The “Arab Spring” revolutionary wave brought dictators in Tunisia and Egypt crashing down. It swept through the Middle East, inspiring workers and youth the world over. It has since ebbed, however, leaving the region wracked with war and sectarian conflict.
Serge Jordan (CWI), originally published in the March 2016 edition of Socialism Today, No.196.
Five years ago, the ruling families, business tycoons, kings, sheikhs and dictators of the Middle East and the Maghreb, along with their international counterparts, were shaken to the core by the eruption of millions of toilers onto the streets, from Tunis to Sanaa, from Manama to Cairo. The match lit by Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, to set himself on fire out of desperation with poverty and police harassment, ignited the whole region. The rallying slogan, ‘Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāt an-nizām’ (the people want the fall of the regime), encapsulated the deep-rooted thirst for a fundamental break with the old order.
Under unbearable poverty, corruption, endemic unemployment, constant humiliation by hefty state apparatuses, the masses could not live in the old way any longer. The ruling elites could not rule in the old way anymore either. Conditions were ripe for a showdown between the classes. But the revolutionary phenomenon described as the Arab Spring – an inadequate definition because it fails to include non-Arab people like the Kurds and Amazigh – did not descend as a sudden storm in a calm, clear blue sky. Tunisia and Egypt, where the revolutions first burst out, had experienced intense workers’ and community struggles in previous years. The poor and the working class had the opportunity to flex their muscles in the lead-up to the colossal explosions of 2010-11.
In the thesis for its world congress in 2010, the CWI observed: “Mass resistance to authoritarianism and deteriorating living conditions is also an increasingly pronounced feature of the Middle East… Most significantly from the point of view of the CWI, the recent period has also witnessed increasing workers’ struggles and efforts to build mass independent organisations of the working class in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Algeria and elsewhere. These developments are indicative of future mass workers’ struggles throughout the region… All the despotic and authoritarian regimes of the region correctly fear mass opposition movements which would act as an inspiration to their own oppressed populations”.
In sharp contrast, the lightning speed of events took many capitalist politicians and so-called Middle East experts by surprise. Western imperialist policies and the embarrassing prognosis of its spin doctors were smashed by the torrential storms of revolution. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable”, Hillary Clinton said on 25 January 2011, less than three weeks before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Twenty-three years of rule by his despotic Tunisian colleague, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, had already ended, on 14 January 2011, after a month of protests. In both cases it was the labour movement’s entry on the scene that choked the economic arteries of capitalism through mass strike actions, causing the hated tyrants to fall like overripe fruits.
Decades seem to have transpired since then. Today, the initial optimism and hopes of rapid change are a distant memory. The illusion that everything will get better and better has not survived the dramatic counter-revolutionary blowback. Yemen, Libya and Syria are all facing variations of civil wars. Egypt has reverted to military rule. The Levant is associated with the birthplace of ISIS (Islamic State, referred to as Daesh in the Arabic popular lexicon), the most monstrous jihadist organisation the world has ever seen, staging its terror attacks from Paris to Jakarta. Conditions of war and terrorism are exacerbating the economic problems of local populations. Once popular tourist destinations are grappling with deserted hotels and beaches, and mass redundancies in a sector that has all but collapsed.
The working class and oppressed people do not choose the conditions in which they undergo a revolution. Coming out of a long, dark tunnel of tyranny and state repression, the left and trade unions in most countries were severely diminished. The powerful communist parties of the past were discredited by the blunders of their Stalinist officialdom. Lacking strong organisations and political leaderships able to offer a clear alternative to the old dictatorial rule, the masses faced serious setbacks after their initial offensives against those regimes.
The scale of such setbacks is directly related to the state of the workers’ movement in the respective countries. The authoritative British journalist Robert Fisk recently pointed out: “Where trade unions were strong – in Egypt and Tunisia – the revolutionary bloodshed was far less than in the nations that had either banned trade unionism altogether – Libya, for example – or concretised the trade union movement into the regime, which had long ago happened in Syria and Yemen”.
Syria’s multi-sided war
Syria offers a devastating picture – a tell-tale warning of the orgy of violence bankrupt regimes are ready to unleash to preserve power. What began in the first few months as a popular struggle for democratic rights and social justice, in the footsteps of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionary bandwagons, fell prey to its own weaknesses. Contrary to Ben Ali or Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite rule had some social reserves of support, and the workers’ movement was largely muzzled. The regime went on to fragment and ruthlessly repress the movement. Genuine activists were rounded up, tortured or killed, while prison doors were opened to free Al Qaeda fighters – some of whom are today leading the jihadist groups fighting the regime. Massacres were committed to stir up sectarian hatred.
