North Africa, Middle East: The revolution four months later

Across the Middle East and North Africa the revolutions and protests that began after Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in protest at poverty and oppression in Tunisia have, in many countries, reached turning points.

Despite the heroic mass revolts it seems that in Tunisia and Egypt, despite the ousting of the old dictators, the bulk of the old elite are still in power while in other countries the regimes are holding on. Spiegel, the German news weekly, summed this up when it recently wrote “The Arab revolution has come to a standstill, and all the signs point to the restoration of the status quo”. But last week’s “second revolution” mass protests in Egypt showed that significant sections of workers, the poor, youth and parts of the middle class are not at all satisfied with the current situation and want more far-reaching change.

At the same time, under a humanitarian banner, the US and the European powers are directly intervening, whether it be to help install a pro-western regime in Libya or help their friends in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain etc. avoid revolutionary upheavals.

Some have argued that in fact there have not been revolutionary movements, only protests. Certainly the revolutions have not been completed, and even in Tunisia and Egypt the old repressive state machines are still fundamentally intact. But repressive Arab regimes are still fearful and repeatedly lash out against opposition and any challenge to their rule, while in Tunisia and Egypt the ruling classes are striving to hang onto power.

Real revolutions are marked by the entry of the broad masses onto the stage of struggle and mass activity and this is certainly what we have seen in country after country. True, revolutions do not develop in a straight line; there are ups and downs, advances and retreats as, for example, in the 1931-37 Spanish revolution. But through events and experiences the broad masses learn and draw conclusions, something seen already in the growing opposition to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took power after Mubarak resigned. We have not seen the last act, on the contrary, the international revolutionary, and counter-revolutionary, reverberations Bouazizi’s suicide sparked off have by no means ended.

Second Day of rage in Egypt on 28 May

A vivid sign of Egypt’s continuing radicalisation was May 28’s “Second Day of Rage” held just four months after the first, January 25, mass protest against Mubarak. This demonstration saw tens of thousands gather in cities across the country as many called for a “second revolution”. Despite opposition and warnings from Egypt’s military rulers and Islamic forces like the Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist Salafist groups around a 100,000 gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

This protest’s demands were varied, including quick trials of Mubarak and other key figures of the old regime, release of all political detainees arrested by the military police since Mubarak’s fall, ending the trial of civilians in military courts, abolishing the emergency law, stopping censorship in the state owned media and the replacement of the military SCAF by a presidential council to run the country until elections are held.

Above all there was a feeling that the old elite were still in power, summed up by some protesters saying that they “haven’t felt the change” since Mubarak had gone.

On the one hand there have been big changes, especially the experience of mass movements undermining dictators and the confidence this has given to many workers and youth. However the big initial victories, Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia and Mubarak’s forced resignation, had two, contrasting, sides. They were great victories for the mass movements but at the same time they were also sacrifices made by the Tunisian and Egyptian ruling classes so that they could continue in control. Egypt’s military tops made this abundantly clear when they, in reality, put themselves in power by staging a “cold coup”.

The SCAF made some gestures, formally charging Mubarak and allowing a limited opening of the Rafah crossing into Gaza, just before May 27. But at the same time one of its advisors was arguing that the military should have a “special status” in the new constitution and parliament should not openly discuss military matters. These issues, coupled with actions like the arrest of four activists campaigning for the May 27 rally simply added to the feeling that the military wanted to keep control.

Initially, the generals’ “cold coup” was not clear to the millions who celebrated Mubarak’s departure. In the weeks since then, many have begun to understand that, despite the welcome changes, the fundamental structure of Egypt has not fundamentally altered and which is the background to the May 27 protests.

The potential of the revolutionary wave

In practically all North African and Middle Eastern countries, overwhelmingly young populations are faced with corrupt dictatorial, or at best authoritarian, regimes presiding over large scale unemployment and poverty now being worsened by inflation. The revolution was made not simply to remove a corrupt, dictatorial clique but to open the way to transform their lives.

Inevitably the ruling class, and especially elements associated with the old regimes, immediately attempted to stabilise their position, seeking to control mass protests and limit movements.

