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A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

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the middle eASt


An online pamphlet collecting together some of Socialist Reviews best coverage and analysis of the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Syria

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

Chapter one tunisia: the Arab Spring begins Anne Alexander, Hla Yousfi, Fathis Chamki and Dominic Kavakeb Chapter two egypt and tunisia: the return of revolution Mark L Thomas, Anne Alexander, Mohamed Tonsi and Simon Assaf Chapter three bahrain and libya: oppression and intervention Tim Nelson and Simon Assaf Chapter four egypt: Strikes, elections and the islamists Phil Marfleet, Sameh Naguib and Anne Alexander Chapter five Syria: revolution and imperialism Simon Assaf and Jamie Allinson

Chapter one tuniSiA


the ARAb SpRing beginS




A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

The Battle of Tunis

Anne Alexander First published in February 2011
The revolt in Tunisia has sent shivers down the spines of dictators across the region. Anne Alexander looks at the roots of the revolution and considers its broader implications, while Tunisian activists Hla Yousfi and Fathi Chamki give their accounts of the uprising and Dominic Kavakeb examines the role of the internet

Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), was crucial in breaking Ben Ali, a fact recognised by the remaining leaders of the old regime as they scrambled to cling on to power by appointing a coalition cabinet on 18 January which included three UGTT representatives. These appointments were significant on a number of different levels. Firstly, they recognised that the UGTT's decision to call local general strikes on 12 January and then a national general strike on 14 January played a profound role in the collapse of the Ben Ali regime. But the appointment of UGTT ministers was more than a gesture of co-option to a powerful opponent; it was a desperate attempt to revive a partnership between the ruling party and the trade union leadership that had helped to maintain the stability of Ben Ali's regime during much of the 1990s. Crucially, this initial attempt to reconfigure the old alliance between the UGTT and the regime's RCD party failed. Within hours protesters were mobilising again in the streets, demanding the dissolution of the RCD. The UGTT cabinet members resigned, further emboldening the demonstrators who were joined by police and members of the National Guard.

This withdrawal from the coalition cabinet points to a double fracture, which runs between the old regime and the UGTT leadership, but more importantly within the UGTT between rank and file activists and the bureaucrats at the top. Olivier Piot, reporting for Le Monde Diplomatique, travelled across Tunisia in the week before the fall of Ben Ali. He found local UGTT activists constantly debating whether and how to force the national leadership to break with the regime. On 7 January the local secretary of the UGTT in Tozeur told him the national leadership was planning to call a national strike by school teachers in three weeks time. In response to the journalist's stunned silence, he added, "I know it is a long time to wait, and I'm not sure if it won't be too late. I've told the union leaders, but they are closely tied to the authorities. For my part, I feel that from now on we risk seeing poor districts across the cities of the centre and the south going up in flames." But within four days the national leadership of the UGTT had authorised regional general strikes, shutting down key urban centres such as the port city of Sfax on 12 January. Trade union activists Piot spoke to that morning in Sfax reckoned that around 90 percent of the local population had sup-

here is no doubt that the uprising in Tunisia has cast a chill over the dictatorships of the Middle East while millions around the region have been inspired by the hope that their struggles against unemployment, poverty and corruption can break the machine of state repression. Street protests and cyber-activism have (albeit belatedly) caught the imagination of the global media, but the unfolding revolutionary process in January 2011 shows clearly that something more profound has shifted in Tunisia. The fall of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali demonstrates that the stresses imposed on the states of the region by the combination of neoliberal reforms and global economic crisis have the potential to fracture regimes by triggering popular revolts which can neither be managed by co-option nor broken by repression. More importantly, the way in which social and political demands have been interwoven throughout the protests, and the emergence of the trade unions as a key force in the uprising, opens up the possibility of a more far-reaching process of revolutionary transformation from below. Unions The role of the Tunisian trade union federation, the Union Gnrale des

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

ported the strike call. Only 48 hours later, as street protests spread to the centre of the capital, Tunis, Ben Ali fled the country. As US academic Eva Bellin points out, since independence in 1956 the Tunisian state has oscillated between strategies of repression and co-option when dealing with the trade unions. The UGTT played a vital role in the struggle against French colonial rule in the 1950s and, although its membership was entwined with that of the main nationalist party, the Neo-Destour, it emerged into the post-independence period with an independent base of its own. Habib Bourguiba, a key leader of the anti-colonial struggle and Tunisia's first president after liberation, eventually brought the UGTT leadership under the domination of the state after a series of confrontations during the 1950s and 1960s. A period of co-option was followed by an explosion of workers' protests and strikes in the 1970s and further repression in the final years of the Bourguiba regime during the 1980s. Ben Ali's coup against Bourguiba in 1987 marked the beginning of a new phase in relations between the UGTT and the state. Conscious of the rising challenge for the Islamist movement, in particular the Ennahda Party, Ben Ali bolstered the UGTT as a counterweight. He was also concerned, in the early years of his rule, to paint himself as a democrat, in contrast to Bourguiba. Ben Ali released trade unionists from prison, restored confiscated assets to the UGTT, gave the trade unions an expanded role in advising the regime on economic and social policy, and supported regular wage rises for workers, despite at the same time embarking on a programme of reforms designed to reduce the role of the state in the economy.

Social revolt
Ben Ali's neoliberal restructuring won praise from the World Bank and Western governments, but failed to deliver on its promises of prosperity for all. The overall official jobless figure of around 14 percent hid much higher levels in towns such as Sidi Bouzid, where the uprising began, as well as extremely high levels of youth and graduate unemployment. The rebellion which rocked the phosphate mining region of Gafsa in early 2008 showed, on a localised level, how protests by the unemployed could both explode contradictions within the UGTT and trigger a broader social revolt. On 5 January 2008 young unemployed protesters occupied the headquarters of

the Gafsa region UGTT. They were quickly joined by miners' widows and families, triggering a wave of strikes and protests uniting workers, the unemployed, school students and local people. The motor behind the Gafsa protests was not low wages but high levels of unemployment, leading to growing numbers of unwaged family members dependent on one working miner. Local UGTT leaders played a key role in the protest movement, despite the fact that the union had been historically implicated in corrupt deals with the mining company to maintain low levels of recruitment to the mines. Several UGTT activists, including Adnane Hajji, who became a prominent spokesperson for the movement, were sentenced to long jail terms, although Hajji and others were pardoned by Ben Ali in 2009. The 2008 miners' rebellion was eventually quelled by massive repression, and did not spread outside the Gafsa region. By contrast, in December 2010 demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid over the police's treatment of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old vegetable seller who set himself on fire after his handcart was confiscated, triggered a longerlasting cycle of protests. Students played a crucial role in the demonstrations, prompting the Tunisian authorities to close schools and colleges in an attempt to halt the protests. Students were joined by lawyers, 95 percent of whom were reported to have joined a general strike on 6 January in protest at police attacks on their colleagues at earlier demonstrations and rallies. Thus there was, from relatively early on, a dialectic between spontaneity and organisation in the development of the uprising which made the revolt increasingly difficult for the authorities to contain. Individual acts of desperation, such as Bouazizi's self-immolation, triggered local solidarity protests and sometimes - thanks to their transmission by the mainstream and social media - echoes across the country. However, it was the intervention of organisations capable of mobilising on a national scale, such as the Lawyers'

There was, from relatively early on, a dialectic between spontaneity and organisation in the development of the uprising.

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

Bar Association and finally the UGTT, which appears to have finally shifted the balance of forces between protesters and state. The question now is whether the workers' movement in Tunisia can not only continue to drive forward the process of sweeping away the whole old political order but also whether it can begin to challenge the economic roots of exploitation. Workers are reported to have driven out corrupt managers associated with the Ben Ali regime in some places, but if this develops into a movement for workers' control inside the workplace, combined with the reassertion of the social and economic demands which sparked the Sidi Bouzid intifada, it can begin to challenge capitalism itself. It is the possibility that the process begun in Sidi Bouzid may spread to Algiers, Cairo and beyond which has alarmed repressive governments across the region. Even before the fall of Ben Ali rising food prices had triggered riots in Algeria, while the collapse of his regime opened the door to a wave of protests mingling social and political demands in Jordan and Yemen. It is the impact of the Tunisian Revolution on Egypt that will be most closely observed by the US and its allies, however. There are many structural similarities between the regimes of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak - both have presided over economic reforms which have brought privatisation, foreign investment and, until recently, glowing praise from the World Bank.

ETUF's ability to deliver benefits and jobs for its members, have thus hollowed out a key institution of Mubarak's regime. The Egyptian presidential elections scheduled for September 2011 will also revive tensions within and outside the ruling party over the looming succession crisis, prompted by the need to find a suitable replacement for the ageing Mubarak. There are differences in the configuration of the opposition forces in Egypt, which will shape whatever events unfold there. There is no opposition group in Tunisia which has the social and political weight of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, and the Brotherhood's recent retreat from conflict with the state has made it more difficult for many other opposition groups to mobilise in the streets.

Despite this, in Egypt, even more than was apparent in Tunisia, the potential for popular revolts to widen cracks in the regime remains greater than it has been for many years, after a decade in which a "culture of protest" has flourished. And the greater degree of transformation within Tunisia, the more opportunities there will be for similar dynamics of protest to take root in Egypt and elsewhere. The longer that pressure from below continues to visibly shape the decisions of the government in Tunis, and even to discipline or break it, the greater self-confidence will be gained by those challenging the state on the streets of Cairo, Amman and perhaps even London. Anne Alexander

At the same time, Egypt, like Tunisia, suffers from high levels of youth and graduate unemployment and spiralling food prices. Mubarak's regime has sought to contain social and political protests using a variety of mechanisms, including manipulation of food subsidies - although the process of neoliberal economic reform has made this increasingly difficult to do. The relationship between the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and Mubarak's party, the NDP, has many historic parallels with that between the UGTT national leadership and Ben Ali's party. In both cases the regime co-opted the national union leaders through a combination of financial inducements and integration into the ruling party. In contrast though to Tunisia, the most important gains of the recent strike wave in Egypt so far have been the emergence of fledgeling independent unions, rather than any serious signs of rupture within the ETUF. Nevertheless, it is clear that neoliberal economic reforms, as they have weakened the


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Refused by the streets

Hla Yousfi First published in February 2011
Hla Yousfi is a Tunisian activist based in Paris. She spoke to Socialist Review about the driving forces behind the revolution

am from Sidi Bouzid, and a big part of my family live there. You've had a lot of people in the media saying that this is something that happened very fast. But in Tunisia you've had a lot of social protests. For example, in 2008 you had big protests in Gafsa, a mining region. They were repressed by the Tunisian police. You had a long period with a lot of social protests over lack of civil liberties and economic problems, but the official media didn't talk about them. So what happened in Sidi Bouzid and the Tunisian Revolution is the result of a fight over many years. For me it wasn't a surprise. The economic crisis helped accelerate the regime's collapse. People from the south used to go to the coastal region or emigrate to find jobs. But now they don't have jobs in the tourist areas because of the economic crisis, and the European Union just closed its doors. The corruption of the Ben Ali regime and its clans increased people's frustration. People are stuck in an open prison, caught between unemployment, corruption, lack of civil liberties in Tunisia and the "wall" built by Europe to control immigration. For example, my 24 year old brother couldn't get a visa to visit me in France because he doesn't have a job. This also explains why the protests were so huge.

Tunisians are highly critical of the silence from Western governments over Ben Ali's regime. Western governments supported Ben Ali, saying, "Yes, we acknowledge that there are some problems, but it's not really a dictatorship in Tunisia." For a long time Europe supported his regime, justifying this by saying that "you need to fight Islamism". The role of the trade unions was very important in this revolution. The oldest union, the UGTT, used to be very powerful in the period during the fight against colonialism. However, the central leadership had become totally corrupted by the regime. But the local union organisations were very effective and dynamic in supporting the revolution. It was a spontaneous revolution but it was highly supported by the local unions in Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa and elsewhere. These people pushed the central leadership who were pro Ben Ali to make a decision to give the order to go onto the streets. Some figures from civil society, for example lawyers, also played an important role. The lawyers' association was the only elected and independent association in Tunisia. All the others had been corrupted by the regime. The lawyers were then followed by some doctors, and of course the bloggers. After Ben Ali left, you had a deal between some people who were very important symbols of the old regime, like Mohammed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, with some leaders of the opposition. The army supported this deal. This deal was refused by the street, by the people who made the revolution. They pushed the unions' representatives to leave the government. When Ben Ali left he had the police with him. He had his own militia within the police, so the police were divided. The people causing trouble in Tunisia just after Ben Ali left were his militia, but you have people from the police who are against them. The army is not as strong as people outside Tunisia might think. Ben Ali managed to weaken the army and didn't give it a lot of money. People say the army is supporting us. At the beginning of the revolution people were demonstrating against the corruption of the regime and against Ben Ali. Now it is interesting that if you go to the streets of Tunisia you have a lot of people starting to say it's not only Ben Ali that caused the problems, but also the whole system of the regime's RCD party. They are now asking the government to fire the manag-


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


ers of big firms (especially the ones that were privatised). They are seen as symbols of the corrupt Ben Ali regime. The challenge now is to protect the revolution. Tunisians don't want the mess of Iraq. They are talking about the example of the parliamentary system in Britain. They don't want a presidential system any more. People are debating the future of the revolution. They talk about Portugal after the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship and about what happened in Iran. Hla Yousfi is a member of Le Collectif de Soutien aux Luttes des Habitants de Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

The revolution faces a trial of strength

Fathi Chamki First published in February 2011

unisia has just lived through an extraordinary month. A revolutionary movement has succeeded in sweeping from power a dictator who seemed only days earlier assured of remaining on his throne for life. How can we explain this social explosion, which has rapidly turned into revolution? In the first few days the demands focused on the material conditions of existence, summed up in the slogan "Work is a right". Then the widening of the movement, together with the repression meted out to it by the dictatorship, accelerated its radicalisation to the point of challenging the established order. Political demands became associated with social demands, the concentrated expression of which was "Ben Ali, get out!" It is very difficult to try to analyse a political situation when it is evolving so rapidly, sometimes even leaping ahead. But the key trends remain clear. The day after 14 January, the day of the great mobilisation, particularly in Tunis, was when the regime decided to rid itself of Ben Ali. But even while we had not yet had time to celebrate this historic victory, the dying regime made an attempted comeback with a "the government of national unity" in


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


the hope of containing the groundswell that threatened to overthrow the established order. The counterrevolutionary manoeuvre by the authorities had some success during the first three days, above all thanks to the leaders of the UGTT trade union rallying in support of the government. On 18 January the announcement of the composition of the government of national unity acted like a spur to the revolutionary movement, which responded with a wave of demonstrations in most towns, above all in Tunis. At the same time, the rank and file of the UGTT forced the setting up of an administrative commission to act as a counter to the position taken by the executive bureau, which was very close to the authorities. This commission forced the resignation of the three ministers nominated by the union. The announcement of the decisions of the administrative commission, on the afternoon of the same day, destabilised all the political partners in the government of national unity and pushed one of the three opposition parties that had joined the government to withdraw. The revolutionary movement also went into action over the key political question - the future of the RCD. Just about everywhere the demonstrators have taken over its local offices, which were completely deserted (the total number of full-timers was said to be 10,000 - all paid for through public funds). Several have been wrecked. This movement has now spread to public enterprises and to state administrative offices, from which, thanks to initiatives by employees, the managers of these institutions are being expelled. There is a trial of strength between the revolutionary movement determined to dismantle the old order and the counterrevolution that makes endless political concessions to try to protect what is fundamental, that is, the economic and social capitalist regime. True, for now this issue is completely missing from the debate and from the demands, in view of the importance of what to do in respect of the RCD and its future. But we should expect the social question to bounce back to the surface very shortly. Fathi Chamki (RAID-ATTAC, Tunisia)

