Revolt is contagious, above all when more and more of the world’s population are facing a future of misery thanks to the deepening of capitalism’s economic crisis. The ruling class has no real control over the crisis and is becoming increasingly concerned about the growth of resistance to its austerity plans. This concern is manifested in two ways: the attempt to make concessions and ‘democratise’ its rule, coupled with the strengthening of its whole apparatus of repression.
Egypt: the ‘People’s Army’ against the people
The centre of the epidemic is obviously in the Middle East. Mubarak is so far the most significant of the scalps claimed by the movement sweeping the Middle East. This is because Egypt is an important regional power and also has a relatively well-developed working class with a history of struggle behind it. It is important to note, however, that meeting this demand has not meant the dispersal of the movement. On 25 February mass protests once again took place in Tahrir Square demanding that the rest of Mubarak’s government (largely still in place) also depart. After several hundred of the more determined protesters tried to camp out in the square overnight, they were met with the full force of the ‘democratic’ army. The Occupied London website (which seems to have direct links with the movement in Egypt) drew the appropriate conclusions:
“The sad events of tonight will hopefully bury that relatively misguided phrase ‘the people and the army are one hand’ and reveal that the true nature of the situation in Egypt is better described as ‘the army and the police are one hand.’ A group of several hundred peaceful protestors, attempting to stay the night in Tahrir square and in front of the People’s Assembly to protest continued military rule and the persistence of the old regime’s illegitimate presence in government, were violently attacked and driven away by Military Police, Army officers and commandos wearing balaclavas and wielding sub-machine guns. One protestor, taken inside of the People’s Assembly building by army officers and beaten, was told bluntly ‘don’t fuck with the army…..the army is no friend of the people.’ This institution is as much a part of the regime as any other, representing not just the same entrenched military-political elite that have ruled Egypt for 60 years, but also enormous and substantial business interests that benefit from preferential treatment and systemic corruption. There has been little doubt in anyone’s mind that the army’s preference would be to maintain most of the country’s infrastructure (police and political) just as it was before, while placating the people telling them that it was their ally and guardian” www.occupiedlondon.org/cairo/?p=355
Iraq, Iran, Algeria...
If the ‘struggle for democracy’ is how the capitalist media present the situation in North Africa, the situation in Iraq is rather embarrassing for them. After a brutal war campaign and occupation that left thousands dead, Iraq is now supposedly a democracy and yet Iraq, too, has seen its own wave of mass protests. The appalling ‘security situation’ (i.e. the threat to daily life from both rival militias and the state security forces themselves) has been a focus for the initial demonstrations, as has the issue of state corruption. However, many of the demonstrations have been demanding the provision of basic utilities: electricity, water, etc. The government has already been forced to subsidise electricity costs in an effort to deflect the anger, but this hasn’t stopped the protests. In the latest protests on 4 March, thousands gathered in central Baghdad to protest against corruption and unemployment.
While the bourgeoisie has been happy to show pictures of the brutal repression in Egypt and especially Libya, it seems to have little stomach for dealing with the 29 deaths of protesters in Iraq at the hands of the security forces on the “Day of Rage” on 25 February. Nor does it seem to recognise the attempt to disperse the March 4th protest with mass beatings and water cannon. At the time of writing, we have little information on whether there is an attempt by the working class to develop an autonomous struggle in Iraq - although Kirkuk oil-workers were threatening strikes in mid-February - as seemed to be the case in Egypt; but it is certain that the response to dissent from ‘Iraqi democracy’ is much the same as ‘Egyptian dictatorship’.
Iran, possibly the most significant power in the region, has also been affected by the wave of protests. The so-called ‘Green Movement’ has been at the head of discontent with Ahmadinejad government since 2009 and seems to be trying to use the protests to push forward its own agenda. Protests have been met with typical brutality by the regime with mass arrests. But the working-class has also been raising its own voice in Iran. In the words of Time (22/2/11): “Over the past year, strikes and walkouts have broken out in the automobile, tire, sugar, textile, metals and transportation industries. Many of these protests were concerned with bread-and-butter issues: wages not paid, unexpected layoffs, deteriorating benefits and rising unemployment”. Most recently, strikes in the refineries at Abadan, where workers haven’t been paid for 6 months, were timed to coincide with the protests on the streets. The Iranian regime cannot help but be nervous about the developing situation in Abadan - one of the largest refineries in the world, it was also one of the epicentres in the revolt against the Shah in 1979.
In Algeria, following demonstrations in January and February, the regime has announced the suspension of the ‘state of emergency’ in place since 1992. Under the banner of fighting terrorism, this decree made any public meeting or demonstration illegal. The government has also announced steps to combat unemployment and homelessness, two major themes of the recent demonstrations. There is no substance to these concessions. Demonstrations of 2-3000 in mid-February were contained by 30-40,000 police, and a demonstration planned for 26 February was preceded by a flood of arrests. Despite the continuing atmosphere of state repression, however, there was an energetic demonstration by students in Tizi Ouzou. There are also signs of resistance coming from the workplaces: 300 employees of a phosphate enterprise in Annaba demonstrated outside the company HQ demanding wage rises and social benefits; paramedics came out on strike nationally in early February and education workers struck for two days in Bejaïa.
