To mark one year since the start of popular protests in Tunisia, Joseph Daher, co-author of ‘The People Demand: a short history of the Arab Revolutions’, examines the continuing Arab revolutions and the challenges they face.
It is one year since the revolutionary process in the Middle East and north Africa began. We can now observe a struggle between the counter-revolutionary forces of Western imperialists and their regional clients, led by Saudi Arabia, and the popular movements.
The counter-revolutionary forces are trying to stop the wind of change led by the popular movements, and limit it to superficial issues: "everything must change so that everything can stay the same". Let’s examine how the struggle between these two opposite forces has developed.
The counter-revolutionary forces
The US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have used various ways to try to limit changes and preserve their economic and political interests. The Western military intervention in Libya, led by the US, UK and France, has been especially important for re-asserting Western influence and undermining the revolutionary movement, corralling a popular uprising into serving foreign interests. But the counter-revolution hasn’t been limited to Libya.
Saudi Arabia has attempted to secure itself against any contagion of protests. In a few weeks in early 2011, the Saudi Kingdom spent 214 billion dollars on its own citizens. In a country where 44% of the university graduates are unemployed, 60,000 posts in the Ministry of Interior were created. This was motivated by fear of protests (the country witnessed a few popular protests, but at a low level).
The Saudi-led Gulf Co-operation Council has provided military, financial and political assistance to a number of regimes which were witnessing popular protests. In March the joint forces of the GCC intervened militarily in Bahrain in order to crush the popular movement.
At the same time the GCC was also creating a development fund of 20 billion dollars to help Bahrain and Oman, another country beset by protests. Ten billion dollars were offered to each country to upgrade their housing and infrastructure over 10 years. The GCC has also promised to deal "firmly" with any threat to the safety of one of its members.
The Qatari government allocated US$500 million to support Egypt's general budget, while increasing its investments in Egypt with US$10 billion. In Yemen, the Saudi kingdom is trying to impose a deal on the Yemenis in order to perpetuate Saleh’s regime, while Saleh himself continues influencing events from behind the scenes in Yemen itself or from the Saudi kingdom.
Qatar was heavily engaged in overthrowing Gaddafi and assisting the Transitional National Council (TNC) forces by sending them arms, oil and money. Qatar Special Forces had, for example, trained the TNC’s "Tripoli Brigade", while it is working behind closed doors in the formation of the new Libyan government to have its close allies in top positions.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have financially supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al Nahda in Tunisia during the elections. Both parties do not challenge the interests of the Western imperialists and their clients in the region, while they want to limit the political, social and economic consequences of the revolutions.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s behaviour towards SCAF (the ruling army council) since the fall of Mubarak in February has been characterised by collaboration. The MB Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie urged Egyptians on several occasions to support SCAF - and he praised its role in ‘protecting the revolution’ and ‘backing the people’.
The Muslim Brotherhood has insisted that that any difference in views should not turn into a confrontation and that there should be co-operation between the military council, interim government and elected parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood has approved of the ruling SCAF's opposition to strikes, going a step further by attempting to force an end to teachers’ strikes in some governorates in September.
In relation to Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the attack on Israel’s embassy a few months ago; while in their election manifesto they said that Egypt’s international agreements must be upheld, presumably including those with Israel.
Al Nahda, meanwhile, does not want to challenge the Tunisian debt and the current economic system. They have declared their intentions to respect the various agreements with international financial and EU institutions, while the leader of the party, Rachid Ghannouchi, repeatedly stated these past few months that demands for higher salaries are counter-revolutionary at this point in time.
Rachid Ghannouchi met Israelis discreetly in Washington during his trip and said that Tunisia’s constitution would not ban further contacts between Tunisia and Israel.
The US has also been very active since the beginning of the revolutions. In May, President Obama made two speeches symbolizing the reaction of imperialist powers to Arab revolutions which are challenging their political and economic interests and above all of their close ally Israel.
On 19 May, Obama’s main message was that the United States and the West will pour billions of dollars into the Middle East in support of Egypt, Tunisia and other countries “embracing democracy”. This financial assistance was not in order to promote democracy but to co-opt Arab revolutions and protect US interests in the region.
Two days before this speech, Obama was pledging several hundred millions of dollars in aid to King Abdullah of Jordan, even though that country had recently repressed popular demonstrations. In relation to Egypt, Obama announced he would provide a debt relief of as much as $1 billion, along with a new $1billion credit, while the Egyptian military regime was at the same time accused of pursuing torture and arrests against opponents.
Egypt and Tunisia were invited to the G8 summit by the imperialist powers to discuss events in the Middle East and North Africa, while the IMF and the World Bank have also been more and more active towards both countries, suggesting new loans and so called financial assistance.
The US financial assistance is a way to guarantee that these countries will pay their debt, instead of financing social projects, to International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, and therefore remain heavily influenced by these neo-liberal institutions. They can pursue the implementation of their policies impoverishing the people as a whole.
