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Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s justification for the Iraq war is now that, for all the devastation it caused, launching the invasion was better than leaving dictator Saddam Hussein and his sons in charge of the country for decades to come. The peoples of Tunisia and Egypt have delivered a comprehensive rebuttal to this colonialist argument, overthrowing two entrenched dictators in the space of a month.
Two central factors in both countries were uncontainable popular rage and the irresolution of the security forces.
In Tunisia, the security forces were divided. Admiral Jacques Lanxade, a former French chief of staff and later ambassador to Tunisia, has commented: “It’s the army which walked out on Ben Ali when it refused – unlike the regime’s police – to fire on the crowds.” It was the chief of staff of the land army, general Rachid Ammar, who resigned rather than order the army to open fire on the unarmed demonstrators.
In Egypt, Robert Fisk reported: “the critical moment came on the evening of 30 January when, it is now clear, Mubarak ordered the Egyptian Third Army to crush the demonstrators in Tahrir Square with their tanks after flying F-16 fighter bombers at low level over the protesters.” Senior tank commanders consulted their families and decided to disobey. Once again, senior military officers played a key role in forcing the president from office. Fisk asked a first lieutenant in the Egyptian Third Army in Tahrir Square whether he would shoot demonstrators. The 25-year-old replied: “I cannot shoot my father, my family – you are like my father and my own family. And I have many friends here.”
It is entirely unclear what the long-term consequences of these events will be – are they really just military coups shoring up the established order? – but there are real resonances with the 1979 Iranian revolution, which also saw a completely unexpected popular unarmed uprising and the fracturing of a fearsome security structure.
It is clear in all three cases that the success of the unarmed leaderless masses was due in large measure to their ability to break military and police discipline by reaching out to the people behind the uniform. This is the great strength of rage channelled into nonviolence, or at least unarmed action, in an age of centralised military power.
If there had been vanguard armed groups attacking the military and police in Tunisia and Egypt, it would have been much much more difficult to secure the fragmentation of the security forces so vital to the overthrow of the dictators (but not yet their dictatorships).
And here in Britain, people power overturned the privatisation of the nation’s forests. As in north Africa, the popular mobilisation relied heavily on new technologies. In Britain, the online campaigning group 38 Degrees was a powerful magnifying lens for people’s fury.