In these revolutions there was the potential to fundamentally change society, there was a tremendous desire to sweep away the old order, but there was no clarity on what should replace it and what concretely could be done. A combination of decades of repression, limited independent workers’ organisations and the weakness of genuine socialist forces meant that there was no sizeable force that could argue for concrete action to implement a programme to secure democratic rights, break the local elite’s power and begin the transformation of society. This is why the huge elemental movements in Tunisia and Egypt have not, so far, resulted in the overthrow of the old ruling class despite the fact that, at their initial peak, these revolutionary struggles of workers and youth could potentially have swept aside all obstacles to transforming society if it had been fully aware of its power.

Attempts to "end" the revolution

Especially in Tunisia the leadership of the official trade unions, most of whom were tied to the previous regime, played an important role in helping to hold back the revolution’s scope. While in Egypt the old official trade unions had far less standing amongst workers, already before the revolution, pro-capitalist trade union leaders from Europe and the USA were attempting to influence the leaders of the newly emerging independent trade unions.

The result is a growing contradiction between hopes of revolution and what is happening, or not happening, today. Fundamentally many of the old gang are still in power, ironically now calling “counter-revolutionary” anyone who opposes them as they, in reality, attempt to extinguish the flames of revolution.

This means that while sections of workers and others are using the new, more open situation to press forward their demands there is a growing understanding that elements of the old order are reasserting themselves. This has produced the repeated protests in Tunisia as workers and youth try to resist attempts to “end” the revolution before all their demands are met, something seen previously in many other revolutions.

For a government of workers and the poor

Objectively these societies cannot develop on the basis of capitalism in today’s world dominated by imperialism. In fact, given the relative weakness of capitalism in many of these countries, the ruling classes cannot tolerate for long the existence of real democratic rights, especially the right to organise and struggle. They fear working class, youth and poor struggles for demands which capitalism could not afford for lengthy period of time. This is why the question of building a movement that can bring to power a government of workers and the poor is so essential. Only on this basis can the grip of capitalism and landlordism be broken, democratic rights guaranteed and a start made to the democratic planning of the use of society’s resources.

However unfortunately, many of the emerging left forces in these countries either do not agree with this analysis or fail to make this idea the basis of their day to day activity. Instead, pointing to the current consciousness of many of the workers and youth, they limit their programme to one that fundamentally attempts to work within capitalism. This leads them to reject the idea of arguing that the government which is needed to complete the revolution is one formed by workers and the poor, a policy that then opens the door to some left forces supporting, directly or indirectly, a pro-capitalist government.

Of course socialists who are serious about building a mass movement start by taking into account what workers and youth are thinking today and then seeing how the idea of a socialist change, a socialist revolution, can become a force that can transform society. It was through this transitional approach that the Bolsheviks were able to link together immediate slogans like “Bread, Peace, Land” with the idea of overthrowing capitalism and create the mass movement that led to the 1917 October revolution. Today this means building a movement that fights on both the immediate economic, social and political issues and for the overthrow of capitalism.

Islamic forces

Inevitably there is a competition to build support and in both Tunisia and Egypt Islamic forces have also been gaining. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood leadership has striven to gain the confidence of the military rulers, opposing the May 27 rally and praising the generals’ role. Partly this growth stems from their roots in society and already existing organisation and the relative weakness of genuine socialist forces. They also campaign on the questions of poverty and corruption while exploiting the disappointment with the failure of other more secular nationalist and left forces, some of which once had mass support, to develop society and their subsequent degeneration.

But these Islamic forces are not immune from broader developments in society. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leadership campaigned against the May 27 protests issuing two statements denouncing them and calling on people not to attend. The first described May 27 as “a revolution against” the people and “attempts to drive wedges” between the people and the military, while the second statement denounced the organisers as “secular and communist.”

