In Friday, August 28, 2015, demonstrators in South and Central Iraq (those part of Arab Iraq that are not under “Islamic State” control) held their 5th consecutive “Friday protests” against government corruption, lack of basic services and the sectarian structure of power sharing.
On Saturday, August 29, “You Stink” movement held its biggest demonstration yet in “Martyrs’ Square” in the middle of Beirut – undeterred by the violent response of the security forces to its previous mostly-peaceful protest, raising the political barrier of its slogans from concentrating on the rubbish collection crisis to outright calls for toppling the sectarian regime and the establishment of a secular state.
This new wave of demonstrations is a good time to look back and see where the Arab Spring have brought us so far almost five years after its eruption. After such a long period of heroic struggle, we should already understand why it is not going away in spite of the enormously murderous and destructive force of the counter-revolution.
The expected and the extraordinary
I was not surprised when the Arab Spring broke out at the beginning of 2011. It was already in the air for 10 years at least.
How long could more than 300 million Arabs be robbed, humiliated, oppressed and kept quite under Imperialist hegemony, Zionist colonialism and local Arab tyrants? While the rest of the world was changing fast, the system of control in the Arab World froze in the seventies of the previous century and stayed still for forty years. It was getting more and more out of step with the population that became ever more educated and sophisticated, with the economy that was modernizing, with the spirit of the time that speaks about democracy and human rights. All the oil money was used to defend the interests of ever smaller elites, while for the Western powers the defense of Zionist Racism, and the West’s immense profits from the robbery of the region, were justifying limitless oppression of the local masses.
So, back in the winter and spring of 2011, when the masses of protesters poured to the streets and squares of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, it was only natural.
But, after almost five years of bloody battles, when I see today the new wave of peaceful mass struggles evolving in Lebanon and Iraq, I’m filled with new admiration to the Arab masses and new hope and optimism about the fate of the revolution. The masses that fill now the squares of Beirut and of many cities in Southern and Central Iraq are challenging the local regimes, not in the name of one interest group or one party, not asking for the promotion of any specific religion or race, but speak in the name of The People, all the people, for their right to have a regime that will serve the people and not any special interest or group.
They do it through mass grass-root organizations, challenging the political elites of all sorts, forcing a new political agenda.
In Beirut they do it after a painful 15-years civil war, Israeli occupation and bombardment campaigns and decades of oppression by the Syrian regime. Even as more than a million refugees from the Syrian civil war compromise almost a quarter of the country’s population, they don’t blame the refugees but their own government for their hardship – a good lesson for people in many richer countries with a fraction of the refugees burden.
In Iraq people are going out against their government just as their country is torn apart by a bloody civil war. Fighting the savagery of the “Islamic State” can’t be justification for corruption and sectarianism. Building a new political order that will evenly serve all the Iraqi people is the key to any real solution.
Revolutionary Romanticism meets Harsh Reality
When Ben Ali, Tunisia’s strongman, fled the country (on January 14, 2011) after 28 days of mass protests, we celebrated all over the region. When on February 11, after just 18 days of multi-million strong demonstrations, Egypt’s dictator Mubarak was removed from power – it looked like the inevitable march of the revolution from victory to victory. But this romantic naivety of the first days of the revolution was not a good guide for things to come.
It reminds me of John Reed’s book “Ten Days that Shook the World”, about the October 1917 communist revolution in Russia. Some romantic leftists thought it proves that the greatest revolution in modern history happened with almost no blood spilled. This a-historic optimism ignores the years of civil war that followed before the soviets really ruled Russia (and only a small fraction of the working class survived this period as workers), and decades of internal and external struggles later on.
Naturally, after the initial advance of the Arab Spring, other dictators were alerted and decided to fight back, with different levels of success. The bloodiest of them all, Bashar Al-Assad, inflicted such a high toll in the blood of the Syrian people and the flattening down of Syria’s cities that other peoples in the region congratulated themselves for not starting a revolution.
And where the revolution “won” – it became clear that toppling the head of the regime doesn’t guarantee real change. The ruling classes and the reactionary establishment regrouped and reorganized to restore their rule and take revenge.
