Nationalism and revolution in the Arab world

by Sandra Bloodworth • Published 14 April 2020

NOTE: This article was subsequently published as a pamphlet, with minor revisions, by Socialist Alternative.

On 4 March 1991 The Australian ran an editorial entitled “The Myth of Pan-Arabism exposed”. Pointing to the fact that some Arab regimes joined the Western alliance in the Gulf, the editorial argued that the Arab world would never be able to unite in opposition to the West. “There are many tribes of opinion in the Arab world.”

But The Australian ignored the immediate outrage and mobilisation in response to the US invasion of the Gulf last August. There were mass demonstrations in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Palestine and Cairo. The Middle East reported that young men were signing up for the Egyptian army under the illusion that they would be fighting to defend the Holy Places from the invaders.[1] In East Syria there was an uprising demanding they be allowed to secede and become part of Iraq. Ten people were killed by the armed forces. In October thousands of young people turned out to welcome the nationalist leader Ben Bella back to Algeria from exile after 25 years. They were carrying pictures not of Ben Bella but of the man they saw as their hero, Saddam Hussein.[2] On 18 January, almost half a million flocked onto the streets to demonstrate against the West’s aggression, backed by the General Union of Algerian Workers.

The unrest intensified after the bombing of Iraq began: the Guardian reported millions in the streets of Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan, and Libya.[3] In Tunisia, as well as tens of thousands marching, chanting anti-French slogans, a trade union leader reported that by February over 280 committees to support Iraq had been set up. There had been a huge response to a campaign for blood donations for the Iraqi people. Six thousand in Tunis alone had volunteered to go and fight for Iraq. The prime minister led a huge march on 26 January following one the day before, but nevertheless the government closed all schools and universities indefinitely for fear of the mass movement getting out of hand. As a result of this pressure from below, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was forced, against his instincts, not to ally with the West.[4]

It was desperately important for the US that this kind of mass sentiment be suppressed in the states which joined their alliance. So irregularities in the Egyptian elections at the end of November 1990 were quietly ignored by the forces so keen to “defend democracy”. The Middle East remarked casually that a more democratic Egypt seemed unlikely, given the prospect of war. “It will become essential for the government to maintain control by more strictly clamping down on dissent.”[5] All universities and schools were closed to prevent students organising protests. Analysts everywhere were predicting an explosion. The government reluctantly opened the schools a few days before the ceasefire, but each of those days saw university students demonstrating and braving tear gas and truncheons as their protests against Mubarak’s support for the US grew. Several Islamic parties’ youth organisations issued a joint call to arms against the US. Mideast Mirror reported: “few doubt that pro-Iraqi sentiment among ordinary Egyptians is increasing with every US bomb dropped on Iraq… Up to a point there is a class distinction with the Egyptian public on this matter.” Trade unionist Yehia Hussein, a worker in Helwan, was quoted as saying that in his factory “all the workers are Saddamists and all the managers are Kuwaitis.”[6] The Guardian Weekly commented of Syria in February:

Nowhere has the state-controlled media been so explicit in urging Saddam’s overthrow as they are in Syria, yet nowhere probably are the people more solidly behind him; the absence of those pro-Saddam street demonstrations that so embarrass other governments of the anti-Iraq coalition are testimony only to the Saddam-like ferocity of Assad’s security services.[7]

However, there were reports of small demonstrations calling for the overthrow of President Assad and for a struggle against the Zionist state and the US and its supporters. In Lebanon demonstrations and celebrations in support of Iraqi attacks on Israel were held in Beirut and Sidon, with thousands of Palestinians from refugee camps being joined by Lebanese demonstrators. In Libya, Colonel Gaddafi claimed a million marched in a rally he sponsored both against the US and for the right of Kuwait to self-determination. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Yemen, where anger was fuelled by the appalling treatment of Yemeni workers deported from Saudi Arabia. In Sudan, demonstrators burned the Egyptian flag and called for the Aswan dam to be bombed as a protest at Mubarak’s betrayal of the pan-Arab cause.

