Copyright © 2010 ofthisandthat.org.
All rights reserved.
Sept 25, 2013
What Is A Revolution?
By Tariq Ali
Ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring there has been much talk of revolutions.
Not from me. I’ve argued against the position that mass uprisings on their own
constitute a revolution, i.e., a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer)
to another that leads to fundamental change. The actual size of the crowd is not a
determinant—members of a crowd become a revolution only when they have, in their
majority, a clear set of social and political aims. If they do not, they will always be
outflanked by those who do, or by the state that will recapture lost ground very rapidly.
Egypt is the clearest example in recent years. No organs of autonomous power ever
emerged. The Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative social force, one that belatedly
joined the struggle to overthrow Mubarak, emerged as the strongest political player in
the conflict and, as such, won the elections that followed. The Brotherhood’s
factionalism, stupidity, and a desire to reassure both Washington and the local
security apparatuses that it would be business as usual led it to make several
strategic and tactical errors from its own point of view. New mass mobilizations
erupted, even larger than those that had led to the toppling of Mubarak. Once again
they were devoid of politics, seeing the army as their savior and, in many cases,
applauding the military’s brutality against the Muslim Brothers. The result was
obvious. The ancient régime is back in charge with mass support. If the original was
not a revolution, the latter is hardly a counter-revolution. Simply the military
reasserting its role in politics. It was they who decided to dump Mubarak and Morsi.
Who will dump them? Another mass mobilization? I doubt it very much. Social
movements incapable of developing an independent politics are fated to disappear.
In Libya, the old state was destroyed by NATO after a six-month bombing spree.
Nearly two years later, armed tribal gangs of one sort or another still roam the
country, demanding their share of the loot. Hardly a revolution according to any
What of Syria? Here, too, the mass uprising was genuine and reflected a desire for
political change. Had Assad agreed to negotiations during the first six months and
even later, there might have been a constitutional settlement. Instead, he embarked
on a path of repression and the tragically familiar Sunni-Shia battle-lines were drawn
(this divide a real triumph for the United States following the occupation of Iraq).
Turkey, Qatar and the Saudis poured in weaponry and volunteers to their side, and
the Iranians and Russians backed the other with weaponry.
The notion that the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the carrier of a Syrian revolution
is as risible as the idea that the Brotherhood was doing the same in Egypt. A brutal
civil war with atrocities by both sides is currently being fought. Did the regime use gas
or other chemical weapons? We do not know with certainty. The strikes envisaged by
the United States are designed to prevent Assad’s military advances from defeating
the opposition and re-taking the country. That is what is at stake in Syria.
Outside the country, the Saudis are desperate for a Sunni takeover to further isolate
Iran, strengthened by the semi-clerical Shia regime in Iraq created by the US
occupation. Israel’s interests are hardly a secret. They want Hezbollah crushed.
Whatever else may or may not be happening in Syria, it is far removed from a
revolution. Only the most blinkered sectarian fantasist could imagine this to be the
case. The idea that the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey backed by NATO are going to create a
revolutionary democracy or even a democratic set-up is challenged by what is
happening elsewhere in the Arab world: the democrat Hollande defends and justifies
the Moroccan autocracy; the Saudis prevent Yemen from moving forward and occupy
Bahrain; Erdogan has been busy with repression at home; Israel is not satisfied with a
PLO on its knees and is pushing for Hamas to do the same (Morsi might have helped
in that direction) so it can have another go at Hezbollah.
Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are only too well aware that US strikes
will not make their country better. Many of the courageous citizens of Syria who
started the uprising are in refugee camps. Those at home fear both sides, and who
can blame them? Meanwhile, back at home, Obama is promising Republicans that he
will facilitate regime change.
Tariq Ali has been a leading figure of the international left since the 1960s. He is a
long-standing editor of the New Left Review and a political commentator published on
every continent. His books include The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American
, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope
, and The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad