Northern Africa and the Middle East - The wave of protests

Apr/Jun 2011

As this journal goes to press, the wave of protests which started in Tunisia, on 17th December last year, still remains at the forefront of the political scene in the vast area that we will designate for the sake of convenience as the "Arab world" (even though this label is not strictly accurate) - an area formed by the part of north Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the whole of the Middle East including Iran, and the Arabian Peninsula.

The protests still remain particularly active (and brutally repressed) in Yemen and Iraq, and less so, but still very much on the agenda in Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and Algeria. Meanwhile, they have been gathering momentum in Syria, despite large-scale arrests and numerous casualties among the protesters. In Libya, of course, they have now taken the form of a civil war against Gadaffi's regime, which is being exacerbated by the imperialist intervention (see the article on this intervention elsewhere is this issue). Finally, in Tunisia and Egypt the protesters have had to take to the streets several times since the downfall of these countries' respective dictators, as the new interim administration failed to deliver on their demands.

This wave of protests is a major political event, not because of what it has achieved - which is very limited, so far - but precisely because, starting from Tunisia, it spread from one country to the next across this huge area as a sort of chain reaction - effectively ignoring the more or less (and often totally) artificial national boundaries left over from centuries of colonial oppression and raising the possibility of a political explosion engulfing the whole region.

Imperialist plunder - a unifying factor

It is not the first time in history that the Arab world has been set alight in this way. It has already happened twice in the course of the 20th century, due to unifying factors resulting from the imperialist domination of the region. On both occasions the ensuing popular mobilisations had the potential to threaten the stranglehold of the imperialist powers. However these mobilisations were dominated by nationalist movements, which proved incapable of providing the population of the region as a whole with common objectives, let alone of offering a political perspective which could have mobilised the enormous collective potential of the region's impoverished masses.

As a result, on neither of these occasions was the stranglehold of the rich countries terminated nor even significantly shaken. But it was temporarily weakened and its form changed. Colonial and semi-colonial dependencies of the imperialist powers became formally independent countries. Some, although not all, of the semi-feudal regimes which had been kept alive by imperialism in order to protect its interests, were overthrown and replaced with less antiquated forms of government which created some space for wider sections of the population. A number of nationalist regimes emerged out of these mobilisations riding a large wave of popular support - like Nasser's in Egypt or Qassim's in Iraq - and were able, as a result, to assert a degree of independence from imperialism, for a while at least.

However, being nationalist, the main agenda of these populist regimes was to build up their countries' national economies and boost the profits of their domestic capitalist classes. Faced with the monopoly position of the imperialist countries on the world market where they had to sell their produce and buy manufactured goods, even the most radical of these regimes soon found themselves forced to concede more and more ground. These concessions translated into more poverty for their populations and more discontent, which resulted in more repression. With a base of support which was shrinking fast at home, the room for manoeuvre that these regimes had in their relationship with the rich countries became increasingly narrow, to the point where, eventually, they sold themselves to imperialism, lock, stock and barrel, and became primarily the well-paid wardens of their own populations in the interest of imperialism, just like the autocratic rulers who still remained in place in a number of other Arab countries.

This is the common origin of the string of dictatorships which dominate the Arab world and which provides the backdrop to the current wave of protests. They share, to various degrees, many common characteristics. They are all based around small cliques which exercise a complete monopoly over the political and economic lives of their countries. Their arrogance, parasitic corruption and systematic use of repression to stem any kind of opposition, have become unbearable for the majority of the population - and not just for the poor masses, but also for very large sections of the petty-bourgeoisie, for which there is neither political freedom nor career prospects on offer.

In addition to these common characteristics of the region's dictatorial regimes, there is another major unifying factor present across the Arab world, which is directly linked to the world capitalist crisis. Indeed, the entire region has been severely hit by the same economic and social catastrophe caused by this crisis, with a drastic increase in poverty for the masses as a result, among other things, of rising staple food prices and an explosion of unemployment which is affecting most social layers. In fact, it was the desperate situation faced by the unemployed youth, which sparked off the first protests in Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, and subsequently Egypt, even if, thereafter, it was the brutal response of the henchmen of imperialism in the region, because they just could not afford to tolerate such social unrest, which turned the stream of protesters into a tidal wave.

Egypt - an illustration of the dangers facing the masses

The course of development of political crises, especially on such a scale, is obviously never written in stone. And even now, nearly 4 months after it broke out, it remains impossible to say which direction it will take.

However, the two cases where the crisis is said by commentators to have been "resolved" - Egypt and Tunisia - provide an illustration of the dangers facing the masses in their attempts at freeing themselves from the yoke of dictatorship.

