What is happening in the Middle East?

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The current events in the Middle East and North Africa are of major historic importance, the consequences of which are difficult to discern. Nevertheless, it is important to develop a discussion about them that will enable revolutionaries to elaborate a coherent framework of analysis. The points that follow are neither that framework in itself, still less a detailed description of what has been taking place, but simply some basic reference points aimed at stimulating the debate.[1]  

1.       Not since 1848 or 1917-19 have we seen such a widespread, simultaneous tide of revolt. While the epicentre of the movement has been in North Africa (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but also Algeria and Morocco), protests against the existing regimes have broken out in Gaza, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, while a number of other repressive Arab states, notably Syria, have been on high alert. The same goes for the Stalinist regime in China. There are also clear echoes of the protests in the rest of Africa: Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Swaziland.... We can also see the direct impact of the revolts in the demonstrations against government corruption and the effects of the economic crisis in Croatia, in the banners and slogans of student demonstrations in the UK and workers’ struggles in Wisconsin, and no doubt in many other countries as well. This is not to say that all these movements in the Arab world are identical, either in their class content, their demands, or in the response of the ruling class, but there are evidently a number of common features which make it possible to talk about the phenomenon as a whole.

2.       The historical context in which these events are unfolding are the following:

-         a profound economic crisis, the most severe in the history of capitalism, which has hit the weaker economies of the Arab world with particular force, and which is already plunging millions into abject poverty, with the prospect of even worse conditions ahead. The youth, which, in contrast to many of the “ageing” central countries, makes up a very large percentage of the total population, has been hit especially hard, with unemployment and the lack of any visible future the lot of educated and uneducated young people alike. In every case, it has been the young people who have been in the forefront of these movements;

-         the unbearably corrupt and repressive nature of all the regimes in the region. While for a long time the ruthless activity of the secret police or the armed forces has kept the population in a state of atomisation and fear, these very weapons of the state have now served to generalise the will to gather together and resist. This was very clear in Egypt, for example, when Mubarak dispatched his army of thugs and policemen in civilian clothes to terrorise the masses holding Tahrir Square: these provocations merely strengthened the latter’s resolve to defend themselves and drew thousands more into the protests. Similarly, the outrageous corruption and greed of the ruling cliques, who have amassed huge private fortunes while the vast majority struggled to survive from day to day, further fuelled the flames of rebellion once populations had begun to overcome their fears;

-         this sudden loss of fear, commented on by many of the participants, is a product not only of changes at the local and regional level, but also of a climate of growing discontent and overt class struggle at the international level. Everywhere, faced with the economic crisis, the exploited and the oppressed have been increasingly unwilling to make the sacrifices demanded of them. Here again, the role played by the new generation has been essential, and in this sense the youth rebellion in Greece two years ago, the student struggles in the UK and Italy, the fight against pension reforms in France have also had their impact in the “Arab” world, especially in the age of Facebook and Twitter when it is much harder for the bourgeoisie to maintain a consistent black-out of struggles against the status quo. 

3.       The class nature of these movements is not uniform and varies from country to country and according to different phases. On the whole, however, we can characterise them as movements of the non-exploiting classes, social revolts against the state. The working class has, in general, not been in the leadership of these rebellions but it has certainly had a significant presence and influence which can be discerned both in the methods and forms of organisation thrown up by the movement and, in certain cases, by the specific development of workers’ struggles, such as the strikes in Algeria and above all the major wave of strikes in Egypt which were a key factor in the decision to dump Mubarak (and which we have written about in these pages). In the majority of these countries, the proletariat is not the only oppressed class. The peasantry, and other strata deriving from even older modes of production, although largely fragmented and ruined by decades of capitalist decline, still have a weight in the rural areas, while in the cities, where the revolts have always been centred, the working class exists alongside a large middle class which is on the road towards proletarianisation but still has its specific features, and a mass of slum dwellers who are made up partly of proletarians and partly of small traders and more lumpenised elements. Even in Egypt, which has the most concentrated and experienced working class, eyewitnesses in Tahrir Square emphasised that the protests had mobilised “all classes”, with the exception of the upper echelons of the regime. In other countries the weight of the non-proletarian strata has been much stronger than it has been in the majority of struggles in the central countries. 

