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Socialism Today 155 - February 2012

The revolutionary year in North Africa and the Middle East

Within weeks of the overthrow of Tunisian dictatorship in January 2011, Mubarak’s regime was on its knees in Egypt – the most populous Arab state, backed to the hilt by western imperialism. A revolutionary wave swept across North Africa and the Middle East, inspiring movements throughout the world. But what is the situation now? PETER TAAFFE writes.

THE REVOLUTIONS IN the Middle East and North Africa are, with the events in Greece, the most important developments for the workers’ movement in the past year. Tunisia and particularly Egypt, the world’s oldest nation state, have exercised a magnetic effect on the masses throughout the region. They also resonate powerfully in the neo-colonial world and in the advanced industrial countries as well. For instance, in the USA they helped inspire the Wisconsin protests, and the Egyptian flag flew over the occupy movement in Oakland and elsewhere.

However, as in all revolutions, particularly in the period after the overthrow of a dictatorship, illusions are generated in the masses that the main job has been done. In reality, because it has not been completed, the forces of revolution and counter-revolution have vied for supremacy from the outset. The liberal bourgeoisie and Islamists have tried to contain the revolution, together with the remnants of the old regime. They seek to engender a mood of class conciliation, of ‘national unity’. They instinctively oppose all attempts at independent action or organisations of the working class.

This mood can also exist among the masses, who seek the line of least resistance in the first instance. Even where there is a strong revolutionary party that seeks to warn the working class and counter this from the outset, as with the Bolsheviks in 1917, this mood can continue for a period, allowing the establishment of class collaborationist, coalition governments. It takes time and events, together with the intervention of revolutionary forces, to change this. In the case of Egypt, there was no mass force in the underground which could perform this task.

In the vacuum that existed, as with other cases in history – Poland under Stalinism, Iran under the Shah – religious forces, with roots among the masses, can initially provide a pole of attraction around which the opposition to dictatorial regimes can mobilise. This role in Egypt has been played by the Muslim Brotherhood and the mosques. They were persecuted by the regime, along with the network of charities and enterprises which they built under Hosni Mubarak and, previous to him, Anwar Sadat. This enhanced their attractiveness to the exploited workers and peasants. Consequently, they were well placed to exploit the current elections in which they have received an estimated 36.6% of the votes counted so far. In addition, the right-wing political Islam of the Salafists around al-Nour, linked to the more fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia and the doctrine of Al Qaeda, seems to have done well with almost a quarter of the votes in the cities that had voted by 5 December. Al-Nour probably could register more than this in the countryside.

A severe test

IN MOROCCO, STILL ruled by a monarchy, and Tunisia, and even before elections in Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, the Islamists have become a strong and sometimes the strongest force. In Tunisia, those gathered around the Ennahda party have emerged as the largest force in the recent elections and are the main component of the new government. At the same time, the 52% turnout in Tunisia’s elections indicates the profound suspicion of the masses of the present ‘political parties’ and the lack of legitimacy of the government, particularly in the eyes of those workers and youth who initiated the revolution and set the whole region alight.

Another expression of this lack of trust in those who are perceived to have grabbed for themselves the fruits of the revolution is the strike wave which has erupted from below despite the trade union bureaucracy, which in Tunisia as elsewhere acts as a brake on the movements of the masses. There is little trust in the regime by young people in particular who form a substantial section of the unemployed. The mood of desperation is reflected in the riots which have broken out and also in horrific suicides – five men tried to hang themselves together in one town.

At the same time, the triumphant if not triumphalist Islamic-based parties are about to undergo a serious test. The economic situation, which provided an impulse to the revolutions, has if anything considerably worsened. In Tunisia, unemployment has doubled from 500,000 to 1,000,000 in the space of a year. The same is true in Egypt where an estimated 40% of the population already live in chronic poverty and unemployment is rising along with rampant inflation.

This prompted a Financial Times special feature on Egypt to comment: "Any incoming government… will have to cut unaffordable energy subsidies that cost about $15.5 billion a year". Moreover, growth needs to be at least 7% annually just to absorb the 700,000 new entrants to the job market every year. In the fiscal year to the end of June it is expected to have grown by a mere 1.3%. No wonder the Islamist parties – if they are allowed by the military (which remains largely intact) to take the reins of power in Egypt, for instance – in the main seek to avoid ruling alone, looking for refuge from the economic and social storms which impend in coalition governments.

Class divisions perhaps of an incipient character are already evident in the social and electoral base of the different Islamic-based parties. In Egypt, the Economist comments: "Muslim Brothers tend to be upwardly mobile professionals, whereas the Salafists derive their strength from the poor. The Brothers speak of pragmatic plans and wear suits and ties. The Salafists prefer traditional robes and clothe their language in scripture".

