Ten years ago this week a mass demonstration converged in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, setting in motion a revolutionary upheaval that overthrew a tyrant and spurred on a wave of mass movements and social explosions across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Though seldom acknowledged as such, these revolutions—known as the Arab Spring— represent one of the most successful modern movements against police violence.1Although I use the phrase Arab Spring, I want to acknowledge that there has been some debate about the use of the term. I am somewhat sympathetic with the critique that all the people who participated were not Arab. Many different groups of people who speak languages other than Arabic (Amazigh, Assyrians, Kurds, Shabaks, various Turkic peoples, Yazidis, et al.) reside in the region. Additionally, in many instances the notion of “Arabization” was used to justify repression and cultural and linguistic erasure, for example in Sudan and Algeria. I still use the term Arab Spring throughout the essay mostly because of the prominence of the term and its common usage. Nonetheless I try to diversify how I refer to the rebellions that spread across the region to start from the familiar and expand from there.Indeed, organizing against police brutality was an essential contributor to these uprisings that swept the region, toppled governments, inspired the globe, and kicked into gear a revolutionary process that found expression in a second wave of revolts in 2019. The generative force of organizing against state violence was a key dynamic that is often under-described in accounts of the rebellions. And, perhaps most interestingly, for brief periods of time several of these revolutions achieved (in different ways) something akin to police abolition.
The movement against racist police violence and for abolition here in the US does not often identify this wave of fierce mobilizations as a reference point to study or draw lessons from. But it should.
With this past summer’s nationwide explosion against the continual killings of Black folk, the idea of abolition of the police and the demand to defund the cops were lifted up on the back of the millions of people who participated in these uprisings. And this, in turn, was possible because of the tireless efforts of abolitionist organizers who have been doing this work for many years prior. The militancy of this movement—with its resilience in the face of repression by Democratic mayors and federal agents, with its defiant chants and slogans, with its the use of tactics such as burning down police vehicles and buildings alongside mass marches—bear obvious connections with the struggles in the streets of almost every country in the MENA region during the Arab Spring. It’s not for nothing that some commentators have even referred to this summer’s uprising as an “American Spring.”
To make the case that the events of the MENA revolutions should be seen as a rebellion against the police, I am going to first highlight how the dynamics of anti-police organizing played important roles in these uprisings. I will then briefly sketch some lessons that can be gleaned for the abolitionist movement here in the US.
By focusing on the role of anti-police organizing in the Arab Spring, I risk de-emphasizing other grievances and causes that set these revolutions ablaze. It is therefore important to understand how the history I describe falls in the context of a web of conditions imposed upon the MENA countries that, taken together, caused the revolts that swept the region from Morocco to Iraq.2Iran is sometimes included in the MENA region rebellions, though the trajectory of its rebellions (the 2009–2010 Green Movement and the events of 2019–2020) are slightly different. But there are also good arguments for inclusion. These conditions include, among other things, combined and uneven economic development, the imposition of neoliberal policies by institutions such as the IMF, US imperialism, and the way these factors combined to produce states across the region that, to varying degrees, had despotic, undemocratic regimes.3For this background, Gilbert Achcar’s The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (Berkley: University of California Press, 2013), Adam Hanieh’s Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), and Asef Bayat’s Revolution without Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) are excellent. These conditions fomented multipronged struggles against them. My claim, then, is that organizing against the police played an especially explosive role in igniting struggles and propelling them forward.
The Revolutionary Wave
The revolutionary flame that swelled in Egypt in 2011 was first lit in Tunisia, a country that had deposed its own decades-ruling, US-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali just one week prior. Along with Tunisia, massive demonstrations in Algeria roared, and many smaller demonstrations began sparking in country after country. But it was arguably Egypt, the most populous country in the MENA region with the largest working class, that with its successful toppling of Hosni Mubarak gave tremendous confidence to the revolutionary wave that would spread further.
This regional ferment turned global: from the indignados movement in Spain to the movement of the squares in Greece to the Madison capital occupation and the Occupy Movement. In all cases, these uprisings traced their origin to events that began in a small central Tunisian town.
