ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Summer 2002


Anne Alexander

Redrawing the political map

Nationalism, Islamism and socialism in the Middle East


From International Socialism 2:95, Summer 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The wave of protests which swept the Arab world in the wake of the Israeli invasion of the West Bank on 29 March 2002 marked a turning point for an entire generation. Demonstrations pulled first thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then finally millions, onto the streets. In country after country rage at the butchery in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jenin became an explosion of anger at Israel’s imperialist backers and their local clients – the Arab regimes. Although several governments tried to channel anger into charity telethons, blood donation campaigns and official demonstrations as the weeks went by [1], the protest movement was a spontaneous explosion of anger from below. An important article in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram Weekly argued in mid-April:

The political map, ‘stagnant’ as it is, seemed until now to consist of the NDP [the ruling nationalist party], a number of left and right wing parties, and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. But when thousands across the nation went out on massive Palestine solidarity, anti-Israeli and anti-American demonstrations over the past three weeks, it began to seem like new and different forces might well be redrawing the map. [2]

This article attempts to chart the emergence of this movement, and to assess the extent to which the existing political traditions of nationalism and Islamism can offer leadership to the protests. Despite the fact that nationalist and Islamist ideas are the common political language of the solidarity movement, both these currents face profound problems in trying to recreate the successes of their pasts. The dilemmas faced by the mainstream nationalist movements, such as Fatah in Palestine, or the large Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have not been solved. The economic and political space which allowed such movements to dominate the political map of the Middle East is now more restricted than ever before.

Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, first written in response to the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905, shows a different route out of the crisis. Although the process of globalisation has reinforced the links between the Arab bourgeoisie and the world ruling class, it has also strengthened the Arab working class. Unless the solidarity movement with Palestine can harness the power of the organised working class, it risks repeating the failures of the nationalist and Islamist movements of the past.

A crucial feature of the demonstrations across the Middle East in solidarity with Palestine was the sheer scale of the movement. On 30 March protests exploded in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Amman. [3] Within a couple of days the mainly student-led demonstrations had spread from the capital cities to provincial towns. [4] The first few days of protests were not important simply because of the numbers involved. The largest marches did not take place until the end of the first week of April, and these were in many cases either government approved or called by the major political parties and trade unions. The Syrian state media claimed 1 million people had marched in Damascus on 6 April. [5] Sudanese government ministers addressed the million-strong march in Khartoum [6], while prominent politicians took part in a similar sized demonstration in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, on 7 April. [7] The first protests, although in many cases involving thousands rather than tens of thousands, had a profoundly radicalising effect on the solidarity movement because they emerged outside the framework of official politics. This influence has been most prominent in Egypt and Lebanon, but even in Syria and Saudi Arabia the broad-based solidarity movement has created a new space for political activism.

A new infrastructure of protest

The solidarity protests in Egypt have given birth to a broad popular movement. In addition to the demonstrations, other forms of protest have pulled hundreds of thousands of people into activities in solidarity with the Palestinians. Boycott campaigns targeting Israeli and US goods have been spread by local committees, text messages, internet sites and newspaper adverts. Fatemeh Farag, writing in Al-Ahram Weekly, describes the changed atmosphere in Cairo:

Only the other day, my hitherto totally apolitical brother walked in with a huge Palestinian flag, demanding that I hang it from my balcony. In the latest hit by pop singer Mohamed Fouad, he asks God to make him a martyr for Al-Aqsa ... Get into a cab and the driver will talk politics and not the traffic. Walk into a cafeteria and your friends are bound to make a fuss if the waiter only has Coke on offer. ‘What! You serve products that are on the boycott list!’ is the usual rebuke. [8]

Even the state-run media in Egypt was infected by the mood. The main government newspapers, Al-Akhbar and Al-Ahram, printed extensive reports on the protests in Egypt, including pictures of schoolgirls leading demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians. [9] Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was sufficiently worried by this to call senior editors into his office that week to give them a dressing down for ‘endangering national unity’. [10] However, this broad movement has from the very beginning had a sharp political edge. The initial demonstrations were led by students at Cairo University. On 1 April they broke through police lines to lead a large and militant protest in the street. One student was shot dead by police after around 9,000 protesters smashed their way out of the Alexandria University campus on 9 April. [11] A communiqué from the Ministry of the Interior said the trouble started when ‘some left wing elements steered demonstrators out of the Alexandria University campus and stoned police forces’. [12] Chants on the demonstrations regularly attack the regime: ‘Mubarak, you coward, you are the client of the Americans’ and ‘We want a new government because we’ve hit rock bottom’ are two favourites. [13] There is also a growing sense that the spontaneous explosion of anger has the potential to develop into a more permanent movement:

Activists speak of a new infrastructure of protest that has grown up since the demonstrations, a network of contacts between student leaders at both Cairo and provincial universities, civil associations involved in the intifada solidarity movement and the professional syndicates. Activists even speak of a geographical centre in the Lawyers’ Syndicate, which has opened its doors to students and the public for political seminars, Palestinian nationalist sing-alongs and other events, and is even jokingly called ‘Petrograd’ in a reference to the Russian Revolution. [14]

In Lebanon a similar infrastructure of protest also emerged during the first few days of the demonstrations. As in Egypt, the independent left, activists from the NGOs and large numbers of school and university students set the pace of the protests. The major student ‘sit-in’ – an outdoor occupation in Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut – quickly became an organising centre for many of the most militant actions. [15] The broad coalition, which emerged as the most radical force on the demonstrations, included not only the Palestinian factions and existing left wing groups such as the Communist Party and the Progressive Socialist Party, but also new layers of activists. When, after nearly four weeks, the party activists argued that the time had come to end the sit-in, it was the independents who wanted to stay. [16]

Even Syria, where state-sponsored demonstrations are routine but spontaneous protests very rare, saw the beginnings of a similar process of radicalisation. Pictures of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, were largely absent from the protests of the first few days. Banned left wing organisations were seen leafleting openly on the demonstrations in which the Kurdish groups, Hezbollah, the Nasserist organisations and the Communists were the main organised forces. As well as the usual slogans in solidarity with Palestine, protesters raised chants attacking the government and calling for the release of political prisoners. [17] Saudi Arabia meanwhile has seen an explosion of activism around the campaign to boycott US goods. A Saudi businessman told Jedda Arab News:

I have never seen such an organised anti-US campaign in the kingdom. It looks as if everyone is involved, from school students to religious scholars. Two days ago, a carefully prepared 20-page file was thrown into my house, containing all the information about the US products we should stop buying. They are well organised. [18]

The pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat described on 6 May how a teacher and students from a girls’ college in Jeddah organised a picket of the Doughnut House Company’s local restaurant after the company appeared on the boycott list. The company has offered a reward of 1 million Saudi riyals to anyone who can prove that it is not fully Saudi owned. [19] Thousands attempted to march on the US consulate in Dhahran on 12 April. [20] The Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi reported on 6 May that during serious disturbances in Sukaka in eastern Saudi Arabia two protesters were arrested for opening fire on riot police. [21]

Arab nationalism reborn?

Although the protests have in general emerged outside the framework of official politics, the language of the demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine has expressed itself through borrowings from the past, as with any new movement. Alongside the bootleg cassettes and smuggled cigarettes in Midan Ataba in Cairo, stalls selling black and white pictures of Gamal Abdul Nasser were doing a roaring trade in the last week of March. Instead of the usual bland mixture of Arab and Western pop, almost every radio in the market was tuned to speeches from the Arab summit in Beirut, while customers in cafes sat mesmerised by live reports from the occupied cities of the West Bank. When protests exploded onto the streets a few days later, many reports were quick to draw parallels with the massive nationalist movements of the 1940s and 1950s. Nasser’s old adviser, the former editor of the Egyptian daily paper Al-Ahram, Muhammad Hassanain Haikal, appeared on satellite television to argue that the huge protests showed that the ideas of Arab nationalism still dominate the Arab street. [22]

One of the visible signs of the revival of a diffuse kind of Arab nationalism has been the resurrection of Yasser Arafat as a political symbol for the Palestinian struggle. His picture was carried by hundreds of thousands on protests around the Arab world. Here the pan-Arab media has played an important role. Arafat spoke to millions across the Middle East from his candle-lit office under siege in Ramallah. Thanks to the satellite channels, his call – ‘A million martyrs for Jerusalem!’ – echoed through the streets of the Arab capitals. After years of dead-end negotiations and compromise Arafat’s Fatah movement seemed to have rediscovered its radical soul. The re-emergence of Fatah has not been confined to the level of symbols. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Battalions, which are affiliated to Fatah, are by a long way the most active and effective of the Palestinian militia groups. Over the past few years Fatah has rebuilt its organisation in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria, reopening offices which were closed and paying for full time organisers once again. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported in June 2001 that Fatah officials had begun to rebuild militia units in Lebanon and were re-establishing military control of the country’s Palestinian refugee camps. [23] For the first time in years Fatah and the PLO organised demonstrations of tens of thousands from the camps into central Beirut during the recent protests. [24] The intensification of the intifada, and in particular the rebirth of the guerrilla struggle in Palestine have also helped to revive the fortunes of the other PLO factions, such as the PFLP. For the first time in 30 years the PFLP-General Command (a split from the main PFLP) brought thousands of Palestinian refugees out of the camps in Syria onto the streets of Damascus. [25]