No substitute
Dominic Kavakeb First published in February 2011

s the events of the Tunisian uprising unfold there has been an abundance of blogs and articles championing the role of social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, with some even calling this "the first Wikileaks revolution". While both Wikileaks and social media have had an effect on the Tunisian people, to characterise this revolt as being caused by either of these things is to overstate their importance and at the same time massively understate the revolutionary strength of the Tunisian masses. Undoubtedly for those of us outside of the country it has been fascinating to follow the latest events via Twitter and watch videos of the protests on YouTube. With the Tunisian authorities imposing a ban on the state-run media from covering the events, people have been forced to use the generally much freer internet to release information. But it has been often overlooked that these protests actually began four weeks before the world's mainstream media picked up on them. In that time the level of internet activity from the Tunisians hadn't changed but was mostly ignored until the fleeing of President Ben Ali. It took nearly a month for the coverage on social networks to hit the headlines in any meaningful way. Perhaps the area of social media that is most overstated is its ability to organise. Much was made of how Iranians used Twitter to liaise during their protests in 2009 and the same has been said of Tunisia. It's wrong to altogether dismiss this notion - every generation uses the tools at their disposal to organise. Also we can't downplay the need for activists to use online media to express political thought in countries where it isn't always easy to do so openly. But the idea that Tunisians took to the streets after seeing a Facebook status is to dismiss the decades of frustration and anger that has


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


built up in the country. Technological advancements have the ability to help mass movements but they do not cause mass movements. The same is generally true with Wikileaks. We should always support the brilliant work done by the whistle-blowing website, but its revelations about Tunisia brought no surprises for the people who had been living in that authoritarian regime. CNN reporter Ben Wedeman said, "No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned Twitter, Facebook or Wikileaks. It's all about unemployment, corruption, oppression." The mass media does not purposefully set out to deny the ability of people to bring about change by themselves, but the constant talk of Twitter revolts and Wikileaks revolutions is the reality of looking at the world in a top-down way. Tunisians have used social media, not the other way around. The hope now is that the revolution can spread across the Arab world. The internet can help to spread the idea and give confidence to the working classes of other nations, but it has always been and will always be ordinary people who change the world. Dominic Kavakeb

Chapter two egypt And tuniSiA

the RetuRn of Revolution


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


The myths that tumble with tyrants

Mark L Thomas First published in March 2011
The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have set the entire region ablaze with revolt. Mark L Thomas opens our coverage by considering the historic significance of these events

he revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt - the Arab worlds most populous country - are of historic importance. They have set the whole region on fire as protests have spread from Yemen to Jordan to Iran. As we go to press the fate of the heroic uprising against Gaddafis regime in Libya is unclear. Even the small Persian Gulf state of Bahrain is being shaken by mass revolts at time of writing. Further upheavals and revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East cannot be ruled out. But if the immediate political reverberations of the events of January and February are clearly visible on the streets, the ideological fallout is no less significant. The fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak at the hands of a vast mobilisation by the Egyptian masses has struck a powerful blow to many of the dominant ideological assumptions of our age. The brutal US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were accompanied by loud talk of a clash of civilisations. The Islamic world in general - and Arabs in particular - were held to be incapable of internally generating democracy. Democracy could only be brought in from the outside - by F16 fighter planes and the US marine corps. But this was always a lie. It was not Islamic culture that stood in the way

of democracy in the Middle East but the suppression of political freedom by dictatorial regimes fully backed by the US and the West over decades. It is the Arab masses themselves who are the force capable of bringing democracy to the Middle East and beyond - as is now being proved in practice. But as one myth is swept aside another is resurrected. The famous claim made by Francis Fukuyama in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that liberal democracy had triumphed historically is being dusted off to suggest that Tunisians, Egyptians and millions across the region are really yearning after American values. US support for Ben Ali and Mubarak, as well as the ongoing backing for dictators and sheikhs who (for the time being at least) remain in their palaces, is something of an embarrassment for this argument, though it hasnt stopped the likes of former leading neocon Paul Wolfowitz and the Financial Times newspaper from making it. They all agree that liberal democracy represents the outer limit of possible social change. In fact, of course, even the battle for democracy is by no means over in Tunisia or Egypt. The key to securing it will be the deepening of the wave of workers struggles that have marked both revolutions. This development also challenges the widely accepted claim that the spread of neoliberal globalisation has destroyed the collective power of workers as footloose capital and insecure employment supposedly erode their bargaining strength. The opposite is the case. Globalisation has created powerful new concentrations of workers around the world. The Egyptian working class in 2011 is far bigger and makes up a far greater percentage of the population than the Russian working class that overthrew the tsar in 1917. But the role played by workers, especially in Egypt, opens up possibilities that were largely absent, or at least much weaker, in the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Indonesia in 1998, Serbia in 2000 and Argentina over

The potential for a democratic revolution to grow over, as Leon Trotsky put it, into a fight for a socialist revolution can be glimpsed in Tunisia and Egypt.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


the winter of 2000-1 (let alone the string of colour revolutions in former Soviet states, which were often little more than manoeuvres inside the ruling class encouraged by the competing imperial powers). It is this return of the organised working class to the centre of political revolutions that can throw up struggles that have the potential to go beyond the framework of liberal democracy and to strike blows at exploitation and the hierarchy of class. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken, wrote Rosa Luxemburg about the strikes that swept Germany after the overthrow of the monarchy in November 1918. The first phase of the Egyptian Revolution is over. The popular unity that seemed to stretch across classes - with even a section of the capitalist class in some sympathy for the demands for reform, or even for Mubarak to go - is likely to be replaced by growing class polarisation (Mohamed Tonsi, on page 13, shows this has already started to happen in Tunisia). Long ago Karl Marx noted this feature of revolutions. Writing about the way the February 1848 Revolution in France, which enjoyed support across the classes, gave way to the bloody battles of July, when the bourgeoisie turned its guns on the workers, he noted: The February Revolution was the nice revolution, the revolution of universal sympathies, because the contradictions which erupted in it against the monarchy were still undeveloped and peacefully dormant, because the social struggle which formed their background had only achieved an ephemeral existence, an existence in phrases, in words. The June Revolution is the ugly revolution, the nasty revolution, because the phrases have given place to the real thing, because the republic has bared the head of the monster by knocking off the crown which shielded and concealed it.

ruary 1917 in Russia, where workers councils were set up immediately (drawing on the memory of the first Russian Revolution in 1905) and the Petrograd garrison mutinied within days. But the potential for a democratic revolution to grow over, as Leon Trotsky put it in his theory of permanent revolution, into a fight for a socialist revolution can already be glimpsed in Tunisia and Egypt. The hope is that this process can continue and become stronger and in turn renew the belief that the real alternative to liberal democracy lies not in authoritarian versions of capitalism, from China to Iran, but the abolition of capitalist exploitation itself.

Workers power
The working class in Egypt today is vastly more powerful than in France in 1848. But key tasks lie ahead: deepening the strike wave, of electing workers councils that link together workers across factories and industries, which can become the embryo of organs of workers power and of a more decisive confrontation with the core of the Egyptian state machine. This will involve the attempt to break the army along class lines. In this sense the revolution in Egypt has not yet reached the scale of Feb-


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


The gravedigger of dictatorship

Anne Alexander First published March 2011
There have been many conflicting interpretations of events in Egypt. Anne Alexander argues that the working class is the key force in Egyptian society with the power to drive the revolution forward

few short weeks into the Egyptian Revolution the number of contradictory labels it wears is already growing with dizzying speed. In the Western media it is painted as a flower revolution - a heartwarming example of a leaderless people power movement. A considerable body of deluded neocon opinion in the US sees the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak as a confirmation that George W Bush was right to try to impose democracy on the Middle East through the barrel of a gun. Military analysts at Stratfor and a good part of the BBCs senior journalists seem to think it is an old-fashioned military coup. Other voices clamour for the recognition of the Egyptian Revolution as an internet-driven revolt or a sinister Islamist conspiracy. This article takes a different perspective. I argue that the Egyptian Revolution demonstrates, with a force not seen in the Arab world for more than half a century, that the power that can liberate society from below lies with the organised working class. The strikes which spread like wildfire across Egypt in the last days before Mubaraks fall suddenly made workers power visible. Yet it was deeper and

longer-term processes of both global and local economic change which fractured the Egyptian state and created the conditions for the revolt. In particular, the toxic chemistry between the neoliberal reforms, promoted by Hosni Mubaraks son, Gamal, and his cronies, and the backwash from the global economic crisis played the central role in breaking workers materially and ideologically from the regime. Yet the first phase of the revolution - the 18 days of mobilisation on a scale recalling scenes from the 1848 revolutions or Russia in February 1917 - was also the product of Egypts culture of protest, nurtured by a decade of struggles between the state and the people in the streets. Western journalists and Barack Obamas advisers may have been surprised by the sudden eruption of popular anger against a stable ally, but anyone who had watched the ebb and flow of protests since 2000 - over Palestine, against the war on Iraq, for democracy and constitutional reform, for better pay and trade union rights, and against police torture - should not have been. However, analysis of the dynamics of the uprising itself shows that the 25 January revolution was more than an aggregator of disparate political and economic demands. Rather the scale of mobilisation from below and the pressure it exerted on the state transformed and deepened the relationship between the economic and political struggles. In Mubaraks final days it was the deployment of workers social power against the state, and in particular the strike wave which erupted on 8 February, which finally cracked the regime. The fact that the people were still in the streets as Mubarak was forced out of power opens up possibilities for further extending the revolutionary process, already glimpsed in the explosion of strikes in the week following the dictators fall.

Fracturing the state

The junior army officers who seized power and overthrew the monarchy in 1952 set Egypt on the path to state capitalist development. Under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser they used the states resources to found heavy industries, took control of the Suez Canal in order to finance the building of the Aswan High Dam, and built up manufacturing to supply Egyptian markets. This economic strategy was connected to the creation of political institutions which sought to bind workers and peasants to the state. Workers were


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


offered a social contract where in return for renouncing their political independence they could expect some gains, such as subsidised housing, education, other welfare benefits and relative job security. Nasserist rhetoric, particularly in its late phase, idealised workers for their contribution to national development. But the Nasserist state crushed independent workers organisations and in their place built an official trade union federation which was subservient to the government.

The conditions which allowed Nasser and his colleagues to pursue this particular strategy for economic development had started to change by the late 1960s as ruling classes on a global scale began to search for alternatives to state-led development. After Nasser died in 1970, his successor, Anwar Sadat, broke with the USSR and by the end of the decade had sealed a new partnership with the US. Sadat pioneered a policy of economic opening (infitah) in order to receive loans from international financial institutions. During Mubaraks later years the process of infitah continued and deepened, with the imposition of a structural adjustment programme following the 1991 Gulf War. The percentage of workers employed in the state sector shrank from 40 percent in 1981-2 to 32 percent in 2004-5. However, these figures hide a more dramatic story of increased unemployment, rising job insecurity and the destruction of large parts of the welfare system. Between 1998 and 2006 the percentage of workers with an employment contract dropped from 61.7 percent to 42 percent while the percentage covered by social insurance fell from 54.1 percent to 42.3 percent during the same period. Nasser constructed a political system which, despite some tinkering by Sadat and Mubarak, survived decades after his death. Although his successors did allow fake opposition parties to exist - so long as they remained weak and subservient to the ruling party - they did not fundamentally change the basic political system. Until the 2011 revolution, Egypt had a two-class electoral franchise, with workers and peasants voting for one set of parliamentary representatives and middle class professionals voting for another set. So the state-controlled trade union federation was not merely an instrument of social control within the workplace, where it sought to manage workers discontent in the interest of the state, but also a giant electoral machine de-

livering pro-regime voters to the polling stations and turning out crowds of workers to cheer Mubarak and his cronies. At an ideological level too, the legacy of Nasserism outlived its creator by several decades. Workers identification with the goals of state-led national development could be seen even at the sharpest moments of class struggle. Workers resistance did explode from time to time - for example in Mahalla al-Kubra in 1984, at the Helwan iron and steel plants in 1989 and in Kafr al-Dawwar in 1994. But rather than withdrawing their labour and stopping production, workers generally chose to stage work-ins - a gesture meant to signify that they, unlike their leaders, were still committed to a vision of common sacrifice for the sake of the nation. The reforms of the 1990s and beyond fractured the Nasserist system on several different levels. Privatisation removed hundreds of thousands of workers from state industries and transferred their bonuses and workplace-based welfare benefits to the bank accounts of private shareholders. Deprived of its role in channelling welfare to workers, the state-run trade union federation rotted from within. It continued to mobilise voters for ruling party election rallies and to harass and intimidate workers who attempted to organise resistance from below, but in large areas of the country its organisational structure was a hollow shell of paper members and a handful of self-serving bureaucrats. In late 2006 a strike by around 25,000 textile workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra opened the gates to a prolonged wave of workers mobilisation. Strikes spread rapidly from sector to sector, and among some groups of workers, particularly the Mahalla textile workers and the property tax collectors, took on an explicitly political character, demanding the right to organise independent trade unions and calling for an increase in the national minimum wage. The widespread adoption of strikes as a weapon, rather than work-ins, was a testimony to the shift in workers consciousness. It is important to understand that these developments are not simply the

The reforms of the 1990s and beyond fractured the Nasserist system on several different levels.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


result of local factors, but are intimately connected to global processes. The imposition of neoliberal economic reform programmes on variants of state capitalist regimes has been played out across the world. Short-term shocks have also played a central role, particularly the international rise in food prices which was driving workers protests against the spiralling cost of living even before the onset of the global economic crisis.