We can see echoes of this same pattern repeated in 2019 when a second wave of rebellions started first in Sudan, then Algeria, and swept to Lebanon and Iraq and again helped give confidence to a wave of global revolts in locales as far flung as Hong Kong, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Haiti. This wave largely subsided because of the onset of the global pandemic—but the conditions still exist for it to reignite and spread further. One can’t help but see the rebellion in the US in the summer of 2020 as being—while of course rooted in the long struggle against anti-Black racism and police terror—at least partially set off by seeing the world rise up in protest, inspiring, and visible as a viable way to seek change.
With that general picture in place, I’d like to return to 2011 and focus on the anti-police dynamics of the revolutionary moment in three countries: Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.
Tunisia: “I am a thorn in the throat of the oppressor, I am a wind touched by fire.”
Tunisia had long been considered by Western powers to be a beacon of stability. But this stability was maintained through an open police state. Visible police presence was ubiquitous, random ID checks and roadblocks were everpresent, and torture and arbitary arrest were commonplace. When I lived there from 2005 to 2006 every person I knew had a story of police brutality that they directly suffered or witnessed.
Police suppression of protest was quick and fierce. In 2005 the police fired on a protest of students demonstrating against President Ben Ali for allowing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to attend a UN information and technology summit in Tunis.
The prelude to the events that set off the Arab Spring occurred between January and July of 2008. Tunisia’s phosphate mining basin of Gafsa exploded in a wave of protests, sit-ins, street battles, and a general strike. It did not yet have the target of Ben Ali and the state but swelled in response to unemployment, poverty, and corruption. One feature of these protests was the fierce antagonism that became directed at the police. In one town, Redeyef, masked youth attacked a police station, and high schoolers and unemployed youth fought street battles against police—complete with fiery barricades. The police were overwhelmed by the militancy. The demonstrations exerted control of the streets, and police were forced to redeploy outside of the city.4Eric Gobe, “The Gafsa Mining Basin between Riots and a Social Movement: Meaning and Significance of a Protest Movement in Ben Ali’s Tunisia,” 2010, halshs-00557826.The protests and the general strike did not spread, and eventually the Gafsa Rebellion was harshly suppressed with hundreds of arrests.5Joel Beinin, Workers and Thieves:Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 89..
This was not the case when—in Sidi Bouzid, in the governorate (province) adjacent to Gafsa—the martyrdom of Mohamed Bouazizi served as catalyst for the revolutionary upsurge in late 2010. Bouazizi’s story exemplifies the connection between immiserating conditions, social revolt, and the detonator of police brutality. Mohamed Bouzazizi was twenty-six and could not find employment in the formal economy, so he was forced to sell vegetables on the street to make a living. He was constantly harassed by the police for not having permits and regularly forced to pay bribes. In December 2010, however, he refused to pay a police bribe—and the cops responded by seizing his wares and beating him up. He went to the city hall to get his belongings back and was refused entry. He then doused himself in gasoline, exclaimed, “How do you expect me to make a living?” and set himself on fire. He died eighteen days later.
It didn’t take long for word of Bouazizi’s fate to spark revolt. Protests erupted in Sidi Bouzid and videos of the protest titled “The Intifada of Sidi Bouzid” spread on social media. Then another young man, Houcine Falhi, killed himself in protest by electrocution. The rebellion grew. As protests spread to nearby towns, the cops killed at least fifty in a police riot in Thala and Kasserine, and videos, news, outrage, and protest widened.6Beinin, Workers and Thieves, 102.The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) called a rotating general strike around the country that converged in mass demonstrations in Tunis, the capital.7Achcar, The People Want, 145 The military stood aside due to mass pressure and fear of mutiny. The movement overthrew President Zine Abidine Ben Ali. It’s gains included the beginning of a process for a new constitution, the first free elections, and the swift abolition of the State Security Department, which contained the political police.
And the spark that caused it all was an arresting, brutal incident of police violence that ignited resistance. The fact that the mass rebellion succeeded in Tunisia had a radicalizing effect and raised the aspirations of the struggling masses. In the streets of Tunis a chant was born that would soon be repeated by massive crowds all over the region: “The people want the fall of the regime!”
Egypt: “The dawn of freedom has arrived.”