4.       In trying to understand the class nature of these rebellions, we therefore have to avoid two symmetrical errors: on the one hand, a blanket identification of all the masses in movement with the proletariat (a position most characteristic of the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste), and on the other hand a rejection of anything positive in revolts which are not explicitly working class. The question posed here takes us back to previous events, such as those in Iran at the end of the 1970s, where again we saw a popular revolt in which, for a while, the working class was able to assume a leading role, though this in the end was not sufficient to prevent the recuperation of the movement by the Islamists. At a more historical level, the problem of the relationship between the working class and more general social revolts is also the problem of the state in the period of transition, which emerges from the movement of all the non-exploiting classes but in the face of which the working class needs to maintain its class autonomy.   

5.       In the Russian revolution, the soviet form was engendered by the working class but it also provided a model of organisation for all the oppressed. Without losing a sense of proportion – because we are still a long way from a revolutionary situation in which the working class is able to provide clear political leadership to the other strata – we can see that working class methods of struggle have had an impact on the social revolts in the Arab world:

-         in tendencies towards self-organisation, which appeared most clearly in the neighbourhood protection committees that emerged as a response to the Egyptian regime’s tactic of unleashing criminal gangs against the population, in the “delegate” structure of some of the massive meetings in Tahrir Square, in the whole process of collective discussion and decision making;

-         in the seizing of spaces normally controlled by the state to provide a central focus for assembling and organising on a massive scale; 

-         in a conscious assumption of the necessity for massive self-defence against the thugs and police dispatched by the regimes, but at the same time a rejection of gratuitous violence, of destruction and looting for their own sake; 

-         in deliberate efforts to overcome sectarian and other divisions which have been cynically manipulated by the regimes: divisions between Christian and Muslim, Shia and Sunni, religious and secular, men and women;

-         in the numerous attempts to fraternise with the rank and file soldiers.

It is no accident that these tendencies developed most strongly in Egypt where the working class has a long tradition of struggle and which, at a crucial stage in the movement, emerged as a distinct force, engaging in a wave of struggles which, like those in 2006-7, can be seen as “germs” of the future mass strike, containing a certain number of its most important characteristics: the spontaneous extension of strikes and demands from one sector to another, the intransigent rejection of state trade unions and certain tendencies towards self-organisation, the raising of both economic and political demands. Here we see, in outline, the capacity of the working class to come forward as the tribune of all the oppressed and exploited and offer the perspective of a new society.

6.       All these experiences are important stepping stones towards the development of a genuinely revolutionary consciousness. But the road in that direction is still a long one, and is obstructed by many and obvious illusions and ideological weaknesses:

-         illusions, above all, in democracy, which are extremely strong in countries which have been governed by a combination of military tyrants and corrupt monarchies, where the secret police is omnipresent and the arrest, torture and execution of dissidents is commonplace. These illusions provide an opening for the democratic “opposition” to come forward as an alternative team for managing the state: El Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Transition Government in Tunisia, the National Council in Libya... In Egypt, illusions in the army as being “with the people” are particularly strong, although recent repressive actions by the army against demonstrators in Tahrir Square will certainly lead to reflection on the part of a minority. An important aspect of the democratic myth in Egypt is the demand for independent trade unions, which no doubt involves many of the most militant workers who have quite rightly called for the dissolution of the discredited official unions;

-         illusions in nationalism and patriotism, exhibited in the very widespread adoption of the national flag as the symbol of the “revolutions” in Egypt and Tunisia, or, as in Libya, of the old monarchist flag as an emblem of all those opposed to Gaddafi’s rule. Again, the branding of Mubarak as an agent of Zionism on a number of banners in Egypt shows that the question of Israel/Palestine remains as a potential lever for diverting class conflict towards imperialist conflict. That said, there was little interest in raising the Palestinian question, given the fact that the ruling class has so long used the sufferings of the Palestinians as a way of diverting attention from the sufferings they imposed on their own populations; and there was surely an element of internationalism in the waving of the flags of other countries as an expression of solidarity with their rebellions. The sheer extent of the revolts across the “Arab” world and beyond is a demonstration of the material reality of internationalism, but patriotic ideology is very adaptable and in these events we are seeing how it can morph into more popular and democratic forms;

-         illusions in religion, with the frequent use of public prayers and the use of the Mosque as an organising centre for rebellion. In Libya, there is evidence that more specifically Islamist groups (homegrown rather than linked to al Qaida as Gaddafi claims) played a significant role in the revolt from the beginning. This, together with the role of tribal loyalties, is a reflection of the relative weakness of the Libyan working class and the backwardness of the country and its state structures. However, given the extent to which radical Islamism of the Bin Laden variety has posed itself as the answer to the misery of the masses in the “Muslim lands”, the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and even in Libya and the Gulf states like Yemen and Bahrain have shown that the Jihadi groups, with their practice of small terrorist cells and their noxious sectarian ideologies, have been almost entirely marginalised by the massive character of the movements and their genuine efforts to overcome sectarian divisions. 

