Early 2011 saw the beginning of a massive uprising in the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa. All over the region, regimes that were in power for decades were toppled. There is hardly a country in the region that has not been affected. The struggles saw thousands of workers in the streets venting their anger, being truly inspirational in their efforts, to people all over the world. Unfortunately the vision of a better and more just society that was shared by so many has not yet materialized.
Although there are massive differences between the Arab countries, there are also some strong uniting factors, first and foremost a common cultural sphere and a common language. There is also a similarity in the sense that the whole region has been at the mercy of imperialism for years. All the Arab economies are heavily dependent on the foreign capital of Western European countries, especially Britain, France and the USA, first as colonies and later more indirectly via capital dependency. For example, the main foreign holders of Egyptian assets are British and American companies. The regions wealth of natural resources, namely oil and important trading routes, like the Suez canal, have given it a special importance in the imperialist game of parasitic plunder by the Western European and North American bourgeoisie.
The imperialists held their grip on the region via a whole bunch of proxy regimes. All the regimes of the region are extremely oppressive and authoritarian by Western standards. The power of these regimes, no matter whether dressed up as monarchies or republics, was, and is, mainly based on an excessive military apparatus that has a special role in these societies. The Arab people were often denied the most basic freedoms and rights, such as freedom of the press and free access to media or the right to (freely) vote. The power of the local bourgeoisie was bloodily exercised by the military which lived parasitically of the people.
On top of all these factors came the economic crisis that started in 2007. Already in 2008, due to massive speculation on grain and the consequent rising grain prices, hunger riots in Egypt broke out. With the tightening economic climate the bourgeoisie in the Arab countries became less and less willing to finance corrupt and parasitic dynasties of rulers. Also, the possibility for the ruling elite to make concessions to the working class and the poor in these countries was drastically reduced. This explains why the outburst of anger could take such a mass character and why the bourgeoisie was actually often joining the upsurges.
From Tunisia… to Egypt… to Libya… to Syria?
The general prairie fire in the Arab world started with the rising of the people in Tunisia. A period of mass demonstrations followed an incidence where an unemployed graduate, who had become a street peddler, set himself on fire after his license was taken away from him. In the following mass demonstrations the organised working class, namely the Tunisian trade union federation UGTT played a decisive role, although politically subordinate to the bourgeois forces. Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia for 23 years and his clan had scrounged a large amount of the economies profits. On January 15th last year he was brought down. After this success many Arab countries witnessed similar revolts.
The most significant of them was most likely Egypt, where the Dictatorship of Mubarak was brought to an end after 30 years. The main force behind the uprising however was not the working class but the urban poor, the petit bourgeoisie and parts of the national bourgeoisie. Young people especially, who had graduated from university and faced mass unemployment, were the motor of the protests. Although Mubarak was brought down, the military which is a massive factor in Egyptian society and previously was the pillar of Mubarak’s reign remained in power. The overall situation for workers in Egypt has only marginally improved, anti-trade union laws actually became even worse.
A break in the pattern was the struggle that emerged in Libya. After having initially been a spontaneous manifestation of general anger about Colonel Gaddafi’s four decade rule, the resistance movement was taken over by a clique of former Gaddafi loyalist who suddenly realized that they were better off on the side of the NATO imperialists. The uprising turned into a bloody civil war and eventually NATO forces, seeing their chance to get some booty from Libya’s oil reserves and trying to appease the region by showing presence, came out in support of the rebels.
The next state in-line for a regime change seems to be Syria, where the 30 year rule of the Assad clan is challenged by a massive rebel uprising. So far around 7000 people have been brutally murdered by the pro government forces since the beginning of the uprising last March. However the anti-Assad rebels seem to be hardly an improvement for the working masses of Syria. The rebels are made up mainly of petty bourgeois forces, trying to replace Assad’s regime with some bourgeois democratic regime and not opposing foreign intervention. In Syria, another Libya-like scenario seems likely. The Syrian working class has the least to win from a civil war and foreign intervention, for them this will only mean more suffering and more unnecessary losses.
Bourgeois democracy is the dictatorship of capital!
Wherever a “democratic regime change” has taken place in the Arab world it has so far been hardly an improvement for the working people of these countries. In Egypt and in Tunisia, the bourgeoisie and the military remain in power, in the proxy-elections in these two countries mainly right-wing Islamic forces have profited. “Bourgeois democracy” in these countries doesn’t mean a change of the living conditions of the working class or more freedoms but merely more participation in power for the national bourgeoisie.
Like the economies of the Arab countries are dependent on foreign capital, the governments in the region will always be dependent on the imperialist bourgeoisie. “Bourgeois Democracy” is a privilege of the imperialist countries and is paid for with the super-exploitation of the third world. All attempts to build Western-like democracies in the Arab countries must therefore be in vain. The imperialists will always make sure that the Arab states guarantee the imperialist’s parasitic interests in the region. Even the “democratic” countries in the Middle East, such as Turkey have to base their power heavily on the military to control the contradictions in the powder keg of a society. So if the working class and all the oppressed people in the Arab countries want to strive for something better than the smokescreen of democracy they have to go beyond the bourgeois order of things.
A working class answer is needed!
Although workers have broadly participated in the various uprisings in the Arab world the working class as an independent political factor has not yet stepped onto the scene in this region. The first promising steps have been taken, like the strike movement in Egypt after Mubarak had been expelled from power. These steps however, are only small ones and the big step has yet to be made. The working class in the Arab countries has a fighting tradition, dating back 50 years and more. The pro-imperialist proxy-dictatorships in the region have made all attempts possible to wipe out this tradition. However even now there are germs of a new fighting working class. The strikes in Egypt in 2006 and in 2011 after the fall of the Mubarak regime are a first glimpse of the enormous size and power the working class holds in these countries. If the working class makes use of its tradition and finds a way of appropriating the revolutionary ideas of Marxism it could really spark off an Arab revolution.
In Britain we have to recognize that it is not an Arab question, but a question of the working class as a whole. Britain is at the forefront of the economic exploitation of the region and has participated majorly in the military offensive against Libya. The working class in Britain can gain no freedom as long as it holds other people in shackles. The most practical solidarity we can give to the struggle of the Arab working class is to struggle against our own imperialist-capitalist rulers in Britain!