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Is an Arab revolution on the agenda?

This article is over 15 years, 4 months old
The Middle East is seething with anger following Israel’s attack on Lebanon. Anne Ashford gives a historical perspective on the possibility of radical change across the region
Issue 2014

“The Arab people now consider Hizbollah to be heroes because they are confronting the enemy [Israel] and protecting their land… Even if Hizbollah were destroyed, another Hizbollah would emerge within a year or two somewhere else – maybe in Jordan, in Syria, in Egypt or in Iraq.”

Perhaps when he spoke these words King Abdullah of Jordan was thinking of his father’s comments when, in 1968, 200 Palestinian fedayeen (fighters) fought the Israeli army at the Jordanian town of Karameh: “We are all fedayeen now.”

Back then, the fact that Palestinians had taken up arms to fight for their own liberation electrified the Arab world. It stood in contrast to the rout of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

Yet four decades later, Israel still occupies Palestine and US clients are in power in from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

For all its heroism, the struggle of the Palestinian nationalist movement also shows the limits of national liberation. In 1968 Yasser Arafat led the fedayeen at Karameh. In 1993, his Fatah movement accepted a peace deal which left most of Palestine under Israeli occupation.

In 2006, tired of compromises and corruption, Palestinian voters kicked Fatah out of office in favour of the Islamist group Hamas.

The Egyptian revolution followed a similar pattern. A rebellion in 1952 ended the era of direct imperialist control by Britain. But following the catastrophic defeat of nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1967 war, Egypt’s rulers scurried to embrace neo?liberalism, allied themselves with the US and made peace with Israel.

Alone, Egypt was no military match for an Israeli regime armed and financed by the US. Alone, Egypt’s experiment in state-run “socialism” could not survive the pressures of a global economy.

Common interests

Nasser, of course, would have agreed. He dreamed of breaking down borders drawn by chance and colonial whim, uniting Arabs in a new regional ­superstate, based on a ­common language, cultural affinity and a shared history of struggle against imperialism.

Today, many Islamist activists argue for an anti-imperialist movement uniting Muslims across the globe – crossing national borders, and transcending divisions of race and language.

These projects assume Arabs or Muslims share a common interest in fighting imperialism. But in reality Arab and Muslim societies are divided by class, and this basic fact shapes the lives of ordinary people across the Middle East.

Three decades of neo-liberalism have created societies more polarised than ever between rich and poor. The interests of capitalists and the state are enmeshed. Financial “reform” means cheap loans for big business, privatisation hands state resources to companies owned by the children of government ministers, while development projects siphon money to corporate shareholders.

The Egyptian ruling class may be a junior partner in global capitalism, but it has no stake in the demise of the current economic system.

Hizbollah’s conception of the struggle between oppressors and oppressed, of a dividing line within every society, makes more sense in our globalised world than the idea of a united Arab nation confronting an external aggressor. Yet even this conception has its problems.

Siding with the oppressed is vital, but only recognising their oppression ignores the unique power that ­ordinary people have to transform society. The mass of people have the power to ­create a different world, not because they are downtrodden but because they are workers.

It is workers who keep the oil flowing through the pipelines of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, workers who take ships along the Suez Canal, workers who bake bread, drive trains, serve fries at McDonald’s and sweep the floors of tourists’ hotel rooms.

This labour supports the economy of every Middle Eastern state, and therefore the stability of every Middle Eastern government.

The working class is the only force in society that can escape the limits of national liberation, because it also challenges the rule of imperialism’s internal allies – the powerful local elites in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In many countries the working class – those dependent on waged employment – are a minority in societies composed mainly of peasants, small traders and other groups.

It was Leon Trotsky who, in his analysis of the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, showed how organised workers in modern industry could become the core of a wider revolutionary movement.

Their concentration in key economic sectors and large workplaces could compensate for their small number, and allow them to lead other oppressed groups in revolutionary struggle.

Trotsky argued that no other class could achieve this. The Russian middle class was too weak and cowardly, and the peasantry was too divided to play such a role.

The same points apply to Egypt today. The ruling class has no interest in confronting imperialism. Sections of the middle class might wish for greater democratic freedom and less US domination of the region, but they lack the collective economic power of organised workers.

Just as in Russia, it will fall to ­workers to win national liberation in the Middle East. Imagine if general strikes stopped Saudi oil flowing to the West, brought Cairo and Baghdad to a standstill and halted US warships on the Suez Canal. And why stop there?

Under workers’ control, the resources of the Middle East could be channelled into healthcare and education, instead of weapons systems, international debt repayments and the luxury lifestyles of the elite.

When workers lead struggles for democracy or against imperialism, those struggles raise the possibility of socialist revolution.

Trotsky how the potential existed for “the democratic revolution to grow over immediately into the socialist”. And such revolutions can spread across borders. Trotsky dubbed this process “permanent revolution”.

This is not a pipe dream. There are countless examples showing the power of workers in the Middle East.

In 1979, it was a strike by oil workers, together with a rebellion in the armed forces, which overthrew the Shah of Iran. His dictatorship was described by Washington as the “second pillar” of their domination of the region, Israel being the first.

In 1991, Egypt signed a structural adjustment programme drawn up by the International Monetary Fund which among other things abolished subsidies on basic food items. Riots forced the government to bring back the bread subsidy.

The democracy movement in Egypt, known as Kifaya (“enough”), recently called on Egyptian oil workers to stop supplying Israel with the energy it needs to wage war on Lebanon.

A new left

Across the Arab world a new left is beginning to emerge. Inevitably it has been forced to address issues raised by the failure of the Arab nationalist revolutions of the 1950s and of Arafat’s Fatah movement.

Translating the potential for working class power into reality means bridging the gap between the small forces of organised revolutionaries and the millions of people radicalised by political and economic crisis.

This is a question socialists in the Middle East have grappled with since the 1940s. Tragically, they did not always find the right answer. Sometimes the left stood aloof from the struggle for national liberation because it was not under their control. More commonly, they substituted other social forces for the leadership of the working class.

Communists in Egypt dissolved themselves into Nasser’s state-run party, arguing that independent working class organisation was an obstacle to national unity. They saw the state under nationalist leadership as the main vehicle in the fight against imperialism.

In reality the opposite is true. Only an international movement, linking together workers across the Arab world and beyond, has the strength to defeat imperialism.

Today imperialist war in the Middle East has the potential to bring all classes outside the narrow ruling elite into conflict with the current political system. This creates the possibility of a broad unity of forces ranged against imperialism and its local allies.

But unless the working class, organised independently, wins leadership of this broader movement, the rebellions will follow the same path to defeat as those in the 1950s and 1960s.

To read Leon Trotsky on permanent revolution go to

To read Israel: The Hijack State, John Rose’s classic pamphlet on Israel, Palestine and the possibilities of Arab revolution, go to

For more ideas call Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, on 020 7637 1848 or go to

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