‘Arab Spring is part of the General Strike of the South’: An Interview with Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad‘s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012) captures the complexity of the Arab revolts – by bringing out the history and historical forces behind them. The book exposes the West’s imperial anxieties and their fear of the organic – the mass character of these uprisings. It demonstrates the resoluteness of the “rebels from below”, that they will not allow the Arab lands to “be the same again”, that they are dissatisfied with the Present and they want something more than the “21st century delusions” that neoliberalism delivers. Most importantly, Prashad’s book reconfirms that “the rebellion from below has its own radical imagination.” The following discussion with the author is an attempt to read the book with him to understand the implications of his analysis of the Arab revolts.

Pratyush Chandra (PC): Even the title of the book suggests you are not comfortable with the euphoric homogenisation of the recent upsurges in the Arab Arab Springworld. In fact, it seems you consider this discursive seasoning/colouring of Arab struggles to be highly ideological, not allowing us to comprehend the struggles in terms of their “deeper roots and grievances”. Do you think this impression about your book is valid? However, as the spatio-temporal interconnections are quite evident and cannot be denied, how do you assess the contextual commonality of these upsurges, and what are the limits of using this commonality as the only key to understand them?

Vijay Prashad (VP): The Arab Spring, or Arab Revolt, or whatever History shall call it, is party to a long-wave of struggle which we can call the General Strike of the Global South. It begins around the late 1980s, perhaps with the Caracazo, the uprising in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1989. Immense pressure on the lifeworld of the ordinary people in the South intensified with the debt crisis of the 1980s. The mandarins of the Global North used the debt crisis as a lever to extract massive concessions from the states of the South, mostly under the name of Structural Adjustment Programs. These included a roll-back in State intervention for social welfare, a selling off at bargain prices of the essential sectors of the economy and the welcoming of private, mostly foreign, capital into all aspects of social life that had not before been governed by the laws of capitalism (such as water delivery, electricity delivery and food delivery, notably bread delivery). This assault on the life of the ordinary people sharply increased deprivation in the South. But the totality of the society was not damaged by deprivation. Small but considerable sections were able to make quite a lot of money as sub-contractors in this phase of neo-liberalism –- they were able to collect a greater share of the rent or were able to operate as the local face of transnational firms. In many of the countries of the South, these sub-contractors were the relatives of the political class (such as Gamal Mubarak, son of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak) or else they were special elites who had very close ties to the political class (for kin reasons or through extensive bribery or patron-client relations, the latter a familiar story in India). This links the risings in Tunisia and Egypt not just to an Arab context, or an African context, but to one of Global South.

About the discomfort with the homogeneity, this is of course true. The “Spring” does not come evenly. In some places, there was a deep freeze, such as in the Arabian Peninsula. No such opening was to be considered. Neither Yemen nor Bahrain, nor indeed Saudi Arabia, could be permitted to have a democratic opening. In Yemen, it was a “managed transition”, so that Salehism could continue under the tutelage of Hadi, who was the sole candidate in an election (Saleh’s family and regime remain in power, with open door to the US to operate its drones to kill at will in Yemen). In Bahrain, all eyes remained averted as the Saudis and then the Bahrainis smashed the demonstrations. There was no Spring here.

There was no Spring as well in Libya, which had a genuine uprising against a deeply unpopular leader (an unpopularity that Qaddafi earned; his coup in 1969 was very popular, with his policies from the mid-1980s sharply alienating him from his people). How did NATO become a force in the Arab world? This is one of themes in the second half of my book. How did NATO become Arab?

PC: Many left commentators have asserted the democratic revolutionary character of the Arab spring. However, classically a democratic revolution has come to mean (at least in the 20th century) radical social transformations at various levels. It was never merely related to the formation of representational democratic institutions or the recognition of a few formal rights, unless they become vehicles for larger changes in the political economy. What is your assessment of the development in the Arab world in this regard? Do you find the analogies of 1848, 1905, 1968 and 1989 of any use in describing the events today?

VP: The task of a revolutionary regime is not clear-cut. The Arab states of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and others, had and have been governed by a form of state-craft that combines neo-liberal policies and national security regimes. The jail and the private sector are hand-in-glove to dispossess and encage the ordinary people. To cut back on such a complex apparatus that reproduces deprivation and indignity is not easy. We cannot underestimate the power of dignity in these revolts. It was dignity as much as bread that pushed people to take such enormous risks (even in Egypt between a thousand and two thousand people gave their lives for the revolution). The first phase of this uprising was to set aside the culture of fear created by the national security regimes. That has been done. The task that has now come before the people is to reject the authoritarian structures and create new constitutional processes that allow their voices to be central to the formation of national policy. In this phase, the question of economic and social policy will assert itself. The workers of Mahallah, the Independent Union of General Tax Authority Workers: they played central roles in the Tahrir dynamic. Indeed, in May 2012 the Tax workers (the largest union of state government employees) were on strike for better wages, better working conditions and so on. Their demands have not evaporated before the important question of elections and more representative parliamentary institutions. Much the same in Libya, where the workers and unemployed youth have occupied the front gate of the Arabian Gulf Oil Company. They have refused to budge.

The revolts you mention – 1848 to 1989 – are explosive in their impact, but their great impact also took time to germinate. I end my book with a brief assessment of these…how 1968 might not look like it amounted to much, but on the other hand it delegitimised sexism and racism, and a kind of aristocratic idea of culture. No straight lines for revolts; everything is tangled.

PC: As is clear from your analyses the heterogeneity of class and political interests mark the Arab resistances. Taking into account this heterogeneity, the political forces that will emerge victorious will finally depend on the class(es) that hegemonise the movement. Apparently, the political alternatives that are emerging from various resistances right now do not seem to be revolutionary. In fact, most of them are residues of the old regimes. So in what sense, can we take these resistances to be a ‘stage’ in the revolutionary process? Where do we place the working class in the overall resistance?

VP: In each of the North African cases (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya), the working class will play an important role in the near future. If the military does not suffocate the short-term (a genuine concern for Egypt), it is clear that thanks to funds from the Saudis and the Qataris, and a nod and a wink from the US, the various formations of political Islam will probably have an upper hand for now. In Egypt and Tunisia, they have worked hard to build up their organisational capacity (in some ways they were also tolerated. In the 2005 elections in Egypt, the regime most likely allowed them to win to terrify the West into backing off from calls for democracy and so on.). But the forces of political Islam have no agenda for the social and economic demands of the people. They will govern, and if pushed by a vitalised working-class movement, they will fail. When they fail, if the working-class is not organised and vital, it is likely that there is a threat of restoration. That is why the historical task of the Arab revolt now is for the working class organisations and its allies to be prepared for when the moment comes. That is why the concerted strikes and struggles that have been going on are so important: they build the will of the working class not only for the present, which are often struggles over reforms and survival, but for the next great battle, which is for the working-class to become hegemonic over society in tandem with the failure of political Islam to make its mark. Political Islam is fated to fail. It has so little to offer the people. It played an important role in these struggles, with many of its disciplined cadre willing to die, to stand against the neoliberal security state. But that role is going to diminish as it begins to govern, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, as a populist force committed to neo-liberal policies.

PC: The ideological and cultural formation of the earlier ‘social-democratic’ upsurges – whether Baathist or Nasserite – was very clearly secular Pan-Arabism. Are the current movements in West Asia different on that score? Do they even have a cohesive ideological and cultural formation, if not as a totality, then at least in individual terms? Could you please elaborate upon the cultural and ideological formation of the current upsurges in terms of their social content and the materiality of their history/histories?

