By Asad Ismi
“Fight like an Egyptian!” was the cry echoed by supporters of the Egyptian Revolution around the world when in 17 days the people of that country overthrew its 30-year-old dictatorship on February 11. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign and flee on that day, after millions of Egyptians joined a massive uprising against his government that included demonstrations, protests, labour strikes, and civil disobedience.
The movement was largely peaceful, but about 300 protesters were killed by the country’s security forces. The end of the Mubarak regime was a stunning blow to U.S. imperialist control of the Middle East, of which Egypt and Israel are the most important components. These countries are the top two recipients of U.S. military and economic aid in the world.
Mubarak’s ouster was the high point in an amazing Middle East-wide revolution that has removed two U.S. client regimes in a month (Tunisia being the other one), and now threatens to dislodge a series of Washington’s Arab puppets, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, and Algeria. As I write, most of these regimes are fighting for their existence against popular uprisings. Even if they survive, it is obvious that U.S. domination of the Middle East has evaporated, seemingly overnight. This is the area Washington considers the most important in economic and strategic terms, mainly due to its massive oil reserves.
What has already replaced U.S. hegemony in the Middle East is a struggle for its future between a corrupt, repressive ruling class backed by Western imperialism and the region’s largely poor people rising up to reclaim their countries, resources, and economic and political rights. Power in the Middle East today is in the streets.
The Middle East Revolution follows — and has been inspired by — the Latin American Revolution which saw the coming to power of 10 left-wing governments in Latin America. This transformation ended U.S. domination of the continent and redistributed wealth to poor majorities by expanding access to health care and education, and fulfilling basic needs for housing and food.
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, one of the main leaders of the Latin American Revolution, is the most popular international politician in the Middle East, precisely because he stood up to the U.S. and raised his people’s living standards. In both the Latin American and Middle Eastern Revolutions, it is the poor rising up to reclaim countries that rightfully belong to them. With first Latin America and now the Middle East slipping out of U.S. control, it is obvious now that the U.S. empire truly is collapsing, as I predicted in 2005 that it would (see CCPA Monitor, May 2005).
As in Latin America, the Middle East Revolution has been mainly caused by the immense poverty, unemployment, and corruption created by U.S.-enforced neoliberalism. In the case of the Middle East, the poverty has been accompanied by repression and dictatorship that have blocked any avenues of democratic change. In Tunisia, the U.S.-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled for 23 years. Among Tunisia’s largely young population of 10 million, youth unemployment was 42%, official corruption was rampant, and most wealth was monopolized by Ben Ali, his family, and friends.
The dictator’s financial worth was $3.2 billion, and half of the Tunisian economic élite was related to him by blood or marriage. Being aware of the President’s upcoming economic decisions, members of the Ben Ali clan engaged in insider trading, buying up companies and real estate they knew would suddenly increase in value. If anyone protested this blatant nepotism and corruption, there were 80,000 police officers to suppress them.
Tunisia was considered a model neoliberal economy by the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF), which insisted on cutting official subsidies for food and transportation, thus further increasing poverty. Under IMF direction, Ben Ali also enforced “a frenzied privatization of major enterprises” that again benefited his friends and foreign multinationals, while increasing unemployment and poverty in the population. The regime kept labour costs low by repressing trade unions.
While Ben Ali, his friends, and his main Western backers, the U.S. and France, enjoyed the fruits of neoliberal exploitation, the Tunisian people grew increasingly poorer. One of them was Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death sparked the Tunisian Revolution. Bouazizi was a 26-year-old college graduate who lived in the southern city of Sudi Bouzid. He could not find a job and so became a vendor selling fruits and vegetables to support his family of eight. His merchandise was confiscated by the police for lack of a permit. Bouazizi did not have the money to bribe the notoriously corrupt police.
On December 17, 2010, in an act of desperation, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of police headquarters. His last words were: “No more poverty and no more unemployment.” As one observer put it, “Thousands of young people recognized Mohamed’s situation as their own and were moved to action by his dying words.” Thus began the Tunisian and Middle East Revolutions.
