Middle East: the workers emerge

Submitted by Matthew on 5 October, 2011 - 12:01

By Clive Bradley

Until the beginning of 2011, North Africa and the Middle East had been dominated by authoritarian regimes and dictatorships for decades. Popular opposition, too, had been muted. The so-called “Arab Spring” — now Autumn — reveals that profound social and political changes had been taking place “beneath the surface”.

Common to most of the uprisings has been on the one hand, growing resentment — especially among youth — of the repressive regimes, and on the other frustration at general social inequality and in particular the closing down of opportunities for, eg, university graduates. The incident which detonated the protests — the self-immolation of an unemployed university graduate in Tunisia — typifies this dynamic.

As such, middle class youth were central to the uprisings, first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then elsewhere — often mobilising via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. But some of these movements had their roots in earlier, smaller protests over recent years.

A significant example would be the April 6 Movement in Egypt (which first began as a Facebook group in 2008) — which is named after a planned day of workers’ strikes in the important Egyptian textile-producing town of Mehalla al-Kubra — where there had been militant struggles over previous years. The Facebook group was an attempt to launch a general strike in solidarity with this working-class struggle. In the event, the strike was prevented by the army, and the general strike never took place (the youth organising the Facebook group had no working-class roots to make such a thing possible).

But its name alone indicates, at least symbolically, the deep connections between the January protests in Egypt and the recent history of working-class struggle against the regime.

The removal of Hosni Mubarak by the Egyptian army was also especially in response to an unfolding general strike which had, in particular, spread to the economically vital Suez Canal.

From a socialist point of view, the emergence of a new, independent workers’ movement in Egypt is the most important feature of the year’s upheavals.

This is a region in which independent workers’ organisations have been very thin on the ground. The emergence of the working class as a major actor in events, and beginning to develop its own movement, is something of “world historic” significance.

As yet, in all these countries, working-class based or socialist political movements remain weak and marginal. They have this in common, of course, with the rest of the world. Many of these countries have had governments which have called themselves socialist (Libya, Syria, Algeria); even those which long ago abandoned their version of “state socialism” (Egypt) sustain an image of socialism which is very tarnished in the eyes of the population. Much of the “old left”, emerging from this tradition, is imbued with Stalinoid and left nationalist sensibilities. But there is every reason to be confident that new opportunities will open up for a revived revolutionary socialism.

In Tunisia, too, the youth-led uprising was linked to a developing class struggle. The trade union federation (which unlike in Egypt was a real trade union movement) has, from the beginning, played a central role in the revolution of 2011.

The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt gave encouragement and inspiration to similar movements across the Arab world — from Morocco to Bahrain, from Syria to Yemen.

The traditional Islamist movements — an-Nahda in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — were slow to respond to events.

Since the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, these movements have been anxious to reassure Western governments that they have no radical plans for their countries, and do not seek to dominate the new polities which are emerging (for example, the Brotherhood says it will not contend more than 50 per cent of seats in the parliamentary elections now due in November, or stand for president).

The threat to workers’ organisations and democracy posed by these movements should not be underestimated. In Egypt the Brotherhood boycotted the (flagrantly rigged) last parliamentary elections. Before that, in conditions of semi (at best) legality, they held 88 seats (20%) of the total. It is still likely that in the new parliament they will be the largest single party, and for sure are the best organised (better organised than the various liberal bourgeois parties, and much better than the tiny socialist groups).

There are signs of crisis in the Brotherhood, resulting in splits (including one split which resulted from the expulsion of 4,000 or so youth who had been influenced, it seems, by the secular left during protests against Israel’s war in Gaza). But as and if the Brotherhood gains in confidence, or feels under pressure from an apparently substantial “salafist” (conservative Islamic) constituency — and violent (or previously violent) “jihadists” who are back in circulation after years in prison — it could assert its conservative, and undemocratic nature more clearly.

The development of a working class political movement — some kind of workers’ or Labour party — linked to the new independent unions is an urgent political task for Egyptian militants, both to consolidate the gains so far of the workers in the uprisings, and to contest the Muslim Brotherhood, or other right-wing religious movements, in the future. There is already a Democratic Workers Party, which is an excellent development.

The most far-reaching of the uprisings so far has been in Libya. Of course it is unusual in that its ultimate success was dependent on military intervention by NATO.

NATO intervention for sure prevented Qaddafi invading the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in March 2011, where he would have crushed the revolution, probably via a bloody massacre. Representatives of the “rebel” government, the National Transitional Council, lobbied the west to intervene.