Yet the lifting of the siege on Ramallah shows that Arafat is still vulnerable. His desperate need to achieve a deal with the US and Israel to allow him to rebuild the Palestinian Authority has undermined his new-found popularity among both Palestinians and the wider solidarity movement. Peter Ford, writing in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, argued on 5 May that Arafat had emerged from the siege of Ramallah weaker, while the unity of the Palestinian leadership showed signs of splitting under pressure. [26] Ghassan Shirbil, writing in Al-Hayat, argued that Arafat faced his real test as he emerged from the ruins of the Muqat’aa Building in Ramallah:

Every Arab and every Palestinian had hoped that Arafat would emerge from the siege to take up his dual role as President of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the intifada once again ... He has left the siege to return to his position as President of the Authority, but in the context of a return to negotiations with all their limitations. This means that the next big question will be the fate of the intifada itself. [27]

At a rally of 40,000 in the Sidi Gaber mosque in Alexandria called by the Egyptian People’s Committee for Solidarity with the Intifada on 4 May protesters chanted slogans opposing Arafat’s ‘sell-out’ deal with the US. [28] The Nasserist paper Al-Arabi reported that, despite the frantic efforts of the Grand Shaykh to calm the crowd, thousands at prayers in the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo began chanting the name of PFLP General Secretary Ahmad Sa’dat, whom Arafat handed over to British and US jailers as the siege ended. [29]

The weight of the past

It is also clear that in a large number of countries the major Islamist parties were not in control of the emerging movement. The Labour Party in Egypt was for many years the legal outlet for the main Islamist movement in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood and the Labour Party are now illegal, the Islamists constitute the major force within the Egyptian opposition to the Mubarak regime. Magdi Hussein from the Labour Party told Al-Ahram Weekly:

The Brotherhood didn’t really participate in the demonstrations that we, as national political movements, organised. They’ve always maintained a static rather than dynamic posture, which is to maintain their organisational presence and not clash with the government. So even if there is a need to take action, as the situation entails now, the Brotherhood doesn’t take action. [30]

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is even stronger than in Egypt. For many years it was the only major political force outside the regime, and some of its leading members have served in recent Jordanian governments. Yet it neither initiated nor fully controlled the recent protests. After several days of militant student demonstrations, the government effectively made a plea to the Brotherhood to step in and take over the movement, in order to rein it in. The interior ministry gave permission for a large demonstration, which was led off by senior government officials. However, this failed to halt the protests, and the Brotherhood called a demonstration in conjunction with the rest of the opposition and several trade unions for 12 April after Friday prayers. The government then switched tack and banned the march. [31] Troops and tanks moved into Amman to stop protesters assembling and the government gave a clear signal that it was prepared to use force to crush the demonstration. At the last minute the Brotherhood backed down from a head-on collision with the government and cancelled the demonstration. [32]

Both the nationalist and Islamist movements are weighed down by a long history of failure. The current corrupt, repressive regimes in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Algeria are the direct successors of the national liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Nationalist parties are still either completely subsumed by the state or represent only a tiny oppositional force. The contradictions of these movements are probably best expressed by the Palestinian national liberation movement which, unlike its counterparts in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Algeria, still has unfinished business with its colonial oppressors. Despite the acute crisis over Palestine, Arafat and the leadership of Fatah see no other strategy than continual compromise with Israel and the US. Israel’s overwhelming military superiority means that the Palestinian national liberation movement has only been able to create at best a stunted bantustan of a state. In order to start building this Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, the PLO accepted a peace deal with Israel which made the fulfilment of even the basic national demands of Palestinian people impossible. The Oslo accords offered neither sovereignty nor prosperity to the Palestinians, let alone justice and democracy. Although the infrastructure of the Palestinian state is now buried under the mangled ruins of Ramallah, Yasser Arafat is still prepared to compromise with the US by trying members of the PFLP for the assassination of the Israeli minister of tourism, Rehavam Ze’evi.

