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Revolution and Counterrevolution in the Arab world


Tahrir Square, Cairo

In the first part of a two part article, Marcus Halaby examines the regional and international context of the Arab Revolutions, the role played by the crisis of leadership, and the need for working class political independence in the form of a revolutionary workers’ party, making the case for the strategy of permanent revolution.


An epoch of wars and revolutions

The Russian revolutionary Lenin, approvingly quoting Karl Kautsky, once described the epoch of imperialism as being “an epoch of wars, revolutions, and the proletariat’s struggle for power”. And so it has proved to be. Almost every decade of the last century has seen revolutionary upheavals take place in one or another part of the world, each of them teaching new lessons to a new generation of revolutionaries willing to study and learn from them.


Referring to the revolution that began in Russia in February 1917, Lenin says elsewhere that “during a revolution, millions and tens of millions of people learn in a week more than they do in a year of ordinary, somnolent life”, a statement related to his earlier observation that the aim of revolutionary tactics is  “the ability to find practical solutions for great tasks in the great days, in which twenty years are embodied”.


And this is precisely the point. Revolutions are no mere changes in government, whether “violent” or “constitutional”. They are events defined by the entry of the masses into political life, or as Lenin puts it, “a sharp turn in the life of an entire people” in which “it becomes particularly clear what aims the various classes of the people are pursuing, what strength they possess, and what methods they use”.


The “Arab Spring”, the as yet uncompleted revolutions in the Arab world that began in January 2011, display all of these features. Striking at five “republican” quasi-hereditary dictatorships (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen) and one semi-absolutist monarchy (Bahrain), that all had the appearance of permanence only weeks beforehand, this has been the greatest wave of revolutions to take place since the triumph of neoliberalism in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, they have been the first revolutions to take place since the global financial and economic crisis brought about by neoliberal globalisation’s inner contradictions in 2008.


The Tunisian spark

The opening salvo, the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, famously began with the self-immolation on 17 December 2010 of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor brought to despair by the confiscation of his goods and scales by a corrupt local official. Initial protests at his treatment in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid were met with police violence, provoking further protest suicides and the spread of demonstrations to Menzel Bouzaiane and other small towns in the region, which in turn were met with lethal force. This spread the protests even further, to Sbikha, Meknassy, Thala, Chebba, Monastir, Gafsa, Sousse, Sfax and finally to the capital, Tunis.


The initial protesters raised demands attacking hunger, unemployment and inflation, but were quickly joined by trade unionists, students, teachers and lawyers, raising political demands around corruption, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and police brutality. The demand for “dignity”, a word that would later be repeated in the slogans of protesters in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, expressed the decades-long pent-up frustration of “ordinary” citizens with their casual humiliation by the state, with officials who routinely demanded bribes and with police officers that harassed, arrested and beat up an alienated generation of youth without cause and with impunity.


The social causes of the masses’ discontent are therefore plain: their impoverishment and dispossession by two decades of neoliberalism, exacerbated by a global economic crisis. Most visible of all has been the alienation of a generation of youth that had received a university education with a society in which there was no prospect of their ever being able to make use of it.


But the demands that brought “the whole people”, or at least the illusion of it, into the streets were demands classically associated with the establishment of bourgeois democratic systems: for genuine political pluralism, the “rule of law”, the accountability of the state to its citizens, for freedom from arbitrary treatment and harassment by the state’s repressive organs.


Even so, and crucially, it was the action of the urban working class that proved decisive in provoking divisions within the state apparatus and in forcing Ben Ali’s flight from the country on 14 January, in particular the decision of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) to take part in the protests.


The Egyptian detonator

The same pattern would be repeated less than two weeks later in Egypt. There, a broad and amorphous “civil society” had already been active for over a decade under the rule of dictator Hosni Mubarak, initially emerging out of a campaign for solidarity with the second Palestinian Intifada of September 2000, and sustaining itself through popular opposition to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.


For a period in the mid-2000s, this civil society’s most public face was “Kefaya”, the Egyptian Movement for Change, which like oppositional Egyptian civil society as a whole drew support from both Islamists and from the Marxist left, but primarily from secular liberals and Nasserist secular nationalists. Its principal focus of activity had been around calls for democratic reform, opposing Mubarak’s May 2005 constitutional referendum, and protesting the sham presidential elections that took place in September of that year.


