The battle for democracy in the Arab revolution (2011)

Submitted by Matthew on 30 March, 2011 - 12:13

Sean Matgamna examines the prospects of the Arab Revolution, and compares it to certain events in recent history.

The Arab revolution, the inspiring mass popular movement for freedom and democracy, sweeping across the Middle East might be compared to the “Springtime of the Peoples”, in 1848, when mass popular revolution spread from France to Germany, then to other countries, such as Hungary and Italy.

Most of them were quickly defeated.

Today the nearest modern equivalent — so far — is the collapse of East European and Russian Stalinism, in 1989-91. A tremendous mass movement demanding and embodying “democracy” and demanding “western standards” swept from country to country and finally to Russia, Stalinism’s heartland.

European Stalinism which had seemed solid, congealed, immovable faded to next to nothing in a very short time. As many of the Arab regimes seem to be doing.

There is something else that, in its early stage, also had much in common with the Arab revolution now: the Iranian revolution of 1978-9. There too a tremendous mass movement brought down the autocratic regime of the crowned king, the Shah.

The great and for now unanswerable question hanging over the Middle East is whether the Arab revolution of 2011 will culminate in the East European model, the established if flawed bourgeois democratic regimes, or the Iranian.

In Iran — which, though Muslim, is not Arab — the great mass movement in which workers struck, and set up factory councils; and in which women played an important part, quickly led to mass-based Islamist totalitarianism — a clerical-fascist regime that has been in power now for a third of a century.

In terms of the treatment of women and levels of repression, that regime has been worse than the Shah’s. It was not something imposed on the people, a contending political movement that overthrew and suppressed those who made the 1978-9 revolution. It was there in the revolutionary movement all along.

Its proponents had led the revolution. They had talked of “democracy”, denounced the Shah’s “repressions” and led many in Iran, as well as outside it, to think they were against repression per se. They talked of “democracy” which was understood in the west in terms of bourgeois-democracy, but by which they meant their own theocratic rule, backed by mass popular support.

In power, they quickly repressed all those who objected to the imposition of a Sharia-based regime in place of the modernising dictatorship of the Shah.

Right now, conditions and forces, and therefore likely results, despite the common cry for democracy and dignity and an end to corruption, vary greatly from country to country.

Compared to the outcome in the fall of Stalinism, the differences between now and then are instructive. Most of the people of Eastern Europe and Russia were very hostile to Stalinism. Even the ruling class had lost all belief in their own system. In Romania, some miners at first rallied to the old regime, but mostly the working class was very hostile to the old system too.

They had as their ideal the freedom and plenty they thought they saw in Western Europe and America. The nationalism of different identities played a large part, but there were no aspirant Stalinist or fascist, or clerical-fascist movements preparing an alternative to the ruling Stalinists — or to bourgeois democracy. Western Europe and US democracy and liberty was their model and goal against the old regimes. Intellectuals influenced by the West were politically and intellectually dominant. The churches offered no other system or goal.

In the Arab world now vast numbers of young people see on the internet and on the satellite TV stations the ideal they want. But what “democracy” means in these countries is undefined and has different dormant meanings. Islamist movements are powerful — movements which politically as well as religiously demand the remodelling of society according to Sharia law. The age-old mix of custom and religion demands the subordination and suppression of women. With them, religion is also a political programme.

Despite the near-uncritical accord in the Western media that these are “democratic” movement, it is impossible that political Islam is in these societies as insignificant as it seems now, where the cry for “freedom” and “democracy” seems to unite the people. Within that cry there are many different definitions of democracy. The Islamists are for “freedom” now, but they mean freedom for their religion. And to deny freedom to sin against Allah. By “democracy”, they mean freedom for their “majority” to impose their ideas on society.

When the most powerful mass movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, says that it no longer aspires to control Egypt, only political fools will take their word for it.

The outcome of the Arab spring will be shaped by the interaction and conflict of political-social movements. Central is the fact that the old states, and the old army regimes — in Egypt, for example — remain in being. In that conflict Islamist politics have a tremendous advantages. The Shia have clerical hierarchies that can — as in Iran — function as a powerful political party, (as the Catholic churches sometimes did in Europe).

They can harness the rural population, including the rural poor. They can gain strength, as they already do, from those disoriented by the “Western values” and the dislocation and by horrors of that capitalist system which accompany bourgeois “democracy” and “liberty”.

Their medievalist criticism of modern bourgeois society can win support for an Islamist political programme.

It is here a variant of what Marx and Engels called “reactionary socialism” — the desire to go back from an existing bourgeois system to an idealised Middle Ages and beyond. It can and does amalgamate Islamist criticism of Western society and its sinful systems with “anti-imperialism” — an anti-imperialism as reactionary as its “alternative to capitalism”.

By contrast, the labour movements in Egypt and elsewhere, are weak, and qualitatively more so than the forces of Islamist reaction now being unleashed.

Socialism is what it is everywhere — weak and still trying to get its political bearings. The idea that in the Middle East the “masses” can quickly become socialist, unleash a “process of permanent revolution”, and offer a socialist alternative can not but function in socialist observers to dissolve political standards, critical faculties and sober political judgment — and replace them with open-mouthed credulity and naivety towards political Islam.

During the Iranian Revolution, 1978-9, the left took that attitude — in different degrees, but all of us to some degree.

We must critically assess what is happening, and do everything we properly can to encourage and help the labour movements and, though they are far from identical, the socialists in the Arab countries. We have a right to allow ourselves to be inspired. We do not have a right to switch our political minds off.

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