Revolts in Egypt and the Arab states: The spectre of the development of the class struggle

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At the time of writing, the social situation in Egypt remains explosive. Millions of people have been on the streets, braving the curfew, the state regime and its bloody repression. At the same time the social movement in Tunisia has not gone away: the flight of Ben Ali, the government reshuffle and the promise of elections has not succeeded in damping down the deep anger of the population. In Jordan thousands of demonstrators have expressed their discontent with growing poverty. In Algeria the protests seems to have been stifled but there is a powerful international black-out and it seems that there are still struggles going on in Kabylia.

The media and politicians of all kinds talk non-stop about the ‘revolts in the Arab world’, focusing attention on regional specificities, on the lack of local democracy, on the exasperation of the population with seeing the same faces in power for 30 years.

All this is true. Ben Ali, Mubarak, Rifai, Bouteflika and co. are true gangsters, caricatured expressions of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. But above all, these social movements belong to the exploited of all countries. These explosions of anger are rooted in the acceleration of the world economic crisis which is plunging more and more of humanity into grinding poverty.   

After Tunisia, Egypt! The contagion of revolt in the Arab states, especially in North Africa, which the ruling class has feared for so long, has arrived with a bang. Populations who have been faced with the economic hardships caused by the world economic crisis have also had to deal with ruthlessly repressive regimes. And faced with this explosion of anger, the governments and rulers have shown their true colours as a class which reigns through starvation and murder. The only response they can come up with is tear gas and bullets. And we are not just talking about the ‘dictators’ on the spot. Our own ‘democratic’ rulers, right wing and left wing, have long been the friends and allies of these same dictators in the maintenance of capitalist order. The much-vaunted stability of these countries against the danger of radical Islamism has for decades been based on police terror, and our good democrats have happily turned a blind eye to their tortures, their corruption, to the climate of fear in which they have lorded it over the population. In the name of stability, of non-intervention in internal matters, of peace and friendship between peoples, they have supported these regimes for their own sordid imperialist reasons.

The social revolt in Egypt

In Egypt we have seen dozens, perhaps hundreds of deaths, thousands wounded, tens of thousand more wounded or arrested. The fall of Ben Ali was the detonator. It stirred up a huge wave of hope among the population of the Arab regimes. We also saw many outbursts of despair, with a series of suicides in Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, western Sahara, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, particularly among young unemployed people. In Egypt, we heard the same slogans as in Tunisia: “Bread, Freedom, Dignity!” This was clearly a response to the principal effects of the world economic crisis: unemployment (in Egypt it affects 20% of the population); insecurity (in Egypt, 4 out of 10 live below the poverty line and several international documentaries have been made about the people who live by sorting through the Cairo rubbish heaps); the rising price of basic necessities. The slogan ‘Mubarak, dégage’ was taken directly from the Tunisians who called for the departure of Ben Ali. Demonstrators in Cairo proclaimed “It’s not our government, they are our enemies!” An Egyptian journalist said to a correspondent from Figaro: “No political movement can claim to have started these demonstrations. It’s the street which is expressing itself. People have nothing to lose. Things can’t go on any longer”. One phrase is on everyone’s lips: “we are no longer afraid”.

In April 2008, the workers of a textile factor in Mahalla to the north of Cairo came out on strike for better wages and working conditions, To support the workers and call for a general strike on 6 April, a group of young people had organised themselves on Facebook and Twitter. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. This time, and in contrast to Tunisia, the Egyptian government blocked internet access in advance.     

On Tuesday 25 January, so-called ‘National Police Day’, tens of thousands of protestors hit the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta and Suez and came up against the forces of order. Four days of confrontations followed; state violence only fuelled the anger. During these days and nights, the riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Standing by was an army of 500,000, very well equipped and trained, a central pillar of the regime, unlike in Tunisia. The power also made extensive use of the ‘baltageyas’, thugs directly controlled by the state and specialising in breaking up demonstrations, as well as numerous agents of the state security wearing civilian clothes and merging with the demonstrators.