Holes in the wall of dictatorship

The strike wave of 2006 erupted into a context which had already been changed by popular protest. Although compared with the millions of demonstrators who took part in the 25 January revolution the numbers of protesters were often relatively small, the ferment in the streets since the second Palestinian Intifada in late 2000 marked a dramatic shift in the Egyptian political landscape. The first really significant breakthrough came in 2003, when tens of thousands of demonstrators took control of Cairos Tahrir Square in protests against the US invasion of Iraq, punching a hole in the wall of dictatorship, as one Egyptian socialist activist put it at the time. Further holes appeared in the dictatorship over the following few years. In 2005 a loose alliance of radical Nasserists, liberals and socialists - supported by some elements in the Muslim Brotherhood - launched a campaign opposing Mubaraks renewed candidacy for presidency and his attempts to hand power over to his son, Gamal. Street protests crystallised around the slogan Kifaya - Enough! and began to draw in growing numbers of young people. Today it is hard to remember what an unusually daring step this was for the small forces of the radical opposition groups. They were publicly crossing the red line preventing criticism of the president. The following year saw a revolt by judges incensed at the regimes blatant election-rigging and persecution of those who spoke out against it. Hundreds of judges in full official regalia marched through Cairo in protest at the disciplining of two reform-minded members of the Court of Cassation. The sense of the state at war with itself was palpable, as riot police beat judges on the steps of their club building and tear-gassed lay supporters of the judges campaign. Rising levels of workers struggles intersected with a revival of youth activism in 2008, which saw the regime face its biggest challenge before the 2011 revolution. A call for a strike by textile workers at Misr Spinning in

Mahalla was taken up by networks of youth activists. A Facebook group supporting the Mahalla workers and calling for a general strike in solidarity gained around 70,000 members. On 6 April 2008 the actual strike in Mahalla was aborted by the police, but their attack on demonstrators touched off a near-insurrection in the town. Meanwhile, the Facebook strike found an echo in large demonstrations on most university campuses and shuttered shops across the capital. The final surge of protest before 25 January came in the summer of 2010, when the murder of a young internet activist, Khaled Said, by the police provoked demonstrations of thousands in his home city of Alexandria. It would be easy with hindsight to plot a smooth upward curve of struggle from 2000 to 2011. In reality, these waves of protest were mostly discontinuous, with one set of demonstrations petering out, or being beaten off the streets, a few months before the eruption of the next. The gap between the economic demands raised by workers and the highly political claims of largely middle class professionals calling for constitutional reform was, some argued, a sign that attempts to unite opponents of Mubarak were doomed to failure.

The spell of fear

Despite this, Mubaraks last decade played a crucial role in his downfall. It was on these disparate protests that a generation of activists from different political traditions - Islamist, Nasserist, liberal and socialist - learnt techniques of political organisation. In the space of these ten years the radical opposition groups acquired sustained experience of organising protests, maintaining activist networks and building tactical alliances across different political traditions. Above all, they collectively broke the spell of fear around street politics which the regime had enforced for more than a generation. Of all the protests, it was the strike wave which established a dynamic of what Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg called reciprocal action between the economic and political struggles against the regime. As Luxemburg observed during the 1905 Revolution in Russia, the interaction between economic and political struggles could not simply be understood as a linear progression from bread and butter economic demands to the political question of state power. The process of reciprocal action could be seen at work in a pendulum motion between political and economic struggles,


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


she argued, where after every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. However, in the case of workers struggles, their social power and collective organisation invested even their everyday battles in the workplace with a political dimension which opened up new horizons for further political action. Egyptian workers took by storm the same rights which other political campaigns for democracy had been forced to abandon under pressure from the state: the right to assembly, the right to protest, the right to free speech. The strike wave carved out spaces for discussion and organisation in thousands of workplaces across the country, driving the struggle deep into the fabric of Egyptian society. After 25 January 2011 processes which developed over a decade - wresting control of the streets from the police, protest demands directly challenging Mubarak, the increasing interaction between economic and political struggles - were suddenly compressed into the space of days. The opening moves came from opposition activists who seized the opportunity created by the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia to call for nationwide protests. A Facebook group calling for the demonstrations, We are all Khaled Said, named after the activist murdered by the police in Alexandria in summer 2010, gathered hundreds of thousands of members. An alignment of the radical opposition groups took shape, bringing together revolutionary socialists, liberals, democracy activists, Nasserists, independent trade unionists and eventually the Muslim Brotherhood. Protest organisers agreed a new tactic to beat police blockades: a range of different assembly points, rather than one central march or rally. Early on 25 January it was clear that the scale of the demonstrations was greater than anything Egypt had witnessed for years - possibly decades. First a dozen, then a hundred, then thousands of holes were punched in the wall of dictatorship. Tens of thousands of people poured through them: in Nasr City, Giza and Shubra; in Alexandria, in Mansoura, in Suez, in Assyut. Over the following days the demonstrations gathered pace. Friday 28 January was the movements first major test. The police locked down the city centres, and the regime shut down the mobile phone networks and the internet. Protesters used mosques as rallying points and marched to retake the streets. Estimates of the numbers on the streets ran into hundreds of thou-

sands, as huge crowds of demonstrators battled with the police. Mubarak sacked his cabinet, withdrew the police from the burnt-out shells of their police stations and deployed the army. Local popular committees sprang up across the country to protect homes and neighbourhoods from attack by thugs, many believed to be policemen in plain clothes. Further demonstrations over the weekend culminated in a march of millions on Tuesday 1 February, which finally wrung grudging concessions from Mubarak. In a televised speech he said he would not stand again for election and promised to rewrite part of the constitution. The regime struck back on Wednesday 2 February, mobilising its plainclothes thugs to attack demonstrators in Alexandria and Cairo. Demonstrators in Tahrir Square faced a surprise assault by columns of attackers armed with stones, knives and Molotov cocktails, riding the horses and camels which normally give tourist rides near the Pyramids. For two days the battle for the square raged back and forth, but eventually the demonstrators gained the advantage. Hundreds of thousands again marched the following Friday, this time labelled Departure Day. Meanwhile the regime hunted desperately for potential partners in a dialogue. Some of the opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, sent representatives to meet Omar Suleiman, Mubaraks newly appointed vice-president and former spymaster in chief. Sections of the ruling class, including figures such as businessmen Ahmed Bahgat and Naguib Sawiris, began to openly back some of the demonstrators demands, while attempting to position themselves to play a political role in the expected transitional period. Still tens of thousands held their ground in the streets and, despite the violent rhetoric coming from the regimes spokesmen and hired reporters, new people began to come. Families with young children mingled with the crowds in Tahrir Square and a young couple were married there on the Sunday afternoon.

It was on Tuesday 8 February that the balance of forces shifted again - this time decisively against Mubarak. A ripple of strikes spread from a few workplaces - the Suez Canal service workers, telecom workers in Cairo and the Helwan steel workers were among the first - gathering force as it washed across Egypt. By 9 February the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Rights estimated that up to 300,000 workers were on strike across 15 governorates. From hospital technicians and cement workers to postal workers and textile workers, they occupied and struck, raising a potent mixture of economic demands and support for the revolution. Delegations of striking workers now joined the crowds in Tahrir Square, and outside the presidential palace and the radio and television building by the Nile. Amid swirling rumours that he would resign, Mubarak made a final televised statement on Thursday 10 February but still refused to step down. Small numbers of army officers could be seen addressing the crowds in Tahrir Square. One officer telephoned Al Jazeera to resign live on air and announced that he had joined the peoples revolution. While the army commanders met for hours behind closed doors, the crowds swelled again. Cairo seemed poised on the brink of a final insurrection. The edifice of the state finally cracked on 11 February. The senior army commanders took power and removed Mubarak from office. Three key things stand out from the story of the 25 January revolution. Firstly, the 18 days of confrontation were shaped by many of the same dynamics of protest as the previous decade, but operating at a deeper level and across a much shorter timescale. Protesters seized key areas of the major cities, particularly Tahrir Square, and turned them into strategic assets for the revolutionary movement. Tahrir Square, with its self-organised security committees, scavenged barricades, volunteer medics and street sweepers, sound systems, tents and banners, became - like the hundreds of occupied factories over the previous five years - liberated territory. It was a place to debate, but also an organising centre from which activists went out to win arguments for bringing factories, offices and neighbourhoods into the revolution. Defence of this space rested not only on the sheer weight of numbers, but also on political organisation. The Muslim Brotherhood youth activists, for example, played a central role in protecting the square from attack by the government thugs and at the checkpoints around the perimeter. Yet the

Tahrir Square, like the hundreds of occupied factories over the previous five years, became liberated territory.

Brotherhood did not dominate the space inside but rather remained caught within its own contradictions - held in balance between its young members identification with the broader revolutionary movement and the aspiration of its leadership to strike a deal with the state. That equilibrium not only helped to keep the streets open for protest but also created a space in which, despite their smaller numbers, voices from the revolutionary left have reached new audiences and won new recruits. Secondly, however, if the revolution had only remained in the streets, even in the numbers which came out after 25 January, it is uncertain whether this would have been enough to cause the state to crack from above. Just as during the previous decades struggles for democracy and reform, the alliance of different social and political groups mobilised for change did not make a breakthrough until the revolution crossed from the political to the social domain, going from the streets into the workplaces and rousing workers to take collective action, fusing their own demands with the wider goals of the movement. Moreover, the cracks in the regimes machinery of political and social control which allowed this process to take place did not simply appear on 25 January, but rather have their origin in the long-term impact of neoliberal reforms on the structure of the Nasserist state.

The role of the military

Finally, there is the question of the role of the military. In essence, what the mass movement from below achieved was to force one part of the state - the Armed Forces High Command - to cut out the cancer that Mubarak had become in order to save the state as a whole. This is clearly not the same as the mass movement seizing power on its own behalf. Nor have the armed forces disintegrated either vertically, with splits appearing between rival commanders, or horizontally, along class lines as the Russian army did in 1917. Yet it would be a mistake to see the removal of Mubarak as simply a coup d tat, or to underestimate the difficulties military rulers face if they try to demobilise the revolutionary movement by force. The situation is fundamentally different from that of 1952, when a small circle of junior army officers acted after the mass protest movement had temporarily exhausted itself. The streets were empty when Nasser led his forces to seize the palace, radio station and barracks. Here the turn towards the social struggle again becomes crucial. In February 2011 the revolution had already entered the workplaces


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


before the military acted. In 1952 one strike by textile workers at Kafr alDawwar threatened the new military regime and it was crushed by the army. A week after Mubaraks fall hundreds of workplaces were on strike, including the giant Mahalla textile plant with its workforce of 24,000. If there is to be real change for the millions in Egypt, and not just the millionaires like Naguib Sawiris and Ahmed Bahgat, the revolution needs to deepen further. Organised workers are becoming a social force within the developing revolutionary movement, and they have consciously deployed their collective social power to achieve the movements first political goal: the removal of Mubarak. In only 18 days Egyptian workers have travelled further down the road to human liberation than their parents and grandparents managed in a lifetime. But there is much still to do: kicking the ruling partys henchmen out of every workplace and neighbourhood, building independent unions and, above all, creating new institutions of workers democracy which can start to act, at least in embryo, as alternative centres of state power.

The revolution has only just begun

Mohamed Tonsi First published March 2011
With dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali long gone, media attention on Tunisia has waned. But there is now an ongoing battle to cleanse the country of Ben Ali's cronies, reports Mohamed Tonsi

he flight of dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was only the first chapter of the Tunisian Revolution. The mobilisation of the people, organised in neighbourhood militias, foiled the first attempt at counterrevolution by the remnants of the president's loyalists. The liberation caravan which came from regions where the revolution started and blockaded the prime minister's office for more than a week led to the reshuffle of a government - formed less than two weeks previously - which had kept ruling party figures in key positions. This success encouraged the masses to demand the full removal of the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Finally, the minister of the interior had to bow to popular pressure and froze the activities of the RCD, banning any meetings of its members pending its dissolution. In cities, towns and villages across the country, governors, mayors and municipal assemblies close to the old regime were forced out of office. When I phoned my cousin, who lives in the coastal village of Korba, to ask how the family is doing, he told me, "We are doing fine. Today the people gathered together and we managed to expel the mayor and the municipal assembly. They are a


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


bunch of RCD cronies!" The new foreign minister, Ahmed Ounais, faced the same fate after a press conference in Luxembourg. Here he refused to describe the events in Tunisia as a revolution, and praised the French foreign minister Michle AlliotMarie, who had offered to help Ben Ali's police before his fall, calling her a visionary and a friend of the Tunisian nation. Finally, he refused to comment on the events unfolding in Egypt. Two hundred outraged employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs walked out and besieged the minister's office before issuing a communiqu in support of the Egyptian people.

Mutual inspiration
There is a reverberation between the revolutions in the two countries. The main slogan used in Egypt - "The people want to bring down the regime" originated in Tunisia, and the 50,000-strong demonstration in Sfax, the second biggest Tunisian city, was called as a "day of rage" just one day after the first day of Egyptian rage. The recent success of the Egyptian Revolution has inspired the Tunisian people to match the Egyptian achievements and call for the dissolution of parliament and the upper house, and for the formation of a constitutional assembly. Following the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, inspired by the swift successes in the two countries, and intoxicated by the infinite realm of new possibilities, crowds started chanting an even more daring slogan: "The people want to liberate Palestine!" Although the momentum of the revolution has not faltered, the danger of counterrevolution is still present. Counterrevolutionary forces will always try to diminish, if not reverse, the achievements of revolutions. The latest attempt has been the formation of a government of ultra-liberal technocrats who, while having no links with the old regime, have been hand-picked by the bourgeoisie to defend their interests. To add insult to injury, prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has hired as an adviser an ex-banker, and expert in "political marketing", who advised Ben Ali during his final days in office. This can only fuel the social discontent and the industrial action already taking place in many areas, not simply over pay but mainly to win permanent contracts for the large contingents of temporary workers. It is very interesting to notice the spontaneous and organised reactions of

the bourgeoisie to these demands. Groups with tens of thousands of members have been formed on Facebook with slogans like, "This is a revolution of free men not of beggars" and a sarcastic, "The unemployed have started the revolution and the employed want a pay rise". The class struggle is becoming increasingly obvious and is starting to polarise those who were united in calling for Ben Ali to "get the hell out". The revolution has achieved all the demands of the bourgeoisie by ousting the dictator and his party. According to them, the nation, meaning the workers, should go back to hard work. Leading these efforts to tame the revolution is the wealthy Mabrouk family - a member of which is Ben Ali's son in law - who are still free to continue their business as usual. They are trying to transform the revolution of the people into a "palace coup" and are happy to throw other families to popular vengeance. The adviser to the prime minister and at least three other new ministers have historical links to this family and their business empire. The revolution gathered momentum through the formation of local councils for protection of the revolution in several cities and towns. These pushed the opposition political parties, the UGTT union federation, the union of students and many other civil society associations to declare the formation of a nationwide council for the protection of the revolution. In total, 28 groups signed this declaration, including communists, social democrats, nationalists, Islamists and even the association of veterans of the anti-colonial struggle. This offers accountability over the actions of the transitional government and an overview of the task of changing legislation over electoral law, media and justice in order to pave the way for democratic elections. The UGTT presented this declaration to the transitional government who declined it on 16 February. As I write, calls are being made for countrywide demonstrations demanding the resignation of the transitional government.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Mubarak: ally of imperialism

Simon Assaf First published March 2011
For 30 years Egypt has been the linchpin of US and Israeli domination across the Middle East. Simon Assaf charts the history of Western support for Mubarak and the consequences of his downfall

of other countries. It was key to isolating Syria and Iran, nations that refused to bow to US diktats in the "new Middle East". Measured in hard cash, the Israeli-Egyptian peace dividend, known as the "cold peace", remained at a modest $500 million a year in trade. Israeli tourists could take Nile cruises or smoke hashish in Sharm el-Sheikh holiday resorts, and Israeli businessmen could set up free enterprise zones - mainly to guarantee the US market for Egyptian cotton. But the rewards for Israel were far greater. Before 1978 Israel dedicated some 23 percent of its GDP to military spending; after Camp David this dropped to 9 percent.