VP: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces of political Islam certainly have a cohesive ideological orientation. There are also the liberal platforms, such as the Egyptian Hizb El-Ghad or Tomorrow Party, which are committed to parliamentary or representative democracy and have a modest program on the economy. They are social democratic and secular in their orientation. In Libya, there is less of a basis for such a platform, which is why it is governed by the neo-liberal Diasporics who are beholden to the West rather than to a mass political constituency on the ground; they win their elections in Washington and Paris, not in Tripoli and Misrata. In Egypt, the constituency for this kind of secular social democracy is the middle class, which is substantial and was smothered by neo-liberalism’s characteristic nepotism. The working-class in Tunisia, Egypt and even in Libya, has a focused class dynamic. It is most highly developed in Egypt and Tunisia, where working-class organisations operated despite the authoritarian state, and these organisations have moved from defensive agendas to making much more substantial demands on the transforming states. It is in this process of demand escalation and general organisation of the working-class (and perhaps the peasantry in Egypt) that a clearer alignment will emerge. By the way, in Egypt, the nostalgia for secular Nasserism is not passe. There is an undercurrent that holds that standard aloft. In Tahrir Square, posters with Nasser’s picture could be seen here and there. But nostalgic Nasserism is not what North Africa needs. New ideological coordinates are needed that build a new set of policies to counter both neo-liberalism and the habits of the security state apparatus. Nasserism was a sufficient bulwark against neo-colonialism; it is not going to be enough to tackle neo-liberalism and authoritarianism.

PC: Who knows better than you that some of the states/regimes that have been under attack recently emerged as part of the larger progressive and democratic “third world project”. In fact, the term democratic revolution was often used to characterise their emergence, because they triggered significant political-economic changes (even if with a statist tenor) centred on the post-colonial national interests –- at least in the form of land reforms, the “democracies of bread”, and the constitution and empowerment of the national bourgeoisie. What is it that has happened in due course that we are once again witnessing another series of democratic revolutions, if we may legitimately call them so?

VP: It is my view that the left-leaning movements of the past century -– the socialists, the communists, the Third World nationalists -– all failed to recognise the fundamental aspiration of the people to have a say in their societies and in their state structures. They wanted bread, sure, but they also wanted dignity. You cannot get dignity by having no voice in your society, and being directed by your state. If you do not build a State apparatus that is able to harness the dignity of the population, whatever good policies you have in mind will come to nothing. Socialism cannot be administered from above nor can it come in a hurry. We learn this from the examples of Tanzania and Afghanistan. Both Nyerere and the Afghan Communists saw that the principal matter is to draw people to their agenda, not to set in place the best policies. The confidence of the people must be earned, and people must be drawn into the decision-making and state-building processes. If they are alienated from the State, the entire project is liable to failure. Nasserism was the Arab franchise of the Third World Project. It suffered from all the problems I lay out in The Darker Nations.

The arrival of Bolivarianism is in many ways a critique of the Third World Project’s demise and the rise of neo-liberal states in its place (in Venezuela, in Chile, in Argentina, in Bolivia). The Arab Spring is in line with that upsurge.

PC: You have shown the importance of Qaddafi’s Revolution of 1969, and how it transformed the Libyan society. However, you also detail the insufficiency and degeneration of the transformation. What were the socio-political forces that the 1969 revolution and subsequent changes unleashed that contributed to the overthrow of Qaddafi, or is it simply that those who were ousted by the 1969 revolution, or those who were left out from power, led the current upsurge that displaced Qaddafi?

VP: Qaddafi’s 1969 revolution was remarkable for the ease with which the Colonel’s coup took place. Not a shot was fired against it. The totality of the population, with the exception of the clique around King Idris, was with Qaddafi. I detail how for the first 15 years, Qaddafi followed a massive social policy of transferring assets to the people, and building up a modern state structure, including a national university system. This was a huge advance. But Qaddafi walked into an obvious contradiction: his regime did not diversify the Libyan economy out of dependence on sale of oil to the West, at the same time he made erratic political gestures against the West. Libya was punished by an oil embargo, which crippled the social welfare part of his regime. That led Qaddafi to a reassessment of his policies. Rather than move toward diversification (for which he now had little investible capital), he shifted to make an accommodation with the West. The Qaddafi of the 1980s onwards was in many ways the opposite of the earlier Qaddafi. I detail this story. It takes up the major portion of the book, showing how the class character of the Libyan regime shifts by the 1990s, for instance.

PC: The Libyan winter changed the season for the Atlantic powers. According to you, for them, “Libya provided a unique opportunity”. How is that? You have stressed on the uniqueness of the Libyan situation, as the Atlantic powers always seemed ready to intervene there. But how do you see the recent developments regarding Syria?

VP: Libya allowed for many things. First, it allowed the West to brush off their tainted relationship with Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, not to speak of Qaddafi (it was Blair, Sarkozy and US Congressmen McCain and Lieberman who courted him in the 2000s). Second, it allowed the Saudis to enter Bahrain and crush that uprising. I show how the linkage between Libya and Bahrain works in my book. Third, it allowed NATO to become a force in North Africa, becoming the “mass base” of the Libyan Diasporic leaders, the neoliberals such as Jibril and el-Keib, to assert their position against those who had a genuine mass base, such as Belhaj (the political Islamists). This was the unique opportunity.

On Syria the story is not complex. On February 18, 2012, I asked the Indian ambassador to the United Nations, Hardeep Singh Puri, why there was no appetite for a strong UN resolution on Syria. After all, the violence in Syria seemed to have already exceeded that in Libya. If the UN could pass Resolution 1973 (on Libya), why was it reticent to pass a similar resolution on Syria? Puri pointed his finger directly at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization states. They had exceeded the mandate of Resolution 1973, moving for regime change using immense violence. All attempts to find a peaceful solution were blocked. The African Union’s high-level panel was prevented from entering Libya as the NATO barrage began. Any UN resolution that was sharply worded and that was not explicitly against a humanitarian intervention would open the door to a NATO-style attack. That seems to be the fear. If there is a sense that NATO exceeded the mandate of 1973, I asked, would the UN now consider an evaluation of how it was used in the Libya war? Puri told me that Russia asked the UN Security Council to evaluate Resolution 1973, which means NATO action in Libya. NATO has blocked this. They are reticent to allow any open evaluation as a result of what they see as an exceeded mandate in Libya, and of course the question of civilian casualties (Human Rights Watch released a report on May 14 on civilian casualties by NATO that underlines this question).

PC: While dealing with the attitudes of various international institutions and alliances towards the Arab revolts, you have analysed the BRICS’s position too. As you have shown in your brilliant book, The Darker Nations, there was a unity of purpose, at least initially, among the regimes that came with significant popular legitimacy that constituted the Third World. However, such unity of purpose seems absent behind the emergence of the BRICS and other international alliances among specific “third world” countries. Rather they are multi-level institutionalisation of opportunistic cooperation among competitive forces. How much do you think consistency, multipolarity and polycentricity that we demand from the BRICS are justified? Do you find in this demand an element of nostalgia for the Third World project, for statist anti-imperialism and non-alignment?