Egypt, too, was subjected to a similar lethal combination of neoliberalism, poverty, corruption, and repressive dictatorship which sparked its revolution in which workers have played a leading role. About half of the people in Egypt had to live on $2 a day or less, and 50% of Egyptian men were unemployed, while former dictator Mubarak’s family amassed a fortune of more than $5 billion which they stashed away in secret bank accounts and properties in London, Paris, and New York.
Also held up as an economic model by the IMF, Egypt enacted large-scale privatizations of state enterprises at the Fund’s direction in the 1990s, impoverishing workers and fostering corruption. The private owners had few incentives to employ workers or keep jobs in Egypt. Industrial workers were further deprived when Mubarak enacted anti-labour legislation in 2004. The situation became desperate, triggering a series of workers’ revolts against neoliberalism.
According to economic analyst Mike Whitney, “This [revolution] isn’t about removing a despot. It’s about class warfare, of which no one will speak in the Western media. The revolution signals the rise of organized labour, a frontal assault on the Washington Consensus [neoliberalism], and the race-to-the-bottom regime that has pushed Egyptian workers to the breaking point. [Egyptian] workers everywhere have been rebelling against the miserable conditions, slave wages, and privatization. The privatization of state industries in Egypt is the proximate cause of the current uprising. It has led to a general slide in living standards, to the point where people would rather face the policeman’s truncheon than endure more-of-the-same.”
Nick Beams, editor of the World Socialist Website, explains: “The working class has played an extremely powerful role in the Egyptian revolution. It is its real driving force. It was the intervention of the working class, in the form of a series of strikes on February 9 and 10 , and the developing movement towards a general strike that was the crucial factor in the decision of the upper echelons of the military that Mubarak had to go.” The Egyptian labour movement calls not just for higher wages for its members, but also for a better society where people can live free “from the humiliation of slavery.” As the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers’ Services [in Egypt] states in its manifesto: “Freedom is not just the demand of youth… We want freedom so that we can express our demands and rights… so we can find a way to monitor the wealth of our country, the result of our hard work that is being stolen… and so we can re-distribute it with some sense of justice… (and) so that different sectors of society who have been oppressed can get more of what it is owed to them so they don’t have to needlessly suffer from hunger and illness.”
As stated above, the overthrow of the Mubarak regime was a stunning blow to U.S. imperialist control of the Middle East, of which Egypt and Israel were the most important components. These countries are the top two recipients of U.S. military and economic aid in the world. Egypt has been Israel’s ally since the two countries signed a U.S.-brokered peace agreement known as the Camp David Accords in September 1978. Before that, Israel and Egypt had been enemies, having fought three wars in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Egypt has the most powerful army in the Arab world, as well as the largest population at 80 million.
Having Egypt allied to Israel and the U.S. meant that Arab countries could not unite against Israel and thereby compel it to accept an independent Palestinian state. With Egypt on its side, Israel not only could attack the Palestinians as it did in 2009, but was free to invade Lebanon in 1982 and in 2006, when it killed thousands of civilians. Israel was also emboldened to threaten Iran with attack constantly, and generally act as the U.S.-funded destabilizer of the Middle East. Also allied with Israel and Washington were the other U.S. puppet regimes of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, and Tunisia. This U.S. client state network ensured the attainment of three key U.S. objectives: that the Arabs would remain divided and policed by Israel and thus easy to control; that three million Palestinians would remain suppressed by Israel and kept under occupation, and, most importantly, that the West would continue to get cheap oil.
The Middle East Revolution has disrupted the U.S. client state network significantly and thrown the attainment of its three objectives into grave doubt. Arabs are no longer easy to control for the benefit of the West. Any elected Egyptian government that takes power after the scheduled elections will have to distance itself from the U.S. and Israel. This government will firstly have to open the border with Gaza, thereby weakening Israel’s hold over the Palestinians. The new Egyptian government will also have to contest Israel’s military domination of the Middle East and work towards attaining an independent state for the Palestinians. An assertive Egypt, in alliance with other revolutionary Arab regimes, will dramatically reduce U.S.-Israeli power in the Middle East.
