As Solidarity went to press on 1 February, Hosni Mubarak, dictator of Egypt since 1981, declared that he would not stand in the country’s presidential election in September, and would work until then for an orderly transition.
His rule had been fatally damaged since the Egyptian army, on 31 January, declared that it would not use force against the demonstrators on Egypt’s streets, and even that it recognised the demonstrators’ demands as “legitimate”.
The main demand of the demonstrators had been that Mubarak should go. He probably will not make it to September.
The blows of the world economic crisis, and especially of the big food price rises of 2008 and the recent months, have cracked the established order first at a point where it looked most solid and congealed, but in fact was most worn and discredited.
Mubarak is the third chief of a regime in office since 1952. In Tunisia, Ben Ali was the second chief of a regime ruling since 1956.
Other Arab regimes are mostly of the same stripe: outright hereditary monarchies, in Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; dictatorships which owed their initial impetus to Arab-nationalist claims of decades ago, such as the Ba’thists in Syria (since 1963), the FLN/army regime in Algeria (since 1962), or Qaddafi in Libya (since 1969). They are the “oldest” regimes in the world.
In their day they consolidated national independence from European colonial rule, nationalised much industry, and pushed through land reforms. But all have been stiflingly unfree.
Despite the afflux of oil incomes to the region — some of which spreads out to countries with little or no oil, through workers’ remittances home — economic growth has been poor. Rapid urbanisation and expansion of the education systems in these countries has produced a generation of urban young people often highly educated, taunted by the processes of capitalist enrichment and corruption around them, but without jobs or prospects. In Egypt, over 30% of young people are unemployed.
The new market-oriented economic policies of governments like Egypt in recent decades have stripped protections from the poor like food subsidies, but produced no flowering of private capital.
In Tunisia and in Egypt, the working class has been central to the upheavals. In Tunisia, the trade-union confederation UGTT, despite a long history of political accommodation to power, is the axis of the opposition. In Egypt, the movement on the streets follows a rise of workers’ strikes since 2004, and has given birth to a new independent trade-union federation.
With independent political organisation and a chance to educate itself and discuss — things which will take much effort and probably much time — the workers’ movement in these countries can take the lead in fighting for full democracy, link that fight to its battles on wages and conditions, and lead society forward to a workers’ government.
For now the UGTT is committed to political coalition, and the initial step of the working class separating itself out as an autonomous political force is yet to be completed.
The upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt will reverberate throughout the Arab world. A clear independent voice from the workers’ movements in those countries — where it is stronger than in many other Arab countries — can shape the outcome across the whole region.
Other forces than the working class will also strive to shape the outcome.
In Egypt, the international diplomat Mohamed El Baradei has put himself forward. He appears to want a development like that in Indonesia after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, or the Philippines after the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986: a regime politically more liberal, but economically neo-liberal.
That would at least allow the working class space to organise.
The army chiefs are also contenders for power. In both Egypt and Tunisia the army stood aside, effectively licensing the street demonstrations, and is seen by many as a friend rather than an enemy.
Direct military rule is perhaps less likely than the installation of coalition civilian governments buttressed by and close to the army.
A big difference from the Philippines, and from Indonesia, although in terms of religious belief Indonesia is mostly Muslim, is the strong presence in Egypt and Tunisia, and across the Arab world, of political-Islamist groups as the longstanding legally-banned but visibly active opposition to the dictatorships. This is true even in Tunisia, by many standards a very secularised society.
Though the Islamist movements have played little part in the upheavals, the fact that they have political cadres and organisation already in place gives them scope to shape outcomes.
Iran since 1979 shows that political Islam is a deadly threat to democratic, workers’, and women’s rights. Iran in 1978-9 shows that democratic promises by the Islamists before taking power are worth nothing once they gain power.
It may be that the young people of the Arab countries know enough about Iran that they will strongly resist political Islam. It may be that the Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia, lacking Iranian Islamism’s structure of a clerical hierarchy, prove less solid than they seem. We hope so.
Much of the left in Britain has ignored the threat of political Islam to the revolutions in the Arab world, or positively endorsed political Islam, thinking that its demagogic hostility to the US and European governments makes it progressive. This is a betrayal of the workers’ and women’s movements in the Arab world.
Our solidarity should be with the workers’ movements, and with a fight for full and broad democracy in the Arab world.