VP: The full answer to your question will be found in a book that I am now finishing up, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso and LeftWord). It tells the story of the emergence of the G7, the fight to establish a renewed South after the debt crisis, the emergence of the BRICS, and of a potential South from below. That book has an argument that is hinted at here and there in the Libya book, although the latter is not theoretical and so the argument is only as I say hinted at. The BRICS have afforded an opening, they have moved us out of the suffocation of the Washington Consensus and on unipolarity. They have not created ideological or institutional alternatives to the previous dispensation. That is why they seem to simply ask for entry for themselves rather than an exit from this system. Their ambitions are not great, largely because their ruling elites are wrapped up in neo-liberal ideology and they seek space for themselves alone. In this challenge, they have, as I say, dented the privileges of the North Atlantic. I see their move as simply this, nothing more.

PC: You have succinctly shown throughout the book how neo-liberal forces are attempting internal coups in the ‘democracy movements’. When US diplomat David Mack complains about the Libyans not understanding the meaning of democracy –- that it is not about “housing, food, work and health”, but about elections and the rule of law, it seems the imperialist forces are trying hard to clinch the separation of the economic and the political which neo-liberal globalisation arguably seeks to achieve, thus reducing the political’s capacity to obstruct international capitalist interests. A section of the international left too stresses that the revolts are a step forward from the undemocratic past even if they are able to institutionalise only a few ‘democratic political’ rights. Don’t you think any such gradualism or limitation will be an eventual complete regression to neo-liberal counter-revolution, a betrayal of what you term the radical imaginations of the rebellion from below?

VP: You raise the core point. Will the emergent regimes build a Chinese wall between the Economic and the Political? Will they allow the great sacrifices to provide modest electoral reforms, and not touch the base? It is of course the case that there will be elements within the new political actors that will want only this small advance. Others are not going to be satisfied with it. They tasted the feeling of revolution, and already want more. That is how we must account for the ongoing strikes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. These strikes are a portent of the greater social dreams than simply the right to vote. When Tripoli airport was seized in May 2012, those who took it wanted their social and economic wants at the centre of the regime’s concern, not simply the June elections. The latter are important, but not singular. Elections yes, but these do not define the desire for a voice.

It is also true that the old guard will want to minimise both the democratic political and democratic economic openings. They will be backed by the US on the latter, because the US and the NATO states would like to reduce the victory to the political domain, and even there to manage the political so that the more radical Islamists are kept out of office. Moderate Islam will be allowed (we are back to Mahmood Mamdani’s “good Muslim, bad Muslim” formulation). If the rate of strikes intensifies, it is unlikely that the old guard and NATO states will get their way. As with South America, revolution moves from questions of inflation and livelihood to questions of democracy and back again to questions of food and fuel, jobs and cultural expression. Democracy cannot be sequestered to elections alone. It is a much wider concept.

PC: It is clear that the left in the West is quite impressed by the Arab Spring. What do you think is its overall political impact in a movemental sense?

VP: The Arab Spring provided a fillip out of hopelessness in the United States. There is no doubt that the Arab Spring inspired the Occupy movement. The idea of a manifestation, of taking up space in public, came to the streets of New York explicitly from Cairo. But these are all mutually reinforcing events. On a conjunctural level, these are all reactions to the contractions as a result of the Global Recession from 2007, and the Strike of the Bankers. No doubt that the movements in both the Arab lands and in southern Europe excited those in the North Atlantic to act against their own governments and their cousins in the banks. The first impact, therefore, is the end of the Left’s torpor. Where will this head, who knows? It has to be built upon, just as the North Africans are building on their revolts. They have not rested, making t-shirts of Tahrir Square and happy for the experience of the manifestations. Their demonstrations continue. That lesson, that revolts are permanent and endless, has not yet been fully grasped in the North Atlantic. It is the most important lesson.

PC: What are the implications of changes in the Arab World for the Indian subcontinent?  What lessons should the left in India draw in this regard?

VP: The General Strike of the South is yet to come to India. There have been many protests from below, and of course the anti-Corruption development. But India is a complex story. The state allows some space for democratic action, which is to say that it has not fully closed off the electoral space from the people. It is not a one-party domain, where it is easy to say, “Mubarak must go”. In that way, India is similar to the US. Even though one regime might govern for decades (say, Reaganism in the US from 1981 to the present; or Rajiv Gandhiism in India from 1991 to the present), the changes in the actual ruler seems to imply democratic possibilities…. Manmohan Singh is honest, he is not Vajpayee, or Rao; Obama is well-spoken, he is not Bush. One of the tasks of the Left has to be to demonstrate that even though the governments change and prime ministers or presidents change, the regime remains intact, and it is in the character of the regime that the problems reside, not in the personalities of this or that leader. This is a very hard task. So much easier to personify the problem with Assad, for instance, than with Manmohan Singh.

Like Egypt in the 2000s or even Chile in the 1990s and 2000s, there is a diverse Left in India. But unlike Egypt and Chile, the Left in India has not been forced to work together on campaigns. Unity of the Left, even in action, is very limited. Hostility among the Left forces is debilitating in the long run. In Egypt and Chile because of the state repression, the various factions of the Left had to work together. This meant that they forged close bonds despite the differences in their strategic and tactical outlook. These bonds, forged in action, meant that after the repression ended, there was a moment of time when the Left could build a unified approach to governance. The story is the same in Brazil, where despite the great limitation of the PT, the Workers’ Party, the Movement of the Landless and the Communist Party and so on, remain in fractious alliance. Their solidarity in action during the years of the dictatorship created a bedrock of unity, even as they disagree greatly over policy and style.

Finally, the Arab Spring might create space for India to reassess its newfound alliances with Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Would India, the so-called largest democracy in the world, like to pledge its allegiance to a power (Israel) that flagrantly violates international laws in its occupation of the Palestinians and to a set of powers (Gulf Arabs) that believe that democracy is a poison that must be handled with a prophylaxis of repression? This alignment needs to be reconsidered at the very highest levels, and at the ground level. The way the US has tried to break India’s ties to Iran and reinforce its links with Saudi Arabia is illustrative. That is why it is essential, not marginal, to fight the idea of India becoming the “subordinate ally” of the United States. This is a central fight. To say that imperialism is not as important a battle as, say, food prices, is to miss the integral relationship between the political and economic domains, something that has been revived by the Arab Spring and the General Strike in the South. That is its nature, to renew the idea that there can be no economic reforms without a simultaneous general transformation of the political will.

Revolution in Egypt: Interview with an Egyptian anarcho-syndicalist

In the following conversation, Jano Charbel, a labor journalist in Cairo who defines himself as anarcho-syndicalist, talks about the character of the revolution in Egypt, the recent history of workers’ struggles, the role of Islamists and unions, gender relations and the perspectives of struggles. The interview was conducted by two friends of the classless society in Cairo in spring 2011.

Courtesy: http://www.klassenlos.tk

Egypt: A permanent revolution?

Ray Bush, Ahram Online

Finally, it seems, and only after being pushed hard by permanent demonstrations, Egypt’s generals have indicated a procedure for promoting serious constitutional reforms as a first step towards the possibility of democratic deepening. The development of a new constitution will be delayed until a new parliament that can debate it. The appointment of a legal committee to assemble proposed reforms to be put to a referendum is clearly significant. But why has it taken so long, and why has this committee not been part of a more clearly defined new interim government? The continued presence of members of the old regime raises concerns about just how serious the military is in ridding the country of the economic elite that has destroyed Egyptian livelihoods for the last 30 years. How long does it take to get rid of the detritus of cronyism and enable the entry of democrats to Egyptian national politics?

