It has been almost three years since the countries of the Middle East and North Africa were first rocked by the wave of revolutionary uprisings that became known as the “Arab Spring.” In this region rich with oil wealth, trade routes and strategic assets, dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak, whom the imperialist powers had long relied on to protect their interests, were quickly ousted; other tyrants also seemed on the verge of being overthrown. Millions of people believed that after generations of suffering under foreign domination buttressed by the police-state oppression of local rulers, a new future of freedom was within reach.
Today, however, the revolutionary movements in the region are fighting for their survival, and the dream of freedom seems as far away as ever. From all-out war on the rebellious Syrian people by the Assad dictatorship to the military seizure of power in Egypt in July, counterrevolutionary forces are now ascendant. But they are not yet triumphant – the masses’ struggles continue. They deserve all our solidarity, and a critical discussion of how they can find a way forward to victory is also necessary.
As Marxists we believe that the answer to this question starts with an analysis of the interests of the various social classes in these countries and their relationship to the imperialist powers that dominate the region.
The strength of the revolutionary movements has come from the participation of millions of working-class and other poor people. When Mohamed Bouazizi, the poor street-seller of fruits and vegetables in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest police harassment, exploited and oppressed people throughout the region could identify with his desperation. Sharing a common experience of intolerable poverty and oppression, when these masses rose up their struggles crossed all boundaries of religious and national division. Oppressors of all types were challenged – rulers tied to Western imperialism like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt; Assad in Syria, a Russian ally; monarchies like Bahrain’s Sunni royal family, as well as idiosyncratic nationalist tyrants like Libya’s Qaddafi.
For the masses, the call for democratic freedoms was inextricably bound to demands for relief from crushing exploitation and poverty. The simple call for Bread and Freedom! was embraced by every struggle. But it is particularly dangerous for capitalist ruling classes in the oppressed countries to concede democratic rights – precisely because the masses inevitably use such rights to struggle for their urgent economic interests.
Capitalist classes in the West have been able to rule through democratic forms for extended periods, thanks to their imperialist super-exploitation of the rest of the world, which has allowed them to maintain large middle classes with at least a partial stake in the system. But in the nations of the “Global South,” dominated and exploited by the great powers, the ruling classes rarely enjoy such a broad base of support. If they conceded democratic freedoms they could face the immediate danger of class struggles that demanded major economic changes and could even threaten capitalist rule altogether.
This understanding forms the basis of the theory and strategy of permanent revolution, first fully developed by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky a century ago. Trotsky argued that the bourgeois classes in the oppressed countries would turn to counterrevolution before allowing mass struggles against dictatorship and foreign domination to threaten their power. The aims of democracy and national self-determination, which once inspired bourgeois revolutions against feudalism, could only find lasting victory in this epoch if the working class led the masses of exploited and oppressed people in revolutions that overthrew capitalism and sought to build socialism.
This perspective remains true today, in a world which despite all its changes is still dominated by the imperialist powers. And it is doubly valid in the Middle East, whose oil resources and trade routes are so essential to Western capitalism; here the ruling classes are the least able to concede democratic reforms. That is why we in the League for the Revolutionary Party hold that for the masses of the region to realize their dreams of bread and freedom, the multi-class revolutionary struggles that have swept the region will have to become working-class led revolutions against capitalism if they are to achieve their demands and avoid defeat.
Syria’s revolution against Assad has been marked from the beginning by the prominent role played by the masses of working-class and poor people. The revolution began in the country’s impoverished smaller cities, towns and rural areas, though it quickly gained support in the biggest cities, especially their working-class and poor neighborhoods. The movement has faced first brutal repression and then an all-out war by the regime, which has killed over 150,000 people and turned millions more into refugees both inside an outside the country.
The regime’s violence forced sections of the previously peaceful mass movement to arm themselves in self-defense, a struggle from which grew today’s nationwide insurgency. As the struggle against Assad militarized, however, the mass movement’s local committees and governing councils lost a significant degree of control over the revolution. Moreover, as the search for money and weapons became the paramount, life-and-death concern for so many anti-Assad fighters, bourgeois forces both inside Syria and abroad found enhanced opportunities to gain influence.