By early 2011, however, Kefaya had already gone into decline, being eclipsed by a range of “youth movements”, of which the most well-known would be the April 6 Youth Movement. And one major focus for these organisations’ practical activity would be protests against police violence and brutality, in particular, the June 2010 murder in police custody of 28 year old computer programming student Khaled Saeed.


The publication on Facebook of an image of Saeed’s badly beaten body by Dubai-based Google marketing executive and blogger Wael Ghonim would be the catalyst for the calling of protests on 25 January 2011. This was both Egypt’s National Police Day, and the six-month anniversary of the original Alexandria-based protest at Saeed’s death that was led by Egyptian liberal politician and former diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.


Tens of thousands took part in demonstrations nationwide on the “Day of Anger” on 25 January, quickly escalating to hundreds of thousands by the “Friday of Anger” on 28 January. In Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, demonstrators burnt down the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and ignored a government curfew, while protesters in Suez seized the city’s police station.


The state would now have to deploy the army in place of the hated and discredited police to “keep order”. But it was not just the fraternisation of the soldiers with the millions of people on the street (creating with it the popular illusion that “the army and the people are one hand”) that convinced the generals to force Mubarak’s resignation on 11 February, but also the emergence and spread of a mass strike movement.


And here, the prior emergence of a “new” and semi-legal union movement in industrial cities like Mahalla El-Kubra, independent of the state and NDP-controlled official unions, was crucial in ensuring the emergence of the Egyptian working class as an at least potentially independent actor. The building of this movement was in part the initiative of far left groups like the Revolutionary Socialists, a group linked to Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP).


The Arab “Spring”

The use of the term “Spring” to describe a wave of spontaneous uprisings, detonating one another drew from commentators an analogy with the European revolutions of 1848. Here we should recall the salutary lesson that, though these went through various stages or waves –not reaching final exhaustion until 1850-51, none of them accomplished the fundamental objectives, that revolutionaries, like Marx, hoped for. After setbacks and renewals of the struggle they ended in counter-revolutionary restorations, albeit that  “nothing would ever be the same again” and the great objectives – democracy, national unity, workers’ rights were the subjects of reform and revolution over the next half century and more.


If Tunisia’s uprising was the spark, then Egypt’s was the detonator. In Yemen, a weak state beset by secessionist movements north and south, never fully in control of its neglected “tribal” periphery, and with its sovereignty and credibility undermined by US drone strikes on alleged “terrorists” operating from its territory, saw protests break out in its capital Sana’a demanding the removal of president Ali Abdullah Saleh on 27 January.


In Bahrain, a semi-absolutist monarchy that had survived a previous uprising between 1994 and 2001 saw this movement’s reemergence on 14 February.


Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s hysterical broadcast response to Ben Ali’s overthrow would be vindicated on 17 February, as popular protests in Libya’s second city Benghazi quickly escalated into a stalemated armed uprising.


And finally, in Syria on 15 March, the arrest and torture of 15 schoolchildren in Daraa for writing anti-government graffiti provoked a series of mass protests across the country that would continue despite president Bashar al-Assad’s promises of “reform”, and his security forces’ attempts to shoot them off the streets.


Bourgeois-democratic revolutions in the epoch of imperialism

Here it is necessary to take a step back and examine the bigger picture. As previously noted, the initial tasks of both the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and of the revolutions inspired by them elsewhere, have been those of establishing “democratic” systems, and are therefore the tasks of what Marxists refer to as the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”.


In their original form in Western Europe and in North America, revolutions of this sort were associated with the rise and consolidation of the capitalist order, and were either led by the capitalists (the “bourgeoisie”) themselves, or by elements drawn from those less wealthy but still “propertied” classes (the “petit bourgeoisie”) who by their actions paved the way for bourgeois democracy, a relatively stable form of capitalist rule, one that obscures the realities of class rule under the outward appearance of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.


These democratic revolutions, however, have arisen one hundred years and more into the epoch of imperialism, a system in which the capitalist mode of production already encompasses almost the entire planet; in which the bourgeoisies of a handful of imperialist states dictate to the rest of the world the form and pace of their economic and social development; and in societies in which the native bourgeoisie is too weak (in the face of foreign imperialism and the remnants of pre-capitalist ruling classes), and too afraid of “the people” (and in particular, of the urban working class, the proletariat), to give any effective lead to “its own” revolution.