The uproar in Jordan forced the newly created parliament to come out against the US coalition and demand that all Arab resources and armies be handed over to Saddam. Eventually King Hussein, usually pro-Western, had to condemn the US bombing of civilians and traffic into Jordan from Baghdad. Some weeks Amman appeared, from television reports, to be the scene of almost non-stop anti-US demonstrations. The day after the US attack on a civilian air-raid shelter in Baghdad, demonstrators chanted “Saddam, use your chemical weapons”, an indication of the intense hatred of Israel and the US and feelings of solidarity the population feel towards other Arabs. In spite of his stance against the US bombing, King Hussein’s riot police attacked a rally which besieged the US Embassy. The Western press might have been bristling with rage and indignation that Saddam dared to fire scud missiles at Israel, but Palestinians could not conceal their delight. There was a spontaneous demonstration of thousands at the al Bakaa refugee camp outside Amman. An elderly Palestinian woman summed up the feelings of the demonstration:

For 40 years the Zionists have knocked our houses, now they know what it feels like. Our stones have been replaced by missiles, and our tears of sadness have become tears of joy.[8]

Residents of Qalqiliya, near the “Green Line” border between Israel and the West Bank, reported that when the sirens were heard, the Israeli soldiers rushed back to base “in a state of panic”, but the Palestinians would go onto their rooftops and through loudspeakers declare the city a liberated zone.[9] When trucks carrying food to Saudi Arabia passed through the northern Jordanian town of Ramtha, they were stoned by young people who risked riot police and arrests to show their anger. “We will not allow traitors to pass through our territories”, one resident said. Another added “Why should the enemies and the traitors eat, while our people and the people of Iraq starve?”[10]

This pressure from the masses limited the number of regimes prepared to join the alliance and others had to distance themselves, even if inclined to support the US. King Hussein of Jordan was quoted in November 1990 as saying that the West’s

blatant and shameless conduct must confirm to us that their real motives are far from being the hollow claim to uphold legitimacy and defend principles. Their actual goals stem from their desire to control our destiny and the Arab nation’s resources.[11]

The king is a dictator but nevertheless in the Gulf crisis, to preserve his position he had to distance himself from his usual pro-Western stance. King Hassan of Morocco, who originally sent 1,500 troops as part of the West’s coalition, by 28 January was forced to tacitly endorse a general strike called by the major unions as a show of support for Iraq. For the first 10 days of the bombardment of Baghdad, he had tried to suppress popular anger by banning all demonstrations, closing schools and universities, banning football matches and using armed security forces to patrol the streets. A large rally in Rabat on 22 January was attacked by armed forces. But in a desperate bid to head off militant demonstrations on the day of the general strike, the government “urged citizens ‘to observe this day of solidarity with the brother Iraqi people in contemplation, discipline and responsibility’.”[12] This did not stop the general strike being solid and half a million marching in Rabat demanding that King Hassan withdraw the Moroccan troops. A favourite chant was “We are all Iraqis”.

The West was extremely concerned that any intervention by Israel could break their alliance, precisely because their more astute analysts could not ignore the fact of mass Arab hostility to Israel and the traditions of solidarity this has built among the mass of the population in the Middle East. Thus Pan-Arabism is both a “myth” and a reality. There are many “tribes” – workers and bosses, peasants and landowners, Palestinians and Kuwaitis. The Gulf crisis did raise many questions about the role of both Arab nationalism and imperialism in the region. The upheavals illustrated the depth of pan-Arab sentiment, and its mobilising power. But they also drew out the contradictions and limitations of Arab nationalism. We must understand both these elements, because socialists seek both to link up with the aspirations of the mass of Arab people and to break them from their illusions in their rulers.

Revolutionary Marxism

The task of revolutionary socialists is to join with the masses when they fight for national liberation in order to win them to a class outlook, build up their class organisations and win them to the struggle for socialism. Today that means we support the movement fuelled by Arab nationalism. Given the right circumstances, it could be the underpinning for social revolution in the region to overthrow not just imperialist domination, but local tyrants as well. That said, Marxists do not support such a movement uncritically. For instance, we did not support the wave of anti-US protests because we have any political sympathy for Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, we were among his most determined opponents long before the recent crisis. Neither do we endorse the politics of the Palestine Liberation Organisation even though they are genuine anti-imperialist fighters. We support national struggles insofar as they come into conflict with the major capitalist powers. But we argue for a socialist strategy to win the struggle.

Our starting point to understand the question must be the historical development of Arab nationalism. The Middle East had come under the influence of European bourgeois nationalism while still under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. But a crucial year was 1920, Am-an Nakbar, The Year of the Catastrophe, as the Arabs call it. The West’s contempt and complete disregard for the rights of the local population were demonstrated clearly by the cynical division of the area by the superpowers of the time. So much of the chaos, the wars and human suffering we see today in the Middle East have their roots in this year. By drawing arbitrary lines on the map, the artificial states of Lebanon and Syria were carved out of what should have been a greater Syrian region and put under the control of France. Britain got Iraq as well as Palestine, where the Balfour Declaration guaranteed Zionist settlement, leading to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of a million Palestinians.