As for the Islamists, they too are an old movement. The revolution in Iran has long lost its radical edge – the Iranian ruling class is currently engaged in a lengthy public debate about whether to recognise the US. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have served in the cabinet in Jordan, while the Islamists in Algeria briefly controlled local government. Even Hezbollah is not immune to the pressure of events. Ironically, the organisation’s success in liberating the south of Lebanon from Israeli occupation has brought new pressures. Increasingly Hezbollah has faced demands to intervene in defence of Shi’ite workers’ struggles, for example during the occupation of Middle East Airlines in 2001 and in a recent taxi drivers’ strike in Beirut. [33] If the economic crisis in Lebanon deepens, Hezbollah is likely to find itself trapped between the demands of the Lebanese ruling class that it restrict its activities to the south, and pressure from below to defend the interests of the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who support the movement.

Permanent revolution in the Middle East

The gap between rhetoric and reality is not just a temporary result of organisational frailty. There are much broader reasons why neither the nationalist nor Islamist movements of the Middle East can offer effective leadership to the emerging mass movement in solidarity with Palestine, let alone address the deeper social and economic crisis developing across the region. The organisations where the contradictions are most acute, such as Fatah in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt, have been tied to sections of the bourgeoisie for decades. Fatah was founded by Palestinians who had made fortunes in the Gulf during the boom years of the 1960s – most famously Yasser Arafat himself – and has always looked towards some of the most politically conservative sections of the Arab bourgeoisie for support. [34] These are precisely the layers within the Arab bourgeoisie which have the most to lose from a confrontation with Israel, and by extension the US, and the most to gain from a negotiated settlement. Fatah’s backers have long been incapable of challenging US domination of the Middle East. The Brotherhood in Egypt developed a symbiotic relationship with sections of the Egyptian ruling class. Figures such as Uthman Ahmad Uthman, founder of the Arab Contracting Co., channelled profits from the Gulf construction boom of the 1970s back to the Brotherhood, and served as a link with sections of the Sadat regime. [35] This organic connection to Egyptian capital has reinforced the Brotherhood’s reformist orientation. As the Egyptian state has given ground to Islamist demands for the ‘Islamisation’ of law and government, the Brotherhood’s leadership has become ever more careful to avoid confrontation with the regime.

The more radical Islamist and nationalist movements have traditionally looked to a thin layer of radical middle class intellectuals as the driving force for social change. [36] Thus the PFLP, although it appeals to ‘the masses’, relies in practice on the armed struggle of a minority to achieve liberation for Palestine. [37] Islamic Jihad in Palestine argues for an Islamist version of the same strategy – Islamic Palestine will be created by the revolutionary struggle of an armed minority against Israeli occupation. [38] Hamas and Hezbollah combine some of the features of the Muslim Brotherhood, such their links to either state patronage or conservative Gulf capital, with features of the radical nationalist and Islamist groups, in particular their stress on the centrality of the armed struggle and their radical criticisms of the mainstream Palestinian nationalist movement. [39] For both the radical and mainstream nationalists and Islamists the role of the state is crucial. The Arab nationalist leaders of the 1950s and the Islamist clergy of Iran after 1979 attempted to use the state to overcome the uneven and contradictory nature of economic development in the Middle East. The conservative Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood measure their success by how far they have managed to influence the state from within.

The nationalists of the 1950s won the support of millions of ordinary people by promising that the entire nation could benefit from economic growth, not simply a privileged minority. Islamist rhetoric about a just Islamic economic order has the same kind of appeal today. In the 1950s that meant breaking the power of European colonialism. Today’s nationalists and Islamists stress the need to complete the process of national liberation in Palestine and to destroy US economic and military domination of the entire region.

In the early 20th century socialists in Russia faced a very similar set of economic and political problems. Russian capitalism had developed late. Advanced industry existed side by side with a countryside still racked by catastrophic famines. Foreign capital dominated the Russian economy – investors from Western Europe made huge profits while the Tsarist autocracy used savage repression against calls for democracy and basic civil rights. [40] Russian socialists expected that the first stage of the revolution against the Tsarist state would bring the Russian liberal bourgeoisie to power. Just as in the English and French revolutions of earlier centuries, the Russian bourgeoisie would uproot the decaying feudal system in order to lay the foundations for a capitalist republic. [41] By contrast, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued that the Russian bourgeoisie, because it had developed far later than its counterparts in Western Europe, was incapable of carrying out this task. Russia’s uneven economic development had created a weak and stunted bourgeoisie, squeezed between the domination of foreign capital on the one hand, and the lingering power of the feudal autocracy on the other, which would not dare challenge for political power.