On Friday 28 January, a day off work, around noon, despite the banning of public gatherings, demonstrators came out of the mosques and onto the streets in huge numbers, everywhere confronting the police. This day was named ‘The Day of Rage’. The government had already cut off internet and mobile phone networks and even landline telephones. Still the movement swelled: in the evening, the demonstrations defied the curfew in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez....Police trucks used water cannon against the crowds, made up largely of young people. In Cairo, army tanks were at first welcomed as liberating heroes, and there were a number of attempts to fraternise with the army; this was given a lot of publicity and in one case at least it prevented a convoy of armoured cars from supporting the forces of order. Some policemen threw off their arm bands and joined the demonstrators. But very soon, in other areas, armoured cars opened fire on the demonstrators who had come to greet them, or mowed them down. The head of the army, Sami Anan, who led a military delegation to the US for talks at the Pentagon, came back in a hurry to Egypt on the Friday. Police cars and stations, as well as the HQ of the governing party, were torched and the Ministry of Information ransacked. The wounded piled up in overworked hospitals. In Alexandria, the government building was also burned down. In Mansoura on the Nile Delta there were violent confrontations that left several dead. A number of people tried to take over the state television station but were rebuffed by the army.     

Around 11.30 at night Mubarak appeared on TV, announcing the dismissal of his government team and promising political reforms and steps towards democracy, while firmly insisting on the need to maintain the “security and stability of Egypt against attempts at destabilisation”. These proposals merely increased the anger and determination of the protestors.

A worry for the imperialists

But although for the demonstrators Tunisia was a model, the stakes involved in the situation are not the same for the bourgeoisie. Tunisia is a relatively small country and it holds an imperialist interest mainly for a second rate power like France[1]. It’s very different with Egypt which is easily the most densely populated country in the region (over 80 million inhabitants) and which above all occupies a key strategic position in the Middle East, especially for the American bourgeoisie. The fall of the Mubarak regime could result in a regional chaos that would have heavy consequences. Mubarak is the USA’s principal ally in the region next to Israel, playing a preponderant role in Israel-Palestine relations as well as relations between Al Fatah and Hamas. This state has up till now been seen as a stabilising factor in the Middle East. At the same time the political developments in Sudan, which is on the verge of splitting in two, makes a strong Egypt all he more necessary. It is therefore a vital cog in the US strategy towards the Israel-Arab conflict and its destablisation risks spilling over into a number of neighbouring countries, especially Jordan, Libya, Yemen and Syria. This explains the anxieties of the US, whose close relations with the Mubarak regime put it in a very uncomfortable position. Obama and US diplomacy have been trying to put pressure on Mubarak while saving the essentials of the regime. This is why Obama made it public that he had spent half an hour talking to Mubarak and urging him to throw off more ballast. Before that, Hilary Clinton had declared that the forces of order needed to show more restraint and that the government should very quickly restore the means of communication. The next day, probably as a result of American pressure, General Omar Suleiman, head of the powerful military security forces, responsible for negotiations with Israel, was brought in as Vice President.   The army has gained in popularity for having remained in the rear during the demonstrations and for having on numerous occasions taken a friendly attitude towards the crowds. This allowed it to argue in a number of cases that people should go back to their homes to protect them from looters.

And in other Arab countries...

Other expressions of revolt have appeared in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan. In the latter, 4,000 people gathered in Amman for the third time in three weeks to protest against the cost of living and to demand economic and political reforms, in particular the resignation of the prime minister. The authorities made a few gestures, some small economic measures were taken and some political consultations held. But the demonstrations spread to the towns of Irbid and Kerak. In Algeria, on 22 January, a demonstration in the centre of Algiers was brutally repressed, leaving 5 dead and over 800 injured. In Tunisia the fall of Ben Ali has not put an end to the anger, nor to the repression. In the prisons, summary executions since the departure of Ben Ali have added up to more deaths than during the clashes with the police. A ‘liberation caravan’ from the western part of the country, where the movement first started, has defied the curfew and been camped outside the PM’s offices demanding the resignation of a government still made up of the cronies and chiefs of the Ben Ali regime. The anger has not gone away because the same old people are holding onto the reins of power. A government reshuffle finally took place on 27 January, chucking out the most compromised ministers but retaining the same PM. This still didn’t calm things down. Ferocious police repression continues and the situation remains confused.

