The unfolding Arab revolution
In the Middle East and north Africa we are not witnessing a series of disconnected protests, movements and uprisings, maintains Eddie Ford
Clearly, we are witnessing a living, constantly growing Arab revolution - with its own history and inner class dynamics, which need to be analysed in the concrete rather than lightly dismissed or brushed aside with ready-made slogans or abstract schemas.
This explosive rebirth of the seemingly dormant pan-Arab national movement is by definition a movement against the imperialist-imposed order in that region. An order which saw the cynical slicing and dicing of the unwilling Arab people by the ‘great powers’ (most notably Britain and France, of course) into numerous Balkanised colonies, which later, under US hegemony, were transformed into formerly independent states ruled by local despots - friendly client rulers - deemed amenable to western interests. Now this old order - the evil empire, to coin a phrase - is unravelling in a quite spectacular manner. Something which communists wholeheartedly welcome, confident that the revolutionary elan displayed by the Arab masses will prove to be an inspiration for those everywhere.
Naturally, Egypt is the fulcrum of the Arab revolution - with its 80 million people and the teeming urban masses of Cairo and Giza. A people who, weighed down for too long by oppression and poverty, finally throw off their hated dictator in the country where ‘Arab socialism’ under Abdul Nasser came to power in 1952. Far from the Egyptian revolution coming to a halt or suffering a crushing setback when the military junta took over from Hosni Mubarak, as some have stupidly suggested, the masses are pushing further and further - engaged in a war of attrition against the entire regime, which looks ever more fragile.
Hence the masses still protest in Tahrir Square, loudly expressing their wishes and intentions. Feeling the pressure, options running out, the regime unceremoniously ditched prime minister Ahmed Shafik on March 3 - just a day before major protests demanding his resignation were due to go ahead. In other words, the masses and the pro-democracy movement notched up a victory. Thus Shafik was replaced by Essam Sharaf, the former transport minister, and a figure identified with the Tahrir Square protests. The day after his appointment he addressed activists in the square, saluting the “white revolution” and its “martyrs”, claiming to draw his “legitimacy” from the masses and promising to step down if he failed to meet their demands. In a further attempt to play up his radical credentials, Sharaf replaced the foreign affairs and interior ministers with figures not so associated with the Mubarak old guard. Perhaps partly accounting for his relative popularity with the masses, though doubtlessly that will be a short-lived affair, Sharaf is strongly opposed to the “normalisation” of ties with Israel.
Of course, having said that, Sharaf is obviously a product of the old regime, for all his fine, revolutionary-sounding words - after all, he was a minister under the Mubarak government and was a member of the National Democratic Party’s policy committee. So hardly fresh goods. But he is also a product of the anti-Mubarak protests - a manifestation of how people-power has advanced in Egypt. And the masses want much more, demanding - amongst other things - a purge of all ostensibly Mubarak elements (and the NDP as a whole) from the government, the immediate release of all political prisoners and the abolition of the brutal 500,000-strong internal security forces, especially the dreaded State Security Investigations. The SSI consists of at least 100,000 members, plus a vast additional network of informants, which has literally terrorised the Egyptian masses for decades.
To this end, there have been repeated demonstrations outside the interior ministry offices in Cairo, and in turn activists have been viciously attacked by plain-clothes thugs. Showing the depth of anger and hatred the masses feel for the SSI and other such state bodies, over the last week at least six state-security buildings have been stormed and ransacked - including the SSI’s main headquarters in Cairo and Alexandria. With regards to the latter, the 2,500 or more people who swept into the compound were anxious to prevent the shredding of incriminating official documents relating to systematic abuses committed by state security agents. Needless to say, they found a dirty treasure trove of state secrets, one protestor telling Al Jazeera that in every office building they found “tons” of shredded paper and left-over documents - particularly in the underground detention cells, where there were files concerning “almost every” activist in the country, to the extent that people were “finding their own folders and their own photos” amidst the debris. Now the masses want to see the prosecution of those security officials responsible for the torture and death of activists.
