This short essay is a study of the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011. The Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 were the greatest revolutionary wave since the revolutionary waves of 1848 and 1917-1923. While these Revolutions, like the Revolutions of 1848, mostly resulted in social defeat and social counter-revolution they demonstrated a key historical fact — that revolutions can still occur in the modern world and that revolution can still change the world. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, in particular, were some of the most important revolutions of the early 21st century. While the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 have mostly resulted in counter-revolution and civil war they remain vital for understanding the modern world — and for understanding the struggle for Socialism in the Arab world and the Middle East. The revolutions of 2010-2011 show that revolution remains possible — both in the Arab world and in the rest of the world.
The Arab Revolutions can be briefly outlined. The Arab Revolutions broke out in 2010-2011, starting with the Tunisian Revolution of 2010. Revolutions occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Social uprisings occurred in Bahrain and Syria. Social protests occurred in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, and Sudan. There were also several attempted revolutions, uprisings, and protests, in other parts of the Arab world and the wider Middle East in the period from 2010 to 2014. The most important of these revolutions, from a social perspective, were the Tunisian Revolution and the Egyptian Revolution. These revolutions, rebellions, uprisings, protests, and social struggles dominated the Arab world between 2010 and 2014. Indeed, the social legacy of the revolutions of 2010-2011 still shapes the revolutionary struggle of the Arab world today.
The Arab Revolutions were the first great revolutions of the 21st century. Indeed, they prove, in social terms and in political terms, that the 21st century has the potential to be a century of revolution. The social power of the Arab Revolutions, especially the Tunisian Revolution and the Egyptian Revolution, showed the real social potential of the Arab world as a theatre for social revolution. The working classes of the Arab world, while defeated in the counter-revolutions which followed the revolutions of 2010-2011, showed that they have the power to change their societies — and to change the world. The Arab working class, by launching their revolutions of 2010-2011, confirmed that the working class, globally, remains a revolutionary class and a class with revolutionary potential. The real social power of the Arab Revolutions is that it proves the historical potential for revolution in modern times and in modern society.
Every revolution has its own characteristics. The Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 had their own social characteristics, economic characteristics, political characteristics, and historical characteristics. It is these characteristics which help to see the overall development of the revolutions of the Arab world as social events, political events, and historical events. Hopefully, in the future, the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 will provide the basis for a future, better, series of revolutions in the Arab world.
Every revolution emerges from history. The Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 emerged due to the social and economic history of the Middle East, specifically after the Second World War and after the Cold War. Indeed, the Arab Revolutions emerged out of the political situation which emerged after the end of the Cold War — after the decline of Arab Nationalism and the Arab Left. After the 1990s the Arab world was dominated, largely, by the forces of the Right and by forces which were aligned with the United States. Indeed, most of the Revolutions of 2010-2011 broke out in countries which were aligned with the United States after the end of the Cold War, particularly Egypt. After the Iraq War and the disaster of the US War on Terror the development of Arab politics began to turn against most of the governments of the Middle East, alongside the rise of new social forces within the Arab world. All of the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 emerged because of the political reality of the Middle East after 1991 and 2001 — specifically the decline of Arab Nationalism, the retreat of the Arab Left, the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the power of Islamism, the reality of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, and the increasing reality of US Imperialism in the Arab world after 2001. The Revolutions of 2010-2011 emerged because of the complex history and politics of the Arab world — resulting in those revolutions, their rise, their fall, and their politics. A major result of the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011, is the need for a New Arab Left — a Left which can stand against US Imperialism, Islamism itself, and the remaining dictatorships of the Arab world — from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, from Egypt to Syria, from Morocco to Yemen. The Arab Revolution of 2010-2011, like the Russian Revolution of 1905, is just a preliminary revolution for a much bigger, and greater, social revolution in the Arab world. This larger revolution, which will learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the Revolutions of 2010-2011, might have the potential to begin Socialist revolutions in the Arab world and across the entire Middle East.
The Arab Revolutions of 2011 will probably always be compared to the Revolutions of 1848. There are a great number of similarities between them. The Arab Revolutions occurred in a period where revolution was said to be impossible — after the end of the Cold War. The Revolutions of 1848 occurred in a period where revolution was said to be impossible — after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The Arab Revolutions quickly spread across an entire continent — the Middle East and the north of Africa. The Revolutions of 1848 quickly spread across an entire continent — the entirety of Western Europe and Central Europe. The Arab Revolutions showed the power of the Arab working class — even if they were defeated by reaction. The Revolutions of 1848 showed the power of the European working class — even if they were defeated by counter-revolution. Historians and political scientists will probably always compare the Revolutions of 2010-2011 with the Revolutions of 1848 — as they shared many similarities, and they shared the same sort of fate. Counter-Revolution defeated both the Arab Revolutions and the Revolutions of 1848 — but in the end they both left behind enough of a revolutionary legacy for the possibility of future revolutions.
A key part of the Arab Revolutions is that they occurred in societies which suffered under the reality of dictatorship — either military dictatorship or civilian dictatorship with military support. Not only did the masses of the Arab world have to struggle against the economic reality of exploitation and oppression, but they also had to struggle against the political reality of their societies — realities of dictatorship and military control. This element, of military dictatorship and military counter-revolution, always undermined the social potential of the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 and ensured that most of them would be crushed by military reaction. Indeed, this situation has probably dominated the Arab world since the 1970s, with the rise and defeat of the Arab Left and the struggle for Arab Socialism. The failure of the working-class movements of 2010-2011, to win over support of the armed forces, ensured the defeat of the revolutions of 2010-2011 in the long term. Just as the French Revolution and Russian Revolution ultimately succeeded because the revolutionary movement was able to win over the support of soldiers, so too was the role of the military vital in the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011. Sadly, in the revolutions of 2010-2011, the army went over to the side of reaction, imperialism, and counter-revolution. Where the army split but did not completely side with the forces of social revolution, the revolutions ultimately degenerated into civil war and barbarism — as occurred in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. In the future revolutions of the Arab world, it will be vital for the working class to win over the support of the army and the soldiers. Revolutions, in the end, cannot succeed if the military sides with reaction. This old lesson, from revolutionary history, is a lesson which is firmly expressed by the social outcomes of the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011.
