(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 27, 2011
Historic Changes in Middle East
R Arun Kumar
“I want to do something for my country, something positive and it's the happiest day in my life” - A protestor in an interview to Al Jazeera from the Tahrir Square.
THE world and the times in which we are living today are quite interesting. Many events of enormous historical significance are taking place around us. Imagine, anyone believing if it was told to them that the people in the Arab countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and now Bahrain, Libya, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia would come out protesting against their rulers. While some of the protests were successful to an extent, the rulers have ceded power, other countries are still in ferment. A distinguishing feature in many of these protests is the massive participation of the youth and students.
Three broad characteristics stand out significantly in the Middle East protests. They voice: (i) the democratic aspirations of the people (ii) their economic grievances and (iii) their anti-imperialist feelings. As Lenin had stated, the situation in these countries is such that, “the lower classes cannot live in the old way” and “it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change”. Due to the global economic crisis, “the want and suffering of the oppressed classes have become more acute than usual” and the people “who in 'peace' time quietly allow themselves to be robbed” are today “drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the 'upper classes' themselves into independent historical action”. It is these features that broaden the scope and mass participation in these struggles and distinguish them from the massive protests organised in Europe which are basically economic in nature and aimed at protecting their hard won rights. Moreover, the first and third aforementioned factors are significantly absent.
Many of the regimes in the Middle East are headed by dictators who were/are ruling for the last two-three decades. Ben Ali of Tunisia ruled for nearly 23 years, Mubarak for 30 years and Saleh of Yemen is continuing since the last 32 years. Politically, apart from the length of their rule, they are characterised by the stifling of voices of protest and dissent. The people of Bahrain took to the streets coinciding with the anniversary of the National Action Chart that grants political reforms, for which 98 per cent of Bahrain voted in 2001. Political reforms are so vital because emergency laws are in place for years together and opposition parties are not allowed to function. This dictatorial hold on power also helped the ruling classes to continue with their unbridled economic exploitation of the people, working class in particular.
Many of these countries are rich in resources, especially in carbon reserves. The monies accrued from their trade are pocketed by the few rich oligarchs, while the majority of the people are living in poverty. Rich are growing richer, while the poor, poorer. The current global financial crisis has accentuated the sufferings of the common people and triggered these protests. Egypt and Jordan, the blue-eyed nations of the IMF and the World Bank, had implemented the prescribed economic reforms and are deeply integrated with the global economy. The crisis had a devastating impact as 3,000,000 in Egypt and 500,000 in Jordan are directly employed in the financial sector. Unemployment has increased and prices of essential commodities, particularly food, have risen sharply adding to peoples' hardships.
In Tunisia, unemployment rate is officially 14 per cent, but the percentage of graduates without work is about double that. Along with it, the high price of raw materials made agriculture unwieldy. The prices of sugar, milk and bread have also increased drastically in the recent times.
In Egypt too, the rallies came against a backdrop of growing anger over widespread poverty and unemployment. The workers joined these protest demonstrations adding their demand of a higher minimum wage. Nearly half of Egypt's 80 million people live under or just above the poverty line set by the United Nations at $2 a day. Poor-quality education, health-care and high unemployment have left millions of Egyptians deprived of their basic needs. It suffers from annual food inflation of more than 17 per cent and unemployment rate of 25 per cent. Today's protests are not a sudden outburst but are in fact an expression of the brewing discontent, galvanised by the working class and the April 6 solidarity movement.
In Yemen too, more than half of the population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day and do not have access to even proper sanitation facilities. Here too, growing food prices have added to the grievances of the people.
In Algeria, there was simmering frustration that the country's abundant gas-and-oil resources have not translated into significantly improved living standards for the majority. Discontent grew over the rising cost of milk, sugar, flour and chronic unemployment.
In Jordan, people are protesting against the rise in food and fuel prices and slow pace in the implementation of the promised political reforms. In Iraq, people have come out demanding higher wages, food rations, improved public services and government action to tackle rampant unemployment, corruption, water and electricity shortage. Iranian government, reeling under the unjust US sponsored UN sanctions, was forced to reduce its food and fuel subsidies and as a result the prices of these two items have increased 2-4 times in this period.
The third important feature that should not be missed is anti-imperialism, or to be more precise, the anti-US sentiment among the people. All these countries witnessing popular protests today, were/are staunch allies of the US. It has 'rewarded' them with abundant 'aid' and armed them with its weapon systems. Yemen is a major recipient of US military aid and is expected to reach $250 million this year alone. US provides the Mubarak regime $1.3billion per year as aid.
Apart from the military control, imperialism also uses its financial arms to coerce and ensure their dependency. Just a few days ago, amidst all the protests, the Moody's credit ratings agency downgraded the status of Egyptian government bonds, warning that protests in the country were putting the economy at risk. It also complained that the government had been spending far too much on subsidies in the country.
People of these countries, were unable to digest this control exerted by the US. The subservience of their ruling classes to the imperialist interests had not only hurt the livelihoods of the common people but also their Arab nationalist pride. They were infuriated by their ruling classes' compromise with Israel and US on the Palestinian question. These aspects too played a part in bringing out huge numbers of people onto the streets.
Amongst all the sections, it is the working class that is more interested in securing all the three demands – ensuring better economic conditions, democratic rights and freedom from imperialist interference. Though diminished in numbers, this explains the continuation of protests in Tunisia and Egypt even after the dictators have fled. The working class in Egypt are continuing their strike, defying the dictates of the military, which had assumed control over the country. The military is trying to drive a wedge between workers and other activists by stating that strikes could delay restoration of democratic rights.
Imperialism in today's world situation is not ready to forego its dominance over this strategically important region at any cost. To retain its control, it is ready to compromise to an extent. It is pushing the local ruling classes to provide a semblance of democratic rights and agree to some economic concessions like announcing some temporary measures to bring down the prices and a paltry hike in the minimum wages. This explains the stance of US not only in Tunisia and Egypt but also in other countries of the region. It is desperately seeking for some 'moderate' faces with 'democratic credentials' among the ruling classes, to substitute the hated dictators. The most that imperialism, along with the local ruling classes is ready to concede is ensuring only a 'face change', but never a 'class change'.
Unless there is a class change, peoples' real aspirations would not be met. For this class change to take place, the subjective factor – revolutionary conscious working class – to harness the above mentioned objective factors, is imperative. Though working class is playing an important role in these protests, it is neither leading them nor is sufficiently equipped with the revolutionary ideology to usher social transformation. Nonetheless, bringing an end to the dictatorial rule, political reforms and gaining some relief from economic hardships, is in itself not a small gain. The changes taking place in Middle East are hence historic, but might not be revolutionary.