The Arab awakening and the prospect of unity

In this edited version of a speech given to the CPGB's Marxism fringe on July 3, Mosh

The ‘Arab spring’ or ‘Arab awakening’ is an important reference. It refers not to the spring of 1968, the ‘Czech spring’, but to the 1848 ‘spring of nations’.

The name is not accidental; it is supposed to convey meaning. It implies that in the short term not too much should be expected. The short-term outcome of this revolution - and this is one revolution, not a series of weakly connected revolutions - will probably not change very much. But, looked at in retrospect after several years, it will be seen as a momentous turning point. It is not only the region that will never be the same again, but the whole world which will change because of this.

The reason why the current Arab awakening will not appear to achieve very much is, I think, evident. The old ruling elites are still too strong and the forces of the revolution are inchoate, not organised and not clear about what they want. Their programmes are being made up as they go along. But this is not unusual in revolutions: in 1848 it was roughly the same and it ended very badly - no major old regime or empire was actually overthrown; nevertheless we still remember it as a major turning point in world history, certainly in European history. It left a legacy as the first scene in an ongoing drama that evolved during the 19th century. Current events should be looked at in the same way. We are likely to see an ongoing revolution that has not yet reached its apogee, from which it will probably retreat - these processes have an ebb and flow.

Think of the 1905 revolution in Russia - it went so far and then was defeated - it did not actually overthrow the tsarist regime and it was followed by repression. But later on it came to be seen as the first act in a three-act revolution - 1905, March 1917, November 1917. We can see now that it was one process. (What happened later is another question - how the 1917 revolution was defeated, degenerated and so on.) It is clear that the 1905 revolution cannot be seen on its own, but was the first scene in a drama which took 12 or more years to complete.

Things are similar with the Arab awakening. The balance of forces is still very much against the revolution, even in places where it has apparently achieved the most - Tunisia and Egypt. Even here what has occurred so far is the decapitation of the old regime, not its overthrow - the long-term president/president for life was thrown out.

In Egypt, by far the most important Arab state, the current rulers are a continuation of the old regime - the military junta that was part and parcel of it. The political and economic elite under Mubarak was two-headed. There were the generals, who are still in power and are also owners of capital. It is a strange kind of capitalism, corporately owned by the generals - some of them in service, some of them retired. Then there was the Mubarak family - especially Gamal, Hosni’s son, who was the heir apparent, earmarked as the next president. This explains why the generals were not unhappy to get rid of him - he was a competitor.

But the revolution there at least achieved the decapitation of the regime, not only because of the complicity of some of the generals, but for two main reasons: the day before Mubarak was persuaded to go there was a major mobilisation of the working class - this is somewhat under-reported in the western press, although it is more evident on Al Jazeera. The other reason was that ordinary soldiers did not obey orders. At one point the tanks in Tahrir Square received an order to shoot at demonstrators, but the tank commanders, who are junior officers, took off their headphones. This was not reported in the west, but it was an important turning point. Even more significantly, the ordinary soldiers - who are conscripts - refused to obey orders to suppress the revolution and the top of the regime itself is divided.

In Tunisia there was a variation on this situation. Here the small army is not a major part of the repressive forces, unlike in Egypt, where it is a major social force. Then there is Yemen, where there is a contradictory situation. These are the parts of the Arab world where the revolution has achieved the most so far and where the process is still very much ongoing. In Egypt, now at least it is possible to speak more freely to the organised working class, to be able to organise free trade unions, form parties and so on. There are dozens of new parties being formed, lots of newspapers appearing, etc. What will remain of it, one does not know, but in the short term it is progress.

In other places there are various degrees of stalemate or failure. I would regard the situation in Libya as a failed revolution, because the revolutionary forces were unable to overthrow the regime: they were too weak and the forces around Gaddafi too strong. The former found themselves obliged to call for western help and by that they lost ownership of the revolution, so, whatever now transpires, there will not be a successful popular revolution. It is difficult to guess what the outcome will be, but it will not be a major achievement.

In other places, including Bahrain, there is very severe repression; in Syria the regime is still fighting for its survival and the outcome is not clear at all. This is the overall picture of what is happening.


I would nevertheless stress the fact that the process we are witnessing is an all-Arab revolution. Not only because it is played out in the Arab world, but because there is a feeling in some places that it is pointing at the potential unification of the Arab world.

You do not hear this very much in what is shouted or displayed on posters at the demonstrations. People are concentrating on immediate demands, which are common to all. In Egypt there have been raised three slogans: equality, freedom and dignity, but economic demands have also been raised by the massive, highly concentrated working class. However, the movement is not led by organised forces armed with a coherent programme, putting forward a long-term strategy. Nevertheless there is an underlying text. In Egypt and Yemen in particular, there are demands which go beyond ‘We want freedom, we want to be able to speak freely’.