The greatest tragedy of the Arab Revolutions has been the failure of the revolutions to move beyond certain social limits. Indeed, in most of the Arab states, the revolutions have largely resulted in counter-revolution — similar to the outcome of the Revolutions of 1848. In Tunisia, the revolution succeeded — but has resulted in a social stalemate. In Egypt, the revolution succeeded in 2011 — but was crushed by a military counter-revolution in 2013. In Syria, the revolution quickly devolved into a civil war — a civil war which destroyed Syria in the period since 2011. In Libya, the revolution quickly devolved into a civil war — a civil war which broke Libya into multiple parts and multiple pieces. In Yemen, the revolution quickly devolved into a brutal civil war, and split the country into North Yemen and South Yemen in 2015. In Bahrain, the revolution was crushed — by a Saudi intervention. In Kuwait, Lebanon, and Oman, the threat of revolution forced government reform. In Morocco, Jordan, and Palestine, there were attempted social struggles but most of these struggles came to nothing. In Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, and Sudan, the threat of revolution was quickly crushed in 2010-2011. We can conclude that the reason for the poor results of the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 was the power of reaction and counter-revolution. The workers of the Arab world did their best in their struggles and while they were defeated, they did make history. They showed that revolution remains part of history and politics.
The social struggle of the Arab Revolutions shows that they were social revolutions. The massive social struggles, and class struggles, sparked by the revolutions of 2010-2011 have yet to fully work themselves out. While reaction rules, today, in most parts of the Arab world, the fundamental potential for social revolution — and for working-class revolution — remains. In the coming decades, this fundamental reality of social revolution will probably emerge again, given the fact that none of the social conditions which led to the revolutions of 2010-2011 have been solved by the reactionary regimes which currently control most of the Arab states. The revolutions of 2010-2011 might have been crushed, like the Revolutions of 1848, but they also contain the potential for future social revolutions, also like the Revolutions of 1848. We must also remember that the defeat of the Russian Revolution of 1905 led, in the end, to the victory of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The political struggle of the Arab Revolutions shows the need for Socialist politics. It is clear, given the results of the Arab Revolutions, that the old politics of the Arab world, in the form of Arab nationalism and Islamism, are not effective enough to bring about the needed social revolutions in the Arab world. Only the politics of Socialism, specifically the politics of Revolutionary Socialism, has the politics needed for real social progress and real social revolution in the Arab world — just like Revolutionary Socialism is the only form of politics which can achieve real social progress and real social revolution in the world today. Indeed, the Arab world has a history of Left politics and Socialist politics, going back to the struggles of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The experience of the Arab Revolution should be a lesson for all future social revolutions and political revolutions — namely that the limited politics of Nationalism, Liberalism, and Islamism, offer no real solutions to the problems of the Middle East. Only the permanent, revolutionary, struggle for Socialism can achieve the social revolution needed in the Arab world, as is the case for the rest of the world.1 Only permanent revolution, as outlined by the theory of Marx and Trotsky, can achieve real social change in the Middle East. 2
The Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 have largely passed into history. What remains of them is the memory of a key social and political struggle. This memory, of when the Arab masses mobilised themselves for social change and social revolution, could yet inspire a new generation of social struggle and social revolution. There is no doubt that in the future, in the coming decades, the example of the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 will be remembered — and used to show the real need for social revolution, both in the Middle East and in the wider world. The Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011, as historical events, show that our century could be a century of serious social revolution.
It is still too early to think about how the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 will be remembered by history. Politically they will probably be remembered as the revolutions which proved that revolution is possible in the current century, and that revolution remains a possibility for the future. The revolutionary power of the Arab Revolution of 2010-2011 was in proving the real social potential of revolution.
The Arab Revolutions were a tragedy — because they were defeated by reaction. Yet they also show the bravery and courage of the working classes of the Middle East — and their ability to struggle for their rights and for a better world. They proved that even some of the strongest dictatorships of the early 21st century, dictatorships which mostly had the backing of Western Imperialism, can be overcome by social revolution. Like the Paris Commune of 1871 the revolutionaries of 2010-2011 showed that social struggle can lead to social change. Their struggle did not lead to complete victory, and in the case of Syria and Libya it led to the barbarism of civil war, but their struggle showed the real social power of social struggle. The Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 will always be remembered as great revolutions — comparable to the Revolutions of 1848. The Arab Revolutions deserve to be remembered as some of the great revolutions of modern times.
The reality of the Arab Revolutions proves that we are living in a revolutionary period — where social revolution is possible. The debate on the Arab Revolutions will always be about whether or not they could have gone further — and possibly have become Socialist Revolutions. This, however, ignores the fundamental power of the Arab Revolutions. These revolutions proved, in the age after 1989-1991, that social revolution and political revolution remains possible as a means of social change and social struggle. The Arab Revolutions, even in defeat, prove the historical and political fact that we can still achieve social revolution — and hopefully even greater social revolutions. These revolutions are also still continuing developments, even with the social reality of the Middle East today. The struggle in the Arab world also continues, despite the defeats of 2011-2013, and the realities of the civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011 might have been crushed, by reaction, but they show that social revolution remains possible in our times.
1. K. Marx, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, (1850)
2. L. Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, (1930)
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This post was written by R.G. Williams