North Africa / Middle East: Challenges to rule of kings and dictators continue

Herculean efforts to remove Gaddafi dictatorship in Libya

As the dates for elections in Tunisia and Egypt are announced, the Libyan masses, despite their herculean efforts, have not yet been able to overthrow the Gaddafi dictatorship. Yet in Oman, in Bahrain, in Yemen and Djibouti the challenges to the rule of kings and dictators continue.

Four million reportedly took to the streets across Yemen on Friday 4 March, calling for the removal of the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Significantly, 10,000 marched in Beirut on the following Sunday, to protest against the country’s sectarian political system, chanting slogans: “No to sectarianism”, “People want to topple the regime” and “Revolution”.

The mighty labours of the Middle East revolution do not stop there. In a magnificent demonstration in Iraq against the Nouri al-Maliki government, a stooge regime of imperialism, we see the re-emergence of the working class under its own banner. This is for the first time since the Tony Blair/George Bush invasion and the occupation of the country in 2003.

Up to now there has been the virtual outlawing and repression of trade unions and workers’ organisations. Terror was used by the government against demonstrations as 29 workers were shot down by ‘security forces’. Yet the slogans of the demonstrators were to the point: “The people’s oil for the people not the thieves!”, “We want dignity, jobs and services, not terrorism!”, “No to Saddam’s dictatorship and no to the dictatorship of thieves!”, "No to the occupation, we’re not Ba’athists!” and very significantly "Sunnis and Shia, this homeland we shall never sell". Also in Iraqi Kurdistan, six were killed and protesters demanded that the Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani and their sectarian parties should follow Mubarak into exile.

In panic, as the torrents of revolution swept into the sleepy Gulf states, the Sultan of Oman rushed out proposals for 50,000 new jobs and $400 a month in unemployment benefits. This followed significant concessions from the Kuwaiti regime as well as the ‘mighty’ Saudi Arabia semi-feudal monarchy. Last week the Saudi king tried to buy off the insurgent masses with a $36 billion package of housing loans, unemployment benefits and pay rises.

Hypocrisy of imperialism exposed

This graphically demonstrates that reforms – real reforms – are themselves merely a by-product of revolution or the threat of revolution. These movements which have left not one regime in the Middle East untouched bears out the arguments of the Marxists and the Socialist at the time of the Iraq war. Invasion, argued Blair, was the only way to unseat the Saddam Hussain dictatorship. Our claim that, on the contrary, only a mass movement of the Iraqi people could really remove, not just Saddam, but also his rotten regime was dismissed out of hand.

But it was the mass uprisings in Tunisia then in Egypt which overthrew the dictatorships and not the intervention of imperialism. In fact, imperialism backed these dictatorships right up to the moments of their overthrow. They trembled at the repercussions of these movements. The shameful revelations of the millions of pounds given by the Gaddafi regime to support august institutions of British capitalism such as the London School of Economics indicate this.

Nor was it Al-Qaeda or the methods of terrorism which led to the Egyptian, Tunisian and Middle East revolution. On the contrary, the methods of terrorism have not undermined dictatorships but, if anything, helped to consolidate them. Such methods have been completely sidelined by this process and rejected – at least for the time being – by the revolutionary forces. Failure to carry through the revolution to a conclusion however could open the opportunity for such reactionary divisive forces to make a comeback.

But even that is contingent on whether or not a powerful independent movement of the working class can be built. This is the most crucial task in the revolutionary movements that are taking place. The fear of such a development is indicated by the attempts of both the Tunisian ‘security’ services and the Egyptian army, which still retains most of its power, to stifle and attack any independent organisation and criticism of the regime by working class or other popular forces. This is why independent organisations, where they exist, are so crucial for the further consolidation and spread of the revolution. Where they don’t exist, the need to form them is urgent.

No faith can be placed in the ‘security apparatuses’ that still retain most of their power from the previous regime. Witness the arrests and the shootings on the streets of demonstrators in Tunisia. Look at the entirely correct suspicions of the workers in Alexandria, Egypt, who attacked the headquarters of the security police because of alleged rumours that evidence of torture by the army and police was being destroyed. It is vital that the emerging trade union organisations are completely independent of the state.


Libya also underlines the instinctive approach of the masses once they move onto the political arena for their own means of mass expression independent of governments or other non-working class forces. The idea of “people’s committees" in Benghazi and other liberated areas of Libya is a good and necessary one. But it does appear – from scanty reports, it is true – that the committees even in Benghazi are not fully based upon the real involvement of working class people in the city.

