The conference Arab revolutions four years on: Revolution, repression and resistance was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 13 -14 February. It brought together activists from across the Middle East and North Africa to take stock of the counter-revolution and to call for solidarity for those still struggling for bread, freedom and social justice in the region. Nick Evans reports.
“You will understand that those of us from Bahrain are finding it quite hard to sit still today”, acknowledged Ala’a Shehabi. 14 February was the fourth anniversary of the start of the uprising in Bahrain, brutally repressed with support from the US and the UK. Throughout the day, social media relayed pictures of renewed protests in Bahrain, where protesters holding Teddy Bears confronted the authorities, who we know have been armed by the UK.
The conference organised by Bahrain Watch, the Egypt Solidarity Initiative and MENA Solidarity this weekend provided a valuable opportunity to analyse the state of the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements across the region.
Have counter-revolutionary forces crushed the Arab uprisings?
Gilbert Achcar’s answer was that what we need to see the current situation in terms of a long-term revolutionary process that will involve phases of revolution and counter-revolution. The process will take decades to resolve the deep economic crisis in the region. (On the nature of that economic crisis, Achcar’s line has been challenged in some respects by Adam Hanieh’s recent work).
Achcar spoke of the two counter-revolutionary alternatives, that of the old regimes, and that of the “Islamic Fundamentalists” (the terminology was criticised in the discussion): with the Gulf States providing as the lynch-pin of both. Achcar bemoaned the absence of a left prepared to fight for power independently, and condemned short-sighted alliances with elements from the old regime against the Islamists.
The understanding of the revolutions as a “long-term process” is clear to activists such as Maryam al-Khawaja from Bahrain, where activists know they are fighting six governments rather than one. Insofar as the Bahrain uprising of 2011 is mentioned, it is referred to as a failed uprising, and framed it exclusively in sectarian terms (activists are always referred to as Shi’a, which is probably true but irrelevant, because the majority of population is Shi’a). However, the scale of the threat perceived by the Gulf Cooperation Council in response to uprisings in Bahrain as well as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and even Qatar can be seen by the ferocity of their response. Over the region as a whole, states have used a method of “test and run”: a repressive tactic is tested in one country, and if they manage to carry it out without too much international outcry, other regimes roll it out. This underlines the need for international solidarity.
The regional aspect was also emphasised in the talk by Sameh Naguib from the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt. The Gulf states have paid billions of dollars to finance the counter-revolution. In Egypt its victims include around 41,000 political prisoners, over 3,000 killed, hundreds of disappeared, many taken to a network of secret prisons in the desert. The importance of looking at the region as a whole also came out in a later presentation by Miriyam Aouragh, where she showed how the Moroccan uprising of 20 February 2011 was an often-forgotten, but organic part of the uprisings across the region as a whole. Now the media in Morocco constantly shows images of the devastation in Syria and Iraq, rather than reporting on the rather different process underway in Tunisia, as a dreadful lesson to anybody still daring to take action.
Sameh illustrated the complexity of the 30 June 2013 coup in Eygpt. There was real anger at the Muslim Brotherhood, for its betrayal of the revolution, but the leaders of the coup also mobilised large sections of the middle classes in the name of law and order. The generals successfully used the slogan of the revolution of 25 January 2011 – “the people want the downfall of the regime” – while mobilising a constituency calling for the end of the revolution. The revolution was betrayed twice, argued Sameh: by the Brotherhood who failed to dismantle the state (al-Sisi was brought in as Minister of Defence under Morsi), and by former supporters of the revolution (such as the left Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi) who allied with old regime in the name of secularism.
But the counter-revolution is in trouble. It is able to carry out violence, but it lacks a political party. It relies on the old regime, the same Saudi backers, the same Mubarak-era generals, serving the same narrow interests, using the same corrupt methods. It has all the weaknesses of the Mubarak regime, but is now faced with hundreds of thousands of young people who have experienced an actual revolution. On 25 January 2015 tens of thousands demonstrated in Cairo, and were dispersed by snipers firing from US helicopters.
Now what is needed, Sameh concluded, is the political work to prepare for the next revolution. Meanwhile, the European left needs to confront the “crisis of solidarity” that is allowing Egyptian officials to travel around the world with impunity.
Did the Arab revolutions fail the Palestinians?
Hundreds of Palestinian refugees and Syrians break through the barrier into the Golan Heights on Nakba day 15 May 2011
On Nakba day, 15 May 2011, a coordinated march of return by Palestinian refugees reached the borders that had long been sealed on one side by the Israelis, and on the other by the Egyptian and Syrian regimes. On that day in 2011, hundreds of youths crossed the border in the Golan Heights, taken by Israel from Syria in 1967. One young Palestinian, Hassan Hijazi, managed to reach as far as his hometown of Jaffa.
