The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Arab World:
Set Ablaze by the Winds of Revolt

Feb 23, 2011

The following article, written on February 23, 2011, just as the events were developing, is translated from the March 2011 issue of Lutte de Classe [Class Sruggle], put out by comrades of the French Trotskyist organization Lutte Ouvrière [Workers Struggle].

A large part of the Arab world is ablaze. Around the southern and eastern sides of the Mediterranean, public protests have sparked off a wildfire that is inflaming country after country, from Morocco to Yemen and Oman. Protesters have already put an end to the 23-year-old dictatorship of Tunisian president Ben Ali and brought about the fall of Egypt’s own president-dictator Mubarak, who was forced to relinquish his 30-year iron grip on power. The regimes of Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Mauritania, Djibouti and Libya are also being challenged more or less vigorously.

In Libya, events have recently taken a bloody turn under the violent blows of Qaddafi’s regime. At the time of writing, Libya is plunged into a civil war the outcome of which remains unpredictable.

Death is taking its toll, including in countries where the ruling cliques have decided to make concessions, but so far, nothing has been able to stop the movement from spreading.

This rebellion is highly contagious, no doubt because Arab countries share the same language and culture. But, more importantly, their respective social structures and political situations have a lot in common, beyond the apparent differences: they are all run by dictatorships that trample the Arab peoples’ freedoms and democratic rights, with the support of the military and a police regime that is rotten to the core with corruption.

These dictatorships are all tailored to the same pattern: an underdeveloped economy that is dependent on foreign capital (in other words, dominated by imperialism), and social structures that maintain glaring inequalities between a local privileged class and dirt-poor masses. The existence of natural resources (oil) or man-made sources of wealth (the Suez Canal) allows the leaders of some of these countries to make occasional concessions. But this is not the case everywhere.

They don’t all have the same leeway. There is a huge difference between making concessions in 80-million-people-strong Egypt, compared to making them in one of the super-wealthy microscopic emirates set up to serve the interests of oil companies. Except in these Disney-like tourist resorts (where the workforce is mostly made up of immigrant workers treated like semi-slaves), the social structures of the Arab countries are pretty much the same and the existing inequalities are maintained by a police state that quells rebellions ruthlessly. Protesters are everywhere beaten up and jailed or gunned down, depending on the circumstances.

These merciless dictatorships serve the interests of the global imperialist system, whatever their official foreign policy might be. They are the watchdogs of the big imperialist conglomerates that dominate these countries’ economies, thanks to the positions they have secured inside the country or thanks to their share in global trade.

Even in Libya, where for a few years Qaddafi used a demagogic anti-imperialistic phraseology, the state remains a firm defender of imperialistic interests just like those countries that are more openly tied to the big imperialist powers. The Libyan dictator had no difficulty to toe the line. And he was praised for it by the French government, which once again distinguished itself by the vileness with which it celebrated its new friend, who is now massacring his own people with arms he bought from the great Western “democracies.”

The Middle East, the eastern part of the Arab world, is kept under close surveillance by the imperialist powers because of its oil reserves and its strategic position. In most of these countries, the regime’s dependency on imperialism is visible: their army chiefs all come out of the military schools of France, the United Kingdom or the United States and have kept close ties with them.

This revolt bursting out in the Arab countries has deep roots: in the horrible poverty of the exploited masses; in the workers’ tiny wages, only one-fourth what they are in Turkey; in the misery of the peasantry. A good part of the petty-bourgeoisie, even university graduates, can’t find work. This category of “unemployed with diplomas” seems to have played an important role in the revolt, beginning with the man who became the symbol of the revolt in Tunisia, the young university graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, living as a street pedlar, who set himself on fire after one too many humiliations suffered at the hands of the police.

On top of this overall situation came the crisis of the capitalist economy. The crisis has catastrophic consequences for the exploited people of the imperialist countries. But the rise of prices of all food items in the poor countries, where a sizeable part of the population lives permanently at the brink of famine, can push many over the edge.

The Drawbacks of the System

This system of more or less open military regimes is not entirely satisfactory for the local bourgeoisie or, for that matter, for imperialism. When the army has been ruling a country, unchallenged, for 50 years — as is the case for Egypt — it tends to increase its economic power as well. The hierarchy of the Egyptian army plays a considerable role in the economy. The military directly controls whole sectors of the economy — and not only armaments or military technology. The army top brass is present in agribusiness, plastics, construction, public works, real estate, tourism, etc. (apparently, a good many of Sharm el-Sheikh’s resort installations belong to the Mubarak clan). As for the sectors where the army is not in direct control, the bourgeoisie’s access to the trough depends on its having good relations with those in power.