This may not be the time to be curmudgeonly – and it is not my wish to be so. My recent experience at the biggest party I have ever attended, in Midan Tahrir, two weeks ago was exhilarating and joyful, full with expectation and real hope. It has been more than twenty years since I began visiting and studying Egypt’s political economy. I have often made annual pilgrimages to Cairo’s wonderfully vibrant, yet repressive and challenging city and I have witnessed attempts to transform the countryside by destroying benefits Nasser gave tenants and other smallholders, as the NDP decided instead to return land to land owning allies. Many of the landed elites were in the corrupt parliament so voting for rural (diss) possession was easy. if tenants have been impoverished, nouveau riche; mostly young and assertive investors have taken advantage of cheap (and corrupt) land ‘sales’, free water for high value and low nutritious food stuff for export rather than the promotion of local food security. The destruction of Egypt’s environment by agribusiness stripping the country’s valuable top soils became de rigour. Yet these processes among many other, have been contradictory in there outcomes. After most of my visits I would usually feel that Egypt would be unable to stay the same for more than 24 hours, and yet simultaneously I would have the feeling that the country would remain the same for a great many more years. Conflict, inequality and injustice were so evident alongside demonstrations of enormously opulent wealth, and struggles for economic and political transformation have always been evident.

The 25 January revolution has changed political life for good. Things will never be the same, even if the military seem unable or unwilling to properly gauge the mood of the country and ensure more swiftly a complete exorcism of the ancien regime. There is a revolution underway and it is a process that will go beyond the removal of Husni Mubarak from office. After 30 years of social and political stagnation that systematised brutal repression of rights and people’s dignity, and which helped to sustain intense poverty and the manipulation of religious prejudice, there is now a chance to promote an ambitious and transparent ‘root and branch’ reform programme. 25 January opened a dam of pent up resentment and frustration. That could easily have been funnelled into violence and envy, counter brutality and revenge yet that was only evident when NDP thugs entered the fray as the robber baron regime tried to cling to power. The revolutionaries, from all walks of Egyptian life, young and old, middle class, small farmers and destitute, workers and elderly demonstrated confident self controlled maturity of protest. Continued protest until remnants of the old guard are thrown away remains necessary and should receive not only local support, amid an understandable irritation by a few, that the ‘normal’ life of tourist trade and small business is disrupted. But these demonstrations need also international solidarity and support. The buzzards of the EU, UK and US are circling, and many have landed to establish an understanding of just what has been happening in the country of such geostrategic importance and historical ‘stability’. Caught out by the splendour of revolution Egypt’s allies in the international community have been busy playing ‘catch up’. This applies especially to the US. Why is Washington’s intelligence in the region so poor and outmoded and why couldn’t the (relatively) new broom in the White House grasp the nettle of real democratic transition rather than elevate concern with stability and defence of its Israeli ally. Tel Aviv is challenged by democracy on its door step and the US will have trouble in its historical strategy of determining the outcome of political transition without being seen to do so.

The revolution will have lots to say about Egypt’s regional presence. It will live with an Israeli neighbour that is peaceful and democratic, that respects Arab citizens of the Jewish state and abides by international law including complete withdrawal from Palestinian territory occupied since 1967. The revolution can legitimately question why the Camp David agreement benefitted Israel financially and militarily more than Egypt and the revolution can certainly question why Mubarak’s regime became the jailor of the Gazan concentration camp.

Domestically the agenda is long. Already people have shown greater respect for each other than was much in evidence with Mubarak’s bestial regime. The revolution demands a more open and democratic public sphere of mutual respect, this agenda has been driven by all demonstrators not only the youth that has so captured media imagery. Without doubt the youth demand and deserve a respect that is at odds with a moribund age set of deference (unearned), which helped structure a non-participatory political culture and at its worst was captured by the patronising stupidity of Mubarak and Omar Suleiman during the height of the revolution. High on the agenda is clearly the establishment of a rule of law, habeas corpus and the removal of systemic torture from Egypt’s landscape of law and (dis)order. This will not happen immediately as the chain of command in all police stations will need recasting in customs that will simply not be understood by many force commanders. The rights debate will need more than just a new minister. The idea of inherent human rights, that people are innocent until due process has found them guilty of whatever they may be charged with and the complete judicial and civilian oversight of the police, will be just a beginning but one that is essential to safeguard revolutionary gains. If the police needs reform, new training, skills and knowledge as well as raised salaries for rank and file officers, (reducing the incentive for bribery and links with local gangs) the security services needs closure. Security services are important in all democracies to ensure that legitimate opposition does not become converted to military insurgency. But security and police forces will need to internalise that they operate to defend the Egyptian people, not the Egyptian regime. Only when the forces of law and order are so reformed will it be likely that political opposition emerges free from infiltration and dirty tricks and mutual respect unifies people with a security agency that defends all Egyptians. There is thus no role for the aml dowla or muhabarat in the new Egypt and the sooner this is affirmed the better. After all it was the awful actions of these forces over more than a generation that partly drove the unprecedented mobilisation to Tahrir.

Of course Egypt’s revolution will only be successful and more easily defended if it can link the tremendous struggle over rights and representation with economic growth that provides jobs. Egypt’s economy has grown by about 5 per cent in real terms each year since 1980. It is the ambition of all developing countries to achieve such a level of growth especially where it outstrips the increase in population. Yet sustained economic growth singularly failed to deliver employment and poverty reduction. The NDP robber barons were successful in rewarding themselves – real estate, land, cement and steel, and of course the military too – after all didn’t the military get its ‘toys for the boys’ to a value of $1.3 billion per annum from the US as well as guarantees for its own enormous business ventures in land, real estate and manufacturing? But urban and rural poverty – the abjection of the majority of Egyptians from the wealth that they have produced is the biggest indictment of the last thirty years. At best Egypt has developed but Egyptians have not! Unemployment levels might be as high as 50%; food inflation of 20 percent accelerates poverty and child hunger and bread riots around the bakeries of Cairo in 2008, were an early indicator of tipping points to come.

It’s no longer popular to talk about ‘class’ in the Middle East (or anywhere else perhaps) the working class or the peasantry or fellahin, but it is these social classes that produce Egypt’s wealth. The financial and service sectors may have grown in the last thirty years but the wealth generated from speculation remained in the hands of the economic elite and not with the country at large. The NDP not only ignored structural impediments to growth, namely the high dependence upon rent – from Suez, labour remittances and oil and gas, it ensured that its cronies would benefit from kickbacks from contracts linked to construction and land deals often in the rentier sectors. And revenue that accrued from such skulduggery was used only for conspicuous consumption or more real estate construction that the vast majority of Egyptians could not even dream of occupying. It is one thing to say that market capitalism and economic liberalisation has given Egypt the greatest opportunity to boost livelihoods and well being – the mantra of Gamal Mubarak especially after Ahmed Nazif’s administration in 2004. It is quite another to evidence how the market economy has ensured the trickle down of growth rather than the funnelling up of wealth to the already mega rich.

If and when the dust begins to settle down around the political transition it is in the economic arena of sustained economic growth with justice that the revolution may stand or fall on. More than 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. It is probably much higher than that and possibly even as high as 80% in some rural areas – that would make Egyptians poorer than Zimbabweans – not a comparison many would immediately consider. But this is the depth to which the NDP and the Mubarak tribe took the country. The way they set thugs on Egyptians and destroyed their own party offices suggests there was also an orchestrated plan to ‘burn Cairo’ legitimising perhaps a more aggressive military intervention to defend the country.

