Frontline Index





Revolution in the Arab World

Arab RevolutionBill Bonnar looks at the wildfire of revolution that has swept across the Arab world in 2011.

It started in December in Tunisia as an individual protest against corruption and police lawlessness and sparked a movement for change which has impacted on every Arab state. Whether called ‘uprising’ or ‘intifada’ or ‘days of rage’ it is clear that a revolutionary movement is sweeping the Arab world and when this moment in history passes the Arab world and the rest of the world will be a very different place.

The Arab world stretching across North Africa, the Middle East and down through the Gulf comprise states which outwardly look very different. Some are aggressively secular others medieval style autocracies, some republics others monarchies, some a product of anti-colonial struggles some created by former colonial powers and some like Libya from a more revolutionary tradition. Yet a closer look shows remarkable similarities. All are governed by authoritarian regimes with a proven record of repression; all are ruled by rich elites which have systematically plundered their country’s resources while the great mass of people live in poverty and most have been willing clients of western powers in maintaining a capitalist and imperialist grip on the region.

Regimes fight for survival

The movements ranged against them are broad-based, popular, and contradictory with often different long term objectives but in the short term their demands have much in common. The establishment of democratic and representative government, civil rights and the rule of law and action to combat corruption, poverty, inequality, unemployment and rising prices. The response of the various regimes has been the consistent and all share the same objective; to make sure that they remain in power at the end of this process. In some cases this means making concessions like removing a dictator who has become too much of a liability or in seeking to divide the opposition by offering specific concessions. In others cases it means intensifying repression yet both approaches are essentially the same. It is about ensuring the survival of the regimes to carry out the same domestic and international policies as before. This approach is also that of the major capitalist powers particularly the United States, Britain and France. The prospect of democratic and representative governments coming to power in the Arab world represents for them a nightmare scenario. What would the attitude of such governments be to western interference in the region or to the Israel/Palestine conflict? This can be seen in the American response to the crisis in Egypt. The American government was a staunch ally of the Mubarak dictatorship. They helped bring Mubarak to power and maintained his regime through financial aid, armaments and diplomatic support. When it became clear that Mubarak’s continued role as president was putting the regime in danger it brought pressure to remove him not as an aid to the democratic process but rather because they saw him as a liability. In fact, it is worth noting that while Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was mouthing platitudes about the need for the Egyptian government to embrace freedom and democracy her administration in Washington was busy increasing military and financial support to the regime.

Forces in the Revolution

The various movements for change, although often united in terms of their short term demands actually represent radically different groups. These can be broadly put into three camps. There are progressive, democratic movements which draws their inspiration from earlier radical Arab movements like the National Movement in Egypt in the 1950’s led by President Abdul Nasser. This movement had a vision of an Egypt which was modern, democratic and secular, which promoted civil rights, worked to a progressive social and economic agenda to tackle poverty and inequality and which internationally placed Egypt firmly in the camp of anti-imperialism and pan-Arabism. Yet while looking into the past for inspiration this is also a very modern movement; young, educated, urban and well connected through modern technology.

On the opposite side are the forces of Islamic fundamentalism. Widely varied in themselves yet often with a common agenda they represent within the Arab world the forces of the Radical Right. Three things unite them. The first is that these are authoritarian movements both in terms of their own internal organisation and culture and in terms of their vision of how their various societies should be organised. Secondly they share an ideology of religious and cultural intolerance which could produce regimes even more repressive than the ones they are trying to remove. And thirdly their ultimate aims are basically reactionary; the creation of an Islamic state and ultimately one Islamic Caliphate which would take their various societies back to the past and away from the modern world. In fact their main criticism of the current regimes lay in the embrace of modernity.

The third movement largely consists of disaffected elements of the existing regimes which while wanting to continue the same domestic and international policies believe that the very continuation of these regimes represent the main threat to the status quo because they risk losing power to either of the first two groups.

While the struggles in each Arab country have obvious similarities they are also shaped by the peculiar circumstances of those countries. In Morocco and Egypt they consist of broad based democratic movements which focused on the removal of their respective presidents. With this objective achieved the movements have dissipated to a great extent as the regime moves to regain control although the struggles continue for more democratic concessions and for action to tackle economic and social problems. In Yemen the same kind of movement is facing stiff resistance from the ruling regime and may now be moving to civil war while in Jordan and Syria the regimes are taking pre-emptive action against opponents while promoting limited reforms. In the Gulf the struggles are taking on more of a religious character; in particular Bahrain where the largely dispossessed Shia majority is struggling against the mainly Sunni elite. In Palestine the movement has centred on young people sickened by the divisions between Fatah and Hamas and wiki-leak based evidence of the extent to which the Fatah leadership have been prepared to sell out the Palestinian cause in its negotiations with Israel.