The importance of the region arose from its huge reserves of cheap oil and the strategic value of the Suez Canal. The history of this tragic area has been one of interference by imperialist powers in all manner of ways: divide and rule tactics, buying off one reactionary set of rulers against another by concessions and/or military and political support for access to their territories, manipulation of the economies and political life of the region.[13] For instance, the British oil companies who gained the concessions in Iraq held back the development of those fields because it did not suit them to hurry it up. Of course, the Iraqi economy was the loser.[14] Added to all these outrages was the increasing displacement of the Palestinians by Zionist settlement. Maxime Rodinson sums up the growing identity which emerged in resistance to this onslaught:

The Arab world as a whole burned with the desire for revenge. to throw off the yoke of foreign occupation and achieve independence. Vague feelings of identity among the Arabic-speaking peoples. based on their common tongue, cultural heritage and history, were now reinforced by their struggle to free themselves from their common plight, a struggle directed against a common enemy. Upheavals in one country had major repercussions in all the others, whatever their outcome.[15]

The creation of Israel in 1948 cemented this identity even further. Life in the refugee camps was demoralising and disorganising for the Palestinians – but only temporarily. By the late 1960s they were firmly on the stage of history. Since then, the Palestinian cause has clearly been one of the most important catalysts for pan-Arab feeling. In 1982 when Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fighters were expelled from Lebanon, one million lined the banks of the Suez Canal to wish them well. The start of the Intifada in 1987 sparked unrest throughout the region. Twelve thousand marched in a demonstration in Sidon, Lebanon. Demonstrations were planned in Jordan until they were aborted when leading activists were arrested. The Syrian government, seeing which way the wind was blowing, actually sponsored rallies and other activities. In Tunisia the government sent a statement of support, which wasn’t enough to head off a mass demonstration. Leaflets supporting the Intifada appeared in Baghdad in spite of severe repression.

On 20 January 1988 students marched at Fez University in Morocco and on the 24th there was an illegal march in Amman, Jordan. There were demonstrations in Kuwait in February even though the Kuwaiti government, ironic as it now seems, gave $5 million to the Intifada. Support continued to spread during 1988. Thousands demonstrated outside the US embassy in Khartoum, Sudan in March during a general strike in support of the uprising. In Algeria, the government sponsored a huge rally in February where PLO leader Arafat spoke. But in October this support did not protect them from their own “intifada”, as it became known, consisting of protests which lasted a week and included airport and postal workers on strike with 13,000 car workers from the Berliet car factory. In Egypt there was widespread support for the Palestinians, and the movement waged a running battle with the government which tried desperately to suppress it.

These events showed the tremendous potential for international solidarity among the masses of the region. But they also brought out one of the central contradictions in Arab nationalism. Whenever the masses clamour for solidarity, they come into conflict with their own ruling classes – the class nature of those societies and the resultant class struggle, as opposed to a national identity, comes to the fore. So the mass movement from below was only one side of the response to the Intifada.

Governments in the region adopted a two-pronged approach, both of which illustrated their fear of the masses. On the one hand they made supportive noises, but on the other they resorted to repression when the mass movement burst into open expression. So while the Syrian government mouthed support in its official statements, police clubbed demonstrators at a mass rally. In Morocco 20 were killed at the Fez University march. In Jordan police broke up demonstrations and arrested activists. In Kuwait, police used tear gas and batons against demonstrations, because as a Kuwaiti newspaper warned,

Such demonstrations could be exploited by those who fish in troubled water to create disturbances.[16]

A strike in the city of Mehalla al-Kubra in the north of Egypt showed why the ruling classes dread the solidarity of their workers with the Palestinians. The workers fought riot police after a small solidarity march. The slogans began safely enough as opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but soon developed into demands for Egypt to break off relations with Israel, which rapidly became slogans against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the US. The government was then declared a servant of the West and soon the call was being raised to bring down President Mubarak.[17]

