What became known as the Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, when struggling street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia after years of harassment and humiliation by police. His tragic protest sparked powerful revolts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that continued for many months.
These uprisings united workers, women, displaced peasants, national minorities, and youth against economic deprivation and cruelty from on high. Now, 12 years later, people in the region are once again militantly in the streets.
In Iran, women and their supporters defying misogynist theocracy have spawned anti-government actions across the country. (See Iranian women ignite mass revolt.) In Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis, thousands turned out on Oct. 15, 2022, to protest the anti-democratic rule of President Kais Saied, whom they blame for the country’s long-running economic crisis. The day before, demonstrations against police abuse had spread across working-class neighborhoods in Tunis.
The new wave of protest raises a question: What lessons from the Arab Spring can aid the fighters of today?
Resistance and reaction. A primary demand of the revolutions of the earlier 2010s was “Down with the regime!” And fall they did.
In Tunisia, 23-year dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country only 10 days after street vendor Bouazizi died. In Egypt, the brutal and corrupt President Mubarak resigned after 18 days of popular explosion. In Libya, the people overthrew Muammar Khadafi, and in Yemen, Ali Abdallah Saleh.
Among workers and the oppressed, there was a general hope that social change would follow regime change. They acutely needed relief from widespread poverty, inflation, unemployment, corruption, sexism, repression, and denial of basic rights. However, not much altered except the faces at the top.
In Egypt, for example, the masses who filled Tahrir Square early in 2011 hoped that economic conditions would improve for working, poor, and young people in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster. Instead, one autocrat replaced another.
In Tunisia, prospects for democracy seemed brighter until recently. But President Saied, who shut down parliament in 2021 and has issued decrees denying rights to women and LGBTQ+ people, is bent on consolidating one-man rule.
As always, a need for leadership. Why did change stall? The U.S. government shares much of the responsibility, while the most fundamental problem was the lack of revolutionary socialist organizations and consciousness.
For almost a century, the United States has been manipulating the politics and economies of the MENA countries: selling arms to the most repressive regimes, installing dictators, creating divisions among different ethnic and national groups, propping up Israel, imposing neoliberal economic policies here and sanctions there, etc. Its wars and interventions have impoverished whole populations and robbed them of their futures.
Predictably, the U.S. did not support the insurgent workers and poor people as they rose up. In Egypt, the Obama administration even endorsed the military takeover of the government in 2013. In Syria, Libya, and Yemen, as the Spring bled into civil wars, foreign powers like the U.S., Russia, and Saudi Arabia used these wars to jockey for position against one another.
The heroes of the Arab Spring were up against not only authoritarian regimes, but capitalism as a system. Their needs were never going to be satisfied short of workers themselves seizing control and upending that system.
Unfortunately, in many of the countries where people were battling for their lives and rights, organized labor movements were not even a force, let alone revolutionary socialist parties. Meanwhile, too many leftists abroad did not extend solidarity because of the delusion that some regimes in question were “anti-imperialist” simply because of bad relations with the U.S.
A torch still lit. As long as the conditions that provoke resistance exist, it cannot be crushed for long, and it is resurgent today. In the Middle East and North Africa as elsewhere, young people and women especially are organizing and developing politically, carrying the knowledge of past successes and failures. Many now understand that regime change is not enough.
Solidarity from international socialists, together with other workers and radicals, can help these fighters learn to build the organizations they need to make the lasting change they seek.
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Also see: “Unstoppable revolt in the Middle East,” published October 2014.