It is going to take great care to dig Egypt out of the pit of economic crisis and to do so with justice and equality. The first step will require Egyptians to see that there is indeed a crisis and to construct a genuinely national participatory political system. World Bank and other international agency love affairs with headline growth figures veil inequality, uneven development and has accelerated social unrest. The long term crisis began with economic reform in 1991, (1987 in the countryside) – reform heralded by the international community that fostered robber baron capitalism. The medium term crisis lies in the pivotal working class and trade union unrest that has provided strong roots for the revolution. More than a million workers and their families have been involved in industrial actions since 2004 and the Mahalla revolt in 2006 involving 28,000 workers was a clear signal to all but the most illiberal government that kefaya (enough) really was kefaya. The vibrancy of worker unrest and the challenge to confront 19th century working conditions has not been lost on the fellahin. It is likely that at least, 300 farmers have been killed in 2010 with 1500 injured and 1700 arrested following rural struggles over access to land, boundary demarcations, struggles against dispossession and other disputes with land owners and police. The politicisation of land is at a level greater than any time since Nasser and it is an issue the future minister of agriculture will have to address with care and attention to redressing rural poverty and how it has been sustained by dispossession of small holders and accumulation by land owners.

Addressing all these themes will depend on the revolution being sustained, on the coalition of youth continuing to broaden their excellent and profound grasp of the realities underpinning wealth and inequality and building links between urban workers and rural small holders. This will require permanent revolution, permanent dissatisfaction with the status quo and of course vigilance against counter revolution. It will also need to be underpinned by a new system of education in Egypt that values not only the core principles of literacy and numeracy, and their delivery in the classroom without violence or sexual harassment. The revolution has begun to legitimise the importance of challenging all information and to question everything that is presented especially by government. That will need to continue as debate about an election, its timing and planning and organisation will no doubt dominate the next 6 months.

Ray Bush is Professor of African Studies and Development Politics, University of Leeds, UK and Author of Economic Crisis and the Politics of Reform in Egypt (Westview 1999) editor of Counter Revolution in Egypt’s Countryside (Zed Books 2002). His most recent book is Poverty and Neoliberalism. Persistence and Reproduction in the Global South (Pluto Press 2007).

An Arab 1848: Despots Totter and Fall

Tariq Ali, Counterpunch

He can’t stay any longer because the military has declared that they will not shoot their own people. This excludes a Tiananmen Square option. Were the Generals (who have so far sustained this regime) to go back on their word it would divide the army, opening up a vista of civil war. Nobody wants that at the moment, not even the Israelis who would like their American friends to keep their point man in Cairo for as long as possible. But this, too, is impossible.

So, will Mubarak go this weekend or the next? Washington wants an ‘orderly transition’, but the hands of Suleiman the Spook (or Sheikh Al-Torture as some of his victims refer to him), the Vice-President they have forced Mubarak to accept, are also stained with blood. To replace one corrupt torturer with another is no longer acceptable. The Egyptian masses want a total regime change, not a Pakistan-style operation where a civilian crook replaces a uniformed dictator and nothing changes.

The Tunis infection has spread much more rapidly than anyone imagined. After a long sleep induced by defeats—military, political moral—the Arab nation is reawakening. Tunis impacted immediately on neighboring Algeria and the mood then crossed over to Jordan and reached Cairo a week later. What we are witnessing are a wave of national-democratic uprisings, reminiscent more of the 1848 upheavals — against Tsar and Emperor and those who collaborated with them — fthat swept Europe and were the harbingers of subsequent turbulence. This is the Arab 1848. The Tsar-Emperor today is the President in the White House. That is what differentiates these proto-revolutions from the 1989 business: That and the fact that with few exceptions, the masses did not mobilize themselves to the same degree. The Eastern Europeans lay down before the West, seeing in it a happy future and singing ‘Take Us, Take Us. We’re Yours Now.’

The Arab masses want to break from the ugly embrace. The US-EU has supported the dictators they’re getting rid off. These are revolts against the universe of permanent misery: an elite blinded by its own wealth, corruption, mass unemployment, torture and subjugation by the West. The rediscovery of Arab solidarity against the repellent dictatorships and those who sustain them is a new turning point in the Middle East. It is renewing the historical memory of the Arab nation that was brutally destroyed soon after the 1967 war. Here the contrast in leadership could not be more glaring. Gamal Abdel Nasser, despite his many weaknesses and mistakes, saw the defeat of 1967 as something for which he had to accept responsibility. He resigned. Over a million Egyptians poured into the heart of Cairo to plead with him to stay in power. And changed his mind. He died in office a few years later, broken-hearted and with no money. His successors surrendered the country to Washington and Tel Aviv for a mess of pottage.

The events of the last month mark the first real revival of the Arab world since the defeat of 1967. All the weathercocks ever-alert so as never to be on the wrong side of history, thus always avoiding any experience of defeat, were caught unawares by these uprisings. They forget that revolts and revolutions, shaped by existing circumstances, happen when the masses, the crowd, the citizenry—call it what you will— decide that life is so unbearable and they will be stifled no longer. For them a poor childhood and injustice are as natural as a kick in the head on the street or a brutal interrogation in prison. They have experienced this, but when the same conditions are still present and they are now adults, then the fear of death recedes. When this stage is reached a single spark can light a prairie fire. In this case literally as the tragedy of the stallholder in Tunis who set himself on fire demonstrates.

We are at the beginning of the change. The Arab masses have not been overwhelmed by force this time and they will not succumb. What will those who replace the despots in Tunis and Cairo offer their people? Democracy alone cannot feed or employ them…

The Political Significance of Arab Turmoil

Marzouq Al-Nusf, Sanhati

For more than a month now, the Arab world has been witnessing events unprecedented in its modern history. The self-immolation of a Tunisian college graduate on the 17th of December, 2010, has sparked a chain of events that resulted in the effective ousting of a dictator and the threatening of numerous others. After the departure of Tunisian president Zain Al Abideen Bin Ali this month, the 30 years old reign of Egyptian president Husni Mubarak is facing a serious challenge from its own rebelling people. Protests continue in many of the 22 Arab nations, either in solidarity with the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions, or in hopes of instigating their own corresponding rebellions against their authoritarian regimes.

One reason for viewing the Arab rebellions as significant is that they are unprecedented in the modern history of the region. Specifically, it is the civilian character of the rebellions that is key. Traditionally, transitions in political regimes in the Arab world have been carried out either by foreign powers, as in the 19th century and earlier, or by military coups, which was the trend in the 20th century. Indeed, the fact that the Tunisian army, and more recently the Egyptian one, has elected to abstain from actively shaping the course of events reinforces the crucial break with previous historical trends of military interventions in domestic politics.

More generally, the robustness and effectiveness of the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt have surprised even the keenest political observers, many of whom were more inclined to look for turmoil emerging from Europe in response to the global economic crisis. The Tunisian situation is a case in point. The country was perceived as so stable and uninteresting that the media, including the Arab speaking, could not excavate any worthy archival interviews with the Tunisian dictator to use in commenting on his character and inclinations. As for Egypt, the fact that there is a rebellion of any sort is seen as an anomaly in a national culture sometimes characterized, in a rather simplistic and prejudiced fashion, as submissive to the ruling figure from as old a time as when pharaohs ruled the land.