Some on the left have denounced the Syrian revolution as an imperialist plot from the beginning. Their attitude expresses a contemptuously elitist belief that millions of people are so stupid as to voluntarily risk their lives in a struggle against their basic interests and in support of their oppressors. This cynical view reflects illusions that regimes like Syria’s might play a progressive and anti-imperialist role. However, while imperialist domination can at times push bourgeois regimes to resist the dictates of great powers, they will only do so in order to secure better terms for oppressing and exploiting their own working classes. And as Assad’s alliance with Russian imperialism exemplifies, where such bourgeois forces flout the demands of one imperialist power, they do so generally by accommodating to another – at the masses’ expense.
In fact, Syria’s revolution can best be understood as a rebellion by the masses against the Assad regime’s failure to defend Syria from imperialism. In the preceding years Assad imposed a range of “free-market” neo-liberal reforms that opened the country to greater imperialist exploitation and plunged millions into deeper poverty. The uprising was a revolt against these conditions as much as against the police state that enforced them. The struggle between revolution and counterrevolution in Syria is striking confirmation that only the exploited and oppressed people, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the overthrow of capitalism, can be relied on to fight to the end to liberate their countries from the imperialists’ grip.
The limits of bourgeois anti-imperialism have received a particularly stark exposure in the case of Hezbollah. Before the Syrian revolution Hezbollah was revered by the masses of the region for its success in defeating Israeli attacks on Lebanon. In reality it fought not out of a commitment to the liberation of the oppressed, but in order for its leading figures to enjoy their share of capitalist wealth and power in Lebanon. So when it feared that Assad’s fall would cut its supply of arms from Iran and thus its grip on power, Hezbollah sent its forces to join Assad’s in fighting to crush the revolution.
Others on the left, prompted by the rise of counterrevolutionary jihadist forces in the anti-Assad struggle, have given up on the Syrian revolution, claiming that it has been transformed into a sectarian war. But this ignores the continued mass struggle for the revolution’s original demands of democratic freedom and economic justice, a struggle which is increasingly confronting the Islamists as well as the regime. It also overlooks that the jihadists’ rise in influence in Syria through arms mirrors the similar rise to power of counterrevolutionary Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt through elections. But the masses in all three countries are learning through experience that the Islamists are not their allies.
Importantly, it is Assad’s regime that has by far the biggest role in trying to divide the revolution along lines of religious sectarianism. The mass movement has drawn support from among all of Syria’s religious, national and ethnic groups; it declared its opposition to sectarianism from the beginning with its slogan “One, One, One – the Syrian People are One!” In an attempt to break this unity, the dictatorship has conducted repeated sectarian massacres against Sunni Muslim communities, and it has encouraged bourgeois Shiite political forces in the region – most importantly Iran’s clerical dictators and Hezbollah – to join its counterrevolutionary war. While the regime has hunted down secular leftist and liberal activists, imprisoning, torturing and killing many, it has released jihadists from its prisons, including the leaders of the now infamous Jabhat al-Nusra group. And now in areas where the regime no longer reigns, the jihadists themselves are playing an ever greater role in abducting and assassinating secular revolutionaries fighting for democracy – in an effort to establish their own counterrevolutionary dictatorship.
Bourgeois forces on the anti-Assad side have also had an interest in playing along with the dictatorship’s sectarian strategy. For as long as the mass movement fights for democratic freedoms and social and economic justice for all, it represents a threat to capitalist power and profit in a post-Assad Syria and throughout the region. Saudi Arabia and Qatar hope to gain from supporting the insurgency, but only if they could control fighting forces on the ground and prevent the struggle in Syria from spreading further. So in exchange for financial and material support, they have demanded adherence to their brands of Sunni Islamism. This diverts the masses from a more class-conscious perspective and renders them more easily divided. Nevertheless, the armed forces they have managed to gain control of are still only fractions of the forces fighting to overthrow the regime.
The Western imperialists have had an interest in seeing Assad leave power, especially because they want to see Syria’s ties with Iran and Hezbollah cut. But the West’s primary concern has been to keep the dictatorship’s repressive apparatus intact – in order to keep the masses down and protect the stability of Syria’s neighbors, above all Israel. Thus while feigning sympathy for the rebels, the Western imperialists have prevented them from getting the arms they need to topple the regime. Even when the dictatorship flagrantly violated President Obama’s edict against the use of chemical weapons, the U.S. and its allies have refrained from attacking. Their agreement to cooperate with Assad in removing his chemical weapons reflects the U.S.’s interest in maintaining his regime as a force for imperialist stability in the region.