From the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo to the temporary easing of the Gaza blockade, Riya Hasan illustrated how the early days of the Arab Uprisings had opened up new possibilities for Palestinian activists. At the same time, she showed how the inspiration of the Palestinian resistance had helped ignite the revolutionary movement in the Arab countries in the first place: the first recorded public anti-Mubarak slogan occurred at a pro-Palestine demonstration back in 2000.
The current context of counter-revolution is bleak. During the Israeli assault on Gaza last summer, the Egyptian regime revealed itself to be “more Zionist than the Zionists”. Hamas’s armed wing has been declared a terrorist organisation, and the Egyptian media going so far as to praise Netanyahu and even call on the Egyptian army to help him to wipe out Hamas.
Nonetheless, the revolutions of 2011 have “restored a sense of limitless possibility”, as Ali Abunimah put it at the time. Riya spoke movingly of how she argued with those who believed Mubarak would fall at the end 2010, and was proved wrong. “Now we know that another world is possible”, and the counter-revolution cannot be allowed to change that.
Toufic Haddad spoke next, analysing the successes of the Israeli state, and of the counter-revolution in the wider region, in creating and deepening divisions within the Palestinian liberation movement. He illustrated how damaging the tendency of Fatah and Hamas to become aligned with different poles within the wider region was, while emphasising that the role of solidarity activists is not to deepen the divisions. There was disagreement in the discussion section on the analysis of Hamas, in response to which Toufic reasserted his argument that it is unhelpful and inaccurate for those in the international movement to label either Hamas or Fatah as part of the counter-revolution. Both Riya and Toufic emphasised that one of the great values of the BDS movement is that it offers a progressive framework with a democratic mandate from the Palestinian people to organise around.
Sectarianism, ISIS and counter-revolution
Sameh Naguib showed how the combination of rapid urbanisation and neoliberalism in Egypt had created enormous slums in cities such as Cairo and Alexandria where the state had withdrawn from providing basic welfare services. The Mubarak regime had driven the urban poor, Muslim and Christian Copt, to depend ever more on their mosques and churches for the provision of basic needs. Especially in the last ten years, the segregation actively promoted by these policies, had become severe.
However, during the revolution, the Christian poor felt the confidence to demonstrate in their tens of thousands, challenging their status as an oppressed minority, and challenging the Christian, Muslim and secular elites that had acted consistently to keep them segregated from wider Egyptian society. During the days of the SCAF military rule, the army used extreme violence to suppress demonstrations by the Copts; now, the al-Sisi regime plays on fear of ISIS to drive the Copts off the streets. Any form of protest is presented as actively or indirectly supporting ISIS.
Joseph Daher accused commentators on current events of two forms of Orientalism: one characterised by Islamophobia, but the other characterised by a tendency to identify all those rising against dictatorship in MENA with political Islam. He was insistent that ISIS is a creature of the counter-revolution: in the early days of the Syrian revolution, Assad killed and imprisoned many of the young leaders of the original uprising, while releasing much of the current leadership of ISIS from the Sednaya prison. Assad actively chose his own enemy. Joseph argued that western bombs are no help to the revolution, but he also criticised the western anti-war movement for failing to align itself with the democratic revolution in Syria.
Regime change begins at home
Anne Alexander, who was one of the key organisers of the conference, concluded the conference by recalling the slogan of the anti-war demonstrations of 2003: “regime change begins at home”. Our own governments in the west are directly complicit in propping up the military-bureaucratic dictatorships of the region, and the determination showed by the forces of the counter-revolution needs to be seen in terms of a global neoliberal agenda. Concretely, we need to organise for political prisoners, we need to build links between trade unions here and in the region, and we need to expose the role of our own governments.
In the same session, Abdi Aziz-Suleiman from NUS Black Students spoke of the progress of the BDS campaign in the UK since the NUS NEC passed a motion in support last August. Owen Jones, who was chairing the session recalled the labour movement principle that an injury to one is an injury to all, and quoted Nelson Mandela: “It is impossible until it is done”.
Ala’a Shehabi pointed to the headline in The Economist boasting about the establishment of a new British naval base in Bahrain. The British never left, but the brazen declaration of it is especially insulting and demands a response. The fear in the region of ISIS is real: “we are staring into the mouth of a lion”, but is there any wonder, Ala’a asked, that there should be such a mirror to the bombing, the invasions, the fostering of sectarianism, the torture supported by the imperial powers? Submission and disengagement are not an option: even if you shoot at us when we come armed with Teddy Bears, we will continue resisting. The Palestinians have resisted for 60 years. And so, Ala’a ended by quoting “Promises of the Storm” by the great Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish:
I will go on serenading happiness
Somewhere beyond the eyelids of frightened eyes
For from the time the storm begin to rage in my country
It has promised me wine and rainbows.