Mass Revolts Against U.S.-Backed Arab Dictators
Battle over Kasr al-Nil Bridge in Cairo raged for hours on January 28. Demonstrators confronted huge
numbers of riot police, braving water cannon and clouds of tear gas. As night fell, protesters broke
through police lines and took the bridge. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
An aging dictator toppled in Tunisia, another is tottering in Egypt: North Africa and the Near East are in turmoil, Washington is worried, Wall Street has the jitters. The world’s eyes are glued on Cairo as battles rage back and forth in the squares of the Egyptian capital and on the bridges across the Nile. With U.S. troops still occupying Iraq and bogged down in a losing war in Afghanistan, suddenly a new spectre is shaking the imperialist world order: revolution by the wage slaves held down by the modern pharaohs. But even the fall of Arab satraps of the U.S. empire will not bring democracy for the downtrodden and oppressed masses until the stranglehold of imperialism is broken. The key is to forge a revolutionary leadership to mobilize the working masses in the struggle to bring down the dictatorship of capital.
For almost a month, unemployed youth and workers in Tunisia demonstrated and struck against police terror. Then on the evening of January 14, only a few hours after thousands of protesters braved police clubs and tear gas in the streets of the capital, Tunis, word spread from cellphone to cellphone that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia. Signs calling for “Ben Ali dégage” (get lost) were replaced by one proclaiming (in English), “Game Over.” In 27 days of protest, they had driven out the tyrant who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years. More than 200 were killed by the regime, but the paralyzing spell of fear of repression was broken. The news raced across North Africa and the Near East at Internet speed: for the first time ever in this region dominated by imperialist-backed regimes, an Arab autocrat had been brought down by the Arab street. Presidents, kings, sheiks and emirs worried that “Tunisian fever” could spread. Millions of their long-suffering subjects hoped it would.
Shortly after, inspired by the Tunisian example, youthful Egyptian activists called a national “Day of Rage” for January 25. They were protesting the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who has governed Egypt under an “emergency law” for the last 30 years. “Revolution day,” as it soon became known, brought out tens of thousands in Cairo, as well as the industrial cities of Suez and Mahalla, the port of Alexandria and cities around the country. The turnout far exceeded even the organizers’ expectations, the militancy unprecedented. Demonstrators fought riot cops, clambering onto the armored water cannons, blocking windows and turning the nozzles upward. Three days later, hundreds of thousands flooded into the streets, chanting “The people want the regime to fall” and “Overthrow Mubarak!” After a battle for the Kasr al-Nil Bridge that lasted for hours, as night fell the protesters finally broke through the police lines. Soon the nearby headquarters of the National Democratic Party went up in flames.
Leon Trotsky wrote in the preface to his magisterial History of the Russian Revolution, “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events…. [A]t 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 régime.” Today the Tunisian and Egyptian masses have burst onto the scene of history. As we write they are still holding fast, thwarting every attempt by the rulers to return to “normalcy.” That is the first condition for revolution, but only the first. Whether the working people prevail is yet to be decided by the class struggle. The imperialists are trying to rob them of victory with rhetoric about “democracy” and plans for an “orderly transition.” We must mobilize to demand: U.S. imperialism out of the Middle East and Africa!
The mass uprisings (intifadas) are about more than the rule of one or another strongman. Millions throughout the region are fed up with the omnipresent police states and the grinding poverty they have enforced. From Algeria in the west to Jordan in the east and Yemen in the south, tens of thousands of demonstrators are literally defying death at the hands of entrenched regimes, emboldening many more to follow their lead. The pro-Western regimes sitting atop this seething volcano can hear the rumblings, and their imperialist patrons are worried – U.S. president Barack Obama first and foremost. So are the Zionist rulers in Israel, who together with Mubarak in Egypt have acted as Washington’s gendarmes in the Near East. With a population of over 80 million, Egypt is the largest Arab country and pivot to the region, which the Pentagon and White House have declared vital to “American interests.” Revolution in Egypt could shake U.S. imperialist world domination.
Washington Groping for Plan B
Many Tunisians talk proudly of “our revolution,” vowing to defend it against those who are trying to steal it. The Western media quickly dubbed it the “Jasmine Revolution,” recalling the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon that installed a pro-U.S. prime minister (since ousted). Parallels were made to the U.S.-engineered color-coded “revolutions” (orange in Ukraine, rose in Georgia) in countries of the former Soviet Union. By giving it a seal of approval, the imperialists sought to put an end to the agitation. In Egypt, too, demonstrators and Western media alike talk of a revolution, even as the police were beating protesters bloody. But neither feel-good labels nor tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets have stopped the surging crowds. Ruling-class hopes of rapid, cosmetic “regime change” have been dashed on the determination of tens of thousands unemployed and working-class youth who are refusing to quit the battle until the old regimes are gone. From Tunis to Cairo, militants have said, “we are prepared to die for the revolution.” So for the imperialists, it’s time for Plan B. Their problem is they haven’t got one, so they’re improvising.
