On Friday 29 March the Arab world changed. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon sent his troops in the deadliest assault so far on the Palestinians. Tanks surrounded Yasser Arafat’s office, and the massacre of Palestinians began in Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, and countless towns and villages across the West Bank.
A cornered Arafat spoke to the Arab world through the Al-Jazeera satellite television station. ‘I’ll die a martyr,’ he said. ‘We want a million martyrs for Jerusalem.’ That day Al-Jazeera replayed Arafat’s words over live images of Palestinians being gunned down in the streets. Over the next ten days mass protests exploded all over the Middle East, from Jordan to Morocco, Yemen to Lebanon, even Kuwait.
In the Lebanese capital, Beirut, people made their way to the UN building, the traditional meeting place for protests. Within an hour hundreds had gathered. They pushed the police aside and started marching towards the central district. Half an hour later another march formed, then another. Refugees from the camps mingled with students from the elite universities, and the chanting started: ‘A million martyrs for Jerusalem’.
In Cairo, Egypt, students gathered across campuses to hold rallies. An attempt was made to push into the street, but the demonstrators were stopped. Jordanian students also tried and were pushed back. A day later students in both countries succeeded, waging daily pitched battles with the security forces. In Saudi Arabia, where any form of protest is banned, Saudis drove to nearby Qatar to demonstrate. In Bahrain, the major non-Nato US ally and home of the US Fifth Fleet, the US ambassador called on students to observe a minute’s silence for Israelis killed in suicide attacks. The students reacted with fury. By the end of the week one of them was dead, killed by a rubber bullet, and the US embassy was ablaze. The protests spread across the country. In Alexandria, Egypt, thousands attempted to march on an oil executive conference taking place in the new $240 million library. The police lost control and opened fire with shotguns. One young student, Mohammed Ali al-Sayyed al-Saaa, a printer’s son, died. Hundreds were injured and over 60 were arrested. The chants of the protesters also began to change. Now the regime was directly criticised: ‘Mubarak [Egyptian president] you coward, you client of the Americans’ and ‘We want a new government because we have hit rock bottom’.
On Monday 1 April the Israelis cornered 200 Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The pictures on the evening television were of smoke rising from around the church. The pope condemned the Israeli siege. The next day all Catholic schools in Lebanon were on strike. Shi’ite Islamic activists and French-speaking Christian school students marched on the same demonstration. Secondary school students organised meetings and voted to strike. They marched from school to school, and sat down outside Burger King restaurants. In Bahrain the students ransacked a McDonald’s burger bar. In Egypt a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet was set on fire. In Syria unofficial marches began, and the demonstrators clashed with the hated secret police. School students would sing and chant slogans on the way to school.
A summary of the official demonstration figures gives an idea of the scale of the protests. Many were local (village protests and so on), and many went unrecorded: in Yemen 100,000; in Morocco, after days of unofficial protests, 1.5 million; in Syria tens of thousands; in Lebanon hundreds of thousands (almost half the population of the southern city of Sidon marched); in Sudan over 1 million; in Egypt hundreds of thousands; in Kuwait 20,000. Protests appeared for the first time in Saudi Arabia. Two thousand people braved the wrath of the regime to march in the oil capital, Dhahran, even after explicit instructions not to from the government. An opinion poll conducted on the eve of Sharon’s assault found that 60 percent of Saudis hated the US. When asked, ‘Why do you hate America?’ 75 percent said it was because of US support for Israel.
Criticism became more vocal
Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo and issued a strong statement against Sharon but no action. The news was greeted with disdain. Even within the regimes the criticism became more vocal. A respected Jordanian former judge, Mohammed Niemi, mourned publicly, ‘We had hoped that the foreign ministers would take practical steps, like cutting ties with Israel, using oil as a weapon–even as a threat to the Americans.’ What the governments were unwilling to do, the Arab protesters would. A young Egyptian put it more succinctly: ‘Arab regimes must understand that they can be changed. The anger is such that it is giving the people the power to overturn regimes that do not listen to their demands.’
A shaken Mubarak addressed the nation on television. He said that Washington had a ‘special responsibility’ to rein Israel in: ‘That is why I sent two messages to American president George Bush…urging the American administration to exert its maximum effort and use all its diplomatic power.’
Bush made a statement that called on Israel to withdraw ‘without delay’, but he saved his harshest words for Arafat. ‘The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making,’ Bush said. The president ordered the embattled Palestinian leader to denounce terrorism ‘in Arabic’. Then he dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to Jerusalem–via Spain, Morocco and Jordan. The journey took more than a week.
As it became obvious that the US was unwilling to stop the massacre, and the Arab regimes unable, the demands of the protests began to focus around oil. Chants of ‘Cut the oil’, and denunciations of the Arab kings and dictators began to resound across the region. In a typical case of rhetoric the Iranian hardline spiritual leader Ali Khamenei declared, ‘The oil belongs to the people, and can be a weapon against the west and those countries who support the savage regime of Israel.’ He never made good on his promise. When Iraq suspended oil supplies, other oil producers rushed to increase production. Both radical and conservative regimes were exposed as frauds. The lessons were not lost on the demonstrators. A sign in Beirut read, ‘Iran and Saudi Arabia–why did you not cut oil?’
