Socialist Worker

Democracy and revolution in the Arab world

by Phil Marfleet
Issue No. 2013

A poster from the Lebanese national movement in the 1970s calls for resistence to Israel

A poster from the Lebanese national movement in the 1970s calls for resistence to Israel

“How long before there’s a revolution?” This question was asked by the journalist Robert Fisk in the Independent last week as he considered the implications for the Arab world of the turmoil in Lebanon.

Rulers of the Arab states are increasingly afraid, he suggested, while the people are gaining in confidence - and one outcome could be radical change in the region.

In Lebanon the army has largely stood by while the Hizbollah guerillas fight. A movement born in the villages and slums of Lebanon has fought the strongest military force in the Middle East.

What’s the point of a Lebanese government and its army when they can’t or won’t oppose occupation?

Why listen to talk of democracy on the US model when resistance comes in the form of a guerrilla force made up of labourers and teachers?

During the past month the Lebanese state has disappeared. The other Arab states have been absent too.

Millions of people have noted the inaction of their rulers in the face of Israel’s onslaught and have drawn the conclusion that their regimes are also part of a political crisis that grips the region.

In Egypt daily demonstrations support the Lebanese resistance - and oppose president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Last week in Cairo thousands shouted, “Long live Lebanon and Palestine”, “Today it’s Lebanon, tomorrow it will be Egypt” and “Down with Mubarak”.

The demonstrators run a high risk. Mubarak has a long record of attacking public protests with great brutality.


But protests have taken place across the country - in Fayoum, south of Cairo, in the northern city of Mansoura, where 20,000 people participated and in Beheira province.

For the Egyptian protesters Mubarak’s complicity with the US and Israel is linked directly to his domestic policies. Mubarak cuts deals with an Israeli state that brutalises Palestinians and Lebanese.

At the same time he increases prices of basic foods and fuel, pushing millions towards the poverty line. This is the outcome of Mubarak’s commitment to the neo-liberal policies that the US insists should be imposed worldwide.

Last week the Cairo demonstrators also chanted, “Neither the World Bank nor the CIA will control us.”

The Mubarak regime is vital to US plans for a “new” Middle East - Bush wants similarly compliant governments in Iraq, Iran and Syria.

But the example of Egypt shows that US plans are a threat to all the people of the region.

The majority of Egyptians hold Mubarak in contempt.

He and his “fat cats” are under increasing pressure from a democracy movement that includes all political currents and extends into the state machine itself. Even senior judges have contested the regime’s corruption.

Is this the model for a new “democratic” Middle East - or the circumstances under which a different sort of change can take place, one which challenges imperialism and its favourite state, Israel?

In the mid-1970s US strategists had unlimited confidence in another favoured ally, the Shah of Iran. They provided arms and trained his vast apparatus of repression.

In 1977 protests began among the poorest people in Iran’s cities. A mass movement deposed the Shah 18 months later.


The whole of society rose against tyranny, with prolonged strikes led by oil workers, whose power paralysed the regime.

Such changes are possible in Egypt and elsewhere in the region - especially in the Gulf, where pro-Western regimes maintain control without even the pretence of democratic participation.

But events may follow a different direction - as shown by the last episode of radical mass action across the Arab world.

In 1987 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank launched an intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation.

Within days there were demonstrations of solidarity in Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Tunisia and Iraq.

In Sudan there was a general strike. In Egypt textile workers in Mehalla al-Kubra called for the regime to break links with Israel and the US. During battles with riot police they demanded an end to Mubarak’s rule.

Egypt’s rulers understood the implications of a movement that had spread fast to the industrial cities.

The interior minister declared, “I will sever any foot that attempts to take part in the demonstrations.”

But protests continued for weeks, met with increasing force until the army and riot police restored control.

The Egyptian regime survived, but soon the movement spread across North Africa.

In Algeria thousands of demonstrators declared an “Algerian intifada” - the

prelude to another period of mass protests and strikes which eventually led to electoral defeat of the regime.

Such events demonstrate how quickly solidarity movements such as those with Palestine and Lebanon can focus attention on injustice at home and on the need for change.

But their outcome is tied closely to the strategy of those involved. Are they determined, as in Iran, to remove a tyranny?

Are they able to spread the movement from small activist groups to the wider population? What is their relationship with the workers’ movement and its power to bring radical change?

In the light of the Iranian revolution Arab activists have other questions to ask. Can they help to stimulate a mass movement and maintain their own independence?

Can they learn the lessons of the rise and fall of the Iranian movement, which brought a new repression into being?

What is the relationship between Islamist organisations and those who follow a secular, socialist strategy?

Confidence in the possibility of change is growing across the Middle East. The key issue for activists across the region is what form this will take.

Israel’s warmongers will meanwhile be watching anxiously.

Nothing worries them more than a democratic mass movement ready to settle scores with its own rulers and with those who occupy Palestine.

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Sat 12 Aug 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2013
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