Cold peace
The treaty had more dramatic consequences. It allowed Israel, virtually unhindered, to turn its full might on the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria. The 1978 Camp David Accords were signed as Israel staged its first invasion of Lebanon. Israeli troops completed the final handover of the Sinai in 1982, before launching the second, and more devastating, invasion of Lebanon. An Egypt friendly to the US guaranteed the safety of the Red Sea and key supply lines for the US occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Egypt was a great strategic asset. Camp David was hailed as a master stroke. The cold peace became the cornerstone of imperial strategy in the region, but Egypt also began to matter economically. Some 8 percent of global seaborne trade passes through the Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The strategically vital Sumed pipeline than runs along its banks is part of a network of global oil distribution. Egypt has recently discovered vast reserves of natural gas, oil and coal, and has big industry, with steel foundries, textile mills and car plants. So Egypt is an economic as well as strategic prize, and China has been hovering for a while in its attempt to displace US and Western capital in the region. Egypt straddles Africa and the Middle East, and in Africa, China matters. Chinese investment in the continent has mushroomed over the past decade, and Egypt is part of this expansion. In 2002 Sino-Egyptian trade was worth $500 million; by 2006 it had reached $3 billion and in 2008 a staggering $6.24 billion. Chinese money is funding a huge expansion of the container terminal in Port Said that will serve as a key hub for its goods bound for European markets. It is modernising the car industry and building high-end electronics factories and other manufacturing plants along the "enterprise

hen the mass demonstrations that swept Egypt turned into an insurrection, US president Barack Obama demanded to know why Middle East experts in Washington failed to predict that a revolution was about to sweep away its most important ally in the Arab world. That the Middle East is a huge pressure cooker of anger and frustration was known to all. But some Israelis, neocons and many Arab leaders had convinced themselves that if the Arab masses had not risen in rebellion already, they never would. The Egyptian Revolution has dispelled those illusions and thrown into doubt decades of US military, political and economic thinking designed to break an alliance of Arab states that emerged out of the anti-colonial revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s. The cornerstone of this strategy was to keep Egypt "neutral" and isolate any country that challenged imperialism and Israel. Egypt's peace treaties with Israel, signed by Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak's predecessor, at Camp David in 1978-9, shifted the balance of power dramatically in the region. Stabilising Egypt meant stabilising Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen and a host


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


zones" near the canal. It has much at stake in Egypt. China was cautious of drawing too close to an Egypt allied to the US, but now it sees an opportunity and it brings little ideological baggage with it. The US might have a deep political connection with Israel, but China doesn't. Arab protesters do not burn the Chinese flag. So China can present itself as an honest broker in the same way the US did during the dying days of British and French colonial rule. The more aggressive and narrow US and Israeli strategy is, the more it stonewalls even the most moderate peace plan, the greater the risk that Egypt will slip further into the arms of China. Israel has a second pressing problem - its disastrous relationship with Turkey, a key Middle East nation once considered, like Egypt, to be friendly. The Israelis have been slowly burning their bridges with Ankara, and relations soured further following Israel's bloody attack on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish aid ship which attempted to break the siege of Gaza. Turkey, once a dependable ally, had already resisted US demands to use its territory as a launch-pad for its invasion of Iraq. Now the Turkish regime has started its "turn to the east", reheating its once frosty relations with its neighbours - it recently sealed its rapprochement with Syria and has warm relations with Iran. With the Egyptian state now under massive pressure from below, Israel may find it has few friends left. Even before the Egyptian Revolution, Israel was learning that its military power had limits. The failed occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in a humiliating retreat in May 2000, was followed by a disastrous war in 2006, when it was outfought and outthought by Hezbollah and the Lebanese resistance. Even its grip on the Palestinians was not assured, with stubborn resistance in the West Bank and an untamed armed opposition in the Gaza Strip. A combination of the US's disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Israel's clumsy attempts to suppress Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement, already set nerves jangling. In the weeks before

The US is banking on skilfully talking down the Egyptian Revolution and it is attempting to sell itself as a friend of the people.

the Egyptian Revolution the parliamentary alliance headed by Hezbollah forced out of office the US-backed prime minister of Lebanon. Israel already had a delicate situation on the "northern front"; now it has a disastrous one in the south. The region has seen some fundamental social changes in the era of the cold peace. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s Israel confronted societies that were overwhelmingly rural and economically stagnant, by the turn of this century the Arab world had become urban, sophisticated and relatively advanced. Even countries such as Lebanon, vastly poorer that its oil-rich neighbours, have been transformed. In the 1960s three out of four Lebanese lived off the land; now some eight out of ten live in cities. This is true of most other Arab nations, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf states becoming fully integrated into global capitalism. But these historic social changes are not reflected in the Arab regimes, whose leaders owe their position to events that took place in a world that has long gone. The dysfunctional relationship between the rulers and the "street" had long been seen as a problem by Western governments, but they were too timid to press for meaningful reforms. This problem was compounded by Israel itself. Israel was already finding the Lebanese and Palestinians difficult to tame. But it could reassure itself that neither resistance movement, even with the help of Syria and Iran, could field an army of millions and march on Tel Aviv. Egypt can, and it brings some hard facts to the table. Its 82 million population dwarfs all others. More people live in the city of Alexandria than in Lebanon, and the population of Greater Cairo is bigger than that of Syria. The Israelis can ill afford a repeat of the war of attrition that culminated in Egypt's devastating 1973 offensive. Israel survived that war, but it was very close. Having relied on Israel to break the alliance of Arab nationalist regimes, the US found itself unable to rein in its ally's territorial ambitions. The US fell into a strategic trap of its own making. It dangled the prospect of a twostate solution and normalisation to the friendly Arab states, but could not get Israel to make the necessary concessions. And, as was revealed in the recently leaked Palestine Papers - which exposed negotiations between the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority - it never intended to. Israeli governments engineered the collapse of the Oslo Accords that set out


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


a two-state solution with the Palestinians, and rejected a key Saudi peace plan that offered "Arab normalisation" in return for all the lands seized after the 1967 war. By rejecting these plans, Israel slapped in the face Arab leaders who banked on an "honourable deal" they could sell back home. The Saudi plan and Oslo Accords were rotten for the Palestinians, but still insufficient to satisfy Israel's appetite. Arab leaders began to demand that the US put more pressure on Israel. Obama initiated desperate and unsuccessful attempts to reign in Israeli ambitions - even offering advanced warplanes in return for a temporary freeze on its settlements in the West Bank. Israeli stonewalling destroyed the Palestinian Authority's credibility and with it any real prospect for peace on its terms. Now Israel and imperialism face a nightmare scenario. Should Israeli troops rush to seize the Gaza Strip (as some Israeli generals are demanding) and risk dragging Egypt into war, or tread warily so as not to provoke a country in the grip of revolutionary fervour? The advice coming from the US is unequivocal. Stratfor, the renowned US think-tank, used some blunt words to sum up Israel's "strategic distress": "The worst-case scenario for Israel would be a return to the pre-1978 relationship with Egypt without a settlement with the Palestinians. That would open the door for a potential two-front war with an intifada in the middle. To avoid that, the ideological pressure on Egypt must be eased, and that means a settlement with the Palestinians on less than optimal terms. "The alternative is to stay the current course and let Israel take its chances. The question is where the greater safety lies. Israel has assumed that it lies with confrontation with the Palestinians. That's true only if Egypt stays neutral. If the pressure on the Palestinians destabilises Egypt, it is not the most prudent course." The US is banking on skilfully talking down the Egyptian Revolution and it is attempting to sell itself as a friend of the people. Yet there is an immediate and pressing question: what happens when Gaza asks for the siege to be lifted? What will be the response of an Egyptian government, whether military or civilian, that has set up shop in Mubarak's presidential palace? Either way the US is attempting, under Obama, to tread delicately. Israel could decide to gamble on a repeat of its 1967 victory, but the risks are suddenly very high. For imperialism the Egyptian effect is posing wider strategic

concerns. The waves generated by the revolution are already lapping at the shores of other Middle East countries. The uprising has emboldened already existing movements for change, with almost daily protests and demonstrations in Bahrain (home to the US Fifth Fleet), Yemen (a key US ally in the "war on terror") and Jordan (the second Arab country to make peace with Israel), as well as Algeria and Morocco. Similarly it is worth repeating that Israel is a mighty power, and the more the US loses its footing in the region, the more dependent it is on maintaining this power. Crucially for the US, the Israeli regime has vastly greater internal stability than the Arab dictatorships, as it is based on a racially exclusive settler state that owes its survival to imperialism. The US understands that, whatever the outcome of the revolution, Israel still has the ability to mete out some harsh military punishment. The US is not about to abandon Israel; it just wants it to behave, for now. The biggest fear is not only that the Egyptian Revolution reproduces itself in the rest of the region - although this seems increasingly possible - but that in the process of revolution the Arab masses have rediscovered their power and proved what is possible. The question of the direction for the Egyptian Revolution remains open-ended. But it already casts a shadow over Israel, imperialism and its allies in the region. Over the past 30 years Israel and the US were forced to look over their shoulders at a resistance armed with stones and crude rockets. Now they have come face to face with a giant.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Chapter three bAhRAin And libyA

RepReSSion & inteRvention

Bahrain: uprising and intervention

Tim Nelson First published April 2011
The arrival of Saudi Arabian troops has raised the stakes for Bahrain's fledgling revolution. Tim Nelson reports on the uprising in the Middle East's smallest state

n 14 March Saudi troops crossed the causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates has also sent about 500 police into the country. They were invited by the Bahraini government after it was becoming increasingly clear the security forces were unable to contain the mass protests against the authoritarianism of the ruling Al Khalifa family. Since 14 February there have been mass protests against the regime, demanding democratic reforms and, increasingly, the removal of the ruling family. On 13 March protesters successfully resisted a renewed onslaught by the regime's security forces. Bahrain's largest trade union federation, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, which represents 25,000 employees from 70 unions, started strike action on 13 March in support of the movement. The strike includes workers at Bahrain's two largest companies, Aluminium Bahrain and the Bahrain Petroleum Company. Trade union leaders have also announced their intention to join the opposition committee, which is leading the resistance. This sort of action is essential to victory. In Egypt and Tunisia the key to toppling the dictatorships was the working class organising and taking strike action.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


A small island, with a population of little over one million, Bahrain is the smallest of the oil-rich Gulf states. However, in February the people of Bahrain, following those of Tunisia, Egypt and across the region, came out onto the streets. From 4 February there were small demonstrations in solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and a large day of protest was called for 14 February. Thousands marched. The Bahraini government responded with a level of repression which has become all too familiar in the Arab revolutions, with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition used against peaceful protesters. The Bahraini people have responded to this violence with further protests and the occupation of the landmark Pearl Roundabout. They also targeted state buildings and the financial district. Like many countries in the Middle East, Bahrain is marked by both the brutal nature of its authoritarian regime and deep divisions among its people, which the ruling class encourages and intensifies. The Al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since it was installed by the British Empire in the 19th century and ever since has relied on the support of either British or US imperialism to maintain its power. Bahrain's security forces are equipped with US weapons, tanks and aircraft, and the US Navy's Fifth Fleet is harboured there. Since the 1930s Bahrain's economy has overwhelmingly centred on oil. Since the 1970s Bahrain has also become a financial hub for the Middle East, making the state central to Western imperialism's economic and military regional dominance. The House of Saud, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, has long supported the Al Khalifa family. Despite the vast wealth of the country, few people see its benefit.

ment, nor is its aim to replace the oppression of Shia with that of Sunnis. The significance of the movement in Bahrain, and its implications for the region, should not be underestimated. It is the first of the Arabian absolute monarchies to face mass protests on this scale. If the movement wins in Bahrain it can prove to the people of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, that the monarchies can be beaten. Also, in order to defeat the Al Khalifa family, the Bahraini people will have to overcome the deep sectarian divisions which have been exploited by the Bahraini ruling class, and that of the Middle East as a whole, for so long. A revolution of the kind we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt would send shockwaves throughout the region and beyond. That is why the Saudi intervention in Bahrain must be actively opposed by all those who stand in solidarity with the Arab people. The absolute monarchy of the House of Saud is one of the most reactionary regimes in the region. In Saudi Arabia any criticism of the regime, and its widespread human rights abuses, is punishable by imprisonment, torture or death. Women are treated as second class citizens. This brutal regime is supported by Western imperialism. After Israel, and the military dictatorship in Egypt, Saudi Arabia is the most important US ally in the region. The House of Saud fears the spread of the movement beyond Bahrain into the other Gulf states and Saudi Arabia itself. The movement that began in Tunisia, and deepened in Cairo, has spread across the Arab world and North Africa. The Saudi monarchy and its supporters in Washington and London are well aware that if the revolutions succeed they will threaten all the puppet rulers in the Arab world and Western imperialism as a whole.

Large-scale youth unemployment has been an ongoing problem in Bahrain, as have low wages for the majority of people. Although the majority of Bahrain's population are Shia Muslims, the Al Khalifa family, as well as most of the ruling elite and the hated security services, are Sunni. Shia people are often discriminated against for jobs. The elite uses discrimination and oppression of the Shia majority in order maintain support among Sunnis. Despite the overwhelming majority of protesters being Shia, and the involvement of Shia Islamist organisations in the opposition, the people of Bahrain have continued to stress that this is not an exclusively Shia move-


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Libya at the crossroads

Simon Assaf First published in April 2011
Libya's revolution faces stark choices. Simon Assaf looks at the roots of Gaddafi's regime and the danger posed by Western intervention

imperialism to hijack and derail the revolution. The demand for a "no-fly zone", and calls for deeper Western military intervention such as airstrikes, are genuine calls for help from those confronting Gaddafi's battalions. Yet what is expected from and what will be delivered by Western powers are very different. Imperialism's interest in Libya is oil. It is prepared, ultimately, to do what it takes to guarantee this supply, including the partition of the country. The call for Western intervention opens up a second danger - allowing Gaddafi's regime to present itself as an opponent of imperialism. This could isolate the revolution from the wider movement for change across the region and harden those elements inside the regime that are still wavering. The history of resistance inside the Middle East draws its legitimacy from the struggle against colonialism and imperialism - to make an alliance with imperialism will result in a loss of credibility and independence.