The US has also provided Egyptian authorities with the means to suppress protesters, according to a report by Amnesty International. From November 19 to 26, 42 people were killed and over 3000 injured by gunfire while they were protesting peacefully to demand the transfer of power from the military to the civilians. The American company Combined Systems, based in Pennsylvania, is known to have delivered at least seven tonnes of riot ammunition for the Egyptian interior ministry.
The imperialist powers and the counter-revolutionary forces reacted quickly, following the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and have tried to stop or limit any perspective of deep changes in the region. The various revolutionary processes are nevertheless far from being over because of the will of the different popular movements to continue their revolutions until they achieve their full aspirations.
The continuing revolutions
Across the region, there have been movements unwilling to limit themselves to mild reforms or superficial changes provided by the different regimes trying to protect their interests (with the help of the imperialists and their client regimes).
In Yemen tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to reject the US-supported GCC deal. “Our Revolution Continues” was the name given to the Friday rally when the popular movement rejected the “compromise” agreement between President Saleh and the established opposition. The Yemenis refused to accept a deal that provided immunity to the regime.
In Egypt, the popular movement has continued the struggle. The statement of labour activist Fatma Ramadan symbolized this will to go forward despite the elections results:
“We are undeterred by parliamentary elections; the battle for parliament is only part of the struggle. The street is where our main fight lies. We demand the right to freely unionize, an end to the law criminalizing strikes, a minimum and maximum wage, the restart of stalled factories and the rehiring of their workers, an increase in pensions and adequate health care”.
It was the wave of coordinated nationwide strikes and protests, such as those organised by postal workers and teachers, coupled with industry and sector-wide coordinated action of sugar workers and workers in the Cairo Public Transport Authority, which were a major cause of the paralysis which gripped the military regime in September, and thus helped pave the way for the uprising of November.
In Tunisia, it was the sit-in of the Bardo that raised pressures on political parties and especially Al Nahda to adopt several measures such as the promise to include the Personal Status Code as a fundamental law rather than as an ordinary law. The sit-in of Bardo involved many organizations of civil society, delegations of the unemployed in the mining area (Gafsa & other regions), activists of the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET), political parties and independent citizens, etc. It aimed to put pressure on members of the National Constituent Assembly to accomplish the goals of the revolution.
Social mobilisations have been ongoing as well. The Union of Graduate Unemployed (UGU) and revolutionary leftist parties are at the heart of these mobilizations. At the beginning of October the UGU organized a national meeting attended by about 500 graduate students and unemployed. Their main demands were around social and political emancipation.
In the middle of August, the mobilisations promoted and led by leftists, unions members, lawyers and UDC reached a peak gathering more than ten thousand demonstrators in Tunis. They were protesting against the release, with the complicity of the judiciary and the current Prime Minister, of some representatives of the old regime.
In Syria, the revolutionary momentum and the protests are still ongoing despite the harsh and violent repression of the regime, although the Syrian National Council is highly reliant on co-operation with Western powers. The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) has called for the open-ended “Strike for Dignity,” which it described as the first step in a civil disobedience campaign to bring down Assad’s regime. They call for sit-ins at work, and the closure of shops and universities, before the shutdown of transportation networks and a general public sector strike.
In Bahrain, protests are still going on but on much a lower scale than in the beginning of the year. Despite the military intervention of the GCC led by Saudi Arabia and the repression of the Bahraini regime, the protesters have not abandoned the struggle.
In Libya, the Western intervention changed the character of the popular movement and served as a major setback for the wider revolutionary movement across the region. The overthrow of Gaddafi was of a completely different nature to the overthrows of Ben Ali and Mubarak.
More optimistically, there is increasing opposition to the new government appointed by the TNC. Hundreds of Libyans demonstrated on 12 December in Benghazi, to denounce the opaque functioning of the TNC. The demonstrators chanted "Benghazi wake up", “the people want a new revolution," "the people want to overthrow the TNC” on the Al-Chajari square in the centre of Benghazi, which saw the first demonstrations against the regime of ex leader Muammar Gaddafi on 15 February. The protesters took to the streets and they said they want to correct the process of the revolution.
The demonstrators attacked mainly Moustapha Abdeljalil and Abdelhafidh Ghoga, both key leaders of the TNC. A few weeks ago, the Amazigh revolutionaries refused to recognize the new government, because it did not acknowledge their rights. Social demands are increasingly being raised, both in the regions that were most deprived under the former regime, and in the heart of the capital.
The permanent mobilisation of the masses is the only way to protect these various revolutionary processes and to achieve victory against the authoritarian regimes supported by the imperialists and their clients. In the face of counter revolutionary reaction of different kinds, only a deepening of the revolution – encompassing democracy, social justice and independence from imperialism – can offer a way forward.