Egyptian revolution reverberates throughout Arab world

The Egyptian revolution, following on rapidly from the Tunisian uprising, has sent shockwaves across the whole of the Arab world. All the serious strategists of capital are discussing the “domino effect” of the events unfolding in Egypt. None of them, however, had anticipated any of this.

One week before Ben Ali was forced to flee The Economist magazine denied that Ben Ali would be overthrown, or that his regime would even be shaken. Then, once Ben Ali was ousted, they compounded the error by reassuring their readers that the Tunisian revolution would not spread to countries like Egypt, because Egypt was “different”, of course. Within a few days Egypt erupted.

The imperialist powers, in particular, the United States, thought that they had the situation under control, and that the regimes under their patronage were stable. An interesting comment that highlights the thinking of the bourgeois appeared in an article in the Financial Times on January 28. This is how they saw the situation until not too long ago: “Before 2007, developments in the global economy appeared so calm and predictable the period was sometimes dubbed the age of “great moderation”.

This idyllic period, however, was suddenly shattered by the crisis in 2008. And the events in the Middle East came as even greater shock. The article continues: “...investors now live in a world that is increasingly unpredictable in both an economic and political sense. Or to use market jargon, what the Middle East is now demonstrating is the potency of ‘fat tails’ (for events that seem so unlikely to occur that they are usually ignored until they suddenly strike with a vengeance).” The article quotes Simon Williams, an HSBC Middle East analyst, thus: “What happened in Tunisia took everyone by surprise. It has forced us all to re-examine the old certainties [in the region].”

The problem with these so-called bourgeois “experts” is that they failed to detect what was happening in the lower layers of society, among the millions of downtrodden workers and poor. That is because, as they live in their ivory towers, they usually ignore these layers. And because apparent calm can last even for decades, they began to think that is how things would always be. That reveals extreme short-sightedness on their part.

The foresight of Marxism

Marxism, on the other hand, because it has a “long view of history” and takes into account all the contradictions and how these will impact on the situation over time, was a tool which allowed us to understand perfectly well what was happening. Compare the lack of understanding that the above quotes reveal to the following: “The reactionary Saudi monarchy is now hanging by a thread. This corrupt gang is increasingly unpopular and are trying to cling to power...” (The Middle East, Annapolis and the Palestine problem: More talks about talks, By Alan Woods, 6 December 2007). Note the date: 2007!

And what about the article we published on 7 April 2008, Egyptian April 6 - a dress rehearsal for bigger events in the future, by Jean Duval and Fred Weston: “The Mubarak regime is facing its most severe crisis ever. The most significant thing is that the workers have lost their fear of the regime. (...) All the conditions are maturing for revolution.”

More recently, back in October we explained that: “The tensions in Egypt are reaching boiling point. [...] Revolution is developing just beneath the surface.” (Egypt: The gathering storm, by Hamid Alizadeh and Frederik Ohsten, 28 October 2010)

We were able to write all this – long before the present revolutionary upheaval began – because we understood the effects decades of oppression, compounded by economic crisis and growing social polarisation, were having. But when we raised the prospects of revolution in the Middle East we were answered with a deafening cacophony of cynicism and scepticism that denied that revolution was possible. Now revolution has erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and is spreading to Yemen, Jordan and many other Arab countries.

Western imperialists are now scrambling to try and make up for lost time. The response of US imperialism and their west European allies has been to call on Mubarak for moderation and to prepare a transition to a more democratic regime. They do this for fear of the revolution spreading from one country to another until every rotten, despotic regime in the Middle East and North Africa comes tumbling down. That possibility they now can see!

However, not all the world “leaders” are pushing for this outcome. There is another side to the story! Should Egypt – the key country in the Arab world – go the way of Tunisia, and Mubarak is finally ousted, it would have an even bigger impact than the events that led to the downfall of Ben Ali. After Egypt countries like Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and so on could all see revolutionary upheaval. This would directly threaten powerful material interests in the region.

