Socialist Worker

The drive for real democracy in the Middle East

Leading economist Samir Amin joined activists to discuss the struggle for democracy in the Middle East at Marxism 2005. We reprint edited highlights of the meeting

Issue No. 1962

Samir Amin

Samir Amin

We need to remind ourselves of a number of fundamental principles in order to put the question of democracy in its real framework of progress. We cannot speak of democracy as separated from the rest of the questions in the Middle East region, or any region in the world.

I don’t think what is going is a “velvet revolution”, a “democratic revolution”. I don’t believe at all in “velvet revolutions”, not even in the first one which was given this name, still less the so called “democratic revolutions” which are in fact CIA operations, in Ukraine, in Georgia and so on.

But that doesn’t mean that the democratic question is not one of the fundamental challenges that the people of the region face.

A number of principles. First principle — we should not separate the issue of democratising society from social progress and respect for national sovereignty of peoples and states.

In the past there have been patterns of social progress with little or no democracy at all. This is not acceptable any more. Social progress can be achieved only with and through the respect of democracy.

Having said that, I don’t like the word “democracy”. I prefer “democratisation”, which means a long and difficult process, which deals with all dimensions of social life — political life, of course, but also of management of the economy, the family and so on.

Democracy without social progress — democracy with neo-liberalism, which is the blueprint of the Americans and Europeans for the Middle East — is not acceptable. It makes democracy lose legitimacy and credibility.

And democracy cannot be separated from national sovereignty, it cannot be imported by guns, or through the “peaceful means” of the imperialist system.

This refers particularly to the Cedar revolution in Lebanon, which is different to the situation in Iraq. In one case “democracy” is brought with the guns of the US army, in the other with diplomatic pressures.

That is principle one. Principle two is that democracy is not the actual target of the dominant forces in the global system, of imperialism. It has never been in the past and it is no more so in the present.

The real target of the actually existing capitalist system is the collective imperialism of the triad — US, Europe and Japan.

On top of that is the US project of military control over the planet. They plunder the natural resources, particularly oil, in order to compel their allies to submit to their diktat and to a collective imperialism operating to the exclusive benefit of the trans-national corporations.

That is the real target. Where is democracy there? It’s the “blah-blah”. In mercantilist times the Spanish went to South America to plunder it, not “Christianise the pagans”. In colonial times the ideology was to “civilise” colonies. Now the blah-blah is to “bring democracy”.

From those two principles I derive a third — never call in the Western imperialist powers to rescue you, no matter what condition you are in. You may face a very difficult situation, you may even lose battles, but don’t think you can win through an alliance that calls in the imperialist powers.

In the light of this, I will look briefly at the different cases. On Iran I should say that I was not surprised by the defeat of [former president Hashemi] Rafsanjani. The continuous anti-Iranian discourse and menaces from the US and Europe are unacceptable to any Iranian. Whether Islamic or not, all Iranians are nationalist and hate that type of pressure on their own country.

The discourse of Rafsanjani — “we want good relations with the US” — is also not acceptable. And the discourse of his adversary [conservative Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was fully in agreement with the spontaneous position of any Iranian — “Go to hell! If you want to have good relations with us, it’s your problem, you Americans, it’s not our problem.”

The second point is that the relative liberalisation in the time of Rafsanjani of certain aspects of social life, which I do not dislike, was accompanied by neo­liberalism, by increasing inequality.

That is one blatant case. The other case is that of Egypt, in which there is a strong class struggle now. But there is also a growing demand for democracy, basically from the middle classes.

The demands of the workers with respect to trade unions, or of the peasants with respect to cooperatives, are democratic demands, but they are very concretely related to social organisations and the social struggle. They are not general demands, and there is no belief in the validity of elections in those popular circles.

But from the middle class there is this general demand. And they are at the present stage confused, and a minority accept that the West is still an ally in the battle for democracy.

Samir Amin’s latest book The Liberal Virus, Permanent War and the Americanization of the World, is available from Bookmarks bookshop, go to

Peyman Jafari

Let me start with the recent elections that Samir Amin mentioned. A lot of people were taken by surprise by the victory of Ahmadinejad.

The reason was that Ahmadinejad, who is a hardliner, won 62 percent of the vote. This comes after a period of social reform led by the current president Mohammad Khatami, who has now lost his project for reforms.

So what happened? Before coming back to this question I want to point out another reaction, which is the reaction of the White House. The White House has been pressuring the Iranian regime with threats of military attack.

The US has never been and will never be concerned about democracy. They were not concerned about democracy in Iran when they toppled Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the democratically chosen prime minister who nationalised the oil.

