Reflections on the Revolutions in North Africa

JG Fresquet (c. 1970)

General Reflections on the Revolutions in North Africa

• Like the beginnings of most anti-authoritarian revolutions, and especially in these times, the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fill one with admiration of, and hope in, the ineradicably freedom-loving nature of the human spirit: beneath all the complicated muck and no matter what the culture or nationality, our essence seems to be an inherent sense of justice/injustice and love of freedom that must, in time, surface even in the most draconian of tyrannies.

• Perhaps the main positive outcomes of these political revolutions will be as much psychological as anything else; these masses have now experienced what the quiescent masses in the affluent west have yet to experience: the confidence and self-empowerment that comes through collective direct action to change things and through the practice of direct democracy in a self-organizing movement beyond the stifling control of political sects and parties; they have lost their fear, the main bulwark of all repressive regimes, including ours (‘war on terror’), the world over.

• Another dimension of this psychological revolution is that these people have opened up an imaginative space that enables both them and us to realise that another world is possible and dependent exclusively on our decision to autonomously act together; this, and not the mere change in governments, is the most subversive level of these revolts and one which fills rulers everywhere with the most anxiety.

• The other main positive outcome of these political revolutions is cultural: stereotypes about the supposed quiescence, obedience and passivity of the so-called ‘Arab street’ and/or the dominance of Islamism have been thrown to the wind; age-, class-, religion- and gender-related differences among the people were largely overcome within the unifying momentum of the non-violent citizens’ movement; women’s active participation has meant that their liberation from the repressive strictures and violence of these still largely patriarchal, partly even tribal, cultures have taken an immense step forward.

• We are in awe of the magnificent courage of masses of largely unarmed people prepared to confront, and possibly be killed by, the armed terror of the authoritarian State, its thugs and mercenaries while armed, in Tunisia and Egypt at least, with nothing more than their passionate resolve, and sometimes a few paving stones, to rid their countries of their dictators and autocrats.

• In Tunisia and Egypt the immense power of mass non-violence was again demonstrated, even within the context of dictatorships and police states; again it was shown that non-violence can be crucial in splitting or winning over key sections of the military and police: once the State’s gun-toters mutiny and/or refuse to shoot, the uprising has won; again it was shown that non-violent movements need to counteract both self-defeating tendencies within its own ranks towards violence against people and the State’s use of employed looters, thugs and agents provocateurs to discredit the movement (e.g. Mubarak in Egypt).

• As history teaches again and again, no one can ever precisely predict when the years of collective frustrations and suffering will lead to, or what will trigger, the spontaneous mass uprising against repression; in this case it happened to be the self-immolation of 26 year old Mohamed Abouazizi, Tunisian PhD and fruit vendor after the unjust confiscation of his stall by the police; apparently this extreme symbol of frustrated aggression against a police state turned inwards against himself by an impoverished intellectual touched some deep psychological chord across the Arab world (in much the same way Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in the bus also sparked the black civil rights movement in the USA in the fifties). The repressive autocrats of Morocco, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq and Iran suddenly had reason to quake in their hob-nailed boots.

• Again like most anti-authoritarian uprisings, these were spontaneous, leaderless, self-organizing movements of ordinary citizens; being authoritarian and hierarchical propaganda institutions themselves, the mainstream media were initially always looking for leaders and organizations to interview and feature, all to no avail (all they could usually find were the usual ‘oppositional politicians’ waiting for their chances on the sidelines)

• At the beginning of the revolts, and for the same authoritarian reasons, the mainstream western media , like their political masters in western governments who initially continued to support their thugs, were often not at all sympathetic and only gradually did the vocabulary of ‘chaos’, ‘instability’ and ‘mobs’ shift to sympathy for the ‘uprising’, ‘democracy’ and ‘revolution’.

• One aspect of these revolts which thus also slightly tied the mainstream media in a bit of a knot was the fact that they cast a bright spotlight on the otherwise ignored fact that these were popular revolts against the west’s own dictators, thugs and torturers; many have been literally embraced by a range of politicians like Blair, Berlusconi, Obama, Chavez and Mandela and, more importantly, cooperated in doing the outsourced torture work for the CIA and also been the Arab friends of the Israeli government; a domino effect of mass revolts could even affect the main Big Oil dictatorship itself: Saudi Arabia, and thus the main guarantor of lower oil prices.

• The mainstream western media of course also ignored or downplayed or openly feared the important role that social questions (food and fuel prices) and workers played at least within the Egyptian developments; the first fearless and inspiring actions against the Mubarak regime came not from the middle classes but from striking textile workers along the Nile; after the political revolution there were rolling strikes throughout the Egyptian economy and, if extended into workplace occupations and systemic demands, these would be the portents of the real (social) revolution to come.

• From the outside and wider perspective of historical development, the limits of these revolutions are also obvious; specifically, the Egyptian movement was not in its majority conscious enough to unequivocally demand the immediate release of all political prisoners as a basic minimum or to refuse the handing of power to the same military and secret service that had oppressed them for years. The ambivalence towards women assuming strong roles obviously remains, even among the activists themselves (cf. the sexual attack on the US TV journalist in Cairo’s main square).

• More generally, these revolutions, like those in Eastern Europe and Latin America, were catch-up 1789 revolutions, i.e. merely state-oriented, political revolutions for the formal introduction of liberal democracies; they were fixated on single autocrats like Mubarak and cosmetic constitutional change rather than on changing the social and economic system itself that underpinned such repressive autocracies; as much as less police state repression is a great achievement, the probability is that they have, as in Eastern Europe, merely changed one set of corrupt ruling oligarchs for another, soon to be democratically elected.

• Obviously, this in no way diminishes the human tragedy of the thousands who lost their lives at the hands of the oppressors, the heroic courage or the real, anti-authoritarian achievements of the North African uprisings; sadly, it would seem that stages of historical development cannot be easily leapt over and that the collective learning of the human race must go through much practical self-action, illusion and disillusionment, co-option and suffering before a liberated world of social justice and democratic self-management at all levels of society becomes possible.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 27, 2011.

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