Protests continue in Tunisia despite the departure of Ben Ali: on 25 February 100,000 people demonstrated against the ‘transition government’ which is seen by many as the old regime in make-up. More street protests in Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, and Bahrain, where the social situation remains tense. Again, the bourgeoisie responds with the same mixture. Police killed six demonstrators in Morocco. In Bahrain the government initially used strong arm tactics to break up the occupation of the Pearl Roundabout, and then backed off on the advice of the American bourgeoisie. In Syria, where the secret police are everywhere, demonstrations have been minuscule and the clamp down immediate: 200 people trying to express solidarity with the revolt in Libya were violently dispersed. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the king initially tried to buy off discontent by announcing a series of wage increases and social measures. However, in anticipation of future demonstrations, all protests and marches are to be banned. An official announcement stated “Regulations in the kingdom forbid categorically all sorts of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, as they contradict Islamic Sharia law and the values and traditions of Saudi society.” It added that police were “authorised by law to take all measures needed against those who try to break the law.”
Asia, Europe, America….
Despite the pseudo-explanations of the press, this mood of rebellion is not an ‘Arab’ phenomenon. 100,000 people demonstrated in New Delhi on 23 February to voice their growing disquiet over unemployment and rising prices. One demonstrator said in an interview: “I earn 100-125 rupees a day [2 or 3 dollars]. How can we survive on that if prices are going up so much?” December figures put inflation at 18%. One banner read “prices will end up killing people on the street”.
In China there was a major wave of strikes last year and the government is extremely sensitive to any form of dissent. It responded to Internet appeals for a ‘Jasmine revolution’ in China with further restrictions on access to the web and by a heavy police presence on the streets, with the use of barriers to prevent free movement on the day designated for the protests.
Conditions facing the population in south east Europe have deteriorated rapidly and there is a groundswell of discontent. In Albania on 25 February at least three people were shot dead during a protest in front of government buildings. In Croatia, there has been a series of demonstrations against the government and the rising cost of living. Some of the initial ones seem to have had a very nationalist flavour, but more recently they have had a more working/class student composition, with banners and slogans critical of capitalism gaining an echo. In Greece, on top of the youth revolt at the end of 2008, there has been a series of general strikes against the government’s well-publicised austerity packages. Tightly controlled by the unions, these one-day strikes were beginning to look like rituals, but the last one, on 23 February, seems to have had more life: more massive participation of public and private sector employees affecting banks, schools, hospitals, transport and other sectors, along with a series of strikes going on outside the ‘official’ days of action.
One of the most significant struggles in the recent period, however, has been the mobilisation of public sector workers in Wisconsin, USA, which has crystallised the mounting frustration of the American working class.
“Over 200,000 public sector workers and students have taken to the streets and have been occupying the state capitol in Wisconsin to protest proposed changes to collective bargaining agreements between the state government and its public employee unions. The state’s rookie governor, Tea Party backed Republican Scott Walker, has proposed a bill removing collective bargaining rights for the majority of the state’s 175,000 public employees, effectively prohibiting them from negotiating pension and health care contributions, leaving only the right to bargain over salaries. Moreover, according to the legislation, public employee unions would have to submit themselves to yearly certification votes in order to maintain the right to represent workers in future scaled down negotiations. Firefighters not affected by the proposed changes (because their union supported Walker in the November election) have shown their solidarity with those under attack by joining the protests, which many say have taken inspiration from the wave of unrest sweeping Egypt and the wider Middle East. Many Wisconsin protestors proudly display placards giving the Governor the ominous moniker Scott ‘Mubarak’ Walker, while others hold aloft signs asking ‘If Egypt Can Have Democracy, Why Can’t Wisconsin?’ Protesters in Egypt have even shown their solidarity with workers in Wisconsin!” (From the ICC online article ‘Wisconsin public employees, defence of the unions leads to defeat’).
The conflict in Wisconsin is presented as a fight to defend the trade unions, and the majority of workers do perceive it in these terms, just as hundreds of thousands in the Middle East see theirs as a struggle for democracy. The ruling class makes maximum use of these ideological weak points, but the underlying motive for all the current revolts is the necessary reaction to the economic degradation and political repression imposed by the world-wide crisis of this system. The germs of an international movement against the system itself can be glimpsed in the rapid spread of revolts across national boundaries and the raising of slogans which express real international class solidarity. When workers in Egypt and America consciously support each others’ struggles, the road to revolution becomes a little bit wider, and the ruling class has every reason to fear this.