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Sunday, 01 May 2011 07:58

Revolution in North Africa and the Middle East

The big media companies have dubbed the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East ‘protests for democracy’. Some right-wing groups have labeled them protests against ‘Islamic socialism’ and a desire for more ‘open and free markets’. Religious fundamentalist groups have claimed the CIA is involved, having decided to simply topple he regimes due to some ‘fall-out’. The Libyan leader, Gaddaffi, accuses al-Qaeda of being behind the revolt against him.

The multi-national media companies are not just reporting, they are driving home a political point. While during the first few days of international coverage of the Tunisian revolution they made much of the country’s high levels of unemployment and poverty, they never genuinely exposed their causes. The only explanation given was that all levels of government were permeated by corruption, implying that these countries’ economies could provide enough for the masses if only the dictators who have impoverished their countries by looting their wealth could be removed. By winning free and fair elections the material conditions would change and the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, etc, will experience ‘A better life for all’. But as we have seen in South Africa, as long as the capitalist ruling class retains control of the economy, democratic rights offer cold comfort to the mass of unemployed, the working poor, the youth who today feel they ‘live for nothing’.

Social roots of the uprisings

The outcry for democratic rights, against police brutality and torture, and for regime change stems from the urgent sense among youth and workers in the region that they can no longer live under these conditions and that change has to come. The corporate media is however missing what conditions brought this about. On the streets and workplaces, beyond the newsroom experts, a simple truth is exposed: the people want jobs and those who have jobs want a living wage. ‘Bread, Freedom, Dignity’ was a common slogan in Tunisia in January. The spark that literally and figuratively set Tunisia, and soon thereafter the whole region alight, was unemployed graduate-turned-street-vendor Mohamed Bou’Azizi’s desperate act of setting himself on fire after being harassed by police for trying to make a living selling in the street. Unemployment in the Arab world is amongst the worst in the world affecting up to 50% of youth – the ‘waiting generation’. The rising food prices have also been a key trigger of the revolts. The backdrop was set by decades of neo-liberal attacks on the social gains that had been implemented under the likes of Nasser in Egypt and Bourgiba in Tunisia, including real wage cuts, more precarious jobs, and looting of the economy by both multinational companies and corrupt politicians – all accelerated in the wake of the ‘global recession’.

Spearheaded by the Mubarak regime, a very close ally of the US and Israel, neo-liberal ‘reforms’ in the countries now in upheaval were followed by relatively high GDP growth rates in the past few years. These didn’t create jobs, but widened the divide between rich and poor.

Revolution & counter-revolution

The fundamental conditions that led to revolution in Egypt and Tunisia are not just present across the Arab world, but all over the neo-colonial world and increasingly also in the centres of imperialism. The historical defeats of the workers’ movement during the 20th century – the defeat of the international revolutionary wave following the Russian revolution of 1917, the subsequent isolation and bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian workers’ state, the rise of Stalinism and reformism and the collapse of both in the past 20 years – however weigh heavily on the present. The precious experiences of struggle and theoretical lessons which need to guide the way forward have been largely forgotten. The new period holds unprecedented opportunities for retying the knot of history with those experiences. As is shown e.g. in Tunisia where the revolutionary ferment has only cooled down slightly after not only forcing out Ben Ali but also the interim government that replaced him, strikes and all forms of social protests have bloomed showing the masses are learning quickly from events. The CWI is working to root branches of conscious revolutionaries on the ground to build further on this magnificent basis.

Burkina Faso: student’s death sparks growing uprisings

A mass movement, mainly led by student organisations but also involving informal traders, workers, and now soldiers, is now spreading across Burkina Faso after being sparked by the death in police custody of student Justin Zongo on February 20. Inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, people revolted in anger against Blaise Campoaré’s repressive regime, mass unemployment and poverty, by attacking town halls, governors’ offices and police stations. Arms were captured at numerous police stations and many burnt down. Prisoners were set free by demonstrators storming jails. The movement spread from Koudougou in the central-west, where the governor and chief of police were sacked on February 28 in an attempt to pacify the protestors. The regime has combined such carrots with the stick of bloody repression. The army, police and gendarmes were deployed to stop a mass demonstration called by the student union in the capital Ougadougou on March 11. In response to the university students’ strike, the government on March 14 closed down all public universities, residences, canteens and financial aid facilities; leaving students on the streets.

The repression has failed to stop the ferment spreading. The movement is now re-linking to 2008’s ‘food riots’ - world food prices now exceed 2008 levels and are still rising, along with fuel. A new ‘local development tax’ provides further provocation. On April 13, protests against the high cost of living were organised in ten cities. The following day a mutiny by Campoaré’s Presidential Guard over unpaid allowances set off a wider army mutiny. Street traders and students joined in the mass protests.