It is very significant that people interviewed on demonstrations in Egypt condemned the Mubarak regime not only because of economic and social inequality and political repression, but also because of its shameful subservience to the west. A lot of it is actually phrased in terms of dignity. The Mubarak regime’s servility towards the west and United States - helping Israel, for example, in the siege of Gaza - was humiliating. In Yemen again there is the same kind of criticism: the regime was servile to the United States, it is ‘shameful’, it ‘hurts our pride’.

But there is another element - the potential unity of the Arab world. This is not expressed very much, but it is sometimes heard. There are demonstrations in one country in solidarity with what is happening in another. I happened to listen to a BBC radio report of a solidarity demonstration in Jordan on the border with Syria (the initial focus of the revolution in Syria was in Daraa, on the border). The reporter did not say what the people were shouting, but even with my limited knowledge of Arabic I could make it out: ‘Arab unity!’ That means something.

To return to the point with which I began. The events are being described as the ‘Arab spring’ and this is a reference to 1848. However, especially on Al Jazeera, the preferred term is ‘Arab awakening’. Al Jazeera is based in one of the most reactionary parts of the Arab world, Qatar, but the actual reporters are assembled from all over and many are radicals - lefts of various kinds - and they are very keenly aware of what is happening. The name ‘Arab awakening’ is not accidental: it is a reference to a title of a book published in 1938, whose author was George Antonius, described as “Lebanese-Egyptian” by Wikipedia. He ended up in Palestine and is the major historian/theoretician of the notion of all-Arab nationhood - Arab unification. According to him, modern Arab national identity was dormant for many centuries, but there was an “awakening” - raised by a few intellectuals in the 19th century, it gained momentum in the 20th.

So calling the events the ‘Arab awakening’ is a reference to this - there is no intellectual in the Arab world who does not know what the term means: all-Arab unity. So its use is in my opinion significant. But, while in the short term it is not going to lead to much, under certain conditions - if the elite in power is divided, as it was in Egypt and Tunisia, and if the armed forces are unreliable - it is possible to start a revolution in a spontaneous and inchoate way, where there is no mass organisation, no coherent strategy, etc. This is what has happened. But to actually install a new, revolutionary order you need more than what exists. It could not exist, because it was very difficult to form organisations under the old regime, under conditions of very severe repression.

It is possible that the situation that will now emerge will enable the formation of more coherent organised forces - in Egypt mainly, where the grassroots organisation of the working class is very strong. The working class is also very important in Iraq (in spite of the mess it is in for reasons we are all aware of), but also in Yemen. Yemen is a very contradictory place: a gluing together of two parts. North Yemen is tribal and rather backwards socially, while South Yemen is, social and politically, probably the most advanced part of the Arab world. South Yemen has a very strong working class, mainly around the port of Aden. It actually managed to oust Britain after a long liberation struggle and in 1969 the People’s Democratic Republic was set up in South Yemen, which was to the left of Stalinism. Its leader, Salim Rubai Ali (known as Salamin), was executed in 1978 by his Stalinist rivals within the regime, and from there it started to degenerate. But it had started to go beyond the Stalinist norm, which is not something that has happened in any other part of the Arab world. This has left a legacy, even in North Yemen.

Amazingly in a backward country, the leader of the current revolution in Yemen is a woman - Tawakul Karman, a tremendous organiser and strategist. She insists on peaceful revolution, saying an armed insurrection would be a big mistake, allowing the regime to crush the opposition. So Yemen is not all that backward …

Global implications

However the process ends in the short term, neither the region nor the world will be the same again. The Middle East is strategically just about the most important region of our world. That is true for various reasons.

I have recently been reading an unpublished work by Tony Cliff from 1946, written while he was still in Palestine. He lists the reasons why the Middle East is so important and, while today the priorities on the list may have changed, he gets it more or less right. First the Suez Canal - which was and still is a vital trade route between Europe and the Far East, as well as being a more general transit area. Nowadays, however, it is clear that the most important strategic value of the Middle East for any power is oil - it is the most important oil-producing area in the world. When Cliff was writing this book, oil was just being discovered in Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela was still the most important oil producer, along with the Soviet Union and the US. The amount of oil produced in Saudi Arabia in 1946 was miniscule, but now it has the largest reserves by far of any country, ahead of Iraq and Iran.

So the Middle East is a major part of the world in terms of its importance to the powers-that-be. The existing world order is still dominated by the United States, which is clearly in the process of decline. I do not know whether capitalism is declining, but American domination of world capitalism certainly is. On the first question maybe the jury is out, but I do not think that it is at all open to doubt that American hegemony is in decline. The United States first lost control of its own back yard, Latin America. Now it is losing control of the Middle East. Even if it recuperates some of its control - it will clearly not lose its influence completely - it cannot, as it used to, rely indefinitely on repressive regimes to keep the lid on mass discontent. The American elite is very well aware that the masses in the region are not friendly towards it, as is also obvious in Pakistan and various other parts of the world.