Under the combined effects of the unrestrained violence deployed by Assad’s forces and allied groups, and of the intervention of Sunni extremist elements in the opposition, assisted by the largesse of the Gulf elites, the Turkish state and some western agencies, the conflict slid into a multi-sided war. Syria has today become a bloody crossroads for the rival geopolitical ambitions of regional and international powers. With the intricate myriad of actors involved, various scenarios of military escalation are conceivable.
The sectarian character of the Syrian war has taken on its own dynamic, threatening to bring neighbouring countries into its destructive whirlwind, starting with Iraq, already ravaged by years of war and occupation. Ultimately, however, the forces pulling the strings of conflict are fighting for power, profits, markets and strategic zones of influence, before theological considerations of any sort.
War, a monumental catastrophe for millions of ordinary people, is a bonanza for a minority of unscrupulous profiteers and speculators. “If you go to the bars and restaurants around the Four Seasons in Damascus, you can’t find a place to park: there are all these people driving new Porsches, Range Rovers, Maseratis. Our nouveau riche is making money off misery”, a Syrian businessman recently commented in the Financial Times. From small-time traffickers and smugglers making financial gains on desperately needed goods to big-league weapon manufacturers whose stock market shares jump whenever deadly news flashes from that part of the globe, war is gold for those who have the means to exploit blood-splattered opportunities.
Meanwhile, the refugee crisis becomes more acute by the day. Millions of Syrians have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where local bosses use them as a reserve army of extra-cheap labour. In Europe, ruling politicians blame each other as well as the refugees themselves for a crisis they helped create by bombing countries to the ground, exploiting their workforces, and cosying up with murderous dictators.
The emergence of ISIS
The tendency towards sectarianism and the de facto break-up of Arab states is a poisoned fruit handed down from the divide-and-rule recipes of the imperialist powers and local autocrats, used for decades to ensure their control over and pillage of the region’s resources. Kept in check through the iron fist of totalitarianism, national, tribal, ethnic and religious questions have now come back with a vengeance, heightened by the calamitous consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Against the backdrop of such an explosive context, the defence of the right of self-determination for oppressed groups and the struggle for equal rights for all communities are particularly important for socialists.
The commanders of the ultra-reactionary army of ISIS have learnt all too well how to use the imperialist heritage for their own purposes. Their announcement to ‘end Sykes-Picot’ (the secret arrangement made by French and British diplomats in 1916 to carve up the Middle Eastern cake once the Ottoman empire was defeated) has resonated to many as a challenge to imperialist designs and their ensuing horrors. The historic irony is that the ‘spiritual fathers’ of ISIS can be traced to the devious games played by western imperialism and their regional allies, starting with the US-Saudi support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in their fight against Soviet Union forces.
Alongside mounting anger from the people under its bestial rule, ISIS has faced growing military pressure in the last few months. This has pushed its high command to cut by half the pay of its fighters. However, imposing military defeats on the group and eliminating the root causes of its growth are two entirely different proposals. The human and material destruction inherent to the self-interested policies of capitalist armies only lays the ground for new monsters to emerge in the future – if a mass and united people’s movement to radically change society is not built.
Much noise has been made of the ‘liberation’ of Iraqi cities recaptured from ISIS, such as Sinjar or Ramadi. But those cities are largely obliterated, and basic functioning services are non-existent. Added to people’s fear of sectarian reprisals, these factors explain why most previous residents have not gone back to where they used to live. Scores of civilians have been maimed and killed in the bombing offensives of both the Russians and western powers. This continues to fuel ISIS’s propaganda.
Furthermore, many jihadist fighters are moving towards new areas and conflict zones. Because of the destruction left by imperialist interventions, the abysmal poverty and social despair gripping many parts of the region, such potential sanctuaries are not lacking. Yemen, wrecked by Saudi bombs and US drones, where the Saudi blockade has resulted in a 36% increase in the number of people on the verge of starvation, and Libya, shattered by NATO’s 2011 mission, are two obvious candidates.
Libya has become a hub for the ‘import-export’ business of jihadists, and a totally dysfunctional country ripped apart by hundreds of militias. Transparency International now ranks it as the fifth most corrupt state in the world. There, ISIS has conquered a territory of 150 miles along the coastline, profiting from the country’s general state of lawlessness and fragmentation that the formal announcement of a wobbly ‘national unity’ government last December can hardly hide. The forms of a new military operation in Libya are now being weighed up by western governments.
