Arab revolutions: “natural allies in a common struggle”
On the urgency of international solidarity with the Middle Eastern uprisings and global resistance to mass privatization imposed by European and US loans.
By Klasse! (www.klasse-krant.nl)
“This failure to appreciate the revolutions as a rebellion not just against local dictators, but against the global neoliberal programme they were implementing with such gusto in their countries, is largely a product of how we on the western left have been unwitting orientalists, and allowed the racist “clash of civilisations” narrative to define our perceptions of the Middle East. We have failed to see the people of the region as natural allies in a common struggle.”
Patrick Bond, Economic attacks against Arab democracy, June 2011
“The current transition government remains committed to the open market approach, which Egypt will further pursue at an accelerated rate following upcoming elections […]. We also believe that public-private partnerships have much potential as an effective modality for designing and implementing development projects, particularly in infrastructure and service sectors (transport, health, etc.). Therefore we will encourage PPP initiatives.”
Spokesperson of the Egyptian governmenti at the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) Annual General Meeting in May 2011, where Egypt was promised funds.
Whilst the world tumbled into the financial crisis in 2008, popular uprisings all over the world indicated a growing resistance to the past decades of neo-liberal globalisation, from Tahir Square to the Chilean student protests and the London riots. It is important to recognise these uprisings as resistance to the failure of the economic system to generate wealth for all. Even conservative commentators have to admit that the ferocious privatisation and liberalisation drives since the early 1980s have failed to generate what they promised: wealth for all. “There are more poor people – extremely poor people – and the incidence of poverty reaches farther into middle-income countries,” the 2008 World Development Indicator of the World Bank admits.
So yes, neo-liberal globalisation has accelerated economic growth and foreign direct investment. But capital is concentrating and income gaps in the world economy are enormous and growing as a result of the ‘free’ market. It’s therefore not growth we should be talking about, but redistribution. Whilst other articles in this Crisis Krant portray what the crisis and the logic of capitalism mean for those who do not fit into that logic in the Netherlands, this article will look at the global picture and focus on recent events in the Middle East. It argues that what is happening here, is also, or especially, happening there. Namely, governments are responding to global inequality and the financial crisis with more of the same: privatisation and unequal distribution of wealth. It is high time that we respond to this aggressive global agenda with global answers. We need to find ways to link our struggles, show solidarity with the Middle Eastern uprisings, and criticise what our governments are currently doing to destroy them. In other words, it is time to return to solutions that have been offered before as an answer to global inequality: a new international class solidarity.
The coming global class war. But where will it come from?
On 15 August 2011, Forbes magazine ran a story entitled ‘The U.K. Riots And The Coming Global Class War’. Really? Forbes magazine, with its motto ‘The Capitalist Tool’; the one that likes listing the richest Americans and global billionaires (and not so as to know who to pie next)? This goes to show that in times of crisis, it is worth reading those who have most to lose from the failure of capitalism; in absolute, not relative, terms. The article by Joel Kotki rightly points out that the U.K. riots were about more than racist police violence, but indicate a failure of the economic system, especially for young people and in particular, citing the British historian James Heartfield, “the system of work and reward”. Kotki believes in punishing the rioters, but also thinks this does not solve the problem of unemployment and “devalued work”. He suggests that the welfare state, in other words, a Keynesian solution to the crisis of capitalism, will not address “the shrinking opportunities for social advancement”. A gloomy picture is predicted, with outbreaks of street violence in European crisis states, such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, even France. Capitalism is failing to generate wealth for all, and we can expect a global class war if it continues to do so, the author predicts.
The same observation is made by many left activists or progressive journalists: many comment that the outbreaks of violence in the U.K. are far from progressive, because rioters burning houses in poor neighbourhoods and steal iPhones instead of smashing banks and police stations. Although they see the cause of the riots in “IMF style” austerity measures that cut public expenditure, increase taxes for the poor and privatise services, they also believe the lack of political articulation marks the failure of the political left to provide any viable movement or leadership that can challenge neo-liberal policies.ii In a contribution on Indymedia, activist Kolya urges grassroots movements to formulate global political and economic alternatives so that the anger, poverty and disenfranchisement that capitalism has created is channelled towards progressive change.
