Three years ago few predicted that a revolution, a coup and an emergent civil war would soon explode in a country considered a prime tourist hot spot and ruled by the same autocrat for nearly 30 years.
In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian vegetable vendor, set himself alight following an altercation with a functionary of the state which ended in his public humiliation and the seizure of his market cart.
This single event triggered a mass uprising in Tunisia, swiftly followed by protests in several other countries across the Arab world. Less than a month after Bouazizi ’s self immolation, the unpopular and corrupt Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali no longer held the reins of power.
In January 2011, swept up by the tidal wave of revolutionary fervour spilling out of Tunisia, protesters in neighbouring Egypt took to the streets and occupied the now legendary Tahrir Square to declare their grievances against the Western backed regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
Protests, rallies and street battles with security forces erupted as Egyptians demanded Mubarak lay down the mantle of power.
The inevitable reactionary backlash followed as the protesters, predominantly working class youth, fought those armed bodies of men traditionally employed by the embattled elites of a capitalist system to ensure class differentials in power and wealth remain in place.
Thousands were arrested, maimed or killed across Egypt, and the Arab world, in the days, weeks and months that followed. How could the desperate action of a Tunisian marker trader have resulted in such an outpouring of mass anger and radical sentiment? History provides the answer.
On numerous occasions a solitary, seemingly irrelevant, and otherwise unremarkable incident has been the spark that ignites a long accumulating powder keg of social, political and economic injustices.
A critical mass is eventually reached and the spark that catalysed the eruption becomes a footnote in history overshadowed by the explosive nature of the events unleashed.
An authoritarian and unaccountable leadership, a pyramid of systemic corruption whereby a tiny wealthy elite rule over an impoverished majority, the oppression of minority groups (such as Mubarak’s longstanding crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood): these were just a few of the issues that inspired Tunisians, Egyptians and others to take to the streets following Bouazizi ’s sacrifice.
The repercussions of the global economic crisis had served to further impoverish millions across the Arab world which in turn led to deeper resentment against a wealthy and autocratic minority.
The successful uprising in Tunisia served as the beacon of hope that to a hitherto impoverished and marginalised majority indicated the possibility of taking control of their lives and destinies through exercising the one advantage they possessed: numerical superiority.
Few expected that the June 1914 assassination of a member of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg dynasty by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo would be more than a local matter or that the events would cause the long simmering volcano of imperial rivalry to erupt into the Great War.
A look at the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand reveals that Habsburg military leaders had for several years been pushing for war against the nation of Serbia, whose presence hindered the empire’s interests in the Northern Balkans.
At the same time a larger rivalry was playing out in Western Europe. For the preceding four decades, Germany had undergone a period of rapid industrialisation subsequent the unification of the German nation in 1871.
Germany’s swift rise to power put the country in a direct collision course with the 19thcentury’s principle nation-state, the United Kingdom.
With both empires continually expanding their respective spheres of influence across Europe and beyond and building up their militaries to assert that influence, it was only a matter of time before both nation-states ran out of space to expand both geographically and economically.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand provided the pretext for team captains Britain and Germany to call on their respective allies and settle the matter of who would become the dominant power in Europe. In many ways the First World War can be considered the first war caused by the economic policies of globalisation.
The revolution that ousted Mubarak from power in February 2011 brought forth a temporary government ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s military command, whose backing kept a variety of Egyptian leaders in power over the past several decades.
After further protests, this time against the provisional military government, elections took place in mid 2012 and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was elected President.
At the time, some on the Left pointed out that despite the veneer of democracy generated by Morsi’s election, the Egyptian working class would not benefit greatly from his victory.
Nor would the masses benefit from the election of the other candidate, former Egyptian Air Force commander, Ahmed Shafik. Neither man represented the economic interests of the Egyptian working class. Shafik represented the old order where pax aegyptiaca would be ensured through force.