Against the background of inter-imperialist competition, EU and US rulers are torn between their wariness to open up a new war front in the region, and their willingness to have a firmer foothold here. This would allow them to curtail the mass influx of refugees to Europe via the Libyan coast – a job subcontracted to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in the past – besides bringing oilfields back into business and out of the reach of jihadist gangsters. American and British special forces are already on the ground, hoping to use local militias to do the job against ISIS, but voices from within the ruling class and military circles are pushing for more. This would inflame the situation further, as fires lit by the previous military intervention continue to rage.
As the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters”. ISIS’s barbarity is a symptom of a much more profound crisis – the crisis of capitalist civilization, a system structurally incapable of taking human society forward. The revolutionary crisis which opened in 2010-11 in the Middle East and North Africa offered an opportunity to solve this crisis in the interests of the oppressed classes. Instead, old despots, religious extremism and sectarian bloodshed, and the accumulating clouds of war have made a comeback.
This represents the price working and poor people across the region are paying today for not having overthrown capitalism – and thereby opening up a new socialist path to the millions aspiring to genuine change, thus carrying out their revolution to its logical conclusion. This is best illustrated by the number of Tunisian youth whose revolutionary hope has turned into counter-revolutionary despair. Tunisians are the highest foreign contingent within ISIS: unemployment and social exclusion are, more often than not, the driving factors behind young people’s motivation to join their ranks.
Workers’ potential power
However, this is only one side of the picture. In January, the breakout of protests in 18 Tunisian provinces by unemployed youth demanding ‘jobs or a new revolution’, has reminded everyone that the revolutionary spirit is still alive and well, and that the demands of 2010-11 for jobs and dignity have not been met at all. “We have the freedom, but you cannot eat freedom” was how a young protestor summed up the situation.
In fact, even freedom cannot be guaranteed by the capitalist elite, as illustrated by the return to torture by the police, rampant state abuses and growing attacks on democratic rights in the name of the ‘struggle against terrorism’. Moreover, the unique place occupied by the UGTT trade union, although not utilised to its fullest potential by bureaucratic leaders, has forced even the Tunisian government – which includes supporters of the ‘ancien regime’ – to continue using the language of revolution to push through its counter-revolutionary agenda. This is an indicator of what is brewing under the ‘democratic’ surface.
In Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship has been ferociously repressive. Many political activists have been jailed, tortured, killed or forced into exile. Yet the idea that the masses have the potential power to influence the course of events was planted decisively in the minds of millions of people five years ago. No amount of repression and propaganda will be able to get rid of this tenacious lesson.
The independent trade unions that have grown out of the revolution, despite the attempts at regime co-optation, represent an important asset for present and future battles nevertheless, and there is a long way to go before the military regime manages to subdue the labour movement. There has been a relative decline in the number of workers’ strikes last year in comparison to 2014. This can be largely attributed to the junta’s crackdown. This has included a ruling by the Supreme Court last May allowing the detention or forcing into early retirement of public-sector workers who take part in strike actions.
Nonetheless, the ‘lung of the Arab world’ still witnessed 1,117 strikes over the course of 2015, an average of three a day. In the last couple of months, a new wave of labour unrest has bubbled up in many sectors – including textiles, cement and energy. Even religious preachers have held protests demanding permanent contracts! The Wall Street Journal warned its business-minded readers: “Developments in Egypt are raising questions about whether another upheaval might be brewing”.
The pre-emptive crackdown by state forces in the days leading up to the fifth anniversary of the revolution has illustrated that the regime is petrified of such a scenario, as the political honeymoon of Sisi is waning fast. Furthermore, a big financial supporter of the Egyptian regime, the Saudi monarchy, is facing its own set of problems.
The Saudi Arabia-Iran enmity
The rapid collapse of world oil prices has brought the Saudi regime into troubled territory, forcing it to unprecedented spending cuts. The Saudi theocracy is mired with a growing existential crisis, which the ruling clique is desperately trying to export abroad. The easing of western economic sanctions on its fierce rival Iran has brought further panic in the palaces of Riyadh. The recent death sentence carried out on the prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was a statement from the Saudis to express their discontent at the US and the west’s ‘rebalancing’ strategy. It was also aimed at reaffirming their strength and ruthlessness vis-à-vis their increasingly restless population at home, especially the discriminated Shia minority inhabiting the oil-rich eastern province.
Weakened since the Iraq fiasco, and forced to hurried realignments in the aftermath of the 2011 convulsions, US imperialism has not been able to play the same role of ‘gendarme of the region’ as it used to do. This has led to other powers affirming their own agenda more aggressively. The major Russian military offensive to back up Assad is an illustration of this. “What do you want me to do, go to war with Russia?” was how US secretary of state John Kerry reacted when questioned on his government’s tattered strategy during an international donors’ conference on Syria held in London in January.
