Debating the Arab Spring

November 29, 2011

Jeremy Tully reports on a vibrant teach-in in California about what activists in the U.S. can do to express their solidarity with the Arab Spring.

ABOUT 200 people attended a daylong teach-in at the University of California-Berkeley on November 12 to discuss the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Titled "Building solidarity with the Arab Spring," the conference drew a wide spectrum of attendees, from activists who have organized solidarity with the uprisings, to people active in the Occupy movement, to students and interested community members.

The conference was cosponsored by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, the Berkeley Muslim Student Association, the Syrian American Council-Bay Area and the International Socialist Organization, and was organized to provide a democratic space to debate out crucial questions for U.S. solidarity activists: What is the cause of the uprisings, what are their ongoing challenges, and what can activists in the U.S. do to aid them?

Suzan Boulad, who blogs about the Syrian uprising and other subjects at, confronted false narratives about sectarianism in the Middle East, arguing that the media uses these narratives to dodge sociopolitical and economic issues raised by the uprisings.

As'sad AbuKhalil speaking during a teach-in on the Arab Spring at UC Berkeley
As'sad AbuKhalil speaking during a teach-in on the Arab Spring at UC Berkeley

Antiwar veterans Michael Chase and Zavi Katzvik argued that the most important thing for U.S. activists to do to support the revolutions is to organize against U.S. intervention. If the uprisings are to achieve a full victory, "[t]he people of the Middle East and North Africa need a mass movement in the U.S. to remove the boot from their throats," said Chase. Katzvik built on this point, saying, "The best way for persons of an imperialist nation to show support for other nations' right to self-determination is to fight imperialism from within."

Dr. Mohja Kahf, a Syrian-American poet who is documenting activists detained by the Syrian regime, presented on the role of women in leading protests in the eight-month-old uprising there. She emphasized that across sectarian lines, people have the same demands: the release of political prisoners and the downfall of the regime.

In the plenary, local Syrian activist Rami Bailony emphasized the commonality between the Syrian uprising and the others, saying, "In Syria, the revolution clearly has economic lines. The first cities to get involved were rural and smaller cities that have been ignored by economic development over the last 10 years."

Dr. As'ad AbuKhalil, author of the widely read Angry Arab Blog, presented on the U.S. and the Arab uprisings. He described the "tyrannical order" that has been in power for decades in the Arab world and the U.S. role in consolidating it. He argued that for all the challenges the uprisings face, there is more cause to be optimistic now about the possibility for revolution than at any other time in recent decades (Watch the video here).

One of the highlights was the participation of Shimaa' Helmy, an Egyptian revolutionary visiting the U.S. from Cairo. Helmy gave a firsthand account of how the January 25 uprising in Egypt transformed her into a revolutionary activist and organizer of street demonstrations in Tahrir.

She argued that U.S. activists should demand that the U.S. cease sending aid to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has repressed demonstrations and put more than 12,000 civilians through military trials. "You cannot say you are in solidarity with Tahrir and not do anything to cut U.S. aid to the Egyptian military!" she said. "We don't want this money, and it can do a lot for you right here."

Helmy also took part in a workshop on the international Occupy movement, along with activists from Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland. The rich discussion in this workshop illustrated the deep connection between the Occupy movement in the U.S. and the ongoing struggles against injustice and inequality in Egypt and around the world.

THE TEACH-IN also saw its share of political fireworks. The final plenary, featuring AbuKhalil, Kahf, Helmy and Monadel Herzallah (who is chair of the Arab American Union Members' Council), featured the most hotly contested debate of the conference--namely, what is the nature of the Syrian uprising, and what is the agenda of the Syrian National Council (SNC)?

This question has taken on added urgency in the weeks since the teach-in because France has openly called for foreign intervention in Syria, and the SNC's president has endorsed that call.

There were two poles within the debate. The first, voiced by Kahf, was that the Syrian uprising is an authentic popular revolution against an authoritarian regime, and that the SNC is the legitimate representative of the revolution because it encompasses all political tendencies.

The second was articulated by AbuKhalil, who defended the legitimacy of the uprising itself--saying that the Assad regime is part of the tyrannical order of the Middle East and North Africa--but criticized the SNC as a "corrupt opposition." He characterized the SNC as a force of counterrevolution and a puppet of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Unfortunately, the debate was at times personally antagonistic. AbuKhalil interrupted Kahf several times, injecting a hostile personal dynamic that served to muddle rather than clarify a necessary and important political debate.

The can be viewed in full online, but the two central questions deserve some discussion here.

It should be crystal clear that the Syrian uprising is an authentic popular rebellion from below. In the course of eight months, Syrians have engaged in mass protest despite a crackdown that has killed thousands. The uprising has developed to the point that cities such as Homs have held multiple general strikes.

The Assad regime, however, retains a strong hold on Aleppo and Damascus--Syria's two biggest urban centers. However embattled the Assad regime is, it has some limited base of support, which poses a serious challenge to the advance of the revolution. The regime has also concentrated its security forces in these cities to prevent the outbreak of street protests on a mass scale.

Workplace action in Aleppo and Damascus has not yet materialized because of the presence of state security forces within workplaces and the absence of a strong tradition of labor struggle in Syria--although the possibility for strikes to spread to Aleppo and Damascus represents perhaps the greatest hope for the revolution at its current impasse.

