CWI International Meeting: Revolution and counter-revolution in North Africa and the Middle East

The lessons of the first waves of revolutionary movements

The International Executive Committee (IEC) of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) met from 17 to 22 January 2011, in Belgium, with over 33 countries represented from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Following our previous postings on plenary discussions on the world situation and on Europe, Daniel Waldron reports below on the discussion on the revolution and counter-revolution in North Africa and the Middle East.

The shockwaves of the revolutionary movement which began in Tunisia in January 2011 have reverberated around North Africa, the Middle East and across the globe. This wave of upheaval has seen the toppling of dictators – some of whom had ruled for decades – and touched almost every country in the region. Workers and young people around the world have been inspired by the heroism and determination of the region’s masses and identified with their movement – from Wisconsin to Nigeria. A year on, the movement dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ has entered a new phase.

This was the background to the excellent plenary discussion on ‘Revolution and counter-revolution in North Africa and the Middle East’ during the meeting of the IEC. The discussion was introduced by Niall Mulholland and summed up by Robert Bechert, both from the International Secretariat of the CWI. Amongst those who contributed to the rich discussion were comrades from three North African and Middle Eastern countries, and also CWI comrades who visited Egypt during the revolutionary events of 2011.

The representatives of capitalism were caught off-guard by the revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt. Only months before his overthrow, the Economist praised Mubarak for bringing stability to the region – in other words, acting as a reliable agent of imperialism. Even when Ben Ali had been deposed in Tunisia and the Egyptian masses had risen to their feet, this mouthpiece of international capitalism said that he would not fall- but fall he did. The forces of Western imperialism were unprepared and left dumbfounded as their allies were toppled, only belatedly expressing ‘support’ for the movements as they scrambled to exert control.

The Committee for a Workers’ International, however, was not surprised by the dramatic events which have swept the region. In the documents adopted at our World Congress in December 2010, we pointed to the possibility of convulsive movements in North Africa and the Middle East. The region, we pointed out, was a tinderbox ready to ignite.

Ben Ali – first domino to fall

In particular, we said, its young and impoverished population – oppressed by authoritarian regimes incapable of providing them a decent future – could be the catalyst for social explosions in this period of global capitalist crisis. The upheavals were not just provoked by anger at dictatorships. They also reflected the fact that the masses will no longer accept the miserable existence which capitalism means for them. The Tunisian ruler Ben Ali – a poster-boy for neo-liberal capitalism – was the first of the dominos in the region to feel the force of mass opposition movements and to fall.

Ben Ali was ousted 28 days after the tragic self-immolation of young street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. The dictator was followed soon after by his former Minister, Ghannouchi. A week later, the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarrak in Egypt came crashing down. While the brutal assaults inflicted on demonstrators by sections of the state forces loyal to the old regimes were played out in the media around the world, it would have seemed to many that toppling these dictatorships was a relatively straightforward process – the mass of the population came out on the streets and simply refused to back down until their demand for the dictators’ removal was met. The occupation of Tahrir Square, in Cairo, became particularly symbolic and directly inspired the Real Democracy and Occupy movements.

While the mass demonstrations and occupations, of course, played a key role, the vital factor in the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in decapitating the dictatorships was the role of the organised working-class. Even though the heads of the UGTT (Tunisian trade union federation) were incorporated into the Ben Ali regime, at a local and workplace level an important degree of independent action and opposition to the dictatorship existed. Egypt’s working-class – the largest in the region – has a tradition of powerful, independent movements.

In both countries, workers’ committees began to grow in the major workplaces and industries. This method of self-organisation spread to the squares, the towns and cities, giving the movement cohesion and providing it with an organisational backbone and ability to respond effectively to the regimes’ attacks. For example, when armed, pro-Mubarak thugs tried to clear Tahrir Square at the beginning of February 2011, this provoked the spread of a general strike across Egypt which paralysed the regime, steeled the movement and led rapidly to Mubarak’s removal.

In contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, the absence of powerful working-class movements has been a weakness in the revolutionary upheavals in other countries and led to more complicated, bloody and protracted battles with the regimes. In Libya, the movement against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi began in the city of Benghazi. Initially, it had the character of a popular uprising. Popular committees emerged in the city. However, the absence of independent workers’ organisations – atomised under Gaddafi’s brutal reign – weakened the movement’s ability to cut across the deep tribal and ethnic divisions which exist in the country. Although the uprising did spread to Misrata and other towns, it remained relatively isolated and divided.

