Most of the news that comes out of the Middle East tells us about the daily sectarian slaughter in Iraq, the brutal bombing of civilian populations by the USA and Israel in Iraq and Lebanon, bloody confrontations between Palestinian factions in Gaza, threats of a new military adventure in Iran… It is a constant litany of fratricidal conflict, dividing the population into Shia and Sunni, Muslim and Jew, Arab and Kurd.
Some people who claim to be in favour of a fundamental social change, who call themselves ‘socialists’ and ‘revolutionaries’, tell us that there is something in these conflicts that leads to the better world they say they are fighting for. That there is, contained within this spiral of nationalist and ethnic hatred, an ‘anti-imperialist’ struggle which should be supported by any true socialist. Thus we should back Hizbollah’s ‘resistance’ against Israel in the Lebanon, or the Palestinian ‘intifada’ in Gaza and the West Bank, or the attacks on US forces being carried out by sundry insurgent groups in Iraq.
This is a terrible and dangerous lie. These conflicts don’t in any way counter the domination of the world by the imperialist powers. In most cases, they only serve as proxy battles between different imperialist powers: as in Lebanon, where the ‘resistance’ to Israeli imperialism by Hizbollah serves the needs of the rising Iranian imperialism. Or - as in the case of the insane round of massacres between Sunni and Shia in Iraq – they express a tendency towards the complete collapse of society into chaos and war.
For genuine socialists or communists, the way towards a ‘better world’ lies through the united struggle of the exploited class, the proletariat, against its exploitation. It follows that when you have a ‘struggle’ which divides the proletarians against each other, which drags them into fighting battles on behalf of their exploiters, you are going not towards a better world but towards the catastrophic demise of the present one.
In the Middle East, the working class has been profoundly weakened by decades of nationalist and inter-imperialist confrontations. But its ability to stand up for its own needs has not been completely destroyed.
In WR 300 we wrote about the nearly simultaneous struggles by Palestinian public employees against the non-payment of wages by the Hamas government in the Palestinian territories, on the one hand, and by Israeli public employees against the non-payment of their wages by the Israeli public authorities. We said that this represented a reaction by workers against the ferocious attacks on their living standards brought about by the permanent state of war in Israel and the occupied territories. Without any conscious unity of action between the Israeli and Palestinian workers, it showed the essential unity of their situation and their class interests, and thus shone as a glimmer of hope in the darkness of nationalist division and mutual revenge. Furthermore the issue of unpaid wages in Israel’s public sector has not gone away, as in late February the Histradut (Israeli trade union federation) was again sounding off about calling a new general strike, only to call it off again following talks with the government.
The fact that this expressed something brewing deep under the surface was confirmed in February when Israeli dock workers at the port of Ashdod came out on an unofficial strike against the agreement between employers and the union, the second such strike in the last year. The gulf between workers and trade unions was also shown in a recent demonstration by postal workers, in which workers invaded ‘their own’ trade union HQ during working hours. The workers, both Jews and Arabs, have been on temporary contracts on very low pay and were exasperated by the Histradut’s empty promises to campaign for permanent status. After demonstrating outside the building they decided to force their way inside to confront union boss Ofer Eyni.
Conflicts between workers and the Histradut have a long pedigree in Israel and some people argue that this is because the Histradut isn’t a ‘proper’ trade union, given that it is so deeply enmeshed in the Zionist state machine. In fact its anti-working class actions are typical of unions everywhere.
But the most important expression of the ‘old mole’ of the class struggle in this region has been the massive wave of strikes in Egypt over the past weeks. Over 35,000 workers in state-owned textile, cement and poultry plants, in mines and on the railways have held strikes and demonstrations in defence of jobs and wage levels, defying anti-strike laws and their enforcement by the trade unions. In December 18,000 textile workers at Mahalla north of Cairo came out against low pay and corruption, and have protested vigorously against their local union leadership for siding with management: they even went en masse to a meeting with government officials with the aim of impeaching their local union leader.
The Mahalla workers won an annual bonus and this has inspired other factories and sectors to follow their example. Attempts by the ruling party to blame the agitation on the Islamic militants of the Muslim Brotherhood have been specifically denied by the workers “When the ruling party has a bad dream, they wake up and blame the Muslim Brothers”, said Khalid Ali, a worker who was taking part in an occupation of the Kafr el-Dawwar factory. “You know why we’re striking? Conditions have reached a dismal level. It’s bad for workers all over Egypt” (Libcom, Feb '07).
So far the government has been cautious in exerting direct repression against the workers, although its nervousness about any form of dissent was demonstrated recently when it arrested a number of bloggers for insulting Islam and other trumped up charges.
Conditions are indeed bad, and not just for the workers of Egypt. In the last year we have seen workers in numerous parts of the ‘underdeveloped’ world engaging in massive struggles in the face of increasingly unbearable living conditions. In Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil, Dubai, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China, to name but a few. More recently we have seen a strike by health workers in Kashmir, and large scale strike movements in African countries like Guinea (see article in this issue) and Zimbabwe.
These struggles are all seeds that will grow into an international movement of mass strikes. But workers in many of these countries face enormous difficulties. Faced with openly corrupt and repressive regimes like in Guinea or Zimbabwe, it is difficult for workers to separate their own interests from those of the ‘democratic’ opposition, who are quite happy to ‘support’ workers’ strikes as a lever for propelling them towards power. In Palestine we saw the resistance of the public employees being manipulated by Fatah in its dispute with Hamas, while in Lebanon Hizbollah used workers’ discontent with government austerity measures to bolster their own efforts to push themselves towards power. In Egypt the fact that the unions are openly on the side of the state has led the most militant sectors – such as those at the Mahalla textile factory – to seek the answer to their problem in the formation of new independent trade unions.
This is why it is more than ever important for workers in the more central capitalist countries, those sectors of the class who have a deeper and longer historical experience of the delights of democracy, to develop a perspective for workers everywhere by developing their own struggles against capital and the state. Amos 28/2/7