Arab nationalism and permanent revolution

These events confirm Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The theory was originally developed at the beginning of this century as an analysis of the revolutionary dynamic in Russia, and later generalised to the underdeveloped world. Trotsky argued that in the less developed countries, the local capitalists would be too timid to lead a revolution for national independence. They were too dependent on the imperialists and on the local landowners for capital, and thus incapable of consistently challenging the status quo. But while the bourgeoisie was weak, the working class in these countries could be remarkably strong. What development did take place involved the most advanced technology and methods of production. This could mean some of the most modern, and therefore some of the largest workplaces in the world. Certainly, the oil fields, textile and other mills around the Middle East bring together huge concentrations of workers surrounded by a sea of backwardness. This combination of features – the timidity of the capitalist class, the concentrations of workers which gives them great economic and social power – means that the working class can and should lead the national revolution. But a struggle led by the working class also means the struggle will not stay within the bounds of the national struggle. It will, by its very nature, spill over into a struggle for workers’ power, in other words for socialism.

It was in this sense that Trotsky meant the revolution would be permanent. Because these oppressed nations did not exist in isolation, but were part of a world system, they did not have to go through a “stage” of capitalist development before the workers could fight for their own revolution. The other sense in which the revolution must be permanent was international. No workers’ state would survive indefinitely if left isolated in a capitalist world, especially not in countries where industry was a small part of the economy. So for socialism to become possible, any successful workers’ revolution must spread the struggle beyond the borders of one country and ultimately to the heartlands of capitalism.[18]

In the Middle East, all the key elements of Trotsky’s theory are present. In Egypt as early as 1919 a nationalist movement, similar to those in India, China, Ireland and Turkey, swept the country. From 8 March when students demonstrated in Cairo, there were daily protests, strikes and demonstrations. There were bloody clashes with the British military. Railways were cut and the tramways shut down. A popular activity was overturning tramcars and burning them. In the midst of this revolution, the bourgeois nationalist Wafd party publicly denounced all forms of violence. In spite of their spineless stand, the Wafd leaders gained their freedom from jail on the backs of the “violent” masses. They were allowed to travel to exile in Europe.

No sooner had the tramways workers returned to work with an eight hour day and a pay rise, than the government was brought down on 21 April by a political strike of government employees. The strikers were joined by print, postal, customs and port workers, government workshops, workers in the Cairo electric company and taxi drivers. Workers at the Hawamdiyya sugar refinery south of Cairo were attacked by troops (including Australian soldiers). Another wave of strikes began in August with the tramways workers in Cairo, Alexandria and Heliopolis on strike until October.

The national revolution was bound up with workers’ struggles to improve their own conditions. Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman wrote:

The political, social, and economic conditions that characterized the Egypt that emerged from the war were the tinder the spark of nationalist agitation ignited, producing .the popular uprising against British rule that came to be known as the 1919 revolution.[19]

and on the other hand:

For [workers] as for a general population supportive of the national cause, strikes that raised economic demands were regarded as an integral part of the broader struggle…for independence and dignity.[20]

They commented: “The national revolution against British rule opened the floodgates of labor organisation and militant action”. At the time, the British authorities understood the threat to colonial rule. One official wrote during the strikes in August:

If the strikers should succeed in enforcing all their demands, their success would not only be considered as a triumph for them, but would also be looked upon by the natives as a defeat of both the employers and the Authorities, a fact which will probably encourage the mass of the population to make trouble.[21]

If the weight of the working class was important in the years 1919-24, it is much more so today. After World War II, industrialisation progressed rapidly and the concentration of workers accelerated. In 1947 the number of companies employing over 500 workers was only 64 out of 26,743. But they employed 137,000 workers out of a total of 367,000. Today Egypt produces steel, aluminium, vehicles. In Egypt and other Arab states there is still mass poverty, but few of these countries remain agricultural backwaters. By the early eighties Algeria and Egypt had 44 percent of the population living in urban areas. In Iraq it was 72 percent, Lebanon 77 percent, Jordan 57 percent, Syria 49 percent and Tunisia 53 percent. Egypt had 30 percent of its workforce in industry with comparable numbers in most other Arab countries.


Beginning with the Communist Manifesto’s call, “proletarians of all countries, unite!”, revolutionary Marxists have intransigently opposed nationalism. Yet we cannot dismiss pan-Arab sentiment as merely reactionary. Lenin’s writings on the national question and the Theses on the National and Colonial Question of the Second Congress of the Third International are a guide to how Marxists should approach the question.[22] Lenin argued that the movements against the colonial powers had a progressive dynamic because they had the potential to weaken the imperialist system. He opposed the ideas of those such as Rosa Luxemburg who regarded the national movements as a diversion from the class struggle. He argued that in the epoch of imperialism, profound social revolts would often take nationalist forms and develop in an anti-capitalist direction. It was inconceivable that there could be social revolution on an international scale without revolts by the small nations oppressed by imperialism. Abstention from national movements would simply leave the working class and peasantry under the domination of the bourgeoisie.

