Yasha from Israel introduced and Judy Beishon from Britain summed up this rich and varied discussion, which included several speakers from the Middle East.
Events in the Middle East have been accelerated by the world crisis and the specific crises of capitalism in the region. Swift-paced events will have their effects felt for generations. The oil boom fuelled investment in countries such as the Lebanon and enabled migrant workers to send home remittances. The economic downturn has cut this off. Political and military weakening of imperialism has prepared further explosions. The cycle of war and terrorism cannot be broken under capitalism, with seeds of future conflict sown in the current situation. A certain weakening of aspects of political Islam combined with a new cycle of class struggle in several countries gives new scope for socialist and Marxist ideas, and for the CWI.
The election of Obama has changed perceptions of the US. Obama wants time to push his agenda. While US vice president Biden appeared to say that the US would not object to Israel attacking Iran, this was swiftly downplayed by Obama’s advisers. Under the pressure of events Obama could lean harder on the right-wing racist Netanyahu government in Israel to ease the oppression of Palestinians. But this government is unstable, does not want to make any concessions and is not fully under the control of the US. The worst recession in Israel’s history is deepening class contradictions at the base of the Israeli state, undermines the traditional capitalist parties and opens up opportunities for joint struggles of working-class people. Obama is seeking an agreement with Syria and with Iran to stabilize the region, which an unreliable Israeli regime will make much more difficult to reach. The defeat of US military power in Iraq has emboldened the masses. Decades of occupation and repression make the imperialists fear any concessions that would reinforce resistance to imperialism. Repeated attempts will be made by the tops of the Israeli state, the Palestinian leaders and US imperialism to reach an agreement. But this process will not satisfy the national aspirations of the Palestinians and their struggle will continue.
The recent mass demonstrations in Iran terrified the neighbouring states as much as the Iranian elite. As the movement went beyond the control of Moussavi, demanding ‘Down with Ahmedinejad’ and ‘Down with the dictator’, he warned the authorities that ‘It’s not too late to restore people’s trust, the safety of the system depends on it’. This is a broad popular movement, in which workers have participated as individuals alongside young women, students and school-students. Poverty rates of 70%, with one in four unemployed and casualised workers taking two or three jobs to survive spurred workers into several big strikes before the elections. The question of the general strike is being widely discussed and is key. As shown in other countries, it is not sufficient to just call the general strike, but to prepare and build for it around a clear programme recognising the role of the working class.
Huge struggles have taken place in Egypt. Since the Malhalla textile workers’ strikes in 2007, a wave of industrial action demanded better pay and working conditions. Around 1.5million workers have taken part in a combination of defensive and offensive battles involving cement workers, oil workers, teachers and other education staff, young journalists, bus drivers, and others. Strikes are increasingly demanding the right to organize independently and for workers to chose their representatives, and in one case the renationalisation of a factory. Formation of the first independent trade union for 50 years is enormously significant. So too are the discussions among a layer of Egyptian activists about the incapacity of capitalism to satisfy workers’ needs and therefore the need for “democratic socialism” and even calls for “a socialist revolutionary party”. This is a glimpse of how workers’ ideas will develop through struggle, in Egypt and across the region. The movement of young people, for democratic reform and ‘freedom’ together with higher public spending and wages, has begun a crucial debate over linking demands for democracy with workers’ struggles. A struggle in Alexandria by fishermen (as reported on socialistworld.net), shows the potential for the future.
Some far right hawks and commentators in Israel are openly agitating for a US assault on Iran. The aim is not only to destroy the nuclear enrichment programme, but to undermine regional Iranian influence. Obma has learnt from the Bush policy of regime change by US military action. But despite the opposition of the Reagan-era US government, the Israeli army in 1981, bombed the Iraq nuclear facilities at Osirak. An attack on Iran is possible. This would be logistically far harder than the 1981 raid on Iraq, and would provoke outrage across the world and serious retaliation by Iran. But the destabilised Ahmedinejad regime itself may be driven towards confrontation with Israel.
Plight of Palestinians
The Palestinian territories still suffer from siege and the catastrophic effects of January’s barbaric slaughter by the IDF. The Israeli armed forces slaughtered 1470 Gazans, mainly women and children. 50,000 homes were destroyed, together with 200 schools and 800 factories or other businesses. 30,000 Gazans remain homeless on the streets, with thousands more living in tents. Not one dollar of the $455bn collected for reconstruction by the big powers has reached Gaza. The siege enforced by the Israeli regime and the Mubarak government, with the collaboration of Fatah, has blockaded anything from mattresses to cement. Mass struggle could break the siege. But Hamas are not going in this direction. Instead another form of ‘power-sharing’ may be on the agenda, pushed by imperialism.
The deep divisions fostered by imperialism pose the risk of further conflicts within countries. In Iraq, as the US troops pull out the conflict between Sunni, Shia and Kurds could slide into an all-out civil war in the struggle over the oil and resources. The CWI always opposed imperialist occupation and calls for the building of a strong cross-ethnic socialist force fighting for class unity.
In the Lebanon, sectarian parties demand more for ‘their’ communities at the expense of others. The victory of the pro-Western coalition in recent elections is hollow, based on actually getting a minority of the popular vote. 500,000 Palestinian refugees languish in camps without basic rights and are barred from working in many jobs. Workers’ struggles independent of the traditional unions and Communist Party are breaking out, but without a mass political voice the sectarian parties can continue bending class issues to their own divisive agenda. Further pressure on these parties will mount. Over 600,000 Lebanese workers emigrated during the oil boom years, including many thousands to the Gulf states. Half of these plan to return as the recession throws them out of work, but there will be no jobs in the Lebanon. At the same time, the ‘donating countries’ insist on cuts and privatisation in return for cancelling a portion of the country’s national debt.
The 40 million Kurds in the Middle East have suffered repression for decades. Kurdish demands for self-determination take different forms in different countries, for federation in Iran or autonomy in Iraq. Kurds in Iran want the end of the current regime and see both Moussavi and Ahmedinejad as state terrorists against Kurdish people.
Political Islam, in some cases in the region, is weakened or facing serious challenges. The Iranian movement poses serious questions to the reactionary ideology on which the regime and a number of organizations are based. Further, ‘resistance’ organizations supported by Iran could see this support reduced if the regime is overthrown. Both Hezbollah and Hamas are pressured from below by the grinding poverty and desperation of their supporters. The extreme right-wing ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’ is much diminished. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt will face serious tests. A section of the ruling establishment is favour bringing the MB into the state, to stabilize the regime. This would be embraced by some leaders. On the other hand, workers’ struggles and socialist ideas will pressurise the ranks of the MB. A split cannot be ruled out, mirroring the split at the top of Egyptian society over Hosni Mubarak handing over the reins of political power to his son Gamal.
Imperialist domination of and interests in the region are motivated above all by oil, which remains vital to world capitalism. Liberation of oppressed minorities, such as the Kurds, the Turkomen, or the Palestinians, is impossible under capitalism. Imperialism fully intends to maintain its grip on the region, and can be expelled only by a mass united workers’ struggle.
The commission reflected anger at the desperate situation faced by the masses of the Middle East. But it reflected too that the masses can and will fight for a better future. The power of the Iranian mass movement, workers’ organizations re-emerging, and socialist ideas developing in Egypt, gives us grounds for optimism in the fight for class unity and socialism.