But the MB leaders were shocked by the size of the protests and immediately adopted a dual approach. On the one hand they attacked their youth wing for participating in the May 27 protests, even though the youth leaders said they did not agree with protest’s main slogan or the idea of a “second revolution”. At the same time they sacked the editor of the MB’s website for repeating the line of the MB leaders attacking May 27. Initially the MB website claimed there was a “low turnout” on what it called the “Friday of Wedges”, a reference to the MB’s earlier attacks. Bitterly the website editor, in office since 2004, complained his sacking was unfair as the website had been “interacting with the group’s earlier statement which refused participation, called on people not to participate and described the protest as driving wedges”.

A skilful and principled approach by the workers’ movement could win over and involve in common struggle many of those workers and youth currently looking towards the MB and other such forces. However, the recent religious clashes in Egypt between Salafist mobilised Muslims and Coptic Christians are also a warning of how deep sectarian divisions could develop in the absence of a strong united workers’ movement able to defend minorities while showing a socialist way out of society’s crisis.

Limits of the movement so far

The current weakness of socialist forces has also shaped the development of the revolution more generally. The situations that have unfolded in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen, while all having their own individual features, have shown the limits of simply demonstrating or occupying open spaces. It should be recalled that there were moments in Egypt before Mubarak’s departure when it was not clear whether or not the revolution had lost momentum and vital questions of what to do next, including appealing to the armed forces’ rank and file and taking initiatives to oust the Mubarak regime, were posed. It was the mobilisation of the working class hastened the international and military pressure on Mubarak to go.

The failure of the revolution in Libya to initially gain a strong presence in Tripoli and the emergence of a self-appointed pro-western “rebel” leadership in Benghazi helped enable Gaddafi to present the movement as pro-imperialist, toying with splitting the country. Then Gaddafi’s forces went onto the counter-offensive, threatening the revolution. But instead of seeking to mobilise mass support in Tripoli and win over the military rank and file the Libyan “rebel” leadership sought help from the French, US and other capitalist governments. This enabled the western imperialist powers to intervene under the banner of “preventing a massacre” to effectively become the rebels’ air force and succeed in hi-jacking the leadership of movement.

The current stalemate in Libya illustrates how some regimes, especially Libya and Syria, still have some support stemming from past reforms and social advances and, most importantly, a fear of what could follow a collapse. Naturally the existing regimes stoke these fears. In Syria Assad uses the spectre of chaos, imperialist intervention and possible ethnic and religious conflict in its campaign against the protests which, so far, seem not to have touched the wider working masses in the two major urban conurbations, Damascus and Aleppo.

Period of revolutionary upheavals has just begun

Both imperialism and the region’s dictatorial regimes were completely taken by surprise by the wave of revolutions and protests. Now they are attempting to respond.

In some countries the ruling classes are preparing to meet revolution with counter-revolution. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, has employed the founder of the infamous US based Blackwater private security company to form a “counter-terrorism” force of 800 mercenaries.

The elites are trying to widen their own international alliance. The Gulf Co-operation Council, made up of the conservative oil-rich states around the Persian Gulf, which in mid-March sent troops into Bahrain to help suppress protests, is planning to involve Jordan and Morocco, even though Morocco is over three thousand miles away on the Atlantic coast.

In Libya it cannot be ruled out that Gaddafi could be overthrown, although there is still the possibility that, at least for a time, the country could be effectively partitioned. At last week’s G8 summit Obama said it was time to “finish the job” as Britain and France widened their military intervention at the same time. The increasing reports of “private contractors”, i.e. mercenaries, working with the rebels show how the western powers are “unofficially” directly intervening on the ground to defeat Gaddafi. The continuing stream of prominent members of Gaddafi’s regime and military officers defecting indicate the divisions that have opened up and which make an internal coup against Gaddafi is possible. However this would not be the end of the story, as the Libyan masses would make their own demands on any new government.

All the North African and Middle Eastern elites continue to fear the movement of the working masses even if, as in Bahrain, they seem to have temporarily secured a victory. In this they are completely right. This is because the period of revolutionary upheavals has only just begun. Events will not develop in a straight line, as already seen in many countries. But they will test all political forces, including those of political Islam, and provide opportunities for socialists to build support for the programme of breaking with capitalism.