He also argued that, despite the misery and poverty in the Russian countryside, the peasantry could not take independent action in place of the bourgeoisie. Yet the acute social contradictions in the Russian countryside could not be solved unless the Russian Revolution broke down the entire system of bourgeois property relations. The young and small working class was therefore the only class which could play this revolutionary role. [42] However, although what Trotsky called ‘the privilege of backwardness’ made late developing capitalist economies more vulnerable to overthrow from below, the same underdevelopment meant that attempts to construct a socialist society on such impoverished soil were bound to fail. Without revolutions in the heartland of advanced capitalism the Russian Revolution would collapse. Trotsky argued that the completion of the socialist revolution ‘within national limits is unthinkable ... the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet’. [43]

By the mid-20th century many features of Trotsky’s analysis of Russian society could be applied across the Middle East. The central question in the Arab world was not simply the overthrow of feudalism as it had been in Russia, but also the expulsion of the colonial powers. As in Russia, one of the obstacles to achieving both the democratic revolution and national liberation was the cowardly nature of the Arab bourgeoisie. In Egypt, for instance, although the native capitalist class was constrained by the British presence, it had neither the strength nor the inclination to challenge the occupiers directly. During the post-war period the major nationalist party, the Wafd, played a marginal role in the national liberation movement. Both the industrial bourgeoisie and the rural landowners who supported the Wafd feared the rising workers’ movement and the spectre of peasant revolution far more than they feared the British. [44]

Trotsky’s prediction that the working class would play the central role in smashing the old system was also confirmed. The driving force behind the mass protests and strikes which broke the British occupation in Egypt was the alliance between the student movement and the independent trade unions. The textile workers of Shubra al-Khayma in Cairo, Mahalla al-Kubra in the Delta and Kafr al-Dawwar were the heart of the nationalist movement of the 1940s. [45] In Iraq in 1958 the workers’ movement played a similar role in bringing down the British-backed monarchy. [46] The same process was at work during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The organised working class played a vital role in smashing the rule of the Shah. [47]

Yet neither Egypt in the 1940s nor Iran in the 1970s confirmed the final part of Trotsky’s prediction – the victory of the working class. The contradiction between workers’ participation in the national liberation movements and the actual nature of the regimes they produced was profoundly disorientating for a generation of socialists across the Middle East. The Stalinist Communist parties, like some sections of the Russian socialist movement in the early 20th century, argued that the working class could not seize power while the national revolution was incomplete. The leadership of the national liberation movement had to come from the bourgeoisie – and if the big bourgeoisie was too weak to challenge colonialism, the Communists argued that the decisive role fell on the nationalist intelligentsia or radical army officers. [48] It was just such a small group of army officers, led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, who seized power in Egypt in 1952. The Free Officers regime moved quickly to smash the independent workers’ movement – trade unions were incorporated into the state and strikes were banned. The Stalinist Communist movement supported the Free Officers coup, and even backed the regime’s attack on the workers’ movement – in the interest of completing the ‘national revolution’. [49] In Iraq ten years later the Communist parties argued that the class interests of workers had to come second to the demands of national unity.

In an important reassessment of Trotsky’s theory, Tony Cliff argued that the problem was that, although ‘the conservative, cowardly nature of a late developing bourgeoisie is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working class is neither absolute nor inevitable’. This meant that if the working class movement lacked the independent political leadership of a mass revolutionary party, other forces could win state power. Cliff’s analysis centred on the experience of revolution in China and Cuba, where intellectuals had led successful peasant guerrilla movements to seize control of the state. He argued that where the working class was passive, or a mass revolutionary party was lacking, nationalist movements could use the state to accelerate industrial development following the model of Stalinist Russia. [50]

Events in Iran in 1979 demonstrated once again that in the absence of a revolutionary party workers could play a leading role in a revolutionary crisis but still not benefit from the outcome. The uprising which overthrew the repressive US-backed regime of the Shah involved factory occupations, general strikes and a mass workers’ movement. Until a relatively late stage the radical clerics around Ayatollah Khomeni played a marginal role. Yet, partly because the Iranian left did not offer any independent leadership to the workers’ movements, Khomeni and the Islamist clergy were able to seize power and turn the full force of the state against the organised working class. [51] They were also able to fulfil a role similar to the nationalist leaders of a previous generation in reorganising Iranian capital. As Chris Harman puts it, the Islamist clergy were not:

as many left wing commentators have mistakenly believed, merely an expression of ‘backward’ bazaar-based traditional, ‘parasitic’, ‘merchant capital’. Nor were they simply an expression of classic bourgeois counter-revolution. They undertook a revolutionary reorganisation of ownership and control of capital within Iran even while leaving capitalist relations of production intact, putting large scale capital that had been owned by the group around the Shah into the hands of the state and parastate bodies controlled by themselves – in the interests of the ‘oppressed’ of course. [52]

The success of the nationalist and Islamist movements of the past in seizing control of the state, and using it as vehicle for economic development and national liberation, does not mean that their 21st century successors can easily use the same methods to solve the problems of the Middle East today. The economic and political space in which these movements now operate is far more constricted.