So far, the trajectory seems to point towards an increase in the spread and effect of rebellions in the region. The wave of civil unrest has spread from the relatively small Tunisia, with a population of around 10 million, to Egypt and its population of over 80 million. The rebellion against dictatorship has now taken root in the most populated, and arguably the most important, Arab nation. Hence, the remarkable significance of events in the Arab world has not yet exhausted itself, and may well continue to surprise the world.

It remains to be seen who will ultimately gain state power in the troubled Arab regimes, nonetheless it is possible to draw some implications of the very fact that regimes are being toppled by popular uprisings. Specifically, the fact that the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes have long been favored and supported by western powers means that the regimes’ uprooting will have ramifications on an international scale. France, as the primary guardian of the Tunisian dictatorship, has not only suffered strategic defeat with the dismantling of one of its strongholds in North Africa, but it had to endure public shame for its reluctance to give up its support to the Tunisian president, even when it was clear that his chances of survival were dismal. Right now, the United States seems to be hoping to avoid the French’s bluntness in suppressing Arab populations by carefully measuring its responses to the Egyptian situation.

A mapping of the Arab world’s alliances in pro and anti US hegemony terms is helpful. It is rather simple. The anti US policy regimes are 3: the Syrian regime, itself a dictatorship; the Hamas government in Gaza, which is an offspring of the islamist Muslim Brotherhood that was democratically elected to power; and potentially the new Lebanese government, where the former pro-US prime minister was voted out of office last month and replaced by a new one named by Hezbollah. As for the pro-US regimes, they are the other 20 governments in the region, including the Palestinian Authority. The camp’s members range from near-absolute monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula to secular dictatorships, such as the one in Algeria. Sudan and Libya are not considered in the anti US camp because they are not in fundamental contradiction with imperialist policy; rather their disputes with US hegemony can be resolved with minimal adjustments in policy.

From the US’s perspective, the alliances in the region thus far seem unproblematic, unless significant shuffling of regimes occurs. If democratic order is established in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is possible that the resulting governments will not align themselves with imperialist demands, if not oppose them diametrically. Aside from mere counting of numbers of allies, regime changes in the Arab world by people’s power could directly affect the US’s two main interests in the region, oil and Israel, particularly the latter. At this moment, two countries that border historical Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, are experiencing regime shifts that are likely to lead to less compromising policy on the part of the Arabs. The rebellion in Egypt, if it brings a form of democracy, and the new democratically formed government in Lebanon might not instigate war in the region immediately. Nonetheless, if Israel decides to engage in warfare against Hams in Gaza or Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, then it is more likely for these new regimes to more actively participate in the resistance efforts against Israel, as opposed to the previously observed complacency with Israeli and US dictates.

As for the perspective of rebelling Arabs on the streets, it is probably safe to assume that they do not have US hegemony as their primary focal point, but that does not mean that they look favourably upon it. The US, as the chief foreign player in the region, has itself to blame if its name is implicated further as the enemy. The US’s support for notoriously corrupt and ruthless regimes has left little doubt in the minds of suppressed Arabs about the gap between US flowery rhetoric and grim action. If its unconditional support for Israel is added to the picture, then the US is virtually making it impossible for any genuinely democratic Arab government, if one emerges, not to oppose its policy.

As a matter of fact, there have been precedents of western powers planting through their own policy the seeds of antagonism in the region. Perhaps the most famous example is that of president Nasser of Egypt, who emerged as the leader of the first major Arab military-lead revolution in 1952. Although Nasser proclaimed progressive programs early on, he had no particular preferences when it came to choosing between the socialist and capitalist camps. He was not opposed to securing ties of cooperation with the west because of its historical interest in the region. However, in 1956 when Britain and the US drew their funding from his flagship development project, the High Dam in Aswan, Nasser nationalized the Suez canal and looked to fortify his anti imperialist stance through strengthening relations with the USSR and leading non-aligned nations, including India and Yugoslavia at the time.

What the rebellions in the Arab world have brought forth is the possibility of resurrecting a solid anti-imperialist block in the Middle East. At the moment, two nations that border the Arab world, Turkey and Iran, are at odds with US and Israeli policy in the region. If progressive forces are to gain power in key Arab states such as Egypt, then the US-Israeli agenda of war and domination could face a serious obstacle. On an interregional scale, the leftist and anti-imperialist governments in Latin America may finally have allies in the new emerging block of Middle Eastern states defiant of US hegemony.

All that being said, there remain a number of open questions, the answer to which will significantly influence the course of analysis. Will the interim government in Tunisia complete its promised transition to democracy? Will the Egyptian rebellion succeed in brining about democracy? Will the uprisings continue to spread in the Arab world? And perhaps more importantly, what are the prospects of a genuinely emancipatory political force gaining power in the newly emerging regimes? These matters deserve a more thorough analysis. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the future of dictatorships in the Arab world has never looked bleaker.

(The author is a graduate student at the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.)

‘It prefigures for the Arab people a new horizon’: Vijay Prashad on the Arab revolt (Part II)

This is the concluding part of our interview with Vijay Prashad, a prominent Marxist scholar who teaches at Trinity College, Connecticut. To read the first part, please click here. His recent book, The Darker Nations, was chosen as the Best Nonfiction book by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in 2008 and it won the Muzaffar Ahmed Book Award in 2009. 

Vijay Prashad



Pothik Ghosh (PG): Why is it that most attempts in the Perso-Arabic world to conceptualise what Gramsci called the “national-popular” have come from radical left-nationalist intellectuals such as Edward Said rather than Marxists? How should or could the peculiarity of the Saidian theoretical enterprise of the national-popular inform and enrich working-class practice in West Asia? 

Vijay Prashad (VP): Strictly speaking, Gramsci’s “national-popular” is the emergence of the mass throughurban collective action, with the rural bursting through, and then being guided by the Jacobin (his word for an organised political force). The mass might drift into a-political action or passivity, Gramsci wrote, without the guidance of that Jacobin force. In today’s times, there is a tendency to hear about something like the Jacobin and shiver in fear that the energy of the “multitude” will be usurped by the Jacobin, that the authentic politics of the street will be taken over by the Organisation. It is in essence a misreading of anarchistic politics that this sort of fear has taken hold. I do not believe that anarchism is pure disorder; for those who believe this I propose a reading of Errico Malatesta’s “Anarchy and Organisation.” Of course, for those on the Marxist side of the ledger, Gramsci’s comments are our bread and butter. There is a need for the national-popular to be articulated through mass protest and the Jacobin canals. There is not so much that divides the Black and the Red.

It is not the case that only Edward Said has dealt with the national-popular in the Arab world. Take the case of Lebanon, where it is the Marxist historian (and eminent journalist) Fawaz Trabulsi who has written a remarkably informative account of the thwarted national-popular, with the emergence of Hezbollah. To my mind, Trabulsi’s is the best account of the Lebanese problem. It must be read widely to better understand the national dilemmas and the national-popular potentialities. My own interest in the Arab predicament was partly drawn by the work of people from an earlier generation like the writer and PFLP leader Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated in 1972. In the context of this new Arab Revolt, I recommend Kanafani’s pamphlet The 1936-37 Revolt in Palestine, a model for how to theorise the national-popular through the material of a revolt. These are role models for those who want to do detailed work on the Arab potential. The contingent is important, no doubt, but so too are the broad structures that need to be unearthed and developed.