Successful campaigning by the Western left to prevent NATO intervention would have flown in the face of the express wishes of the revolutionary movement itself, and resulted in a massacre in Benghazi which would have been a tragedy in itself but also an enormous defeat for the “Arab Spring” as a whole.

Workers’ Liberty didn’t oppose the intervention. We stressed that NATO could be given no overall political trust; but also that general opposition to NATO could not, in this specific instance, override more immediate political concerns.

NATO intervention in Libya has been of a different character to the 2003 war in Iraq or the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. It was unlikely to result in the occupation of Libya. It was a relatively limited action with limited goals.

The leadership of the NTC consists mainly of men from the Qaddafi regime who “jumped ship”, and many who advocate a neo-liberal and pro-western economic policy. But the rebel movement as such is primarily a “raw” revolt of the Libyan people — who, as a result of extreme repression, have very few traditions of political organisation or debate. It remains, as far as can be judged, politically inchoate. For sure now different tendencies will fight for control. Among them are Islamist currents; but again these seem weaker than might have been expected.

Events in Libya therefore constitute a revolution — so far, a political revolution which has removed the old regime; but also a revolution in the sense of a genuine mass uprising of the oppressed, deserving the support of socialists.

For sure, the possibilities for working class and socialist organisation in Libya now, and in the immediate future, are immensely greater than they were under Qaddafi. Those on the left who suggest (implicitly or explicitly) that the revolutionary movement is “reactionary” and should not be supported are utterly wrong.

Of course Western powers now seek to influence — even shape — whatever new government arises in Tripoli. But this isn’t true only of Libya.

Indeed, the general pattern is that the previous, pro-western regimes remain in power, and even after elections, the new governments are likely to be pro-western (which would be no less true of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt). The outcome of events in Syria remains uncertain, and western governments are moving further in the direction of punitive — though not military — action against the extremely violent regime. But nowhere has there been a movement which has represented a serious challenge to Western hegemony.

That is not the significance of the “Arab Spring”: their significance is the emergence of new movements, and in particular the workers’ movement in Egypt.

An alternative to a pro-western economic policy is only beginning to emerge. In the past, the alternative — which was adopted by the regimes in Egypt and Syria (and in slightly different forms in Libya, Algeria, the former South Yemen, and Iraq) — was the model of the USSR (albeit in a rather diluted form). A thoroughgoing alternative to the neo-liberal policies which have shaped the region in recent decades — with wholescale privatisation, etc — requires more than just opposition to “the west”, or western capitalism.

But challenges to neo-liberalism are already taking shape. In Egypt, at least one company that had been sold off to profiteers has been renationalised thanks to demands from below.

No doubt at present the sentiment behind such demands remains in a vaguely nationalist or Stalinoid framework; but it represents, also, a vital break with the recent past, and a foundation upon which a socialist economic policy can be forged — and with it a genuine, democratic, mass socialist movement.

Strikes grow in Egypt

Despite attempts by Egypt’s military government to impose emergency laws, and despite its moves to extend its interim rule well into 2012, strikers in Egypt are becoming more assertive.

A common theme, according to the Cairo paper Al Ahram, is the demand that “Prime Minister Essam Sharaf honour his months-old promise to raise the minimum wage for all government employees to 700 Egyptian pounds” [£76] per month.

Not only the lowest-paid, but also groups like doctors and teachers, are below that.

As of Monday 3 October, bus drivers in Cairo, who have been in dispute since 17 September, were talking of running the buses for free, without collecting fares, as a new stage in their struggle.

They have demonstrated on the streets, and some have gone on hunger strike. On 27 September their union (apparently one of the new independent unions, not one of the old state-run unions) announced a deal, but the drivers continued striking.

As well as wage rises, they demand an upgrade of the bus fleet, which they say is old and dangerous.

On Monday 3 October, also, professors and students at six universities demonstrated to demand the replacement of university administrators inherited from the Mubarak regime.

At Ain Shams, Alexandria, Assiut and other universities, professors have struck.

Egypt’s 1.5 million school teachers began a strike movement on 17 September, demanding wage rises, the making permanent of tens of thousands of teachers on temporary contracts, and the sacking of the minister of education.

Some of them joined Cairo transport workers in a city-centre protest. As of late September, a significant minority of school teachers were still on strike.

Doctors in public health services struck and organised rallies and marches in September. As well as wage rises, they demand an increase in the public health care budget from three per cent of government spending to 15%. (In Britain in 2009-10, the Department of Health took 17% of government spending.)

In addition, Al Ahram reports that 4,000 workers at Ain Sokhna, Egypt’s only privately-owned seaport, struck from 21 September against the owner, DP World, and after four days won “a near-complete victory”.

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