But the real electoral losers in this first phase of the revolution appear to be the secular liberal forces and parties as well as the youth who, together with the working class, were the main initial driving forces of the revolution. However, time and experience, particularly through the industrial struggles which will intensify, will allow new organisations to emerge, both in the trade union field and politically.

A moderate Islamist model?

IN EGYPT, THE Muslim Brotherhood, if it is allowed to form a government, will come under serious examination. It is a more conservative force than in the past. It abandoned the struggle to overthrow the dictatorship, concentrating on feeding the poverty-stricken masses. Initially it stood aside from the revolution, which caused splits particularly among the youth within their ranks. Unlike the Iranian revolution, when radical Islamic forces developed, the Brotherhood is politically conservative, accepting the free market, not favouring independent trade unions, and rejecting ‘extremist’ brands of Islam in favour of the Turkish model of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, even borrowing the name of Turkey’s ruling Freedom and Justice party. This party was described by the New York Times as a "religious right-of-centre movement but no fanatical band".

This is also the favoured model for the ‘moderate’ Islamist forces throughout the region, including Ennahda in Tunisia. However, Egypt’s military council, SCAF, has no intention of ceding power completely to ‘civilian’ forces. Another model is Pakistan, where the army and generals are the real power behind the throne (the government and parliament) and have been so since the foundation of the Pakistani state.

There were big illusions in the military at the time of the overthrow of Mubarak: ‘the army is with us’. And, at its base and even among a significant section of the middle layers of officers, that was the case. However, the top generals were and remain an integral part of the ancien regime. The military, in effect, carried out a ‘soft coup’ in overthrowing Mubarak in collusion with the CIA and American imperialism. They were terrified that the revolution was deepening and would not stop at the removal of Mubarak but would go further towards a social and economic revolution. The Egyptian revolution was, above all, a mass event (the country contains a third of all Arabs) in which the working class played a crucial role, particularly in Suez, Port Said and elsewhere.

Locomotives of history

ONCE THE MASSES have thrown off the shackles of a dictatorship, they inevitably come forward with pressing social and economic demands. There has been a wave of workers’ actions – attempts to establish independent trade unions, which had been effectively banned by the military – demanding that those culpable in the killing of the protesters at the time of the overthrow of Mubarak, as well as those who perpetrated the massacres in November, be brought to trial.

So great has been the disillusionment since the events of February that a questioning has arisen as to whether it was a real revolution in the first place. In fact, in both Tunisia and Egypt the masses moved independently or semi-independently against the dictatorships of Ben Ali and Mubarak. They made the revolution but, because of insufficient consciousness of their own power and a programme to achieve this, they did not complete the revolution in a social and economic sense.

Revolutions, as Karl Marx pointed out, are the locomotives of history. Counter-revolutions – dictatorships – are an enormous brake, throwing back consciousness enormously. In Tunisia and Egypt what we saw was a political revolution which changed the main actors on the stage but did not touch the social foundations of landlordism and capitalism. In Egypt, the generals have an estimated 40% stake in vital aspects of the economy. Moreover, US imperialism has donated an estimated $150 million to promote Egypt’s ‘transition to democracy’, and still gives its armed forces $1.3 billion a year. The army in all capitalist states is the main guard of private property.

Increasingly aware of the real situation, some of the participants in the February uprising now say that all that has been achieved is ‘a change of curtains’. That is true of the state but not of the consciousness of the mass of the people, particularly the youth and workers. And the masses have begun to pour onto the industrial, social and political stages. There is now talk, correctly, of the need for a second and third revolution. For this to happen, what is required is the building of powerful and independent workers’ organisations.

Military intervention

IMPERIALISM AND ITS client states in the region were completely taken aback by the outbreak of revolution. Barack Obama and the representatives of the strongest power on the planet were powerless to intervene, reduced to pious, ‘regretful’ phrases about the role of US imperialism in propping up Mubarak. Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron were equally impotent. In Egypt and Tunisia, where the urban masses played the key role, military intervention was ruled out. US imperialism, which still views the region as of key strategic and economic importance, was completely tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, in any case, and could not intervene militarily, particularly by using ground troops. The same applied to its NATO allies.

Only with events in Libya, and to some extent Bahrain, was imperialism given the pretext to establish a foothold against the revolutions. Our analysis of the uprisings in Libya, of NATO’s intervention and the subsequent outcome of the nine or ten months struggle has stood the test of events. We supported the uprisings against Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi and other towns.

At the outset they represented a genuine movement of the masses in opposition to the dictatorship. The committees established to administer Benghazi after the expulsion of Gaddafi and his henchmen, including his now imprisoned son, Saif, appeared to be in the hands of genuine representatives of the masses and have a mass popular base. At that stage, the Benghazi masses were opposed to outside intervention by imperialism.