The proletariat as the leading class of the nation

It therefore falls to the proletariat, the revolutionary class created by capitalism itself, to assume the role played in the “classical” bourgeois revolutions by the bourgeoisie or its agents, of leading and completing the democratic revolution and of making its achievements permanent. This, in turn, requires it to achieve for itself political independence as a class.


But while the proletariat is therefore called upon by historic conditions to lead all the various other oppressed classes behind it, like the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie in the period of capitalism’s rise before it, it cannot take on this leading role without pressing its own demands, which prompt it to objectively threaten the overthrow of capitalism itself. To achieve this however requires that it become the subjective i.e. conscious agent of social revolution.


The completion of the democratic revolution therefore requires the revolution to advance from democratic tasks to socialist tasks, in order to avoid its own ultimate defeat. But this cannot be the inevitable result of any spontaneous “process”. It must be fought for first consciously, by a minority within the proletariat’s own ranks who, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, understand clearly “the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”, in short a revolutionary workers’ party.



The semi-colonial army-state: the product of a weak bourgeoisie

One of the most striking features of the weakness of the national bourgeoisie in the Arab states is its own abject prostration in front of a dictatorial state machine that consumes such a large part of the national income, and that defends its privileges and its political power partly at the expense of the bourgeoisie itself. This is the problem of bonapartism from which few if any (perhaps Lebanon) have escaped.


Even when the ‘Bonapartes’ who headed these regimes were Arab nationalists like Nasser or the young Gaddafi, strong on anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist rhetoric and wildly popular with the masses, the core of their regimes has always been the military caste and democratic liberties (especially for independent unions or the parties of the left) virtually non-existent. Moreover they have rapidly outgrown their radical “revolutionary“ origins, turning into corrupt, parasitical and stiflingly repressive regimes, often effecting a transfer from an anti- to pro-US stance in the process.  Civil society – even its bourgeois élite – has remained weak and incapable of ousting these egregious “praetorian guards. ”


In Mubarak’s Egypt, neither of the two major wings of the bourgeoisie, the Islamists and the “secular liberals”, have proved capable of standing up to the power of the military. There, the army, boosted by the US military and economic aid that is its reward for maintaining a reactionary peace treaty with Israel, is an economic power in its own right, controlling a vast empire of enterprises that are estimated to control up to 40 per cent of the country’s economy.


Similarly, in Assad’s Syria, a bloated military and security apparatus, ostensibly there to defend the country against Israel, and recruited partly on the basis of kinship and sectarian affiliation, stands violently and menacingly “above” society as a whole.


In both cases, the upper ranks of the state apparatus are partly incorporated into the bourgeoisie, either “legally” or through various forms of corruption, and possess through the state a network for distributing patronage to a wider base of support located in the more plebeian classes. This gives this army-state bourgeoisie the ability to dominate the bourgeoisie as a whole, unproductively extracting rents from it while blackmailing it with the threat of social chaos in the event that the “private” bourgeoisie tries to clip its wings or curb its excesses.


Imperialism and semi-colonial subordination

This, in turn, is not just the product of internal dynamics, but of these countries’ position within the global system. The domination of world markets by the bourgeoisies of the imperialist countries, and their use of international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to manipulate these markets in their favour, ensures that the “private” bourgeoisie cannot simply “trade its way out” of its semi-colonial subordination to them, even when, as in the case of the oil-rich Arab Gulf states, it is in possession of a strategic global commodity.


The bourgeoisie is therefore obliged to compensate for its own weakness by conceding to the state part of its own historic role, of developing strong national markets by acting as a forcing-house for the creation of national monopolies.


In turn, the state develops an ideology that it disseminates to society as a whole, according to which the army itself is the “representative of the people”, and therefore a source of political legitimacy in its own right. A bellicose but empty “nationalism” forms a key part of this ideology, even though the army’s actual record in defending the country’s national independence often contains very little to boast about.