If, on this basis, the working class is able to build sizeable independent forces of its own, especially a mass party, it will have the opportunity to reach out to the rest of the oppressed and also those seeking fundamental change. Then there would be the opportunity for the revolution in North Africa and the Middle East to not only set an example of struggle but start to create a socialist model that can inspire working people around the world that there is an alternative to oppression and the dictates of capitalism.

The Revolution’s impact and imperialism’s efforts to contain it

The revolt that leapt across North Africa and the Middle East caught the world’s imagination and began the transformation of this region. In particular the movement in Egypt saw hundreds of millions around the world watch as mass protests challenged Mubarak, resisted the regime’s attacks and finally succeeded in forcing the dictator to resign. Again and again, from Wisconsin in the US to the current youth protests in Spain, mass demonstrations and “Tahrir Square” style occupations have become reference points and symbols of resistance.

For a moment in late January/early February it seemed that demonstrations were enough to oust tyrants. Two of the longest serving in the region, Ben Ali and Mubarak, had fallen after a few weeks of mass protests and, in Egypt, the occupation of a central square in Cairo. Although these were not painless victories – in Tunisia at least 147 people lost their lives in struggle against Ben Ali while in Egypt over 840 were killed and 6,400 wounded – it appeared that street protests could quickly succeed.

Rapidly protests spread to other countries. Inspired by Tunisia and Egypt hundreds of thousands took to the streets against dictatorial regimes. Since last December at least sizeable protests have taken place in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, UAE and Yemen. The revolutions also had an impact in the Palestinian territories where growing pressure from below forced the PLO and Hamas to sign a formal agreement at the same time as wider protests developed against the Israeli occupation.

The initial victories against tyrannies were fundamentally the work of the working people and youth themselves. Despite all today’s talk about “democracy” and “freedom” by western governments at the beginning of the year they were much quieter, scared of encouraging independent popular action that could undermine friendly, client regimes. Now that revolutions have begun, the imperialist powers are forced to adapt their rhetoric to accomplished facts in an attempt to restrain the movements and maintain their interests.

The recent joint article in the London Times by Obama and Cameron was a vivid example of cynicism and verbiage when it mentioned North Africa and the Middle East. On the hand Obama and Cameron wrote “we will stand with those who want to bring light into dark, support those who seek freedom in place of repression, aid those laying the building blocks of democracy”, but then explained that while “we are reluctant to use force but when our interests and values come together we know that we have a responsibility to act” (24 May, 2011). “Our interests” are the key words that perfectly explain why, despite all their talk of “democracy” the US, British and other leaders keep their mouths shut when it comes to the Saudi dictatorship, in particular.

Just before that article was published Obama, while stressing defending the US’s “core interests”, had spoken in Washington of how “America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.” In reality this was worthless spin, as Robert Fisk pointed out in the Independent Tunisia was “one state Obama never actually mentioned until Ben Ali had run away” (20 May, 2011). This speech by Obama reflected his government’s current priorities: remove Gaddafi; give a last warning to Assad; ask Yemeni President Saleh (one of the US’s “friends in the region”) to transfer power; mildly criticise the Bahraini regime and totally fail to even mention other corrupt autocratic regimes in the Middle East.

The main powers rushed to embrace the revolutions as their gathered strength and challenged the old order. But Washington and co. were not supporting the revolutions, but rather striving to help emasculate them in order to defend their own interests and capitalism in general. This was not new or unexpected.

In some cases the imperialists kept different irons in the fire by both supporting regimes and cultivating links with the oppositions. For a long time an important part of this activity by US and European national governments’, especially after the overthrow of dictatorships or in revolutionary situations, was to find and support pro-capitalist leaders within the trade unions and political parties that had support amongst the working class. Already before Mubarak’s overthrow the very pro-capitalist leaders of the AFL-CIO US trade union federation had striven to influence the growing independent Egyptian trade union movement, even awarding it a special prize. This intervention by pro-capitalist elements from the international trade union bodies and other groupings may be an important factor in future debates on within the Egyptian and other workers’ movements.

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June 2011