Stirrings of an Arab revolution

Mass revolts and protests from Tunisia to Egypt once again raise the question of pan-Arab unity, writes Eddie Ford

Much to the alarm of imperialism, the popular uprising that erupted in Tunisia shows no sign of fizzling out. Indeed, instead of a return to business as usual - as no doubt originally expected by the governmental heads in Washington, Paris and London - Tunisia's mass revolt is spreading into neighbouring countries and the region as a whole, threatening the existence of oppressive and corrupt western-sponsored regimes. Far from being an outlandish or quixotic notion, Tunisia could act as the spark that ignites a revolutionary fire. Thus after literally fleeing for his life on January 14, the former longstanding president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali - often described as "Tunisia's Ceausescu" - is now holed up in Saudi Arabia, a common refuge for despots past their sell-by-date. Almost inevitably, the interim or 'unity' government that came into existence after Ben Ali's fall is now on the ropes - meeting nothing but determined hostility from the increasingly confident Tunisian masses, now sensing their own power. The appetite grows with the eating.

So the Tunisian cabinet is being endlessly shuffled and reshuffled, in a desperate attempt to cobble together a new government of 'wise men' to replace the already hated interim government - which was nothing more than the continuation of the old regime minus Ben Ali. Needless to say, all the members of the putative new government have vowed in the spirit of enlightened populism to "protect the revolution" - including Rachid Ammar, the chief of staff of the Tunisian army (sacked by Ben Ali for refusing to obey orders and then hastily reinstated by Mohamed Ghannouchi, currently both the prime minister and acting president). However, Ammar has warned of the dangers of a "power vacuum" if the present situation is not resolved. Such a "void", he declared, will only bring "terror" and "dictatorship" - and in the process, "our revolution, your revolution, the revolution of the young, risks being lost". Perhaps significantly, the Egyptian daily newspaper, Almasry Alyoum, has carried stories which allege that the United States embassy in Tunisia had instructed Ammar to "take control" if the country became too unstable.

Yet the protests against the government, any government fashioned from above by elements associated with the old order, continues apace. Hence at the beginning of the week, there were clashes between stone-throwing protestors and the police outside the ministerial quarter - with several windows of the finance ministry being smashed. Ammar responded by making an appeal to the demonstrators, urging them to clear the ministerial quarter, which they had occupied, and "let the government work" - whether it be "this government or another one". But Al Jazeera reports that, far from being cowed by Ammar or any other figure of the political-bureaucratic elite, the protestors were determined to continue their sit-in for "as long as it takes until we topple the government". In the same spirit, the General Union of Tunisian Workers has called an indefinite strike - refusing to recognise the current government and demanding the ousting of all former ruling party officials from the governmental structure.

The democratic genie now out of the bottle, pro-Tunisia demonstrations quickly burst out across the Arab world - most notably in Egypt, the most important country by far in the region. Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo on January 25 - many of them waving Tunisian flags - in one of the biggest anti-government protests the capital has ever seen. Brilliantly appropriating the official Revolution Day public holiday, held on the anniversary of the 1952 Free Officers Movement action which brought Abdul Nasser to power, it instead became a real "day of revolution against torture, corruption, poverty and unemployment" by the protest leaders. This saw Cairo become a "war zone" late into the night, the police shooting dead three people and firing repeated rounds of tear gas at the gigantic mass of people congregated at Tahrir Square, as angry demonstrators demanded that the despised Hosni Mubarak - Egypt's strong man for the last 30 years - quit and go share an apartment with Ben Ali.

And they wanted more than Mubarak's head. The demonstrators also called for the sacking of the country's interior minister, the cancelling of Egypt's perpetual emergency law - which suspends basic democratic rights - and a new term limit on the presidency: no more entrenched dictators like Mubarak. Now a second day of protest has been called for by various opposition leaders. Naturally, state security officials have warned that any such protest would be illegal and that those taking part will be dealt with "strictly" - that is to say, they threatened to kill more people. In turn, Tunisian activists announced they would be holding their own protests in solidarity with their Egyptian counterparts - especially in remembrance of the three January 25 police victims. Furthermore, parallel protests are also scheduled to take place outside the Egyptian embassies in London, Washington and other capitals.

Egypt's rulers are not the only ones to be worried by the 'Tunisian effect', a term beginning to gain common parlance in the Arab world and beyond. In next-door Algeria the police brutally waded into a pro-democracy/pro-Tunisia demonstration in Algiers on January 22 - injuring 40 people and arresting many dozens, including Othmane Amazouz, the leader of the Rally for Culture and Democracy's parliamentary group. The main aim of the demonstration was to demand the abolition of the law banning public gatherings, which has been in place since a state of emergency was declared in 1992. Talking tough, the government's official news agency reminded the masses that "marches are not allowed in Algiers" and that "all assemblies on public roads are considered a breach of public order". Quite obviously, the Algerian government fears going the same way as the Ben Ali administration - and, as in Tunisia, the feeling of rage amongst the masses is palpable.

As for the Jordanian regime, it fears the writing might be on the wall - unless something is done quickly. But what? Government officials held a series of semi-emergency meetings to discuss the implications of the Tunisian revolt. "They are on a nervous watching brief," said one Jordanian official - as "they know that if Tunisia spreads, there are a few steps before it gets to here". Lebanon too had a "day of rage" on January 25, principally - though not entirely - by supporters of the recently ousted prime minister, Saad Hariri, whose largely Sunni Muslim supporters claim that democracy is being subverted by Syria and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Damascus is also jittery - as well it should be - suddenly announcing by presidential decree a tripling of the heating fuel subsidy for Syrian families, from $12 to $35 per month. Make concessions in order to prevent revolution - or so the plan goes. Nor was Yemen immune, protests breaking out in Sanaa when the prominent activist and journalist, Tawakel Karman, was arrested following two student demonstrations in support of the Tunisian revolt.