Gaddafi's regime
The army officers who seized power in Libya in 1969 were part of a wave of anti-colonial revolts in the 1950s and 1960s that were inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser's revolution in Egypt. Libya had been subject to brutal colonial rule under Italy from 1911 onwards and then came under British influence, which continued despite the declaration of formal independence in 1951. The young officers around Gaddafi aspired to create an independent nation-state that could tap its resources, above all its oil wealth, in order to build a modern society. Libya was then an overwhelmingly tribal society made up of nomadic or agricultural communities. However, Gaddafi's revolution did not involve the mass of people; rather it was centred on a small group of officers drawn from the middle class. The end of colonialism did not mean the end of capitalism, whatever Gaddafi's rhetoric. His state had every bit as much interest in continuing the exploitation of the mass of the population, however much of a step forward it was from colonial rule, formal or informal. In the 1970s Gaddafi undertook a massive reorganisation of the state. The regime, dominated by a small circle around him, created "revolutionary committees" in an attempt to supplant the tribal structures. These committees did not reflect the needs of the population, but served as a new source of patronage by the state.

s we go to press, Libya's revolution is at a crossroads. The uprising that erupted on 17 February faces two dangers - the possibility that an offensive by the regime of Muammar Gaddafi could crush the revolt, and that the West could intervene and undermine the revolution. This crisis is not of the revolution's making, but is nonetheless one that throws into sharp relief two possible options - to make an alliance of dependency with Western powers, or to draw on the forces that have been pushing for change across the region. The revolution in Libya rose under difficult circumstances. Unlike Tunisia, where trade unions could operate within the bounds of the regime and become a focus for discontent, or Egypt, where opposition could coalesce around the political movements and a powerful working class, Libya had no organised domestic opposition, such was the brutality and control of the regime. This meant that Libya's revolution had to start with the most rudimentary basis of organisation. Similarly the lack of any organised opposition diminished the regime's capacity to make compromise with offers of dialogue and reform. The revolution has been forced to make a series of compromises to guarantee its survival. These compromises are in danger of allowing Western


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Fearful of discontent and potential rivals, Gaddafi used the new state structures to guarantee his rule. He relocated most of the key state institutions to his hometown of Sirte, distributed jobs and services in order to cement his rule over the country, and imprisoned or murdered his opponents - even for the most modest criticism. The regime's military power was concentrated in a few well-armed and trained forces stationed away from major population centres. These forces were supplemented by hired guns and the state security network. Elements of the tribal relations remained in the national army, but this army was relegated to border patrols or protecting the oil infrastructure. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Gaddafi used the rhetoric of Arab nationalism while he tightened his grip over all aspects of Libyan society. His opposition to Western imperialism earned Libya a reputation as a bastion of anti-Western resistance. In truth, Libya's meddling inside genuine resistance movements in the region was unwelcome. His agents earned a reputation as assassins and car bombers. Gaddafi's regime dealt harshly with those who criticised his meddling, even kidnapping and murdering Musa Sadr, an influential and popular reformer in Lebanon. For many in the Middle East, Libya remained a place enveloped in darkness, whose people lived under a tyrannical and unhinged ruler. For Western powers, Gaddafi's regime was one that was prepared to make a bargain. In return for oil deals Gaddafi's past was forgotten - including attacks on Western targets. Over the past decade Libya has changed in another fundamental way. Urbanisation has weakened old tribal allegiances, with the majority of the population now employed in the state bureaucracy, offices or factories. Tribal loyalties still maintain some standing and respected elders are able to wield some moral authority, but they have become much weaker.

These social changes created a crisis for the regime. Gaddafi's national ideology - an incoherent fusion of "Arab nationalist" rhetoric, "pan-Africanism", "Islamic thought" and "socialism" as expressed in his Green Book - could not maintain a real bond between the regime and the people. Gaddafi turned instead to offer the promise of future reform under the patronage of his son, Saif al-Islam. Saif's "vision" of gradual democratisation offered hope for the

younger generation. The idea of "reform" raised the prospect that as Libya opened up to the West it could use some of the vast oil revenues to put in place real changes. The regime relaxed some of its repression, engaging many of its historical opponents in open-ended, but insubstantial, talks on change. Real power remained the preserve of a tight circle around Gaddafi. As with the Green Book ideology before it, Saif's reforms proved to be hollow. Inspired by the events in Egypt and Tunisia, a loose network of young activists joined by notables, among them judges and respected lawyers, called for peaceful protests on 17 February. These protests, despite the modest demands, turned into the first public displays of opposition to the regime. The response of the regime, spooked by the revolutions engulfing Libya's neighbours, was to open fire on the protests. The cycle of killings, funerals and more killings exploded into a national uprising. The process that had delivered victories in Tunisia and Egypt seemed at work again - small protests that turned into mass demonstrations, security forces driven off the streets, crisis inside the army, a decisive wave of mass strikes, the regimes ditching the dictators. Crowds destroyed state security buildings, burned down police stations and torched one of Gaddafi's palaces. Demonstrations of millions were closing in on the regime, and sections of the national army dissolved or joined the revolt. Amid rumours that Gaddafi had fled, a march closed in on Green Square in Tripoli. Then the regime unleashed its supporters, regime thugs and loyal troops in an attempt to crush the movement. The scale and brutality of the crackdown accelerated the collapse of sections of the regime. Libyan diplomats joined the revolt, groups of army officers released statements commanding troops to disobey orders, and towns and villages declared for the revolution.

Significant parts of the state, however, remained intact. Those loyal to Gaddafi consolidated themselves and tore through the civil and military institutions, executing those who spoke out against the terror or refused orders to open fire. The nature and extent of the cleansing of the regime are still unknown. But many hundreds are believed to have been executed, among


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


them close Gaddafi family members and former regime stalwarts. This was a mass popular uprising involving millions of people. Areas liberated from the regime put under popular control all the functions of the state, including prisons, the police and courts. Councils organised the distribution of food according to need, opened TV and radio stations, and issued revolutionary newspapers. Popular committees took over key installations such as electricity stations, the ports and other utilities. All the major liberated cities and towns are run by these revolutionary councils. Observers, including Western journalists, speak of the efficiency and energy of the councils and the relaxed air of "freedom" in rebel areas. The popular councils formed a national organisation, the Transitional National Council (TNC), to act as the leadership of the revolution. There are, however, two forces inside the TNC. There is the popular revolutionary leadership - drawn from the key leaders of the uprising, and the former high-ranking defectors of the old regime who want to set up an interim government with the backing of the West. The formation of the TNC represented a compromise between these two wings - but it had to offer a guarantee to the West that it would abide by the oil contracts signed by the Gaddafi regime. The speed of the regime's counter-offensive condensed the time needed to accomplish even the most rudimentary reorganisation by the revolution. Some 15 days into the uprising the TNC was fighting for survival. The first priority was an attempt to link up liberated areas in the east with rebellious towns and cities in the west that were under siege. Time was crucial.

The speed of the regime's counteroffensive condensed the time needed to accomplish even the most rudimentary reorganisation by the revolution.

Revolution in danger
The youth from the east, now armed and fired up by belief born out of the near impossible victory over regime forces in the early days of the uprising, stormed westwards in a doomed attempt to link up rebel areas. The revolu-

tion was now in danger, not only in the west of the country, but in the liberated east. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt now lagged behind Libya in one crucial sense. Those revolutions still face state machines that remain significantly intact, and as yet have little capability of delivering real material aid to Libya. This imbalance opened the door to Western interference. Convinced that the revolution would succeed, Western leaders manoeuvred to back the TNC. Beleaguered, the TNC now felt it had little option but to throw itself on Western mercy. The TNC's position is that there should be no foreign troops on Libyan soil, yet it was forced to call for a no-fly zone and airstrikes in an attempt to halt the regime's counter-offensive. These military setbacks forced the TNC into deeper compromises. Despite the possibility of short-term support, it was in danger of mortgaging the independence of the revolution to Western interests. The demand for Western intervention is at first sight simple to understand: The regime is launching air raids on rebel forces. The US with all its military power has the resources capable of destroying Gaddafi's warplanes and tipping the military balance in favour of the rebels. This is, however, a mistaken and dangerous simplification of the role of imperialism, whose interests are not those of the revolution. Western governments have been prepared to make deals with the regime before, and are willing to do so again, including the de facto partition of the country - leaving the revolution abandoned in the west and the east reduced to a Western pawn. There are many who agree that Western interference is not ideal, but make the case that even a revolution heavily indebted to the West is preferable to a regime victory. But this is not the first time resistance movements in the Middle East have faced overwhelming odds. Both the Palestinian movement and the resistance in Lebanon are confronted by a military power far more powerful than Gaddafi's. Their ability to survive and, significantly, Lebanon's victory over Israel in the 2006 war, were based on popular support and leadership that sought above all else to represent the interests of the resistance, not an external power. The Libyan revolution has deep support among people in the region who are engaged in historic struggles for change. Their interests are those of the ordinary Libyans. By seeking an alliance with the West, the Libyan revo-


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


lution is in danger of cutting itself adrift from these forces. The uprisings sweeping across the Middle East are confronting established regimes that are prepared to unleash unbelievable cruelty. For the revolutions to be successful they have to look to the forces that have, against all odds, already shaken the region.

Chapter four egypt

StRikeS, eleCtionS And the iSlAmiStS


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Act II of the Egyptian Revolution

Phil Marfleet First published in June 2011
Act I of the Egyptian Revolution culminated with the fall of the dictator. Act II is a far more complex process in which Egyptians address the problem of the dictatorship. How to consolidate and expand their new freedoms? How to continue the momentum of change? How to alleviate the problems of everyday life? How to challenge military rule?

n three key areas collective action continues apace. The workers movement has advanced since the strikes of early February which played a key role in convincing military leaders to remove Mubarak. Every area of industry has been affected, with numerous actions organised by workplace and union groups on pressing issues: wages, contracts, pensions, conditions, union rights, welfare provision, and bullying and corrupt managements. The official Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was a tool of the Mubarak regime. The workers movement has established an Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EITUF), initially composed of 14 unions. May Day celebrations in Tahrir Square, with EITUF a key participant, marked the first occasion in over 60 years on which workers have organised a national public demonstration without police intervention, an index of how far Egypt has come since the revolution began on 25 January. The pace of industrial struggle is nonetheless uneven. According to activists in Cairo, during February there were 500 separate industrial actions,

while in March the level dropped to 200. But in April the level rose again and in May there were new developments including the first nationwide doctors strike. This demanded radical reform of the health service in the name of social justice. The doctors syndicate, formerly a mainly conservative professional association, has been deeply affected by the mood of the mass of the population. It organised for indefinite strike action to secure improved wages and an increase in government spending on health from 3.5 percent to 15 percent of the national budget. Muhammad Shafiq, a member of the national strike committee, said, Healthcare is not a luxury; it is a basic human right. We are undertaking this strike action specifically for the sake of poor and underprivileged patients. Within hours the prime minister and finance minister met a doctors delegation and conceded its main demands. This is a huge boost for every Egyptian. The Mubarak regime was dedicated to the reduction of public spending in all areas. The strike shows how workers can combine for the general good, winning tangible gains which increase confidence in the revolutionary process. In the countryside there have been over 100,000 encroachments on private property since the revolution began. These are mainly actions by peasants attempting to retrieve land seized by landowning families of the colonial era who have benefited from a law imposed in 1997 allowing former landowners rights to land distributed to fallaheen (cultivators) under reforms of the 1950s and 1960s. Backed by police who violently enforced eviction orders, they succeeded in removing a million farmers and their families. According to the Land Centre for Human Rights, over the past decade some five million people have been forced into penury, while each year on average 100 people have been killed in disputes, 1,000 have been injured and 3,000 arrested, the vast majority being peasants fighting for access to plots their families had cultivated for 50 years. A new development is the establishment of independent peasant unions which support collective action including retrieval of land. In May a conference held in the village of Kamshish, a historic centre of peasant struggles, founded a new Union of Egyptian Farmers. Among its aims is the building of a national co-operative movement run by farmers at grassroots level. In cities and villages across the country neighbourhood action groups have proliferated. As Popular Committees to Defend the Revolution they were formed initially to protect local communities from gangs of plainclothes po-


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


lice like those which battled activists in Tahrir Square in February. The committees have since led campaigns to purge corrupt officials, to reform public services including education, health, water supply and sewerage, and to tackle local issues such as control of traffic. Their national coordinating body met for the first time in Tahrir Square in April. Its newspaper, Revolutionary Egypt, argues for unification of diverse struggles from below: The inspiring thing in the Egyptian Revolution and at the heart of the Tunisian Revolution was the unity and coalescence of the people over days and weeks united by the clear and specific demand for the fall of the regime. Every difference and distinction that separated people before the revolution disappeared off to the side, and nothing remained except one difference: the distinction between the conquerors and the conquered, between the oppressors and the oppressed, and between the governors and the governed. Differences disappeared in the struggle and in the process and preparations for sacrifice for the sake of freedom, justice, and respect between men and women, between Copts and Muslims, and even between the young and the old Our revolution is still at the beginning, and many of the demands of the revolution are still waiting to be achieved. Their achievement requires the unity that gathered us in the [Tahrir] square. These developments give testimony to the advance of the revolutionary process, which combines economic and political issues, presses forward democratic demands and challenges those in authority. The vigour of the mass movement has ensured that, despite the initial resistance of military men who formally control Egypt through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, key figures of the Mubarak regime have been held to account imprisoned and investigated for crimes including assault on revolutionary activists and the illicit accumulation of wealth. Among the Mubarak familywhich only months ago seemed ready to create a 21st century Pharaonic dynastythe former president is under house

arrest, his wife Suzanne has been detained periodically and forced to give up millions of dollars, and sons Gamal and Alaa are in Tura Prison, where the regime once incarcerated thousands of political prisoners. Some of their closest collaboratorsincluding former ministers, property developers and bosses of industrial and agribusiness corporationshave been charged with involvement in crooked deals which involved the sale of vast areas of state land at knock-down prices. But most of those who profited from Mubaraks networks of privilege are still free and the apparatus of state repression is largely intact, raising testing questions about how the revolution is to proceed.

Mubaraks men
Prime minister Sharaf (put in place by the generals) and the ruling Supreme Council are committed to much of the Mubarak agenda. They have said that economic policy will not changedespite powerful evidence that 30 years of aggressive neo-liberal strategy have brought huge increases in inequality and conflicts like those on the land. They have also endorsed existing foreign policies, including close collaboration with the United States and with Israelarrangements under which the Egyptian army has policed the people of Gaza. Each and every member of the Supreme Council is a Mubarak appointee. Most do not enjoy the vast wealth accumulated by venal businessmen like those who clustered around the Mubarak sons; they have nonetheless been provided with huge salaries, homes, holidays, special schools, foreign travel and all the other perks required to assure loyalty to the dictatorship. Without exception they have progressed through officer corps trained and armed by the US. They have been part of American intelligence operations and of projects of extraordinary rendition through which prisoners seized by the US worldwide have been transported to Egypt for torture. In February, under immense pressure from below (and in fear that they could not guarantee the loyalty of a conscript army), the generals removed Mubarak and conceded partial freedoms including the right to protest and to form independent political parties and trade unions. Even these changes were hedged around with many restrictions, however, and the council rushed through a referendum on constitutional reform which ensured that changes to the electoral system would be limited and closely controlled.

Despite the initial resistance of military men who formally control Egypt, key figures of the Mubarak regime have been held to account.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Their strategy is now one of containment and co-option. The council has retained the notorious Emergency Laws imposed by Mubarak in 1981even though ending the Emergency has been a key demand of the mass movement. In March, Sharaf issued a decree that criminalised demonstrations and occupations seen to interrupt businesses or affect the economy in any way, prescribing severe punishment for those inciting such actions. Shortly afterwards troops assaulted a demonstration in Tahrir Square, killing at least two protesters. In May police and troops fired at demonstrators who had marched to the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in solidarity with Palestinians marking Nakba Day. Two more people were killed and many seriously injured. For the left these interventions mark a new and dangerous phase in the containment strategy. The Revolutionary Socialists organisation has declared that by assaulting demonstrators at the embassy, ministers and the generals publicly placed themselves at the service of Israel the state with which Mubarak had made so many compromising agreements. It was clear, they said, that Sharaf and the military are the successors of Mubarak. There will be more angry demonstrations over the governments shameful stance on Palestine (at the time of writing its promise to open the Rafah crossing at Gaza has still not been fulfilled). At the same time Egyptians face pressing problems in their daily lives. Unemployment has increased sharply as tourism has declined, and hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers have fled Libya. The cost of basic foods has risen by 30 percent over the past six months. Will the army intervene against those demanding jobs, adequate wages, and access to bread and clean water? If so, they will intensify the process by which economic and social issues become inextricably linked to wider political questions. Who now rules Egypt? What gives them the right to power? How can they be called to account?