The roots of the 2011 revolution in Egypt emerge, as described above, from the soil of the conditions created by neoliberalism, imperialism, and despotism. A series of struggles set the stage. Egyptian socialist Sameh Naguib and others have noted that solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada was an important touchstone for a the rumblings of a new movement.8Sameh Naguib, “Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution,” International Socialist Review 79 (September 2011). This was expressed in large demonstrations and a brief occupation of Tahrir Square against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.9Naguib, “Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution.” Further radicalization came through a series of militant strikes in the factory town of El Mahalla El Kubra—home to the biggest textile mill in the Middle East—in 2006 and 2007. The strikes were highly political and took up wages and work conditions as well as the IMF, the World Bank, and colonialism. In 2008 police met an aborted strike directed at the government in Mahalla with violent attempts to break the strike through force and by occupying the factory preemptively. The militant workers and youth, steeled through the experience of the important strikes of years past, fought back, and a pitched battle with the police and riot ensued. “The revolution has arrived!” proclaimed youth hurling stones at cops.10Hossam El-Hamalawy, “Revolt in Mahalla,” International Socialist Review 59 (May–June 2008).
Police violence and torture was also commonplace. Torture was notorious and routine, and human rights groups like Amnesty International raised the issue repeatedly on the international stage. The state security apparatus was massive with a police force about 75 percent of the size of that of the US in a nation with only a quarter of the population.
This general sentiment coalesced in the organizing around the police murder of Khaled Saeed. Saeed was a twenty-eight-year-old man from the city of Alexandria who was dragged out of an internet cafe and brutally beaten to death for suspicion of hashish possession. A picture of his graphically disfigured face circulated and became the face of the pervasiveness of police violence, torture, and murder. Initially, small but significant protests began and a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Saeed” became a platform for decrying the violence of the police. Amro Ali, activist and neighbor of Saeed, stated that his murder “sparked the rapid countdown to the 2011 revolution.”11Amro Ali, “Saeeds of Revolution: De-Mythologizing Khaled Saeed,” Jadaliyya, June 5, 2012.
Protests were already being planned for January 25, and the focus of police brutality and Khaled Saeed were central. January 25 was then “National Police Day” in Egypt, a holiday created by Hosni Mubarak to honor those who brought “security” to his regime. The “We Are All Khaled Saeed” Facebook page was one of the first to publicize the call. Tirelessly organized by activists on the ground and buoyed by aspirations raised higher because of Tunisia, people flooded into Tahrir. The initial target of the protest was for the resignation of Habib El-Adly who was the head of the Ministry of Interior—the police, border guards, and secret police.
Rather than remaining focused on reforms to the Interior Ministry, the political demands leaped forward and soon centered around calls for the downfall of the Mubarak regime. The anti-police dynamic was obvious from the confrontations with the cops in the streets and defense of the sit-ins in the square against police attempts to break them up. When demonstrations would pass by police stations they would stop and chant the names of individuals they knew who had been tortured to death within.12Ahmed Saleh, “The Popular Committees: The Local, The Ordinary, and The Violent in The Egyptian Revolution,” masters thesis (Budapest: Central European University, 2016), 54. In many instances the crimes of the police were more than intoned. During the course of the eighteen days between the beginning of the protests to the fall of Mubarak half of all the police stations in Cairo and 60 percent in Alexandria were set ablaze.13Bayat, Revolution without Revolution, 157.
By the 28th of January the police and every uniformed element of the Ministry of the Interior were literally run off the streets. One participant-scholar describes interviewing activists at the time and asking them where the police were. The common answer he reports was: “What police? Of course there was no police. They wouldn’t have dared to show up or move around.”14Ahmed Saleh, “Popular Committees,” 50.
In this space generated by the temporary abolition of literally running the police off the street, new institutions were created. First there was the self-organization of the revolutionary squares and then the neighborhood organization of the Popular Committees (al-lajaan al-sha’abiya).
The occupations of the revolutionary squares had a high level of organization with security established at the perimeter, food, medical care, open political debate, and cultural spaces.They were places of refuge where people received aid they did not receive from the government, places of joyous celebration with concerts at night and singing of revolutionary songs, and places of battle that sometimes had to be physically defended from attack by regime “thugs” (baltagiyya) like on February 2.
