Shock waves from a revolution

February 17, 2011

Kevin Ovenden, a leader of the Viva Palestina movement to break the siege of Gaza, looks at the implications of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia for the wider region.

"VICTORY HAS a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan."

Those words of Italian diplomat Count Galeazzo Ciano sprang to mind at the nauseating spectacle of Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and the rest claiming if not parenthood, then a least favorite-uncle status to the newborn revolution in Egypt and its older Tunisian twin.

But from the Atlantic coast of North Africa to the Persian Gulf, everyone knows that these leaders would have strangled both babes at birth if they could. Having failed in infanticide, they will now seek every means to stunt the child's growth. The dizzying momentum of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, however, is now ricocheting around the Arab and Middle East region, while at the same time profoundly radicalizing struggles and politics within those two countries.

The revolutionary overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is already world-historic, to deploy an oft-overused term. Together with Tunisia, it has, not yet two months in, marked 2011 as one of those years of revolutionary turmoil we find in the history books.

Protesters camped out in Tahrir Square in the days before Mubarak's fall
Protesters camped out in Tahrir Square in the days before Mubarak's fall (Joseph Hill)

A revolution, successful in its first phase, has erupted in a critically important country, and onto the world's television screens every night for two weeks at a time--at a time when global capitalism is in its most profound crisis for three generations and the U.S.-led imperialist state order is losing its coherence. It is a real, popular revolution, not some color-coded counterfeit with its imagery dreamed up by a Wall Street ad agency.

THE FOCUS of the movement that crescendoed in Egypt over 18 days was the removal of Mubarak. As dictator for three decades, he crystallized the wider discontents in Egyptian society. His regime accelerated the process of opening the economy to the world market, which began in the early 1970s, and away from a state-led model of economic development in alliance with some big business interests.

Over the last decade, neoliberal policies were adopted at breakneck speed. The IMF proclaimed in 2006 that the privatization of two-thirds of state companies and the liberalization of laws on land ownership had "surpassed expectations." This process, as elsewhere, led to a big concentration of wealth at the top, among some state officials, military and civilian (usually former military), and new layers of businessmen (especially the circle around Mubarak's son, Gamal). It also brought massive job losses, pressure on wages, longer working hours, and one in ten small farmers driven off the land.

At the same time, the regime followed the logic of subordination to the U.S. and Israel that Mubarak's predecessor had begun in 1978. These last 10 years have seen an intensification of Israel's assault on the Palestinians--from the suppression of the Al-Aqsa Intifada of 2000, to the siege and then assault on Gaza two years ago, to the complete refusal to give anything in "negotiations" to a Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, which was prepared to surrender virtually everything to Israel.

U.S. aggression intensified too, from the Iraq invasion to support for Israel's war on Lebanon and then to attempting to secure a pro-U.S. regime in Beirut. Mubarak supported it all as outrage around the Arab world, including Egypt, increased.

As the anger grew, so did Mubarak's reliance on a repressive apparatus--on rigging elections and suppressing political opposition. So the issues of repression, miserable economic conditions (half the population lives on $2 a day) and shame at being led by a regime that pimped the country to U.S. and Israeli interests were all fused in the personality of Mubarak. As activist scholar Adam Hanieh puts it:

Over the last two decades, the linkages between the political and economic configuration of U.S. power in the Middle East have become even more explicit. United States policy has followed a two-pronged track that ties neoliberalism with the normalization of economic and political relations between the Arab world and Israel. The broader goal has been the creation of a single economic zone from Israel to the Gulf states, linked under the dominance of the USA...

The bond between normalization and neoliberalism is powerfully illustrated in the character of [U.S. free trade area agreements], which include as part of their conditions a requirement to lift any boycott or refusal to trade with Israel...These regional processes thus further confirm the impossibility of separating the "economic" and "political" aspects of the current uprisings...

Two-thirds of the Egyptian population is under the age of 30. This means that the vast majority of the Egyptian population has not only spent their entire lives under the rule of Hosni Mubarak; they have also endured a very brutal form of neoliberal capitalism. The demonstrations were a direct result of the naked class power embodied by Mubarak's rule.

That's why demands for economic justice, genuine freedom and abandoning a pro-Washington foreign policy are being raised now, even though Mubarak has gone and the military junta is in power. His fall brought simultaneously an immense euphoria in Egyptian society and a political differentiation about where next.

The masses in the streets over 18 days, buttressed in the last three by a rising wave of labor strikes and confrontations, were disproportionately young, but drawn from many layers of society and reflecting different political views. More cautious opposition forces, resting on those layers in society that were least active in the revolution or unsure about it, now want to give the military regime time to effect a "stable" transition.

The military--and the U.S. that has lavished it with $1.3 billion a year--want to limit as tightly as possible the changes they have to concede. But the more radical elements of the movement are supporting the wave of strikes--which in fact have been at their highest level in half a century over the last four years.