The need to smash the state’s organs of repression

The failure of the initial uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia to decisively break the state apparatus in the process therefore allowed the core of the old regimes, the so-called “feloul” or “remnants”, to remain in existence, taking the opportunity of regrouping to defend their own long-term preservation partly by assuming the legitimacy of the revolutions that overthrew the tyrants that they themselves previously served. One reason for this lay in the self-limiting “peaceful” tactics of square occupations and the “army and the people are one hand” agitation the young revolutionaries picked up from their liberal (and libertarian) mentors in the USA (Gene Sharpe) and Europe. The “older” revolutionary models  (bolshevism) so scorned by these people had better advice – that if the rank and file of the soldiers could not be detached from the officer caste and the high command the “regime” whose downfall the people wished would in fact survive the retirement of its ruling figurehead and his family. Events in Egypt and to some extent in Tunisia and Yemen have confirmed this.


In Syria, by contrast, the totalitarian state’s repressive apparatus did not eject its figurehead in the interests of its own self-preservation, but merely hemorrhaged, as a flood of individual defectors from the country’s conscript army began to form the core of an amorphous and poorly-equipped “armed opposition” to the Ba’athist regime, loosely grouped together in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).


There, the domestic bourgeoisie, itself partly dependent for its wealth on its maintenance of a corrupt relationship with the state, has remained solidly behind the Assad regime, thereby reinforcing its own subjection to it. Its “oppositional” cousins in exile have tried to compensate for their own weakness and inability to influence events on the ground by appealing to the Western imperialist powers for support, vainly pleading with them to intervene militarily on their behalf.


They are cowed not just by the Assad regime’s almost unlimited capacity for violence against its own people, but also by the fear that the masses, having armed themselves in self-defence, will prove unwilling to return to “normal” conditions in the event that they overthrow the Assad regime by their own efforts.


A crisis of leadership allows Egypt’s generals to steal the revolution

As noted above, the preservation of the core of the Mubarak regime allowed the Egyptian generals to manage the transition to a “constitutional” system, holding a constitutional referendum in March 2011 that paved the way for parliamentary elections between November 2011 and February 2012, and presidential elections in May and June 2012. In the course of these, Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists (and the British SWP with them) made the grave error of calling for a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, violating the key principle of preserving working class political independence in the process.


As a mass organisation with a petit bourgeois religious ideology drawing support from all classes of society, the Brotherhood could not avoid the influence of the mass anti-Mubarak protests on its own mass base. It was the spontaneous participation in these protests of a part of this mass base, against the advice of their own leaders, which forced its leaders to half-heartedly throw their weight behind them. A socialist policy should have sought to widen this contradiction between the Brotherhood’s leadership and its mass base, rather than allow its leadership to try to overcome it by encouraging illusions in its democratic and popular character.


In the absence of any independent working class leadership, political initiative therefore fell to the only organised mass forces in existence: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the former’s association with Mubarak’s regime, and the latter’s belated and reluctant participation in the 25 January uprising. Here, secular bourgeois “liberals” like ElBaradei could play only a supporting role, seeing in the Egyptian generals a guarantee against any threat to “secular values” from the Brotherhood or its Salafist allies.


A deeply undemocratic “constitutional” process, that kept intact the prerogatives of the military and sought to maintain its independence from an elected parliament and presidency, saw the military hand purely formal political power to a Brotherhood-dominated parliament and a Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.


The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership was happy to go along with this charade, seeing in it the prospect of a long-term Turkish-style military-Islamist alliance to restore capitalist stability. The generals, however, were far less enthusiastic, and merely bided their time, allowing feloul elements within the police to sabotage the Morsi government’s attempts to impose its authority, as a test of its will. Mysterious “shortages” of fuel and other staple commodities also indicated an attempt at economic sabotage by the military or by pro-military elements within the bourgeoisie.


Seeking to improve his credibility with that wing of the Egyptian bourgeoisie that either supported the Brotherhood or was willing to tolerate its presence in government, Morsi’s capitalist government tried to strike at the only real gains of the democratic revolution established so far: the rights to protest, to strike, to organise and to express political opinion.


Morsi’s authoritarianism, the Brotherhood’s hostility to Coptic Christians and other minorities, its imposition of austerity measures to placate the IMF and its clumsy affronts to secularism all combined to produce a mass movement for Morsi’s resignation that brought up to 17 million people onto the streets on 30 June 2013.