Campoaré briefly fled the capital, the ruling party headquarters and other symbols of the regime were burnt down. Trying to quell the unrest, Campoaré dismissed his cabinet and appointed a new one as well as a new army chief on April 15. Trade unions have called countrywide mass protests against the regime for April 30.

Portugal: government falls amid ferment not seen since 1974 revolution

On March 12, about 300 000 people marched across Portugal in a ‘day of rage’ organised mostly over Facebook. The marches were dominated by young people who suffer mass unemployment and casual, precarious work. Strikes and other mass actions are also taking place in several sectors. The protest movement, which is ongoing, follows on a November 2010 general strike which was the country’s biggest since the 1974 revolution. The mass struggle has stifled the attempts by the Portuguese government to push through yet another austerity package to appease the IMF, the EU and the international bond markets – ‘reforms’ which would make it even easier to ‘hire and fire’, impose cuts, freeze pensions and increase VAT. As parliament rejected the package under pressure from the rage on streets and workplaces, the prime minister resigned at the end of March. While the government is in limbo, and expected the country to be next in line in Europe to go bankrupt, working class Portugal is boiling. A sustained movement, involving general strikes and the setting up of democratic mass assemblies and committees could defeat the capitalist offensive. The current trade union leadership is however trying to hold the struggle back. Socialismo Revolucionario, the CWI in Portugal, is campaigning for a united socialist front to challenge the capitalist offensive also in the new elections in June.

United States: anti-union bill wakes sleeping giant

The US working class, counted as down-and-out by many including ‘on the Left’, rose to its feet in February as public sector workers in the state of Wisconsin fought back against state governor Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights. In a matter of two weeks, a militant and largely spontaneous mass movement erupted, involving not only public sector employees, but their families, students and workers from nearly all sectors of the economy. 200 000 marched in Madison, Wisconsin on March 12. Solidarity protests of tens of thousands have also been held in other states, where similar anti-union laws are mooted. When the Wisconsin government passed the anti-union bill, the anger exploded and protesters briefly occupied the state Capitol Building, as well as the square in front of it, inspired by Cairo’s Tahrir square. The trade union leaders have refused to call a strike to stop the bill. Instead they are trying to channel the struggle into a campaign for the capitalist Democratic Party, which is also attacking public sector workers. However this struggle ends, the attack has sparked a spirit to fight-back, now becoming widespread amongst American workers. As a metal worker commented to comrades from Socialist Alternative (the CWI in the US), Walker and the elite ‘awoke a sleeping giant. Now they’re feeding it breakfast, coffee and steroids’.

Greece: 8th general strike in less than a year

Greece came to a standstill on February 23 as workers, and also small shop-keepers, came out on the country’s eighth (8th!) one-day general strike in less than a year. The social-democratic government has carried out four massive rounds of spending cuts, which include privatisations, wage cuts and attacks on pensions, in line with the conditions for the financial bail-out agreed with the EU and the IMF in May 2010. Workers are made to pay for government bail-outs of failing banks which alone account for 25 percent of Greece’s budget deficit. The financial bail-out has not ended the economic crisis; on the contrary, it is worsening, with GDP shrinking 6 percent in the last quarter of 2010.

The trade union leaders have called the series of general strikes in the hope that they will ease some of the pressure they are under from rank-and-file workers and ‘scare’ the government into making concessions. They are failing on both fronts. The government is forcing through the cuts, while the sense of anger and alienation are deepening among wide layers of workers and youth. The level of fury and determination is indicated by other mass movements such as the mass non-payment campaign – working class commuters are refusing to pay increased public transport fares and road-tolls. The extent of the defiance is so great that the government has been unable to take action. At the same time, public transport drivers have been involved in industrial action for months in protest against wage cuts and privatisation. Xekinima, the DSM’s sister organisation in Greece, is at the forefront of several of these struggles and reports that “the economic, social and political situation is becoming explosive”.

Germany: anti-nuclear mass protests switch off reactors

During the last weekend of March, Germany saw the biggest ever demonstration against nuclear energy as 240 000 marched across the country. The government has now closed down its nuclear reactors. The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan injected mass outrage in a situation where rolling mass protests both against nuclear transport and against the building of an elitist new train station (Stuttgart 21) have been going on for more than a year, with regular demonstrations of up to 100 000 people. Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), the CWI Germany is playing a leading role in these events.

Britain: workers take lead from youth as fight-back begins

A million people, according to al-Jazeera, marched against government spending cuts in London on March 26 – the biggest workers’ demonstration in 20 years. The trade union leaders could eventually not withstand the pressure from members to act against the massive cuts, after the stunning effect had been broken by November’s mass student movement against the trebling of tuition fees and cutting of school students grants. The Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) is spearheading a national anti-cuts campaign and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition to challenge this unstable coalition government of Liberls and Conservatives.


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