Friday, 4 March 2011

Revolution in the 21st Century

The spark that began the wave of revolutionary activity that has spread across North Africa and the Middle East ocurred on 17 December last year when Mohamed Bouazizi, a man in his mid-twenties set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. He did it because the vegetable cart from which he eked out a meagre existence was confiscated by the town council and when he tried to get it back they refused. Immediately the protests began, spreading across the country, finally forcing the hated President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee on 14 January after 23 years in power. Demonstrations then began on 25 January in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, leading another dictator President Hosni Mubarak to resign just 18 days later after almost 30 years as president.

Revolutionary waves have also engulfed Libya and Bahrain and there have been unprecedented demonstrations in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Djibouti. But what lies behind this extraordinary series of events? Have they come from 'nowhere' as some news reports would have us believe?

As always there are economic reasons for political events. The neoliberal reforms that have been carried out through much of the region over the last thirty years or so have combined with the global economic crisis and rising global food prices to produce popular revolts which the regimes in question have found it impossible to either co-opt or smash. But these have not happened entirely spontaneously.

In Tunisia, there were demonstrations of the unemployed in the mining region of Gafsa in 2008 that were brutally repressed. There were other social protests in 2009 and 2010. The role of the trade unions has also been crucial. The Tunisian trade union federation, the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), called local general strikes on 12 January and then a national general strike on 14 January, the day Ben Ali fled. These strikes were around 90% solid. Students also played a crucial role, shutting schools and colleges. There has been a dialectical relationship between spontaneity and organisation.

In Egypt too, there had been increasing signs that people were prepared to stand up to the regime over the last few years. In 2007 workers struck and occupied Mehalla Kubra, a state-run textile factory, and the biggest factory in Egypt, over the failure to honour a promsed pay rise. Previously this kind of action would have been repressed by the state but on this occasion no-one was arrested or shot. After five days in occupation the government caved in and conceeded all the strikers' demands. Strikes then spread throughout the textile industry and then to other, smaller industries. In the last year or so, strikes that began with economic demands often ended with political demands against the regime in general and Mubarak in particular.

In the end it was the entrance of the organised working class that decided the fate of Mubarak. In many workplaces workers 'sacked' their bosses and ran the company themselves. Bank workers kicked out their bosses and made sure their wages were paid. Many groups of workers went on strike. There were other examples of popular organisation. Doctors organised makeshift hospitals wherever they could, neighbourhood committees protected their homes from the police posing as theives and looters, teams of volunteers checked IDs to keep undercover police out of Tahrir square, kept the square clean and repainted railings.

A couple of weeks after the resignation of Mubarak demonstrators again gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the pace of change be quickened. Soldiers beat protestors but were later forced to apologise on TV and on their Facebook page. The army want the strikes and demonstrations to stop but the strike wave is actually intensifying. The general-secretary of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was a puppet of the Mubarak regime said "Most of the protests are asking for wage rise... This is a kind of extremism".

These events demonstrate that a revolution is not an event, it is a process. The longer it continues the more the process becomes deeper and broader. As in Russia in 1917, workers are moving from their initial demands of throwing off the autocracy, to demands for more democracy, through to demands for workers' control. Trotsky called this process 'permanent revolution'. Trotsky argued after the February Revolution in Russia that as the revolutionary process developed, workers that had brought down the Tsar would realise their power, become radicalised and could take the revolution forward from being a 'bourgeois revolution' to a 'socialist revolution' from below with workers' power and control of society.

This process is even more in evidence in Libya. In Egypt the army still has control of the apparatus of the state, wheras in Libya it has collapsed in much of the East of the country, especially around Benghazi. Although the fate of the revolution in Libya is more unclear than in Egypt because of the extreme violence of the counter-revolutionary forces around Colonel Gaddafi, in Benghazi the functions of the state are under popular control in the form of the revolutionary council that has emerged during the uprising. Workers' committees are running key installations such as electricity stations, ports and airports. A National Council has been set up to unite all the popular councils emerging throuout the country offering the prospect of a deepening of the revolution.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has been sabre-rattling, threatening to impose a 'no-fly zone' using 'military assets', refusing to rule out the possiblity of military intervention, although he has subsequently retreated from this position after US President Barack Obama made it clear he was not keen on such a move. It is clear that any intervention would be disastrous for the revolution. There was a 'no-fly zone' imposed on Iraq before the diastrous war in that country in 2003 in which more than a million people died. Those leaders that want to intervene now are the same ones that have sold Gaddafi the weapons he is using on his own people. Western intervention of any kind would give Gaddafi the opportunity to pose as an anti-imperialist. The Libyan people must make their own revolution.

For those of us in the west that want to show solidarity with workers in the Middle East and North Africa an organisation was founded on 1 March to do just that. The founding statement of 'Solidarity with Middle Eastern and North African Workers Network' stated,
"We celebrate the heroic struggles of workers in MENA who have played a vital role in bringing down tyrants across the region. We support their continuing battles for genuine democracy and social justice. We agree to help their campaigns for the right to strike and other basic social and democratic rights, for unions free from state control, and for well-paid and secure jobs. We support the creation of a broadly-based Solidarity with Middle Eastern and North African Workers Network from this meeting."
The website contains 'six things you can do to build workers’ solidarity' including signing the statement and supporting the launch of the Egyptian independent union federation.

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