The Egyptian revolutionary movement is still in its early days - but growing in confidence, numbers and political weight, building up to a tipping point against the regime. And with the referendum on amendments to Egypt’s constitution tentatively scheduled for March 19, or at least according to the regime’s Facebook page (a real sign of the times), we can only expect the mass demonstrations to pick up even more steam - on top of the parliamentary elections slated for June and a presidential contest in August. Hence in their wisdom, a legal panel hand-picked by the military has “recommended” a package of 10 constitutional amendments that include setting a two-term limit for presidents, removing the restrictions that make it almost impossible for non-ruling party candidates to compete in the presidential elections, and so on. All insultingly inadequate, of course, as the masses will make more than clear in subsequent protests and demonstrations.
What we have seen in Egypt has essentially been repeated in Tunisia, in what you could call a reciprocal gesture - given that the uprising against the loathed Ben Ali, Tunisia’s very own Mubarak, provided the spark for the Egyptian movement. In fact, if anything, the Tunisian masses have scored even greater victories than their Egyptian brothers and sisters.
Hence Mohammed Ghannouchi, both the prime minister and self-appointed acting president, was sent packing on February 27 and two other members of the ‘interim’ or ‘national unity’ government joined him on permanent gardening leave the following day. Then the new acting or interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, announced on March 3 that the general elections would be postponed to a so far unspecified later date and that instead elections to a “temporary” constituent assembly would be held on July 24. This constituent assembly, Mebazaa stated on state TV, would be charged with developing a new constitution or “new political system” that “breaks definitely from the deposed regime”. At the same time, the latest prime minister (not a particularly enviable job any more), Beji Caid Sebsi, unveiled a new cabinet containing not a single minister who had served under the old Ben Ali administration - a new government, as he put it, that would help to pull the country back from the “abyss”.
Yes, needless to say, all the new appointees are technocrats and drawn exclusively from the ranks of the establishment. But nevertheless it represents a gain for the masses that all of Ben Ali’s henchmen have been forced to take early retirement - just like in Egypt, with the steady whittling away of Mubarak placemen. Furthermore, showing how power in Tunisia is devolving to the streets, an interior ministry spokesperson declared that the secret police (ie, the political police and state security apparatus) had been “dissolved” and “other decisions that will please the people” were forthcoming. Of course, it would be foolish to take this statement entirely at face value - the repressive apparatus of the state in Tunisia lives on, even if there has been a change of uniform or bureaucratic reshuffle. Yet the mere fact that the regime had to be seen bowing, or acquiescing, to one of the key demands of the protestors indicates that the boot is now on the other foot - the masses increasingly calling the shots, not the government.
Bahrain’s regime too has been hit by a new wave of protests, demonstrators keeping democratic vigil in hundreds of tents in Manama’s Pearl Square - which has now become a permanent ‘people’s parliament’ like Tahrir Square, with the masses becoming further radicalised almost by the day. They are no longer content with the demand for a ‘real’ constitutional monarchy along the lines of the UK or the Netherlands, given the initial murderous response of the regime to such a move. So on March 8 three Shia-based groups calling themselves the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic explicitly called for a “popular revolution” against the oppressive, Sunni-minority regime - the absolutist monarchy of the Al Khalifa family - and the establishment of a “democratic republic that expresses the desires of the people”, which as a bare minimum requires an elected parliament “with full legislative powers”.
The democratic contagion has now reached the shores of Oman, a prospect that would have been thought almost inconceivable only a few months ago. Protests broke out on February 26-27 in the port of Sohar, the second city - a spontaneous display of anger mainly by unemployed youth which left up to six people dead. The protestors’ core demand was for more jobs and welfare for those without them. Obviously panic-stricken, the sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said - who recently celebrated 40 years on the throne - hastily announced that the minimum wage would be increased by 40% to 200 riyals ($520) a month. But protestors also called for the sacking and “the trial of all ministers”, the “abolition of all taxes”, measures to end the endemic corruption, press freedom, etc.