The Syrian people are not passively accepting these treacherous machinations. On the contrary, they have mobilized in protest against them at every turn, despite the very difficult conditions of war. Mass demonstrations have condemned the Western imperialists’ repeated attempts to create an unrepresentative government in exile, and mass protests confront counterrevolutionary Islamist forces where they attempt to enforce their own repressive rule. Popular committees and elected councils have demanded that armed groups subordinate themselves to their control, and they have had some limited but important successes.
Revolutionary socialists in Syria have to be ready to bloc with all forces that are prepared to defend the masses. Fighting to defeat Assad’s attacks is a prerequisite for winning an audience among the workers and other poor people for a strategy that would put their interests first. And their heroic determination to continue to fight to overthrow the Assad dictatorship may still triumph against the greatest odds, especially if there is a new revolutionary breakthrough in the region. The Iranian state in particular faces the danger of popular upheaval. Iran’s working class is growing angrier at the oppression and exploitation it faces under the clerical dictatorship. Working-class revolution in Iran could deal a mighty blow to the current wave of counterrevolutionary sectarianism and provide the Syrian revolution with a desperately needed ally.
No matter how it unfolds, the extraordinary struggle in Syria has already served to greatly expose the treachery of bourgeois nationalist and Islamist forces.This confirms the extraordinary creative potential and power of the oppressed when they rise up. It has thus contributed greatly to the political education of the masses of the region that is essential to their ultimate triumph.
The imperialist backers of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships prefer that their domination of countries be covered by at least the illusion of democracy. Washington in particular encouraged the ruling classes’ security apparatuses to try to avoid massacring protesters. Instead the imperialists applauded highly stage-managed elections to bring to power bourgeois “opposition” forces that were committed to ending the mass struggles – in particular the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.
By the time the uprisings broke out, the Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia had evolved into movements led by private capitalists who were excluded from state power. Receiving financial support from the Gulf States, they combined their Islamist politics with the provision of charity services to the poor in order to win popular support. But their aim was to share power with the region’s dictators and their imperialist overlords, not to overthrow them. Given their vested interest in keeping the masses disempowered and exploited, the Brotherhood confirms the theory of permanent revolution by proving to be a thoroughly counterrevolutionary force.
The extent to which the Brotherhood was prepared to betray the masses is especially clear in Egypt. Its leaders opposed the first protests against Mubarak, and only approved them when they saw that masses of their followers were already participating. Then they joined negotiations with the military over how to end the uprising as quickly as possible, in return for a share of power. No sooner had Egypt’s military leaders ousted their figurehead Mubarak than the Brotherhood called for an end to protests and even apologized for a series of massacres of protesters by the military.
The Brotherhood won control of parliament in first elections, leading an Islamist super-majority that included the ultra-conservative Salafists. But it used its new-found power to protect the military from punishment and public oversight (specifically, keeping its massive budget and economic interests safe from parliamentary inquiry) while neglecting the increasingly desperate conditions of mass unemployment and poverty. Then, on the eve of presidential elections, after the military and the courts had maneuvered to create a final choice between the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and a representative of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq, they dispersed the elected parliament on technicalities and instituted martial law. The Brotherhood went along with these counterrevolutionary measures, and after final behind-the-scenes negotiations Morsi was awarded the presidency in June 2012.
Morsi continued the Islamists’ record of protecting the military and refusing to address the masses’ demands, and even unleashed Brotherhood thugs to murder and torture revolutionary activists. But as the economic crisis deepened and Morsi’s failure to act in the masses’ interests became clearer, the working class increasingly took matters into its own hands. Protests over democratic questions gave way to a massive strike wave. The Brotherhood did everything it could to stop this, including passing new anti-strike laws and ordering a variety of state security attacks on strikers. But they failed.