So while Obama is calling for “transition”, behind the scenes we can be sure that other Arab leaders have been encouraging Mubarak to resist. If he can hold back the tide, there is hope still for these despotic leaders. The Israeli ruling class also does not wish to see revolution next door. Although they pride themselves at being the “only democracy” in the Middle East, it seems they are not too keen to see the dictatorships that surround them come tumbling down.

These leaders all have good reason to be worried. The same conditions that exist in Tunisia and Egypt also exist in all the Arab countries. And in these conditions, the spreading of the revolution from one Arab country to another is also facilitated by the fact that a common language is spoken in all these countries (without ignoring the various minorities that do exist in these countries, and who are also participating in the movement), there is a common cultural heritage, a common religion (at least for 90% of the population), territorial continuity (despite the artificial state borders drawn by colonialism), the perception that they all have the same problems, the resistance to capitalist and imperialist domination. All this has created a powerful force in the minds of the masses. And like causes have like effects. The whole region is pregnant with revolution.

The tempo of the events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa in part depends on what happens in Egypt in the coming days and weeks. Should the present movement fail to topple Mubarak in the short-term, this could slow the process down. Should he be brought down soon, this in turn would accelerate the process elsewhere. As the outcome is determined by a struggle of living forces, one cannot say in advance how fast or how slow this will be. But the direction of the process is very clear. Sooner or later Mubarak will have to go and a new period will open up, in which the class struggle in Egypt will rise to a higher level. There is no escaping from this, and it will have an impact on the whole region.

The following brief outline of the situation is an indication of the international impact that the Egyptian revolution, following from the Tunisian, is already having.

Jordan

Jordan is a prime candidate to follow the Egyptian road. Protests over growing poverty, rising food prices, unemployment, and corruption have been going on for weeks. Unemployment is officially 14% in a country of six million. 70% of the population is young, under the age of 30 and 25% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Thousands of people in Jordan have been out on the streets in protests, demanding the prime minister’s resignation and for prices to be brought down. This is the result of the ongoing economic crisis. Jordan has a record deficit of $2bn this year. Inflation has risen to 6.1 per cent.

In an attempt to appease the masses, King Abdullah has promised some “reforms”, particularly on a controversial election law. The Prime Minister also announced $550 million of new subsidies for fuel and basic products such as rice, sugar, livestock and cooking gas. He also announced a wage rise for civil servants and security personnel.

But all this has been to no avail. That explains why on February 1, King Abdullah II announced he was sacking Samir Rifai, the prime minister – and with him the entire cabinet – and replacing him with Maruf Bakhit giving him the task of forming a new government that should "take practical, quick and tangible steps to launch true political reforms." The King is promising an immediate programme of democratic reform, as he tries desperately to cut across the growing protest movement and avoid an Egyptian type scenario. Bakhit, however, is not fundamentally different from the outgoing premier. He is remembered for overseeing local and parliamentary elections in 2007, when he was last in government, where blatant electoral fraud took place.

Activists on Friday’s, [Feb, 4] demonstration in Amman outside the prime minister's office, in fact chanted "Down with the government", showing that they will not accept any half-measures. A failure to meet the demands of the people could threaten the very survival of the monarchy and bring the whole regime down.

Yemen

Widespread poverty in Yemen, with 45 per cent of the population living on less than $2 a day, is at the root of the present protest movement there. The latest news from the Yemen is that Thursday [Feb. 3] more than 20,000 people – the largest turnout so far – marched through the streets of Sanaa, demanding that the President Ali Abdullah Saleh should go.

As in Egypt counter-revolutionary pro-Saleh demonstrators met the immense anti-Saleh protest which led to some physical clashes, broken up by the police. In the city of Aden, in the south tear gas and live ammunition were used to break up the demonstrators. No doubt this will have the same effect as in Egypt: to stiffen the resolve of the revolutionary movement.

On Wednesday, President Ali Abdullah Saleh had announced he would no longer be standing in 2013 and added that his son also would not be standing. Again, this is similar to what Ben Ali announced before he was ousted, and seems almost a photocopy of the behaviour of Mubrak in Egypt. He is attempting to appease the masses with the promise that he will go, but this is only a ruse to get the masses off the streets in order to regain control of the situation.

