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Demonstrations and confrontations have continued in North Africa and the Middle East. Uprisings by oppressed populations, as well as workers’ strikes and demonstrations, are still taking place in a number of countries in the region, and there have been growing echoes elsewhere in Africa. At the same time, conflicts and wars between rival bourgeois factions, and the imperialist policies of the powers involved in the region, weigh very heavily on the development of these movements. A mortal danger faces the oppressed classes and the proletariat in all these countries. Alongside the traps of nationalism and democracy, they are also being met with brutal state repression and the ‘humanitarian’ bombs of imperialism. But the need to feed themselves, to live with dignity, to carve out a future means that our class brothers and sisters cannot just give in. In front of such a situation, what can and should be done by the working class of Britain, France, Germany and all the countries at the heart of world capitalism? The struggle of the oppressed and the exploited in these countries is our struggle; the armies and bourgeois cliques who are massacring them are our common enemies.
Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia: workers’ and social struggles persist
In Egypt, the street, the determination of the demonstrators, the militancy of the working class got the better of Mubarak. But after he went, the bourgeoisie could breathe a sigh of relief: Tahrir Square, the central focus of the movement, could again be open to traffic. The population could go home, in many cases ‘free’ to slowly starve. The provisional government run by the army and its Supreme Council could take up the reins of state, promising free and democratic elections. But their real aims were made clear when, on 23 March the Sharaf cabinet passed a new law promising jail and a fine of E£500,000 for “anyone inciting, urging, promoting or participating in a protest or strike that hampers or delays work at any private or public establishments”. Of course, strikes and protests are already banned under the hated ‘Emergency Law’ that has been in force since 1981. One of the key demands of the protestors was that this law be repealed - while this has been promised by the Sharaf government, it still hasn’t been dismantled.
However, neither this new law, nor the intervention of the police and the army against demonstrators and strikers have put a stop to the discontent, which has continued despite the ‘victory of the revolution’. Indeed the new law has actually provoked a new wave of protests and strikes. On 12 April, the daily al-Masry al-Youm wrote about “the permanence of protest movements and strikes in numerous region of Egypt. They are about wages, working conditions, work contracts, etc. These movements involve very diverse sectors”. In Alexandra, for example, teachers demanded the suppression of their temporary status and the granting of indefinite contracts. In Cairo, the employees of the fiscal adminsitration offices demanded a wage increase. There have been other strikes in public transport, health, textile, and even the tourism sector.
Mass protests are still taking place across Egypt with thousands of protestors gathering in Tahrir Square on 1st and 8th April demanding faster reform. These protests have been met with typical brutality, with soldiers storming the square and killing at least two protestors. Previously, these protestors had openly been joined by up to 15 -20 soldiers who joined in the protest against the regime - the crowds made a conscious effort to protect these defectors from arrest by the security forces and this seems to have been what provoked the savage response.
Other political forces are already developing in order to succeed where Sharaf has failed. New ‘independent’ unions are springing up, while on the political front the Popular Alliance is overtaking Tagammu as the leading standard bearer of ‘Socialism’. These new developments perfectly express both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement in Egypt: the elemental rage of the masses at their intolerable living conditions is fuelling a new militancy and determination, but weaknesses at the level of class consciousness makes it difficult for the workers to channel this militancy into a direct defence of their own interests. Instead, they turn to the forces of the bourgeois left and infuse them with a new dynamism. This leaves the movement deeply vulnerable to sabotage from within.
The situation in Algeria has also been marked by permanent unrest. On 3 April, the paper al Watan declared: “The students have not calmed down. The hospital doctors have expressed their defiance against Ould Abbès. Communal guards threaten to ‘encircle’ the Presidential palace. Paramedics are on strike again”. In education, a three day national strike around the issue of pensions is due to take place even though education employees faced repression during a demonstration over working conditions.
In Tunisia, the oil workers employed by SNDP have again come out on strike, rejoining the teachers who have been out for weeks against the most miserable pay and conditions.
In countries like Swaziland, Gabon, Cameroon, Djibouti, Burkina Faso and most recently Uganda there have been demonstrations by students, workers and others, influenced by what happened in North Africa. They have frequently been met with savage state violence. The working class in these countries is not very numerous and despite the determination of hungry populations, this makes it much easier for the bourgeoisie to resort to massive repression.
Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya: war between bourgeois gangs undermines social revolt
In Yemen, although the ‘official’ opposition announced on 25 April its agreement with the plan for resolving the crisis proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council, envisaging the departure of president Saleh within weeks, the response from the street was unambiguous: “We categorically reject any initiative which does not involve the departure of president Saleh and his family” – the words of a communiqué from a coordinating committee of young people organising the sit-in in the university of Sanaa. The next bit of the communiqué says a lot about the determination of the demonstrators: “the opposition only represents itself”, it says, and calls for an end to all dialogue with the regime and for Saleh’s immediate departure. Here again the response of the state was the same: during demonstrations in Taêz, Ibb and Al-Baîda, the army used live ammunition against the demonstrators.