Nor is Saudi Arabia immune to the spirit of democracy that has been unleashed across the Arab world. After two weeks of Shia demonstrations, which saw dozens arrested and beaten, the Saudi authorities on March 5 warned against further public protests. A terse statement by the country’s council of senior clerics “affirms that demonstrations are forbidden in this country” and that the “correct way” according to sharia law of “realising common interest is by advising” - for “reform and advice should not be via demonstrations and ways that provoke strife and division”, this being “what the religious scholars of this country in the past and now have forbidden and warned against”. For good measure, the statement reminded the masses that political parties and organisations are not allowed in Saudi Arabia, as that would not be “in keeping with Islam”.
However, the elite of that foul regime, used to enjoying an obscenely opulent lifestyle denied to the overwhelming majority, are seriously rattled - as evidenced last month, when king Abdullah dished out $37 billion in various welfare/benefits hand-outs in a bid to buy off dissent and rebellion. Indeed, all the despots and dictators in the Arab world have suddenly become aware of their own mortality - as protests ignite in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco, too.
Which brings us to Libya, which has seen the first armed uprising of the current upsurge. The tyrannical regime still clings on power, throwing everything it has into a counter-offensive. The tone of the revolutionary forces remains bullish though. “The Gaddafi regime is over,” confidently declared a spokeswoman for the Provisional Transitional National Council of Libya based in Benghazi - going on to state that “it’s a personal issue for everybody”, as “our country is occupied”. She also listed a series of demands made at its first ‘national’ meeting in March, referring to the PTNC as the “sole representative of all Libya” and the state as the “Libyan Republic”. The council would not accept the division and partition of the country and there would be elections after Libya was “reunited”. It also wanted “international recognition” of the PTNC as the new legitimate government and demanded action to halt the flow of arms and mercenaries to the Gaddafi regime - not to mention an “immediate freeze” on all funds held by the Gaddafi family.
The PTNC’s initial statement clearly contains dangers. Yes, it is true that their statement rejects “direct military intervention on Libyan soil”, but at the same time it makes a “request to the international community to fulfil its obligations to protect the Libyan people from any further genocide and crimes against humanity” - the distinct implication being that ‘non-direct’ military intervention would be welcome.
While, of course, it is understandable that the poorly equipped anti-Gaddafi forces are desperate to change the odds in their favour, imperialist intervention would play straight into Gaddafi’s hands - enabling him to portray the forces pitted against him as ‘traitors’, ‘agents of imperialism’, etc. Maybe even give him the space to secure patriotic support from wavering elements, like some of the tribal leaders. And the evidence is growing by the minute that imperialism is indeed preparing some sort of military intervention, in order to prevent “genocide”, more “crimes against humanity”, etc. Thus Nato has introduced 24-hour air and sea monitoring of Libya, with both David Cameron and Barack Obama talking about the need to draw up the “full spectrum” of military responses” - the US administration has seemingly been won over to support a possible no-fly zone over the country (dependent, at least for now, on such an action being “clearly” sanctioned by the United Nations). Hence, according to Cameron, he and Obama agreed in a telephone call that a major international operation “will swing into action” if Gaddafi refuses to relinquish power - which, of course, is as near to an absolute certainty as you can possibly ever get.