Perhaps the most dramatics events have centred on Libya. As this is written the West is launching military attacks on the country with the aim of supporting rebel groups and overthrowing the Gadaffi regime. Despite the official propaganda that this is about protecting civilians and coming to the aid of democratic forces, the West and in particular, the United States are attempting to secure a long-term ambition of the replacement of the current ‘anti-western regime’ with a compliant and dependent pro-western regime and to gain strategic control over Libyan oil. They do so not because Gadaffi is a brutal dictator but because he is not their brutal dictator. The West have a long history of supporting violent dictatorships in this region and continue to do so today. If Gadaffi had been a loyal client of the west they would be actively supporting him and in fact the West’s response to Libya is in sharp contrast to the almost open support for repression in the Gulf States.

There are no illusions about the Gadaffi regime. Despite having had and continuing to have considerable layers of support the regime has always relied on violence and repression when dealing with its political opponents. In this sense it has been a typical Stalinist regime. It regards itself as the embodiment of the Libyan Revolution and anyone who opposes the regime is by definition a counter-revolutionary. It then links them to foreign inspired international plots either Western or Islamic which makes them counter-revolutionary traitors to be dealt with accordingly. At the same time the regime is led by rich powerful elite around the Gadaffi family and beyond which seems to have access to wealth and a lifestyle comparable to the other rich elites in the region. When one hears about one of Gadaffi’s sons throwing a birthday party for himself in New York with Beyonce being flown in for entertainment; this looks more like the lifestyle of an Arab Sheik than the leader of a revolutionary government.


However, the call for the overthrow of the regime is problematic for the Left. It would mean the overthrow of the original revolution that brought Gadaffi to power and the considerable gains it brought. E.g. Libyans enjoy the highest living standards in Africa, have an education and health service on par with European norms and a well established economic and social infrastructure. It would mean power passing into the hands of an alliance of tribal and Islamic fundamentalist groups supported by the west and it would mean handing the entire country and its vast oil reserves over to imperialist control.

As we are in the middle of a process it is difficult to predict the outcomes both in Libya and the rest of the region. In Libya it is all about survival for the regime. The longer it can hold out the more problematic western intervention becomes. The West is gambling that the uprising in the east of the country will be followed in Tripoli. This ignores the fact that the original uprising wasn’t general but centred on specific groups and areas. The regime still retains significant levels of support in society; some of it ideological, some tribal and some based on self interests and, in fact support may increase as western attacks intensify.


In Egypt and Tunisia a kind of stalemate situation has emerged with the movement strong enough to secure the removal of the respective dictators and wring concessions from the regimes but not strong enough to remove the regimes themselves. In Yemen the country looks as if it might be slipping into civil war with tribal forces lining up against each other and splits in the army. In the Gulf and in Syria and Jordan the balance of power between the ruling regimes and their opponents is still overwhelmingly with the former although the various struggles continue.

Economic Crisis

At the beginning of this article it was stated that this all started with an individual protest in Tunisia. This, of-course, is wrong. Fuelling most of these campaigns is a profound economic crisis itself following on from the world economic crisis of 2008 the effects of which are still reverberating around the world. The impact on the region and, in particular, North Africa cannot be understated. Over the past two years the region has been gripped by a combination of steeply rising prices, particularly basics like bread, a massive increase in unemployment, particularly among young people and severe cuts in public spending on things like food subsidies, health and welfare. It is these factors which have exacerbated wider grievances like poverty, inequality, corruption and repression and pushed various Arab societies to the breaking point. That these same economic factors are now impacting throughout the world demonstrates how unstable the system is. At the end of last year if someone had said that by Easter there would be major rebellions which would overthrow long established dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, provoke civil war in Libya and possibly Yemen and fuel mass protests in Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Bahrain few would have believed it.

Yet instability and revolt does not necessarily mean eventual victory for left and progressive forces. What is needed is a vision of what a future Arab world would look like if such forces eventually triumphed and mass struggle to ensure that vision becomes a reality. Such a vision would be based on a number of clear principles and ideas. These include;

The establishment of secular states. This is the central political fault line which runs through all predominately Muslim societies between those who want to keep the religion and the state apart with religion operating in the private sphere and those who want to blur the two and ultimately form and Islamic state. The left in these societies have always supported the former and vigorously opposed the latter.

The establishment of democratic government. This is about having elected and therefore representative governments and it is also about establishing civil rights, particularly the rights of women and about establishing the rule of law in countries where lawless state security forces have often run amok.

The implementation of progressive economic and social measures to tackle endemic corruption, inequality and poverty and which would use the considerable resources of these countries for the benefit of the people rather than international capitalism and its local clients.

A foreign policy which embraces opposes imperialist manoeuvres in the region, supports the Palestinian people, challenges the economic interests of capitalism and promotes genuine internationalism and pan-Arabism.

What the current struggles in the Arab world show is that at a time of global capitalist crisis the struggle against the system is also global. Whether it be students in Britain demonstrating against increases in student loans or young people in Egypt demonstrating against youth unemployment, mass protests against the cuts in Greece or thousands of workers demonstrating in defence of workers rights in Michigan. Capitalism has entered a phase of general economic, social and political crisis. Our task as socialists is to bury it.