Socialist Worker

The Middle East’s history of resistance

by Simon Assaf
Issue No. 2013

The last time the Arab world saw such radicalism was in the 1950s and 1960s when a struggle against colonialism and imperialism looked like it could herald a new era for the region.

Revolutions were carried out under the banner of Arab nationalism. In Iraq the British imposed king was swept away in 1958. In Egypt the radical Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power on the back of a wave of discontent.

Popular revolutions swept Syria, Yemen, Libya and Algeria, while Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were shaken by mass uprisings.

These reached every level of society, threatening to sweep away the colonial regimes imposed by France and Britain after the First World War and the class of landlords and factory owners who cooperated with imperialism.

At the heart of these movements were the Arab working class often led by the Communist parties.

But the Communists, closely tied to the Soviet Union, derailed the movements. They painted the nationalist movements that emerged in the struggle against imperialism as socialist movements.

This meant that in Egypt the Communists dissolved themselves into Nasser’s party, while in Iraq they accommodated to the new nationalist regime, before being crushed.

The Algerian movement that swept away French rule in 1962 was halted in 1965 when the popular independence leader Ahmed Ben Bella was deposed in a coup.

Dissent was crushed and the promise of democracy replaced with a one party state modelled on state capitalism in the Soviet Union.

The revolutions swept away the old order, yet stopped short of radical change. Colonialism was defeated but capitalism remained.

The new regimes made their peace with imperialism.

By 1967 the left was driven into the ground, while the promise of Arab revolution was shattered by Israel when it defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six Day War.

Throughout the 1970s the regimes implemented a series of austerity programmes triggering mass protests.

In 1977 Egypt was rocked by weeks of rioting after the IMF imposed price rises. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the Arab regimes signed up to neo-liberalism. In 1988 anger exploded in a mass uprising in Algeria.

By the 1990s the heirs of the Arab revolutions began to privatise state industries, the new owners drawn from the ranks of bureaucrats and their children.

Today Egypt boasts hundreds of millionaires, while the mass of ordinary people have sunk deeper into poverty. The same dictators, or their sons, are still in control.

Yet the movements that promised change half a century ago refuse to die. In 2002 millions took to the streets across the region in protest at the Israeli invasion of the West Bank. Riot police battered the demonstrations.

As Lebanon and Palestinians face the might of the Israeli army, resistance is once exposing the lies of the Arab regimes. This resistance threatens to sweep them away.

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