These explosions of massive, spontaneous revolt reveal that the population is fed up and no longer wants to put up with the poverty and repression doled out by these regimes. But they also show the weight of democratic and nationalist illusions: in numerous demonstrations, the national flags are being brandished very widely. In Egypt as in Tunisia, the anger of the exploited has been quickly pushed towards a struggle for more democracy. The population’s hatred for the regime and the focus on Mubarak (as on Ben Ali in Tunisia) has meant that the economic demands against poverty and unemployment have been relegated into the background by all the bourgeois media. This obviously makes it possible for the ruling class in the democratic countries to sell the idea to the working class, especially in the central countries, that these ‘popular uprisings’ don’t have the same fundamental causes as the workers’ struggles going on here: the bankruptcy of world capitalism.

Towards the development of the class struggle

This eruption of the social anger engendered by the aggravation of the world crisis of capitalism in the countries at the peripheries of the system, which up until now have almost exclusively been dominated by war and imperialist tensions, is a major new political factor which the world bourgeoisie will have to reckon with more and more. The rise of these revolts against the corruption of leaders who are pocketing vast fortunes while the great majority of the population goes hungry, can’t lead to a solution in these countries on their own. But they are signs of the ripening of social conflicts that cannot fail to burst to the surface in the most developed countries in response to the same evils: falling living standards, growing poverty, massive youth unemployment.   

We are already beginning to see the rebellion of young people in Europe against the failure of world capitalism, with the students’ struggles in France, Britain and Italy. The most recent example is Holland: in The Hague on 22 January, 20,000 students and teachers gathered in front of the parliament building and the ministry of education. They were protesting against the sharp rise in university entrance fees, which will in the first place hit those repeating their second year, which is often the case with students who have to work to pay for their studies. They will have to pay an extra 300 euro a year, while the latest budgets envisage cutting 7000 jobs in this sector. This was one of the most important student demos in the country for 20 years. It was also brutally attacked by the police.

These social movements are the symptom of the international development of the class struggle, even if, in the Arab countries, the working class has not yet clearly appeared as an autonomous force and is mixed up in a movement of popular protest.

All over the world, the gulf is widening between a ruling class, the bourgeoisie, which displays its wealth with indecent arrogance, and on the other hand the mass of the exploited falling deeper and deeper into deprivation. This gulf is tending to unite proletarians of all countries, to forge them into a common front, while the bourgeoisie can only respond to the indignation of those it exploits with new austerity measures, with truncheons and bullets.   

Revolts and social struggles will inevitably take on different forms in the years to come and in different regions. The strengths and weaknesses of these social movements will not be the same everywhere. In some cases, their anger, militancy and courage will be exemplary. In others, the methods and massive nature of the struggle will make it possible to open new perspectives and establish a balance of forces in favour of the working class, the only social force that can offer a future to humanity. In particular, the concentration and experience of the proletariat of the countries at the heart of world capitalism will be decisive. Without the massive mobilisation of the workers in the central countries, the social revolts in the peripheries of capitalism will be condemned to impotence and will fall under the domination of this or that faction of the ruling class. Only the international struggle of the working class, its solidarity, its unity, its organisation and its consciousness of what’s at stake in its combat will be able to draw all the oppressed layers of society into a fight to put an end to dying capitalism and build a new world in its place.  

RI 30/01/11


[1] France was one of Ben Ali’s main supporters although it has now made its mea culpas about this. However it is once again covering itself in ridicule by continuing to back Mubarak



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Revolt in the Middle East