The generals took this opportunity to stage a coup to “defend the revolution”, arresting Morsi on 3 July and appointing a new military junta led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. For the second time running, the military stole the legitimacy of popular protests to seize power for itself. This time, however, the army would kill hundreds in order to crush the Brotherhood’s mass base, hoping in this way to kill the revolution itself.


We can hardly condemn the masses that came out onto the streets against Morsi for this outcome; for any revolutionary, the revolutionary people are just as entitled to overthrow an “elected” government as any other. But we certainly can and should condemn those spineless “liberals” who supported Sisi’s coup, and who continue to support his attempts to crush the revolution.


And it is a lesson that needs to be learned that the Egyptian revolution’s fatal weakness has been precisely that feature that many on the international left have celebrated as a strength: its lack of leadership.


An amorphous movement with the simple and negative slogan “the people demand the downfall of the regime” has been able “bring down” two presidents in succession, but without transferring power into the hands of the people on either occasion.


The absence of a mass revolutionary workers’ party has ensured once again that political power, or the prospect of it, can pass only into the hands of those mass forces organised and coherent enough to wield it, thereby allowing reactionaries to fill the resulting breach.


The changing regional “Arab system”

None of these events, however, should be seen in national isolation: Sisi’s repression has emboldened the Assad regime’s bloodlust, and Assad’s chemical weapons strike on the Ghouta suburbs east of Damascus on 21 August 2013 gave Sisi an opportunity to intensify his killings of pro-Morsi protesters.


Moreover, the pre-revolutionary Arab dictatorships collectively formed part of a regional system, one shaped by its place in the global imperialist order. Within this system, Israel played the role of US imperialism’s watchdog and enforcer, using its military power to punish any Arab regime that transgressed its permitted boundaries within this system, and cutting down to size any state that threatened to break Israel’s monopoly as the dominant regional power.


Turkey, as a NATO member and as an Israeli military ally, helped to contain “nationalist” Arab regimes like Syria’s and Iraq’s, while Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth was used to fund reactionary movements (not all of them “Islamic”) across the Arab world, and to prop up dictatorships like Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s.


The oil-rich Arab Gulf states as a whole acted as a regional social “safety valve”, taking in migrant workers and otherwise under-employed professionals from the poorer and more populous Arab states, and beyond. This “safety valve” could be turned on and off, rewarding friendly regimes and punishing others, as with Saudi Arabia’s expulsion of Yemeni nationals in response to Yemen’s support for Saddam’s Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait.


This regional system came into existence during the Cold War, and included a role for Soviet-backed “nationalist” regimes in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Algeria. The 1979 Iranian revolution disrupted it by overthrowing the Shah, US imperialism’s other great pillar of regional stability, prompting the United States to encourage Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran, in the hope that Iran and Iraq would weaken each other in the destructive eight years of war that followed. Egypt’s military under Sadat and Mubarak received billions in military aid annually to maintain the 1978 Camp David Accords that marked the official end of Egypt’s state of war with Israel.


The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq disrupted this system even further, unintentionally strengthening Iran’s position as a regional power by making the United States dependent on pro-Iranian Shia politicians to ensure Iraq’s pacification. And the election of Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November 2002 has seen Turkey move away from Israel and develop regional ambitions of its own, clashing publicly with Israel over the attack on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” in May 2010.


The rebalancing of regional actors, and the need for internationalism

The Arab revolutions have thrown up new challenges to this regional system. Oil-rich Qatar, the most apparently “stable” Gulf autocracy, allowed its pet television station Al Jazeera to act as the “voice” of the Arab revolutions, loudly cheering the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and playing a key role in agitating for NATO’s intervention into the civil war that took place in Libya between the February 2011 Benghazi uprising and Gaddafi’s overthrow six months later.


Qatar is now effectively competing with Saudi Arabia for the role of chief political and financial sponsor of the pro-Western Arab regimes. In place of Saudi Arabia’s preference for preserving apparently strong but now visibly brittle dictatorships, Qatar hopes to become godfather to somewhat more flexible and durable pro-Western pseudo-democracies. This Saudi-Qatari rivalry is at its most visible in Egypt, where the Saudis supported the overthrow of Morsi, and where Sisi’s dictatorship closed down Al Jazeera’s local affiliates.