In Egypt we see the full rage of the counter-revolution unleashed since the coup led by General As-Sisi, the local Pinochet. But even in Tunisia, where a new more-or-less democratic order was established, the forces of the old regime and the bourgeois elite regrouped and regained much of their previous power.
The Humpty Dumpty effect
The counter revolutionary surge doesn’t mean that the old order was restored. There are good reasons to believe that it will never be. While the revolution, by wrecking established regimes, created some level of chaos, the counter revolution – by fighting and annihilating the people – created much deeper chaos. Now the contest is not only bare struggle for power but also about who can provide a new basis for the development of the country and the livelihood of the people.
In August 2014 the Libya Dawn coalition of militias took control of the capital Tripoli after a long power struggle that led to political paralysis. It was a response to the coup attempt of reactionary forces led by retired general and US agent Khalifa Haftar.
In September 2014 Ansar Allah, better known as “Houthis”, a militia from Northern Yemen, took control of the capital Sana’a. In both cases it was popular militias with deep roots in some parts of the country and more direct relations with the masses that out-powered and overthrew old elites.
Similarly you can see the relative success of Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq and Syria’s North-East. They proved more capable than most other local forces to defend and regain territory in the face of the “Islamic State”, due to their links with and obligations toward a section of the population.
The revolution between craziness and normality
It would be too easy to pretend that the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) is some sort of invasion by aliens, foreign intervention, imperialist plot or a stooge of the Syrian or Turkish regimes. Yes, many sides try to use IS to beat their enemies, or use the horror that it spreads to justify their own atrocities. But, in my view, we should admit that the “Islamic State” is basically a case of “the revolution going crazy” under the harsh conditions of bloody conflict.
This is not a new phenomenon in history. It happened with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which started as a pretty traditional communist party, but later came to the idea that Cambodia’s cities are all corrupt and the population should return to its original pure way of life in the villages. The attempt to implement this “purist” ideology claimed millions of Cambodian lives.
As long as the local corrupt ruling classes are confronting any demand of the masses by bloody oppression they push more and more people to look for the most extreme ways to fight back. In Iraq, where IS was born, the protest of the (Sunni) people of North-West Iraq started with months of peaceful demonstration, asking for equality and civil rights. Only after the army was sent in, and towns were put under military siege and bombed, IS extremism acquired its mass appeal.
In Syria, when IS first took power in Raqqa, unsympathetic observers mentioned that it was less corrupt and restored some level of basic services which other militias failed to provide.
The inflation of IS power, in Syria and Iraq and all over the region, in spite of having no direct allies and arousing antagonism from all directions, proves the huge vacuum that is still dominating the regions politics under the supposedly strong all-oppressive regimes and the slow progress of the reformist and revolutionary forces.
At the same time as the atrocities of IS against Women, Minorities and whoever happen to disobey it should be rejected on principle, it is the task of the sane revolutionaries everywhere to prove that they can wage and win the battle for democracy and care for the basic needs of the masses at the same time.
Pluralist, Democratic and Social Agenda
After five years of the Arab Spring, the center of the political agenda is shifting from the toppling of old powers to the character of the new regime that should be established. The new mass movements in Iraq and Lebanon are giving good signals.
The old regimes survive by incitement for Fitna, sectarian hatred and conflict. Now it is the task of the popular forces of the Arab Spring to rebuild the region on new foundations centered on the dignity and needs of the people. Only a pluralist democracy that will respects everybody’s Human Rights, traditions and beliefs can allow the people of the region, with all their ethnic, national and religious diversity, to live peacefully together. At the same time, the social content of the new regime is just as essential, as it should provide and care for the welfare of all sections of the population on equal grounds.
This is the answer to the constant effort of the reactionary forces from all sides to draw the region into a bloody conflict between Shias and Sunnis, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This is the right answer to the religious and ethnic persecutions by the IS.
More than ever, the program of One Democratic State in Palestine is an integral part of the vital Revolutionary Democratic Agenda for the whole region.