The mobilisation of Gaddafi’s troops on the outskirts of Benghazi and the consequent fear of a massacre allowed imperialism the excuse to intervene militarily through NATO. The subsequent course of the war – orchestrated and controlled in the air and on the ground by NATO – altered completely the character of the ‘revolution’. The CWI has always opposed the Gaddafi regime and has called for support for genuine mass movements to establish a real socialist, democratic society in Libya.

However, the war conducted against Gaddafi possessed all the features of a de facto imperialist military intervention. It is impossible for Marxists to give support to such an action. Nonetheless, to their eternal shame, this is what some alleged Marxists did! The propaganda campaign against Gaddafi included manufactured hysteria and gross exaggeration of what would happen if Gaddafi’s forces were to occupy Libyan cities held by the ‘rebels’. It was claimed that massacres would automatically follow. No such things happened when Gaddafi’s forces fought the rebels for Misrata and other cities on the way to Benghazi. Yet, this was used to carry through real massacres on the part of the ‘rebels’ when they entered cities that were allegedly in support of Gaddafi and through the air war of NATO. It is impossible to calculate the exact number of victims arising from this but probably between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed. It is not possible to describe the outcome as a victory for ‘revolution’.

A new fiefdom

WHAT BEGAN AS a genuine revolution of an incipient character was derailed by a counter-revolution in a ‘democratic’ form. However, as the scale of bloodletting and reprisals has been revealed – sometimes against completely innocent people, including black Libyans and foreign workers, some of whom had lived in Libya for many years – there is profound questioning as to whether ‘democracy’ or counter-revolution currently dominates. Post-Gaddafi Libya is clearly a new fiefdom for imperialism to exploit its rich resources, particularly its oil reserves.

Combining completely antagonistic forces, from Islamists to defectors from Gaddafi’s regime and assorted ‘democrats’ of recent vintage, it is very unlikely that the National Transitional Council (NTC) will hold together. Following the armed conflict between rival militias in the centre of the capital, Tripoli, a headline in the British newspaper, the Independent, summed up the situation: ‘Libya’s Leader Warns of Civil War after Tripoli Gun Battles’. (5 January 2012) Mustafa Abdul Jalil, NTC chairman, commented on the continuous ‘lawlessness’ of private armies while the draft regulations for the first parliamentary elections were being published.

These regulations themselves have become a source of conflict. The NTC is proposing to prevent all of those with any connection with the Gaddafi regime from standing as candidates. This will mean that even those who were compelled to study Gaddafi’s ‘writings’ to get a civil service post would be automatically ruled out. At the same time, there are clashes between the different militias for control of territory, the latest being in Misrata involving the forced release of militia members by a rival band. This resulted in the killing of seven fighters with a dozen wounded in two separate fire-fights. Despite pious pleas for the cessation of the conflict, this kind of strife continues.

Libya threatens to fall apart, as we warned before the war, and resemble in the future not so much a democratic Arcadia (which had been promised), but the nightmare of ethnic and tribal divisions along the lines of Somalia, but with oil. We advocated an independent movement of the working class in Benghazi with a class appeal to the Libyan masses as a whole. A similar class approach is necessary in all the states in the region.

Syrian tinderbox

THE MOVEMENT IN Syria is at a crossroads. The number of victims arising from the regime’s repression is well over 4,000. Daily mass demonstrations take place and sanctions have been imposed by the UN and the Arab League. The latter is a severe blow to the elite gathered around the regime of Bashar al-Assad because of its historic association with the Arab struggle. Only Iran – where Shias are in the majority, unlike in Syria – supports the Assad regime. But Iran is also facing sanctions because of its nuclear programme. It is possible that military action could follow this, and could trigger a regional conflict, including war.

Indeed, with the near civil war in Syria all kinds of possibilities involving conflict could break out. Turkey, which is already involved on its borders with the flight of refugees into its territory, has warned the Syrian regime that it might be compelled to intervene. On the other hand, Israel – which actually prefers that the Assad regime remains in power because of the fear of what would happen if it was overthrown – could also be drawn in. This could take the form of military action against Iran, Syria or both.

The region is like a tinderbox where anything could happen. The Palestinian question, for example, could explode at any time. Moreover, all of this is taking place against the background of radicalisation in Israel – reflected in strikes and occupations. A new period of generalised struggle is likely, arising from the deepening of the world economic crisis and its severe impact in the Middle East and North Africa.

