The 'first year of the Arab spring'


Tunisian President Ben Ali’s ignominious flight into exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011, after a month of strikes and street protests throughout Tunisia, set in motion a cascade of popular anti-despotic revolts across the Arab world that culminated in the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011.

The imperialist rulers in the US, Europe and Israel were shocked by the sudden ousting of these two Arab despots, whose governments had for decades helped repress workers’ opposition to poverty and imperialist oppression in the Middle East. The overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak set the stage for a year of wars and bitter struggles between Arab working people and their capitalist rulers.

Despite the heroism displayed by many of the pro-democracy protesters, emerging out of decades of repression, they lacked the level of class organisation and class consciousness needed to create unified mass movements capable of replacing the existing capitalist state institutions (military and police) and pro-capitalist politicians with state institutions and political organisations representing the class interests of the working people.

Underlying these popular revolts were growing discontent over persistent high rates of poverty and unemployment, with recent college graduates often facing double the general rate of joblessness, or forced to take menial jobs.

In Tunisia, the mass mobilisations that overthrew Ben Ali led to an attempt by his prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, to assume power. However, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the parliament’s president should become acting president pending new parliamentary elections. These were held in October 2011, with the previously banned Islamist Ennahda Movement winning 89 of the 217 seats and forming a coalition government committed to the same neoliberal economic and pro-imperialist policies as the Ben Ali regime, including adhering to the policy prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

NATO intervention

In neighbouring oil-rich Libya, popular opposition to the despotic regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, which erupted last February following the fall of Mubarak, was rapidly brought under the influence of the NATO powers, which launched a war to replace the Gaddafi regime with the self-declared National Transitional Council made up of an unstable coalition of former Gaddafi regime officials and Islamists. The NTC itself estimates that the war took 50,000 lives and injured another 50,000 people. Rising infighting between the NTC’s factions is opening the door to a new civil war between Libya’s rival clan-based and regional militias.

The reactionary character of the new regime in Libya is demonstrated by the racist attacks directed by these militias against dark-skinned Libyans and black African immigrant workers during and particularly after the defeat of the Gaddafi regime. According to the August 3, 2011, International Business Times, “Libyan Arabs have taken advantage of the ongoing civil war to exact murderous revenge against the hundreds of thousands of black Africans who have entered Libya in the past decade to look for work”.

In a January 26 statement to the UN Security Council, Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights chief, reported that Libya’s militias are holding at least 8500 prisoners in about 60 detention centres. Most of these detainees are from sub-Saharan Africa and have been routinely subjected to torture. Detainees told Amnesty International they had been beaten for hours with whips, cables, plastic hoses, metal chains, bars and wooden sticks and given electric shocks with live wires.

Egyptian military digs in

In Egypt, following Mubarak’s ousting, the US-backed Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) installed itself in power. A year after Mubarak’s fall, the military, which is funded by Washington to the tune of more than US$1 billion a year, remains in power. At the beginning of January, the junta issued a decree cutting public spending by US$2.36 billion. According to finance minister Momtaz Al-Said, the biggest cuts will hit wages and government services. More than 40% of the Egyptian population still live on less than US$2 per day.

These new austerity measures were backed by the long-banned Islamists, who won 75% of the seats in three rounds of elections to the lower house of the Egyptian parliament over the course of six weeks to January 22. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which won 47% of the lower house seats, is signalling that it will give the SCAF a privileged role under any new constitution. According to the privately owned Egyptian daily Al-Tahrir, FJP vice-chairman Essam Al-Erian recently announced that “the military has the right to enjoy a special position in the upcoming constitution, more than in previous ones”. He also stated that the transfer of power to an elected civilian authority “should not result in the disappearance of the junta from the political scene”.

Committed as they are to the same pro-imperialist neoliberal policies as the Mubarak government, neither the military junta nor any Islamist government that succeeds it will be able to defuse the discontent within the Egyptian working class that propelled the anti-Mubarak uprising in the first place.

Syria the next target

According to the United Nations, which has relied largely on Syrian opposition sources for its information, some 5000 Syrians have been killed since mass demonstrations against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began some 11 months ago. The Syrian government has claimed that some 2000 members of its security forces have died in fighting with opposition armed groups.

In the December 19 American Conservative, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi gave a detailed description of the operation that is being mounted by the US and its NATO allies to foment armed conflict inside Syria. According to Giraldi, “Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderun on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers” from Libya. “Iskenderun is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and US Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.”

The imperialist-backed Free Syrian Army called for the Arab League to pull out its observers from Syria, saying they had “failed in their mission”. The group’s leader, Colonel Riyad al-Asaad, told the Reuters news agency that the group was calling on the Arab League “to turn the issue over to the UN Security Council and we ask that the international community intervene because they are more capable of protecting Syrians at this stage than our Arab brothers”.

The December 28 Foreign Policy magazine reported that “top officials in President Barack Obama’s administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition”, including the option of setting up a “no-fly zone” similar to that used to launch NATO’s war on Libya. The article noted: “Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria”. In an interview with the December 2 Wall Street Journal, Ghalioun stated that under an SNC regime, Syria will break its strategic ties with Iran and with Hezbollah in Lebanon, including ending any arms supplies to “Middle East militant groups”.

Direct Action – March 14, 2012

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