Although all these authors make valid observations about the global nature of the riots and the need to real political alternatives, there is a noteworthy blind spot in them as well, namely, the Arab uprisings. Although predicting a global class war, the Forbes article fails to mention the upheavals in the Middle East entirely, and concentrates only on Europe and the U.S., except for a brief mentioning of China. This is bizarre, given that the U.K. riots lasted a week, whilst the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have been going on for almost a year and have resulted in thousands of deaths, as well as military intervention by NATO, currently inducing a Western-style regime change in Libya. In fact, whilst the dead aren’t even buried yet, “the mad rush for Libyan oil profits has begun”.iii The contribution on Indymedia certainly refers to the Arab world, but it is the Zapatistas that are seen by European activists as the reference point for a global movement. Why is it that we mention the Arab world, but never consider it a ‘natural ally in our struggle’?
Arab Spring: a political and economic uprising
“The turmoil in Egypt was caused by economic factors: the rising cost of living, the poverty, the unemployment, the hopelessness of the educated young. But let there be no mistake: the underlying causes are far more profound. They can be summed up in one word: Palestine.”iv
In order to find common ground between European movements against privatisation and the planned cuts and the popular struggles in the Arab world, one first needs to deconstruct the suggestive reporting of Western media about the unfolding events. When reading Western newspapers, two things seem certain: first, the uprising is largely concerned with civil liberties and political freedom from dictators, and second, Europe and the U.S. support the uprisings because they support democracy. This is, however, far from the truth. In reality, the Arab Spring is a reaction to economic as well as political realities created by dictatorships that have implemented (western) neo-liberal policies of privatisation and market liberalisation. The recent economic and financial crisis further triggered the Arab revolutions.
Secondly, Europe and the U.S. have supported these dictatorships for the past decades with foreign aid and trade and are currently trying everything in their power to maintain the economic system (and local elites) by imposing loan conditionalities of privatisation and market liberalisation on Egypt and Tunisia’s transition governments, before these have even been democratically elected. Europe, notably the U.K., France, Italy and Germany, have waged war in Libya together with the U.S. to make sure that their profitable military (e.g. Finmeccanica) and oil (BP, Total, Shell, Repsol, ENI, Wintershall, RWE) deals will continue under the new regime. Thirdly, the Arab revolutions are also protests against Israel and U.S. policies against Palestine, and against Middle Eastern regimes that supported them (e.g. Mubarak’s Egypt).v
Explore the unknown
The Middle East remains unknown political territory for western activists, which is reflected in the low level of engagement in the region even after the uprisings. Especially when considering that European activists left in drones to Latin America during the Zapatista uprising and the Argentinean factory occupations, it is noteworthy that the same level of political solidarity has failed to materialise this past year towards the Middle East. We are, after all, hugely influenced by merciless propaganda of the clash of civilisations, Orientalist notions of Arab culture and the dreaded threat of fundamentalist Islam. As a result, we misinterpret the revolts taking place now, and we miss opportunities to connect to them.
In an excellent critique of the current “economic attacks against Arab democracy” (i.e. the imposition of neo-liberal structural adjustment on Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Palestine by International Financial Institutions), Patrick Bondvi reminds us that resistance to neo-liberal market reform has a long history in Egypt, and played a central role in the recent uprising. In 1977 already, Egypt saw bread riots as a result of economic liberalisation initiated by Sadat; in the 1990s, when IMF-led structural adjustment programmes resulted in the privatisation of much of Egypt’s textile industry, slashing its workforce from half a million to a quarter-million, whilst wages decreased and the price of living shot up, Egyptian workers organised and resisted, and their struggle has influenced the politics of today’s movement as well: “Though you wouldn’t know it from western coverage, the long and gallant struggle of these workers, particularly the strike of textile workers of Mahalla el-Kubra, is credited by many Egyptian activists as a crucial step on the Egyptian people’s path towards revolution. […] It is this blindness that makes the revolutions appear as instantaneous explosions, like switches suddenly flicked, rather than as events in a continuum.”
In fact, Mohammad-Reza Shalgooni argues that the situation in the Middle East is comparable to revolutionary Russia in 1917, about which Lenin said that because there the contradictions of capitalism were most critical, it had become “the weak link in the imperialist chain”. If this is true, the Arab uprising is of such great historical and global proportion, that the success of the Arab uprisings, and solidarity from our parts towards it, might determine the future of capitalism far beyond the region itself.
