On December 17th 2010, the fruit salesman Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to his own body in protest against both the seizure of his apples and police corruption in the rural city of Sidi Bouzid, in the Tunisian inland.
By Fábio Bosco
In a few days, the protests spread over the whole country, including the capital Tunis, demanding the end of the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali, which was toppled on January 14th 2011.
On January 25th 2011, the Egyptian workers and youth took over the now iconic Tahrir Square in Cairo. The slogan “The people want the end of the regime” was joined by the demand for “bread, freedom and social justice”. On February 11th 2011, dictator Hosni Mubarak is removed from power, a military junta takes over, and the popular and worker’s revolution carries on after conquering the right to protest.
Across the following months, protests were held in every Arab country, except for Qatar, even in areas under brutal military occupation like Palestine, with the participation of Arabs and other peoples, like the Amazigh in the Maghreb and the Kurds in Kurdistan.
Some of the protests of this wave became true revolutions. On top of Tunisia and Egypt, this was the case of Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
All of this happened in a region composed of 22 countries which not only are a historical transit area between Europe and Asia, but also have nearly half of all known reserves of oil and natural gas which have become a permanent target of foreign powers across the centuries.
Infitah, the economic crisis of 2007-2008 and neocolonialism
Chronic unemployment, the increase of poverty and the lack of democratic freedoms are among the immediate reasons for this revolutionary wave which have some structural issues on the background.
The first of them is the so-called Infitah (“Openness”). Announced by Egyptian ex-president Anwar Sadat in 1974, it represented a shift in the capitalist economic model.
Former president Abdel Nasser applied a developmentalist capitalist model based on large nationalized companies to promote the substitution of imports for national output. This model was called “Arab socialism”.
Sadat reversed developmentalism and resorted to the neoliberal recipes of the IMF, opening markets, privatizing, reducing public expenses, reversing the agrarian reform, and flexibilizing wages and labour rights in order to attract foreign investment. He also traded strategic cooperation with the USSR for one with the U.S..
This shift represented an attack on the living conditions of workers and of the people in general.
After being adopted in Egypt, the Infitah was applied in many other countries in the region along the years and became a model of the economical adjustment programs of the IMF in the 80s throughout the world. The other Arab nationalist regimes, one by one, also become agents of imperialism in the region.
The other question was the global economic crisis of 2007-2008 in the U.S., Europe and Japan, which also affected the Arab countries, particularly the prices of basic foodstuffs like rice and wheat.
There is also the matter of neocolonialism, which brought the region into the international division of labour and the capitalist world order, but in a subordinate position. Most of the countries are under the sphere of influence of the U.S.. The exceptions are Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, under the hegemony of French imperialism; Libya, by Italian imperialism; and Syria controlled by Russia. This semi-colonial condition implies deeper exploitation of workers, as well as the theft of the products of labour by multinational companies and the oppression of the peoples.
Finally, the political-military defeat of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq amplified anti-imperialist feelings among the masses and, to this day, it has become harder for imperialism to intervene, be it politically or militarily.
Spring or revolution
The strength and width of these revolutions brought a series of debate to the surface. In this article we will discuss one of them, about the nature of this revolutionary wave.
Imperialism, its ideologues and media constantly talk about the supposed incompatibility of Arab and/or Islamic culture with democratic values.
This has always been used to legitimize the support of the various imperialist powers to dictatorships, be they monarchic or republican, in the Arab countries.
The eruption of hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the streets of major cities demanding freedom and the end of the regimes has demonstrated that those who love dictatorships are not the working peoples but the Arab bourgeoisies and their imperialist partners.
Though the Arab peoples and activists called the uprising Revolutions, Western media used another terminology: the Arab Spring. This pleasant name dilutes the radical transformative content of these revolutions which not only threaten the dictatorships and the regional imperialist order but also may influence the emergence of similar movements worldwide. Spring also brings an idea of timespan, of limited duration like the 1848 Spring of the Peoples, which was not the case of the revolutions we are talking about.
One of the best definitions of a revolution was created by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the preface to his work History of the Russian Revolution. In our opinion, this definition represents the real content of the Arab Revolutions:
“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” (I)
Revolution or counterrevolution
Another debate happened among the ranks of the so-called world Left-wing. Most leftist organizations, particularly those of the Stalinist and Neo-Stalinist lineages, defended the formerly Arab nationalist regimes, like those of Libya and Syria, and called the workers’ and people’s uprisings counterrevolutions.
As a rule, these organizations disregard the protagonism of the Arab masses, and ascribe the uprisings to imperialist or Islamic conspiracies.
A concrete example was the attempt by these reformist leftwing organizations of linking the Syrian Revolution to the so-called Islamic State (Daesh), a far-right organization originated in Iraq which gathered members across the world and focused its attacks on the liberated zones under control of the Free Syrian Army and, later, on the Kurdish cities of Syria.
There were also organizations of the Trotskyist leftwing, like the Argentinian PTS, which did not support the Arab Revolutions and thus, objectively, stood by the dictatorships and imperialists.