Another problem arises from the fact that, when a dictator has been in power for decades, he has a natural tendency to put members of his family and his allies first. The clan in command encroaches on the bourgeoisie’s economic power. In the last years of the Ben Ali era, countless stories came out, revealing how his clan — and more particularly his wife’s family, the Trabelsi — maneuvered to prevent other members of the local bourgeoisie from getting their share of the more profitable deals.

Practically everywhere, the defense of the global bourgeois order has led to the creation of a ruling mafia, at a costly price not just for the local bourgeoisie, but for the bourgeois class as a whole. For example, the interests of Nestlè the powerful Swiss trust, were well defended by Ben Ali who kept the wages of Tunisian workers at a minimum. But in exchange, Nestlè had to hand out a good chunk of the shares of its local subsidiaries to the Trabelsi family. In other words, not only does the watchdog want to be fed, but at times it threatens to bite its master’s hand!

In Egypt, the Mubarak family is said to own between 40 and 70 billion dollars, a fortune that is comparable to that of the world’s oldest and richest bourgeois dynasties! These fantastic sums of money, coming from the coffers of the state, the returns from the Suez canal and from other profit-making setups are not pocketed by the bourgeoisie.

According to economist Lahcen Achy, of the Carnegie Middle East Institute in Beirut, the dictatorships of the area are a nuisance because “ordinary citizens” who want to make an investment (his words for “bourgeois people”) are either brushed aside by the army or forced to “collaborate” with the military (that is, to share their profits with them). He complained that “what has been created is only the façade of a market economy.” He complains again in Le Monde on February 8, 2011, that “the privatization of production units exclusively serve the interests of those who are close to the ruling circles.” They have been “given monopolies or near monopolies, a privileged access to public markets or even political and economic positions allowing them to orient the government’s political or tax-related decisions in a sense that is entirely favourable to themselves.” His disillusioned conclusion was that “in these conditions, the ordinary citizen who wants to invest or start a business runs up against the lack of access to credit, the administration’s corruption and inefficiency, the dominant position of those who are already established, the brutality of the judicial system and the difficulties of obtaining governmental subsidies.”

In a television interview following Ben Ali’s departure, Laurence Parisot, the president of the French bosses’ association, declared with a sigh of relief that being a business person under Ben Ali had decidedly become more and more difficult!

Her opinion was shared by Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of French oil company Total, who is highly interested in any development affecting the Middle East. According to him, “the departure of president Ben Ali is rather a good thing” and “the downfall of these regimes does not destabilize us. Bosses are not bullies who dream of working with dictators.”

The big trusts are bullies indeed when their interests are directly and immediately threatened.

The Parliamentary Mask of Imperialism

Imperialist countries, and in particular the biggest of them all, the United States, have initiated countless military coups, and their secret services have protected many dictatorships. But, as time passed, they realized that a parliamentary regime can be as effective for defending their interests.

When the first demonstrations stormed Cairo, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former U.N. secretary-general and a former Egyptian minister under Mubarak (whose regime he supported until the very end), declared that the only thing he reproached Mubarak for was having rigged the last elections too much, leaving no room for the opposition. He believed that if Mubarak had acted otherwise, the people’s discontent would have found an outlet in Parliament — and not on the streets.

Maybe. But the riots might have broken out anyway. The anger against Ben Ali was not due only to the lack of freedom, but also to a huge unemployment rate and a high cost of living. India, which bourgeois commentators affectionately call “the world’s largest democracy,” has known innumerable periods of unrest. However, Boutros Boutros-Ghali does have a point: after a long period during which the imperialists (American, French, etc.) did not tolerate the existence of even a vaguely parliamentary regime in the countries under its direct domination, they have become more flexible.

When the working class movement represented an immediate or potential threat, it was out of the question for the bourgeoisie to allow the working class to take advantage of the existence of a Parliament, albeit a weak one, to have a podium. However, the revolutionary working class movement has not represented a threat for ages. In the heyday of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the bourgeoisie’s obsession was to stave off the possibility of a pro-Soviet regime coming to power through more or less fair elections. In the 1960s, this risk was reinforced by the threat of a contamination of neighboring countries by Cuba. The United States saw to it that there was a dictatorship in every Latin American country. French imperialism did the same inside its own sphere of influence, that is, in France’s former African colonies. In most of the underdeveloped countries in the world, the 1960s were years of rough and tough dictatorships. Even Europe had its dictators. Franco and Salazar were the survivors of a different era, but they were joined by the Greek colonels in 1967.

