The word ‘revolution’ has been overused and misused for decades. It has, for instance, become almost a commonplace of political journalism in Britain to talk about the ’Thatcherite revolution’ when referring to the assault on the post-war consensus, the dismantling of the country’s manufacturing base and the privatization spree that started in the 1980s. In the 1990s and into the first decade of the twenty-first century, the emergence of microchip technology became referred to as the ‘IT revolution’ or the ‘communications revolution’. There is nothing particularly wrong with this and it may be argued that an over-zealous resistance to etymological flexibility denotes nothing more than a conservative mindset. However, it is important to demand greater clarity of thought and analysis when considering the use of the term in relation to significant instances of social and political change involving the mobilization of thousands and even millions of people. The drama unfolding in Egypt now is clearly such an event. It is being widely described, by both participants and observers, as a revolution, and such a description seems appropriate.
Unless we are to argue that any and every instance of the removal of a government by means of force, including military putsches, palace coups and the like should be regarded as revolutions, then we need more careful terms of reference. If by ‘revolution’ we mean the transfer of political and economic power from one section of society to another, involving the dismantling of the old apparatus of state, including crucially the apparatuses of repression, and the creation of a new state apparatus based on the hegemonic power of a formerly subordinate class, then the last 250 years have seen very few revolutions.
In Europe there have been only two such seminal examples: the French revolution of 1789-92 and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. Outside Europe, the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the Cuban revolution of 1959 are similar instances. According to this criterion other cases are more problematic. Two cases come to mind: the American revolution of 1776 and the Iranian ‘Islamic revolution’ of 1979. In Britain, where the term ’revolution’ still causes problems for many historians, there is a deep reluctance to admit that the 17th century Cromwellian civil war against the monarchy was a revolution. The ‘American revolution’ is usually referred to as ‘the war of independence.’ The Iranian ‘Islamic revolution’ of 1979 also poses problems. In one sense it was a classic example of a ‘Leninist’ type revolution. It involved the mass mobilization of millions of the most oppressed people, a general strike leading to the complete collapse of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of a new ideology and the purging of the apparatus of the old state. But, it did not lead to a completely new socio-economic system resting on the hegemonic power of the formerly exploited classes. It produced instead the rule of a reactionary theocracy that kept, and still keeps, the people in thrall.
How then, should we regard the events unfolding in Egypt? It is immediately apparent that we are witnessing what may without hyperbole be described as a rising of the masses. The importance and significance of this cannot be exaggerated. A whole people, until recently cowed and powerless, have found their feet and their voice. This is ‘people’s power’ and it is a spectacle breathtaking to behold. On these too rare occasions the realities of power relationships are stripped bare. The corrupt despot and his cronies skulk in their moral bankruptcy and powerlessness before the unfolding spectacle engulfing the city. The millions they have exploited and oppressed are taking to the streets and demanding with one voice that he and his abettors leave the scene forthwith. The die is cast. The people are not prepared to go on living any longer as despised underlings; the despotic regime is unable to continue to rule. This is a revolutionary situation and it is both exhilarating and also fraught with danger. It is exhilarating because it expresses the very best in humanity. People in their tens and hundreds of thousands co-operate with each other in a festival of solidarity. They are no longer isolated monads but members of an autonomous, self-sufficient community. They stand together, secular and religious, men and women, children and adults, fired with democratic fervour. They are no longer afraid. The bonds of solidarity have conquered fear – even fear of death.
But their situation is extremely dangerous. A revolutionary situation is not a successful revolution and, in one form and another, the odds they face are formidable. The old power elite have reached the end of their road; they cannot carry on as before. But Mubarak refuses to go. Getting him out is like trying to remove a crumbling, rotten cork from a wine bottle. You can’t drink the wine until the cork is out, but the act of removing it could break the bottle. The suppression of all democratic forms of expression for thirty years has meant that there are no organized political forces capable of guiding this outburst of popular democracy. The Mubarak regime has relied upon the Egyptian army and the security forces to keep the lid on the cauldron but it is by no means certain that the army is willing to suppress the mass movement should it be ordered to do so. Nevertheless, the forces of reaction are mobilizing and, at the time of writing (04.02.11), it is still possible, even likely, that the regime’s thugs will be unleashed to wreak their revenge on the unarmed masses presently holding Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The regime possesses the fire power to crush the uprising if it orders the army to do so. The question is, would such an order be obeyed. So far, in the violent confrontations that have occurred as a result of vicious attacks on the demonstrators by armed thugs and plain clothes policemen, hirelings of the regime, many have been killed and hundreds injured. Within the next day or two it should become clear what the outcome of this uprising will be. The overwhelming popular demand is that Mubarak should go now. At the moment, there is little sign that he intends to do so.
The revolt in Egypt follows the toppling of the of Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in mid January and there are increasing signs that the movement for democratic change and self determination is spreading throughout the Arab world. But Egypt is pivotal. The Mubarak regime has been for thirty years the bedrock of U.S. and Western policy in the Middle East. Should Egypt’s accord with Israel unravel, US policy would go into a tail-spin. The crisis, which was unimaginable just weeks ago, has exposed the fragility and the hypocrisy of Western policy. For decades Israel has been presented as the only democracy in the region with the clear implication that if only the Arab countries were democratic it would be possible to resolve the conflict with Israel through sensible negotiation. There would be ‘partners for peace’. The truth is that the US and its Western allies have armed and sustained repressive, autocratic regimes - in the case of Egypt to the tune of £1.5 billion a year. Mubarak has been the closest ally of the West since he took power in 1981. Successive US presidents and British prime ministers have turned a blind eye to his torture chambers, rigged elections, crushing of dissent and rampant corruption, because, though son-of-bitch he may be, he is ‘our SOB’.
But now he poses a dilemma for them. Realising that his game is up with the Egyptian people, they would ideally like to see him go quietly to be replaced by another group of ‘trustworthy’ cronies who may be able to pass themselves off as acceptable to the people while agreeing to pursue exactly the regional policy they inherit from Mubarak. This would guarantee ‘stability’ in the region. The problem is that fully democratic elections might produce a result that is unacceptable to the US and its allies. The fear that stalks all of them is the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood might emerge as a powerful player in the game. Actually, there is little evidence that the Brotherhood has very much influence at all over the democratic popular movement. But, as the Mubarak regime has suppressed all political dissent, his US and other backers can hardly now dictate the terms of any post-Mubarak settlement. They must, even if only to maintain the appearance of championing democracy, agree to fully democratic elections. Having committed themselves to ‘a peaceful transition of power now’, which means getting rid of Mubarak, it is difficult to see how they can renege on that demand. They cannot put the genie back in the bottle, much as they might like to do so. Clearly what they are anxious to avoid at all costs is that the despot digs in and unleashes a bloodbath against the opposition. This would result either in a bloody counter-revolution that they could not support, or in the collapse of the regime in a fury of revolutionary fervour, with sections of the army siding with the people. This could end in civil war in Egypt which, in turn, could set the whole of the Arab world alight.
As of today, the initiative seems to be with the courageous Egyptian people. We will see what tomorrow will bring.