By Simon Assaf
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A New Left is Born

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Simon Assaf reports on the anti-war movement in the Middle East.
Issue 274

‘Now the anti-war movement has become a movement against occupation in Palestine and Iraq,’ the Al Jazeera correspondent declared from the London demonstration on 12 April. Images of the protest, and the millions out across Europe, punctured the mood of despondency that had gripped the Arab world since the fall of Baghdad. The anti-war movement served notice on the warmongers that they will continue to face deep opposition.

When the people in the small working class town of Umm Qasr greeted invading British and US troops on 19 March with bullets and rockets all perceptions of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ changed. The resistance touched off mass protests across the region. This image was contrasted three weeks later when US marines draped the US flag over the statue of Saddam Hussein. On 9 April people watched in disbelief as Baghdad, a city of over 5 million, fell without a real fight.

The consequences were immediate and unexpected. Angry crowds gathered in universities and on the streets across Lebanon. Chants against the US and Britain, however, degenerated into name calling between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The scenes of Iraqi Kurds fighting alongside US troops also touched off attacks on Kurdish families in Beirut’s poor southern suburbs. It was a black day. The fall of Baghdad was seen as an opportunity to silence dissent. It bodes badly for an Iraq divided between Sunni and Shia, Christian and Muslim, Arab and Kurd.

Saddam Hussein had very few friends in the Arab world. The Ba’athist regime had alienated every section of Arab society over the years. Building an anti-war movement in Lebanon in the run-up to the 15 February global protests exposed how deep this disillusionment had gone. Hezbollah declined all requests to join a national anti-war committee. Arab nationalist and social democratic parties gave the same reply.

But something had changed that the governments in Washington, London and large sections of the Arab establishment failed to grasp–the intifada and the global anti-war movement. The Palestinian uprising, and Israel’s brutal response, had radically altered people’s perceptions. Daily scenes of killings and house demolitions, broken promises and double standards coupled with the huge demonstrations across the world in support of the uprising fuelled a sense of fury and hope–if not protests. The resistance in Umm Qasr suddenly changed that. The ‘mouse’ of the Arab street began to roar. Young protesters fought pitched battles with security forces in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan and Lebanon. There were almost daily attempts to storm the British Embassy in downtown Beirut, scenes repeated in Amman, Cairo, Damascus, Manama, Sanaa and even Tehran.

The protests were unlike ones before the shooting war started. Gone were the small knots of people supporting Saddam–now it was the Iraqi people who were the heroes. Many of the protesters, if not the official organisers, increasingly combined opposition to war with calls for change. The resistance was not Saddam’s resistance, people argued, and hopes grew that a popular struggle in Iraq could also lead to the collapse of pro-American regimes. Demonstrators often chanted, ‘Turn Iraq into Vietnam.’ It was a message our rulers did not want to hear. In Egypt the state responded with mass arrests. In Lebanon the press turned on the left-led anti-war movement. The ‘Al-Safir’ newspaper (the Arab equivalent of the ‘Guardian’) denounced the cries for change as ‘immoral’, and accused the anti-war movement of being in the ‘pay of the Americans’. Delegations from official parties urged us to drop opposition to the regimes. Their requests were firmly rejected, but it gave the green light for attacks, often physical, on the left. Across the region similar events were taking place. The leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood swore to respect ‘law and order’. The call was echoed from minarets, newspapers and government ministries. The regimes took the opportunity to clamp down while they prayed for a ‘short war’.

The anti-war movement across the world has been inspirational, and its impact across the Arab world cannot be overestimated. No longer could the Islamists and Arab nationalists simply talk of an ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ struggle. New heroes appeared–Michael Moore’s denunciation of George W Bush at the Oscars, and Rachel Corrie’s brave attempt to halt the demolitions of Palestinian homes.

The future, however, is unwritten. The deep anger at the US and Britain can go in many directions. A small group of anti-war protesters marching through Beirut on 5 April chanted, ‘From Riyadh to Rabat, Arab governments are nice and sweet. To America they say “Yes”. To us they send police.’ People along the route leaned out of their balconies cheering and throwing rice. The march ended outside a McDonald’s restaurant. We were met by 200 police armed with assault rifles backed up by two lines of army riot squads. Five miles up the road an unknown group planted a bomb in another branch of the fast food chain. Three children were wounded. As news of the attack filtered through the Beirut demonstration melted away. The contrast between mass, popular action and acts of ‘terrorism’ showed the dangers facing the movement.

Baghdad fell. But with it also went many of the perceptions that kept ordinary people quiet for over a quarter of a century. New opportunities are opening up. The fusion of a worldwide anti-war and anti-capitalist movement is giving hope to ordinary Arabs. People suddenly feel they have real allies. But these allies are not roaming the corridors of the White House or Downing Street nor are they among official parties or Arab regimes–it is the global anti-war movement. For the first time in over 50 years the left could break from the old formulation that held that the struggle for national liberation means postponing any demands for change. And as the global backlash against this war grows, so can the movement for real change in the Arab world.

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