Therefore the Communist International should enter into temporary alliances with bourgeois democratic movements in the colonies. However there was a need for “a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois democratic liberation trends”. And the revolutionary socialist movement “must not amalgamate with [the bourgeois democratic movement]; it must unconditionally maintain the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is only in an embryonic stage”, because the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaderships would serve to limit the movement.

The tragedy in the Middle East is that no significant revolutionary current existed which fought to build an independent working class movement. The left has been dominated by Stalinist parties, whose politics were determined by the foreign policy interests of the USSR and its attempt to court local bourgeois politicians. Translated into political practice, this meant these parties tended to capitulate either to existing nationalist regimes, or to the bourgeois nationalist politics of oppositional movements. They put their confidence in national leaders who at every critical stage opted to abort the social revolution rather than see the working class challenge for power.[23] This pattern found its ideological reflex in a stages theory, which argued that underdeveloped countries must first pass through a bourgeois democratic revolution and a period of capitalist development before socialism was on the agenda.

The disastrous consequences of these policies were revealed after the Nasserite nationalists took power in Egypt in 1952. Initially the Communist Party, reflecting Moscow’s hostility to the new regime, condemned the revolution which was clearly the result of a mass popular movement, as fascist. Henri Curiel’s Democratic Movement for National Liberation, in spite of its usually sycophantic acceptance of the line from Moscow,[24] supported the revolution led by the radical nationalist army officers. But Curiel, thoroughly imbued with Stalinism and liberalism, could offer no way forward. He did not see that the working class could lead the national movement, but put his faith in the most left wing officers.

Within days, the so-called “white revolution” was stained with the blood of workers executed by the new regime for daring to strike for a pay rise. This confirmed for the CP that the revolution was reactionary. Eventually however, the CP abandoned their opposition to the Nasser regime. Ismail Sabri Abdullah, a leading member, concluded that they should have understood the progressive role the army could play. Years later, Abdullah concluded: “We can clearly see that the hanging of the workers shouldn’t have been allowed to cause a split with the regime.”[25] This is the classic error of Stalinism. One day sectarian abstention from a genuine mass movement, the next accepting that the ruling class must rule. If socialists had been part of the national movement and fighting for the working class to lead the revolution, they would have been well placed to argue that the hanging of workers proved that no one but the workers themselves could be trusted. The CP eventually dissolved into Nasser’s ruling party in spite of its witch-hunts against communist militants.

The outcome of events in Iraq in the 1960s was equally disastrous. The CP, the only organisation with a mass popular following, and overwhelming support in the working class, refused to lead a fight for workers’ power, wanting to find some way of forming an alliance with the nationalists. In the end thousands of their militants were murdered by the Ba’ath when they came to power. The history of the Middle East is strewn with events which show the willingness of the mass of workers and urban and rural poor to fight with great determination and with a strong sense of international solidarity. The failure has been again and again, not with the masses but with the leading organisations which could not tap this potential for a fight for workers’ power.


Since the early sixties, the most powerful radicalising force in the Arab world has been the Palestinian struggle. Their heroism and determination to continue fighting for their national rights against sometimes incredible odds has been an inspiration to militants and leftists not just in the region but around the world. The politics of the PLO leadership however, are limited to the framework of nationalism; they do not bring a class content to the national struggle. In effect this has meant trying to find a place in the capitalism of the Middle East. Their politics reflect the dominance within the national movement of a layer of Palestinians who are relatively privileged and well educated, but who have been radicalised by a bitter resentment at their exclusion from the political power a nation state would bring them. Not that this means their whole perspective is simply one of self interest: to a large extent they identify with the misery and suffering of the Palestinian masses.

However, to translate that sympathy into a class perspective, they have to be won to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. In the Middle East, the Stalinists who paraded as Marxists had demonstrated their bankruptcy by their support for the creation of Israel, and their inability to lead struggles independent of nationalists such as Nasser and the Ba’ath. So it is not surprising that by and large the PLO was not attracted to Marxism. Instead they saw the answer as a more militant nationalism, and a preparedness to use armed struggle more determinedly. Those like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, looking for a more left wing alternative, were influenced by Maoism, which in the sixties appeared to many militants everywhere to be a genuine Marxist alternative to the discredited Communist Parties. Unfortunately, Maoism was simply a more militant variant of Stalinism, accepting the same basic principles. So the various Palestinian leaders, whether they called themselves Marxist-Leninist or nationalist, all ended up embracing variants of the same two-pronged strategy.