President Xi Jinping has also been on a tour of the Middle East and the Gulf to look after China’s political and economic relations, and make sure Chinese companies do not get side-lined on the Iranian market. Indeed, in desperate search for lucrative investments, many western corporations are now sidling up to Iran for business deals. Contracts have already been signed with French companies – during the visit to Paris of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at the end of January. This new situation is likely to stir infighting in the upper echelons of the regime, as the most conservative wings of the elite still possess important levers on state-owned sectors of the economy, and fear to lose out in this tentative opening of the Iranian economy to international markets.
At the same time, the end of the sanctions regime is likely to create more favourable conditions for the growth of the class struggle. Expecting rapid changes in their economic situation, Iranian workers and poor will demand their share, while the regime will no longer be able to hide behind foreign sanctions to divert away the growing social anger. Last year already, the high cost of living and the non-payment of wage arrears have triggered a rise in protests and strikes by teachers, transport, mine and factory workers.
New struggles on the horizon
The Middle East is a landscape mired with dangers, and opinion polls often indicate pessimism and scepticism about the future. Yet, while counter-revolutionary trends have taken the upper hand at the moment, it would be incorrect either to take this mood for granted or to equate it with the triumph of reaction. In the words of the Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti: “Revolution might be seen as a total failure and a sad event. But a revolution is not an event. Revolution is a process – a lengthy, laborious and demanding one. It has its ups and downs and its many surprises too”.
The Middle East and North African region has the highest unemployment rate in the world. Income inequalities have continued to grow in the last five years, and large parts of the population in the Gulf states work in a state of semi-slavery. In short, all the objective reasons that led to the revolutionary uprisings five years ago have become even more acute, and will encourage new struggles and the search for a political alternative to the horrors of capitalism among the most advanced sections of workers and youth.
The idea of revolutionary change has certainly been pushed back in countries like Libya and Syria, dragging the consciousness of a layer of people behind the lamentable idea that revolution is synonymous with unbridled chaos and new suffering for the masses. But other countries still have an influential working class that will give sleepless nights to the region’s rulers, and affect the general dynamics at play. Even in Iraq, the failure of the corrupt elite to provide jobs, adequate power and water infrastructure provoked huge protests in the southern provinces last summer. “Officials are expecting the summer of 2016 to be the most disruptive season of protests on record”, argues Will Crisp, an economic reporter for Middle East Economic Digest.
Talks of a general strike have been on the table in the Moroccan trade unions, and teachers’ trainees have led important street protests in numerous cities against cuts to their allowances. The sleeping giant of the Maghreb, Algeria, will have to be watched closely, too. The country’s dependence on its hydrocarbon exports, with revenues halved last year, will force the regime to cut social spending, exposing it to more confrontations with its own population.
The events on 10 October 2015 in Turkey provide a graphic example of how the elements of revolution and counter-revolution can rapidly take turns: the savagery of terrorist bombs in the heart of Ankara was immediately followed by a mass display of united workers’ action across the country, involving two days of general strike and mass occupations by the students. The intensification of the war on the Kurds by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – like the whipping-up of anti-Arab sentiment by the Israeli ruling class – is part of an effort to deflect the growing social tensions in their own backyards by stoking chauvinism and nationalism. In these dangerous times, the building of a mass socialist alternative campaigning for an end to national oppression and for working class unity across borders is more urgent than ever.
As a matter of fact, the experience of the last five years has been a conclusive test that revolutionary spontaneity is not enough by itself to achieve real change. In Egypt and Tunisia certainly, had there been a mass party armed with an adequate revolutionary leadership, the working people and poor could have seized political power on more than one occasion. New opportunities like this will resurface in the future, as the dead-end of capitalism will irresistibly push the working class back to storm heaven.
Faced with state repression, military conflicts and proliferating jihadists, the naïve and initially popular idea of ‘leaderless revolution’ was, in reality, one of the main liabilities of these movements. Besides, some left groups, such as the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt or the Popular Front in Tunisia could have developed into more sizeable revolutionary forces were it not for the unpardonable attitude of their leaders, who opportunistically lined up behind pro-capitalist factions at crucial junctures, hindering the development of new working-class parties in their respective countries.
These bitter lessons are now being digested by a new generation of workers and young activists. Many of them will come to the conclusion that the ‘old’ idea of organising in political parties is not so old after all, and that accountable leaderships equipped with a suitable programme and strategy are vital to conduct their struggles to victory.