Years later, the multi-party system, that caricature of democracy, became fashionable. The African countries, for instance, opted in the 1980s for the particular form of democracy which consists of allowing a thin privileged layer of people to play at running for parliament. Elections were more often than not rigged and their results were regularly challenged by those who lost. But still, there were elections. The exploited masses did not for all that enjoy more democratic freedom or rights. They continued to be the victims of tyrannical policemen and army troops who ransomed and terrorized them. But the so-called “elites” were authorized to compete for the better-paid posts and positions.

The Maghreb countries did not go down the same route. Morocco continued to be ruled by “our friend, the King,” and then by his son. Tunisia’s elderly dictator, Bourguiba, was pushed aside by his minister of the Interior, Ben Ali. In Egypt, Mubarak replaced Sadat, not because of some election (rigged or not), but because the chief staff of the army decided to install him in office after Sadat was assassinated.

The strategic choice of the big powers in favor of parliamentary regimes of sorts, or rather in favor of “multi-party systems,” did not go as far as getting rid of those dictators who well served their interests — except when they turned out to be exceedingly greedy or madly megalomaniac, as was the case with Mobutu or Bokassa.

The recent events in Tunisia have shown that French imperialism was very understanding of Ben Ali’s regime despite its mafioso tendencies. French capital owners still invested in Tunisia. The super-profits they made thanks to the extremely low wages they pay to workers allowed them to guarantee sizeable incomes to the country’s political leaders. The ministers and the other political servants of the bourgeoisie unhesitatingly accepted the sizeable incomes the local dictator handed them and their families.

The same thing happened in Egypt. Today, Obama voices his admiration for the so-called democratic transition (which, however, is a very relative one since it is embodied by an army marshal). But for 30 years, Mubarak was propped up and financed by the United States. In the end, the Americans forsook him, but only because the people’s anger had to be addressed by someone else.

Normally, the imperialist countries’ global policy does not go as far as getting rid of a dictator that serves their interests well. However, the transition toward democracy is tolerated when changing the leaders means that you won’t have to change the rest.

It must be added here that the so-called democratic “change” changes nothing in the existing blatant social inequalities or in the power of a privileged class that maintains people in poverty, with the approval of imperialism. It doesn’t change much in the conditions of the dictatorship either. Dictatorship — in other words, oppression by the state apparatus, the police, the army and the administration — is not due only to the fact that power is exerted by a single man. When it comes to oppressing the poor, exploited masses, India’s so-called democratic parliamentary regime is as harsh as the worst dictatorships.

The relative stability of Indian society, which remains deeply unequal, is not explained simply by the fact that India has had a parliament and elected members of parliament for over half a century — whereas neighboring Pakistan has known a succession of military coups. India’s stability is also based on the deep integration of a series of anachronistic features inherited from a distant past — and first among them, the caste system — into a modern parliamentary system. The presence of a handful of representatives of the “lower” castes (or even of the so-called “untouchables”) in the New Delhi Parliament is meaningless as long as the codified caste-based inequality, sanctified by religion, continues to pervade Indian society from top to bottom.

To maintain order, imperialism has always been able to integrate outdated social structures into its system. The fictitious character of Ivory Coast’s parliamentary system is not due only to the systematic electoral cheating that goes on, which is aptly illustrated by the opposition between Gbagbo and Ouattara. Ivory Coast’s brand of parliamentarism is not incompatible with the rule of local kings or nobles over extremely small areas, whose authority rests on a collection of ancient privileges consolidated by the colonial power and reactivated in the newly independent Ivory Coast.

In the wealthy imperialist countries, democracy was partly established thanks to the destruction of anachronistic social structures by a revolutionary bourgeois class. However, even the most modern democracies maintain ridiculous vestiges of the past. The United Kingdom, for instance, still has its Royals, complete with palaces, gilded carriages and princely weddings.

England’s anachronistic royalty is more ridiculous than tragic — though it is also costly. In the imperialist countries, democracy is based on wealth. As Trotsky once said of British bourgeois democracy, it is kept alive by the plundering of its immense colonial empire. The same can be said of France. As for the United States, its democracy owes everything to the plundering of the rest of the world, starting with Latin America.

