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Middle East uprisings: The unfinished revolutions
As the dates for elections in Tunisia and Egypt are announced, the Libyan masses, despite their herculean efforts, have not yet been able to overthrow the Gaddafi dictatorship. Yet in Oman, in Bahrain, in Yemen and Djibouti the challenges to the rule of kings and dictators continue.
Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary
Four million reportedly took to the streets across Yemen on Friday 4 March, calling for the removal of the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Significantly, 10,000 marched in Beirut on the following Sunday, to protest against the country's sectarian political system, chanting slogans: "No to sectarianism", "People want to topple the regime" and "Revolution".
The mighty labours of the Middle East revolution do not stop there. In a magnificent demonstration in Iraq against the Nouri al-Maliki government, a stooge regime of imperialism, we see the re-emergence of the working class under its own banner. This is for the first time since the Tony Blair/George Bush invasion and the occupation of the country in 2003.
Up to now there has been the virtual outlawing and repression of trade unions and workers' organisations. Terror was used by the government against demonstrations as 29 workers were shot down by 'security forces'.
Yet the slogans of the demonstrators were to the point: "The people's oil for the people not the thieves!", "We want dignity, jobs and services, not terrorism!", "No to Saddam's dictatorship and no to the dictatorship of thieves!", "No to the occupation, we're not Ba'athists!" and very significantly "Sunnis and Shia, this homeland we shall never sell".
Also in Iraqi Kurdistan, six were killed and protesters demanded that the Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani and their sectarian parties should follow Mubarak into exile.
In panic, as the torrents of revolution swept into the sleepy Gulf states, the Sultan of Oman rushed out proposals for 50,000 new jobs and $400 a month in unemployment benefits. This followed significant concessions from the Kuwaiti regime as well as the 'mighty' Saudi Arabia semi-feudal monarchy. Last week the Saudi king tried to buy off the insurgent masses with a $36 billion package of housing loans, unemployment benefits and pay rises.
This graphically demonstrates that reforms - real reforms - are themselves merely a by-product of revolution or the threat of revolution.
These movements which have left not one regime in the Middle East untouched bears out the arguments of the Marxists and the Socialist newspaper at the time of the Iraq war. Invasion, argued Blair, was the only way to unseat the Saddam Hussain dictatorship.
Our claim that, on the contrary, only a mass movement of the Iraqi people could really remove, not just Saddam, but also his rotten regime was dismissed out of hand.
But it was the mass uprisings in Tunisia and then in Egypt which overthrew the dictatorships and not the intervention of imperialism.
In fact, imperialism backed these dictatorships right up to the moments of their overthrow. They trembled at the repercussions of these movements. The shameful revelations of the millions of pounds given by the Gaddafi regime to support august institutions of British capitalism, such as the London School of Economics, indicate this.
Nor was it Al-Qa'ida or the methods of terrorism which led to the Egyptian, Tunisian and Middle East revolution. On the contrary, the methods of terrorism have not undermined dictatorships but, if anything, helped to consolidate them. Such methods have been completely sidelined by this process and rejected - at least for the time being - by the revolutionary forces. Failure to carry through the revolution to a conclusion however could open the opportunity for sectarian and tribal divisions or reactionary divisive forces like al-Qa'ida to make a comeback.
But even that is contingent on whether or not a powerful independent movement of the working class can be built. This is the most crucial task in the revolutionary movements that are taking place.
The fear of such a development is indicated by the attempts of both the Tunisian 'security' services and the Egyptian army, which still retains most of its power, to stifle and attack any independent organisation and criticism of the regime by working class or other popular forces.
This is why independent organisations, where they exist, are so crucial for the further consolidation and spread of the revolution. Where they don't exist, forming them is an urgent task.
No faith can be placed in the 'security apparatuses' that still retain most of their power from the previous regime. Witness the arrests and the shootings on the streets of demonstrators in Tunisia. Look at the entirely correct suspicions of the workers in Alexandria and Cairo, who attacked the headquarters of the security police because of alleged rumours that evidence of torture by the army and police was being destroyed. It is vital that the emerging trade union organisations are completely independent of the state.