Morsi represented a mixture of religious and petty bourgeois business interests. Accordingly, many Egyptians were left on the sidelines without a champion for whom to cast their votes and consequently the Egyptian revolution, commenced in early 2011, remained incomplete:
A dictator had been ousted and the opportunity arose for an elected government to be in power. Yet, regardless of which side won the elections, only a narrow, though arguably larger, proportion of the Egyptian people, would have their interests represented.
Within months, Egyptians realised that Morsi’s government had enacted few progressive changes. In November 2012, he issued a new decree granting him additional powers. Egyptians again took to their streets with some wielding placards stating ‘Morsi is Mubarak’.
Though millions had come out to protest against the Mubarak regime nearly two years earlier, even larger crowds demonstrated against Morsi. Protests reached their zenith when millions came out onto the streets of Cairo on 30thJune, the anniversary of Morsi’s election.
Crowds of thousands surrounded the Presidential palace calling for the President’s resignation.
Although at that time the strength of the Egyptian masses was colossal and could have again brought down any government not representing their interests, it was not Egypt’s working class but Egypt’s most organised and powerful faction who speedily stepped in to fill the emerging power vacuum.
The Egyptian armed forces led by General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi deposed Morsi ostensibly to create order and carry out the will of the people.
However, with the risk that the more politically advanced elements of the Egyptian working class were in the process of organising and looking like they might complete phase II of the Egyptian revolution by bringing a mass representative force to power, the army acted quickly to reinstate some semblance of the economically unjust old order, albeit without Mubarak in charge.
As the clashes between the military and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood continue and the death toll from the fighting approaches the 1,000 mark, presently the most rosy outlook appears to be a return to a pre 2011 state of affairs with civilian representatives of the armed forces bringing back an authoritarian government.
A worse alternative envisages a civil which serves to further radicalise supporters of the Muslim brotherhood and encourages foreign Jihadists, battle hardened from Iraq and Syria, to join the fight in Egypt.
All the while, the US continues to pour military aid into the maelstrom fuelling further death and instability. One can imagine Egypt becoming Syria version 2.0. A mixture of impoverishment and autocracy led to the masses taking a stand against Mubarak.
They removed a dictator but were left with a choice between two candidates representing two rival factions of the bourgeoisie. The people took to the streets in even greater numbers.
However, before they could become sufficiently organised to take control of the workplaces, civil institutions and commanding heights of the economy, the military intervened.
A key message seems to be that if the masses fail to carry through a revolution to its necessary conclusion – democratic control of the state- there will be other rival factions only too willing to fill the vacuum of power to prevent control falling into the hands of the working class.
In an industrialised economy, only the working class can truly democratise society and carry through the necessary changes needed to benefit the majority.
As members of the working class do not have private ownership of the means of production or other aspects of the economy, they have a sincere interest in the creation of a society along democratic and egalitarian lines.
As the fighting between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military continues, there remains the real risk of a return to the exploitation of the Mubarak era. Such a choice would be a safe and stable bet for global capital.
But any future military regime needs to take note that the Egyptian people now have a memory of revolution. They have political consciousness and experience of ousting leaders who do not represent their interests. For the leaders of other countries there are lessons to be learnt too.
When economic hardship, inevitable under a free market globalised economy, reaches a crisis point, the seemingly passive masses can be easily stirred to action.
If capitalism is now a global system, then it makes sense for the working class to become organised on an international scale giving meaning to the mantra that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Leaders such as Spanish Prime Minister Marriano Rajoy and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras should heed the lessons of Egypt.
If they choose to pander to the dictats of the IMF rather than to serve their people, they may find themselves at the receiving end of mass democratic action.
The power of mass action has reached the shores of Europe. Few expected a protest over the proposed destruction of a small park in Istanbul to explode into a mass movement.
Though of course the economic predicament of Europe is not as dire as that of Egypt, as austerity continues to bite we may yet see scenes from Tunisia and Tahrir played out across the towns and cities of Europe.
Dr Tomasz Pierscionek is an Academic Clinical Fellow in Psychiatry and editor of the London Progressive Journal