In April 2008 Egypt’s interior ministry was faced with a dilemma. Should it send state security forces to Mahalla al-Kubra, the restive industrial town in the Nile Delta, or to Egypt’s border with Gaza, where it feared hungry Palestinians would attempt another breakout.
Arab rulers fear anger over Palestine will fuse with domestic discontent and lead to growing struggle. Their dilemma is bound up with the question of “permanent revolution” in the Middle East.
The notion of permanent revolution was first put forward by Karl Marx and developed by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Trotsky sought to understand how revolutions could develop in countries where the working class was still relatively small compared to the peasantry and other groups.
If workers take the lead in the fight for democratic change, land reform and against imperialist powers, the theory goes, then they could develop this fight into a challenge to capitalism itself.
If this revolutionary process spreads to other, more developed countries, where workers are more numerous, it can become “permanent”.
In the region with the biggest reserves of easily accessible good quality oil, workers often have to fight regimes backed by imperial powers. For imperialism, the stakes are high.
All the major Middle East states, with the exception of Syria and Iran, are firm allies of Western, and specifically US, imperialism. The US and its allies supply Israel with all the arms it requires to keep these states in line. It also picks up the wages bill for Egypt’s security forces – to ensure that its population of 75 million remains firmly under the boot.
But although Western leaders and multinational oil companies have benefited massively from the resources of the Middle East, the region is dramatically different today from when oil was first discovered there.
In 1933 the US paid a humiliatingly small sum of £30,000 to the founder of Saudi Arabia to allow US companies to pump crude oil.
Aramco was the US company originally set up for such a purpose. Today it has become Saudi Aramco and is owned by Saudi Arabia. It is the biggest oil firm in the world with the largest proven reserves and greatest productive capacity.
The oil dollars have transformed organisations such as the Kuwait Investment Authority, which manages local and global investments for the Kuwaiti state, and its equivalents in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
They are now major financial players and the Arab ruling classes are firmly integrated into global capitalism.
With this comes the fear that all could be lost if the growing anger and frustration that exists inside all Arab countries explodes. This fear is well grounded.
When Gamal Abdul Nasser took power during Egypt’s revolution in 1952, he nationalised the Suez Canal, all the major banks and insurance companies, shipping firms and 600 major industrial and commercial companies – including Shell Oil, BP and Lever Brothers (part of Unilever).
Nasser implemented major land reforms and seized the assets of 600 of the wealthiest families.
His example inspired a wave of similar revolutions that at one point even menaced Saudi Arabia – at the time an overwhelmingly rural country with a tiny working class.
The threat of Nasser and the Arab nationalist revolutions galvanised France, Britain, the US and Israel to launch a series of wars.
The first attempt to crush the Arab nationalists during the Suez Crisis in 1956 ended in humiliating failure for the imperialists. At the time it seemed anything was possible.
But Nasser and other nationalist leaders attempted to limit the scope of the revolutions. The workers that had been instrumental in toppling the old order found themselves losing out in a strategy that put “Arab unity” above all else.
The process of permanent revolution was derailed as nationalists sought to use the power of the masses, but also prevent workers taking control themselves and overthrowing capitalism in the region.
But any blow to imperialism was a threat to the Western powers.
In 1967 Israel launched its Six Day War and crushed the Arab armies. Following the defeat it became “pragmatic” for the Arab regimes to end their hostility to imperialism.
Countries like Egypt embraced the US and made peace with Israel, while Syria, which refused to do the same, faced isolation and military attack.
The war of 1967, and the subsequent war in 1973, served their purpose. The “Arab front”, as the US called it, was broken. Now came heavy repression and the transformation of the region into dictatorships.
The regimes adopted neoliberalism, and along with the concentration of oil wealth in the hands of a few families, this has left Arab societies more polarised than at any other time in their history.
A vast gulf separates the small layer of rich rulers from the mass of workers, urban poor and peasantry, whose income barely covers the basics of life.
Just a glance at the Arab rich list illustrates this. Despite losing some £16 billion in the credit crunch, the richest 50 Arab families – excluding royals and wealth from oil – have amassed a fortune of £127 billion between them.
Adding the wealth of the royal families makes the figure stratospheric. Here is just a sprinkling of royal fortunes: the Saudi king has an estimated £18 billion, the emir of the United Arab Emirates some £6.5 billion, that of Kuwait £11 billion, and Qatar’s ruler £3 billion.
Meanwhile, the size of Jordan’s entire economy, with its six million people, was a pitiful £18 billion in 2007.
But the region has undergone another transformation. Today Arab societies are overwhelmingly urban. In 1970, for example, only one in four Lebanese lived in cities. Today the ratio is reversed. The same is true of countries such as Saudi Arabia.
And although the oil industry remains fantastically profitable, it employs a tiny minority of workers across the region. The vast majority work in construction or the textile factories, or they drive trains, or sweep the roads or till the land.
The fact that workers are beginning to smart against poverty and repression, is rattling the nerves of the regimes and their Western backers.
The struggles against Israel in Palestine, and in Lebanon in 2006, cross the thin line between “politics” and “economics”. Mass struggle made its first tangible breakthrough in the fight against imperialism.
When tens of thousands of Egyptians faced down regime thugs to oppose the invasion of Iraq, and Israel’s wars on Palestine and Lebanon, they inspired workers in places such as Mahalla el-Kubra to launch their strikes.
It is a simple step to draw parallels between Mahalla citizens battling riot police and the Palestinians facing Israeli border guards in the West Bank. This parallel can be heard in the chants of the demonstrators themselves.
These demonstrations are growing in scale and intensity. Some 100,000 people took to the streets of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria on Friday of last week in an unprecedented show of force.
Riot police quietly gave way despite a ban on any protest by Egyptian authorities.
The Middle East has never lost its status as the “greatest material prize in history”. For this reason the West’s reliance on Israel has not diminished, as some thought it would following the US invasion of Iraq.
One of the aims of the Iraq war was to forcibly assert US hegemony. It has instead exposed its limits.
The lesson of the US debacle in Iraq is that the West needs Israel now more than ever. Oil remains the obsession of global capitalism – and it needs to keep a strong guard over it. This can be measured by the size of Israel’s armed forces – imperialism’s “facts on the ground”.
Even though Israel’s economy is half the size of Egypt’s, it can call on its arsenal of western supplied modern tanks, the most up to date warplanes, attack helicopters, warships, submarines, missiles and nuclear warheads.
This exposes as a lie any notion that Palestinian fighters, with their light arms and crude homemade rockets, are a military threat to Israel.
But if Hamas’s rockets, or those of Lebanon’s Hizbollah, have little military value, they pack a powerful political punch. They are a testament to continuing resistance in the face of a formidable military foe.
It is for this reason that these resistance organisations have such a high status among ordinary people. They have succeeded in resisting Israel’s occupation where all the Arab armies failed.
This fact was not lost on Egypt’s beleaguered foreign minister.
In response to Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s call for mass demonstrations in Egypt, the minister declared, “Let me tell you that the Egyptian armed forces are tasked with defending Egypt. If need be, they will also protect Egypt against people like you.”
The West is looking nervously at what Israel’s short-term military goals in Gaza can mean for the long term survival of the Arab regimes.
Hanging over all of them are the memories of the 1950s and 1960s. Then regimes that were seen as complicit with imperialism were swept aside by waves of revolution.
The intertwining of the struggle against imperialism and the Arab regimes makes the likelihood of permanent revolution stronger.
Many people may still have their doubts about the prospect of Arab workers making such a revolution. But the Arab regimes and their allies in the West do not share them.