When it comes to shedding blood in the street, the el-Assad family in Syria is in the front line. Since 12 March large numbers have been demonstrating on the streets. The reasons are the same: growing poverty and daily oppression. The response of the sinister Bashir el-Assad is brutal in the extreme: according to different estimates, up to 500 people have been gunned down by the army and security services. Tanks, armoured cars and snipers have routinely been positioned outside mosques to crack down on any show of defiance. This has been especially true in the town of Deraa where the movement started. The government’s justification? The army entered Deraa “in response to appeals for help from the inhabitants, calling for an end to the acts of sabotage and murder by extremist terrorist groups” (cf the Orange site, 26.4.11).
These are indeed hypocritical lies, but no less hypocritical than the attitude of the great powers who claim to be concerned about the situation in Syria and have called for an end to the violent repression. Cameron tells us that this is unacceptable and the Syrian ambassador’s invitation to the Royal Wedding was cancelled. The French and the Italians held a summit. The Obama administration is thinking about sanctions. However, president Sarkozy, who led the charge to intervene militarily in Libya, has excluded an intervention in Syria without a resolution from the UN Security Council. A resolution which everyone knows will be impossible to obtain and which no one wants. The Syrian population can just put up with it; Syria is not Libya. Syria is a country of 21 million inhabitants, with a much more formidable army than Libya today or Iraq yesterday; above all, it’s an imperialist power which counts in the region. It has some important allies in its anti-American policies, especially Iran, and diplomatic support from Russia and China. A military intervention in Syria would destabilise the whole Arab-Muslim world and no one knows where it would end. The imperialist powers will have to defend their squalid interests in a different way here.
But there is a real danger facing the insurgent population in Syria. The el-Assad government draws its support from the Alawi religious minority, while 70% of the population is Sunni. In the absence of a sufficiently strong and conscious working class, it could be easy to pull an oppressed and hungry population behind one or another bourgeois faction. This could result in a real civil war as in Libya; and a similar danger is emerging in Bahrain.
For weeks now the population in Bahrain has been demonstrating to demand the departure of the prime minister, Khalifa ben Salman Al Khalifa, the uncle of the king Hamad ben Issa al-Khalifa, part of a Sunni dynasty which has reigned for a hundred years in a kingdom with a majority Shia population. Calling for bread and the right to free speech in this emirate is susceptible to being derailed into a ‘Shia’ struggle against the corrupt Sunni dynasty.
Meanwhile the imperialist vultures are circling. Already the Saudi army has entered the country to defend the Sunni power; tensions are growing between Iran and its neighbours in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman). Since the middle of March, Iran has been criticising the repression of a movement which is de facto led by Shiites, if only because they are the majority of the country. The hypocrisy of France, Britain and the USA, who are currently bombarding Libya in the name of humanitarianism, is striking: not a word of protest against the repression in Bahrain, because Bahrain and its Saudi accomplices are their allies, and they all have a common enemy: Iran. The manoeuvres of the imperialists around the situation in Bahrain do not bode well for the development of the protest movement in this country.
In all the countries of the Arab world, populations are rebelling, the economic crisis is raging. But the movements are not all the same and their prospects are not identical. In countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria it is more difficult for the local bourgeoisies to carry out large-scale massacres, just as it is more difficult for the big imperialist powers to defend their interests by applying direct military force. The difference between them is that in these countries there is a sizeable working class which, while it hasn’t been able to take the lead in the movement of revolt, still has a considerable weight in the social situation.
International class struggle: the only remedy for nationalist and democratic poison
The crisis today is not limited to the Middle East. Its effects are hitting home in America, Europe and Asia as well. Struggles involving the young generation of the working class have developed in Greece, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Britain. The working class in these countries has mobilised against the austerity plans which each national bourgeoisie is trying to impose. These reactions are important and necessary. In many of the demonstrations, there has been a real sympathy for the revolts and struggles which have broken out in Egypt, in Tunisia and elsewhere. In the countries at the heart of capitalism, the working class is beginning to sense that the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East spring from the same source as their own struggles. But this is not enough.
To defend themselves against the massive attacks being organised by capital, the workers’ struggles also have to be much more massive and unified than they have been up till now. And in taking this step the proletariat in the central countries will be able to offer a concrete solidarity to the workers’ struggles and social revolts in the Middle East – not only because the struggles in the belly of the beast will weaken the ability of the beast to aid the repression in the weaker countries or to carry out its military plans, but also because the struggles in the ‘democratic west’ will help proletarians all over the world understand that the blessing of democracy is a curse in disguise.
Based on an article from Révolution Internationale 422,