He has also announced wage increases and tax cuts, the creation of a fund to provide jobs for university graduates, the extension of social security coverage, and exempted university students from paying the rest of their tuition fees for this academic year, and has also called for the cost of a degree to be reduced.

These are all clearly manoeuvres to try and avert the protest movement from growing and becoming like that in Tunisia and Egypt. But the protestors have indicated that this is not enough. The 20,000 people on the streets on Thursday were chanting, "The people want regime change," and "No to corruption, no to dictatorship" and "change the regime and out with the president."

Algeria

Algeria saw protest movements against the rising cost of basic foodstuffs at the end of December around the same time that protests erupted in Tunisia. On December 30 there were reports that at least 53 people had been injured and 29 others arrested as police clamped down on protests against bad housing conditions in a district of Algiers, the capital. How determined the fightback of the protestors was can be seen by the fact that of the 53 injured, apparently 52 were members of the security forces.

Riots erupted again in early January over rising food prices and lack of jobs. The regime responded with a combination of repression – five days of street protests left five people dead and more than 800 wounded – and cuts in prices, reducing the prices of oil, sugar and other basic necessities, and buying a million tonnes of wheat to build up stocks and also promised that subsidies on essential foodstuffs like flour would continue.

In this way they hoped to appease the masses and stop the revolutionary upsurge that was beginning to unfold. But the underlying problems that led to the revolt in the first place have not been resolved. Unemployment, especially among the youth, who make up half the population, remains high. According to government it stands at about 10 per cent, but more realistic figures put it at closer to 25 per cent.

Anger has continued to simmer below the surface, waiting to erupt at any moment. On January 22, for example, several people were injured as they were attacked by police during a pro-democracy demonstration in Algiers against a law that bans public gatherings. Hundreds defied the ban and came out on the streets only to face heavily armed police forces.

On February 1, thousands responded to the call to demonstrate issued by the Coordination locale des étudiants (CLE, Local Student Coordination Committee) of the University of Tizi Ouzou. According to the organiser, 15,000 took part in the protest action. Significantly, some of the protestors were carrying the Tunisian flag, a clear indication that they wish to see a movement in Algeria that can overthrow the hated Bouteflika regime. One of the slogans was “Bout-Ali dégage!” a play on words mixing Bouteflika and Ben Ali.

On February 3, President Bouteflika announced that the country’s state of emergency would be removed in the "very near future". The state of emergency has been in place since 1992, originally put in place to “fight terrorism”. As he made this announcement, Bouteflika apparently called on his cabinet to adopt policies that would create jobs and also announced that national TV and radio should air the views of all political parties.

So far, these remain just promises. They are words aimed at appeasing the protest moment, of making it believe that “democratic reform” is on its way. No date was given for when the lifting of the state of emergency would take place. And as for jobs, how they are going to be created in the present economic climate is anyone’s guess.

A new day of action is now planned for February 12. Such ongoing protests indicate that the people in Algeria are restless and could move again, following the example of their Tunisian neighbours.

Morocco

Illustration: Latuff (twitpic.com/photos/CarlosLatuff)Illustration: Latuff (twitpic.com/photos/CarlosLatuff) Hundreds of students demonstrated in the Moroccan city of Fes on Sunday, January 30th, in a protest against price increases and worsening social conditions (VIDEO). The demonstrators chanted slogans linking the fate of King Mohammed VI to that of Ben Ali. This follows an earlier protest in the northern city of Tetouan, on January 20th, organised by the local Committee against prices increases and attacks on public services, with the participation of the Communist Action League (Moroccan section of the IMT). The Tetouan rally, which attracted 300 people was also called in solidarity with the Tunisian revolution. (VIDEO)

In the last few days, the Spanish media has published reports that army and anti-riot units of the security forces have been moved from the Sahara to Morocco's main cities, in preparation for major disturbances. The Moroccan government has strongly denied such reports, but it is clear that they are very worried about the possibility of revolution spreading to their own country. A Day of Rage, called by the "Movement for Freedom and Democracy Now" has been announced for February 20, which could also become the focal point for protests around the country.