Step One has been to bring in the military as alleged saviors against the hated police. In Tunisia, army chief General Rachid Ammar reputedly refused an order from Ben Ali to fire on protesters, for which he was cashiered. Within a day, Ammar was back and the Tunisian president and his avaricious wife were on a plane that spirited them off to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, dumping ground for used-up dictators beginning with Uganda’s Idi Amin. A leading Tunis newspaper splashed a picture of General Rachid Ammar across its front page, the army stood between demonstrators and marauding cops, and marchers put flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ guns. Yet while posing as the guarantor of the “revolution,” the general called on protesters to leave the “new” government of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi (Ben Ali’s former right-hand man) in peace. The protesters ignored his plea and camped out in downtown Tunis for a week, surrounded by soldiers. On January 29 the police drove them out.
In Egypt, too, the army was brought in after the Central Security Force (CSF) couldn’t control he 100,000-strong crowd in Cairo on January 28. Despite an orgy of violence from the riot cops, firing off volley after volley of tear gas grenades bearing the label “made in U.S.A.,” they were overwhelmed by youth fighting with nothing more than their bare hands and some rocks. In other cities, including Alexandria and Suez, the police were routed by unarmed demonstrators. When the tanks and soldiers arrived, they were often (but not universally) welcomed. But while protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square chant “The people and the army are one hand!” militants are worried as the army locks down key points in the Egyptian capital. Soon the police will be back. And everyone is acutely aware that the military has been the backbone of the hated regime throughout Mubarak’s 30-year “emergency” rule.
So in Egypt, Step Two in the plan to safeguard imperialist/capitalist interests is underway: find a “credible” replacement for Mubarak acceptable both to the imperialists and demonstrators. Currently (February 4) Washington is pushing for Oman Suleiman, who as intelligence chief presided over the clandestine “renditions” of prisoners to be tortured in Egypt’s dungeons. But at 75, with four heart attacks already, this Egyptian Dick Cheney may not do the job. The bourgeois opposition in Cairo has coalesced around the figure of Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who returned to Egypt last year proposing to run for president on a program of “free elections,” period. ElBaradei has been endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been anathema to Mubarak and the U.S., as well as by youthful leaders of the April 6 Movement. To gain “street credibility” in Egypt, this former U.N. bureaucrat has to appear independent of the U.S., so he duly criticized Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for clinging to Mubarak. But while Washington hesitates, it is far from clear that with either Suleiman or ElBaradei as figurehead the U.S. can get the “orderly transition” it seeks.
Obsessed with visions of falling dominoes, the imperialists have been hard at work for weeks redeploying their henchmen to put an end to any dreams of revolution, or even democracy. The liberal Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm (16 January) reported that in Tunisia: “Ahmed al-Khadrawi, an officer in the Tunisian National Guards, said that chief of staff Rasheed Ammar who was removed by Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali four days ago has received last-minute instructions via the US Embassy to take charge of Tunisian affairs if the situation gets out of control.” Which is exactly what Gen. Ammar did. In Egypt, most senior and mid-level military officers have received U.S. training. In fact, Egyptian chief of staff Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan and a delegation were in Washington when the protests broke out. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman Gen. James Cartwright “said he could not discount ‘hallway’ conversations about the protests between the Egyptian and American military commanders” (New York Times, 29 January). Duly briefed, the officers rushed back to Cairo to deal with the protests.
Opportunists Pursue Class Collaboration With Talk of Revolution
Leftists in the imperialist countries have demonstrated in solidarity with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, justly denouncing Paris’s support up to the last minute for Ben Ali in the former French “protectorate” and calling for an end to Washington’s nearly $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt, mainly in the form of military hardware. At the same time, many pseudo-socialists blithely hailed the “Tunisian Revolution” and are now doing the same over Egypt, as if deposing the leader (which is a start) amounted to overthrowing the system. This recalls the hosannas for an “Arab Revolution” back in the 1960s, when that signified political support for nationalist colonels like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s “socialist” pretensions were only a cover for accumulation of capital by the capitalist state on behalf of a weak bourgeoisie, and were soon abandoned. Mubarak’s military-based regime is in fact the heir of Nasser’s “state capitalism.” The bankruptcy of the bourgeois nationalists (and their leftist backers), unable to resist imperialism and even make a dent in the poverty of the masses, opened the way for Islamic fundamentalists to pose as defenders of the downtrodden.