7.       The current situation in North Africa and the Middle East is still in a state of constant flux. At the time of writing there are expectations of protests in Riyadh, even though the Saudi regime has already decreed that all demonstrations are contrary to sharia law. In Egypt and Tunisia, where the “revolution” has supposedly triumphed already, there are continuous clashes between protestors and the now “democratic” state, which is administered by more or less the same forces that ran the show before the “dictators” departed. The strike wave in Egypt, which quickly won many of its demands, seems to have abated. But neither the workers’ struggle nor the wider social movement have suffered any set-back in those countries, and there are signs of a widespread discussion and reflection going on, certainly in Egypt. However, events in Libya have taken a very different turn. What appears to have begun as a genuine revolt from below, with unarmed civilians courageously storming military barracks and torching the HQ of the so-called Peoples’ Committees, especially in the east of the country, has been rapidly transformed into a full-scale and very bloody “civil war” between bourgeois fractions, with the imperialist powers hovering like vultures over the carnage. In marxist terms, in fact, this is an instance of the transformation of an incipient civil war – in its real sense of a direct and violent confrontation between the classes – into an imperialist war. The historical example of Spain – despite considerable differences in the global balance of class forces, and in the fact that the initial revolt against Franco’s coup was unmistakably proletarian in nature – shows how the national and international bourgeoisie can indeed intervene in such situations to both pursue its factional, national and imperialist rivalries and to crush all possibility of social revolt. 

8.       The background to this turn of events in Libya is the extreme backwardness of Libyan capitalism, which has been ruled for over 40 years by the Gaddafi clique predominantly through the terror apparatus directly under his command. This structure mitigated against the development of the army as a force capable of putting the national interest above the interest of a particular leader or faction, as we saw in Tunisia and Egypt. At the same time, the country is torn by regional and tribal divisions and these have played a key role in determining support or opposition to Gaddafi. A “national” form of Islamism also seems to have been a factor in the revolt from the beginning, although the rebellion was originally more general and social rather than being merely tribal or Islamic. The principal industry in Libya is oil and the turmoil there has had a very severe effect on world oil prices. But a large part of the workforce employed in the oil industry are immigrants from Europe, the rest of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa; and although there were early reports of strikes in this sector, the massive exodus of “foreign” workers is a clear sign that they see little to identify with in a “revolution” bearing aloft the national flag. In fact there have been reports of persecution of black workers at the hands of “rebel” forces, since there were widespread rumours that some of the mercenaries hired by the regime to crush the protests were recruited in black African states, thereby casting suspicion on all black immigrants. The weakness of the working class in Libya is thus a crucial element in the negative development of the situation there.