Since the end of the long boom in the late 1960s there has not been enough slack in the world economy to make the path of independent state capitalist development a practical option for the majority of Third World countries. Rather than funding infrastructure projects as they did in the 1960s, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have for the past 25 years only rewarded governments which cut their expenditure and seek to reduce state intervention in the economy. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Third World governments seem to have little choice but to submit to the demands of IMF-style ‘structural adjustment’. The increasing internationalisation of trade and production favours the strong rather than the weak. Thus only small sections of local capital in the Middle East, usually those closest to the state, have been able to benefit from globalisation. This select few have won lucrative franchises from the multinationals to produce brand name consumer goods and services, which only a tiny minority can afford. In the meantime the vast majority are facing job losses, disintegrating basic services, and spiralling prices and rents. [53]

There have always been limits on the ability of any individual state to seriously challenge the imperialist powers or to develop the national economy in order to raise living standards for the mass of ordinary people. In the context of a world economic crisis these two goals become almost impossible to achieve. This is why the national liberation movements which came to power late have moved ever more quickly to find an accommodation with imperialism. The PLO was not alone in making ‘historic compromises’ during the 1990s. The Republican movement in Northern Ireland also embarked on a peace process. Even those national liberation movements which came to power on a wave of mass struggle, such as the ANC in South Africa, quickly found that, although the old rulers had been forced to give up formal political control, they retained their economic dominance.

Fifty years after Nasser took power in Egypt and nearly a century after the 1905 revolution in Russia, we have come full circle, back to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The only force which is capable of achieving either a democratic revolution against the Arab regimes or national liberation for Palestine is the working class. The Arab bourgeoisie, tied as it is to imperialism, and increasingly integrated into the world ruling class – albeit two or three rungs below the rulers of Europe, North America or Japan – has long ceased to be a force for change.

Just as the process of globalisation has speeded up the integration of the local ruling classes of the Middle East into the world economy, so too it has increased the size and weight of the urban and rural working class. The peasant economy of the countryside is a distant memory. The Egyptian government recently dismantled the reforms of the 1950s and 1960s which allowed a limited redistribution of land in order to open the countryside up to investment from multinational agribusinesses. [54] The result has been to force hundreds of thousands of small peasant farmers off the land. Meanwhile white collar public sector workers have also seen their living standards slide over the past two decades. A job in state bureaucracy used to offer a relatively secure future. Now many office workers are paid less than factory workers. Syrian economists calculated that even those public sector workers with a higher university degree do not earn enough to feed a family. [55] This relentless pressure on the peasantry and the middle class increases both the social weight of the working class and the importance of its political role.

Previous mass movements against imperialism in the Middle East have demonstrated that general political radicalisation over the question of national liberation can feed into the confidence of the workers’ movement. This dynamic has the potential to raise both the tempo of the industrial struggle, and to create a more powerful anti-imperialist movement. Millions of people across the Middle East understand perfectly well that McDonald’s is part of the same system as the arms manufacturer McDonnell-Douglas, and that Israel’s war on the Palestinians is fought in large part to defend the interests of both. However, a boycott of US multinationals will have a limited effect, while Egyptian firms sell cement to build Zionist settlements in the West Bank, or the Egyptian government agrees to supply Israel with natural gas. [56] The boycott campaigns in Saudi Arabia have shown how difficult it is in today’s global economy to disentangle national and international capital.

The conditions for an explosive upturn in the class struggle exist in a number of countries around the region. In Lebanon the last few months have seen a rising number of strikes by public sector workers, and the government is preparing for what will be a major battle to privatise Electricité du Liban, the national power supply company, which employs around 20,000 workers. In addition the price rises caused by the imposition of VAT in February sparked a huge confrontation between the government and the trade union movement including massive demonstrations and a threatened general strike. [57] Although the trade union leaders promptly came to a compromise and called off the strike, the scale of the protest movement showed that generalised discontent can very quickly rise to the surface. The Jordanian government recently renewed a three-year IMF restructuring programme, including the introduction of a sales tax which pushed up the cost of basic goods overnight. [58] The Egyptian economy had to be bailed out once again by a massive injection of cash from the international donors in February. Despite international aid the Egyptian economy is still extremely vulnerable to external economic shock. [59] The complete failure of Hosni Mubarak’s government to do anything to support the Palestinians only adds to the unpopularity of the regime. The mass solidarity movement with Palestine has greatly sharpened the social tensions in all these countries, despite the efforts of the regimes to control the protests.