Special relationship
These questions have until now been clouded by a belief among many Egyptians that the army has a special relationship with the wider society. During the Tahrir events of January and February activists declared that the army and the people are one hand. This was not only a call for troops to refrain from attacking the protests but reflected widely held views about the progressive nature of the military as an institutionideas associated with key episodes in Egypts modern history. In 1952 the Free Officers movement

led by Gamal Abdel Nasser mounted a coup which removed the pro-British monarchy; two years later they expelled British troops, and in 1956 enjoyed a stunning success during the Suez Crisis, when Egypt saw off a combined invasion force launched by Britain, France and Israel. During the 1950s and 1960s radical nationalist governments led by Nasser and senior military men delivered land reform, full employment and Egypts first state welfare system. They championed the Palestinian and Arab causes, making Egypt a focal point for anti-imperialist struggles across the Middle East. The Nasser era has often been seen nostalgically as a period of economic and social advance in which the army expressed popular interests. Nasser was in fact a highly elitist political leader who had no time for mass involvement in politics. He suppressed the left, jailed thousands of worker and peasant activists and coopted trade union leaders into the tame ETUF. He concentrated power within an increasingly small group of loyalists in the armed forces who controlled a state capitalism developed on the Russian model. In the late 1960s, as conditions of most Egyptians worsened dramatically, workers and students demanded change: in a famous attack on the Free Officers, former communist Anouar Abdel-Malik argued that they had betrayed the people. Egypt had fallen into the hands of a devouring bureaucracy, he said, for which the people existed merely to supply the manpower. This was the regime inherited by President Sadat in 1970. He used the highly centralised system created by Nasser to introduce new economic policies, embracing the market and turning Egypt towards the US. Mubarak, who followed Sadat in 1981, took this much further. Retaining the army at the core of his machinery of repression, he built a suffocating police state dedicated to the enrichment of his supporters at home and abroad. There was a continuity between the Nasser and Mubarak regimesbut the differences were enough to stimulate in many Egyptians a yearning for times when the army was still associated with radical change, national independence and social reform.

Nasser was in fact a highly elitist political leader who had no time for mass involvement in politics.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Members of todays Supreme Council are part of imperialist networks which sustain kings, princes and presidents across the Middle Eastand which protect Israel against the Palestinians and the anger of the Arab masses. They have nothing in common with Egyptians who made the Tahrir Revolution. As Sameh Naguib observes elsewhere in this issue, the Supreme Council remains part of the old regime. The generals attempts to contain the mass movement are likely to reveal this reality more and more clearly. Less obvious is a strategy initiated by Nasser and since used by both Sadat and Mubarak. Co-option was a highly effective technique by which Nasser bound to the state many trade union leaders and prominent communists. Offering them high office in ETUF, he created a bureaucracy which mediated between the army and the workforce, suffocating a workers movement which had been the most dynamic force in Egyptian politics before the Free Officers came to power.

Only days after the fall of Mubarak, representatives of the International Labour Organisation and of international trade union federations appeared in Cairo to meet leaders of Egypts new independent unions; there have since been many further approaches to the new unions to engage with these international trade union bureaucracies and their conservative agendas. Egypts current rulers hope for a tame union leadership which can dissipate the energies of the workersincreasingly the most dynamic part of the revolutionary movement. Activists in the independent unions will need to be on guard against efforts to provide finance, global travel and celebrity status to their leaders. Genuine solidarity activity undertaken from below is, of course, a different matter. If the Egyptian Revolution cannot be reduced by force perhaps its energies can be dissipated both by co-option and by limiting the democratic space already won by the mass movement. The generals and their advisors hope that a short period of electoral activity before polls in the autumn will favour established political parties. For decades the Muslim Brotherhood has operated in a shadowy area between legality and illegality, maintaining its status as the only national opposition organisation. Now free to campaign openly, it seems likely that the Brotherhood has struck a deal with the gener-

als whereby it will back the army as a guarantor of national order, in effect supporting the same neoliberal agenda which brought Egypt Mubarak and his cronies. The generals wish to halt the present process of change. Together with business interests, the landowners and Mubaraks old allies in the US, they intend that minor political reforms will be enough to satisfy the mass movement and restore business as usual. There are certain to be further confrontations with workers, peasants and street activists who wish to expand the new freedoms, not least as means of dealing with the pressing problems of daily life. The task for the left is to work with and for the workplace groups, independent unions and popular committees to ensure that the old order is not able to take the initiative and to develop an agenda for counter-revolution. It is above all of critical importance to organise the most militant workers together in an independent party which can maximise the strengths of local workplace organisation (see box on the Democratic Workers Party). The mass movement still has the initiativebut as the revolution continues to unfold it is vital to press home this advantage.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


The Islamists and the Egyptian Revolution

Sameh Naguib First published in June 2011
Egyptian socialist Sameh Naguib looks at the role of Islamists in the Egyptian Revolution

It is important neither to overestimate the impact of the Islamist movement based on the experience of the million-strong protests of the revolution, nor to underestimate its dangers, especially during the coming period, but rather to understand that there are wide sections of the masses who do not support the Islamists and have a desire to know about alternatives, and that this gives the left a golden opportunity to recover its mass base, or build one where it did not already exist.

The Brotherhood in the first phase

The Brotherhood did not officially participate in the demonstrations of 25 January, and in fact advised their youth activists not to protest that day. Large numbers of Brotherhood youth activists were unable to resist the revolutionary tide, however, and took part despite the urging of their leaders. The leadership was quickly put under pressure to change its policy once it realised that the demonstrations were becoming a popular revolution, and the organisation descended into the streets in full force. However, this shift did not remove the contradictions and differences inside the organisation. When [Vice-President] Omar Suleiman invited them to talks, this provoked a sharp disagreement in the Guidance Office [leadership body], which ended with the Brotherhood accepting the invitation, and we saw their leaders sitting with Suleiman and Rifa'at al-Sa'id [a leader of the Tagammu party] under a huge picture of Hosni Mubarak. This scene did not win the leadership support among the young activists of the Brotherhood, who had fought the thugs and the state security in the streets and now forced their leaders to stop the talks while claiming that this scandalous meeting had been simply aimed at gathering information and that it had quickly been aborted. The Brotherhood during the first phase of the revolution did not constitute a counter-revolutionary force, but neither were they able to participate in the revolution without vacillations and splits. What moved the Guidance Office was pressure from various trends within the organisation rather than participation in the revolution on the basis of principle. In particular it was the result of the incredible pressure from the Brotherhood's youth base which had merged with the masses in the streets during the revolution. This vacillation and contradiction are not new to the Brotherhood. The organisation's entire history is witness to this tendency from the time of the Brotherhood's founder, Imam Hassan al-Banna, until today. At the end of

here is something of a state of hysteria in the discussions on the left and among the liberals about the Islamist movement in Egypt at present, fuelled by the fact that while we are in the first stages of the biggest popular revolution in Egypt's history, the forces of the left are small and divided, but the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest organisation on the Egyptian political scene. This state of hysteria has increased with the entry of the Salafists and the extremist Islamist groups into the political arena.

Most of the left put the Islamists of various tendencies together in one basket, which is to say as reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. But this approach is a superficial generalisation, which does not help us to understand the contradictions in the Islamist movement. Moreover it leads to a state of confusion and a lot of frustration, because if the Islamists are really as powerfully organised as some on the left fear, then how can we confront them, and seek to win the masses around them?


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


the 1940s the monarchy was able to destroy the heart of the organisation, despite its power and half a million members, by exploiting the sharp disagreements within the organisation and the vacillations of its leadership in confronting the regime. The group saw a similar crisis during the first years after the revolution of July 1952, when internal divisions and vacillating leadership allowed the Nasserist regime to destroy it. This permanent vacillation between opposition and compromise, between escalation and calm, is a result of the nature of the Brotherhood as a popular religious group which comprises sections of the urban bourgeoisie side by side with sections of the traditional and modern petty bourgeoisie (students and university graduates), the unemployed and large sections of the poor. This structure remains stable at times of political and social calm, but turns into a time bomb at moments of great transformation, when it becomes almost impossible to reconcile the various contradictory social interests under a broad and vague religious message. These contradictions are also reflected in the attitudes of the group towards colonialism and Zionism. On the one hand we find differences between those who want to cancel the Camp David agreement with Israel, and on the other, those who announce the Brotherhood's commitment to respecting all international treaties. We find speeches sharply against US colonialism, while others in the Brotherhood meet and negotiate with US officials on a regular basis (one of the Wikileaks documents talks about repeated meetings and negotiations between US officials and a member of the Guidance Office, Muhammad Katatani). It is important to emphasise that this not just political opportunism, but the inevitable result of the composition of the group and its contradictions.

Sooner or later there will be a clash with the ruling military junta, and the exposure of its real face as an integral part of the old regime.

throw dictatorship and corruption is rapidly transformed with the achievement of its initial goals, and an explosion of social and economic demands raises issues which are more fundamental to democracy. Here we find the rapid shifts in the positions of political forces. Whoever was revolutionary yesterday may become hostile overnight to the continuation and deepening of the revolution. This is exactly what we saw in the case of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the referendum on the anti-democratic amendments to the constitution, which were proposed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Brotherhood led a campaign for a "yes" vote which was blatant in using religion as a weapon. What matters here is not the use of religion (which is not a new tactic) but rather the alliance between the Brotherhood leadership and the army to secure approval for these amendments, which are an insult to the Egyptian Revolution. The deepening of the revolution means that sooner or later there will be a clash with the ruling military junta, and the exposure of its real face as an integral part of the defunct regime with all its violence and corruption. This ugly face is already being revealed in arrests, torture and the crushing of demonstrations and strikes, in particular the deadly violence inflicted on the protest camp in Tahrir Square on 8 April.

The Brotherhood and the army

What was the Brotherhood's position in relation to this? During the huge demonstrations that morning the Brotherhood had been out in force, pushing strongly for the Supreme Council to speed up prosecution of the symbols of the old regime, in particular Mubarak. However, once a part of the crowd, including a group of junior army officers, decided to continue a sitin overnight, the Brotherhood mounted a desperate defence of the Military Council's position, even to the extent of repeating the same lies that troops and security forces who stormed the camp in the early hours did not open fire with live ammunition. Day and night the Brotherhood has parroted the same lines about the army's patriotism and its leadership, about how there is a "red line" around the army, about its work "protecting" the revolution and that any movement against the army is a betrayal of the revolution. In a statement on the Brotherhood's website we find the following section: "The army is trying to preserve a degree of discipline among its ranks, and it

The Brotherhood in the second phase

Popular revolutions move quickly from one phase to another, but these phases overlap in complex ways. What began as a democratic revolution to over-


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


is right to do so, for if it cannot maintain its own discipline it cannot protect the people. "At present the army is the only organised force in Egypt, and it is not in our interests to weaken it, nor will we let anyone else weaken it. We know who is working in this way, and what their goals and intentions are. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to see the success of the revolution, and we are fully aware that the position of our great army in relation to the revolution is one of the principal factors in its success. For the army has said to the people since the first moment 'you can express your views freely and demonstrate during the day, but not during the night-time curfews, which have been reduced more than once to only 3 hours'." In relation to the social deepening of the revolution with the great wave of strikes which were triggered by the uprising, the Brotherhood took the same position as the government and the Military Council, demanding "a return to work to save the Egyptian economy. The Muslim Brotherhood calls on all sections of the Egyptian people to keep the wheels of production and development turning. Demonstrations for sectional demands, albeit a fundamental right, are detrimental to production and damage the economy, particularly as the revolution is linked to keeping the motor of the economy turning. Citizens must feel that their sacrifices in the search for a dignified life were not just empty talk, so that the Egyptian people can prove that they are capable of a further achievement beyond the revolution, in other words, to lift Egypt out of its economic crisis." These positions are, of course, not restricted to the Brotherhood. Liberal forces are also participating with great enthusiasm in the same double campaign - absolute support for the military council and a hysterical campaign against workers' strikes under the banner of "Keep the wheel of production turning". Amr Hamzawy, one of the stars of liberalism, even called for the formation of groups of young people and public personalities in order to spread propaganda against strikes among the workers. A wide range of intellectuals and revolutionaries of yesterday are inciting for smashing strikes with the cooperation of the army, as part of these campaigns against the second phase of the revolution. Many leftists consider the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists as two sides of the coin, but this is not true. Yes, there is a Salafi section within the Brotherhood, and yes, there are ideological similarities between them, but

this should not make us ignore the specificity of the phenomenon of Salafism and its current role in the attempts to sabotage the revolution. Salafists are currently the Islamic wing of the "baltagiyya"(the counter-revolutionary thugs who attacked protesters in Tahrir Square) and their relationship to the security apparatus of the former regime is much more important than their relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Since 2006 the Mubarak regime allowed the creation of Salafist satellite channels, which have been airing their poisonous views since that time, broadcasting a permanent stream of reactionary anti-Christian, anti-woman propaganda, as well as agitating against Muslims who do not share their views, in an attempt to drag the masses back to the Middle Ages. Channels such as Al-Rahma and Al-Nas have become practically propaganda tools for so-called Salafist preachers such as Muhammad Hassan, Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini and Muhammad Yaqub, allowing them to spread their views among wider layers of young people. They have succeeded in creating a wide popularity for these reactionary and dangerous views (there are currently 91 Facebook groups following Muhammad Hassan alone). These channels have become the most watched in Egypt. All this is taking place with the encouragement and cooperation of the army which is encouraging the Salafists not only to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood but also to organise the religious face of the counter-revolution. No wonder then, that there were escalating attacks on the Copts and their churches even before the revolution, nor is it strange that there are currently campaigns by the Salafists and the security forces to create a climate of counter-revolution. Some on the left today see the political forces as being divided into secular and Islamist camps. Some of these leftists have also been lured into debates over Article 2 of the constitution, which enshrines Islam as "the religion of the state...and Islamic law as the principal source of legislation". This was a

The army is encouraging the Salafists not only to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood but also to organise the religious face of the counter-revolution.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


precious gift to the Islamists who used these discussions to create a state of panic as if Islam itself was in danger because a discussion had been opened about Article 2. Of course, the left must defend its principles with regard to the separation of religion from the state, and in defence of a secular state, but we also have to know when and how to enter the battle, and with whom. Secularism itself, as an abstract principle with no connection to the interests of the working class and poor, is meaningless, and in fact defence of secularism on such a basis only serves the Islamists. The current phase of the revolution requires work to expose the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the public as a prelude to its overthrow, as it remains part of the old regime. This work requires deepening the social side of the revolution, by helping to create forms of organisation at the base of society which can play a role in the struggle to achieve the demands of workers and peasants. This is also a phase in the revolution which will see the Brotherhood and the liberals move from the ranks of the revolution to the counter-revolution, but it will be a phase full of twists and divisions which the left must be able to make use of, in order to confront the counter-revolution. And at the same time as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Liberals take these positions, the remnants of the security organs of the old system will be using their thugs and the Salafists to create a climate of chaos in collusion with the military junta.

Can the Islamists limit Egypt's revolution?