Libya also underlines the instinctive approach of the masses, once they move onto the political arena, for their own means of mass expression, independent of governments or other non-working class forces.
The idea of "people's committees" in Benghazi and other liberated areas of Libya is a good and necessary one. But it does appear - from scanty reports, it is true - that the committees even in Benghazi, are not fully based upon the real involvement of working class people in the city.
Naturally, in an economically and culturally deprived society the more educated will come to the fore in the first period, even in a revolution. Therefore lawyers, businessmen and teachers seem to be dominating the committees at this stage. But this should be just a prelude to the real control and management of society by the masses themselves. They need to be armed and politically conscious that a real struggle for liberation depends on mass involvement.
Yet it appears that, up to now, a wide distribution of arms has been denied to the population in Benghazi, allegedly because of the fear of agents of Gaddafi still operating in the city. But all observers say that Gaddafi's forces are virtually non-existent there.
This could indicate that there is fear by the middle class figures at the head of the movement of the working class equipped with arms and in control of the committee to defend the revolution.
The objective situation differs from country to country in the Middle East. How the revolution unfolds will have common features but also dissimilarities.
The movement in Tunisia and Egypt was overwhelmingly urban with the working class playing a decisive role, particularly in the latter stages of the movement in Egypt.
Libya has a more scattered and smaller population in a huge geographical area. Tripoli, the capital, still occupies a crucial role, as all major cities do in revolutions. Gaddafi has a base in Tripoli. Oil riches allow the desperate regime to promise lavish funds to tribes to remain loyal. There are national and tribal factors which will play a role. There is a fear and hostility that imperialism will interfere in the 'chaos' of the revolution.
These factors and others could mean a drawn-out civil war. Therefore, the attempts to overthrow Gaddafi will assume a more protracted character.
There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the Libyan masses wish to see an end to his regime. It is blood-soaked, as described by a well-known Libyan novelist in the New York Times: "15 years ago, in a single night, the tyrant and his mercenaries murdered 1,200 people at the [main] prison in Tripoli, where political prisoners are held. The bodies were piled high... prisoners from all over Libya, of all ages, were killed without a trial. My only brother was one of them."
The hatred towards Gaddafi and the regime is therefore of volcanic proportions. Nevertheless, because of the tribal make-up of Libya, he still seems to retain a certain amount of support, particularly in Tripoli itself but elsewhere as well.
Militarily, he has based himself on a 'praetorian guard' of specially trained troops and mercenaries. The opponents of Gaddafi are lightly armed, do not seem to possess tanks and Gaddafi has a monopoly of air power.
Large-scale outside imperialist intervention is entirely ruled out. Posters have been put up in Benghazi saying: "No to foreign intervention - Libyans can do it themselves!"
Even the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has declared that anybody suggesting military inter-vention is "insane", as General Douglas MacArthur's proposal to bomb China was described at the time of the Korean War.
However some kind of no-fly zone has been seriously considered by imperialism, in the hope that they can repeat the experience in the Kurdish areas before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Even this is problematical because of the likely objections of China, Russia and other powers. Moreover it would not prevent the use of helicopters which no-fly operations are incapable of fully picking up. Therefore the revolution in Libya is likely to be fluid and drawn-out, its timescale being impossible to predict.
The key to success against Gaddafi is to cut across tribal divisions in the country, as the revolutions in other Arab countries have pushed aside national and sectarian divisions. In Tripoli this means elaboration of a clear social and economic programme to cement working class unity and cut across tribal divisions.
Because of Gaddafi's past 'socialistic' rhetoric - backed up by gangster Stalinist-type methods - the appeal of 'socialism' may not immediately be obvious to the Libyan masses. But explaining this in terms of freedom and democratic rights linked to a change in the social conditions, the elimination of unemployment, etc; this can find an echo amongst the Libyan people.
In Egypt and Tunisia promised elections in June or July, linked to the idea of a 'constituent assembly' will not satisfy those who made the revolution through huge sacrifices nor the mass of the working class.
Only a revolutionary constituent assembly organised on the basis of mass committees linked to changes in social conditions can effect real change. Elections to such a body moreover can only be carried out by committees of workers and small farmers in which officials are elected and subject to recall, etc.