All the same, Qatar did not oppose and indeed took part in the March 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervention in support of Bahrain’s monarchy, as its quid pro quo for NATO’s intervention in Libya.


And this all takes place in the context of heightened inter-imperialist rivalry and the decline of US hegemony that George W Bush and Tony Blair’s wars on Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to offset. Russia has recovered from the weakened state that followed its crisis-ridden restoration of capitalism in the 1990s, while China, whose capitalist restoration took a very different form, is now, like Russia, a rising imperialist power with global pretensions. China now even imports more crude oil from Saudi Arabia than the United States does.


This in turn has produced a Russian and Chinese challenge to US power in a region that had effectively been the United States’ uncontested sphere of influence after the end of the Cold War.


Arab nationalism in its most radical phases – taking advantage of the common language (for all its spoken differences)  – rejected the boundaries and borders imposed by the European colonialists who carved up of the region after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The region was subjected to the same process that afflicted the Balkans in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Followed by the Communist parties (who rapidly became Stalinists) the idea of an Arab nation inescapably suggested the idea of a single state or at least a federal sate for the entire region. But the crystallization of ruling classes and military elites within these “artificial” states doomed this project for as long capitalism endures. Nevertheless there remains amongst the popular classes a profound sympathy for other people across the region fighting for freedom. The same applies to the main victims of imperialism and its Zionist agents, the Palestinians.


The rapid spread and sympathy between the various countries where the Arab Spring took root has to be understood against this background. And it also raises another issue; that the revolutionaries of the region can learn from one another’s struggles, the mistakes and disasters as well as the victories. But they will do so only if they create a powerful organisational unity between themselves and indeed with revolutionaries around the world.  This way the creation of national parties and programmes will not have to await local developments. Periods of repression and exile can be used as fruitfully as the Russian exiles did before 1917. In a word the workers and socialists of the Middle East need not just class independent revolutionary parties but a new revolutionary International.


Cold War paradigms, “humanitarianism” and pacifistic “third campism”

First in Libya, and then in Syria, this has produced in some parts of the international left a degree of indifference or even hostility to those countries’ revolutions against their respective tyrants.


Wrong-footed by President Barack Obama’s support for Mubarak and Ben Ali, the United States, encouraged by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Britain’s David Cameron, saw in Libya’s stalemated uprising an opportunity to recover lost prestige and try to control the outcome of the emerging Arab revolutions.


Some on the left, influenced by the legacy of Stalinism and viewing these events through the prism of Cold War-era alignments, according to which an “imperialist camp” dominated by the United States faced off against a “socialist camp” led by the Soviet Union, saw in this a pretext to support Gaddafi’s regime against its own people, in the name of an empty and purely formalistic “anti-imperialism”.


Others, encouraged by the illusion of “peaceful” revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, saw the development of the Libyan uprising into a revolutionary civil war as a sign that the revolution had failed, or indeed that there was no revolution, and that this was now merely a “tribal war” in which revolutionary socialists could not take sides.


Others still were willing to abandon the principled position of opposition to NATO’s imperialist intervention, in the belief that it might at least aid the Libyan revolution and prevent a complete slaughter of the insurgents.


The same errors would be repeated on an even bigger scale in Syria, this time even without the excuse of any direct Western intervention having taken place. And it is in Syria that the decline of US power, and the counterrevolutionary role of the rising Russian and Chinese imperialisms has been most visible.


The isolation and betrayal of Syria’s revolution

Syria’s Ba’athist regime, in power in its current form since 1970, shared with Gaddafi’s the attribute of being a “totalitarian” regime without a functioning civil society (not even on the scale that existed in Egypt or Tunisia) that legitimised itself through a demagogic and bellicose “anti-imperialist” nationalism. It also shared with Libya the attribute of having enjoyed a period of partial rehabilitation by the West, alongside a turn towards neoliberalism and away from state-led economic development.


Both Syria and Libya had taken part in “extraordinary rendition”, the extrajudicial transfer and torture of “terrorist suspects” on behalf of the United States and its allies in pursuit of the so-called “War on Terror”.