Everywhere in the Arab world then, as made more than clear by the wave of protests unfolding right before our eyes - with far more certain to come - the masses face the same problem of grinding poverty, grotesque inequality, rampant nepotism and the humiliation of being ruled over by obscenely corrupt and oppressive regimes. Most backed and bankrolled by the US - the most fitting, and disgusting, example being Saudi Arabia. A country of staggering wealth, possessing the world's largest oil reserves, yet sponsoring regional counterrevolution in order to defend and preserve the abominable privileges of its ruling family.

Common solution

In other words, the Arab masses have a shared problem. The answer should be a common solution, which, of course, there is - revolutionary pan-Arab unity. There are nearly 300 million Arabs in a contiguous territory that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean, across north Africa, down the Nile to north Sudan, and all the way to the Persian Gulf and up to the Caspian Sea. Though studded here and there with national minorities, though separated into 25 different states and divided by religion and religious sect - Sunni, Shi'ite, Druze, Orthodox Christian, Catholic Christian, etc - there is a definite Arab or Arabised community. Yes, Arabs are binational - being Tunisians, Algerians, Yemenis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and so on. But for all that there is also a much wider Arab identity, which has its origins going back to the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. A community that comes out of a strong bond of pan-Arab consciousness, born not only of a common language, but of a closely related and interweaved history - of a shared experience.

The 'practical' ramifications of this shared history, and understanding, is that throughout the entire Arab world official documents, literature, school textbooks, religion and the media (television, radio, newspapers, etc) use a literary Arabic based on and derived from the Qur'an. Consequently, instead of national divergence there is convergence - a common language. Even Arabs who have nothing more than a standard primary and secondary school education - the overwhelming majority, of course - still find no difficulty in switching from colloquial to literary Arabic - depending on the social situation and the nationality of the fellow Arab they are communicating with. So our Tunisian would effortlessly switch to literary Arabic when visiting Casablanca, Algiers or Tripoli. To put it more directly still, Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, etc intellectually and emotionally feel themselves to be Arabs. Hence the January 25 protestors in Cairo on the Day of Revolution instinctively identified with the masses in Tunisia as fellow Arabs - not in any narrow national sense as 'Egyptians' or 'Tunisians'.

Therefore the objective and cultural-psychological conditions for pan-Arab unity exist in abundance. Yet the Saudi monarchy, the sole remaining Hashemite kingdom in Jordan, the Gulf sheikdoms, etc have a record of total failure - if not betrayal - when it comes to Arab unity. But we should expect nothing else. Tied hand and foot to US imperialism, they can only oppose pan-Arabism all down the line - after all, what is in it for them?

The highest achievement of pan-Arabism to date came in the form of Nasser - who led the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy of Farouk I. Immediately, Nasser oversaw a radical agrarian reform programme, nationalised the Suez canal, allied Egypt with the Soviet Union and put his country on the course of state-capitalist development. Development from above. At the same time, he ruthlessly crushed both the Muslim Brotherhood and the working class movement as part of his commitment to 'Arab socialism'. But despite that Nasser rode the wave of popularity following his success - though not necessarily due to any great military acumen - during the 1956 crisis, which saw an Israeli invasion followed by a pre-planned joint French and British intervention and then an unexpected American veto. Pro-Nasser Arab socialist parties, groups and conspiracies flourished, his name becoming almost synonymous with pan-Arabism. Nasser demanded that natural resources be used for the benefit of all Arabs. This was hugely popular with those below, as everyone knew that what he primarily meant by that call was oil - that is, the revenue generated should be used to alleviate the worst sufferings and poverty of the poor.

Saudi Arabia instantly became an implacable enemy, only further adding to Nasser's appeal amongst the masses. Yet, feeling the weight of mass pressure, the Ba'athist authorities in Syria sought a merger with Nasser's 'socialist' Egypt. Conveniently forgetting the repression suffered by their co-thinkers in Egypt, the 'official communists' and the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood likewise favoured unity and the United Arab Republic was formed on February 1 1958. Nasser was proudly appointed president and Cairo became the capital of the new republic - the promised land of pan-Arab unity beckoned.

Yet the UAR had a painfully short life. Syrian capitalists did not gain access to the Egyptian market and Egyptian administrative personnel were painted by Syrian officers, bureaucrats and top politicians as acting like colonial officials. The union ignominiously collapsed in 1961. Opposition came from the Damascus street. However, from then onwards the UAR became a mockery, 'uniting' no other country apart from Egypt. Then the 1967 six-day war with Israel came along and proved to be the final, ignominious straw for Nasserism. Israel's blitzkrieg annihilated the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan on the ground and by the end of the short-lived hostilities Israel occupied the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Nasser, Nasserism and 'Arab socialism' were humiliated and defeated - both militarily and ideologically.

Self-evidently, Arab reunification remains an urgent but unfulfilled task. Indeed, the fact that Nasser's UAR saw the light of day at all is testimony to mass support for Arab unity. The ability of the popular revolt in Tunisia to so quickly spark off mass protests across the region reveals the widespread solidarity. The role of communists is to give this pan-Arabism a new democratic and class content. Communists need to take an active lead in this fight. By definition, this is a task inseparable from the struggle for socialist revolution and the formation of mass Marxist parties - first in each Arab country and then throughout the Arab world, leading to the world-historic creation of a Communist Party of Arabia.