What are the Perspectives for the Revolution in the Arab Countries?
In the past two months, millions of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and other Arab countries have gone out onto the streets against dictatorial regimes. These regimes, in power for decades (23 years in the case of Tunisia, 29 years in the case of Egypt), have been shaken. Massive police forces and secret services (180,000 police and spies in the case of Tunisia, 1.8 million in the case of Egypt) were unable to contain the revolt. The Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country on January 14, while the Egyptian president Mubarak had to resign on February 11.
The imperialist powers, which have ruled the semi-colonies of North Africa and the Middle East for decades (1), are working to insure what they call “stability”, i.e. the maintenance of the old regimes with minor changes in the personnel. But especially in the last week in Egypt, the workers’ movement has played a more and more central role with strikes and increasingly radical demands. This raises the question: how can the masses’ demands for democratic and social rights be fulfilled? We would like to present perspectives for the revolution in the Arab countries from a revolutionary Marxist point of view.
Illusions in Democracy
The protests in the Arab world are fundamentally hunger revolts, motivated by high unemployment and extreme poverty. Nonetheless, the protests are dominated by democratic illusions. After decades of dictatorial rule, many people imagine that democracy could change everything. One protestor quoted in the Western press claimed: “Democracy could lead Egypt out of poverty.” (2) However, the Arab countries’ poverty is a result of the domination by the imperialist powers, not of the corruption of local governments. The introduction of bourgeois democracy, without major changes in the economic structures, will not end unemployment and hunger – the starving masses cannot eat ballots!
The US and different European countries are attempting to fulfill the democratic demands in their own way, by installing new puppets who could give their imperialist rule a more “democratic” facade. This is especially important in Egypt, where the Mubarak regime has guaranteed “pax americana” (a geopolitical order in the interest of US imperialism) with its unconditional support for the Zionist state of Israel. But the big powers are still uncertain about how to accomplish this kind of “transition to democracy.”
In Tunisia, the great powers have still not found a figurehead who would be acceptable to the population but could also guarantee imperialist interests in the region. In Egypt, the White House vacillated for weeks between support for Mubarak (or members of Mubarak’s clique such as the Vice-President Omar Suleiman) on the one hand and new faces (more “democratic” but equally pro-imperialist figures like Mohamed ElBaradei) on the other. Only when it was clear that Mubarak could not hold onto power did they throw their weight behind the Egyptian military. “Transition to democracy” means calling on the corrupt and repressive regime to reform the constitution itself!
Against this kind of “transition” designed to make cosmetic changes while leaving the regimes intact, Marxists call for a constituent assembly to re-define the political framework of the country. However, it is absolutely clear that any kind of real democracy can only be built upon the ruins of the old regime and its repressive apparatus. Only when the working masses take political power and their countries’ riches into their own hands will they be able to create a “new Egypt”, a “new Tunisia”, etc. Therefore, only constituent assemblies based on the workers and peasants could put an end to poverty and the dependence on the imperialist powers. Of course, constituent assemblies and new constitutions by themselves would not fundamentally change the social relations in the Arab countries – but they could be a central experience for the masses to discuss how their countries work, and in this way test and overcome their illusions in bourgeois democracy.
Illusions in the Military
Many people in Egypt also have strong illusions in the military, who are seen as “professional” and “unpolitical”. The announcement that the military would take power after Mubarak’s resignation was greeted with cheering, particularly by the bourgeois leaders of the protest movement like ElBaradei and Google executive Wael Ghonim. The Egyptian army, in order to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, generally refrained from massacres at the demonstrations. This was partly due to the fact that in many cases, normal soldiers (from the hundreds of thousands of conscripts who form the mass of the Egyptian army) joined the demonstrations and even scrawled anti-Mubarak slogans on their tanks. The generals were scared that an order to shoot would lead to mutinies.
Egypt’s officer caste, unlike the rank-and-file soldiers, is connected by a thousand links to the Pentagon in Washington. They have received around 60 billion dollars from US imperialism over the last 30 years. The generals have, just like Mubarak, made billions from corrupt deals with the imperialist powers. They were willing to sacrifice Mubarak himself – since the scale of the protests left them with no other option – but they will use any means necessary to defend the system that gives them their privileges. For this reason, the protestors should put no trust in the military and its promises to organize a “gradual transition to democracy in the next six months”. Instead, they must systematically organize self-defense. In order to break the power of the reactionary officers, Marxists call on rank-and-file soldiers to form councils and elect their own commanders. Soldiers who express support for the protest movement must be called on to put their weapons at the service of elected structures of the protesters.
Unfortunately, illusions in the military reach all the way into the radical left, some of whom see the army of several decades ago as a progressive force or a “people’s army” (3). The Egyptian army under Gamal Abdel Nasser, which defended the nationalization of some imperialist property such as the Suez Canal, based on controlled mobilizations and an alliance with the Stalinist USSR, was never a “people’s army”. Nasser’s government represented a form of bonapartism: a bourgeois government which carried out nationalizations not to expropriate the bourgeoisie but rather to gain some elbow room against imperialism and create the conditions for a national bourgeoisie to flourish (4). Illusions in Nasserism and its bourgeois ideology of “Arab socialism” can only lead the protest movement into a dead end. A real “people’s army” – which is absolutely necessary to smash the old Mubarak regime – cannot be based on a “nationalist” or “patriotic” general, but rather on the arming of the workers and peasants in a militia under the democratic control of the masses.