PG: Lebanese-French Marxist Gilbert Achcar writes in his ‘Eleven Theses on the Current Resurgence of Islamic Fundamentalism’: “What is an elementary democratic task elsewhere – separation of religion and state – is so radical in Muslim countries, especially the Middle East, that even the “dictatorship of the proletariat” will find it a difficult task to complete. It is beyond the scope of other classes.” Does the ‘Jasmine’ Revolution portend a change for the better on that score? If not, how, in your view, should the working class forces in the region go about their business of shaping an effective ideological idiom that is rooted in local culture and yet articulates a question that is fundamentally global?

VP: We tend to exaggerate the authority of the clerics, or at least to treat it as natural, as eternal. Certainly, since the 1970s, clericalism has had the upper hand in the domain of the national-popular. In the Arab world, this has everything to do with the calcification of the secular regimes of the 1950s (the new states formed out of the export of Nasserism: from Egypt to Iraq), the deterioration of the Third World Project (especially the fractures in OPEC that opened up in the summer of 1990 and led to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait), and the promotion and funding of the advance guard of the Islamism through the World Muslim League (by the Saudis. The WML’s impact can be seen from Chechnya to Pakistan, and in parts of Indonesia).

If one goes back and looks at the period when the Third World Project and Nasserism were dominant, what you’d find is clerical intellectuals in the midst of an ideological battle against Marxism (mainly), at the same time as they borrowed from Bolshevik techniques of party building to amass their own organisational strength. I wrote about this in New Left Review (“Sadrist Stratagems,” in 2008) where I catalogued the intellectual work of Baqir al-Sadr, with his Iqtisaduna, a critique of Capital Vol. 1. Baqir’s al Da’wah al-Islamiyah was modeled on the Iraqi Communist Party, then dominant in the Shia slums of Baghdad. If you go farther East along this tendency, you will run into Haji Misbach, an Indonesian cleric, also known as Red Haji, who confronted the dynamic Indonesian Communist Party with his own brand of Islamic Communism. Like Baqir, Misbach was perplexed by the popularity of the CP in his society. He wanted to find a way to bring the spiritual to socialism. These are all precursors of Ali Shariati, the great Iranian thinker who was influenced by the Third World Project, and by Marxism, but once more wanted to bring the spiritual into it. For all these thinkers, the problem was quite the opposite to what it is today: the workers seemed ascendant, driven by the science of secular socialism. It terrified them, as much as we are assaulted by the rise of the clerics over the last few decades.

It is also not the case that the religious is more difficult to expunge in the Arab lands, or that Islam is more intractable than other faiths. If one turns toward India, or turns toward the United States, it is clear that the religious domain is often very reluctant to wither away. It was equally hard to push it away in the USSR. This is not just a question of religion, or Islam, but of cultural change in general. Cultural change from below is slow-moving, excruciating. Cultural change from above is much faster, the tempo clearer. It has to do with who controls the cultural institutions, but also with the depth of cultural resources. Religion emerges over the millenia as a shelter from the turmoil of life, and it enters so deeply into the social life of people that it cannot be so easy to remove its tentacles. Of course Islam might be harder to walk away from, given that it, unlike say Brahmanism or Catholicism, has a much finer edge to its egalitarianism. This is what propelled it from a minor Arabian religion to Andalucia and China within fifty years of its emergence.

I would say one more thing on this: since the Utopian horizon of socialism is in eclipse, why should someone risk their lives in struggle for it? The idea of the inevitability of socialism inspired generations to give themselves over to the creation of the Jacobin force. Religion has an unshakable eschatology, which secular politics absent Utopia lacks. No wonder that religion has inspired action, even if destructive rather than revolutionary, whereas secular politics is less inspirational these days.

The Arab Revolt of 2011 prefigures for the Arab people a new horizon. That is why it has moved from Tunisia to Jordan. Ben Ali’s departure set the new horizon. It is what the youth hold onto. If he can be made to flee, why not Mubarak, why not Abdullah II, and if the remanants of the Saudi Voice of the Vanguard decide to blow off the cobwebs and get to the streets, then the repellent Abdullah of Saudi (whose idea of political reform was to bring in his son-in-law into the Education ministry!).

PG: Does not the ongoing ‘Jasmine’ Revolution explode the myth of a postcolonial, anti-imperialist Third World, which is precisely what you deal with and kind of theoretically anticipate in your book The Darker Nations? If that is so, what is the new programmatic direction that the anti-imperialist struggle must now take?

VP: My book, The Darker Nations, provided the history of the collapse of the Third World Project. This collapse begins to be visible by the early 1980s. The roots are there in the defeat of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) process (that opens in the UN in 1973), in the break-down of solidarity in OPEC, in the exhaustion of the import-substitution industrialisation model, and in the narrowing of political freedoms in the Global South. The “assassination” of the Project comes through the debt crisis (1982 in Mexico opens the door) and through the reconfiguration of the international order by the late 1980s with the disapperance of the USSR, and the push for primacy by the US (the salvo was fired in Iraq in 1991, when the US pushed out the Iraqi army from Kuwait, and ignored an attempt by the USSR to mediate on behalf of Saddam Hussein). US primacy by the early 1990s throws salt on the wound of the Third World Project.

My interest in the book was to seek out the dialectics of freedom that would emerge out of the corpse of the Third World Project. What is left in it to be revived, and what are the social forces capable of building a new revolutionary horizon? The other side of history opens up with La Caracazo, the rebellion in Caracas in 1989 that prefigures the emergence of Chavez. By the way, in 2009, a Brookings survey found that Chavez was the most popular world leader in the Middle East! Where is Chavez of Arabia, we asked, but were not confident. In 2007, in his “Jottings on the Conjuncture,” Perry Anderson bemoaned the paralysis on the Arab Street. The mutterings existed, and indeed the insurgency in Iraq showed that the will was there. Protests in Western Sahara and in Lebanon had become commonplace. But these did not say what the Tunisians said, which was that they, like the Bolivarians, were prepared to stake themselves for an alternative pathway into the future. From Caracas to Cairo, the expressway of Freedom is being paved.

The Bolivarians are at a much more advanced stage. They have been able to stave off counter-revolution, and even though still in peril, they are able to leverage their oil wealth into some very interesting experiments toward socialism. It is going to be imperative to prove for our Egyptian and Arab friends that the path out of Ben Ali and Mubarak does not lead to Paris and New York, but to Caracas and La Paz. The programme of socialist construction is being tentatively written (with lots of errors, of course). We have to nudge in that direction, and against the idea of liberty as the value above egalitarianism and socialism. There are few explicitly anti-imperialist slogans in the air at this time.

By the way, this other side of history will form the final chapter of The Poorer Nations, which I am now putting together, and which should be done by the Summer of 2011.

PG: The ‘Muslim Question’ has rightly been one of the key preoccupations of the Indian Left in all its variegated multiplicity. Yet it has consistently failed to frame and articulate it as a question having a transformative potential. What lessons must the Indian Left – which has in large measure centred its articulation of the ‘Muslim Question’ on solidarity with the Islamicised anti-Americanism of the Perso-Arabic peoples – draw from the current upsurges that would enable it to overcome its failing on that score?

VP: To get to the heart of the issue of the ‘Muslim Question,’ one has to understand the theory of alliance formation. In today’s world, the principal contradiction, the Large Contradiction, is between Imperialism and Humanity. The social force of imperialism seeks to thwart the humanity of the planet by creating political rules for economic theft (the preservation of intellectual property for the Multi-national corporations, the allowance of subsidies in the North and not in the South, the enforcement of debt contracts for the South, but not for the international banks), and if these rules are broken, by military power. Imperialism is the principal problem in our planet, for our humanity.

