CWI Summer School: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in North Africa and Middle East

Report of plenary discussion

This week, CWI supporters from over 30 countries are attending a CWI Summer School in Belgium. As well as comrades from across western and eastern Europe and Russia, visitors are attending from North and Latin America, Nigeria, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Middle East. will publish reports of some of the week’s discussions and debates over the next days. Below, is a summary of a plenary discussion on the mass opposition movements that have swept North Africa and the Middle East, which looks at the processes of revolution and counter revolution.

Video scenes of mass demonstrations, strikes and occupations, together with violent attacks on workers and youth, opened the session on revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East. Footage of the wave of mass struggle that spread from Tunisia to Egypt and further in the region, contrasted with film of President Sarkozy toasting the health of Ben Ali and Obama discussing with Mubarak.

As Robert Bechert said in introducing the discussion, some of the scenes have been re-enacted in the past few days. Protesters in Cairo have again been attacked by armed thugs, showing that the struggle between revolution and counter-revolution is by no means over.

The initial victories in Tunisia and Egypt showed that mass action can overthrow dictatorial regimes. Millions of workers and youth around the world were following the events in real time. The international impact was shown a few weeks after Mubarak fell when a mass movement broke out in Wisconsin, USA, against attacks on trade unions, with banners and placards linking their struggle to Tunisia and Egypt. While soon inspiring the movement of the “enraged” in Spain, Greece and other countries the biggest impact of these revolutions was in the Middle East and North Africa.

While every revolution has its own characteristics, there are general processes that Marxists need to learn from. A clear strategy is necessary, not just to achieve a final victory for the working class, but also at each stage of the struggle.

The Tunisian revolution took the ruling class by complete surprise. As general strikes developed, in panic they got rid of Ben Ali to try to regain control. Mubarak, on the other hand, attempted to hang on and it was clear that occupation of squares was not enough. The CWI was arguing the movement to go onto the offensive with initiatives such as marching on government buildings and a general strike. As a strike wave started to develop, senior military officers, leant on by US imperialism, forced Mubarak to resign. In both countries, the old rulers were sacrificed so that the ruling class could hang on.

The initial explosion of joy temporarily obscured the fact that the old regimes were in power. But winning even limited democratic rights provides workers with the means to struggle for better lives and this is taking place throughout Tunisia and Egypt. Through this process, the confidence and understanding of workers is raised, deepening the revolution. But how can the working class and youth draw complete revolutionary conclusions from their experiences? How can a movement be built that can completely change society? These are the questions Marxists must answer.

The CWI attempts to apply the lessons from past revolutionary events. The task facing the working class is not simply to organise itself but to come to power, drawing behind them other oppressed layers.

In Egypt, real power still rests with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. While the increasing demands for a real civilian government are progressive, if simply left at that it would mean that a capitalist government would remain that would eventually come into conflict with the working class. The CWI argues against any workers’ organisation taking part in any government resting on capitalism and argues that the workers’ movement should strive to create a government of the workers and the poor.

We have already seen in Tunisia and Egypt a growing mood that power is slipping from the working class or that workers have not got what they wanted from their struggle. There have been rapid changes of government in Tunisia and repeated mass mobilisations in Egypt reflecting the different demands of the movement. But at this stage there is still a lack of clarity ion the aims of this movement.

Programme needed

It is insufficient to combine abstract revolutionary rhetoric with reformist demands and refuse to raise the need to overthrow capitalism, as some left groups do. A programme is needed to link day-to-day issues with the need to transform society, as in the 1917 Russian Revolution when the Bolshevik Party combined slogans such as ’Bread, peace and land’ and ’All power to the Soviets’.

Another issue facing Marxists is how to relate to the religious movements that have emerged alongside the workers’ movements. They are not all the same. To build support for socialists means linking a struggle on democratic issues with social issues. At the same time, socialists must avoid opportunist adaptation to religious movements. The twists and turns of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders towards the recent protests in Egypt shows the conflicting pressures that could split their base. But Egypt also shows the possible dangers of sectarian conflict, and there are also dangers of these, and national clashes, in other countries. The fear of this developing in Syria has been used by the Assad regime to try to maintain power. It has frightened the Christian and other minorities with the spectre of the sectarian conflict that developed in Iraq, in order to keep them supporting the regime.

Syria and Libya

The uprisings in Syria and Libya did not develop as in Tunisia and Egypt. The Assad and Gaddafi regimes had a stronger base in society than Ben Ali and Mubarak. In Libya, this was partly due to oil revenues that gave Libyan workers, despite high unemployment, a slightly higher living standard than others in north Africa. Both Gaddafi and Assad use fear of imperialist and Zionist intervention.