Workers in motion
The revolutionary processes in Tunisia and Egypt are presented in the bourgeois press as the work of young Facebook users and underground Islamist groups. While most demonstrators quoted in the Western media come from the educated, urban petty bourgeoisie, the climate for the revolt was created by the workers’ movements. Since 2008 there has been an upswing of workers’ struggles – including mass strikes in Tunisia and Egypt (5). In the last week, the workers’ movement in Egypt has been coming to the fore of the protests, with social demands for jobs or higher wages beginning to replace abstract demands for democracy (6). One bourgeois commentator from Germany said: “This revolution is transforming from a political one into a social one.” In the past few days, Egypt has witnessed strikes in textile factories, trains, newspapers, even the Suez canal! In the face of this, the new, “democratic” military government is threatening repression and even martial law (7).
The working class has so far been subordinate to the “democracy” movements and their bourgeois leaderships, who are only interested in creating new models of imperialist rule. But the working class must become an independent political force, with its own program and organization, since only they can fundamentally change the Arab countries. Working people keep the economy running – the factories, hotels, mines, etc. which are in the hands of the imperialist powers and their local lackeys – and this gives the workers the power to deliver decisive blows to imperialism with strikes and occupations. Just a few thousand workers in Egypt have the power to bring one of the most important shipping lanes in the world to a standstill! To implement their demands, they need to elect strike committees and organize a general strike against intolerable living and working conditions, and against the military government. This could lead to the formation of workers’ councils as the basis of workers’ power in the Arab countries.
The democratic revolt needs to be developed into a social revolution. Only the expropriation of the property of the corrupt rulers and all the imperialist powers can provide an end to unemployment, poverty, and hunger. The vast wealth of the Arab countries must be administered under a democratic plan. Clearly this cannot be demanded of the existing state apparatus – it must be smashed and replaced by a workers’ and peasants’ government based on councils of the workers in alliance with the peasants and rank-and-file soldiers. In short, a program of permanent revolution is necessary.
To implement such a program, it is necessary to form a revolutionary Marxist party that organizes the vanguard of the workers and the youth. Such a party could connect the democratic and social demands of the masses with a strategy of socialist revolution, explaining, via a system of transitional demands, how only a workers’ government could solve the masses’ problems. This is the reason we fight to build a revolutionary international based on the traditions of the four workers’ internationals, particularly the Fourth International and its program of transitional demands and permanent revolution.
We call on all workers’ and left-wing organizations internationally, especially the trade unions, to organize active solidarity with our class brothers and sisters on the streets of the Arab world. The reformist organizations need to show which side they are on: on the side of the imperialist governments and their program of “transition”, or on the side of the working masses with their demands for real change. We call on all workers’ organizations to make solidarity more than just a word: they must organize demonstrations, donations to Egyptian unions, publicity campaigns, solidarity committees etc. To force the bureaucratic leaderships of these organizations to take up their basic internationalist responsibilities, a revolutionary opposition at the base of the trade unions is necessary.
The situation in the Arab world after the revolutionary toppling of Ben Ali and Mubarak remains open, even if the protest movements have momentarily gone down in numbers: the imperialist powers’ traditional model of rule has been shaken and they have no clear plan to re-establish it. The masses continue to protest and the workers’ movement is raising its head. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are a real possibility.
- No to a “negotiated transition”! For revolutionary constituent assemblies!
- Down with all pro-imperialist regimes in the Arab countries!
- For the formation of workers’ governments and workers’ militias!
- For the nationalization of all imperialist property under workers’ control!
- For a socialist federation of North Africa and the Middle East!
Revolutionary Internationalist Organization (RIO) February 16, 2011
(1) For more on the Marxist theory of imperialism, see: V.I. Lenin: Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
(2) Süddeutsche Zeitung, January 31, 2011
(3) For example, we view a statement by the “Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt” quite critically. While their call for the organization of workers’ councils and a revolutionary party is absolutely correct, it is very dangerous to say that the Egyptian army is “no longer the people’s army,” implying it was under Nasser. The group “Revolutionary Socialists” is close to the Socialist Workers’ Party of Great Britain and the International Socialist Tendency.
(4) for an analysis of “left-wing” or “populist” bonapartism, see the article by Wladek Flakin on the Hugo Chávez government in Venezuela, which can be compared to the Nasser regime in Egypt.
(5) For an overview of workers’ protests in 2008, see Juan Chingo: “Ascenso obrero en Egipto y la emergencia de los trabajadores inmigrantes de los países del Golfo“.
(6) Kareem Fahim and David Kirdpatrick: “Labor Actions in Egypt Boost Protests“. This was based on an article by the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper: “Tahrir demos accompanied by 5 labor protests to demand higher wages“.
(7) The Guardian: “Egypt’s army calls for end to strikes as workers grow in confidence“