Events in the Middle East have also profoundly affected the economic and political perspectives of world capitalism. The increase in petrol prices in Britain alone could reach £2 a litre, even Tory MP Alan Duncan warns, which will have a crippling effect on already restricted family budgets. All the major recessions of the last 30 years have been preceded by an increase in the price of oil, which has deepened the crisis.
At the same time the political ramifications of this revolution cannot be overestimated. It is no accident that the Wisconsin workers were inspired by Egypt in their struggle against right-wing Republican reaction, both in Wisconsin and throughout the other states of the US.
This also underlines the arguments of Marxism that once a serious movement of workers begins in one country it will detonate similar movements internationally.
How many times have the sceptics and faint hearts sneered at this idea? Yet it has been borne out in the Middle East and now in the movements in America. Soon this will be repeated elsewhere, in Europe and the rest of the world. We must give the maximum support to the Middle East revolution.
From a CWI eyewitness in Cairo
Friday 4 March witnessed another mighty demonstration of the power and determination of Egyptians to win real change. Tahrir square was packed with singing, chanting, flag-waving people from every age and background. Parts of the square were like a victory parade for a cup-winning team.
Elsewhere people from different political platforms spoke to vast crowds. Some people held aloft homemade placards with lists of demands. Every so often processions of hundreds surged through the crush - one seemed to be an entire Coptic Christian girls school, all dressed in black with the Coptic cross on their chests, stewarded by parents with linked arms.
Tents and make-shift shelters filled the centre of the square, where hundreds have camped out for weeks demanding an end to the regime. A sea of red, white and black - Egypt's national colours - represent a feeling that the people are reclaiming their country after 30 years of Muabarak's hated regime. Many Libyan flags were also on display.
All roads into the square were blocked, with young people checking IDs and searching everyone who entered. But barely 100 metres away another power was on display. Surrounding the misnamed 'People's Assembly', fraudulently elected last November, were tanks and armoured cars. A fire engine and water tankers were also lined up, the burnt-out massive headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party visible on the opposite side of the square.
A razor-wired enclosure, containing a tank and more armoured cars, surrounded the National Bank a few hundred metres in the opposite direction.
The regime is still in place. One man said to me "some skin has been peeled off but the body survives".
Before the demonstration started one of the most popular demands was won - prime minister Shafiq, appointed in the dying days of the Mubarak regime, resigned. He lasted a shorter time than Ghannouchi in Tunisia!
His replacement, Essam Sharaf, is a more credible candidate from the ruling class's point of view. Although he had been in a previous Mubarak government, he resigned five years ago and had visited the Tahrir protests before Mubarak fell.
In an unusual sign of the balance of forces, Sharaf made his first public address as prime minister in the square itself on Friday morning, where he was cheered by a large crowd. But workers and youth should have no illusions that his government will represent their interests.
Egypt's ruling class is desperately seeking a way to defend its vast wealth and regain control over every part of society. They hope to ensnare the masses in a discussion about a new constitution - one that will protect their ownership of the huge corporations, banks and the land, while denying workers, the youth and the poor the control over the economy needed to meet their needs.
Today (5 March) the demonstrators have mostly gone, although a few hundred continue to camp and will be joined by thousands, as has happened every day this past week.
The square is becoming more of a tourist attraction than the throbbing centre of revolution. Everyone seems to want to have their photo taken where history has been made in the past few weeks. Souvenir, food and drink sellers have stalls everywhere. Young men control traffic around the square and nearby streets, as the police continue to be almost invisible.
A small sign of the strong desire to build a better society is the many small litter bins tied to lamp posts throughout the centre of Cairo, placed by demonstrators and their supporters. Unfortunately litter still blows across the city, despite continuous cleaning and sweeping, because of years of under-investment in basic services and infrastructure. Planning and democratic workers' and community control is needed to change this.
- On Sunday 6 March pro-democracy activists in Egypt were attacked by 200 men in plain clothes, armed with knives, outside the interior ministry in Cairo. The armed thugs confronted pro-democracy activists after soldiers dispersed the democrats' rally.
In The Socialist 9 March 2011:
Socialist Party youth and students
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party feature