In Libya, the youth revolt developed against the corruption and repression of the ruling clan. But it did not immediately assume mass proportions in the west, where the majority of Libyans live. As the self-appointed opposition leadership in the east moved towards imperialism and started to use the old monarchist flag, this played into Gaddafi’s hands and hindered building support in Tripoli and the west. In Syria, until now, the protests had not affected Damascus and Aleppo, the two biggest cities. This has now started to change, with large protests in Aleppo. If these spread to Damascus, they would spell the end of the regime in its present form.

Imperialism fears a Yugoslavia-style break-up of Syria into separate states, destabilising the whole region, and is leaving open the possibility of a deal with Assad. Only a united workers’ movement can cut across ethnic and religious divisions.

The NATO bombing of Libya is not simply a war for oil, but is also for the prestige of Western imperialism. The military intervention has provoked widespread debate, with some on the left reflecting liberal opinion that ’something must be done’ to prevent Gaddafi’s onslaught. The CWI pointed to the experience in Libya’s neighbours, where mass struggle had overthrown dictatorships and now reinforced by the new upsurge of struggle in Syria. An independent workers’ movement with an independent programme could lead to the downfall of both Gaddafi and Assad. If a socialist programme is adopted, the possibility to break with imperialism and overthrow capitalism. Recent reports that Britain, France and other powers are now offering to “allow” Gaddafi to remain in Libya reflects the current military stalemate and the regime’s continued control of much of the west.

Elsewhere in the region, the uprising in Bahrain has been temporarily suppressed by Saudi Arabian troops, about which very little was said by imperialist governments. There have been small protests in Saudi Arabia, which could develop further in the future. In Morocco, there have been recent demonstrations against the King’s reform package, saying they do not go far enough. Algeria has been weighed down by its experience of civil war, but will not remain immune to revolutionary movements sweeping across the region.

In Palestine, protests developed against Hamas and Fatah, leading to their ’unity pact’ to try to contain the situation. In Lebanon, there have been protests against sectarianism, but the situation is also complicated by developments in Syria. Even in Israel, the Arab revolutions have had an effect shown in the recent protest movement of tent cities.

Concluding his introduction, Robert noted that in almost every decade of the twentieth century there had been revolutions. Yet only the 1917 Russian revolution was successful, because of the existence of a party that had a clear idea of what needed to be done. The Bolsheviks were able to win mass working class support. Capitalism can only be overthrown by a conscious movement of the working class, which the CWI aims to build.

Eyewitnes reports from Tunisia and Egypt

Two speakers from the region then illustrated the processes taking place in Egypt and Tunisia. At last December’s CWI Congress we predicted the crisis brewing in Egypt, but we did not expect it to explode so quickly. Now Tantawi, the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt, claims to be “guarding the gains of the revolution”. Under the pressure of recent huge demonstrations and the re-occupation of Tahrir Square, the government has announced more concessions, such as reducing the voting age to 25 from 30 years, half the members of the new Peoples Congress to be workers and peasants and the hated Emergency Law to go ( except for ’thugs’).

However, these announcements have not satisfied the protesters who have added demands for the cleansing of all traces of the Mubarak family from public spaces. At the same time, the government is trying to limit the movement by, for instance, anti-strike measures. These moves, along with the government’s economic policies, are making workers see it as a government of counter-revolution, not revolution. As strikes start to grow again, the government and big business claim that these are holding back the economy, trying to blame them for continuing problems. This will bring the working class into further conflict with the government. The day after Mubarak fell there was a widespread mood that the army and the people were united. This is now changing but the alternative is not clear to workers.

The five main left parties lack a strategy. Some feel that elections should be postponed until a Popular Front is organised, which would also include representatives of capitalist parties. The CWI raises the need for a genuine united front of workers’ organisations and the creation of a mass workers’ party.

A Tunisian comrade spoke and wished the whole school could experience similar revolutionary developments. The roots of the struggle were not in Facebook but the 2008 workers’ struggles which were heavily repressed. Despite becoming harsher, controlling the media, infiltrating the trade unions and student movements and forming the so-called Tunisian economic miracle, it could not contain the growing contradictions. All the political forces, except the Workers’ Communist Party of Tunisia (Maoists) and a handful of Marxists, had signed a pact with Ben Ali after the 1987 coup.

But the regime that appeared completely invincible broke down. “The people want to overthrow the system” is a popular slogan but it is unclear to many what this means. Workers and the poor are determined to defend the revolution. They are trying to carry through the ’permanent revolution’ although they have never read Trotsky.

The regime is still in place despite changes of government ministers. It is campaigning against strikers and Ben Ali’s friends who are still running the UGTT trade union federation, who must be cleansed out of the unions.

The future of the Tunisian revolution is important for people all over the world. Unifying all the struggles into one to overthrow the system is vital for it to succeed. That is the task facing Marxists there and across the Middle East and North Africa.

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July 2011