The opposition in Syria appears to have gained ground in the past period. However, it is not clear that it has reached the critical mass that could lead to a speedy overthrow of the regime. Syria is very divided on ethnic and religious lines. This is why imperialism and neighbouring Turkey fear the breakup of the country. The bitter sectarian, ethnic and religious conflicts that would result from this would have incalculable consequences on neighbouring states.

The opposition is divided, with most of it coming from the majority Sunni population. At the same time, the army – always crucial in maintaining the Alawite elite around Assad in power – has not yet disintegrated, although sections of it have defected to the rebels. Therefore, it is most likely that the struggle in Syria will be drawn out. The regime does not yet appear to be at its tipping point, but in this highly unstable situation it could arrive at this position very quickly.

Flashpoint Iran

MEANWHILE, IN ONE of the most volatile areas of the world, the drums of war beat constantly. For some time, Iran’s developing capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons has been a flashpoint. Tensions have been ratcheted up in the recent period with the threat of military action to ‘take out’ Iran’s nuclear capacity, and/or to strengthen economic sanctions against the regime in Tehran by the west.

On the other hand, as an article in the London Review of Books put it, hardliners in Iran "have learned an important lesson from recent history. They have just seen Gaddafi overthrown after giving up his nuclear programme in 2003, the same year that Iraq, which never had a nuclear weapons programme, was invaded. And they remember that in 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan on the grounds that it harboured and funded the Taliban, while making Pakistan, which also harboured and funded the Taliban, but had nuclear weapons, a major ally in the war on terror. The message is simple: nuclear weapons mean security". It is not, however, in the interests of the peoples of the Middle East, nor of the world working class, to see an extension of the already catastrophic proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are part of the ultimately futile doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

At the same time, any oppressed class or nation has the right of self-defence, including armed resistance. But the real defence of a people, of the exploited masses, or of a regime, rests in winning the sympathy of the masses worldwide, above all from within those countries which are threatening others. This has been demonstrated many times, particularly in the defeat of imperialist intervention against the Russian revolution and also in the Vietnam war. The Vietnamese peasants heroically resisted but it was the revolt of the American people which defeated US imperialism, in the main.

The nauseating hypocrisy, the double bookkeeping, of western imperialism is no more glaringly exposed than in this region, particularly in the approach towards the present conflict with Iran. According to this view, it is okay for the US’s ally Israel to possess an estimated 30 to 100 nuclear weapons – with which it constantly threatens its regional opponents – but another thing entirely when those opponents seek to defend themselves. It was not even the present Iranian regime which initiated the nuclear programme in Iran. It was none other than the former stooge of imperialism, the deposed Shah of Iran, who was desperate to acquire nuclear power!

Moreover, after the 1979 revolution, the new Islamist regime halted this nuclear programme which was seen as a ‘royal excess’. At one stage, the regime declared publicly that it was against acquiring nuclear weapons and even urged disarmament in the region. This changed after the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which was initiated by imperialism spurring on Saddam Hussein to attack Iran.

Dangerous sabre-rattling

MOST ACCOUNTS SAY that Iran’s current nuclear programme was initiated in the 1990s when the production of enriched uranium was stepped up. The Iranian government aimed to build by 2004 five nuclear reactors which would provide 20% of the country’s energy but, at the same time, the capacity to produce a bomb was also initiated. According to the International Atomic Energy Authority, Iran has now installed 8,000 centrifuges and will have enough capacity over the next few years to produce four nuclear weapons.

In recent months, it has also sought to illustrate its capacity to deliver these weapons through a series of missile tests – although military commentators claim they only have a range of 125 miles. At the same time, the Iranian regime, which has been engaged in naval war games in the Straits of Hormuz, threatens to block this vital oil supply route for the west in the event of a military attack. Some commentators believe, however, that this is more like sabre-rattling rather than serious preparation for war.

Nonetheless, the Israeli government and ruling class, together with significant sections of US imperialism, are urging the Obama administration to take early military action before Iran finally develops nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them. In effect, the Israeli government is proposing pre-emptive military action to consolidate its nuclear monopoly in the region. Therefore, the prospect of a conventional attack cannot be ruled out. Israeli military strategists estimate that this could delay Iran’s nuclear programme by two years. Obviously, this is predicated on the idea that the current regime can be overthrown and that the government that replaces it will fall into line with the wishes of imperialism.

This is not at all certain as there is overwhelming support – at least on this issue – for lining up behind the government in opposition to the demands of Israel and imperialism. At the very least, sanctions could be increased, which is still perceived as the main way of exerting pressure on the Tehran government and bringing forward the day of its downfall. As in all countries in the Middle East, the real solution to the problems of Iran lies in the development of the independent political movement of the working class and poor masses.

This article is based on a statement prepared for the annual meeting of the international executive committee of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). See for the full statement.


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