and controlling the supply chain. On the local level they are distributing wheat to the bakeries and monitoring distribution—fighting the black market in wheat. They are also distributing gas canisters to neighbourhoods and making sure voters come out.
However, not all the resistance committees are engaged in a struggle to deepen the revolution at the grassroots level. The movement has begun to fracture along class lines, with committees in middle-class areas playing a much less militant role that those in poor and working-class areas. Moreover, the transitional government is working to sap the energies of revolutionary activists through bureaucratising the resistance committees formed by civil servants in their workplaces. As Muzan describes:
A lot of their energy is sucked into the channels and tools provided by the state, and the state welcomes that. Every demand turns into a committee that one needs to submit reports to. I see a lot of young people who are part of those resistance committees inside institutions, and they work on putting together lists and providing documents. Then they just wait for something to be done and complain about nothing happening. The idea of sharing that list with the public is just not something that they will entertain. So they are just getting sucked into the channels of the state and the process is not going anywhere.
Syria also saw some remarkable experiments in reconstructing local government during its revolution, despite the harsh conditions of siege and bombardment imposed by the regime. After the regime withdrew from rebellious areas, the local coordination committees that had mobilised for protests then often helped in set up “civil councils” to meet local people’s needs. In some cases this was a democratic process, says Ghayath:
In many places there were elections for representatives of the population for the first time. Although this did not happen everywhere, there are many examples of elections of councils to manage people’s lives in 2011 and 2012. They oversaw sanitation and waste disposal, organised bread for people to eat and provided education. The popular classes created their own organs of self-organisation that were at the same time coordinating the development of the revolution.
Isolated from one another, such experiments could not long retain a democratic and revolutionary character. They were overwhelmed by the enormous burdens of supporting populations under siege. Moreover, the military struggle against the regime was increasingly being led by Salafist Islamist forces that were often hostile to democratic practices. Despite their achievements, the local coordinating committees and civil councils of the Syrian Revolution failed to evolve into a model for an alternative, revolutionary national government. Ghayath explains:
These experiences remained localised. This was both a source of strength and of weakness. What was lacking was the centralisation or unification needed to create the conditions for the emergence of what could be called “dual power”, based firmly in the power of the popular masses. They were dispersed. It was an enormous weakness.
Shattering the spine of the state
The fundamental obstacle remained the cohesion of the central state apparatus, and the armed forces in particular, Ghayath argues. “It is necessary to shatter this spinal column. Without that, it is very difficult to imagine any outcome other than a bloodbath.” The experience of Egypt also bears out the analysis of the military as the driving force behind the counter-revolution, says Hossam. Nevertheless, Egyptian revolutionary activists who made this point faced a barrage of criticism:
We were probably the first to say that the army is leading the counter-revolutions. We were attacked by the mainstream revolutionaries, and everyone else, as radicals and extremists. “No, you have to differentiate between the army and the police.” “The army did not fire because they are part of the people.” “The conscripts are your own brothers. They cannot be our enemy.” There was also a huge media campaign by the army’s Department of Moral Affairs to paint themselves as saviours.
What began to break down the military’s political immunity was the experience of continuing struggles to force the state to concede the revolution’s demands. There was a resumption of major protests in Tahrir Square in July and a second national wave of sit-ins in November 2011. Hossam explains:
People were starting to get impatient with the implementation of the demands of the revolution, particularly the prosecution of Mubarak. Even for the average Egyptian, this was a sign that there was something wrong. “Why is Mubarak in Sharm El Sheikh instead of prison?” It was only with the 8 July sit-in in Tahrir that the Mubarak trial started moving a little bit. Over time, friction was increasing with the military police. Those detained by the military police came out with bruises and tales of torture no better than what we had faced from state security in the past. The real turning point came with the uprising in November and then the so-called Occupy Cabinet clashes in December. These were a clear sign for everyone that the military are criminals and no better than the police.
Muzan and revolutionary activists in Sudan faced similar problems in holding the leaders of the Sudanese uprising to account over their refusal to challenge the role of El Bashir’s generals inside the state. On 5 May 2019, in the midst of the uprising, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) issued a statement about the proposed transitional government, with a worrying paragraph. Muzan remembers:
It stated that the new government would have a security and defence council that was to be headed by the military. This council would take decisions about declarations of war, deployment of troops, national security and so on. It was basically just the military having all the power and the rest of the government having to take care of irrigation and stuff like that.
Challenging the leadership of the SPA over this issue was difficult. Muzan explains how activists who spoke out inside the sit-in risked being called traitors and ejected:
We had to repeat that we thanked and appreciated the SPA for giving us the tools of direct democracy that we are using now and teaching us how to voice our opinions. We had to say this so we could then come out with that one sentence: “It is not acceptable for Bashir’s generals to control the state’s tools of violence.” Of course, that should have been a given.