And just as The Economist was attempting to soothe the nerves of its readers that Egypt “was different” and could not go the way of Tunisia, the Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, Trinidad Jiménez, recently stated: “I sincerely believe that the situation in Tunisia an Egypt is clearly different to that in Morocco”, the reason being that Morocco has already undertaken the road of “democratic opening up”. No doubt, the Spanish government would not be too keen to see revolution erupt just across the Strait of Gibraltar!

Someone much closer to the Moroccan King, however, his first cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham, has a very different opinion. In an interview with El Pais, he said that "Morocco will probably not be an exception... Almost all authoritarian systems will be affected by the great wave of protests.”

Gaza and the West Bank

Right across the eastern border of Egypt in the Gaza Strip, where the reactionary Hamas have control, the movement of the Egyptian people is affecting the Palestinians. Some so-called Marxists in the past had portrayed Hamas as somehow a progressive force that merited the support of the left. In fact it is an utterly reactionary force that has merely filled a vacuum because of the corrupt nature of the PLO leadership that has governed the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas tries to portray itself as “revolutionary” and “anti-imperialist”. If that were so then one would have expected them to be in support of the unfolding revolution in Egypt. On the contrary! Last week Hamas police broke up a small rally in Gaza City in support of the revolutionary movement in Egypt, arresting several women.

Hamas is as concerned about the revolutionary developments in Egypt as the government of Israel. Extra security forces have been placed on the Egypt-Gaza border, not on the Egyptian side but on the Palestinian. The fact is that Hamas does not want the movement in Egypt to spill over into the Gaza Strip. If anyone is looking for an answer to the accusation that what is happening in Egypt is an Islamic uprising then simply look at the reaction of Hamas.

Hamas is right to fear contagion from Egypt. An indication of the mood is the fact that several thousand Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have joined a Facebook group that called for a protest against Hamas rule for Friday [February 4]. This is the answer to all those sceptics who see only Islamic reaction in Gaza. The real voice of the Palestinians who inhabit this small strip of land is now being raised.

Something similar is being organized in the West Bank. Palestinian leaders in the West Bank in fact acknowledge the fact that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt could spill over into the Palestinian Territories. And the police there has similar concerns to that of Hamas. This video A Day of Solidarity with Egyptian Revolution, Ramallah, Palestine Feb 5, 2011 shows the police of the Palestinian Authority attacking a rally in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising, in Ramallah on the West Bank.

They are right to fear that protest could erupt in the West Bank. Let us not forget that it was only very recently that The Palestinian Papers recently leaked revealed the secret collusion between PLO Palestinian Authority leaders and the Israeli state, even discussing the assassination of a Palestinian fighter.

Fearing unrest, and trying to cut across any possible protest movement, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has just announced municipal elections in the near future, and there is talk of a general election as well. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is considered to be close to Mubarak, and should the latter fall this would further damage his standing among the Palestinian people.

All the conditions are brewing in the Palestinian Territories for another Intifada, this time on a much larger scale, and as part of an All-Arab movement, not an isolated uprising. Let us remember that the Intifada had a far greater impact on Israeli society than decades of individual terrorism. Launching a few rockets that hit working class neighbourhoods in Israel, or suicide bombers that kill innocent Israeli men, women and children on buses or in supermarkets doesn’t dent one little bit the machine of the Zionist state. In fact these actions have served to strengthen the Zionist state, as they push the whole population into supporting their government as they feel threatened as a people.

Furthermore, the fact that all the Arab regimes are despotic dictatorships, that have always exploited the Palestinian question to their advantage, blaming Israel for the ills suffered by the Arab people, has also been skilfully used by the Zionist elite to paint a picture of Israel as a country surrounded by states that want to destroy the country. A revolutionary movement of the Arab workers and youth would, at some point, no doubt have an impact on ordinary working people in Israel.