As for the third Western objective of maintaining a supply of cheap oil from the Middle East, the Revolution has eliminated this prospect already. The era of cheap oil is over. According to Professor Michael T. Klare, author of the book Blood and Oil, “Whatever the outcome of the protests, uprisings, and rebellions now sweeping the Middle East, one thing is guaranteed: the world of oil will be permanently transformed. Consider everything that’s now happening as just the first tremor of an oilquake that will shake our world to its core. For a century, stretching back to the discovery of oil in southwestern Persia before World War I, Western powers have repeatedly intervened in the Middle East to ensure the survival of authoritarian governments devoted to producing petroleum. Without such interventions, the expansion of Western economies after World War II and the current affluence of industrialized societies would be inconceivable. Here, however, is the news that should be on the front pages of newspapers everywhere: That old oil order is dying, and with its demise we will see the end of cheap and readily accessible petroleum — forever.”
The effect of the Middle East Revolution on oil prices has been rapid and significant: the price for North Brent Crude rose to almost $115 a barrel on February 24, the highest it has been since the world economic crisis of October 2008. Saudi Arabia is the biggest oil producer in the Middle East, providing the world economy with about eight million barrels of oil a day. However, the country cannot maintain this rate of oil export, partly due to rising domestic demand and partly because it too is threatened with rebellion within and outside its borders. Forty percent of Saudi youths are unemployed, and those who are employed make only $830 a month, on average, while Saudi royal princes (who number about 7,000) are paid up to $250,000 a month in official stipends.
Much public resentment has been generated by such stark disparity and relative deprivation in a very rich country. As Professor Klare puts it: “Assuming the royal family survives the current round of upheavals, it will undoubtedly have to divert more of its daily oil output to satisfy rising domestic consumption levels and fuel local petrochemical industries that could provide a fast-growing, restive population with better-paying jobs.” In April 2010, Khalid al-Falih, head of the state oil company Saudi Aramco, stated that by 2028 domestic oil consumption could reach 8.3 million barrels a day, with only a few million barrels available for export. There is no other country in the world that can take Saudi Arabia’s place in terms of oil exports, so, as Klare concludes: “The oil economy will shrivel and with it the global economy as a whole.”
Saudi Arabia is also threatened by a spreading revolution in neighbouring Bahrain, to such an extent that it invaded that country on March 15. Two thousand troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) entered Bahrain on that day to put down an uprising by the Shia majority in the country which is calling for the ouster of their Sunni royalist dictator King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa. The GCC is made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and 1,200 of the troops sent to Bahrain are Saudi. The New York Times called this invasion “combustible,” and it clearly puts Saudi Arabia in the position of an occupier.
The Shia majority in Bahrain has long complained about being subjected to discrimination by the Sunni ruling élite. Large-scale public protests against the king broke out in February, inspired by the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The Shia opposition wants the king to give up his powers to an elected legislature. Seven protesters were killed by security forces in February, and dozens more were injured on March 13 in clashes with police.
Bahrain borders the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which is the kingdom’s oil centre. This province also has a Shia majority, and the Saudi royal family fears that the Shia rebellion in Bahrain will spread to its own Shias and that any concessions the Bahraini monarch makes to his Shias will also be demanded by theirs. However, because the GCC countries are Sunni, the invasion creates the possibility of a spreading sectarian conflict if the biggest Shia power in the Middle East, which is Iran, decides to help the Bahraini opposition which is so far unarmed. Iran has condemned the invasion, and the Bahraini Shias have called it “a declaration of war.” About 80% of Muslims in the world belong to the Sunni sect and about 20% to the Shia sect; some Muslim countries including Iran, Bahrain, and Lebanon have Shia majorities.
Whatever the outcome of this particular uprising, the Middle East Revolution has already changed the world for the better by showing that a determined, united people cannot be defeated — not even by the most powerful empire in human history. With little or no weaponry, the Arab people have vanquished the most militaristic of enemies and shown the U.S. to be an impotent giant unable to deploy its military might. The struggle is on now for the resources and countries of the world between the decaying, corrupt and genocidal Northern élite and the impoverished people of the South who, as Marx said of them, “have nothing to lose but their chains.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, April 2011
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He has written extensively on U.S. imperialism and the Middle East.