Nevertheless, a rally by activists outside the SPA leadership’s radio centre at first seemed to have won concessions. “The next day, they issued an apology for what was mentioned in the first statement”, says Muzan. “But now we do have a council of security and defence that is controlled by the military, so nothing much changed.”
In all the countries discussed here, revolutionaries did not only face the counter-revolutionary intervention by their “own” armed forces but also by regional and global powers. The arrival of African Union (AU) negotiators in Sudan marked a turning point in the ability of the popular movement to hold the uprising’s leadership to account, argues Muzan:
Until a few days before they arrived, they were talking about how they would never again negotiate with the military council. When the AU arrived, they went into indirect negotiations. There was no room at the table for us anymore. There was no room for our agreement or disagreement. Confidentiality of papers became so normal. Even the negotiation papers were secret.
In the case of Syria, the intervention of external powers largely took a military form. The regime called on its allies in Iran and later Russia for military aid, and it mobilised support from Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Gulf states backed various factions of the Islamist opposition, Turkey invaded as part of its war against the Kurds, and the US and its allies fought a war against Islamic State with the support of Kurdish groups. In Egypt, the counter-revolution had the backing of the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, which bankrolled the new military regime.
Lessons for revolutionary organisation
Only a minority of revolutionary activists even debated the question of whether to shatter any part of the machinery of the state. The number who proposed to do so to the armed forces was vanishingly small. The experiences of the last decade thus underscore why building an organised revolutionary party is essential, says Muzan:
We should have worked towards organising a revolutionary political party and we didn’t. That would have put us in a different place by now. We know that theoretically, and now we just need to put that into action practically.
This revolutionary organisation must be rooted in the most powerful sections of the popular movement, specifically in the working class, argues Mahmoud:
Building a strong revolutionary organisation is massively important. It is no less important to build strong workers’ and trade union organisation. The workers’ movement must be a politicised movement that not only takes on immediate demands but also deeper questions of change. The most generalised demand raised by workers in Egypt was for the national minimum wage. The social movement was a long way from intervening in the questions about the state, the composition of the government, the constitution and so on.
That requires creating an organisation of revolutionaries in the workplaces. Hossam believes that the revolutionary left in Egypt needs to win workers politically, and this means building relationships that go beyond just mobilising solidarity for strikes:
We have had factory workers who joined and became part of the organisation for several years. They played an instrumental role in the strikes, but I don’t think we managed to turn them into Marxist cadres. We made trade unionists out of them, basically. This also meant that when it came to political initiatives we were not that successful in mobilising those factories.
Despite the difficulties and defeats, the battle to build revolutionary organisation must go on, says Mahmoud, because the movement from below will revive:
The counter-revolution constantly moves under the pressure of crisis, straining the living standards of the poor and even the middle class. The regime can only continue through repression, but repression cannot be sustained forever. Basing the regime’s stability on repression without offering people anything else—this can only be a transitional period. Despite tight security control there are forms of opposition and protest appearing. Since 2013, the fragmentation of the political forces that made the revolution has created a vacuum, but vacuums cannot continue forever. Forces involved in fighting back will find ways and means to rebuild despite these circumstances. They will find ways and means to recreate themselves and rebuild. The convergence of this rebuilding process with the social and political pressures, alongside the severity of the security regime, opens the possibility of a new popular mobilisation in the future. We can’t say when or how, but we know it will happen.
Anne Alexander is the co-author, with Mostafa Bassiouny, of Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed, 2014). She is a founder member of MENA Solidarity Network, the co-editor of Middle East Solidarity and a member of the University and College Union (UCU).
1 I would like to thank the comrades who gave their time to take part in interviews for this article: Salam Ahmad, Ghayath Naisse, Muzan al-Neel, Sami Halim, Hamza Hamouchene, Mahmoud Hussein and Hossam el-Hamalawy. We will be publishing longer versions of their interviews online at www.isj.org.uk over the coming months. This project would also not have been possible without the enormous efforts of the comrades who volunteered to transcribe the interviews and assist with translation. Thank you to Chinedu Chukwudinma, Richard Donnelly, Jacqui Freeman, Sheila McGregor, Tony Phillips and Ian Taylor.
2 See chapter 3 of Lenin’s The State and Revolution.
3 Salam’s real name has been redacted for personal reasons.
4 Mahmoud Hussein is a pseudonym used for security reasons.
5 In 1982, the Ba’athist regime presided over a massacre in Hama during a failed uprising.