Mindless cheerleading does not aid the Arab masses in a bitter struggle against their imperialist-backed oppressors and the substitute rulers that the U.S. is seeking to bring in. While liberal and leftist commentators lambaste the “hypocrisy” of U.S. mouthing “support for the legitimate aspirations” of the Egyptian people while clinging to its ally Mubarak, the crisis planners in the State Department, Pentagon and CIA are preparing the “option” of a “people power” operation like they pulled off when Ronald Reagan finally dumped Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. In that case, while the widow Corazon Aquino grabbed the limelight as the symbol of popular defiance of the U.S.-backed dictator, the reins of power passed to Marcos’s defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile and General Fidel Ramos, who saved capitalist rule and imperialist domination from potential revolutionary overthrow. The Filipino left capitulated to the bourgeois “democrat” Aquino behind whom stood the generals. In Tunisia and Egypt today, the army is being prepared for such a role, civilian figurehead to be determined.
While the media report the vast outpouring of opposition to Mubarak “from all walks of life” – rich and poor, Muslim and Copt, old and young, etc. – powerful forces are maneuvering for position. The idea that the military is or could be “friends of the people” is a deadly illusion which must be fought tooth and nail: it is the army which will impose a new “democratic” capitalist regime. The Muslim Brotherhood is biding its time, seeking to expand its influence over the mobilizations while keeping a lid on its slogans, in order to avoid confrontation with the U.S. at this point. Whether it would cooperate with imperialism to suppress Marxists, as it did after World War II, and even slaughter the left as Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran in 1979 (despite opportunist leftists’ delusionary hailing of the Islamic “revolution”), or pretend to be “anti-imperialist,” the Brotherhood is an arch-reactionary anti-communist force. Washington uses the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism to justify its “global war on terror,” but it is quite prepared to deal with the Islamists – witness its long-standing alliance with the Wahabist Saudi monarchy – in the interests of counterrevolution.
In fact, all these bourgeois forces – the military, the Islamists, traditional conservatives and liberals – would maintain dictatorial rule over the Egyptian masses. It will take nothing less than a revolution that overthrows capitalism to sweep away these dictatorships, for any pretense of “democracy” in the semi-colonies can only be a sham. To pretend that what has already been achieved in Tunisia and Egypt amounts to a revolution is a swindle by the imperialists, who use such rhetoric to demobilize the masses. When this is pushed by leftists, it only demonstrates their inveterate tailism, chasing after whatever is popular. The dictator may be gone or leaving, but the dictatorship remains. These regimes rested on a whole edifice of corporatist rule – including omnipresent state “parties,” police, secret police, military and “union” apparatuses – all of which remain intact. The torturers are still in place, as is the army of police informers, etc. Yet the depth of the oppression and strength of the rage against decades of police-state domination is such that the masses have – so far – refused to go home until the regime is brought down.
This has opened a potentially revolutionary situation in Tunisia and Egypt, as the rulers are no longer able to rule in the old way and the ruled refuse to go on “living” in the old way. The uprisings could quickly turn into insurrectionary struggles. In Tunisia, which has been eclipsed in the headlines by events in Egypt, thousands demonstrated in the capital on January 27 against the “transitional” government, with general strikes in Sfax and other interior cities. For now, the holders of state power, however tenuous their hold, are counting on wearing down the masses in struggle. They were caught unawares by the determination of the youth, but historically, in the absence of a revolutionary leadership, such tactics often work, as the pressures of daily life and economic hardship eat away at the will to struggle. As the dictatorships begin to crumble, the protesters are crying out for leadership. The New York Times (30 January), not usually given to reporting such sentiment, quoted a “veteran dissident” in Jordan saying, “People want their freedom, people want their bread. People want to stop these lousy dictators from looting their countries. I’d follow anybody. I’d follow Vladimir Lenin if he came and led me.”
Revolutionary Leadership Requires a Revolutionary Program
The key issue of revolutionary leadership comes down to a question of program. Various would-be socialists talk of a “democratic revolution” throughout the region, in order to justify class-collaborationist alliances with “democratic” bourgeois forces. Other leftists talk of a “radical redistribution of wealth.” But neither democracy nor the elimination of poverty are possible without expropriating the ruling class and smashing the yoke of imperialism. In Tunisia there are widespread demands for a constituent assembly. In a country where the president won election by “votes” of 99.27%, 99.4%, 94.5% and (as a show of liberalism) by 89.6%, calls for a constitutional assembly are appropriate. But who shall convoke such an assembly? The present “transitional government” is nothing but the old regime in new clothes. For any semblance of democracy, it is necessary to first overthrow the dictatorship. Thus Trotskyists call for a revolutionary constituent assembly at the same time as we fight for the seizure of power by the working class, supported by the urban and rural poor.