On the one hand there was the armed struggle – incursions by guerrillas, known as fedayeen, into Israel from Jordan and later Lebanon. However brave, however determined, this strategy could never succeed. At their peak, the groups had about 10,000 men and women under arms. This sounds impressive until we remember they were up against one of the most heavily militarised states in the world, on terrain totally unsuitable for guerrilla warfare. Movements of the oppressed cannot win by force alone, because the ruling class commands the armed might of the state and controls the dissemination of ideas. To defeat it requires a social and political struggle. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 showed only too clearly that the armed force alone of the Palestinians was no match for Israel.

On the other hand, there was a reliance on the Arab states to deliver money, arms and diplomatic assistance. This has meant that at critical turning points in the struggle, the PLO has been incapable of taking decisive action for fear of alienating their powerful backers. Yet it’s not as though they didn’t have evidence of the treacherous nature of the Arab ruling classes.

After the creation of Israel in 1948 events rapidly demonstrated that there was no such thing as a classless, Arab unity. The Arab rulers, while they disliked the presence of Israel as an outpost of imperialism in their region, nevertheless were prepared to come to an uneasy truce rather than mobilise the kind of mass, popular movement which could smash the Zionist state. Their response was little more than a political charade. The Jordanian troops were commanded by British officers led by Brigadier Sir John Bagot Glubb – as though leading representatives of a state which was backing Israel would lead a serious fight! And in fact the outcome of the war on this front was largely fixed in advance by secret negotiations between Jordan and the Zionist leaders. The Egyptian army was badly armed and equipped. Iraq soon withdrew from the war even though its armies had penetrated into Palestine on two sections of the eastern front.

The military fiasco caused great unrest. Nasser rode to power in Egypt in 1952 on the back of a mass movement fuelled by anger at the 1948 betrayal. In the early 1950s Palestinian workers led major strikes on the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. A revolutionary Marxist party could have linked up the struggle for Palestinian liberation against Israel with the struggle of the newly emerging working class of the area, but no such party existed. The Stalinist CPs were incapable of making this link, and the opportunity was lost. The repression which followed – 250 militants were expelled and a ban was placed on the entry of Palestinian workers to the Gulf states – showed what a dead end was the CPs’ orientation to the existing Arab regimes.

Of course the Saudi regime was particularly reactionary, but the 1967 war with Israel showed that nationalists even of Nasser’s stature could not be relied on. When Nasser’s regime was threatened by struggles from below, the Egyptian foreign minister begged the Palestinians to launch some kind of military operation in the territories newly-occupied by Israel – not as a strategy to win them back, but as an attempt to divert the attention of the mass of the population away from Egypt’s failure to fight Israel. Syria, under the nationalist Ba’ath party, chose to keep its crack troops away from Israel’s borders. In Algeria, however, the masses showed their disgust for the cowardice and betrayal of the war. Angry demonstrators attacked the Egyptian embassy in Algiers as they chanted “Nasser, march or die!” The opportunity existed to mobilise the masses for a serious fight for Palestinian liberation. On the other hand, the cowardice and treachery of the nationalist bourgeoisie was all too clear.

If the PLO had built on the struggle from below, by 1970 they would have been well placed throughout the region, when another opportunity presented itself. The Palestinian movement posed a real threat to King Hussein of Jordan, where 70 percent of the population are of Palestinian origin. At last, after much delay and hesitation, Fatah, the leading organisation of the PLO, endorsed a general strike and demanded that Hussein call a people’s assembly to choose a government including Palestinian representatives. Hussein unleashed his troops in a vicious blood-letting which become known as “Black September”. Three thousand Palestinians were killed and the PLO broken up. The PLO leadership had delayed too long, allowing Hussein to regain the initiative. But as well, the PLO leadership appeared to believe that the so-called socialists of the Ba’ath in Syria and Iraq, positioned close to the fighting, would come to their aid. In the event the whole Arab world –”socialist”, nationalist and reactionary alike – stood by and allowed Hussein to savage the strongest base of the Palestinian movement. Arafat declared, all too late, “the Palestinian revolution will fight to defend itself to the end until the fascist military government is overthrown”.