Imperialism’s role in Libya

Imperialism had quickly regrouped itself and leaped upon the stalling of the Libyan revolution as an opportunity to intervene and ensure that it developed in a way that would not threaten their interests in the region. Gaddafi had of late been embraced by Western powers, in exchange for his opening up of the country’s oil resources for exploitation, but imperialism could tell that his ability to provide ‘stability’ was at an end. They moved to coalesce and promote a pro-Western, pro-capitalist opposition around Benghazi, including recent defectors from Gaddafi’s regime, in the form of the National Transitional Council.

While the masses of Benghazi had, in the initial phase of the revolution, clearly opposed imperialist intervention, the NTC now begged for the West to intervene. Western media, Al-Jazeera (the mouthpiece of the pro-imperialist Qatari regime) and others ran a propaganda campaign to exaggerate the threat posed by Gaddafi’s military and increase support for Western intervention.

The CWI – as was the duty of Marxists – did not bend to this pressure, but explained that imperialism could play no progressive role in the situation. Their only aim was to install a reliable client regime which would not deliver genuine freedom or improve the plight of the Libyan masses. Only a mass movement of the Libyan workers and poor could bring about real change.

We have been proven correct, in the negative sense. The NATO bombing campaign dampened the mass movement. Instead, large elements of a civil war developed – with racial and tribal characteristics. Atrocities were committed on both sides. Gaddafi has been deposed, to the delight of many. But he has been replaced by an unrepresentative NTC ‘government’. Ethnic tensions within the country have heightened, with the emergence of tribal militias. There could be a slide towards a bloody break-up of the country, with conflict around access to resources, unless an alternative based upon the common interests of the working class and poor masses is built.


Similarly in Syria, the movement against the Assad regime has been stunted by the absence of united organisations of the working-class and poor. As well as using brutal repression – with reportedly over 5,000 killed by state forces and torture widespread – Assad has conjured up visions of sectarian bloodshed to try to discourage the minority Alawite and Christian populations from engaging in the uprising.

Western imperialism and the Sunni elites they sponsor in the region would like to see Assad’s removal, as this would weaken the Iranian regime’s influence and power. This is reflected in the call for Assad to stand down from the usually impotent Arab League, as well as the economic sanctions imposed, which have cost the regime an estimated $2 billion. As in Egypt, a pro-Western opposition is being prepared for power, in the form of the Syrian National Council. However, a descent into sectarian conflict in the wake of Assad’s fall could have serious consequences for imperialism’s interests in the region, and some compromise with Assad cannot be ruled out.

The historic movements of the Tunisian and Egyptian masses saw them re-enter the stage of history and attempt to fundamentally change society. The figureheads of the dictatorships – Ben Ali and Mubarak – and many of those associated with them, have been swept aside. However, while the old regimes have been shaken to their core, they have not yet been broken. The old elites and forces behind the regimes remain largely intact, despite the determination of the masses.

In Tunisia, the elite offered up Ben Ali, and subsequently Ghannouchi, as sacrificial lambs to pacify the revolutionary movement and prevent it from threatening the very position of the capitalist class. In Egypt, the military leadership – one of the pillars of the state – were unable to quell the mass uprising and instead intervened to effectively seize power ‘in the name of the people’. Among large layers of the revolutionary masses, there was little trust in the intentions of the elites and a desire to push forward with more thoroughgoing change. However, without a mass party of the working-class with a clear programme for a revolutionary transformation of society, the energy of the exhausted masses was dissipated and the ruling classes were able to regain some level of control.

Unfortunately, the revolutionary wave found the existing forces of the socialist left in both countries wanting. The Maoists in the UGTT – with considerable influence – adopted a ‘stages’ approach, saying that first capitalist development and democracy must be achieved before working-class and socialist demands could be put on the agenda. This was certainly not the attitude of the Tunisian workers, with demands for improved wages and conditions, nationalisation of energy and elements of workers’ control, being advanced. Rather than call for the linking up of councils of the workers and poor to form the basis of a revolutionary government, the Maoists tail-ended the liberal opposition.