However, the fact that these objective conditions exist does not mean the working class can automatically play the role that Trotsky expected it would. Without the independent leadership of a mass revolutionary socialist party, workers’ movements on their own do not guarantee victory for the working class. The emerging forces of the left in the Middle East have to immerse themselves in the mass movements of the day. Unless socialists are at the centre of events they will remain trapped in isolated sects. Building a mass movement accelerates the process of political radicalisation. Lessons which were learnt in years of abstract discussion can be absorbed in the space of a few weeks by new activists. At the same time, however, socialists have to argue that building an independent revolutionary party is the best way to ensure the ultimate victory of those mass movements. Such a party cannot be a replica of the old Stalinist Communist parties of the region – it will have to reject the idea that the fate of the Arab working class can be mortgaged to the Arab regimes, nor even to their more radical nationalist critics.

The concept of a revolutionary socialist party based on the power of the international working class cuts through the idea that somehow liberation can be achieved within the confines of the nation state. Socialism has never been achieved within one country, and the idea that it could be has always been, as Cliff put it, ‘a narrow reactionary dream’. [60] Thus it is not enough simply to attack the US or European capitalist class without leading the struggle against their local representatives – such as the Bahgat Group and Orascom in Egypt, or Rafiq al-Hariri’s business empire in Lebanon. It is also not enough for revolutionary socialists in the Middle East to call for the liberation of Palestine-they have to actually build an organisation which brings the fight against imperialism into every factory and office, and brings the working class into the fight against imperialism. Only a revolutionary party whose members are, in Lenin’s words, not merely trade union secretaries but ‘tribunes of all the oppressed people’, who would ‘react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects’. [61] For the first time in a generation, the audience for these ideas is no longer confined to a tiny minority. The radicalisation over Palestine has opened up a space in the political map of the Middle East which has been closed for decades. Experience from the past shows that, unless revolutionary socialists show how the organised working class can fill that space, other forces will take their place.


1. For example, the Egyptian president’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, led a convoy of relief trucks to the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip. This was greeted with a great fanfare by the state-run Egyptian media, although the Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity With the Intifada has been organising similar convoys for the past 18 months. For coverage of the officially-sanctioned convoy see D. Hammouda, Border March, Al-Ahram Weekly, 2–8 May 2002, and First Lady Leads Huge Popular March to Rafah in Support of the Palestinian People, Al-Ahram, April 2002, p. 1.

2. A. Howeidy, A New Political Map?, Al-Ahram Weekly, 18–24 April 2002.

3. See, for example, Al-Ahram, Cairo, 2 April 2002, and Jordan Times, Amman, April 2002.

4. Al-Ahram reported on 2 April that demonstrations had spread to Cairo University, Helwan University, the American University in Cairo, Sixth October University, Ain Shams University, and outside the greater Cairo area to Port Said, Minya, Tanta, Al-Arish, Suez, Sohag and Assyut. The Jordan Times on the same day described a general strike in Amman, and reported that shops and offices were closed in Karak, Zarqa and Irbid.

5. Syrian Arab News Agency, Damascus, 7 April 2002.

6. Al-Hayat, 9 May 2002.

7. T. Zemmouri, Un si proche Orient, Jeune Afrique/l’Intelligent, 15–21 April 2002, p. 25.

8. F. Farag, The Many Faces of Solidarity, Al-Ahram Weekly, 2–8 May 2002,

9. See, for instance, Al-Akhbar, 3 April 2002, and Al-Ahram, 3 April 2002.

10. Middle East News Agency, 4 April 2002.

11. P. Schemm, Sparks of Activist Spirit in Egypt, MERIP Press Information Note 90, 13 April 2002, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

12. MENA, 9 April 2002.

13. P. Schemm, op. cit.

14. S. Negus, Apathy on the Wane?, Middle East International, 3 May 2002, p. 24.

15. J. Quilty, Convulsed over Palestine, Middle East International, 19 April 2002, p. 14.

16. Al-Safir, Beirut, 3 May 2002.

17. Civil Society Wakes Up, Middle East International, 19 April 2002.

18. Jedda Arab News, 9 May 2002,

19. Al-Hayat, 6 May 2002.

20., 12 April 2002.

21. Al-Quds al-Arabi, 6 May 2002.

22. A. Howeidy, op. cit.

23. K. Al-Gharby, Fatah Moves to Regain Security Control of the Palestinian Camps in Lebanon, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 18 June 2001.