The problem was, Fatah had not built a revolutionary workers’ organisation capable of leading such a fight. September 1970 highlighted the problem: the PLO leadership, in its desire to find a place in the existing order of the Middle East, dreaded the prospect of confronting the nationalist regimes and so was incapable of taking decisive action. After Black September a minority of Palestinian activists, frustrated both by the treachery of the Arab ruling classes and the failure of Palestinian arms, turned to desperate terrorist tactics such as airline hijacking. However the main PLO section, Fatah, drew highly conservative conclusions from the defeat. They were determined that the movement should never again threaten an Arab state and suffer a defeat like that of Black September. Their caution did not however prevent more such tragedies and betrayals.

In the civil war in Lebanon in 1975-76, Syria intervened to prevent the victory of the PLO and the Lebanese left. And in 1978 Nasser’s successor, Sadat, signed the Camp David Accords which conceded recognition of the right for Israel to exist. When Israel smashed its way into Lebanon in 1982, besieged Beirut and forced 10,000 PLO fighters into exile, the Arab states remained passive. Then in order to prevent the exiled guerrillas from becoming a source of discontent, the regimes in the countries to which they fled isolated them from the centres of population.

By November 1988 the PLO had accepted the UN resolutions on the Middle East, including 242 and 338 which call for the guarantee of secure borders for all states including Israel. This is a significant political concession and retreat from the recognition that there will never be peace in the region while the Zionist state exists. Associated with this move was the call for a Palestinian state made up of only the occupied territories plus the Arab sector of Jerusalem existing alongside Israel. Apart from the fact that this two-state position does nothing to get back the land originally stolen from the Palestinians, the proposal is a utopia. Such a limited Palestinian state is not conceivably viable economically or militarily.[26] The acceptance of such a settlement was the culmination of a shift that the PLO had been making during the eighties – a retreat from the struggle for national liberation. It was part of a process of substituting accommodation with imperialism for resistance to it.

An indication of the uphill battle it will be for the PLO to achieve the respect they crave from the US and other powers was illustrated when the US refused permission for Arafat to attend a UN sitting in New York where he was to address the General Assembly. It had to move to Geneva for him to attend. In the Gulf crisis, the PLO to their credit did not come down on the side of the US alliance, but that damages their ability to carry on diplomatic negotiations. They are caught in the bind so many nationalist leaders encounter. On the one hand, they have to represent the aspirations of their followers if they are to have the credibility to lead the movement, but they don’t want the struggles which could achieve their aim. They hope against all the odds that they can get concessions by making overtures to imperialism. It is ironic that such concessions were made just when the struggle in the occupied territories was a source of inspiration to supporters of the Palestinian cause world wide. For the first time the 700,000 Palestinians living inside Israel itself were drawn into struggle. Women moved more into the forefront of the popular resistance. International Women’s Day 1988 was marked by demonstrations in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Jerusalem and Gaza city. In 1989 it was the occasion for a two-day general strike. The Intifada could have been a springboard to build a movement around the region, but once again the PLO was caught on the back foot and unable to maximise the opportunity opened by the determination and combativity of its supporters.


We have seen that while the Arab working class and urban and rural poor strive for international solidarity, their ruling classes squabble among themselves and make endless accommodations to imperialism. The participation of Saudi Arabia et al in the US alliance and the protests against it, are only the latest example. The deepening economic crisis in most of the Arab world will sharpen these class contradictions further. Because class and national oppression are intertwined, struggles around basic economic demands for a decent living can very easily develop into hostility both to imperialism and the local ruling class.

Falling oil prices have put many economies in a very precarious position. For instance, Algeria depends on oil and gas exports for 98 percent of export revenue. In 1985 its export earnings were cut by 40 percent. With a debt of $25.3 billion and unemployment around 25 percent, the government is under enormous pressure to line up with the West in order to be able to continue to borrow. From the other side, ever since the Algerian Intifada of October 1988, the country has been in turmoil. In early 1990, the government introduced a law to try to control strikes which were “bedevilling every sector of the economy”, as one report put it.

Jordan has an unemployment rate of 20 percent, and the Gulf crisis has dealt its economy another body blow. Reports in early March 1991 indicated production had been devastated. Their main trade is with Iraq, which takes 23 percent of exports. The loss of Kuwaiti and Iraqi markets will cost the economy $280 million a year, or 30 percent of export revenue. This dependence on Iraq combined with mass pressure forced King Hussein to be cautious about the Gulf War. On the other hand, he couldn’t afford to completely back Iraq because of the need to get financial help from the West.