The Lesser Contradiction is between the Left and the Reactionaries, who are not identical to imperialism. Indian Hindutva, American Evangelicalism and Zionism are all reactionary, but not part of the Lesser Contradiction. Those forms of Reaction are ensconced in the Larger Contradiction, since they are handmaidens of imperialism. What I refer to as the Reactionaries of the Lesser Contradiction are organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and so on. I indicate the Muslim groups not from an anti-Islamic point of view, but because, as I just mentioned, most of the other Reactionary religious formations are inside the essence of imperialism (they are joined there by the official clerics of Saudi Arabia, and of Egypt). These other groups are antagonistic to imperialism, and are from this standpoint able to capture the sentiments and politics of the people who are anti-imperialist nationalists. We are divided from them, but not against them in the same way as we are against Imperialism. To make these two contradictions the same is to fall into the liberal error of equivalence. We need to retain their separation.

That said, it is important to always offer a scrupulous and forthright critique of their shortcomings and their social degeneration. In 2007, the Communist Parties in India held an anti-imperialist meeting in Delhi. A Hezbollah representative (I think it was Ali Fayyad) came for it. At the plenary, Aijaz Ahmad lit into Fayyad regarding Hezbollah’s position on women’s rights. It is just what should be done. By all means form tactical alliances, if need be, but don’t let them get away with silence on the issues that matter to us, on social equality, on economic policy, on political rights. Even the Lesser Contradiction needs to be pushed and prodded. It has virulence at its finger tips. That has to be scorched. Clara Zetkin warned that the emergence of fascism can be laid partly on the failure of the workers and their Jacobin to move toward revolution effectively enough. Part of that effectiveness is to challenge those in the Lesser Contradiction, who are equally willing in certain circumstances to turn against the Left and become the footsoldiers of fascism.

In the 1980s, Hezbollah mercilessly killed cadre of the Lebanese Communist Party. Over the past three decades, relationships have mellowed and the much weaker LCP now works with Hezbollah in various ways. The LCP sees Hezbollah as “a party of resistance,” as it were. Part of the Lesser Contradiction. That has to be the attitude in the short-term. The LCP seeks out elements who are not fully given over to Dawa, the hardened Islamic militants in Hezbollah. There is another side that is more nationalist than Islamist. They are to be cultivated. There is also a part of Hezbollah that is perfectly comfortable with neo-liberalism, privatisation of the commons and so on. They too lean toward the Larger Contradiction. One has to be supple, forge a way ahead, be assertive in unity, find a way out of the weakness and reconstruct a left pole. A weak left with the national-popular in the hands of the “Islamist” parties: that is the context.

Arab Uproar

Ron Ridenour

Long time in the making! Long time suffering poverty, inequality, official murder-torture-imprisonment, despotism, fundamentalism, and governments lackeyed to US/Western powers.

I am no expert on Arabic/Middle East history or politics, other than knowing that US/Israel-led imperialism has had a grip on the entire area for decades, and before that there were other foreign oppressors. I know that in part of the Arab world—not currently involved in this uproar—the US-led “humanitarian” operation has cost upwards to two million Iraqi lives, millions of migrants fled and fleeing, tens of thousands tortured, and the destruction and thievery of much cultural wealth and history. European allies assist in this butchery. Something similar is occurring in Afghanistan, and extending into Pakistan.

Wikileaks’ dispersal of US Embassy cables from Tunisia—posted in the British Guardian, December 7, 2010 and January 28, 2011—show how duplicitous and corrupted all US governments are with the Ben Ali family government for the past two decades.

US ambassador to Tunisia, Robert F. Godec, wrote, on July 17, 2009, that the Ben Ali regime is: “sclerotic;” and that “Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems.”

On the other hand, Godec expressed the need to continue supporting this regime because, “The government is like-minded on Iran, is an ally in the fight against terrorism…the US Mission has, for the past three years, [responded] by offering greater cooperation…notably in the commercial and military assistance areas.”

The US government supports Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid annually, second only to Israel.

Most shamefully, a number of Arabic governments aid and abet the US in its “war against terrorism”. Egypt, and Tunisia—where the courageous uproar began a month ago—are among them. In others—Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon—many thousands of people act supportively with the Tunisian people, and with their own similar demands.

Will this lead to revolution, to socialism, as a rejection of misery under capitalism? Marxist analysis of what is takes before a socialist revolution can break out and grow entails two aspects. First, objective conditions must be present: too much poverty, exploitation and oppression to ignore; plus sufficiently high level of technology (industrial or?), and acutely antagonistic productive relations.

The second condition is subjective, in which a significant number (majority or?) of the most productive and exploited of industrial workers (perhaps also or either a significant number of land proletariat and small peasants) are conscious enough of their position as exploited, and are angry enough to take up the call for revolt. Overthrowing oppressors—as is occurring now, or is in the process of occurring, in some Arabic nations—is a good indication that a huge percentage of folk (in many places the large majority) are ready subjectively. Many have been murdered, thousands more arrested, yet they persist, especially in Tunisia and Egypt.

(Iraq, also an Arabic nation, has not moved into supportive action. Most of its people are too brutalized by the US+ invasion and their accomplice national governments, supported by the Persian neighbor, Iran, to come into the streets. But, I suggest that many have their hearts beside their Arabic brothers and sisters in uproar, and time may bring them to fore. But this will probably not occur shortly in Saudi Arabia where the US-backed multi-billionaire government leaders rule with a fascist fist.)

The objective material factors for Tunisia and Egypt are, in large part, present as well. Does the high level of production relations necessary exist? I do not know. Are the workers antagonistic enough with the bosses and do they know that (condition two)? I’d say yes to both.

I do not seek to become an oracle. I wish merely to shed us of illusions. It takes more than what is occurring now to win over not only the national oligarchies and their armies and police forces well-equipped with US-French-British armaments, but also the very Empire itself awaiting in nearby skies and waters for the signal to move in if all else fails. The people are not armed well enough.

Nevertheless, I am encouraged by a sense of pan-Arabic unity, a sense that they are all one brethren no matter the name of the State. I do not see, however, in many of these areas, that the people are well organized, that they have their own parties or unions that lead with sagaciousness, or that they lead at all. There is great spontaneity and determination. All to the good! But people never win over the oppressors unless they have organizations that formulate policy and direction.

In Tunisia, however, I see a positive development with the January 14th Front, forces involved in the revolt. The eight organizations and political parties forming it, several illegal and operating underground, gathered into a united front on the day that the dictator fled the country. They propose 14 points to move forward, to form a people’s government and change the economic foundations.

Among the key points are anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist demands, coupled with democratic and social demands to raise the people out of poverty and exploitation.

  • Eliminate all temporary governments that have any relations with the Ben Ali government and party (the RCD).
  • Dissolve the existing state apparatus and create an assembly of peoples’ organizations for a new constitutional foundation.
  • Eliminate the secret service and the political police.
  • Jobs, health care, civil and social rights for all.
  • Solidarity with all forces for liberation, especially with Palestinians in opposition to Zionism.
  • Most of you who read this commentary are not in the Arabic region. To you I say: we are all brothers and sisters in our common struggle! Take up what arm you can and support these people today, and hope that, one day, we will all support one another to build a universe where we are all one free people living with essential needs!

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