Turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt: Beginning or End of the Revolutions?

In Tunisia in December 2010, a single individual ignited a popular revolution against a venal autocrat, an uprising that was followed promptly by a similar eruption in Egypt against a similar venal autocrat. The Arab world was astonished and world public opinion immediately was very sympathetic to these "model" expressions of the struggles around the world for autonomy, dignity, and a better world.
Now, three years later, both countries are mired in fierce political struggles, internal violence that is escalating, and great uncertainty about where this is leading, and to whose benefit. There are some aspects particular to each country, some that are reflected in uprisings throughout the Arab or Arab-Islamic world, and some aspects that bear comparison to what is happening in Europe and to some extent everywhere in the world.
What happened? We must start with the initial popular uprising. As is often the case, it was started by courageous young people who were protesting against the arbitrary power of the powerful -- locally, nationally, internationally. In this sense, it was anti-imperialist, anti-exploitation, and profoundly egalitarian. It bears much comparison to the kinds of uprisings that occurred around the world between 1966 and 1970, which we sometimes call today the world-revolution of 1968. As then, the protests touched a deep chord within the country and attracted wide public support far beyond the small group that launched it.
What happened subsequently? A generalized anti-authoritarian revolution is a very dangerous thing for those with authority. When initially repressive measures didn't seem to work, many groups sought to tame the revolutions by joining it, or seeming to join it. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the army entered the picture, refusing to shoot at the protestors but also seeking to control the situation after the deposing of the two autocrats.
In both countries, there had long been a strong Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. It had been outlawed in Tunisia and carefully controlled and circumscribed in Egypt. The revolutions permitted them to emerge in two ways. They offered social assistance to the poor who had been suffering from the neglect of the state. And they decided to form political parties in order both to gain a majority in the parliaments and to control the writing of the new constitutions. In the first elections of each country, they emerged the strongest political party.
Following this, there were basically four groups competing in the political arena. In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood party -- Ennahda in Tunisia, the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt -- there have been three other political actors: the secularist forces more or less on the left, the Salafist forces on the far right who sought to legislate a far more stringent version of sharia than the Muslim Brotherhood parties, and the still strong but quasi-underground supporters of the old regimes.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood parties and the secularist forces are in fact quite divided internally, especially about the strategies they wish to pursue. The Muslim Brotherhood parties are faced with the same political dilemmas that have been for the last few years those of right-of-center parties in Europe. The countries have severe and continuing economic problems, which gives rise to and/or strengthens parties on the far right, which threatens the ability of the "mainstream" right-of-center party to win future elections. In these situations, there have been those everywhere who want to win back voters on the far right by moving in their direction and being "hardline" with the left or secularist forces. And there have been the so-called moderates who think the party should move to the center and regain votes there.
The left or secularist forces contain in turn a wide gamut of groups: truly left groups (but multiple ones) and middle-class democrats seeking to encourage closer economic links with strong market forces in Europe and North America. On economic questions, these middle class groups are quite close in fact to what the moderate Islamist forces propose.
Meanwhile, the forces still loyal to the old venal regimes maintain control over one key institution, the police. It is the police who shoot at the demonstrations of the secularist forces. When these forces protest about the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a key secularist leader, Tunisia's prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, a so-called moderate Islamist, protests that he is as appalled as they at the assassination. To this, the secularist groups reply that the Islamist parties, and especially their so-called hardliners, are responsible in any case indirectly because they have created the climate within which such an assassination could take place.
Furthermore, Tunisia and Egypt are not isolated countries. Their neighbors in the Arab world and beyond are also in turmoil. The geopolitical intrusion of outside forces is very great. Both countries are relatively poor and need outside financial help to deal with the continuing and growing unemployment made more severe by the loss of tourist income that for both countries was a central source of revenue.
So where is all this heading? There are only two possible directions. One is the end of the revolution, at least for the time being. The two countries could see strongly-entrenched rightwing governments, supported (perhaps even controlled) by the military, with socially conservative constitutions and cautious foreign policies. The other is the beginning of the revolution, in which the initial spirit of 1968 regains force, and both Tunisia and Egypt become again beacons of social transformation for themselves, for the rest of the Arab world, for the entire world.
For the moment, it seems as though the forces that are pushing for the end of the revolution have the upper hand. But in this chaotic world, it is far too early to lower the curtain on a renewed revolutionary force in both countries. Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press). Copyright ©2013 Immanuel Wallerstein - distributed by Agence Global