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

An independent, working class leadership needed. 
It is two and a half years ago when the ‘Arab Spring’ began – a series of events which have radically transformed the Middle East, reported Serge Jordan introducing the rich commission on the Middle East and North Africa. This transformation has been on economic, social, political and military levels. A new geo-political map is being drawn which contains all the elements of revolution, counter revolution, war, civil war, sectarian violence, economic crisis, regime change, instability and imperialist meddling.

This complex mixture of factors requires constant review and analysis and it is made even more complex by the rapid pace of change. Events are interacting between countries. For example, on recent anti-austerity protests in Israel, some protesters were carrying placards referring to the mass movement in Egypt. But there are obviously specific dynamics in each country.


In Libya, where the workers’ movement is weak, there is a unique and chaotic situation characterised by insecurity and violence. The murder rate has risen dramatically and the central government has begun to co-opt militias to keep order. But there has now been the outbreak of violence between rival militias. This is further fuelling instability although workers have been in action, with strikes in the oil fields.

In Morocco there are rising social tensions. The ruling elite is preparing for class struggle, likely to be kicked off by an attack on food subsidies.

Egypt is at the heart of the Arab world so the overthrow of Morsi was a dramatic turning point. It has speeded up political developments in other countries. A cloud of confusion is being spread by the capitalist commentators and even by some of the left. Questions like the role of the army, – was it a coup? Was it a revolution? It is wrong to impose rigid terms when there are actually elements of revolution and counter-revolution in the situation.

The coup was forced onto the army by a genuine revolutionary mass movement but it is dangerous to have any illusions in the army. Any repressive measures against the Muslim Brotherhood will be used against the working class. The old state machine is still there.

The excuse of opposing political Islam can be used by the state to consolidate power and there have been outbreaks of brutal state violence. And some Islamist factions may be tempted towards terrorist violence in response to this state repression.

Islamist groups

The working class must develop its own political representation or some of these Islamist groups could fill the vacuum. They could get a grip amongst the poorest if the left is not there. These groups do not just talk about Jihad. They distribute food, medicine and other things, forming parallel social structures in some areas. The alienated youth are the ones most likely to be attracted to the Jihadists – and the failure of the regimes to provide the basics of existence for these young people means that they have potentially fertile ground across the Middle East.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the battle between the classes is the main factor. There is intense class warfare taking place, shown by the number of strikes. In Egypt there has been 5,544 demonstrations in the last five months whilst over a similar period in Tunisia, there have been strikes in 215 companies.

This class struggle does not rule out clashes between different political wings of the ruling class. In Egypt there is no doubt that the tops of the army have exploited the mass movement to get rid of rival Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has not got full control of the state apparatus.

In Tunisia it can be tempting for some to look to the secular wing of the ruling class to play a positive role. But this is dangerous. Thinking that the development of a secular state must come first, then socialism later, will deliver the working class into the hands of the class enemy.

It is not a case of either secular or religious. Reactionary right-wing forces have been promoted by secular governments as a way of opposing the working class.


The so-called ‘Algerianisation’ of Egypt refers to the lessons from Algeria in the 1990s, where the horrific consequences of the working class and poor being blocked from an independent class perspective can be seen. Some lefts cheered the coup against the FIS in 1992 but there was then a campaign of terror by the army. But 200,000 people died and social and economic devastation was imposed on the poor and working class.

The Algerian regime is nervous now about the spread of the mass movement. They are trying to provide more for young people – opening cinemas, making bars open until midnight, even painting the buildings in the centre of Algiers. They are trying to prevent revolt. And there is a crisis at the top of the Algerian state, partly because of the health of the president.

Not one regime in the Middle East and North Africa is stable. There is a general fear amongst the ruling classes about the developments in Egypt. And there has been a rapid decline in support for the new Islamist regimes. Around 63% of the Egyptian population feel they are worse off than before Morsi took power. Over 4,500 factories have closed down in that time.

And it is the economic crisis which limits the scope of the new regimes. A writer in the Wall Street Journal recently called for a new Pinochet to rule Egypt. But a move to decisively defeat the working class is not currently possible for the ruling class; the revolutions still possess immense social resources.

