In the Arab Spring, Tunisians and Egyptians led the way, riveting world attention. Nervously eying the disposal of tyrants and multiplying of defiance, the ruling classes of the these two revolutionary frontrunners have scurried to endorse “democracy” and schedule carefully orchestrated elections.
But workers’ strikes and sit-ins and mass protests continue to pound away at unrelieved poverty and police-state repression while intense political discussions rage.
In both countries, the core political system and economy remain unchanged since the insurrections. Two dictatorships run by military brass have replaced the previous dictatorships, and both economies are still capitalist.
But dissidents have leaped forward in political consciousness, working-class confidence, and practical experience. Class conflict between the haves and have-nots now permeates life, and it’s not over by a long shot.
Betrayed electoral hopes in Egypt. The Egyptian military was the first to schedule an election, making a bid to hijack the pro-democracy movement. By March 19 the generals had won overwhelming voter approval for a referendum that people believed would pave the way for elections to a constituent assembly — a body charged with writing a new constitution.
This is just what Egyptians were demanding. But they were tricked. Constitutional amendments that were part of the referendum actually blocked an elected constituent assembly in favor of one chosen by a new parliament, whose election is currently scheduled for September.
Most Egyptian liberals and leftists agree that the military regime must be replaced by a civilian government as soon as possible. But they argue that for elections to have any democratic meaning at all, a new constitution must come first.
The election for president is supposed to occur soon after the new year. The number of candidates vying for the office has climbed to 18. They are from pro-capitalist parties. But they claim dedication, in the words of a statement by the new 13-party National Coalition for Egypt, to the values of the revolution: “freedom, justice, democracy and equal citizenship.” Few of the contenders, if any, raise the economic issues that caused the rebellion, and they did not take part in its brave actions.
The organized Left, on the other hand, did play a significant role in the uprising. However, the Left is small, having been forced underground or into exile for decades.
This means that anti-capitalist parties are in effect barred from the electoral process. To run candidates, a party must have a minimum of 5,000 members from at least ten governorates.
… and in Tunisia. The ruling class in Tunisia is also not about to give voters a revolutionary choice on the ballot.
True enough, the rebel movement was able to prevent quickie elections and to sustain the demand for an elected constituent assembly. The new regime even agreed to a law that bans torture and requires candidate lists to be made up equally of women and men. These concessions sound good, on paper.
But police abuse and torture intensified even before the ink dried, and expectations are low that quotas for female candidates will help the majority of women, powerless and poor.
The constituent assembly vote is now scheduled for Oct. 23. As in Egypt, it is being run by the oligarchy. Over 80 parties have registered recently, yet only the Islamist party and that of the former dictator have money and power. It would take far longer than October for workplace and neighborhood committees to build a movement and a party able to fight for working-class goals and a revolutionary direction in a constituent assembly.
Revolutionary counterpoint. The regimes have not changed much since the insurrections. But masses of people have.
In both Tunisia and Egypt, the working class is well-developed and organizing. The young and jobless, blue- and white-collar workers, male and female unionists, leftist organizers and political prisoners, returning exiles, students and parents and teachers, neighborhood activists, the Internet-activist youth: they have re-occupied streets and squares, workplaces and campuses, calling for “Revolution until victory!”
In Tunisia, on May 3, over 5,000 marched to celebrate the first May Day since the fall of their dictator. They shouted radical slogans like “Down with dictatorship, down with capital!” When the police tried to arrest two protesters, the crowd angrily stopped them.
According to some socialist observers, a debate is taking place on the Tunisian Left between Stalinists and Maoists who believe it’s “too soon” to be openly anti-capitalist and, on the other side, Trotskyists and young independents who believe (as this newspaper does) that to stop now with a bourgeois “democracy” is to lose everything.
On May 13, the new Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions organized a May Day event in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The rally of tens of thousands denounced right-wing religious violence provoked by the regime and voiced support for Palestine. A 27-year-old man who has dropped out of the Muslim Brotherhood explained, “Without solidarity between Christians and Muslims, without justice for Palestine, our revolution will die.”
On May 27, millions of Egyptians demonstrated against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Work stoppages, again on the rise, include pilots, doctors, garbage collectors, and textile workers, while thousands are organizing new independent trade unions.
Hundreds of homeless staged a sit-in for several days in early June. At a protest a few weeks later, demonstrators fought back fiercely when relatives of the 1,000 activists killed since Jan. 25 were physically attacked by police.
Several Egyptian leftist groups are attempting to unite in the new Socialist Front. Despite its name, though, it appears at this time that the front is not aiming to upset the capitalist status quo.
However, people’s committees, which arose during the insurrection to protect neighborhoods from thugs and thieves, still exist in many cities and towns. Women play a leading role in these grass-roots groups. Unions of the unemployed are another militant development, especially in Tunisia. Labor parties are also in the process of being formed in both countries (with labor bureaucrats of the past era roundly rejected).
From all these experiences, the people demanding change will gain a priceless political education and grow in organizational and self-defense skills. Radical and bold leadership from the bottom up — not top-down elections — will build and maintain the momentum to advance these revolutions. And win, not a capitalist shadow of democracy, but workers’ democracy.
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Also see: Iraq fights for its own Arab Spring