In the neighborhoods another democracy was created: the Popular Committees. Their purpose —to quote one anonymous Egyptian activist—was “to take the revolution out of Tahrir Square and bring it to our neighborhood.”15Cilja Harders and Dina Wahba, “New Neighborhood Power: Informal Popular Committees and Changing Local Governance in Egypt,” in Thanassis Cambanis, Michael Wahid Hanna eds., Arab Politics Beyond the Uprisings. Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism (New York: Century Foundation Press), 400–419. The PCs’ first function was as an alternative to the police in order to maintain order in the neighborhoods. But, due to their democratic functioning and the creative space carved out by the revolution, they were described in one study as follows:
By mobilizing publicly, the local inhabitants gained voice and were able to exert pressure on the authorities to either finally implement projects they had approved years ago, or to react to the grievances of the inhabitants. . . . This included getting access to the gas network of the city, getting streets redone, having illegal garbage dumps removed, planting trees, restoring public recreation spaces, and setting up a new local library and a small youth center. 16Harders and Wahba, “New Neighborhood Power.”
The Popular Committees also helped transform the retreat of the police from the street into a counter-power against the state, limiting and preventing the police from being able to regroup or remobilize. This played a key role in ensuring that the sit-ins of the squares could be maintained and helped limit the repressive capacity of the regime. One way they did this was the establishment of what Ahmed Saleh calls a “police curfew” in which the checkpoints and patrols were established to make sure that anyone associated with the police could not move freely about the city. One could imagine the PCs, combined with workplace organizations, being the seeds of dual power had they progressed.
On February 11, fifteen million people took part in demonstrations, organized workers raised the threat of a total shutdown on the economy, and Hosni Mubarak’s regime fell. Tragically, counterrevolution would eventually roll back all of these gains, but the Egyptian Revolution amplified the Tunisian confidence and transformed the politics of the region and the world.
Syria: “Down with the regime. Down with the world. Down with everything.”
The Syrian Revolution is one of the most heroic of the 2011 uprisings, but, as is often the case with heroism of the oppressed, it was punished with cataclysm and the greatest cruelty. And, similarly, struggles against the police are at its center.
Some protests simmered after the Egyptian victory, but it was not until March that the Syrian people surged forward. In mid-February in the town of Deraa a group of young teenagers painted “Your turn, doctor”—a reference to dictator Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist. The police rounded up fifteen kids and brutally tortured them. It is said that when their parents went to the local police station to ask for the release of their children the local head of security—who was a cousin of the president—told them: “Forget about your children. Go home and sleep with your wives and make new ones or send them to me and I’ll do it.”17Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War(London: Pluto Press, 2016), 38. Confrontational protests started in Deraa, and by the time the children were released in March fierce protests—partially due to the regime’s bloody response to protests—had broken out around the country.
The trajectory of the Syrian revolution, due to a number of factors but most importantly the barbaric brutality of al-Assad’s scorched earth counterrevolution, very quickly led to an armed conflict with complicated political dynamics.18See Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, Burning Country and Joseph Daher, Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019). However, similar to the Egyptian example, as mass protests and armed resistance forced the state out of hundreds of liberated towns, experiments in democratic self-governance flourished. Local Coordinating Committees (tanseeqiyat), organs first developed to coordinate the weekly protests, became alternative institutions to the state that managed the needs of the liberated areas. The LCCs in many cases forced the police out of the cities. As Yasser Munif notes in his case study of the liberated town Manbij, the LCCs were able to operate with almost no violence or theft after the police and other agents of the state repressive apparatus (mukhabarat) were kicked out.19Yasser Munif, The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death (London: Pluto Press, 2020), 147.
The Syrian struggle obviously is a tragic one. But it is important to hold up the flowering of revolutionary creativity and self-organization that came to flourish in the most difficult of circumstances. It was that very fact that made the revolution so dangerous—and it is also why Assad decided to bathe the country in blood when the doctor saw the writing on the wall that perhaps his turn was next.
Conclusion: “Half Revolution, No Revolution.”
As much as the victories of the MENA revolutions should be lauded, their brutal defeats at the hands of counterrevolution also deserve to be soberly understood. While the police were run off the streets, out of town, entire departments abolished, buildings burned to the ground, they eventually came back—in some cases with a new face, in others just the same as they’d always been. But there are lessons to be learned by viewing the Arab Spring through the lens of the dynamic of anti-police organizing and protest. The examples, however fleeting and temporary, give a glimpse of a possible creative future and kind of struggle that those of us in this country organizing for police abolition could draw lessons from. I want to ever so briefly point to some of them.