Naturally, in an economically and culturally deprived society the more educated will come to the fore in the first period, even in a revolution. Therefore lawyers, businessmen and teachers seem to be dominating the committees in Benghazi and other areas. But this should be just a prelude to the real control and management of society by the masses themselves. They need to be armed and politically conscious that a real struggle for liberation depends on mass involvement.

Yet it appears that, up to now, a wide distribution of arms has been denied to the population in Benghazi, allegedly because of the fear of agents of Gaddafi still operating in the city. But all observers say that Gaddafi’s forces are virtually non-existent there. This could indicate that there is fear by the middle class figures at the head of the movement of the working class equipped with arms and in control of the committee to defend the revolution.

The objective situation differs from country to country in the Middle East. How the revolution unfolds will have common features but also dissimilarities. The movement in Tunisia and Egypt was overwhelmingly urban with the working class playing a decisive role, particularly in the latter stages of the movement in Egypt. Libya has a more scattered and smaller population in a huge geographical area. Tripoli, the capital, still occupies a crucial role, as all major cities do in revolutions. Gaddafi has a base in Tripoli. Oil riches allow the desperate regime to promise lavish funds to tribes to remain loyal. There are national and tribal factors which will play a role. There is a fear and hostility that imperialism will interfere in the ‘chaos’ of the revolution. These factors and others could mean a drawn-out civil war. Therefore, the attempts to overthrow Gaddafi will assume a more protracted character.

There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the Libyan masses wish to see an end to his regime. It is blood-soaked, as described by a well-known Libyan novelist in the New York Times: "15 years ago, in a single night, the tyrant and his mercenaries murdered 1,200 people at the [main] prison in Tripoli, where political prisoners are held. The bodies were piled high… prisoners from all over Libya, of all ages, were killed without a trial. My only brother was one of them." The hatred towards Gaddafi and the regime is therefore of volcanic proportions. Nevertheless, because of the tribal make-up of Libya, he still seems to retain a certain amount of support, particularly in Tripoli itself but elsewhere as well. Militarily, he has based himself on a ‘praetorian guard’ of specially trained troops and mercenaries. The opponents of Gaddafi are lightly armed, do not seem to possess tanks and Gaddafi has a monopoly of air power.

Large-scale outside imperialist intervention is entirely ruled out. Even the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has declared that anybody suggesting military intervention is "insane", as General Douglas MacArthur’s proposal to bomb China was described at the time of the Korean War.

However some kind of no-fly zone has been seriously considered by imperialism, in the hope they can repeat the experience in the Kurdish areas before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even this is problematical because of the likely objections of China, Russia and other powers. Moreover it would not prevent the use of helicopters which no-fly operations are incapable of fully picking up. Therefore the revolution in Libya is likely to be fluid and drawn-out, its timescale being impossible to predict.

The key to success against Gaddafi is to cut across tribal divisions in the country, as the revolutions in other Arab countries have pushed aside national and sectarian divisions. In Tripoli this means elaboration of a clear social and economic programme to cement working class unity and cut across tribal divisions.

Because of Gaddafi’s past ‘socialistic’ rhetoric – backed up by gangster Stalinist-type methods – the appeal of ‘socialism’ may not immediately be obvious to the Libyan masses. But explaining this in terms of freedom and democratic rights linked to a change in the social conditions, the elimination of unemployment, etc; this can find an echo amongst the Libyan people.

In Egypt and Tunisia promised elections in June or July, linked to the idea of a ‘constituent assembly’ will not satisfy those who made the revolution through huge sacrifices nor the mass of the working class. Only a revolutionary constituent assembly organised on the basis of mass committees linked to changes in the conditions of the masses can effect real change. Elections to such a body moreover can only be carried out by committees of workers and small farmers in which officials are elected and subject to recall, etc.

Events in the Middle East have also profoundly affected the economic and political perspectives of world capitalism. The increase in petrol prices in Britain alone could reach £2 a litre, even Tory MP Alan Duncan warns, which will have a crippling effect on already restricted family budgets. All the major crises of the last 30 years have been triggered by an increase in the price of oil. At the same time the political ramifications of this revolution cannot be overestimated. It is no accident that the Wisconsin workers in the US were inspired by Egypt in their struggle against right-wing Republican reaction, both in Wisconsin and throughout the other states of the US. This also underlines the arguments of Marxism that once a serious movement of workers begins in one country it will detonate similar movements internationally.

How many times have the sceptics and faint hearts sneered at this idea? Yet it has been borne out in the Middle East and now in the movements in America. Soon this will be repeated elsewhere, in Europe and the rest of the world. We must give the maximum support to the Middle East revolution.

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March 2011