Bonding the Arab region to western bank loans and IMF policies
One indication that the Arab region, more specifically, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco, are currently “the weak link in the imperialist chain”, is that ‘imperial’ powers are bending over backwards to gain control over the region. The IMF already imposed privatisation through so-called public-private partnerships onto Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Palestine over the past decades through loan conditionalities and in close cooperation with the torturing dictators it now claims to despise. In its evaluation report from 2010, the IMF still claimed that these policies, which have led to impoverishment that has led to the current revolutions, as successful. Adam Hanieh from the London School of Oriental and Africa Studies shows how this policy is continuing to be imposed now, after the revolts, in a flurry of structural adjustment programmes.vii The content and tone of the speech by a spokesperson of the Egyptian transition government cited above, which was given at the 2011 Annual Meeting and Business Forumviii of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), is a shocking reminder of the lack of sovereignty of the transition councils that have not yet been democratically elected but are already determining the future of the region. Egypt and Tunisia are begging for money and agreeing to any conditionality it takes to get it. They are currently subject to one of the biggest big sell-outs to Western business interests and the underlying ideology of the Washington consensus.
The G8 leaders at their meeting in May announced that multilateral development banks could offer up to 20 billion USD to Egypt and Tunisia,ix “in support of suitable reform efforts”. The content of those reforms will of course be guided by “IMF assessments”, even though they were blatantly wrong in their positive evaluation of neo-liberal reforms only last year. The EBRD is given a central role by the G8, with reference to the bank having been “a unique instrument to help transform the economies of Central and Eastern European countries engaged in the same dynamics, with its focus on private and entrepreneurial initiative”. The G8 is encouraging free trade agreements to be signed, which the U.S., Japan, Russia and Canada are now all pursuing with the region, promising the same deadly medicine that devastated local economies of the region decades before: out of experience with IMF and other neo-liberal reforms, these new loans and their conditionalities will have devastating consequences on the Egyptian and Tunisian people, whilst profiting western banks and local elites. Bond notes: “You wouldn’t guess it though, from the scant and largely fawning coverage the negotiations have so far received.”
Part of the same struggle
The conclusion is obvious: not only can we expect that old local elites will collaborate with the World Bank, the IMF and the EBRD “to screw the broader population”, thereby “robbing these revolutions of much of their meaning, and dealing a terrible blow to the broader Arab spring.”x But the imperialist scramble for the Arab world needs to be opposed in the imperialist centres, Europe being one of them. In addition, those who suffer the cuts in the Netherlands, in the U.K., in Greece, in Spain, Germany or Italy, should seek contact with the “natural allies in a common struggle,” their counterparts in the Arab world. Start contacting Arab immigrant communities living in Europe and devise common strategies to resist privatisation and liberalisation, here and there.
ii See, for example, Kolya, 21.08.2011, ‘Dignified and Undignified Rage: Brief Notes from K on a Pending Invitation, the UK riots, and Our Collective Failure to Construct Revolutionary Responses to the Global Crisis’, Indymedia, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2011/08/483616.html, Gary Younge, 14.8.2011, ‘These riots were political. They were looting, not shoplifting’, Guardian online, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/young-british-rioters-political-actions, or Slavoj Žižek, 19.8.2011, ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite ‘, London Review Books, http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite
iii ‘The Mad Rush For Libyan Oil Profits Has Begun’, 24.8.2011, EconomyWatch, http://www.economywatch.com/in-the-news/the-mad-rush-for-libyan-oil-profits-has-begun.24-08.htm
iv Uri Avnery, 7.2.2011, ‘A Villa in the Jungle? ‘, http://original.antiwar.com/avnery/2011/02/06/a-villa-in-the-jungle
v Mohammad-Reza Shalgooni, April 9, 2011, Revolution and Counterrevolution in the Arab World http://revolutionaryflowerpot.blogspot.com/2011/04/revolution-and-counterrevolution-in_14.html
vi Patrick Bond, ‘Economic attacks against Arab democracy’, 1.6.2011, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Palestine. http://www.palestine.rosalux.org/fileadmin/ab_palestine/pdf/RLF_newsletters_EN/RLF_PAL_Patrick_Bond_G8.pdf
vii Adam Hanieh, 29.5.2011, ‘Egypt’s orderly transition? International aid and the rush to structural adjustment’, Jadaliyya, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1711/egypts-%E2%80%98orderly-transition%E2%80%99-international-aid-and-
x Austin Mackell, 15.5.2011, ‘The IMF versus the Arab spring’, Guardian online, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/25/imf-arab-spring-loans-egypt-tunisia