The key to US control was ‘stability’ and the regimes were until recently able to preserve stability. But this is no longer guaranteed. However things turn out, whether or not the US is able to recuperate any of its control, it will no longer be possible to sit back and rely on the regimes. In a way, some of the neo-cons were aware of this. Their Project for a New American Century, the loose organisation started in 1997, sensed the potential instability and advocated the desirability of perhaps engendering regime change: maybe the regime in Saudi Arabia can be replaced with one that is better able to do our bidding - one without this extreme form of repression, which in the end is destabilising. The neo-cons’ strategy was to start with Iraq and this is where the invasion actually originates for me - it had nothing to do with 9/11, having been worked out in 1997 or thereabouts.

You can see their reasoning: if we start interfering with Saudi Arabia’s royal house they may retaliate. And they have a lot of power, because they have a lot of oil. So we need first of all to control a country which also has a lot of oil in order to counter any such retaliation - and that country is Iraq, the second biggest Arab oil producer. Once we have control of Iraq, we will be better able to engineer favourable change in Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries. But we know what happened in Iraq - the strategy failed utterly.


There are long-term implications not only for general American world dominance, but also for the Israeli-Arab conflict. Change in the Arab world - major social and political transformations and especially unification - is the absolutely necessary condition for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a Marxist, I never cease to point out that the key is to understand that it is a conflict of colonisation. Zionism is a project of colonisation and Israel is a settler state. But not all colonial projects are similar and not all settler states are the same.

There are basically two models: one is represented by South Africa - where the settlers built their economy on the exploitation of the labour-power of the indigenous people. The settlers formed themselves as a quasi-class and remained a minority, which nevertheless had a vital need for the indigenous people and their labour-power, upon which the economy depended. The other model is represented by Israel - and other places, such as Australia and North America - where the indigenous people were not depended on for their labour-power. Here the settlers formed themselves into a new nation, in most places becoming a majority, and the indigenous people were overwhelmed, displaced, ethnically cleansed.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be resolved by changing the colonial situation, by decolonising: in this case deZionising. The nature of Israel must be changed so it ceases to be a colonial state - the Zionist project is the last remaining colonising process. Unfortunately, there has not been one single case of successful decolonisation in this type of colonial project, where the indigenous people were displaced, rather than used as labour-power. The typical situation is Australia or North America, where the conflict was resolved decisively in favour of the settlers. The indigenous people were either completely exterminated - as in Tasmania, for example - or were marginalised and became a minority clinging to the remnants of its culture, language, etc. So in the context of this general rule the prospect for the Palestinians is not very good.

However, there is one unique difference that actually works in their favour in the long term and makes the whole prospect of decolonisation actually achievable. That is, unlike places like Australia, North America, etc, the indigenous people are part of a larger national entity with a world language and a world culture. That is different, for example, from Australia, where there were many indigenous languages, each unique and localised to a small area and therefore easily overcome or even eliminated. In the case of the Palestinians, being part of the Arab nation is their strength, providing the only prospect of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict positively, through the unification of the Arab world.

This would change the existing balance of power. It would enable decolonisation - or in this specific case deZionisation - of the Israeli state and the formation of a joint set-up, hopefully within a progressive, unified Arab east, in which both Palestinians and Israeli people can have equal rights, without one oppressing the other. In other words, this prospect of the long-term success of the Arab revolution is also a vital condition for the resolution of this most complicated, longest-lasting colonial conflict in the present-day world.

I am not a member of the CPGB, but I would nevertheless like to support the CPGB theses, ‘The Arab awakening and Israel-Palestine’ (Weekly Worker June 30). I think the document is actually a very good one. I would support the idea of Palestinian self-determination in the most immediate sense. In September the Palestinian Authority is going to the United Nations to ask for recognition of the Palestinian state, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is going to be opposed by Israel and the United States and their camp followers. Should their demand be supported? On the basis of self-determination, yes. But do I have any illusions? No, I share the view that in the present circumstances any such state is going to be not so much a bantustan, but an Indian reservation. The difference is significant, because bantustans provided a source of labour-power for the South African economy, while reservations are just a dump.

I do not believe that the Israeli-Palestinian situation can be solved within the box of Palestine. Either as one state or divided into two. It can only be solved within a progressive union, a socialist union of the Arab east, in which both national groups would be accommodated on the basis of equal rights.

