Two months after Mohamed Bouazizi, a street fruit-seller in Tunisia, burned himself to death in protest at poverty and official harassment, setting off an upheaval in his country, almost the whole Middle East is socially aflame.
Tyrants have fallen in Tunisia (14 January) and Egypt (11 February). As we go to press it looks as if Qaddafi in Libya, the most vicious of them all, is the next to go.
Protests have spread to Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, and Iraq, and beyond the Arab world to Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan.
We can read well-informed analyses telling us why Syria, or Jordan, or Saudi Arabia will escape upheaval; but before 17 December we could read well-informed analysis telling us that the one thing “clear” about Tunisia was that “political change [there] will not come about through some dramatic event”.
Soaring world food prices stirred up exasperation in Tunisia and Egypt, and with the political revolts have come workers’ struggles demanding better wages. But the core of it is an elemental revolt for democracy and civil liberties, including in countries where food is a much smaller part of household budgets than in Egypt. (Libya’s average income per head is over twice Egypt’s; Bahrain’s is three times higher again, and higher than Britain’s).
The tyrannies of the region have been shaped by a history in which the three main chapter-headings are empires; oil; Israel.
Under the Ottoman empire and then British, French, or Italian empires, local society everywhere was polarised into corrupt landed elites and a pauperised peasantry, with a small layer of urban middle class.
After World War Two, the British and French empires could no longer hold on. It was not a quiet transfer to the local landed elites. In the same period, the Arab elites suffered a great blow to their prestige from the success of the new Jewish state of Israel in establishing itself and — with tiny numbers — defeating the Arab countries’ apparently much stronger armies in war in 1948.
Almost everywhere the old regimes were overthrown, often by coups led by army officers rooted in the middle class, and replaced by “Arab socialist”, “Muslim socialist” or “Arab nationalist” regimes.
These regimes consolidated independence from the old colonial powers. They copied much from Stalinism — large nationalisations, industrial plans, one-party states. After three decades of privatisations, in Egypt the state is still a very big employer.
Oil became the region’s dominant money-earner after World War Two. (It started in Iran, not part of the Ottoman empire but informally dominated by Britain and Russia in rivalry, from 1908; in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, from the 1930s; in Libya and Algeria, from the 1960s). Oil also made the region central to world power politics, and the big powers anxious to sustain whatever regimes there seemed passably cooperative and stable.
Oil wealth, trickling out to states with little oil through workers’ remittances, meant that the people of these countries could see the lavishness of capitalist riches only just beyond their reach. But beyond. Their governments built up huge state bureaucracies, greatly expanded education, and urbanised their countries rapidly: but in the swollen cities most people, even university graduates, could not find regular jobs.
For their failings, the regimes had one excuse: Israel. Israel in fact had greatly harmed the Palestinians, and not significantly hurt the other Arab peoples; but the rulers cited “Zionism” as the only reason why the Arabs had not become a unified and prosperous nation.
The worst tyrants, like Qaddafi, bolstered themselves by also being the most “militant” against Israel.
The rhetoric became staler and staler, the bureaucratic structures more and more stifling and discredited — as in Eastern Europe before 1989.
Now the peoples of the region are overturning all the old clichés about Middle East politics. How far will it go?
Maybe the present ruling classes and state bureaucracies will be able to survive by opening up politics, operating limited purges, and conceding limited social-welfare measures. Maybe they will then try to take back the concessions.
The upheavals so far have been secular, and have spread to protests against the Islamist regime in Iran. But in some countries political Islamists were the main visible political opposition under the old regimes. If strong enough political alternatives are not built, they could confiscate the revolutions for counter-revolution.
The working classes are a new factor. Before the “Arab socialist” period industry was too weak for the working classes to be powerful. In recent decades the working classes have expanded in numbers, but been unable to move decisively for lack of political and trade-union freedom.
Now a great new union federation is growing in Egypt, and strikes are spreading almost everywhere. New workers’ movements can give the broad surge for democracy and civil liberties decisive social backing and precise political edge, fend off counter-revolution, and create the potential for going on to workers’ power.
All the forces in the region of modified conservatism will get anxious and ample support from one faction or another of the world’s wealthy. The new workers’ movements need international support too. That is the duty that falls to us.