Syria

Syria was long considered a “rogue state”, with its pro-Soviet past and nationalized economy. But under al-Assad the regime has gone some way to opening up the economy and allowing the “market economy” to develop. Thus we have a regime with all the trappings of the past in terms of a repressive state apparatus, but now adding to that the effects of an opening up to capitalism, which leads to growing social polarisation, growing inequality with wealth being accumulated by the elite and poverty in the lower layers of society.

Al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, in the light of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt has admitted that Arab rulers need to do more to accommodate the rising political and economic aspirations of the people in the region. He is planning to push through political reforms this year including municipal elections, although he has stated that stability and the economy are higher up his list of priorities than political reform. In fact he has also announced some minor economic concessions in a bid to undermine any plans to bring people out on the streets. The government has announced subsidies and aid for the poor. Teachers have granted interest-free loans for laptops, while some public officials were charged with corruption in the city of Aleppo. Recently two million government workers were also granted a 17 percent pay raise.

What al-Assad means by stability and the economy being the priority is that he thinks that by achieving some kind of economic improvement he can maintain his grip on power. However, now unemployment in Syria officially stands at 10 per cent, but some think it may be higher, as high as 25% even.

Growing social problems are contributing to a spirit of revolt brewing among the youth of the country. Using the limited internet access allowed by the regime, several pages have been set up on Facebook, with the aim of organising protests along the lines that started the movements in Tunisia and Egypt. A call was issued for protests Friday and Saturday [February 4and 5] but failed to attract any protesters. As one anonymous activist said, “It is still soon for us. We have time. The street is definitely not ready yet.”

The Syrian regime is one of the most brutal in the region, when it comes to dealing with dissent. There are reports that Syrian security forces violently broke up a vigil in Damascus in support of the Egyptian uprising on Wednesday of last week. The internet is also heavily policed. Facebook, for example, has officially been blocked since November 2007, although many young Syrians get round this by using proxy servers.

It has combined this repressive apparatus with concessions of an economic nature in order to cut across any attempt to spark off a movement like that in Egypt. It is worth noting, however, that although the regime may not yet be facing the same level of protest as elsewhere, it has taken the precautionary measure of increasing the number of blocked sites and chat services available to internet users in the country. All this indicates that Syria too is facing growing unrest, and given the extremely brutal nature of the regime this could erupt unexpectedly and in a massive way at some point.

Sudan

Since the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, a movement has erupted in Sudan, with students on the streets last week. On Monday [January 31] a student, Mohammed Abdulrahman, from Ahlia University, died after being beaten by police. This led to the regime closing many universities and the heavy deployment of police around the campuses. At the medical faculty of Khartoum University, the police tried to stop around 300 students from leaving the campus, but they eventually forced their way through shouting: "Revolution against dictatorship!"

The regime has attempted to silence any media outlet that reported on the student protests for fear of these having a contagious effect. In fact, in recent weeks Sudan has seen widespread social unrest, as the country sinks deeper into economic crisis with growing inflation affecting the prices of basic goods. To make matters worse, the government has cut subsidies on petroleum products and sugar, a key commodity in Sudan. Clearly, Sudan is also on the boil.

Hassan al-Turabi a Sudanese opposition leader and prominent Sunni Muslim, who advocates an Islamic state, in an attempt to cash in on the protests, recently called for a "popular revolution" if the Sudanese government did not reverse price increases. "This country has known popular uprisings before," Turabi said in an interview to the AFP news agency. "What happened in Tunisia is a reminder. This is likely to happen in Sudan ... If it doesn't, then there will be a lot of bloodshed. The whole country is armed. In the towns, it will be a popular uprising, but in Darfur, and in Kordofan as well, they have weapons."

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a key country in the region in that it is the world’s largest oil exporter. The imperialists are extremely concerned that this “friendly regime” could fall, thus endangering the steady supply of oil so essential to the workings of the world economy.

