THROUGHOUT THE world there are dictatorships and semi-dictatorships. In all of these you get various sections of the population who are resentful and want to fight back.
Take Egypt, where I have been recently. Hosni Mubarak has been the dictator since 1981. There has been a state of emergency for 24 years and no social group can organise independently of the state.
This affects socialists who want to encourage and assist the struggles of workers and peasants. It affects liberal intellectuals who want to express themselves freely.
It affects the conservative Islamic movement — the Muslim Brotherhood — and it affects left wing Muslims.
It also affects people who don’t like Mubarak but want to move towards a Western-style capitalist democracy. All these groups are oppressed and may come into conflict with the regime.
Movements erupt in which the differences between the groups get buried, at least in the first instance, because of the united opposition to the dictatorship.
But this leads to an unstable and contradictory situation. For some of these movements the driving force is the needs of the mass of the population — the workers, the lower middle class and the peasants.
The key issues raised are unemployment, inflation, poverty. That was the main factor behind the Indonesian insurrection of 1998 and the recent uprisings in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia.
There are other situations where it is more murky. Although many of the dictatorships originally established themselves with US backing, the US may later try to manipulate and use any uprising against them.
This is particularly the case when the uprisings are against governments that the US used to back but has now fallen out with. Take the case of Syria. The Syrian government was the ally of the US when it attacked Iraq in 1991.
Syrian troops went into Lebanon nearly 30 years ago to put down an uprising by the Lebanese left and the Palestinians against the right wing Phalangist party — which backed the US, France and Israel.
Now, as part of their attempt to directly seize control of oil in Iraq, the neo-cons around Bush want to reshape governments around the Middle East so they are more fully aligned with the US.
They are prepared to push for changes that would replace dictatorships or semi-dictatorships with the US version of capitalist democracy. They would like to see Syria and Lebanon run by governments based on elections between parties with essentially identical polices, supporting capitalism and imperialism.
What they have tried to do is develop a technique where they encourage certain opposition movements to move in a pro-US direction. They provide them with massive funds and seek to co-opt opposition leaders.
Some opposition leaders genuinely want to fight for a better society. In other cases, such as in Ukraine at the end of last year, they are corrupt members of the old ruling group who have seen a new way to advance their positions.
Of course in Ukraine many of the people on the streets were sick to death of a repressive and undemocratic society which was run by mafia types who had made fortunes out of privatisation.
But they were drawn behind a movement that wanted to replace one lot of mafia types with another lot of mafia types. In the process they were used in crude manoeuvring between the US and Russia over the domination of central Europe.
In judging these things you have to be very concrete about who is involved and what they are fighting for. In other situations the balance of forces will be quite different to what happened in Ukraine.
The Solidarnosc movement in Poland of 1980-81 was an authentic movement organised by intellectuals who took great risks, including going to prison, to push forward the demands of the workers.
This roused a spontaneous movement from the mass of workers which raised demands such as democratic freedoms, the right to organise genuine trade unions, better pay and conditions.
At this point the US did not support Solidarnosc in any significant way. After the movement was defeated, the US then moved in to pour in money at the end of 1981, co-opt people who had led Solidarnosc and pull them towards the US’s vision of the world.
The Indonesian movement in 1998 confronted one of the US’s main allies in South East Asia. But the US worked very hard to ensure that the government which replaced Suharto followed essentially the same objectives as him, but with a democratic packaging.
The movement that overthrew the dictator Marcos in the Philippines in 1986—which gave birth to the phrase “people’s power”—began as a genuinely popular movement. Then the Filippino ruling class worked with the US to ensure that the new government continued on essentially similar lines.
There are a whole number of situations where pressure builds up below in society and sections of the ruling class — and usually the US — agree that they need to push through change before it explodes underneath them in a way they can’t control.
As social crisis develops, the US may continue to support the existing government. But at the same time it can begin to finance sections of the opposition and use US foundations and US non-governmental organisations to infiltrate its leadership.
In the late 1970s a series of students’ and workers’ struggles began to undermine the military dictatorship in Brazil. A process developed called “opening” which meant the generals said they would allow elections at a later stage in order to buy off discontent.
The upper classes used that space to make sure they were the people who would stand and win those elections.
In South Korea there was a massive wave of demonstrations in 1987, and then strikes in 1988. To control the situation pressure was placed on the military dictatorship to promise elections four years later. There was a careful process of building a “safe” opposition so that there was no explosion.
This is what the US is pushing the Egyptian government to do at the moment. Mubarak has promised elections, but the US calculates that the only people who will have a real chance of defeating Mubarak will be the most respectable capitalist groups.
Repression will continue against more radical opposition forces. They will be told that if they tolerate this round of elections and accept the results then in a few years they too may be allowed to compete for office.
Faced with these scenarios, socialists have to do two things. We must be clearly for democratic rights, but at the same time say we are not going to be used by people who installed dictatorships in the past in order to establish their interests now.
Instead, socialists should use the crisis of the old regime to put forward independent demands, strengthen working class forces and build the capacity to fight whichever ruling class figure eventually wins out at the top.
In Lebanon socialists do not support the Syrian occupation. But they also point out the hypocrisy of those who denounce Syrian troops in Lebanon while supporting Israel’s occupation of part of Syria and the West Bank, and the US occupation of Iraq.
They have to be clear that central to the US agenda are attacks on the section of the population that resisted the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.
When there are demonstrations these are the sort of issues which should be raised. You would not get involved in mobilising behind a US agenda.
In Egypt socialists are seizing the moment to demand that Mubarak should go immediately. All the things he is associated with — the neo-liberal policies, the emergency laws, the state control of the unions — must go too.
If socialists raise such demands they can help to bring about a different situation to the one which the US envisaged. It is always dangerous for any great power to intervene in another and stir up “regime change”.
The German government thought it could advance its own interests during the First World War by allowing a train containing the leader of the Bolsheviks, Lenin, and the leader of the Mensheviks, Martov, to go to Russia in 1917.
They certainly destabilised Russia — but then a year later there was a revolution in Germany!
There may be demonstrations on the streets of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, led by right wing Christian militias at the moment. But this may encourage the 40 percent of the population who are Shia Muslims, and who remember the US bombarding Lebanon, to take to the streets themselves. Their demands will be very different to the ones presently articulated.
The US neo-cons see that in every society there is a capitalist class that will line up behind their vision. These are the people they rely on, assist and hope to place in power. But they forget that there is often a big impoverished middle class and a bigger section of workers and peasants who have been forced to put up with appalling living standards. These people can take to the streets in a completely opposite way to that which the US wants.
A century ago Leon Trotsky looked at the Russian Revolution of 1905 and saw how capitalists shied away from demands for democratic change, but how workers could take up these demands and fuse them with socialist content. That process, which Trotsky called permanent revolution, is the nightmare that could threaten the US in the Middle East.