The mass movement was then channeled into the Tamarod petition campaign that demanded an end to Morsi’s rule and emergency elections for a new president and parliament. But the working class failed to find a revolutionary leadership capable of leading the masses in seizing power themselves. The military and other forces of the old regime took advantage of this crisis of leadership and used the Tamarod movement to prepare to seize back power, supporting it financially and promoting it on private TV channels. The Brotherhood, as its supporters abandoned it in droves, appealed for support to the Salafists, engaging in increasingly sectarian religious rhetoric and attacks on Coptic Christians and Shiites in particular. While mass demonstrations confirmed the Brotherhood’s huge loss of support, the military cut short the movement with its July coup, and then demonstrated its new power through horrendous massacres of peacefully protesting Brotherhood supporters.
The coup has broken the momentum of the revolutionary movement and has led to a deeper polarization between the Islamists and military. But the working class has not been dealt a smashing blow. It will inevitably rise again. But to succeed it will need to find a revolutionary leadership that clearly explains that the only solution to the masses’ problems is to be found in socialist revolution. Genuine democracy will only be securely achieved through a new state power based on elected councils of the workers and poor people that replace the capitalist state apparatus.
In Tunisia, where the wave of revolutions first rose, the masses remain frustrated in their struggle for Bread and Freedom. The Ennahda party that was elected to power in 2012 continued the neo-liberal economic policies of the ousted dictator Ben Ali, allowing the masses to fall further into desperate poverty. As their base of support dwindled, they too increasingly turned to the right to win the support of Salafists. The assassination of popular left-wing leaders, widely assumed to have been the work of Salafist death squads, created a political crisis, with mass protests coinciding with rising anger among workers and poor.
But the Popular Front coalition, which includes all the major left-wing parties as well as the leadership of the trade union federation, refuses to challenge the capitalist system and fight for the rule of the workers and poor people. Instead it has turned to the right and opened discussions with the major bourgeois opposition party, Nidaa Tounes, which contains remnants of the old regime. It is preparing the way for a class-collaborationist government of “national salvation” that would inevitably betray the interests of the masses.
These examples illustrate the crisis of revolutionary leadership throughout the region. The perspective of permanent revolution was first confirmed in 1917 when the February revolution in Russia toppled the Tsar but produced a bourgeois Provisional Government. The most far-sighted revolutionary workers were already organized in the Bolshevik party, which warned the masses that because the new government was beholden to capitalist interests, it would betray the revolution’s basic demands: democratic elections, land re-distribution and an end to Russia’s involvement in the ongoing World War. The Bolsheviks patiently worked to convince the workers that they would need to lead the poor and oppressed masses in seizing power, an effort which culminated in the October socialist revolution.
The same fundamental dynamic exists in oppressed nations today wherever the masses are in motion. Every country has its own unique conditions, but one key lesson of the Russian revolution a century ago remains valid: the necessity of a working-class revolutionary party which organizes the most class-conscious revolutionary workers and youth. A revolutionary party would use every possible tactic to demonstrate to the masses that the only solution to the crisis of society is working-class socialist revolution. The capitalist state that defends the tiny minority of profiteers has to be replaced with a workers’ state based on an alliance with all oppressed sectors of the population. The workers’ state would defend against counterrevolution and plan economic production and distribution in the interests of all.
Further, the subsequent isolation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution points to another key lesson: even a workers’ state cannot solve all the masses’ problems if the revolution remains isolated within a single country. The capitalist system and imperialist domination span the world. In order to succeed, a workers’ socialist revolution in one country in the region needs to spread across the Middle East and North Africa and create a federation of socialist states. Such a regional revolution is also the key to the national liberation of the Palestinian people and the overthrow of the Zionist colonial-settler state of Israel.
We revolutionaries in the League for the Revolutionary Party are convinced that these basic ideas can play an important role in leading workers and all revolutionary-minded people through the current crisis and toward a new revolutionary upsurge. We look forward to deepening our discussions with Middle Eastern and North African revolutionaries, moving forward together to build the international party of socialist revolution, the party we believe the workers of the world need to finally overthrow this rotten imperialist capitalist system.
1. For more on our understanding of the Syrian revolution, see “Defend the Syrian Revolution Against All its Enemies – Imperialism, Assad and Reactionary Islamists!,” August 31, 2013.
2. For more on this revolutionary perspective see for example “Egypt in the Face of the Coup – Boycott, Protest the Presidential Elections!,” June 15, 2012.