Below we reproduce parts of two articles by Marxist journalists connect to the International Workers’ League (Fourth International) who debate this subject:
The Libyan case
In this article “Where are the revolution and the counterrevolution in Libya?” the IWL-FI explains its position:
“We from the IWL-FI, on the other hand, have sustained from the beginning that what was happening in Libya was a people’s anti-imperialist revolution, because it fought back the bloodthirsty dictatorship of Qaddafi, one of the main agents of imperialism in the region. Consistently with this definition of where the revolution and the counterrevolution were, we placed ourselves on the side of the Libyan masses and saluted as a tremendous democratic achievement: the destruction of the Qaddafist regime and the justice brought upon the dictator by the popular militias.
With the same strength, and also from the beginning, we have denounced the imperialist intervention of NATO as counterrevolutionary. With the slogan “No to NATO, out with Qaddafi” we have explained that the contradiction, expressed in the fact that the imperialist intervention happened during the civil war on the same military side of the armed masses and against its agent, Qaddafi, was due to the political difficulty that imperialism currently has of directly invading with its own troops, and the fact that it was forced to intervene from within an armed popular upheaval to dispute and defeat it, a primordial task which Qaddafi failed to accomplish – thus showing himself to be expendable.” (II)
The Syrian case
In the article “Should we demand or not weapons from imperialism?“, Marxist journalist Daniel Sugasti explains the position of the IWL-FI:
“Faced with this issue and within the framework of our programme for the entire revolution, the IWL-FI poses the need to develop a policy of broad international solidarity with the cause of Syrian people. Coming down to brass tasks this means a campaign of unconditional and all-embracing solidarity for the victory of the rebels.
That is why we sustain that an imperious task is to boost the broadest mobilisation to demand in our countries and from all the governments in the world, including imperialist countries, immediate shipment of heavy weapons, medicaments and all kinds of material aid for the rebel militias of the FSA and the Local Committees of Coordination with no conditions of any kind.
Our demand of weapons does not embrace brigades connected to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose sectarian and confessional-religious viewpoint has driven them to break-up the military front against the dictatorship in several places where they began by attacking Kurdish militias and the FSA acting as a “fifth column” of the regime.” (III)
The main absence: a revolutionary party
The force of the revolutions shook the regimes across the Arab World. But while all of them demanded bread, freedom and social justice, only the Tunisian revolution achieved democratic freedoms.
In Tunisia, there was a shift of the political regime, which changed from Bonapartist to bourgeois-democratic, which did not dismantle the intelligence services, nor affected the capitalist structure of the country. Two bourgeois electoral coalitions alternate power without bringing any solution for poverty, unemployment, the flexibilization of labour rights, and the public education and health budget cuts.
In Egypt, amidst a popular uprising against elected president Mohammad Morsi, the military seized power and restored the old regime, through massacres such as those of Rabaa al-Adawiya, and through generalized repression. It’s important to remember that the Egyptian Revolution managed to lift the criminal siege of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip for 30 months between 2011 and 2013, as well as promoted an occupation of the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
In Libya, the Libyan state and its armed forces were dismantled, but today the power is being fought over by two pro-imperialist bourgeois factions.
In Bahrain, the Saudi armed forces invaded the country and drowned the revolution in blood.
In Yemen, the regime was effectively dismantled. The richest area of the country, the North, is under control of Houthi militias supported by the Iranian regime, and under constant and intense bombardment by the Saudi armed forces for the past five years. In the South, the separatist militias of the Southern Transitional Council are dominant, supported by the United Arab Emirates. The president which is “recognized” by the international community and supported by Saudi Arabia, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, lives in exile, with few militias loyal to him.
In Syria, the weakened Assadist regime rules a country with entire areas in shambles, the economy destroyed and the rationing of bread. The regime remains due to both the Russian military forces and pro-Iran militias. Kurdish militias and US troops control about 25% of the Syrian territory in the country’s Northeast, and Turkish forces control a long border strip and the northern provinces of Idlib and Afrin.
Amidst this scenario in which the forces of counterrevolution (Arab regimes, regional and imperialist powers) spare no efforts to crush the revolutions, a second wave of revolutions has exploded in December 2018 in Sudan, then in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon.
On the one hand, the revolutions face enormous obstacles. On the other hand, the forces of counterrevolution are incapable of stabilizing the situation, be it through the military means, be it through economic concessions which are increasingly further away due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent world recession.
Among the weaknesses of these revolutions, the main one is the absence of a revolutionary party rooted in workplaces and poor neighborhoods. A party which could build an independent alternative for workers in Libya and Tunisia against the two bourgeois coalitions. A party which would alert the Egyptian masses that the people and the army are not on the same side. A party that could be an alternative to the leaderships of the Council and later Coalition of the Syrian Opposition and the PYD standing for the unity of the forces of the Syrian rebels and Kurdish people against Assad. A party which would unite the Palestinian resistance and the Arab Revolutions into a single struggle against the State of Israel, the Arab regimes and imperialism.
The International Workers’ League (Fourth International) has supported and still supports all struggles, protests and revolutions of the working class and the peoples of the Arab world. For the IWL-FI, the struggle against the dictatorial regimes and for democratic rights must be understood as part of socialist and worker’s program, with the objective of taking over power by the working class, so that it can achieve not only the democratic freedoms, but especially the economic demands against capitalism. We call upon activists to join us in our fight to build revolutionary parties in all Arab countries.
(translated by Miki Sayoko)