Public Forum in New York on the revolts in the Arabic-speaking world

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With the dearth of media attention given the revolts in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, and later much of the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, Internationalism felt it important to hold a public forum on the perspectives for these revolts. On March 19, a short presentation was given, followed by a couple hours of open discussion about the history of the events, the similarities and differences between each national situation, as well as similarities with the anti-austerity movements in Europe and the workers’ movement historically. Most of the participants were familiar with Internationalism, with one comrade who was more familiar with the work of the groups Mouvement Communiste and the GCI. 
Before the presentation, some words were said about the earthquakes and nuclear disasters in Japan, during which comrades noted the trend toward nuclear power in an increasingly chaotic imperialist situation where imported fuel resources are becoming more and more unreliable for each national bourgeoisie. The presentation stressed the rapidly-evolving nature of the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya and the importance of critically examining the potential for the revolts in the various countries, but also maintaining an open attitude about where they could move next. Indeed the following day, the US, Britain, and France began air-strikes in Libya, demonstrating how the bourgeoisie responded differently to the revolts despite it sharing common roots in conditions of poverty and repression. The variant factors are important to examine.
The most important point was that these revolts are not what the bourgeois media claims they are: movements confining their demands to a democracy against dictatorship—movements which will be satisfied with a ‘color revolution’ as in the Ukraine and other countries in recent years. Each revolt began from economic causes—high unemployment (especially among younger workers) and staggering inflation, and seething indignation against the conditions of repression. In the case of Tunisia, which had seen the bulk of the strike activity prior to the events in Egypt, the fruit-vendor whose harassment by the police and subsequent self-immolation is said to have inspired the revolts, was himself an unemployed college graduate unable to find regular work. Despite the fact that there exist many illusions aboutdemocracy in the movements around these revolts, and the working class has not clearly put its own demands at the head of any of these revolts, they are not simply democratic revolts against dictatorship, but contain real expressions of workers’ indignation at the conditions in which they are forced to live.
In Egypt, we saw the emergence of genuine working class methods of struggle—neighborhood protection committees, the tendency toward the rapid extension of strikes, the street assemblies where people openly discuss and make decisions about how to push the struggle forward, and attempts at fraternization with the army. Despite the fact that this shows the illusions about the ‘fairness’ of the state, the important point is that initially the army responded sympathetically. The entrance of the working class into the struggle helped to overcome some of the divisions that other social strata have not been able to – divisions based on religious sectarianism, for example, and the beginning of political strikes in the textile factories was the major accelerating factor in Mubarak’s resignation. This demonstrates that the working class is the subject of the revolution and has the power to paralyze society and unify revolts of other non-exploiting strata. Libya, where the majority of the working class are immigrants from all over the world, was a negative example of this. Immigrant workers refused to be drawn into what very quickly became a nationalist faction-fight and amassed at the borders to flee Libya, not seeing any future in the revolts there.
In the discussions that followed, the ideology of democracy was prominent, with many comrades pointing to the ruling class’ need to portray all of the revolts in the Arabic-speaking countries as nationalist pro-democracy movements, regardless of the fact that initially at least the working classes in the various countries went out to struggle primarily against their conditions of exploitation and misery, without waving any particular flag. It was also noted that even in Egypt the working class was still not able to assert itself as an independent class but was just beginning to try to move and being pulled by the ideologies of other strata, despite the fact that the workers’ entry into the struggle with strikes in the textile factories was decisive in pushing it forward. In 2007 there had been massive strikes in Egypt which saw general assemblies and the linking of struggles, but the situation today shows a difficulty in the workers asserting their demands independently of the “pro-democracy, anti-dictatorship” movement and being able to put themselves at the head of the revolts as a class with a historic future. Questions were raised about whether the new government in Egypt would strengthen democratic illusions or whether, under the increasing weight of the crisis, they would wear out more quickly. 
By the end of the discussion, the comrades present were connecting the dominance of democratic ideology with the lack of the confidence the class has internationally. Many workers feel that the revolution is necessary but are not sure if it is even possible. The organization of production has changed dramatically since the last major class battles and large industrial centers have been broken up by deindustrialization in the capitalist metropolis and the shifting of production to the “peripheral” countries, not to mention the campaigns around the “death of communism” in the 1990s. Much was said about the weight of the decomposition of the capitalist system and the erosion of the basic fabric of social life that makes it more and more difficult for the working class to recover its identity and self-confidence. Despite all these difficulties, it was agreed that the revolts, at least in Egypt and Tunisia, are a part of the slow and difficult process of the working class internationally struggling to return to the path of class struggle. There have been debates on the ICC forums as well, about the class nature of the revolts in Libya, versus those in Egypt or Tunisia, and it is a subject that revolutionaries should try to clarify and understand better, in order to help in this process of recovery of class identity and confidence.
JJ, 4/12/11.