24. Al-Safir, Beirut, 30 March 2002.

25. I. Hamidy, First Demonstration of its Kind for Thirty Years: Syrian Authorities Allow Thousands of Palestinian Refugees to March on the Golan, Al-Hayat, 6 April 2002.

26. P. Ford, After the Siege: A Weakened Arafat Maintains his Popularity in the Face of Israel, International Pressure and Internal Struggles, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 5 May 2002.

27. G. Shirbil, After the Siege, the Real Test, Al-Hayat, 2 May 2002, p. 5.

28. M. Salah, Protests in Egypt Oppose Arafat’s Policies, Al-Hayat, 5 May 2002, p. 7.

29. J. Shahin, 30,000 Protested in Alexandria, Chants Against Arafat in Al-Azhar, Al-Arabi, Cairo, 5 May 2002.

30. A. Howeidy, op. cit.

31. Al-Ayyam, Amman, 11 April 2002.

32. M. Lynch, King Abdullah, MERIP Press Information Note 94, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

33. On the MEA strike see A. Alexander, The Crisis in the Middle East, International Socialism 93 (Winter 2001). For a report of the taxi drivers’ march see H. Abdul-Hussain, Taxi Drivers March in Protest at Diesel Law, Daily Star, Beirut, 30 April 2002.

34. P. Marshall, Intifada: Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance (London 1989), pp. 115–127.

35. G. Kepel, The Prophet and Pharoah (London 1985), p. 109.

36. For a full analysis of the Islamist organisations of the Middle East and their relationship to the nationalist movements see C. Harman, The Prophet and the Proletariat, International Socialism 64 (Autumn 1994), pp. 3–63. Also on the class base of nationalist movements, see C. Harman, The Return of the National Question, International Socialism 56 (Autumn 1992), p. 11.

37. See the PFLP website for English translations of the movement’s statements and press releases, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

38. See Islamic Jihad’s website, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

39. The Palestine Information Centre carries Hamas’s statement and gives detailed background information on the movement,

40. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (New York 1992), ch. 1.

41. T. Cliff, Deflected Permanent Revolution (London 1986), pp. 7–8.

42. L. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 11.

43. Quoted in T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 10.

44. See D. Renton and A. Alexander, Imperialism, Globalisation and Popular Resistance in Egypt: 1881–2000, in L. Zeilig (ed.), Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa (Bristol 2002, forthcoming).

45. J. Beinin and Z. Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class 1882–1954 (Princeton 1987), pp. 340–342.

46. P. Marshall, The Children of Stalinism, International Socialism 68 (Autumn 1995), p. 119.

47. A. Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (London 1987), pp. 100–102. See also M. Poya, Iran 1979, in C. Barker (ed.), Revolutionary Rehearsals (London 1987), pp. 123–169.

48. As an internal Communist Party document from the 1950s put it, ‘The people’s democracy we want to establish in Egypt is not a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We aim to establish a democratic dictatorship if all the classes struggling against imperialism and feudalism.’ CP/CENT/INT/56/03 – Note on Communist Policy for Egypt, Communist Party Archives, National Museum of Labour History, Manchester.

49. See R. Bianchi, The Corporatization of the Egyptian Labor Movement, Middle East Journal 40 (1986), pp. 431–432.

50. T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 16

51. P. Marshall, op. cit., p. 125.

52. C. Harman, op. cit., p. 42.

53. A. Alexander, The Crisis in the Middle East, op. cit., p. 68.

54. D. Renton and A. Alexander, op. cit.

55. F. Al-Khatib, Al-Asar wal-Ujur, seminar paper presented at the Syrian Economic Society’s Tuesday Forum, Damascus, 24 April 2001, available online at [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

56. Jerusalem Post, 5 April 2002.

57. Daily Star, Beirut, 13 February 2002, Al-Safir, Beirut, 13 February 2002. The trade union protests followed large student demonstrations which had brought thousands on the streets against budget cuts in the universities. Al-Safir reported that students carried pots and pans, following the example of protesters in Argentina, and banners threatening to carry out an Argentine-style popular uprising if the government refused to listen to their demands. Al-Safir, Beirut, 5 February 2002.

58. Jordan Times, Amman, 11 March 2002 and Al-Arab Al-Yawm, Amman, 17 April 2002.

59. G. Essam El-Din, Shock-Absorbent Economy?, Al-Ahram Weekly, 9–15 May 2002.

60. T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 10.

61. V. Lenin, What is to be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement, in V. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 5 (Beijing 1961), pp. 422–423.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 18 May 2021