Gaddafi’s rehabilitation after the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saw Libya open up its markets to Western multinationals, in particular those of Britain, France and Italy. Similarly Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his late father Hafez al-Assad in July 2000, privatised much of Syria’s economy, selling it off to a corrupt kleptocracy personified by his billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, and to some extent turning Syria into an economic satellite of the Arab Gulf states.


Assad’s regime, however, officially maintained the state of war with Israel that began in 1948, and loudly opposed the Iraq war, allowing Sunni sectarian jihadists of a sort that were otherwise quite hostile to its “secular” ideology to travel through its territory into Iraq. It similarly supported Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement whose resistance drove Israel out of Lebanon in May 2000, and the various anti-Oslo Palestinian factions, including Hamas.


This “pro-resistance” foreign policy was broadly popular, both domestically and abroad. But despite the complacency of Assad, who believed that Syria was “stable” because its regime was “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people”, and who attributed Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s overthrow to their divergence from “the people’s beliefs and interests”, it could not indefinitely counteract the effects of more than a decade of neoliberalism, which devastated the rural masses in particular. And Assad’s neoliberal demolition of the mass base inherited from his father led his regime to rely ever more on cronyism, corruption and sectarian favouritism.


That the Syrian people should also have risen up against their tyrant should therefore be no surprise. Nor should be the regime’s response, preferring civil war and the destruction of Syria’s cities and countryside alike to the “peaceful” removal of its figurehead. What should be a scandal, however, is the Syrian revolution’s abandonment by left wing and “progressive” forces across the globe. As in Libya, it is the poisonous legacy of Stalinism that some on the left prefer the illusion of support for “anti-imperialist” dictators to the democratic and anti-imperialist aspirations of their peoples.


The emergence of an “armed opposition” to the Assad regime, after four months of the state’s slaughter of unarmed mass protests, naturally saw outside powers try to turn the situation to their advantage. Both Syria’s old adversary Saudi Arabia, and its recent former allies Turkey and Qatar began to sponsor factions within the armed opposition that might advance their agenda in the country. Israel, however, preferred the devil it already knew – a regime that had not fired a shot over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in decades – to the threat of a genuinely popular Syrian regime coming to power through an armed revolution.


And despite Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s condemnations of Assad’s barbarity, and their verbal support for the exiled Syrian opposition, the United States’ actual policy has effectively conceded Syria to Russia’s sphere of influence.


Here the United States is not only constrained by Russia and China, who feel cheated and betrayed by the US and European imperialist powers’ use of a United Nations resolution that they voted for to assist the overthrow of Gaddafi without their prior consent. Like Israel, and like the Syrian oppositional exiles, they fear above all the sudden collapse of the vast repressive apparatus that Assad and his clique preside over. This is the lesson that they have learned from the Iraq war, where the overnight dismantling of Saddam’s totalitarian state created a power vacuum that vastly complicated the task of pacifying the country.


A further examination

This article cannot claim to present a complete overview of the Arab revolutions as they have unfolded so far. In particular, further contributions are necessary to examine the role played by women and youth in all the revolutions, the forms taken by the self-organisation of the masses (especially in Syria), the role of the trade unions both “old” and “new”, and the contradictory class character of the various strands of political Islamism.


Especially important, in view of the Syrian and Egyptian regimes’ attempts to exploit ethnic and sectarian divisions, will be an assessment of the national question in the Arab world, and the position of national, ethnic and religious minorities: Kurds, Berbers and Copts; Christians, Shia, Druze and Alawites; and last but not least the revolutions’ implications for the Palestinian people.


Likewise, the early occurrence of pogroms against black African migrants in Libya, and the relative calm of the oil-rich Arab Gulf states, prompt an examination of the role played by the exploitation of migrant labour in maintaining their stability.


The international impact of the revolutions, not just on the other Arab countries but the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy movement in the West deserve consideration, as do the role played by the “traditional” Stalinist and Arab nationalist left, and the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary phases through which the revolutions have passed.


The second part of this article will conclude with an examination of the key issues of programme for the main states of the region including how the defence of democratic rights, workers’ rights, and the struggle for social and economic justice can achieve the genuine and complete “downfall of the regime” and open the road to a united socialist states of the Middle East.

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