9.       Clear evidence that the “rebellion” has become a war between bourgeois camps is provided by the very hasty desertion of the Gaddafi regime by numerous high-ranking officials, including foreign ambassadors, army and police officers and civil servants. The military commanders in particular have come to the fore in the “regularisation” of the anti-Gaddafi armed forces. But perhaps the most striking sign of this change is the decision of most of the “international community” to rally to the side of the “rebels”. The Transitional National Council, based in Benghazi, has already been recognised by France as the voice of the new Libya, and a small scale military intervention has already taken shape in the sending of “advisers” to aid the anti-Gaddafi forces. Having already intervened diplomatically to accelerate the departure of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the US, Britain and others were emboldened by the wobbling of the Gaddafi regime at the beginning: William Hague, for example, prematurely announced that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela. As Gaddafi’s forces started to regain the upper hand, talk grew louder of imposing a No Fly zone or using other forms of direct military intervention. At the time of writing, however, there seem to be deep divisions within the EU and NATO, with Britain and France most strongly in favour of military action and the US and Germany most reluctant. The Obama administration is not opposed to military intervention on principle, of course, but it will not relish exposing itself to the danger of being drawn into yet another intractable mess in the Arab world. It may also be the case that some parts of the world bourgeoisie are wondering whether Gaddafi’s “cure” of mass terror may be a way of discouraging further unrest throughout the region. One thing is certain however: the Libyan events, and indeed the whole development of the situation in the region, have revealed the grotesque hypocrisy of the world bourgeoisie. Having for years vilified Gaddafi’s Libya as a hotbed of international terrorism (which it was, of course), Gaddafi’s recent change of heart and decision to jettison his weapons of mass destruction in 2006 warmed the hearts of the leaders of countries like the US and Britain which were struggling to justify their stance over Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMDs. Tony Blair in particular showed indecent haste in embracing yesterday’s “mad terrorist leader”. Only a few years later, Gaddafi is again a mad terrorist leader and those who supported him have to scramble no less hastily to distance themselves from him. And this is only one version of the same story: nearly all the recent or current “Arab dictators” have enjoyed the loyal backing of the US and other powers, who have up till now shown very little interest in the “democratic aspirations” of the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. The outbreak of street protests, provoked by price rises and shortages of basic necessities and in some cases violently repressed, against the US-imposed government of Iraq, including the current rulers of Iraqi Kurdistan, further exposes the empty promises manufactured by the “democratic west”.

10.    Certain internationalist anarchists in Croatia (at least before they began to take part in the protests going on in Zagreb and elsewhere) intervened on libcom.org to argue that the events in the Arab world looked to them like a rerun of the events in eastern Europe in 1989, in which all aspirations for change were side-tracked into the terminus of “democracy”, and which brought absolutely nothing for the working class. A very legitimate concern, given the evident strength of democratic mystifications within this new movement, but missing the essential difference between the two historic moments, above all at the level of the configuration of class forces on a world scale. At the time of the collapse of the eastern bloc, the working class in the west was reaching the limits of a period of struggles which had not been able to develop at the political level; the collapse of the bloc, with its attendant campaigns about the death of communism and the end of class struggle, and the inability of the working class of the east to respond on its own class terrain, thus helped to plunge the working class internationally into a long retreat. At the same time, although the Stalinist regimes were in reality victims of the world economic crisis, this was far from obvious at the time, and there was still enough room for manoeuvre in the western economies to fuel the illusion that a bright new dawn for global capitalism was opening up. The situation today is very different. The truly global nature of the capitalist crisis has never been more apparent, making it much easier for proletarians everywhere to understand that, in essence, they are all faced with same problems: unemployment, rising prices, a lack of any future under the system. And over the past seven or eight years we have been seeing a slow but genuine revival of workers’ struggles across the world, struggles usually led by a new generation of proletarians which is less scarred by the set-backs of the 80s and 90s, and which is giving rise to a growing minority of politicised elements, again on a global scale. Given these profound differences, there is a real possibility that the events in the Arab world, far from having a negative impact on the class struggle in the central countries, will feed into its future development:

-         by reaffirming the power of massive and illegal action on the streets, its capacity to shake the composure of the rulers of the earth;

-         by destroying bourgeois propaganda about “the Arabs” as a uniform mass of unthinking fanatics and showing the capacity of the masses in these regions to discuss, reflect, and organise themselves; 

-         by further undermining the credibility of the leaders of the central countries whose venality and lack of scruple has been highlighted by their twists and turns towards the Arab world. These and other elements will initially be much more evident to the politicised minority than the majority of workers in the central countries, but in the long run they will contribute to the real unification of the class struggle across national and continental boundaries. None of this, however, lessens the responsibility of the working class in the advanced countries, who have had years of experience of the delights of “democracy” and “independent trade unionism”, whose historic political traditions are deeply if not yet widely entrenched, and who are concentrated at the heart of the world imperialist system. The capacity of the working class in North Africa and the Middle East to break with democratic illusions and provide a distinct way forward for the disinherited mass of the population is still fundamentally conditioned by the ability of workers in the central countries to provide them with a clear example of self-organised and politicised proletarian struggle.

ICC, 11th March 2011


[1]. This document was written on 11 March, i.e. more than a week before the intervention of the “coalition” in Libya. This is why it doesn’t refer to it, although it does foresee it.


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Revolt in the Middle East