As long as there are masses of poor people in the underdeveloped countries, there is no room for a genuine democracy. Even China is now under pressure. In the past, thanks to the peasant revolution of 1948, it was able, under Mao, to get rid of the most anachronistic aspects of its heritage in terms of social inequalities. But today, conditions are getting worse, due to China’s acceptance of unrestrained capitalism. Poverty and social inequalities are thriving and oppression is back to keep the masses “quiet.” The real problem, even in China, is not just that there is only one party and the dictatorship of a centralized state. The problem is also that of the arbitrariness and unrestrained power of local feudal lords. The fact that the party in power calls itself “communist” doesn’t change anything about that situation!

The Impact of the Protest Movements

The protest movements we are witnessing today are undoubtedly an important political fact that might change completely the political reality of the Arab world. A fraction of the people have decided to get involved and are intent on changing things for the good. However, to understand the dynamics of the movement one needs to analyze the social forces that are on the move and to understand what their fundamental interests and relationships are.

Behind this expression, “democratic transition,” are the confused aspirations of the exploited masses for more freedom and more rights, starting with the right to eat a full meal. But it also expresses the aspirations of the bourgeoisie itself for change.

We cannot know what will come out of the protest movements that are sweeping the Arab countries or even if anything will come out of them. It would be stupidly pessimistic to fix its limits in advance, declaring that the movement’s energy will serve only to get rid of a handful of elderly dictators who would have died anyway, and to give the imperialist powers the opportunity to cover up the dictatorships with parliamentarian cloaks.

But it would also be as stupid to pompously declare that a “revolution” is developing in the Arab countries. The movement might become a genuine revolution because the masses can learn quickly when they get in motion. Indeed, the masses can only learn in the confrontation between social classes.

So, as long as there is a movement, there is hope. In January 1905, Russia’s working class launched a revolution, despite oppression from feudal society and repression by the Czar’s state machine. At first, workers chanted hymns and demonstrated behind a pope, wishing only that the Czar would listen to their “respectful demands.” In the end, the workers were crushed by the armed forces, but they had accomplished a lot. In a very short time, they had learned to take up arms, they had shaken an age-old monarchy and had invented the workers’ councils or “soviets,” which prefigured what, for a whole historic epoch, would be the organism of workers’ power.

The working class thus began the revolution of 1917, finding from the beginning the capacity to arm itself, and the understanding of the need to address the rank and file soldiers to turn them against the military hierarchy. They quite naturally revived the soviets. However, in order to transform the February revolution into the conscious seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, the workers needed a party. Without the Bolshevik party, the October revolution would not have taken place. Conversely, the Bolshevik party could not have done much in 1917 without the existence of a proletariat that had learnt the collective lessons of 1905 and February 1917.

Decades ago, several Arab countries went through the rich experience of a combative workers movement. The working class erupted onto the political scene in the 1930s in Palestine and in Iraq. It erupted in Egypt, once again, right after World War II, with the movement continuing until the coming to power of Nasser in 1956. There were also powerful movements claiming their agreement with communist ideas in Iraq and Sudan.

However the organized working class movement was already dominated around the world by Stalinism, a very bad school indeed for a working class that was trying to find its road. The thousands upon thousands of workers who came to political consciousness were not only the victims of repression, including the repression wielded by France and England, which then dominated the Maghreb countries and the Near East. Their thinking was also perverted by the Stalinist ideology. Stalin’s supporters stifled the voice of revolutionary communists and paved the road for a whole generation of officers, like Nasser in Egypt, Kassem in Iraq and others in Syria, who stood for “progressive nationalism,” that is, for paternalistic dictatorships that rapidly became less and less lenient and ended up with army coups. After which came the rise of Islamist ideology.

The proletariat of the Arab countries is more numerous and younger today than between the two world wars or after World War II. It has a lot to learn, but it can learn all the lessons it needs, especially if, from among the educated youths of these countries, many who remain unemployed, militants come to the fore and revive the traditions of revolutionary communism.

If the present revolts end up conquering some freedom and consolidating it, it’s necessary that this generation uses the opportunity to make links with this revolutionary communist past, even if only through reading about it in books, to cultivate themselves and to transmit these ideas to the working class. If this happens, it’s possible that a genuine “Arab revolution” will develop, that is, a revolution of the workers and exploited masses of these countries.