The regimes were in a panic. The protests were running out of control. Arab leaders were phoning the White House, begging Bush to do something. In Lebanon politicians and the official parties decided to call an official demonstration to head off the anger. On the same day the small groups on the Lebanese left initiated a march on the US embassy, tucked in the Christian heartland of Awkar. The official march ended in a rally. Brave speeches were made, but the chants of ‘Awkar! Awkar!’ grew louder. Young demonstrators, often still in their school uniforms, held impromptu meetings. They voted to join the embassy demonstrations and then commandeered taxi buses. For four hours a pitched battle raged outside the embassy. A week later they returned and fought the security forces in the biggest riot since the early 1970s.
Across the region Arab rulers offered strong words of condemnation against Israel and the US, but they turned the forces of the state on the demonstrators. In Bahrain a school student demonstration of 2,000 was teargassed and some 500 were hospitalised. In Jordan, Queen Rania wore a kaffiyeh and headed an official march. Yet the next day thousands of troops flooded the streets, and the organisers called off what was billed as the biggest protest yet. In an angry meeting the official organisers were denounced. ‘You are in bed with the government,’ a young activist shouted. ‘We succeeded when we demonstrated without your organisation.’ In Saudi Arabia $100 million was raised for the Palestinians, yet the Dhahran protest organisers, Sheikh Abdul Hamid al-Sheikh al-Mubarak, head of the Popular Committee of Support for Palestine, and his 22 year old son, were arrested. The movement had reached a crossroads. The Arab regimes decided to smash the protests while presenting themselves as the Palestinians’ saviours.
Then Jenin fell under Israeli occupation. The optimism evaporated. Despite all efforts the Israelis, the US and their Arab allies had succeeded in attacking the Palestinian resistance. It was a bitter day.
We have, however, learnt an important lesson. The protests were spontaneous, often starting in schools and universities. In Lebanon and Egypt the left played an important role. An Egyptian security official blamed the violent protests on ‘socialists, Communists and Trotskyites…there is no religion in all of [these protests]. The religious groups are very smart–they know not to cross the line.’ In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood usually organises protests, but there is an unofficial agreement with the police to keep the demonstrations within bounds. The line was crossed. The new left summed up their approach. ‘The road to Jerusalem is through Cairo,’ one activist said.
In Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain the Islamic opposition took the leading role, but the nature of the demonstrations (the number of women and young girls) proved that they were usually reacting to pressures from below. In Jordan the Islamic opposition lost control and incurred the wrath of the youth when it called off the protests.
International solidarity also played an important role. When anti-capitalists and anti-globalisation activists rallied to Arafat’s compound they were seen as heroes by the demonstrators. Where Arab nationalism and Islamism were found wanting, the left and the youth threw themselves into action. A new era is opening up in the Arab world.
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The rebirth of the left
Spontaneous protests have spread like wildfire throughout the region. Some young left wing activists who organised the Beirut anti-globalisation conference in November took the initiative, and pulled in most of the other left groups. They staged a sit-in (street occupation) in Martyrs Square that has become permanent. The scale of the protests took the government by surprise, and as news of similar demonstrations filtered through it became clear that we were witnessing the rebirth of the left.
We decided to start a newsletter. The main argument we had with the sit-in was that it needed an independent voice. The argument was settled the next day when we sold out of our newsletter in one hour (200 copies). We reprinted and sold out again (another 100 copies). The main thrust of the first issue was agitation. There was a call to spread the demonstrations and organise locally. The centre pages were pictures of demonstrations around the world, and the back page was a copy of the letter to the Egyptian and Jordanian embassies. Finally there was a ‘dawa’ or invitation for people to join the sit-in.
The big parties finally called a huge demonstration in the centre of town. The sit-in called for a march on the US embassy. All schools went on strike. On the official demonstration the left and the school students led a breakaway march. The anti-US demonstration turned into a big riot.
In issue two of our newsletter we had an analysis of the visit by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a call for more demonstrations. We widened the scope of the paper to include quotes from activists. We also included a rundown of all the protests to date. We sold this issue more widely and were astounded by the response (over 500 copies were sold).
Then Jenin fell, and the news of deaths in Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain, plus the regional move to direct the anger into safe channels, sapped our confidence. A row developed over whether we should fold the sit-in. We decided to carry on.
We also decided that we had to shift gears and cement our relations with people we had met. We returned to the sit-in and found that it had turned into an event (of art films and so on). We felt it had lost its organising role, although it was still a big attraction. We also decided to widen the editorial committee of the paper and pushed for a harder line on the Arab leaders, especially over the issue of cutting oil.
Issue three of our newsletter contained articles written from the camps, denouncing the Jenin betrayal. We argued the left had to relate to the official demonstrations and patiently argue with ordianary people about the way forward. We also attacked both the ‘radical’ and conservative regimes, denouncing Iran and Libya for not cutting oil, and arguing that our rulers, the US and Israel shared a common goal–the end of the Intifada–because they feared it would spread and consume them.
The main article focused on answering the argument that the oil weapon was not as effective as in 1973. We brought in arguments about the Venezuelan strike, the recession, and so on. We underlined the argument with facts and quotes, and focused on the decision of the Saudi regime to pump more oil. The headline on the front page was ‘Stop The Massacre–Cut The Oil’.
We are now seriously talking about a proper monthly political magazine and pushing for a meeting to discuss forming a new network. The movement from below has re-emerged. It was triggered by two events–the huge demonstration in Saudi Arabia and the Powell mission. On Saturday morning school students started marching again, and the sit-in has once more turned into an organising centre. We are drawing a deep breath and expecting another week of protests.
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