They are also calling for abolition of the Qualified Industrial Zones that tie together free trade with the U.S., normalization with Israel and sweatshop labor. They want radical democratic reform now. Many are calling for the opening of the border with Gaza, thus lifting the Israeli-imposed siege, which has always depended on Cairo's complicity.

No one can predict how this will develop. The military must face a confident mass of people who have just overthrown a dictator. There are divisions at the top of Egyptian society among state officials, generals and big business over how to proceed, as well as among the mass of the population.

But there exist forces on the socialist left which were an integral part of the revolution. They are pushing for more radical change, and over the last 10 years have succeeded in building alliances with bigger opposition groupings and connecting with wider social forces over solidarity with the Palestinians, genuine democratic reform and the advance of the labor movement.

Those ongoing struggles are going to have a great resonance throughout the Middle East. The revolution already has electrified people--tens of millions of people.

IT WOULD be a mistake to think that all the countries of the Middle East are the same. There are important differences, just as there were between Tunisia and Egypt. But the local pressures that broke out in revolution there were particular expressions of general processes that permeate the whole region.

Capitalism has developed in each of these countries, bringing not only urbanization and a working class, but also particular social and political tensions as their rulers have attempted to contain unrest and unify the wealthy layers around their regimes, almost all of them supine to U.S. interests in securing the flow of oil.

One feature that is shared is a very high proportion of young people. About two-thirds of the 420 million people across the Arab world and Iran are under the age of 30. More than a fifth are between the ages of 15 and 25. Some 90 percent of the unemployed in Egypt are young. There are vast numbers of young people, like the man who set himself on fire in Tunisia just two months ago, who are university graduates, but unemployed--in the informal sectors of the economy or doing menial jobs while they see less able people their age, but from the right families or with the right connections, living it up.

They are not completely cut off either from the working class or lower middle class families they come from or from friends who have made it into a decent job. They are acutely aware of the injustices in their own lives, in their own societies and across the region as a whole.

And they can communicate with one another as never before. This layer above all has transmitted the experience of Tunisia to Egypt, and now to Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere. I haven't seen a full list of those who were martyred in the overthrow of Mubarak, but I saw last weekend pictures and details of 50 of them at a meeting. Their average age was 24.

There is a palpable sense of a renewed pan-Arab sentiment concentrated among this layer. It is reenergizing some older activists and political figures who hail from the traditions of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser or other left-nationalist currents. But the new sentiment is growing not in circumstances of the Cold War and not with what became the common-sense for previous generations--that an authoritarian state was a price you had to pay for economic development and some independence from U.S. interference in domestic affairs.

That is transforming the nature of political discussion about what is possible. It affects Arab society as a whole through the mass media and different political traditions--Islamist, Arab nationalist, leftist, liberal. It's creating a desire for united actions, reflecting the unity of the mass of people on the streets of Egypt from all sorts of oppositional strands and none, and at the same time forcing debates within and between those different strands. All that is happening as street protests emulating the initial stages of the Tunisian and Egyptian events are spreading.

TAKE THE significant protests in Jordan, another key U.S. ally and one of the four states bordering Israel: The Israelis approve the recruits for the Palestinian Authority security forces, who then go to Jordan and receive training with U.S. "specialists." The movement is inspired, of course, by Egypt, and it intersects with three major problems facing the regime.

First, Jordan is not an oil producer. It has been hit by the speculator-driven spike in world food prices and also by increased fuel costs. King Abdullah II has responded like others in the region--most noticeably, the Kuwaiti royals, who have given every citizen free basic foodstuffs for the next 14 months and a $3,500 lump sum. He is subsidizing food and increasing the wages of state employees.

But Jordan was already facing a budget deficit of 5 percent of gross domestic product, and is now coming under pressure from the bankers for its extra spending. The global crisis has additionally hit the remittances back home of 600,000 Jordanians working abroad--about a fifth of the country's GDP.

Second, steps taken to weaken political opposition in the cities have intensified divisions between important tribal leaders on whom the Hashemite monarchy has historically relied (only about 35 percent of Jordan's 6 million people are "Jordanian," most are Palestinians driven out by Israel). Tinkering with the electoral laws--which mean that an member of parliament from an urban area needs to get 95,000 votes and a rural one can get in with 2,000--has had the unintended consequence of squeezing the representation of some tribes, who also feel they are not getting their share of central government handouts.

So protests have not simply been by Palestinians, they have drawn in "Jordanians." While the Muslim Brotherhood has refrained from attacking the monarchical centre of the regime, direct criticism of the royal family has come from some Jordanian tribal leaders. Historically, discontent was deflected by the King dismissing a government and forming a new one on average every 18 months. But he did that last week, before the protests.