The Syrian uprising deserves the support and international solidarity of the working class around the world. But putting this into practice poses a challenge for those of us in the U.S., for a reason explained by AbuKhalil:

In every country in the Middle East, there are two dimensions of the counterrevolution. [The first] is a counterrevolution that is perpetrated by the ruling government, [whether it is] Egypt, Syria, Libya [or] Bahrain. The second dimension is the regional counterrevolution, that of the U.S., Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In most countries, the counterrevolution of the regime is in sync with the regional counterrevolution. In the case of Libya and Syria, the two counterrevolutions are not in sync.

The fact that the local and regional counterrevolutions are out of sync in Syria means there is pressure on activists to look to the intervention of foreign powers, instead of the other uprisings throughout the region, to resolve the impasse.

But as NATO's bombing of Libya made clear, the U.S. only intervenes on the side of counterrevolution. Through NATO, the U.S. succeeded in twisting an authentic rebellion from below, beating back its revolutionary impulse and turning it into a tool for re-entrenching its own position in the region in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval.

The U.S. also supports Ali Abdullah Saleh's repressive regime in Yemen, the Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain and, of course, the counterrevolutionary military regime in Egypt, which it supplies with tear gas and bullets.

In Syria, activists on the ground have explicitly rebuked calls for international intervention. The Local Coordinating Committees issued a statement at the end of August that read:

Militarizing the revolution would minimize popular support and participation in the revolution...If an armed confrontation or international military intervention becomes a reality, it will be virtually impossible to establish a legitimate foundation for a proud future Syria.

But the threat is that forces willing to collaborate with Western imperialism will find a way--or worse, already have found a way--to put themselves at the head of the uprising.

THIS LEADS to the second hotly contested issue: what is the nature of the SNC? AbuKhalil argued that the SNC is a corrupt opposition:

In Libya and in Syria, there were and are genuine uprisings. But unlike in Egypt, where the revolution was not hijacked, in Libya and Syria, the counterrevolution stepped in with Qatari money and Saudi money and arms. They took it over and put in charge a reactionary conservative organization with a sectarian background. They are trying to hijack a very credible and legitimate uprising against the cruel dictatorship of the Assad regime.

Kahf argued, to the contrary, that the SNC represents the breadth of Syrian society, pointing to the prominent participation of secular feminist leaders, such as Razan Zaitouneh and Suheir Atassi, and the involvement of all opposition tendencies, including the Local Coordinating Committees, as indicators of its inclusiveness and legitimacy. Arguably, this makes the SNC different from the National Transitional Council in Libya, which was self-appointed, with no grassroots accountability.

The participation of these groups and activists within the SNC was largely brushed aside by AbuKhalil, who focused on the influence of counterrevolutionary forces within the SNC. This weakened his overall argument, since Syrian activists in the room are in contact with people whom they know not to be agents of Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, the discussion of the role of the Muslim Brotherhood made no distinction between the competing class interests within it. In Egypt, for example, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has sided with the counterrevolution and collaborated with the SCAF. But this has also caused a split among its members.

But fundamentally, the label "corrupt opposition" seems to fit for the SNC. Burhan Ghalioun, its president, who in the past said he opposed foreign military intervention, now welcomes it from France. Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based SNC representative, meets in private with State Department officials. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has told reporters that Britain is intensifying its contacts with the SNC.

This is an alarming situation. If counterrevolutionary forces have the upper hand in the SNC--and all indications are that they do--then it's necessary for those committed to the revolution from below to break ties with them in order to deny them the legitimacy to call for foreign intervention. Failure to do so means the revolution from below will be subordinated to the dictates of imperialism.

SEVERAL PEOPLE asked what activists in the U.S. should do. First and foremost, we should oppose any and all interference by the U.S. in the uprisings. Washington directly arms and supports the military regime in Egypt. In addition to calling for the end of U.S. aid to the SCAF, we should protest the manufacturers and suppliers of U.S.-made tear gas being used against protesters in Tahrir Square (as Occupy Wall Street did November 25).

Solidarity with the Egyptian Revolution should be the focal point for action in support of the Arab uprisings--not for a moral reason, but a strategic one. Egypt's working class is the most developed in the region. It could throw a wrench into any plans for Western intervention by, say, shutting down the Suez.

Moreover, because of Egypt's location at the heart of the Arab world, any victories won in Egypt will have widespread ramifications for the other revolutions. Participating in the fight against SCAF--right here in the U.S.--is one of the most effective ways for us to be in solidarity with the Arab revolutions.

We also need to raise the call for U.S. hands off Syria. If we can contribute in any way to keeping the U.S. from intervening, then we will be helping maintain the political space for the Syrian revolution to develop on its own terms--and for radicals and leftists within it to grow and build revolutionary organizations. At the same time that we demand U.S. hands off Syria, we should express our solidarity with Syrians' fight for democratic freedoms and social justice.

All the above needs to be done in conjunction with the growing Occupy movement, which has revitalized grassroots movements across the country. It has already shown strong instincts of solidarity with the Arab uprisings, rallying and marching in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution on November 12 (the same day the teach-in took place).

Finally, we need to organize in our own country. Ultimately, the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa are not just about democratic freedoms. They are about social inequality and all the oppressions of capitalist society. We suffer from the same injustices in our own country. We must organize for our own Arab Spring here--that is the highest form of solidarity.

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