In Egypt as well, where revolutionary democratic demands must likewise be part of a program for workers revolution, the struggle against the military-based regime must include shattering the structures of corporatist control which chained all sectors of society to the state. Thus the struggle for trade unions independent of state control is key. (How this is carried out may differ: in Egypt the official trade unions were simply government agencies, whereas in Tunisia there was significant opposition to the Ben Ali regime in certain unions and regional federations, which played a leading role in the uprising.) In a social/economic context where massive youth unemployment was a detonator of the upheaval, workers should demand jobs for all, by dividing up the available work among all those seeking it, drastically reducing the workweek with no loss in pay. The fact that university graduates were among the hardest-hit by joblessness underscores the need for a socialist planned economy.
Tunisia under Ben Ali and Egypt under Mubarak were real police states. As anti-regime demonstrators are subjected to murderous assault by police commandos and party militias, it is urgently necessary to form armed workers self-defense squads. The people’s committees which have arisen in both countries as the police disappeared could give rise in working-class areas to such bodies of proletarian democracy. The struggle to abolish the special police forces will be another key front in the struggle to dismantle the dictatorships. And a genuine struggle for democracy for the oppressed must include the formation of people’s tribunals to try the regime criminals, from those who looted the state treasury to the police torturers and murderers – and those who issued their orders. To hell with toothless “truth commissions” as in South Africa that let the murderers go free! But these struggles against the mechanisms and legacy of bonapartist, police-state rule can only be realized through revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels underlined in the Communist Manifesto, every serious class struggle is a political struggle. It is vital to fight for the revolutionary independence of the working class from the bourgeoisie, opposing all political alliances with capitalist parties and politicians, not only with Islamic fundamentalists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennahda in Tunisia, but also with liberals such as ElBaradei. Following the Stalinist dogmas of the “popular front” and “revolution in stages,” reformist Communist parties in both countries are desperately seeking to form such blocs – even, in the Tunisian case, where they can’t (so far) find a willing bourgeois partner. Such class-collaborationist coalitions will only serve to preserve semi-colonial capitalism and block genuine revolution. It is above all necessary to build a genuinely Bolshevik communist party, to lead the struggle for a workers and peasants government based on workers councils, proceeding from democratic tasks to socialist revolution.
This must be seen as an international struggle, to be extended throughout the region and to Europe as well. Nationalism, even in leftist and “socialist” garb, has been the downfall of revolutionary struggle in the Near East. The fight against the Egyptian and Tunisian dictatorships must include the struggle to defeat the imperialist war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – including closing the Suez Canal to the imperialists’ warships and supplies. Any revolution in Egypt must defend the Palestinian people under the Zionist jackboot, starting by dismantling the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. While both the Palestinian nationalists of Fatah and the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas have prohibited demonstrations of solidarity with the uprising in Egypt, proletariat revolutionaries should fight for an Arab/Hebrew Palestinian workers state, as part of a socialist federation of the Near East. The fight for a socialist federation of the Maghreb (North Africa), can extend the struggle to Algeria, where jobless youth clashed with the military and police on January 7-8, and to Morocco, where support for independence of the Sahrawi people, will be key to bringing down the U.S.-backed monarchy.
You didn’t need a crystal ball to see this crisis coming. Egypt has been shaken by militant labor struggles since 2007 in the textile center of Mahalla al-Kubra and elsewhere (see “Egypt: Mubarak Regime Tottering,” The Internationalist No. 31, Summer 2010). Tunisia saw a revolt by unemployed workers in the mining region of Gafsa in 2008, which was brutally put down by Ben Ali. The upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt may indeed have begun a revolutionary overthrow of the old order of deeply corrupt imperialist-backed regimes – but only if the present intifadas are deepened into a struggle to sweep away neo-colonial capitalism through workers revolution. As we noted during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq:
“A successful workers revolution anywhere in the region would sound the death knell for tottering monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, nationalist military-dominated regimes (Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Algeria) and imperialist protected oil sheikdoms (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, etc.), while offering the prospect of liberation for Iranian working people who have smarted under the dictatorship of the shah and the mullahs.”
–“U.S. Prepares New Desert Slaughter – Defeat U.S. Imperialism! Defend Iraq!” The Internationalist No. 14, September-October 2002
The key is to build genuinely Leninist communist parties of the working-class vanguard, forged on the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution. ■
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