Only a month after a university-educated street vendor burned himself to death, a mass movement forced dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee Tunisia on January 14. Tunisia’s upheaval sparked massive demonstrations in Algeria against rising food prices, forcing the country’s military regime to reintroduce food subsidies. January 25 brought Egypt’s “Day of Rage” , the largest mobilisations in decades in the Arab world’s most populous country. The protests soon took on a logic of their own, as Egyptian youth saw the possibility of repeating Tunisia’s triumph and dislodging an ageing dictator.
While the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were largely spontaneous, they demonstrate the immense social power of the working class and herald the possibility of a challenge to US political and economic hegemony in the Arab world. They are a major setback for the Arab bourgeoisie, which fears the spread of the intifada revolution across North Africa and the Middle East.
Egypt and Tunisia’s uprisings are a major challenge for the Israeli state, whose repression and military terror depend on the suppression of working-class struggle in both the Arab countries and Israel. Above all, these uprisings are a serious setback for US imperialism.
The overthrow of these dictators is unlikely to reduce the poverty of the masses brought about by years of neoliberal austerity, as long as their cronies remain in power. The ousting of dictators is just one step in a struggle to achieve social transformation. Only through a social revolution can the peoples of Egypt, Tunisia and the Arab world end the social and economic injustices they face.
The Egyptian ruling class’s state took shape following the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy in 1952. A military officers’ coup, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, began a period of pan-Arab nationalism. Nasser’s popularity was greatly strengthened by repelling an attack from Britain, France and Israel in 1956.
Turn to Washington
However, the 1967 war was a humiliating defeat for the Arab nationalist regimes. After losing another war with Israel in 1973, the Egyptian ruling class, under President Anwar Sadat, turned toward a peace deal with Israel and alliance with Washington. Mubarak took over following Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and, in return, for massive US military aid, increasingly integrated the Egyptian state into US imperialism’s designs.
With these new alliances and aid came economic “reforms”, involving privatisations and greater openness to international financial markets. For foreign investment, there were no restrictions on repatriation of profits and no taxes on dividends, capital gains or corporate bond interest.
Inequality has been increased by a steady reduction in food subsidies. Today, 29% of Egyptian children are malnourished as a result of soaring food prices.
In the period of pan-Arab nationalism, the Egyptian armed forces won popular patriotic support for confronting Western imperialism and Israel. But under Mubarak, the military became beneficiaries of US military aid, and military offices began running their own businesses. Military-owned companies are significant in the cement, construction and petrol industries, own large tracts of land and manage tourist resorts and farms.
In recent years, however, some of the top military brass have felt left behind as civilian capitalists have profited. Heads of military-run businesses have remained wary of privatisation, perceiving it to be a threat to their economic standing and political clout.
The recent uprising reflected a growing coalescence of opposition forces. The largest organised group by far is the Muslim Brotherhood, estimated to have 500,000 members. Though formally banned, it is well entrenched through its control of professional associations and religious charities. It is a conservative organisation that has avoided confrontation with the state and initially abstained from the recent protests. Its approach is parliamentarist.
A secular liberal opposition to Mubarak grew over the last decade, based in the educated middle class. This current doesn’t share the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative version of Islam and has a moral objection to the corruption that surrounded the Mubarak regime. Mohamed ElBaradei has emerged as its most prominent figure.
The left, while small, has played an important role. In collaboration with pro-democratic forces, it has mounted protests ranging from opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to protests against police brutality. While most of these protests were small, they established networks that were able to seize the moment when the rebellion in Tunisia electrified Egyptian society. These activists put out the call for what became the mass protest of January 25.
In recent years strike activity has revived, usually in defiance of official unions. The centre is the textile town of Mahalla, which experienced a lengthy strike and mass protests by workers in 2007. Between 2004 and 2008, some 1.7 million workers took part in 1900 strikes and protests.
The ouster of Mubarak has led to an outpouring of strike action, particularly in the 5.7 million-strong public sector. Since Mubarak’s departure, sit-ins and strikes have gripped Alexandria’s seaport, textile firms, media, steel firms, the postal service, railways, the police and the health ministry. Strikers’ economic demands have fused with political demands.
A February 11 Wall Street Journal article indicates what the imperialists see as the model for Egypt’s future: “The Obama administration ... is looking at the 1998 overthrow of Indonesian dictator Suharto as a model for a democratic transition in a Muslim-majority country, said senior U.S. officials”. Washington wants a pseudo-democracy in which ex-military officers dominate bourgeois electoral politics. This is why they are announcing that the revolution has triumphed – and is therefore over. But, as the outbreak of mass protests in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco and Jordan attests, the Arab revolution has only just begun.