I do not think in the absence of Arab unification that two states can resolve the conflict, because of the huge disparity in the balance of power. One - the Israeli state - would dominate. Similarly a single state in an undivided Palestine would be in effect a continuation of military occupation under a different name. The only way the balance of power can be changed is under a larger Arab unity - probably in a federal form.

Certainly this would involve the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. It is, however, quite unlikely that all Palestinian refugees would want to exercise this right. There is certainly no way that every Palestinian can return to the exact spot where their ancestors came from, because that would mean dislocating other people who have been living there for decades. So there will have to be some democratic resolution.

The unified Arab entity would have to include an arrangement guaranteeing self-determination for non-Arab national minorities, including for the Israeli Jewish or Hebrew nation. It is true that it is an oppressing nation now, and we are not talking about self-determination for it in the present circumstances - that would be absurd. We are talking about a situation in which Zionism had been overthrown. Then the question arises: does this nation deserve national rights? Is its national existence deserving of being recognised or should it be disregarded?

When one speaks about an Israeli component within a unified Arab federation, there is no question of it having the same borders as the current state of Israel. The territory controlled by the Hebrew nation within this federation will have to be determined at the time - we cannot do it now, ahead of history. The principle remains that, Zionism having been overthrown, there will still be a national entity there called the Hebrew nation, which will no longer be an oppressing settler nation and will have to be accommodated on the basis of equal rights. So, when I advocate self-determination for this nation, this, of course, presupposes the overthrow of Zionism and the overthrow of the colonial and settler nation of the state of Israel.

Today the balance of power is overwhelmingly in favour of the Zionist colonising project. The left exists in Israel, of course, but is extremely weak. Nevertheless, it is active, shows solidarity with Palestinians and demonstrates that a common struggle is possible. The Israeli regime, for its part, is very worried, for obvious reasons, because of the decline of American domination of the region. Israel itself is a kind of subcontracted hegemony in the region, a subcontractor of American imperialism. However, in the short term its position has actually been strengthened, because it is the only remaining absolutely reliable and stable American ally, or junior partner in the region. So it is a contradictory situation.


The structure of the Arab world is analogous to that of Germany or Italy before unification. The closest parallel is Italy, where there were two layers of nationalism: for example, a Sicilian or Venetian nationalism, a local identity, which was very strong, but at the same time a feeling of Italian nationality. The problem was largely resolved by unification in the 19th century (although some Italian-speaking communities remained outside the united Italy).

At the immediate end of World War I the parallel with the Arab world was explicitly made. Britain promised the Arabs that in exchange for support against the Ottoman empire it would foster Arab unification. Of course, it betrayed this promise and that task remains unfulfilled. But the desire for unity was and is common throughout the Arab world, very strongly supported by various classes - not just the working class, but also the middle class and petty bourgeoisie.

It is true that until recently the whole idea of Arab union was discredited, because it had been taken up by repressive regimes in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq. They mouthed the slogans of Arab unification, but actually were concerned with their own power locally.

So people may have tended to identify themselves as Egyptian, Syrian or whatever first of all. But now, with the rising revolution in the Arab world, the idea of unification is back on the agenda. However, it is clear that this task can only be carried out by the working class - experience has shown the bourgeoisie is not capable of doing it.

The Arab working class is very much in favour of it. That is evident, for example, in all demonstrations of Egyptian workers. Support for Palestinian liberation is very prominently displayed, even in demonstrations that are on Egyptian economic issues. So potentially this is on the agenda, but it is a task yet to be completed. And it can only be completed in my view under the leadership of the working class - that is absolutely clear.

However, to say that unification can completely transcend nationhood, in the sense that it will bring together all the peoples of the region, including in Iran and Turkey, is to jump two steps ahead. I look forward to a world in which national barriers will no longer exist, but I think that, for example, the unification of Britain with Ireland will come before the unification of Britain with Germany or France - there is a question of common language and common heritage.

The slogan of Middle East unity suffers from the fact that it has no mass support whatsoever. Arab unity is problematic, because mass support for it ebbs and flows - at times the whole notion of Arab unity falls into disrepute and at times it comes to the fore.

But there is certainly an underlying feeling and demand for it among the masses - the peasants and the working class especially. But I have heard no demand for unity with Iranians, or among Iranians for unity with the Arab world, or for that matter in Turkey (except in a very reactionary form in the sense of re-establishing the Ottoman empire).

It is true there is common religion, but it has not actually played an important role in the revolutionary process - even in Egypt, where the Muslim Brothers are quite strong. They are part of the process, but they did not initiate it. If the Egyptian people choose a parliament with 50% Muslim Brothers, then that is their right - we cannot say that therefore it is illegitimate.

But Islam is not a unifying factor in the Arab world - in Bahrain it is a divisive element. Islam may have been a unifying factor in the 7th century, but not any longer.