The IMF loans negotiated for Egypt contain strings which would likely ignite another upsurge from below; to develop a good relationship with the regime and to avoid an economic collapse and more revolutionary upheavals. Yet all those states – like UAE, Oman and Kuwait – are tightening the screws of repression on their own people.

Syrian tragedy

In Syria there is a humanitarian crisis. 6,000 people are leaving every day. Refugees are pouring into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which is having a de-stabilising effect on those countries. Agriculture is in crisis so there are food shortages. Rival groups are turning their guns on each other – there are civil wars within a civil war.

There has been a shift in the balance of forces towards Assad recently. He has been bolstered by support from Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. The situation is an embarrassment for western imperialism. Where will arms for Syrian rebels end up? Assad might keep control of at least part of the country for a while. But whatever happens we are looking at a drawn out bloody conflict.

At the same time, the Israeli ruling class has its own reasons for further military adventures – this can only mean further destablisation.

During the discussion examples were given where political activists make the mistake of looking for a “progressive” wing of the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) to rescue them, rather than understanding the need for the working class to build its own political representation. In Turkey, the influence of these ideas, which have their basis in Stalinism was put to the test. People did not believe that the police would not be sent in against the protestors because the ruling class feared for their own democratic rights. But they learnt the hard way that the ruling class has much more fear of the mass movement of workers, which can take away everything for them, than their own personal freedoms.

Others gave an insight into the conditions for workers in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa, details which can only be given because of the workers who have joined the CWI in those countries.


Speakers from Israel/Palestine explained that the Israeli ruling class is entering into negotiations with the Palestinian Authority but they have no desire for a Palestinian state with real sovereignty.

Over the last two years in Israel there has been a movement against the high cost of living. Low-paid workers have been joining trade unions, Jewish and Palestinian together. But no trade union has a clear position on the occupation. Yet 39% in recent polls have said the settlements were a waste of money, this has risen from 24% last year. Thirty one per cent said that the settlers were an obstacle to peace.

It is clear the main priority is for a programme which has the right of equal self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians, at its heart, as part of a socialist struggle for change. A new Palestinian uprising could appeal to the Israeli working class. There is not security for those workers without freedom for the Palestinians – an objective which can only be achieved through a socialist programme.

In summing up an excellent discussion, Niall Mulholland from the CWI International Secretariat said that today’s revolutionary movements across the Middle East and North Africa have their roots in the global crisis of capitalism. No regime, on the basis of capitalism, is able to grant lasting reforms, so there is likely to be a succession of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries.

In Egypt the movement in June was one of the greatest mass movements in world history. Revolution and counter revolution exist together. The generals had not planned the coup but on the eve of a general strike they feared the masses could topple the whole system. Now the new regime is under pressure to deliver the goods.

But there are still big reserves of energy from the June movement and new sections of workers are becoming active. But what is missing is a mass revolutionary alternative. The regime is in continual conflict with the working class and the Jihadists could gain in that situation. But the workers are learning lessons quickly – it only took a year for the Muslim Brotherhood regime to be overthrown.


In several countries the dangers of Balkanisation or even break-up can be seen. In Syria, Assad has promoted a sectarian civil war to stay in power. The West and Gulf States are also meddling and prolonging the conflict by arming the opposition.

In Iraq there is a danger of break-up in a sectarian conflagration and the region is being redrawn along sectarian lines.

In Israel/Palestine the new ‘talks about talks’ will not lead to real Palestinian statehood. Because of the settlements it is likely that any proposed Palestinian state would not even be contiguous.

Our call for two socialist states, as part of a socialist federation, would mean a redrawing of boundaries, but on the basis of agreement between working people after overthrowing capitalism.

A new struggle is needed which emulates the first intifada in the sense of rejecting individual terrorism and any alliance with the Arab regimes. But the first intifada ultimately failed in its objectives because of the lack of an independent, working class-based leadership. A new mass struggle can succeed, including by appealing to the Israeli working class for joint action.

The ideas of the CWI have been tested in action in the Middle East and North Africa cauldron, making it possible to win over new supporters in the mighty events in a number of countries in the region.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


August 2013