Phil Marfleet First published in September 2011
The Islamist mass rally in Cairo on 29 July showed the deepening alliance between some Islamists and the ruling army council. But, argues Phil Marfleet, the Islamists are an unstable coalition whose ability to contain the revolution is far from established.

The current phase will be very difficult and its success requires a clarity of vision about the different political forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals, as well as contradictions and divisions and crises that await them when the true face of the leaders of the army is revealed. As long as the masses remain revolutionary, and hopeful for a better tomorrow and a decent life, and as long as the left works in building mass organisations from the independent trade unions to the popular revolutionary committees and radical political organisations, the enemies of the revolution will not be able to deceive the masses and the political forces at present allied with the military (at the head of whom stands the Muslim Brotherhood) will fracture.

he first appearance of Islamists in a mass rally in Tahrir Square in late July brought predictable reactions in European and American media: Islamic activists were hijacking the revolution; they would soon overwhelm its secular activists; they would demonstrate that radical change was impossible in a predominantly Muslim society. There was a gleeful tone, as we told you so pundits talked up the Islamist initiative and its impact on secular activists: for Time magazine, it was a frightening spectacle; according to the Washington Post, the Tahrir rally was a stunning show of force that left the liberal pioneers of Egypts revolution reeling. For the Hudson Institute, a conservative US think-tank, it was all inevitable: The Facebook folks who triggered the anti-Mubarak revolution have been replaced by Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood supporters... It is only a matter of time before Egypt turns into an Islamic Republic that is aligned


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


with Iran, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. On this view, the revolution is coming to an end: Egyptians face a bleak future, an Islamic regime...where democracy, moderation and pragmatism are non-existent. These assessments of the 29 July Tahrir rally recycle theories of Arab/ Muslim exceptionalism - the idea that cultures of the Middle East are not amenable to progressive change and that the region is best left under the control of kings, emirs and other despots who will continue to strike deals with the West. Egypts revolution, with its mass protests, strikes and demands for democratic reform upset this reactionary creed - so the appearance of Islamists in Tahrir has been greeted with satisfaction by Western policy institutes and much of the media.

Diverse groups
What is the real significance of the events? Who were the Islamists involved, what is their relationship to the revolutionary movement, and how will their presence affect the radical activists who removed Mubarak? The scale of the 29 July demonstration was significant. Tahrir Square was filled with supporters of Islamist groups bussed in from across the Nile Delta. Their slogans were not those of the revolutionaries of 25 January: rather than demanding social justice, purging of the old regime, jobs and a minimum wage, they chanted There is no God but God and Egypt is Islamic, and called for implementation of sharia (Islamic law). Speakers praised the generals of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), calling for national unity and speedy elections. Islamist groups expect to win a majority in parliament when a general election takes place, probably in November. Some secular activists were startled by these developments. Others were not, however, pointing out that Islamist organisations have a long history and a well-established presence in Egypt and that the real surprise was how slow they had been to effect a national mobilisation: following the fall of Mubarak it was six months before they made their mark in public. It was also clear that the 29 July demonstration represented diverse groups with competing agendas: less a monolithic bloc ready to turn Egypt into an Islamic Republic, the Islamists are an unstable alliance of groups among which some are deeply affected by the wider revolutionary movement. Many of those who filled Tahrir in July came from villages and small pro-

vincial towns which have been marginal to the revolution; and on a day of national mobilisation by Islamist currents demonstrations outside Cairo were on a modest scale. In industrial cities which have been focal points for action since January - Suez, Mahalla al-Kubra, Shibbin el-Kom, Ismailiyya Islamist meetings were insignificant. In Alexandria, often seen as an Islamist stronghold, the demonstration of 29 July reached 10,000 - a fraction of the numbers which have repeatedly mobilised in the city since the start of the revolution. Three Islamist currents participated in the July rally: Salafis, Jihadis and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are linked ideologically and by personal and organisational relationships. At the same time, they have distinct political agendas and often compete to win support among Islamic activists. The demonstration was originally called by Salafi networks, groups of religiously observant Muslims who have until recently focused upon matters of piety and personal conduct. They were joined by the Jihadis, tightly knit and highly political organisations banned under the Mubarak regime which have re-emerged in recent months. The Muslim Brotherhood joined the rally only at the last minute. Although it is a mass organisation with a long history of political engagement, the Brotherhoods leadership vacillated over the demonstration for weeks, deciding to participate only days before the event. Their hesitation reveals much about the instability of the Islamic movement and the effect of the revolution upon its activists. Islamists did not play a leading role in the waves of struggles that preceded the outbreak of the revolution in January this year. Starting in 2000 a series of increasingly effective campaigns challenged the regime: movements in solidarity with the Palestinians, against the invasion of Iraq, for democratic change, and for workers rights and improved conditions. They were led overwhelmingly by secular activists. Despite the success of these movements in opening new space for protests,

Islamists did not play a leading role in the waves of struggles that preceded the outbreak of the revolution in January this year.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Islamists rarely appeared in public. The Jihadis had been suppressed and their imprisoned leaders induced to recant, telling followers that they had abandoned efforts to contest the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood engaged fitfully with the anti-war and democracy movements, and participated in election campaigns (as an illegal organisation they stood independent candidates). But as public protests grew the Brothers retreated and in 2010, after bitter internal disputes, the leadership declared that it would adopt an even lower profile. One assessment in the Egyptian press concluded The Muslim Brotherhoods entire political enterprise is in crisis. It was in these circumstances that a new Salafism began to grow. Pious Muslims concerned primarily with study of the Quran, with ritual and with personal emulation of the Prophet, had long congregated around particular imams, mosques and Islamic foundations. They were boosted by Saudi support and encouraged by the Mubarak regime, which gave them free rein. In 2006 state authorities began to issue licences for television stations which broadcast prayers, readings from the Quran and sermons by salafi preachers. The common themes were conservative (puritanical) interpretations of key Islamic texts and an absence of political agendas - tacit support for the state. By 2009 there were 12 such TV stations. Egyptian novelist Alaa AlAswany comments that they were a kind of Christmas present for the dictators [who could] rule with both the army and the religion. Egypts revolution has drawn its power from mass action in the streets and workplaces. Leadership has been provided mainly by secular activists some of whom played key roles in the protests of the last decade. Coalitions of revolutionary youth have celebrated Muslim-Christian unity and explicitly rejected religious interventions. Islamists have not been present as a distinct current. When the movement began in January, the Muslim Brotherhood refused to back protests. Only when the scale of events and the involvement of Brotherhood members became clear did its leaders adopt a position of equivocal support. As the revolution has progressed, hundreds of thousands of its members and supporters have engaged in demonstrations and workplace actions, causing increasing tension within the organisation. A large group of youth activists recently split to form the Egyptian Current Party - created, they say, to express the spirit of the revolution. Several key figures in the Brotherhood have been expelled after establishing new groups. Moneim

Abou El-Fotouh, a historic leader of the Brotherhood, has been expelled for declaring his candidacy in the forthcoming presidential elections. The Brotherhoods difficulties surfaced again in the run-up to the 29 July Tahrir rally. This was initiated by the Salafis, who have established a number of new parties, most importantly Al-Nour, marking a sharp turn from quietism to active political engagement - in effect the Salafis are moving into the Brotherhoods traditional political space. So too with the Jihadis: in March, SCAF ordered the release of cousins Aboud and Tarek El-Zomor, both jailed in 1984 for involvement in the assassination of President Sadat. Another key Jihadi group, the Gamaat Islamiyya, has also reappeared, mounting several small demonstrations in central Cairo.

SCAF under pressure

The Tahrir rally brought these competing currents together: evidence of the Islamist presence but also of its problems and contradictions. The Islamists have been slow to engage with the revolution. In general mass movements are not congenial to their visions of change and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular has struggled to understand the movement. The street activists and worker militants who have led the uprising are not being replaced by fundamentalists bent on an Islamic Republic; indeed, the pace of industrial struggle has again increased and the public trial of Mubarak has given a huge boost to those who initiated the revolution in January. The Islamist rally will have been a comfort to the generals. They are under enormous pressure and will be relieved to hear friendly slogans in the streets. As the election approaches, SCAF is likely to offer the Islamists more space, hoping that they can act as a counterweight to radical forces and secure a large presence in parliament. But the Islamists are not a reliable ally, especially for generals who have spent a lifetime assaulting the Brotherhood and the Jihadis. Their problems are still acute: the revolution of the streets and the workplaces continues.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


The workers' movement in Egypt

Anne Alexander First published in March 2012
A call for a general strike in Egypt on 11 February didn't produce the desired effect. Yet the current strike wave shows no signs of abating. Anne Alexander looks at the strengths and weaknesses of Egypt's new workers' movement and the different forces attempting to shape it

the streets is largely made up of young people from working class and poor backgrounds. On 11 February, in response to a call for a general strike to bring down the military council, it was the sons and daughters of factory workers and civil servants who marched in their thousands at provincial universities like Helwan and Mansoura. But there remains a gap between the revolutionary mood in the workplaces and the streets, with only a very small response to the strike call from workers, despite the large student mobilisation. The hope that this gap can be overcome lies in the fact that it is likely that the main battles are still to come. Workers' expectations of social change are written into their strike demands: they want job security, to be paid enough to live in dignity, and an end to corrupt, bullying management. Politicians from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the various Salafist parties repeatedly make vague promises that these hopes will be fulfilled by the new parliament.

Little room for manoeure

On the other hand they are also promising Egypt's business elite, the global financial institutions and the Mubarak regime's old backers in Washington that they will stop strikes. Moreover, the context of global economic crisis gives the new government precious little room to manoeuvre: Egypt may not have reached a Greek-style financial meltdown yet, but its debt is already nearly 70 percent of GDP and credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's has downgraded the country's rating three times in the last four months. To understand how the workers' movement is developing it is vital to look at it from two perspectives. The first is the view from below, where strike action is pushing workers' self-confidence and organisation to new levels within the workplace. In some sectors coordination between workplaces is beginning to develop into powerful organisation which can mobilise action across entire sectors of industry. However, we also need to look at the movement "from above", taking into account how the actions of the state and the parliamentary parties change the landscape in which workers' organisations are developing. It is particularly important to see the newly formed independent unions from these two perspectives, in order to understand that there are gaps within them, particularly between the newly developing national and federation leaderships and workplace organisation.

ust over a year after the fall of Mubarak, the landscape of the Egyptian workers' movement has changed dramatically. The strike wave shows little sign of running out of energy: the numbers ebb and flow but each month brings new explosions of action. The old state-run union federation has been wounded and weakened but not destroyed. The new independent unions have grown rapidly, drawing hundreds of thousands of workers into their orbit, many in sectors with little tradition of organisation. However, this growth has also been uneven, and building organisation beyond the workplace which retains authority within it has been difficult. The growth of workers' organisations is interlaced with the development of a revolutionary movement. Out of the waves of massive street protests and sit-ins a new generation of radical activists has emerged. The main target for their anger has been the ruling generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and more recently the reformist Islamist parties who dominate the newly elected parliament. Despite the image presented in the Western media of a liberal elite in revolt, in reality the mass movement in


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


The motor of strike action is still working very hard. The numbers of workers involved in strike action stand at extremely high levels compared to before the revolution. In September alone between 500,000 and 750,000 joined strikes. This included large coordinated strikes for the first time, for example a national strike by teachers, but also coordinated action by bus workers, postal workers and sugar refinery workers. Airport workers struck at the end of December demanding civilian rather than military managers. At the end of February another wave of big strikes paralysed bus services across the Delta, and tens of thousands of workers employed by the Ministry of Justice in the courts organised a national strike. The old Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) played a central role for decades in propping up the Mubarak regime. It both policed and contained workers' discontent in the workplace. It acted as a conduit for the distribution of welfare benefits. It was a gigantic electoral machine for the ruling party in the 50 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for "workers and peasants". For a long time the ETUF provided the semblance of "mass popular support" for the regime by bussing members to rallies and demonstrations during elections or for particular campaigns. The Egyptian government's privatisation policies before the revolution undermined the ETUF from two directions - it lost hundreds of thousands of members to the private sector and those who remained saw that the federation had done little to protect their interests. Even more importantly, the strike wave, which the ETUF actively opposed, gave workers experience of organising themselves and further broke down the ETUF's ability to mobilise workers. In the uprising against Mubarak, the ETUF leadership was the last line of defence for the regime. It played a key role in organising thugs to attack Tahrir Square during the "battle of the camel" and in calls for "mass protests" in support of Mubarak. Both of these attempts failed, and instead hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, sealing the dictator's fate.

Reining in the strikes

However, the ETUF did not completely disintegrate. The federation appears now to be playing an increasingly important role in the Muslim Brotherhood's attempts to rein in the strike wave. Senior Brotherhood members were appointed to a caretaker executive for the ETUF in August 2011, along

with pro-Mubarak officials and a small number of leftists and worker representatives. By late February 2012 the first two groups were working together on draft legislation on trade union freedoms and had proposed an initiative to parliament to "solve workers' problems" by creating a special committee to negotiate with management on their behalf. Some unions affiliated to the ETUF are still strong in the workplaces, such as the Land Transport Union (LTU), which has been involved in fierce competition with the new independent union in the Public Transport Authority in Cairo. The LTU played a key role in aborting attempts to win support for strike action on the buses in solidarity with the call for a general strike on 11 February. The other significant development "from above" has been the partial recognition by the state of the independent unions. There has been a process created for the legal registration of independent unions, although this essentially contradicts existing Egyptian law which only recognises ETUF-affiliated unions. Two federations of independent unions have come into existence since the fall of Mubarak. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) claims an affiliated membership of around 1.4 million workers. Its president is Kamal Abu Aita, the leader of the Tax Collectors' Union, the first independent union to emerge before the revolution. The smaller Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress claims the affiliation of 246 unions. Leading figures in the EDLC are affiliated to an NGO established by former steel-worker Kamal Abbas, which withdrew from the EFITU last summer after a bitter controversy over the role over NGO employees in the democratic decision-making bodies of the new federation. The strongest independent unions have generally been built directly out of strike action. The independent union of the Public Transport Authority Workers in Cairo led four strikes between May and September 2011, for example. The independent teachers' unions played a crucial role in organising and providing a degree of national leadership for the teachers' strike,

Two federations of independent unions have come into existence since the fall of Mubarak.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


although the number of teachers participating in the strike was much bigger than the new unions' combined membership. However, the legal registration process for establishing independent unions has also made it possible to build unions "on paper" or with a handful of members. In addition, a narrow space has opened up for the emergence of a layer of officials who can escape from the immediate pressures of the workplace. The bureaucracy of the independent unions is very small and has far fewer material resources and full-time officials than a single region of a medium-sized British trade union like UCU, but it is still under pressure to act as a mediator between striking workers and employers. The mechanisms at the disposal of these officials to sell out strikes are still very weak, but manoeuvres and attempts to do deals may increase union members' passivity and frustration rather than building their self-confidence and selforganisation.

