Photo courtesy Al Jazeera. Taken on 11 February 2011, Al Jazeera notes that a crowd of thousands marched back toward Tahrir Square from the presidential palace, young men sprinted along the streets and through the grassy median separating the wide boulevard, trailing Egyptian flags behind them. Grinning drivers waved and held their hands in peace signs through their windows. Celebrating protesters set of fireworks and lit giant streams of aerosol spray on fire.
When the angry classes and the hungry classes join to make common cause, mass democratic, spontaneous, uprisings break out. That is the lesson now sweeping across the Maghreb and the Middle East. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has fled; Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak has been pushed out but may still be strung from a lamppost; the Jordanian cabinet has been fired, and the streets are aflame in Algiers and Yemen. For sclerotic autocrats it’s time to panic. The crisis has been there for decades; political repression, abuse of power with impunity, corruption, slime ball politicos, a muzzled media, a debased judiciary, a prostituted police, grinding poverty.
The angry classes protested for decades – Mubarak was in power from 1981 – but not much happened. The incendiary trigger that set the country alight was the hungry classes joining the angry classes. Rocketing food prices, which nothing in the world can bring down in the short-run, spell the doom of dictators. Autocrats who can’t feed their people are doomed. A one party state that can ensure economic progress, a la China, can get by for so long as it can craft prosperity.
February versus October
February verses October! No I am not going to drag you into the arcane scripture with which Leninists and Trotskyists have harangued the rest of the world; I will only make a few points of global significance that have reached a boil in the Maghreb and Middle East.
The mass democratic upsurge that swept Egypt and overthrew Mubarak, to use the language of historical analogy, is a “February Revolution”. But what is the difference between February and October in Russia in 1917? The former was a spontaneous uprising that overthrew the Tsar. It was spontaneous in a sense, but in a deeper sense it was led by politically conscious revolutionary intellectuals and workers who had matured in previous decades in the ferment of Russian revolutionary politics. It is the same in Egypt; under Mubarak’s repressive regime, young intellectuals, the angry working class, revolutionary left groups and the Muslim Brotherhood have boiled over. The explosion is both spontaneous and has deep roots; political, economic and social roots, as well as a grounding in consciousness. To the question who led the Egyptian Revolution we have to answer conscious revolutionary classes and intellectuals, many of them youthful (in truth the modern educated working class), fashioned in the fires of Mubarak’s repression.
The new working class is what those untutored in class categories call, youth, the new middle-class, the Facebook-twitter generation and the like. This is no middle-class; it is the new working class whose instruments of labour (IT, computing, marketing etc.) correspond to the technology of modern industry and commerce. Its relationship to capital is no different from that of any working class; it is a creator of surplus value, provider of labour power and consumer of commodities. The education, enhanced consumption pattern and higher living standards of this class, especially in the West, are but a reflection of the soaring productive powers of society in the last sixty years. But workers they are; no doubt about that!
The question: ‘What will happen next’ has no clear answer and is how Egypt today differs from October 1917 when Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks sized power at the head of the Petrograd Soviet. The opposition in Egypt that has suffered the most at the hands of the dictators is the Muslim Brotherhood and is likely to do well in any free election. However the world today is different from 100 years ago. There have been dozens of Februaries but only one October in the last 100 years. Tunisia, Egypt, the collapse of the Stalinist Block in 1989-91, the Philippines, overdue revolutions in Burma and Middle Eastern countries, these are all “February Revolutions”. And there seems to be a permanent February going on in Venezuela. As for Leninist Octobers, there has been just one in the last 100 years!
Then the need is not Leninist style parties to carry out never-will-happen Octobers, but organisations that will swim in February seas and shape real history as it unfolds. At last, has Rosa Luxemburg stumped Lenin? In analogy why has the JVP emerged as the third force while October-obsessed revolutionary party building efforts (Bahu, Siritunga, Neil Dias, tiny Maoist sects) are forever minuscule? The same story is true all across the world in left revolutionary scenarios. Everywhere the tasks are genuine and accountable democracy, functioning division of power in state and semi-socialist semi-market economic systems.
The game plan in Sri Lanka
Autocracy in Sri Lanka is not as bad as the Maghreb and Middle East, though we have bumped off journalists, news agencies have serendipitously burnt down, and people live in fear of speaking out against the Rajapakse brothers. But still there is a credible opposition among those who dare. The JVP is campaigning openly here; the Muslim Brotherhood is banned, its leaders imprisoned there. There was rampant abuse the Elections Commissioner’s could not control in the 2010 presidential campaign, but I don’t think the count was rigged. The public has lost confidence in the judiciary but it cannot be said that it is a puppet appointed by the president as in Egypt and wholly beholden to him. We need to think about what all this means for strategies to protect our fading but not yet faded democratic polity.
What I am building up to is that there are ways for us to intervene and correct what is amiss in our country short of an uprising like what Tunisia and Egypt were forced into. The first difference is that we can still achieve a lot through the electoral process. An overbearing presidency and an overwhelming majority in parliament is the worst possible scenario for democracy, accountability and checks and balances. Hence, while it is not possible to defeat the UPFA at the LG polls in March, inflicting as severe a setback as possible is good for democracy. These are the kinds of simpler and less drastic practical ways by which Lanka can correct things that are making the angry classes angry. An electoral setback on the UPFA will save us the chaos of an Egypt-Tunisia type uprising say five years down the road. Another big UPFA victory however, and it will be curtains for Lanka.
What about the hungry classes? The government will have to drop its new business and investor friendly economic model that entails belt-tightening by the masses, and drift back to traditional SLFP type populism. The serious food crisis, unavoidable inflation, economic hardship, and eviction of the poor from their homes, can become explosive. This government is quite adept at accepting favours from foreign quarters, the suckers in Delhi included, and then cheating them – why not the IMF?
The military option
There is another way to deal with popular discontent, the military option, but it is very risky, it does not always work. It did in Burma a few years ago but failed in Egypt. A large (meaning much interpenetration with the people) and popular army can be relied on only against outsiders; foreign foes or other ethnic communities. Against its own people it will split on class lines in classic pre-revolutionary style and the lower ranks will cross the barricades. Mubarak even tried out his Mervyn/Duminda/SB style thugs while the army and police stood aside, (echoes of Hulftsdorp Hill February 2010, Punchi Borella February 2011 and the campuses), but it backfired. His state is packed with retired top-brass in suits (cabinet, state corporation heads, two thirds of provincial governorships, diplomatic service), but instead of winning over serving military rank and file, it bred social resentment.
The Rajapakses are trying some these tricks. Very unwise!