CWI Summer School 2008: Middle East Commission

War, poverty and renewed class struggle

The Middle East region has been robbed of its resources by imperialism for decades, said Shahar from Ma’avak Sozialisti (Israeli section of Committee for a Workers’ International), introducing the excellent commission on the region during the CWI Summer School.

Life has become even more difficult for its workers and poor in the region, while the ruling classes live in luxury. Prices are rising for basic needs – food, fuel and housing. Governments try to cut subsidies where they still exist. Petrodollars will start falling in the next decade, as key oilfields near the end of their life. Governments will try to replace this income with higher taxes on the working class and poor.

For years, discussion on the Middle East has been dominated by wars, religion and neo-liberal attacks on living standards. These factors remain, as part of life under capitalism, but the recent revival of working class struggle, especially in Iran, Egypt and Israel is a major development.

Iran contains two time-bombs – young workers, only half of whom can get jobs, and the national question with oppression of non-Farsi minorities. A section of the ruling class want to break Iran’s isolation and integrate with the world economy, but this would not solve these problems. Meanwhile, the Ahmadinejad government uses the nuclear issue to divert attention from its attacks on workers and to assert its regional ambitions.

The US ruling class have wanted regime change since the 1979 revolution overthrew their puppet, the Shah. But they now hesitate to take action. They want the support of their European allies, do not want to alienate Russia and China and need an opposition movement inside Iran that will be more compliant with the US. They also fear the devastating effects any attack could have on the price of oil and the fragile world economy, on the position of their troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and on their client regimes such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt. Nevertheless, it cannot be excluded that the neo-cons might yet try a last desperate move before leaving the White House.

Chris (England and Wales) and Kristofer (Sweden) described recent demonstrations in Iran against rising prices and strikes, met with repression by the Ahmadinejad regime. In one factory occupation, the security forces used a bulldozer to smash through a wall and arrest workers. But the number of strikes has grown and demonstrations a thousand strong have taken place outside courts demanding the release of those arrested. Workers and youth have lost their fear of the regime and are beginning to see struggle as not only necessary, but also possible. A female activist from Iran described student demonstrations that use slogan like; “No to imperialism! No to reactionary religious movements!” and had raised with workers that the only future is socialism.

Strikes in Egypt

In Egypt, strikes have also grown over the past two years, said Igor from CIS. Wider layers of the working class have been involved, with a broadening of demands. The Mahalla textile workers demanded an increase in the national minimum wage. Some political activists attempted to turn the planned Mahalla strike on April 6th into a one-day general strike. Although there were some strikes and student demonstrations, the results were patchy. Up to 50,000 demonstrated in Mahalla against police attacks, facing tear gas and live ammunition. The militancy of those workers and youth showed the tip of the iceberg of the developing mood in the working class.

A Facebook site was created by young bloggers to publicise the strike, with 73,000 signing up to it. A further call was made by democracy activists and bloggers for a strike on Mubarak’s 80th birthday, on May 4th. Few workers took part. The lesson is that to build such action requires campaigning in the workplaces, with workers building their own organisations and developing trusted and militant leaders. Nevertheless, it is of great significance that a large layer of those young people with internet access, who are likely to be mainly from middle class backgrounds, look to the working class for the power to change Mubarak’s hated regime.

The largest political opposition to Mubarak remains the Muslim Brotherhood. The class composition of their leadership has led them to stay largely silent on the growing workers’ strike movement. Divisions within this organisation could develop as class tensions increase, with young members especially coming under pressure from other radicalised youth. New formations could develop, with a more populist programme while maintaining a religious base.

Activists need to discuss what sort of regime will follow Mubarak’s corrupt and vile dictatorship. Any regime that comes to power and is forced to make concessions will still seek to stabilise capitalism. Reforms will be taken back whenever the movement subsides. The task is posed in Egypt, Iran and throughout the Middle East of building a mass working class party and striving to win its members to the programme of socialist revolution.

The complications that exist in the region are shown in Lebanon. Vivid accounts of the situation there were given by a student activist from the CWI in Lebanon, and Stephan from Belgium, recently returned from a visit there. Hezbollah is the largest political party. Polarisation followed the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005, between the ‘8th March’ forces supporting Syria and the ‘14th March’ forces opposing it. While property speculators and banks prospered, workers and poor people were left undefended.

The Communist Party is the only non-sectarian party, but its leaders have stood back from campaigning for workers’ unity to defend living standards. When a general strike was called for a higher minimum wage on May 7th this year, Hezbollah stepped in and hijacked the developing movement along sectarian lines. Its leadership does not want to struggle against their business colleagues or against confessional conflict. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it too could split in the future in the face of rising class conflict.

Life intolerable for Palestinians

In the divided Palestinian Authority, life remains intolerable, with the loss of 150,000 jobs (20% of the workforce) since the siege began. There were 4000 factories in Gaza just a few years ago, and only 200 are still working. The majority of Palestinians now see no real difference between the armed Hamas or Fatah. The holes blown in the border walls with Egypt, through which thousands poured to obtain desperately needed goods, which neither the Egyptian police nor Hamas could stop, shows the potential power of a Palestinian mass movement.

Disillusionment in the Israeli state has reached new depths, reported Eyal from Ma’avak Sozialisti. Huge gaps between rich and poor, with smashing of the once-strong welfare state, have destroyed the ideas of ‘One Nation’ that the ruling class used to foster. There is growing realisation that military strength has its limits. One group after another has demonstrated against the government, from Holocaust survivors to students. Strikes have broken out, from waitresses to train drivers. A teachers’ strike was supported by a demonstration of 100,000. More workers will be forced to struggle but do not automatically see Arab workers as partners. The growing strike wave in Egypt and Iran can help to change this.

Replying to the wide-ranging discussion, Judy (England and Wales) said it had shown members of the CWI are actively participating in some of these struggles as well as analysing them.

A world recession would have terrible effects on workers and the poor. In the Middle East there would be an added burden – would water be used for people or to grow cash crops for export? The region’s population was four times bigger than in 1950. It has the world’s worst unemployment rate of one in four. Two thirds of the Arab population is under the age of 25. On a capitalist basis they face a nightmare scenario.

Judy finished with the socialist perspective: “Only when the ruling classes are swept away will a new Middle East be born. Only the working class can deliver a new society – socialism. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose,”

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