The official unemployment rate stands at 10 per cent and inflation is rising. Western and Saudi analysts comfort themselves with the fact Saudi Arabia has immense oil wealth and that it can use this to defuse anger and frustration. It can increase food subsidies for instance, without too much difficulty. Saudi Arabia passed a record budget in December and plans to spend $400bn in the five years to 2013 to upgrade infrastructure. There are no political parties or unions. Protests and strikes are illegal. There are no student organisations, trade unions, or political parties. And yet, the Saudi government looks with trepidation at what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt. These too were supposed to be stable and immune from revolution.

On January 31, Banq Saudi Fransi published a document, “The wake-up call: Egypt contagion looms, but manageable”. John Sfakianakis, chief economist at the Banq Saudi Fransi, explained that: “The Saudis have the means to keep subsidies in place, but they are not insulated from what is happening in Egypt… It is a wake up call for everyone in the region. They have to keep in mind that unemployment and job creation should be a top priority in Saudi Arabia.”

The Financial Times of February 5, published an interesting comment on the dilemma facing the Obama administration in Saudi Arabia: “[the US administration] must be asking itself the big question: what if Saudi Arabi, the world’s largest oil export but also a land where a young population has not felt the benefits of oil wealth, were shaken by similar upheavals?”

Last month, in fact 200 teachers organized protests outside the Ministry of Education demanding government jobs. Such protests have been ongoing for some time now. The latest was on Friday when demonstrators who gathered in Jeddah to protest against poor infrastructure were arrested. Protesters apparently demonstrated for a few minutes after Friday prayers on a main Jeddah street before authorities broke up the protest and detained participants.

Such small protests are ongoing and are an indication of a much more deeply felt malaise among the wider population. The same Sfakianakis, quoted above, points out that, “We can no longer take for granted stability in the Middle East … People in the Middle East are neither patient nor silent any more. After Tunisia, we thought it will never happen in Egypt, but look at what happened.”

What the bourgeois analysts fail to understand is that it is not poverty alone that leads to revolution. It is an important factor, but not the only one. Egypt has many poor people, but it is not the poorest country in the world. What provokes revolutionary upheaval is the passage from one period to another, the swings up and down in the economic conjuncture. The taking away of reforms granted in the past can unleash powerful movements.

There is also another factor. The wealth in these countries is concentrated in the hands of the few. All these countries have seen significant economic growth. Egypt, for example, since 2003 has grown at an average annual rate of 5.5%. But that growth is not equally distributed. So we have an army of poor facing a small elite of very rich. That in itself can trigger revolutionary developments.

And then there is the growing hatred of these corrupt, oppressive regimes. It is not by chance that many women have taken part in the recent movements in Saudi Arabia. All this could unleash a powerful movement even in what appears as such a stable regime as Saudi Arabia.

Implications for imperialism

This sudden explosion of revolution across the Arab world has serious implications for imperialism. In the 1960s many of the Arab countries swung to the left. A prime example of this was Syria, where the economy was modelled on that of the Soviet Union. But even where the process did not reach such levels, regimes like that of Nasser in Egypt were moving in the same direction. Large parts of the economy were nationalised and with this went the development of welfare measures such as healthcare, education, subsidies on food, etc., all of which made for a better life for the masses. To this day Nasser is remembered fondly by many Egyptians. He was also widely respected across the Arab countries, as he was seen as someone who stood up against imperialism.

However, since the late 1970s and early 1980s the process began to be unravelled. In Egypt the regime under Sadat, Nasser’s successor, started to move back under the sphere of influence of US imperialism. On this basis privatisations were on the order of the day. And on the international arena, Egypt, from being an enemy of Israel, signed a peace deal and has kept to it ever since. Jordan also signed such a deal. In Tunisia, when Ben Ali came to power 80% of the economy was under state control. After 23 years Ben Ali had managed to dismantle that, privatising whole swathes of the economy and with it destroying many reforms of the past. A similar picture could be seen across the whole of the Middle East.

That process evolved over a 30 year period. And now we see the results: revolution across the whole region. Mubarak in Egypt and King Abdullah in Jordan are considered key allies of the US. This cosy, stable relationship is now endangered by the revolutionary movement of the masses. The problem is that there is little they can do about it. They created the conditions for revolution and now they must suffer the consequences.

Fred Weston