They were not concerned about democracy when they supported the dictatorship of the Shah. And they are not concerned about democracy today when they want to get rid of the regime in Iran.

There is a popular explanation which says the recent elections were a coup d’etat. There was large scale fraud, and of over a thousand candidates only seven were allowed to stand.

So this was obviously not a democratic election, but to say it was a coup d’etat is to overestimate the divisions inside the regime, and also to underestimate the large number of people who really voted for Ahmadinejad. There were three reasons for this.

To begin with, Ahmadinejad stressed the fight against poverty and inequality. One in four live under the poverty threshold. The top 10 percent of the population controls three quarters of the national income.

The second factor is that US threats have given the conservatives the excuse to crush the democratic movement.

The third is the failure of the Khatami to bring real reforms. This has disillusioned a lot of people, who boycotted the elections.

But this is not the end for the struggle for democracy in Iran — the contradictions will continue to grow. These contradictions run along two lines.

The first is the contradiction between the theocratic nature of the regime and the popular institutions.

But more important is the other line of contradiction which runs between the ­capitalist interests which are trying to bring neo-liberalism and other interests which try to mobilise the population through populist measures such as wealth redistribution.

In 1989 when Rafsanjani became president he started the process of economic liberalisation. Hundreds of companies were privatised and he struck deals with the IMF and the World Bank. Unemployment rose and subsidies were slashed.

This led to huge riots in the early 1990s. It was Rafsanjani, now the “pragmatic” leader that the West prefers, who gave the orders for police to shoot demonstrators from helicopters killing hundreds.

I think this gives the background to the developments of recent years. The ruling class in Iran has been busy trying to find ways of dealing with the opposition from before. Khatami came to the conclusion that he had to slow down the pace of liberalisation to dampen down the opposition, and try to involve people in the official channels of participation.

But these attempts have failed because they have not been able to challenge the real power structures of Iranian politics. This has been the first limitation of the reformist movement.

The second limitation is that those outside the regime have not been able to link the demands for democratisation to the demands for social progress. This will be the challenge for the left in Iran and in the whole Middle East in coming years.

Peyman Jafari is an Iranian activist living in the Netherlands

Tamer Wagieh

There are two wrong arguments that are put forward about why the Middle East and Egypt are not democratic. The first argument is the “cultural” racist argument. This says that the Middle East and Arabs — because of Islam, because of their culture — are not fit to be democratic.

Even in the streets of Egypt you find some who argue that we need a whip to be governed. This is, of course, nonsense.

The second argument, which is more important, is that Egypt is not democratic because it is not capitalist, or not capitalist enough. The conclusion from this is that we need more capitalism in order for Egypt to be democratic.

The opposite is true — Egypt is not democratic because it is capitalist. Of course it’s not by default that capitalism is not democratic — it depends on the situation.

In Egypt in the past 25 years, and especially since 1991, there has been a persistent pursuit by the ruling class of a neo-liberal agenda. This agenda needed an iron fist to expel workers out of public sector factories, take land from the peasants and liberalise the market.

Imperialism is another factor which explains why Egypt is a dictatorship. The Middle East is a central area for international capitalism, and Egypt is a central country in the Middle East. US imperialism believed that dictators would bring stability.

Egypt receives huge sums of money every year from the US, most of which finances the purchase of arms, which are held in reserve for anything that might happen in Egypt. The Egyptian army has been deployed to quell civil riots inside the country in 1977 and 1986.

But things are now beginning to change. The US is asking whether or not it was right to have a dictatorship, whether it could have another form of regime to serve its interests.

This is because the Egyptian regime is becoming weaker, more corrupt and unable to deliver. A space has opened for those who are struggling for ­democracy.

Things are happening we could never have thought of a year or two ago.

For example a few months ago, the Egyptian judiciary organised a protest saying they would not participate in supervising elections unless laws that govern elections were changed to be truly democratic.

We have a hesitant imperialism, a weakened ruling class and we also have, most importantly for us as socialists, a rising movement. It is not a mass movement, but it has prospects.

This movement goes by the name Kifaya, which means “enough”, and it is growing. Kifaya was the start, but now we have a mushrooming of different movements and fronts.

We have Youth for Change, Women for Change, University Teachers for Change, and every day another five or six people join each other and form a new group.

Everyone is eager to get onto the streets. In the past few months several demos have been organised either in central Cairo or in different suburbs or regions.

In my opinion this is the central movement that can push things forward on all levels. What do we want from this movement as socialists?