Left in Egypt

In Egypt, much of the Left also lagged behind the movement. They tended to follow the lead of the Muslim Brotherhood and other pro-capitalist opposition forces, with some left figures advancing the call for a ‘national salvation government’, rather than a revolutionary government representing the interests of the masses. But now the Brotherhood leaders have increasing turned against the left.

Parliamentary elections in both countries have seen the victory of right-wing religious forces – Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Salafist ‘Al Nour’ party in Egypt also made electoral gains. This was by no means a foregone conclusion. Both Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood stood aside – at least initially – from the uprisings. A year ago, Ennahda were polling only around 4% and their religious slogans did not gain an echo among the masses. The rise of these forces reflects the huge political vacuum that exists, which could potentially be filled by a working-class party with a programme for socialist change.

While the Western media raised the spectre of the threat of ‘political Islam’ during the revolutionary upheavals, it is clear that these forces pose no deadly threat to the interests of imperialism. Both parties have adopted pro-market and pro-Western positions. The Qatari regime – acting as a proxy for the US – played a direct role in selecting the Ennahda-led government! The Muslim Brotherhood says it wants to model the ‘new’ Egypt on the pro-market AKP regime in Turkey.

The election of these governments will not bring to an end the revolutionary process in North Africa. In fact, it is clear that renewed struggle by the working-class and poor is developing. The day-to-day suffering of the masses has if anything deepened since the overthrow of the dictators, with rising unemployment and living costs. Workers and young people will not quietly accept the continuation of their poverty, albeit with different rulers. The growing sentiment among the masses is that the revolution has been ‘stolen’, that ‘second’ or even ‘third’ revolutions are necessary.

The Egyptian military elite’s attempt to control elections and the framing of the new constitution in their favour provoked huge clashes with revolutionary youth and workers. Despite massive repression, with thousands arrested, they were forced to make concessions. Post-elections, there has been further conflict with the regime around the anniversary of the uprising. Any illusions in the ‘pro-people’ character of the military tops have been shattered amongst more and more Egyptians. There has been growth of independent working-class organisation and industrial action.

The election of the new government in Tunisia was met with mass demonstrations for improved living standards. A general strike is underway in an important mining region, where elements of workers’ power now exist. Despite condemnation from the tops of the UGTT, workers continue to fight doggedly for concrete and immediate improvements in healthcare, education and other areas.

Regional balance of forces

The revolutionary wave terrified the Israeli regime, threatening to upset the delicate balance of forces in the region. In particular, the movement of the Egyptian masses posed the possibility of developing solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian people, although the military and Muslim Brotherhood has taken a conciliatory approach towards Israel. Netanyahu attempted to whip up nationalism and fear of the Arab masses among the Jewish population to quell unrest at home and prepare them for possible Israeli military excursions to defend the elite’s interests. But to no avail.

The tent movement which swept Israel in the summer was a dramatic demonstration of the ability of revolutionary movements to span ethnic, religious, sectarian and national divides. The movement engulfed a huge proportion of the population and many of those involved directly connected their struggle with that of the masses across the region. While the leaders failed to articulate clear aims and a strategy, the movement expressed the rage Jewish workers and youth feel towards the tiny, corrupt elite. In areas like Haifa, it gained important support from Palestinians. This points to the possibility to building workers’ unity across the region and finding a democratic, socialist solution to the national question.

The experience of the first wave of the revolutionary movement has raised the political consciousness of workers and youth in Egypt and Tunisia and can pave the way for new upheavals. This would give new impetus to the movements in Syria, Yemen, Iran and across the region. More people will draw the conclusion that to secure a decent future and real democracy, the working-class and poor masses must take power into their own hands, break with imperialism and smash the capitalist system itself. If the huge wealth and resources of the region were taken out of the hands of the parasitic and corrupt elites, and instead planned democratically by the workers and poor, life for the masses could be rapidly transformed.

The building of workers’ parties which can unite the poor masses around a programme for revolutionary socialist change is an urgent necessity. The forces of the CWI and Marxism in the region are working for this goal and can grow during the next period of challenges facing working people and youth.

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