Communists adamantly oppose the imposition of no-fly zones on Libya, or indeed any other form of imperialist intervention. We in the CPGB want the masses themselves to overthrow the Gaddafi regime, not have it done on their behalf by an outside state power - which would only be doing so in order to prevent popular power, not facilitate it. If the masses were able to topple the Gaddafi regime from below, that would constitute the first real blow of the Arab revolution and would have a profound effect on the course of events in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Bahrain, etc. We are not seeing presidents and monarchs falling neatly like dominoes - to use the clichéd imagery which has been routinely trotted out by unimaginative commentators (left and right). Rather, what we have are interconnected - and interwoven - democratic and revolutionary processes which are feeding off each other. What happens in any of these countries matters, and almost instantaneously impacts on its neighbours, because we are not dealing with discrete or national uprisings, but a truly pan-Arab movement which does not recognise imperialist-drawn borders. The same people are confronted by the same tasks and hence ultimately with the same solution - ie, regional solidarity and pan-Arab revolution.
In other words, the present situation has vindicated the perspective of an Arab revolution, a slogan that seemed to have been written off by history, but is now back with a vengeance. Plainly, the uprisings now taking place in the Middle East and north Africa have acted as a dress rehearsal for that very Arab revolution, and it is imperative that the working class wins hegemony over the movement.
Therefore communists are disappointed with comrades who stick their head in the sand and refuse to see the living reality of the Arab revolution, retreating instead to dogmas and slogans learnt by rote (or drilled into them by their respective sect leader). Hence comrade Sandy Johnson in a letter to the Weekly Worker fantastically claims that there is “little sign” of pan-Arab unity “from any reports on the ground” and then puts forward the idea that the “struggle for a united socialist republic of the Middle East would seem a more apt slogan” for communists, given that the “era of national democratic revolutions led by non-working class forces is long past and it can’t be revived” (February 24). More explicitly still, and even more dogmatically, the left communist International Communist Current condemns the CPGB for “avoiding a class analysis” and its “promotion” of Arab nationalism - “in a way”, we read, “that is reminiscent of Bakunin’s pan-Slavism”. Indeed, the ICC continues, the CPGB’s advocacy of pan-Arab unity - which envisages, for example, a “free Egypt” that “would challenge the hegemony” of Israel - can only “lead to imperialist war”.
From the way the comrades talk you would think that the CPGB have some sort of inherent objection to a “socialist republic”, workers’ unity, proletarian internationalism, socialism, communism, etc. Believe it or not, we actually think that these are splendid things. However, obviously, the real question is how do we get to socialism - what is the means, or agency, that will bring about universal human emancipation? From the communist perspective, the only way is by the proletariat forming itself into a class - armed with political consciousness and a programme that acts as a map, or compass, to revolution. Self-evidently, or so it should be, this can only be done under conditions of democracy - which is precisely why we communists take democracy so seriously and are its most tireless champions.
So, just to reassure the comrades above, the CPGB does not believe in any form of national socialism - which logically includes any ‘Arab socialism’ consisting of the Arab people ‘going it alone’ in isolation from the European and American working class. An obvious illusion and also an impossibility, as socialism is built upon the most advanced features and characteristics of capitalism. But we do believe in the Arab workers taking the lead, securing hegemony, in the struggle for democracy - which concretely means fighting to overcome the Balkanisation that imperialism has enforced on the Arab people.
It is all very well calling for “a united socialist republic of the Middle East”. But what relationship does that have to the current struggles across the Arab world? Unlike such an abstract slogan, the regional movement against oppression is taking the form of pan-Arab solidarity against the dictators. The job of communists is to seek to ensure the living struggle for an Arab revolution has working class leadership. It goes without saying that its programme must seek to draw in all national minorities by championing the rights of Berbers, Kurds, etc.
The CPGB’s perspective is informed by the programmatic approach taken by the Communist League - under the leadership of Marx and Engels - to the German revolution of 1848, which was for a united Germany. The German working class, they argued, could not come to power instantly - or even in the immediate future. However, they could constitute themselves as an extreme opposition to every non-socialist force or form that existed inside Germany and in that manner create a space for the workers’ movement to grow.
Such an outlook can be applied to the Arab world too, given that the fight for national unity is a democratic task and hence one that communists ought to take with the utmost seriousness.
- The Guardian March 6.
- February 5: en.internationalism.org/icconline/2011/2/revolution