'This is the beginning of the rebirth of the left in the Middle East.' That is how a Lebanese socialist describes the atmosphere surrounding a major anti-capitalist conference taking place next week. For many, Beirut summons up images of shootings, kidnappings and seemingly endless civil war.
But next week the Lebanese capital will host the World Forum on the WTO, a conference to challenge the neo-liberal policies world leaders will be pushing at their meeting in Qatar. 'This conference was organised by a number of non-governmental organisations, but it quickly got the backing of all the trade union bodies in Lebanon,' says the Lebanese socialist.
'There is growing disillusionment with neo-liberal free market policies. After the end of the civil war in the mid-1990s there was a belief, even on the left, that market capitalism could overcome the Muslim/ Christian sectarianism that cuts through every aspect of life. Lebanon is negotiating to enter the WTO-this will mean the death of the Lebanese pharmaceutical industry, the end of small and middle sized farming in Lebanon. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has written the economic policies of the new government. This has led to privatisation, cutbacks in jobs, cuts in hospital beds and attacks on pensions. A third of the population is now below the UN poverty line. The mood has begun to change. When the government tried to privatise Middle East Airlines there was a strike and occupation by the workers-although this went down to defeat. The organisers of the conference have been inspired by the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement. The protests in Seattle against the last WTO conference in November 1999 have had a big effect on a lot of Lebanese people educated in the US. The biggest impact, though, was the demonstrations in July in Genoa against the G8 meeting. The way that the new intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli oppression, has been taken up by the anti-capitalist movement has also been crucial. For many young Palestinians who are becoming political, the shooting by the Italian police of Carlo Giuliani meant they saw it wasn't just Palestine where these things happened. People began to make the connections. It can't just be explained as a Muslim/Christian thing or a Jewish/Muslim thing. A Palestinian from one of Lebanon's southern refugee camps told me, 'It's people versus tanks in Belgrade, Prague and Ramallah.' The anti-capitalist movement in the West has opened up opportunities for the left in the Middle East. The Beirut conference is important for the left. The war in Afghanistan has projected it onto a much wider stage. There is a very widespread view that the war is the military wing of capitalist globalisation.'
A socialist who has recently returned from Egypt describes how the anti-war movement in the West has further boosted the left in the Middle East. He says:
'Everybody here watches the Al Jazeera television station. They reported the 50,000-strong protest in London three weeks ago. Everybody was astounded and asking, 'Who are all these people?' The key thing is that the left and others are protesting against the war all over the world. It means the left in Egypt can say that the war is not a Christian 'crusade', as the Islamists say. The message to the left in the West is that you must continue to demonstrate so that socialists in the Middle East can point out that this is an imperialist war and build opposition. Despite repression the anti-war movement is taking shape, with committees springing into place. There have been demonstrations on most university campuses. Capitalism, the war and the Palestinian intifada are interwoven for people in Egypt.'
Activists are coming to Beirut from all over the Middle East, but also from Sudan, India and Pakistan. Speakers at the conference include Green US presidential candidate Ralph Nader, writer Susan George, Indian activist Vandana Shiva, Filipino economist Walden Bello, Palestinian politician Hanan Ashwari, Ahmed Ben Bella (a leader of the Algerian independence struggle) and Socialist Review editor Lindsey German. Supporters include Oxfam, the World Development Movement, Globalise Resistance and Greenpeace.
There will be four days of discussion on capitalist globalisation and building resistance to it. On the final day there are plans for a march against the WTO and the war. Importantly, the Communist Opposition, the youth wing of the Lebanese Communist Party, supports the conference. The Communist Party officially supports the IMF and the WTO.
The government even supports it as a way of putting pressure on the WTO in the negotiations, and because it is worried itself about the anger from the streets. At a recent meeting of Arab leaders the president of Lebanon said: 'We are going to have to do something in support of the Palestinians or we will be lynched by the people.'