Winds of change in the Middle East

February 16, 2011

The revolution in Egypt is a game-changer, and not just for Egyptians.

THE INTERNATIONAL Socialist tradition has long argued that the solution to the Palestinian problem cannot be solved within the boundaries of Palestine itself.

We have argued, firstly, that there is a close connection between the Palestinian national struggle and the rest of the Arab world--that there is great sympathy among Arab peoples for Palestinian self-determination and against Israel's brutal denial of that self-determination.

Secondly, we've argued that the peculiar position of the Palestinian people has made it extremely difficult for them to achieve national liberation based on their own strength--that is, without the aid of the Arab masses in the region, and in particular, the Egyptian working class.

This is true for several reasons. First, a great portion of the Palestinian population is part of a diaspora in the region and throughout the world that is unable to exert direct influence over the course of events in Palestine/Israel. Second, and most important, the character of the Israeli state is such that in its colonializing project, it sought not to subjugate and exploit the Arab population so much as to conquer and expel them--in order to create an exclusively Jewish state.

That goal has not been fully achieved, but it drives Israeli policy in Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank and elsewhere. For that reason, Palestinians have little social or economic leverage on Israel, let alone military leverage against the one of the world's best-equipped and most motivated armies.

This is in stark contrast to the situation in apartheid South Africa, where the centrality of Black labor to the wealth and position of the white minority made South Africa particularly vulnerable to strikes and stay-aways that helped paralyze the apartheid system, and eventually forced it to yield.

One of the historical weaknesses of the Palestinian movement was that it depended for its survival and its operations on the support and good will of various Arab regimes--that is, on the Arab ruling classes. These rulers, whether they were in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon, gave financial and material support to the movement, partly in order to maintain some element of influence over it, and partly as a sop to their own populations whose sympathy for the Palestinians was too strong to ignore.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), instead of tying its fortunes to the struggles of Arab workers and peasants, declared a policy of "non-intervention" in Arab states in return for these states' funding and permitting the PLO to operate inside their borders.

By doing this, the PLO narrowed the scope of the Palestinian struggle to a purely military one--one that, by definition, it could not win. And it turned its back on the only forces in the Middle East that could effectively aid its cause--the Arab working classes and peasantry.

As the PLO became more and more squeezed between Israel, the U.S. and the Arab states on which its survival depended, it yielded more and more ground--to the point that today the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank has become a kind of auxiliary police force of the Israeli state that prevents its own population from demonstrating in support of the Egyptian masses.

HOWEVER CORRECT the argument that Palestinian liberation depended on regional developments may have been, it was not an easy one to make for many years.

So long as the Arab regimes appeared impregnable--and worse, increasingly cozy with Israel and the U.S.--saying that the hopes of the Palestinian movement lay in an Arab revolution sounded too much like saying that liberation would come "when pigs fly," even when we made it clear that this was not a call for the suspension of struggle until the struggle in Egypt and elsewhere caught up.

Now everything has changed. The mass uprising in Egypt and the entrance of the Egyptian working class onto the stage of history, giving the final push to the hated regime of Hosni Mubarak, makes the argument concrete.

Egypt has been a pillar of U.S. policy in the region, part of a triangle that includes Israel and Saudi Arabia (one wonders how the U.S. can present its efforts to secure control of the oil-rich region as a war against extremist Islamists when one of its most important allies is an Islamic monarchy that prevents women from driving and cuts off the hands of thieves).

Egypt is second only to Israel in the amount of economic and military aid it receives from the U.S., and Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and its cooperation in containing Gaza and the Palestinian movement has been crucial. Hence the frantic efforts to ensure that, even if Mubarak became a liability, the core of the Egyptian state--the army and the bureaucracy--would remain intact, along with that policy.

Hence also the great fear with which Israel (quite openly) and the U.S. (less openly because of its rhetorical commitment to "democracy") confront the possibility of real democracy in Egypt. As horrified Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit lamented on February 3:

The consequences of the West's betrayal of Mubarak will be no less severe. It's not only a betrayal of a leader who was loyal to the West, served stability and encouraged moderation. It's a betrayal of every ally of the West in the Middle East and the developing world...The Arab liberation revolution will fundamentally change the Middle East. The acceleration of the West's decline will change the world.

Everything Shavit says is true. For those who want democracy and human liberation, freed from the shackles of U.S. imperialism and its crony dictators in the region, what is taking place represents a great wind of popular change. For Israel and for other Middle East ruling classes, it is a disastrously destructive storm.

The outcome in Egypt, therefore, will have a profound impact on the struggles of people all over the Middle East, but especially the Palestinian people.

WHATEVER HAPPENS in Egypt, Israel, the U.S., the Egyptian Army brass and all the wealthy businessmen who benefited from Mubarak's rule will do everything in their power to ensure that the Mubarak regime--the police apparatus, the secret police, the bureaucracy and the army--stays intact after he is gone.

To the extent that the popular movement is able to press Egypt toward a more democratic system, these backward forces will fight to ensure that the "wrong" people don't end up in power--"wrong" being anyone who answers to the popular will and accedes not only to the legitimate economic, social and political demands of the Egyptian people, but ends Egypt's strategic alliance with the U.S. and Israel.

That is why the struggle must continue pressing forward. The spreading action of all sectors of society, but especially the working class, must sweep out not only Mubarak and his handpicked cronies, but all remnants of the old regime.

More than that, the struggle must combine, as it is already beginning to do, the struggle for political and democratic freedoms with the economic struggle for land, workers' control, free and independent unions, women's rights and so on--that is, for a revolution that is not only political, but economic and social.

As Karl Marx once wrote many years ago, "[I]t is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions."

Part of that perspective of "permanent revolution" is the idea that Palestinian liberation cannot happen in isolation, but only in connection with the struggle against oppressive regimes in the rest of the region.

Only such a struggle will guarantee an Egypt that does not kowtow to American imperialism and to Israel's suppression of the Palestinians, and only such a struggle will guarantee that those who have oppressed and exploited the Egyptian people for so many years are never permitted to have power again.

Further Reading

From the archives