The developments which have been taking place in Egypt since the downfall of Mubarak are probably most illustrative of these dangers, especially given the particular importance of this country in the region, both in terms of its population, which is the largest and in terms of its political traditions.

Mubarak's departure from power, on the evening of 10th February, was organised by an army which, under instruction from its US mentors, had been careful to set itself up as an "impartial arbiter" in the political crisis. Although the generals never lifted a finger to protect the protesters against the bullets of Mubarak's official and unofficial thugs, the fact that the troops did not directly participate in the repression was enough to allow the army to posture as the "people's army" and to take over control seamlessly, after having sent Mubarak to his summer residence.

The next day Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, who had been Mubarak's Defence minister for the past 20 years, addressed the country in his capacity as chief of the new Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to announce the dictator's resignation, but also to praise his "services" to the nation. In and of itself, this was a warning as to what was coming next. Soon, the same Tantawi threatened that anyone creating "chaos and disorder" would be dealt with.

In its 5th public statement, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, added more threats, not just against "chaos and disorder" in the streets, but against strikers. Now was the time to return to work, it said. Everyone had to work towards "affluence" for all. Now was the time for workers to bite the bullet said the generals. Although they did not dare to add that the alternative was for workers to get one in the head - not yet! Of course, there was no question of lifting the state of emergency imposed on the country 30 years before!

Five weeks later, on 23 March, the interim government appointed by the generals went one step further by approving a new draft law which was effectively a step back into the past. According to the activists of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers' Services, this law: "criminalizes some cases of sit-ins, protests and gatherings which hamper work in public or private places (..) and penalises those who incite sit-ins, protests and gatherings with imprisonment and heavy penalties up to EGP 500 000 (£51,600) (..) Article 124 of the Egyptian Penal Law, which is not different from the suggested draft law, was a curse in the history of the regime in Egypt. When the railway workers went in strike in 1986, Mubarak's regime asked to apply that infamous Article against them. But the Egyptian judiciary ruled that Article 124 had been automatically annulled since government of Egypt had ratified the International Convention of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The government was obliged to abide by the ILO Conventions and to confirm in Labour Law No. 12/2003 the workers right to strike. In spite of the restrictions which made the application of the right to strike next to impossible, the labour movement utilized this right extensively during the last four years. It was an unmistakable turn of the screw, even compared with Mubarak's era!

Such an attack against demonstrators and workers was hardly surprising given the composition of the interim government which had been put in the driving seat by the army - on paper at least, because the ultimate decision still remained with the army Supreme Council. This government featured a host of characters straight out of big business circles, including, for instance, a minister for trade and industry who was also CEO of one of the country's largest chemical companies, whose temporary workers were on strike in order to win permanent status! The Ministry of Petrol was entrusted to the "safe" hands of a character currently under investigation for allegedly wasting public funds and oil resources, who was Mubarak's former appointee at the head of the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation! The Interior minister was a former governor, but also a former senior figure of the hated Cairo police, which was responsible for much of the killing during the protests. In fact, five ministers - defence, international cooperation and planning, electricity, environmental affairs, military production - retained the posts they had been appointed to by Mubarak.

The next move of this interim government was supposed to pave the way for a normalisation of the situation by means of new elections. The first step in this direction was to put to a referendum two amendments to the country's 1971 constitution. These amendments limited the president to two 4-year mandates (as opposed to an unlimited number of 6-year mandates) and slightly restricted his powers. They provided for less stringent conditions for candidates to be able to stand for president, but stringent enough to be unachievable for small parties. The same was true of the new electoral rules which were to be introduced in preparation for a September general election, if the referendum was successful: these rules provided that, in order to stand candidates in this election, parties had to apply for registration by producing a list of 5,000 members from 10, at least, of the country's 29 governorates - or 5 times as many members as required under Mubarak! There again, parties which were still small, either because they had just emerged from a deep underground existence, or because they had just been formed in the course of events, would be excluded.

Two parties stood to benefit from early elections under these new electoral rules - Mubarak's old ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose large underground network had been able to develop by using the legal activities of the mosques. Predictably these two parties together with the Salafi, another trend of political Islam, called for a "yes" vote, while the secular anti-Mubarak forces called for a "no" vote, on the ground that time was needed for political parties to emerge out of the dark years of dictatorship.

However, of course, as in any referendum, there was a catch built into it. Because both the "yes" and "no" vote amounted to endorsing most of the constitution which had been the instrument of the dictatorship for nearly 4 decades!