First, while the lineages of the revolts were rooted in a host of conditions imposed by global capitalism, including the manner in which this shaped the region’s state regimes, struggles against police violence very often served as the catalyst, the immediate spark that set them ablaze. Additionally, police violence against protesters in many instances provoked growth in the size and deepening militancy of protests.
Movements against the police are quite dynamic, often lead to greater questioning of the relationship of the police to the state, and cut to the core of how undemocratic our societies are. Police are not the sole reason for our suffering. But they represent the sharp point of the spear of the total violence of the world we live in. We have basically no say in our workplaces or in our government, and we’re forced to work awful jobs to be able to survive so that the ultrarich enjoy total control of our world and continue to maximize profits. The symbolic edge of this injustice is the ability of the state to physically attack and control us with little pretense up to the point of gunning us down in the street. We see this anytime there is a protest or a strike. Here in the United States this dynamic is compounded by the racist nature of US policing and the centrality of anti-Black racism to the capitalist project. Thus the constant feature of US policing as violently reifying, reproducing, and maintaining anti-Black racist order.
So one lesson is that revolutionaries, socialists, people who see the importance of people rising up to change the conditions we live in should be especially focused on, responsive to, and rooted in organizing against the police. This point of emphasis is sadly not universal on the left—indeed some socialists downplay these kinds of struggles against racism and the police.
But our task, as the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin stated, is to “react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, . . . to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.”20V.I. Lenin, “What Is To Be Done,” Collected Works, Vol 5 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961).
Second, the struggles of the Arab Spring show us that challenging police violence always leads to and requires challenging the capitalist state and therefore capitalist rule. The police, as I have argued elsewhere, are not appendages to a state that is class-neutral. Rather the police hold the monopoly on violence used by a capitalist state to maintain racist class rule.21There is more to be said about how class rule is maintained in the MENA region and the question of racism than the space of this essay can do justice. But one could think about the way in which sectarianization in many of the MENA countries serve some of the same functions. The MENA revolutions demonstrate how the level of struggle required to have a real impact on state violence has to be expressed as a struggle not just against the police but also against the state. Egyptian Revolutionaries realized, for example, that not just the Ministry of the Interior but the whole regime had to be taken on. This, I would argue, is how struggles become truly “revolutionary.” In the words of Daniel Bensaïd the crisis “does not become revolutionary until a subject works towards its resolution; this is accomplished through attacking the State.”22Daniel Bensaïd, “The Notion of the Revolutionary Crisis in Lenin (1968)” Viewpoint Magazine (September 5, 2014).
To this point it is important to add the question, What do you do the day after a dictator abdicates and the crisis does indeed becomes revolutionary? In this situation it is not automatic that the revolution is successful. This is of course one of the negative lessons of the Arab Spring. If you don’t have a strong enough political force able to articulate a political alternative, a revolutionary road like that of socialism, then other political forces fill that void. This merely rearranges the people at top, but the dictatorship of the capitalist class, albeit perhaps with a kinder, gentler face, remains.23Bayat, Revolution without Revolution, 155. In this case you make a half-way revolution, which, in the words of Saint-Just, digs your own grave. So therefore, if you want to abolish the police you have to make a revolution, all the way.
In thinking about the notion of abolition, the struggles of the Arab Spring raise the horizon—and in some ways, the stakes—of what kind of fights we have ahead of us. The rulers will not give up their monopoly of violence simply or allow them to be reformed out of existence. Now, it’s true in the spaces we carve out by our movements that we will continue to create the alternatives we need. These no doubt will not be perfect, as many of the examples in the MENA revolutions certainly were not. But they are important and will continue to be. Nonetheless, we must never lose sight of an important truth: in order to truly end state violence, we must abolish the state as it exists today—including the police.
The revolutionary process of the Arab Spring continues. In 2019 another global wave of revolt toppled governments in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq. At the time of the writing of this article demonstrations against the police and unemployment are again beginning to shake Tunisia. And although our summer of revolt against racist policing has dwindled, the conditions remain for it to erupt again. And many more thousands of people now have the experience of those protests. We must continue to organize because the people still want.24Thanks to Shireen Akram-Boshar for providing comments on this article and thanks to a Chicago-based comrade in the April 6 Youth Movement for encouraging me to present on this topic years ago.