The first is for this movement to achieve its immediate goal — democracy. But second for this movement to be able to pave the road for deeper changes in society.

I’d like to end by making some points about how things should be carried forward. The first point is that the democratic movement in Egypt is not as yet united — this needs a fight. The basic problem threatening unity is over the [Islamist] Muslim Brotherhood.

Among the left and among the Arab nationalists there is a high level of scepticism towards the Brotherhood—that they are not democratic, that they are playing a game and so on. This divides the movement to our disadvantage.

We do not seek unity for the sake of it, but we seek it because we want a mass movement.

Also on this front we have problems. Several leaders of the movement are hesitant. They are more concerned with the media than the masses. This is something you can find all over the world.

In addition to fighting for the unity of the movement socialists should fight to be an independent part of that movement that pushes the movement forward.

We have been very active in developing and pushing forward groups such as Youth for Change which are much more connected to the streets.

We have challenges, but I think that if we have a mass movement, a united movement, prospects for deeper change than capitalist democracy can open up for us.

If you have the masses in the streets I don’t think they will call for fair elections and then go back home without calling for bread and butter. So the ­condition for having a deeper movement than capitalist democracy is having a mass movement with a left wing inside it.

The last thing I want to say is that the coming few months are important because we have elections, presidential and parliamentary, in September and October. This will raise the issue of democracy for everybody and raise the issue of relations between democracy and equality on all levels. We have to fight this fight until the very end.

Tamer Wagieh is a leading activist and a member of the Socialist Studies Centre

Ghassan Makarem

I’d like to quote some figures which echo what Samir was saying in the introduction. A world values survey in 2002 asked people if they agreed that democracy was a good form of government.

Some 61 percent of those answering from Arab countries said they did, compared to 52 percent in western Europe and 38 percent in the US, Canada and Australia and New Zealand.

A couple of years ago the United Nations asked whether people supported the bringing of democracy by military intervention. Between 82 percent and 97 percent of the population in Arab countries said no.

So what kind of democracy do we want? The best way to answer this is to talk about what sort of democracy we are trying to build. Lebanon had a civil war between 1975 and 1990. The war destroyed the majority of the country but it did not destroy the vigour of some of the movements in the country.

A couple of years after the war ended demonstrations in opposition to the [Palestinian-Israeli] Oslo Accords were happening all over Beirut. The government ordered soldiers to open fire on the marchers, killing 11 women protesters.

The movement picked up again in 1994. Demonstrations and strikes were able to win a rise in the minimum wage to $200 a month, which was significant. The trade union movement and some of the new left political groups were able to run in the 1996 elections on a broad ticket.

What was interesting about these ­elections was that the Lebanese Communist Party alone received 15 percent of the popular vote, but because we do not have proportional representation they did not get into parliament. Their general secretary got a majority in his district, but while they were recounting the votes they lost a couple of the ballot boxes.

And 1996 was a crucial point in the development of a true democratic movement in the country, both on the left and among the liberal democratic forces. The main campaign was to have local elections — the first since 1963. This was a popular campaign that led us in 1998 to win the right to vote for our municipalities.

Since then we have had several campaigns that drew popular support. The first, and probably the biggest, was the campaign for civil marriage. We live in a sectarian country, and if you’re from a certain religion you cannot marry except under the laws of your own religion.

We had a campaign to lower the voting age to 18 from 21, a campaign against the war on Afghanistan, one for solidarity with Palestine. We had small groups forming film clubs and discussion groups all over the country.

A crucial point was the conference against globalisation in 2001 that allowed for the realignment of the left. Immediately afterwards came the Israeli siege of Ramallah, and here I would like to make a comparison between real democratic movements and the Cedar revolution.

During the siege of Ramallah a group of activists took over the central square in downtown Beirut — the square that was on the TV a few months ago showcasing all the latest Gucci clothes of the Cedar revolution. This “revolution” was dominated by the old sectarian militias, there was no discussion, no democracy.

If you look at what happened in the demonstrations in 2002 and in the anti-war campaign, they were led by both men and women, they allowed the first openly gay and lesbian group in the Arab world to become public, they allowed for a boycott campaign targeting companies that support Israel to start.

On 27 May 2004 workers from all religious sects were demonstrating against rising prices. The government of Rafiq Hariri decided that the only way they could stop them was with the army. Five workers were killed. This is the difference between the Cedar Revolution and the real democratic struggles in Lebanon.

We need to start building a new and true democratic movement in the region.

Ghassan Makarem is a democracy campaigner from Lebanon

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Sat 6 Aug 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1962
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