In the end, the referendum produced a 77% "yes" majority. However the turnout was only 41%, a remarkably low figure compared to the turnout usually observed in votes supposed to mark the end of dictatorial periods. The distribution of the "yes" vote is also worth noting. An analysis of the results published in the English-language edition of the Egyptian paper al-Ahram, showed that the highest "yes" scores had come from rural governorates with no industries. In almost every town, and especially so in working class towns, both the turnout and the "yes" vote were very much lower than the national average - including in Alexandria, the country's second largest town, despite the notorious strength of political Islam there.

One possible reading of these results was that, after all, the urban population, which was certainly in the best position to judge the reality of the "changes" resulting from Mubarak's downfall, did not have all that much trust in the intentions of the self-proclaimed military rulers of the post-Mubarak era!

In any case, despite the warnings of the military and the criminalisation of dissent, the protesters have been back in the streets. But not without difficulties. The first attempts to remobilise their ranks resulted in only small numbers turning out. Eventually, however, the "Save the revolution" protest called on 1st April attracted 100,000 participants in Tahrir square, according to Egyptian mainstream papers, demanding the dismissal of Tantawi and of all of Mubarak's ex-ministers, the repeal of the state of emergency and of the new anti-strike law, the release of all political prisoners and that Mubarak and his closest henchmen should be put on trial.

More protests are already announced as a follow-up to this one. But the odds are that it will take a lot more for the protesters to get their way - that is, if they do not want the post-Mubarak era to be shaped by a deal between the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and a rehabilitated NDP which would, more likely than not, soon turn into another form of dictatorship designed to allow the Egyptian bourgeoisie to increase its profits, by developing its dealings with imperialism and by stepping up the exploitation of the population.

The social potential of the political crisis

The developments that have taken place in Egypt clearly expose the illusion that any change can be brought about in the Arab world without the population, and particularly the poor masses, dismantling the state machinery of the dictatorship from top to bottom.

But in the mixture of social forces which made up the ranks of the protesters, it was certainly not the petty-bourgeois youth - the so-called "internet activists" who have become so fashionable in the Western media for their use of social networks - which was best equipped to carry out such a task, assuming its aspirations were actually as radical as that, which is not likely for most.

Carrying out such a task, which necessarily involves putting into question the privileges of the capitalist class and the foundation of their rule, private property, requires social forces which have both the social weight to confront a whole state apparatus and no stake in the capitalist organisation of society. There is only one such force in society, and that is the proletariat.

In the wave of protests in the Arab world, if one was to judge from the reports in the Western media, the focus would seem to have been, more or less everywhere, on opposing the repressive and dictatorial nature of the regimes.

However, there was always a social dimension in these protests, including in their aspiration to see the end of the dictatorship, whether this social dimension was explicitly articulated by the protesters or not. The outraged comments of a Libyan oil worker interviewed by Al Jazeera after visiting one of Gadaffi's "holiday homes" - in fact, a luxurious mansion in the middle of a huge landscaped park - which had been occupied during the very early days of the protests, certainly echoed the feelings of large numbers of protesters across the region and their anger at the extravagant lifestyle of the regimes' strong men, compared to the dire poverty imposed on the overwhelming majority of the population. Protesting against the dictatorship was also protesting against the scandalous social privileges of the small clique which made up its ruling circles.

But there was even more to this than meets the eye. Little was said by the British media about the intervention of the working class of the region around its own social demands. There were few reports about the wave of strikes which preceded the downfall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and that of Mubarak in Egypt, let alone about the strikes that went on after Mubarak had gone. The on-going protests against unemployment in southern Iraq were totally ignored by the media. And who has heard about the blockade of Oman's oil harbours by striking workers and other protesters demanding higher wages?

Of course, this was a calculated silence. For the imperialist powers there is always the risk that the social dimension of their worldwide oppression ends up being articulated in mass movements, in the form of a policy aiming at putting into question its domination and, more generally, capitalist property. If and when this happens, the differences in nationality, language, etc.. which split the ranks of the oppressed, risk being superseded by the consciousness of their social interests against the capitalist classes, domestic and imperialist, thereby unleashing a tidal wave which would be irresistible.

To allow the wave of protests to make the best of its potential and achieve real change in the region, such an internationalist proletarian perspective needed to be articulated in front of the masses. The banner of the international working class had to be raised in order to rally the region's oppressed behind a common policy based on their common social interests.

Not all is lost though. This banner can still be raised while the masses are on the move and are still conscious of their collective strength, whether in Egypt or in other countries, like Yemen or Syria, where the protesters are less likely to nurture even the slightest illusion in the benevolence of any section of the state apparatus. In any case, this is the only real option available for region's working class and poor.