ISRAEL'S WAR on the Palestinians is spreading convulsions across the Arab world. Popular outrage from Morocco, on the Atlantic coast of North Africa, to Jordan, in the heart of the Middle East, is pouring out against the US and Israel. More worrying for the corrupt rulers of the Arab regimes, anger on university campuses and on the streets is turning against them too. This is all taking place in a region which the world's most powerful state, the US, sees as vital to its global domination.
The Middle East is the key to the world's oil supplies, with two thirds of proven world reserves. The US's attitude to Israel, and its support for reactionary Arab regimes, are both rooted in its drive to ensure the oil is under its control. Zbigniew Brzezinksi was the US national security adviser under president Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.
He wrote earlier this month that 'for more than half a century the Middle East has been strategically vital to the United States' national interest.' Above all, he argued, the US wanted 'stable access to the region's oil resources. In recent years the centrality of that role was underscored by the American military action against Iraq.'
Mass revolt across the Middle East is the spectre which threatens US rulers' grip on the region's oil.
'Protests bring hatred of regimes to surface'
A MILLION people took to the streets of the Moroccan capital, Rabat, two weeks ago in solidarity with the Palestinians. The march had all-party support, including the government, which felt it had to echo the popular mood even though it is a model 'moderate Arab' regime. Even so, the Moroccan prime minister had to take refuge in Rabat's main railway station after young demonstrators pushed him about.
The British media did report that march. But it ignored the unofficial spontaneous demonstrations by high school students in the days before it. Similar spontaneous protests, some clashing with the police, have been taking place across the Middle East.
On the day Israel launched its attacks, thousands of Syrians gathered outside the UN office in the capital, Damascus, to shout pro-Palestinian slogans. Protests have grown since. Parties that are barely legal or are excluded from power under Syria's military regime have joined them.
The banners and flags reflect the competing political voices. There are images of Che Guevara, the left wing guerrilla fighter of the 1960s, pictures of the leader of the Lebanese Islamist movement Hizbollah, flags of the oppressed Kurdish minority, and others.
There are none of Syrian leader Bashar Al Asad. For the protesters, his words of condemnation of Israel are not enough. The protests are bringing hatred of his regime to the surface. The first leaflets for the protests called simply for support for the Palestinians. Then they began calling for the release of political prisoners in Syria.
A bigger wave of protest has swept neighbouring Lebanon. Over 1,000 doctors, lawyers and engineers marched to the US embassy in the capital, Beirut, earlier this month. A demonstration by young people outside the embassy two days earlier was more militant. Over 2,000 protesters stoned security forces.
Some 15,000 people marched in the port city of Sidon. The population of Lebanon is only four million. The march is equivalent to a quarter of a million marching in Manchester. There are similar protests in Egypt itself. It is the largest Arab state, with a population of 57 million.
It has also been a crucial US ally since the mid-1970s. The current regime of president Hosni Mubarak rests upon a fearsome security apparatus. It has not stopped what the Cairo Times calls 'the longest period of student activism in Egypt since the 1990-91 Gulf War, if not before'.
History of struggle
THERE IS a history of revolutionary struggle in the Middle East.
- 1952: British-backed king of Egypt overthrown by radical free officers movement led by Gamal Abdul Nasser. Not a socialist movement but inspired wave of support for struggles to free Arab states from US-domination.
- 1958: King of Iraq toppled. Radical regime of Abdul Karim Qassim comes to power. Western powers conspire to overthrow him.
- 1977: Millions strike and take to the streets in Egypt against economic policies of Nasser's successor.
- 1979: Shah of Iran, a key pillar of Western interests in the Middle East, driven out by revolution. Left wing and Islamist forces vie for influence over the next two years, before Ayatollah Khomeini comes to power.
To Jerusalem via Cairo
PROTESTS IN Egypt have seen thousands of students break the ban on marching outside their campuses. The Cairo Times reports, 'The demonstrators' slogans started out condemning Israel, but not long into each rally the Egyptian government came in for criticism as well.
''I've been an activist for years,' said one student, 'and I've never seen them attack Mubarak so directly.' 'The usual chants reviling Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are now regularly supplemented with: 'Mubarak, you coward, you are the client of the Americans,' or 'We want a new government because we've hit rock bottom'.'
The government is uncertain how to respond. It has tried to prevent militant demonstrations leaving the campuses but has allowed more moderate rallies surrounded by a heavy police presence. Police killed at least one student, Muhammad Ali Al Saqqa, and wounded 260 others when they fired on a 9,000-strong demonstration in the city of Alexandria two weeks ago.
The strongest force on Egyptian campuses since the 1980s has been the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Its main aim has been to influence the regime to introduce its version of Islamic law.
The Brotherhood continues to enjoy support among students. But new forces are gaining an audience.
The Cairo Times writes: 'Usually the Brotherhood has been more interested in spreading its influence by providing social services and encouraging its particular brand of public morality than in stirring up protest in the street. For this reason it appears to be a fledgling movement of campus 'socialists' and to a lesser extent supporters of the old-guard secular Nasserist party who have been galvanising the students. The Brotherhood can mobilise more students to create a bigger demonstration, but they won't clash with the police.'
It goes on to quote a state security officer who says the Brotherhood activists could not have been leading the militant demonstration in Alexandria, adding: 'Others familiar with the student movements concur -the Brotherhood activists are under strict instructions not to face off with the police.'
By contrast the left wing protesters 'target the Mubarak regime directly, asserting that reform must happen in Egypt before Palestine can be saved. ''The road to Jerusalem runs through Cairo,' as one activist explained.'
New forces emerge
THE SIGNIFICANCE of the protests lies not just in the numbers taking part. The only mass demonstrations so far have been those that have had a degree of government support, such as in Morocco. The largely student unofficial protests have been much smaller and are yet to connect with the mass of workers and the poor.
But they are beginning to develop the kind of ideas that can pose a challenge to the Arab regimes, US imperialism, and Israel's occupation of Palestine. Those regimes have often mouthed opposition to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
At the same time they have cooperated with the US as junior partners in the exploitation of the people of the region and its oil. They have used fake concern for the suffering in Palestine to deflect the bitterness of their own populations. Many of the Arab regimes have also wrapped themselves in socialist rhetoric, but now openly pursue neo-liberal policies.
The hypocrisy and corruption fed support for Islamist political movements of varying stripes throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those movements have compromised with the regimes. The Jordanian Islamist opposition called off a planned mass demonstration two weeks ago after appeals from the government.
Elsewhere more militant elements have split and turned to terror tactics. That has cut them off from mass support. Against that background a new generation of activists, inspired by the global outlook of the anti-capitalist movement, is turning to ideas of mass struggle.
A week debating all the key issues on the left | 5-12 July | central London
With Haidi Guiliani, Susan George, Alex Callinicos, Mike Davis, Jeremy Corbyn, Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, Liz Davies, Mark Serwotka, Paul Foot, Steven Rose, Lindsey German, Mike Rosen and thousands more. Join them!
phone 020 7538 2707 www.swp.org.uk/marxism e-mail [email protected]