Third, the regime followed Egypt into a peace deal with Israel in 1994 and is now being undermined almost as much as the Palestinian Authority by the point-blank refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to make any concessions in the defunct peace process, and his determination to build more settlements and ethnically cleanse Jerusalem instead. Last year, King Abdullah II wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "For the first time since my father made peace with Israel, our relationship with Israel is at an all-bottom low."

Whatever happens in the short term, all these points of fracture for the Jordanian regime and similar ones for others are likely to get worse. The same is true for U.S. ally Yemen, where authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, has already said he will not stand again in 2013 and that his son won't stand either. The country is poor, and its poor are getting poorer. There are many fractures between the regime and other influential wealthy layers, and between the north and south of the once divided country. They are opening up now in the agitation against Saleh. Despite this, the regime has continued to throw itself into the U.S. "war on terror."

In oil-producing Bahrain, with a population of just 1.5 million people, the street protests have gone wider than the Shia majority, which feel excluded by the Sunni monarchy and its regime. It is the first sign of the movement in the Gulf states.

Whether the street protests in these countries--and in Libya, Algeria, Iraq and elsewhere--can grow to become serious threats quickly will depend on whether they are able to draw in much wider layers of society and exploit the vulnerabilities of the regimes. As with the movements in Tunisia and Egypt, that will require navigating a complex political terrain.

In Algeria, for example, there is an array of oppositional forces, but the government, which has been forced to lift a 19-year state of emergency, is adept at playing them off against one another. There is alienation from all the political parties, and there have been several youth riots over the last few years.

But lurking behind even the boldest forces for progressive change is the great fear of a return to the 10 years of civil war that followed a military coup--supported by the left and nationalists--in 1992 to prevent an Islamist election victory. Over 150,000 people were killed. On the other hand, Algeria is the Arab country with the deepest revolutionary traditions, fighting a bitter war for national liberation and then becoming the meeting place for many revolutionaries in the 1960s, from Franz Fanon to Malcolm X to Che Guevara.

MANY PEOPLE, therefore, sense the need to discuss what kind of politics can advance this new revolutionary movement--and there, we all have a huge amount to learn from activists in Egypt and Tunisia.

Some of those lessons are already apparent. The Egyptian movement voiced the widespread shame at Mubarak's alliance with the U.S. and treachery toward the Palestinians. When Mubarak went on television to claim that it was the protestors who were being manipulated by foreigners, his words fell flat.

Those regimes which are independent to one degree or another of U.S. foreign policy or which have a wider social base of support, based on tribal or ethnic/religious loyalties, will use similar arguments, but with more apparent credibility. The Egyptian movement was right to reject the embrace that came from Washington after the tyrant had fallen. The leaders of the Green movement in Iran, who, unlike in Egypt, represent a defeated faction of the regime, maintain a deliberate ambiguity over this and other questions. The younger activists in Iran now have a more positive example to look to in the Arab world.

As for Palestine, the task of uniting the mass of the people to use their immense resources of the whole region for the majority, and opposition to imperialist intervention are not issues that can left to the rhetoric of one Arab regime or another. They are central to the growing opposition movement, both in winning mass support now and in achieving permanent change in the future.

Tunisia and Egypt have produced an immense shock to all the states in the region, including Israel, and to the U.S. The revolutions have taken place in a context of declining U.S. authority and power, of which here are many examples--the strategic failure in Iraq, the failure to impose some kind of settlement on the Palestine conflict, the failure to replace the Syrian and Iranian regimes with pro-Western figureheads, the rise of Turkey as a regional power pursuing a more independent course, the failure to get just enough change in allied regimes to head off explosive discontent, the failure of the neoliberal model to improve the lives of the mass of people.

The failures are not incidental. They are products of the fundamental dilemma at the heart of the U.S.-led system of control of the last 50 years.

Doubtless, the U.S., and with it Israel, will seek to recalibrate its options and look for ways to rip the revolutionary heart out of the process and turn it into a version of regime change--Democracy Lite, used as a stick to beat its enemies and a gentle prod towards its allies. But even that is fraught with difficulties, because the twin crises of U.S. power and of globalized capitalism are set to continue to impact on regimes across the Middle East already struggling to contain the tensions that have built up over decades.

At the center of those widening fractures stand the Palestinian people, whose six-decade resistance remains unbroken. Having sacrificed so much to maintain the values of dignity, justice and freedom, they can see their liberation that much closer today as the Egyptian and Arab masses take to the streets under the same banner.

Viva Palestina Arabia, the organization I've been working with for some years now, welcomes these developments, which present the best opportunity in a generation to press for Palestinian liberation and other urgently needed changes in the region.

To that end, Viva Palestina is organizing a seven-day summer university in Beirut, from July 23-30, with internationally known academics, writers, political figures and activists gathering to discuss the unfolding revolutionary events in the Middle East and what they mean for Palestine and the international solidarity movement. To find out more, visit the Viva Palestina Arabia Web site.

Further Reading

From the archives