Chapter five SyRiA

Building roots in the workplaces

When it comes to connecting the independent unions to the wider political questions raised by the confrontations over military rule, the disconnection between the independent union leadership and the workplaces shows itself in a different way. Leading activists in the independent unions have been strongly supportive of revolutionary activists' calls for strike action against the military council, but have not been able to deliver anything on the ground. This was underlined by the call for a general strike on 11 February, the anniversary of Mubarak's fall from power. The call, which came from revolutionary activists who have been radicalised by the experience of the huge protests and street clashes over the past year, shows that wide layers of people beyond the revolutionary left see strikes as an extremely powerful weapon. However, the revolutionary movement does not as yet have strong enough roots in the workplaces to be able to win the argument for political strikes, particularly in the face of a concerted anti-strike campaign by the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood. Winning those arguments will require a much bigger network of revolutionary activists who can begin to build connections between the wider revolutionary movement and workers' ongoing struggles.

Revolution & impeRiAliSm


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Taking sides in Syria

Simon Assaf First published in July August 2011
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were major reversals for the US and Israel. But Nato intervention in Libya's popular rebellion has raised the possibility that imperialism could hijack the revolutions. Simon Assaf asks, can Syria's uprising avoid falling into the hands of the West?

yria has long been a thorn in imperialism's side. The Baathist regime has given crucial support to the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements who depend on Syria for their survival. So those who found themselves on the same side over the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have suddenly found sharp disagreement over the movement for change in Syria. At the heart of this disagreement is Syria's opposition to imperialism and the dangers of a revolution finding itself at the mercy of the Western powers. What attitude should revolutionaries take towards the Syrian movement, and how should we assess a regime that, although the victim of imperialism, has unleashed harsh repression on those who have from the onset demanded modest reforms? The modern Syrian state was born out of the first sustained Arab rebellion against the carve-up of the Middle East by Britain and France following the First World War. The original Anglo-French plan was to divide Syria into a patchwork of states too weak to resist colonial rule. The southern regions, now Israel/Palestine and Jordan, were handed over to Britain, while the northern regions were to be divided into Christian, Alawi and Druze states (part of the many religious communities in geographic Syria). In 1925 a popular rebellion that began in the Druze regions of Syria quick-

ly encompassed the whole of the country, giving birth to an Arab nationalist movement that checked French plans. Although France succeeded in creating "Christian Lebanon" - a sectarian state that included areas with large Muslim populations - it failed in the rest of Syria. Contradictions The Syrian national movement succeeded in ending French rule, but this movement also reflected the contradictions inside Syrian society. The leadership of the national movement was an alliance of feudal lords who had recently gained ownership of communal village lands, and a merchant class that found its markets destroyed by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the former rulers of geographic Syria. At its base were peasants, craftsmen, workers and the urban poor who saw independence as a chance to transform the country. Following formal independence in 1944 a class struggle erupted and the movement from below coalesced around Communist, socialist and radical Arab nationalist parties. The Baath party emerged as the dominant force after forging an alliance with the socialist movement among the peasantry, with some support among the industrial workers. The ongoing crisis opened up a space for small groups of military officers - drawn mainly from the marginalised Alawi community - to take power. The new rulers broke the hold of the feudal lords and merchant classes, then muzzled and eventually crushed the popular movement. The new regime aligned with the Soviet Union and the country was put on the path of "socialist development" - in effect a version of state capitalism. This period came to an abrupt end in 1967 when Israel seized the Golan Heights, just 50 miles from Damascus, in its lightening Six Day War. The shock of 1967 destroyed the credibility of the regime and eventually triggered a coup inside the army, headed by Hafez al-Assad and drawn mainly from among the Alawi community. Now on a permanent war footing, Syria, along with other Arab countries, was alight with the rise of a popular resistance to imperialism, epitomised by the emergence of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This wave of popular resistance reached its peak in 1973 when Syria and Egypt launched an offensive that almost succeeded in recapturing territory lost to Israel in 1967. The failure of this war would have profound consequences on both countries. The strategic union between Syria and Egypt came to an end in 1978


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


when Anwar Sadat, then Egyptian president, signed a separate peace with Israel. With Egypt now neutralised, Syria faced Israel alone. Isolated, the regime sought to use the popular resistance as a lever in negotiations for the return of the Golan Heights. Inside Syria this resulted in a gradual smothering of the popular resistance. Prompted by the US, Assad sent troops into Lebanon in 1976 to crush the popular rebellion sweeping the country at the time. The occupation of Lebanon, packaged as a peace- keeping mission, destroyed the Lebanese national movement. The reward for "saving Lebanon" was supposed to be a new initiative over the Golan. But Assad's hopes for an "honourable deal" came to nothing. Assad reacted with wild rhetoric about "liberation and revolution" while his forces continued to strengthen their grip over Syria and Lebanon - reaching its height with the crushing of an uprising in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, and a protracted siege of Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1984. Despite this, Assad never abandoned his strategy of a separate peace. But with Egypt out of the picture, Israel saw no reason to cut a deal over the Golan Heights. Assad again attempted to realign Syria with imperialism by sending troops to fight alongside US and its allies in the 1990-91 Gulf War. But once again US promises to look again at the Golan question proved an illusion.

Red line
When Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000 he was succeeded by his son Bashar Assad. Bashar never abandoned the strategy of compromise, or the "red line" of the Golan Heights. Bashar's first act was an attempt to initiate a programme of economic and political reforms - the so-called Syrian Spring that he hoped could revive the economy and release some of the discontent that built up during his father's reign. Central to these reforms were neoliberal policies designed to "open up" the economy. Hardliners within the regime put an end to the political reforms, but the economic reforms moved apace. These reforms ended economic guarantees - such as the subsidy on bread - that had secured some degree of social peace. These reforms, far from safeguarding the stability of the regime, plunged many already poor Syrians into destitution. As with Egypt and Tunisia, neo-

liberal policies undermined what little hold the regimes had over their population. Meanwhile a small layer of businessmen close to the ruling circle amassed vast fortunes. The deteriorating economy, rampant corruption, nepotism and harsh repression left the country tinder dry. Then came the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. For many Arabs these revolutions were clear-cut and uncomplicated. Both Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt were strong allies of imperialism. These revolutions could be seen as a continuation of the struggle for national liberation. The Syrian opposition now found it had the space to push forward a series of initially modest demands. The main demands were to relaunch the stalled political reforms and the end of the state of emergency. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the demands for "the end of the regime" were heard on the first day of protests, in Syria this slogan emerged only after the bloody suppression of demonstrations in the southern city of Deraa. Both the Syrian and Libyan uprisings have brought into sharp relief the relationship between the Arab Spring and imperialism. Western intervention in Libya has become a clear reminder that the Middle East cannot avoid the question of imperialism. Mubarak conjured up phantoms about "Western agents" behind the revolution that toppled him. But with Syria the boundary between these phantoms and real Western plots are blurred. Bashar Assad is not wrong to point to the fact that "external forces" are attempting to destabilise the country - it has been the stated policy of Saudi Arabia and the West for years. The Syrian uprising is now seen through the prism of the Nato campaign in Libya. Nato's intervention has raised the real possibility of an incremental ratcheting up of military threats against Syria - not because the West is sympathetic to the demands of the popular movement, but as part of a strategy of isolating the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance. In the months preceding the outbreak of the revolutions, Israel had been signalling a new war on Lebanon. This ever-present danger has created fears that the only winner in the Syrian revolution will be imperialism. This can be seen by the call from Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for Syrians to support Bashar's regime. Nasrallah's backing for Bashar Assad was widely interpreted as a sectarian Shia Muslim alignment with the Alawi-dominated government in Syria.


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


But Hizbollah's position has to be seen more as a reflection of its assessment of the balance of forces with regard to imperialism than some expression of sectarianism (the Alawis are an offshoot of Shia Islam). Nasrallah's speech caused deep distress and confusion inside the Syrian opposition, some of whom reacted by burning Hizbollah flags (along with Russian and Chinese flags). The images of flag burning created suspicion among Lebanese who, after 30 years of direct experience of the "Syrian security regime", had been sympathetic to the movement. The West would like a managed transition to a compliant Syrian government. It fears above all a destabilised state that could open the way for the emergence of an armed anti-Israeli resistance reigniting a border conflict that has been quiet for 30 years. The recent mass protest along the 1967 frontier by Palestinian refugees was a potent reminder of this potential. Israel, although hostile to Syria, could depend on the Baathist regime to keep the frontier quiet. Thus criticism of Bashar is more muted in Tel Aviv. But what Nasrallah, and others, have failed to appreciate is that it is far from inevitable that the Syrian opposition movement will simply become a plaything of the West. The unity of the opposition, and its constant appeals against sectarian and ethnic divisions, points to the real potential for there to develop a popular movement for change independent of the West.

Western-backed "opposition groups". This is a popular movement with real demands, and over the next period it has to struggle to maintain this independence. The alternative is the kind of disaster that the West has inflicted on Libya, and the end of any genuine movement for change in Syria.

Working class
Up until now this movement has, despite its bravery, been unable to achieve a breakthrough. In Tunisia and Egypt the working class played a decisive role at key stages of their revolutions. There have been few, if any, strikes in Syria beyond the city-wide protest strikes by merchants and shopkeepers. The movement has still to reach the scale, or intensity, of Egypt or Tunisia. This weakness, and the continuing menace of imperialism, can turn this movement from one that represents genuine desires for change, into one that could become aligned with Saudi Arabia and the West. But this uprising began in Deraa, the frontier city along the 1967 border with Israel. Deraa is home to many of the Syrians who were expelled from their lands by the Israeli occupation. The slogan that they chanted at Syrian security forces was, "Cowards of Golan, heroes of repression". The future direction of this movement depends on it spreading to the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and keeping in check the sectarian gangs and


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


Syria: between revolution and imperialism

Feature by Jamie Allinson, March 2012
Both those who call for intervention and those who condemn the revolution in Syria are wrong. Jamie Allinson argues that Syrians can liberate themselves

Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) and the "Free Syrian Army" (FSA).

The SNC has called most widely for foreign intervention and, like the Libyan Transitional National Council, has worked closely with the UK and France. It is internally divided, however, and is dominated by exiles such as Burhan Ghalioun, who has declared that a post-Assad Syria should cut ties with Iran and stop funding resistance movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The SNC has dedicated its main energies to winning support for intervention, not to protests on the ground. The LCC's comprise the actual networks of the uprising within Syria. It combines an older generation of activists with those who have sprung up since February 2011. The LCC reject any programme of foreign influence, but support the idea of an arms embargo, assets freeze and establishment of humanitarian aid corridors. These calls may grow as the situation in cities such as Homs becomes more desperate. However, the LCC's have also been at the forefront of calls for a "dignity strike", or general strikes against the regime. The FSA is the newest component of the revolution, but it should not be seen as one entity. Defecting officers, such as Riad Asa'ad, have tried to claim leadership of these "brigades", but there is no evidence of a centralised command. Rather the FSA refers to lightly armed guerrillas, based around army defectors or locally respected leaders, which initially functioned to protect demonstrations. Reports suggest these groups obtain money from expatriate Syrians and occasionally local businessmen, and buy their weapons locally. However, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have seen the potential for grooming the FSA groups and have called arming them an "excellent idea". The regime maintains that the revolutionaries are armed Islamist gangs, serving a Zionist-US-Salafi-Qatari-Saudi-French conspiracy to dismember Syria. Hezbollah's general secretary Hassan Nasrallah has shamefully repeated these claims. Anyone who believes this argument should name the last time Assad attacked Israeli forces with the ferocity with which his forces are pounding the workers, peasants and poor of Homs. Nonetheless, it is true that Western powers, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey see the revolution as an opportunity to extend their influence and get rid of an irritant regime. The meeting of the so-called "Friends of Syria" was an attempt to bypass

n 23 February the self-appointed "Friends of Syria" met in Tunis to demand, in the words of Barack Obama, that "the international community...send a clear message to President Assad that it is time for a transition". Given that this group includes the US, UK and France, who have never rallied anyone to demand Israel's withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory, and Saudi Arabia, whose troops have enforced

a bloody terror against the Bahraini revolution, Syrian activists might think that with friends like these they don't need enemies. But where is the Syrian uprising to go, apparently trapped between a regime determined to bring the country down around it and imperialist projects to deflect the revolution?

The question of foreign intervention divides both the Syrian opposition and the left in the region and beyond. In the face of the regime's brutal response to the uprising, which has seen 6,000 people killed and tens of thousands injured or imprisoned, some in the Syrian opposition and in besieged cities such as Homs have come to see foreign intervention as a shortcut to the ousting of Assad. The opposition is not homogeneous, however. There are three main organised elements to it: the Syrian National Council (SNC), the


A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions

A Socialist Review pamphlet The Middle East revolutions


the UN security council, where two weeks previously Russia and China had vetoed a resolution calling for a "transition plan" in Syria backed by the Arab League. Following that rejection, a number of moves, including the "Friends of Syria Conference", the British recognition of the SNC as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people, and the freezing of Syrian assets by the European Central Bank, suggested the possibility of a Libyan-style campaign to finish Assad off. Russia and China are also pursuing their own interests in backing Assad. Clinton's description of their veto as "despicable" rings rather hollow when one remembers the innumerable US vetoes wielded to protect Israel, including one calling for an end to the 2009 assault on Gaza. Indeed, the Russian counter-draft adopted a longstanding Western tactic in relation to the Palestinians: spuriously blaming both the victims and the perpetrators of massacres. Russia will not give up on Syria, at least not until the regime's demise is unstoppable. Assad represents the last redoubt of Russian influence in the region, and the port of Tartus holds Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean. Putin dispatched an aircraft carrier and task force to this base at the end of 2011 in an apparent show of support for the regime. This geopolitical struggle has given rise to confusion on the left in the Middle East and beyond. Unlike in Libya, few prominent leftists have spoken in favour of Assad. More common, especially in the neighbouring countries of Syria and Jordan, has been the position that even if Assad's is a tyrannical regime, it remains the only Arab friend of anti-imperialist resistance, and the only barrier to a collapse into sectarian civil war fomented by Saudi Arabia. There are sectarian elements in the opposition, but these have so far largely been restrained by the LCC's vision of cross-sectarian unity. But the longer the regime persists, the more its divide and rule tactics, for example shelling Sunni districts of Homs while sparing Alawite ones, exacerbate the risk of sectarian implosion. Foreign intervention would increase rather than diminish the risk of such a disaster, as in Iraq.

Third alternative
Calls for intervention, and the responses to them that oppose imperialism by slandering the revolution are both wrong. What is the alternative, however? First it should be noted that, despite Assad's savagery and the Russian-Chinese veto, the revolution seems to be spreading to areas (such as inner Damascus and Aleppo) and communities (such as the Druze) that have hitherto remained agnostic. In both Egypt and Tunisia the final blow to the dictator was dealt by the working class in the form of strike waves that coalesced into a general strike. In Syria such a strategy would have the advantage of both deflecting sectarianism and hitting at the power of the capitalists of Damascus and Aleppo who have, with some exceptions, remained wedded to the regime. Is there any prospect of such an outcome? Syria has a larger working class and longer tradition of organisation than, for example, Libya, but the networks of resistance forged in the Egyptian strike wave of 2006-8 have no counterpart. However, the "dignity strike" called by the LCC's in December 2011 seems to have had some success in spreading through Damascus, and was widely observed in Dera'a and Homs. The strikes have not yet reached the level that can finally bring down the regime. To do so, they would probably have to unite political opposition to the regime with demands to alleviate increasing economic hardship of workers. The Syrian Revolution remains in the balance. Only the massive intervention of the country's workers, not foreign invasion, can tip it the right way.

Syria has a larger working class and longer tradition of organisation than, for example, Libya.