Egypt, the largest economy in the region, has been faced with a deepening crisis throughout the eighties. In 1984 and again in 1986, tens of thousands of textile workers struck against price hikes and for pay rises. They received mass sympathy across Egypt’s population of 50 million. Only two weeks after the 1986 strikes, 17,000 riot police rioted and burnt down a tourist hotel in protest against being conscripted for an extra year’s service. Today, the country has an inflation rate of 30-40 percent, the budget deficit is 18 percent of GDP, the total debt stands at $55 billion and half the population lives at or below the poverty line.

The situation is exacerbated by the return of migrant workers from other Arab states also afflicted with economic decline. Some estimates put the number of Egyptian workers working abroad at the beginning of 1990 at 2.8 million. Their remittances provided somewhere around $8 billion, or 30 percent of Egypt’s total foreign currency earnings. After the Iran-Iraq war many Egyptians were expelled from Iraq to make jobs available for returned soldiers. In the next Gulf crisis, thousands streamed back into Egypt from Iraq and Kuwait, along with others from around the stricken region, costing another $1.075 billion this financial year. The government has been unable to provide an extra 400,000 planned jobs, let alone work for these refugees. With the government implementing IMF policies which have pushed up prices of basic commodities between 10 percent and 130 percent, it looks like only a matter of time before Mubarak is threatened by another wave of protest and revolt.

At the same time as the upheavals in Egypt there were anti-government riots and growing workers’ struggles in Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan. In Sudan on 26 March 1985, as President Numairi was leaving for the US for talks about aid for his ailing economy, mass protests broke out against increased bread and sugar prices following a 75 percent rise in fuel costs. The president of the students’ union declared that “the air is quivering”. Over the next two days, strikes, riots and demonstrations involving groups from doctors and other professionals to railway workers continued. At least five people were killed in Khartoum and about 2,000 arrested. During the upheavals, students, women marching in Omdurman town and even academics alongside bank and shop workers drew out the connection between the role of imperialism and their immediate economic concerns. They chanted “We will not be ruled by the World Bank, we will not be ruled by the IMF”, and “Down, down with the USA”.

There were 20 national strikes in two months. To end the protests, the government announced wage increases of 20-40 percent. But eventually the army staged a coup which was welcomed with joy. The Free Army Officers’ Organization had earlier declared themselves on side “with the popular revolt against hunger, ignorance, and misrule and for social justice and equality”. In the absence of a revolutionary socialist organisation capable of giving a lead, this section of the state was able to fill the political vacuum. Nevertheless, the crisis showed the potential to link up anti-imperialist sentiment with class demands and struggle.

The year before, Tunisia had been in uproar over doubled bread prices. With perhaps a fifth of the population of Tunis living in shanty towns, 20 percent unemployment and a sagging economy, the rapidly expanding urban areas are extremely volatile. In the Gulf crisis, the usually pro-Western government (70 percent of trade is with Western Europe) opted for a pro-Iraqi position. It organised a demonstration in support of Saddam, the first legal rally since President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali came to power in November 1987. The most plausible explanation for this extraordinary action is fear of the mass of urban poor who spontaneously opposed the US presence in the Gulf, and had demonstrated their support for the Palestinian Intifada.

The other country rocked by mass protests in the mid eighties was Morocco. As in Tunisia, one of the main industries, tourism, has been declining, economic growth has been falling and debt increasing since the mid-seventies. Between 1973 and 1983, food prices more than tripled. Between July and October 1983, they increased 10.6 percent and the cost of living rose 8 percent. Today Morocco has suffered five years of austerity. Unemployment is nearly 30 percent and begging is widespread. During 1989 workers continued their resistance to austerity measures begun in the early eighties with strikes in the oil refineries, flour mills and transport depots. Loans from the World Bank over the last two years amounted to £1.4 billion and the national debt is $22 billion.

By the time the Gulf crisis hit the region, many of the regimes were in turmoil. The democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe had caused a ripple in the Middle East. Besides Algeria, Tunisia had to allow democratic freedoms in the face of mass protests. In Syria, Yemen and Jordan waves of strikes and protests have forced elections, the end of martial law in Jordan and the unbanning of communist literature. In Jordan, these reforms increased confidence and led to strikes over pay in defiance of the labour laws. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein sent a video of the fall of Romania’s dictator Ceaucescu to his military chiefs, warning them to tighten up to ensure the same couldn’t happen to him. He knew that three years of so-called economic and political “reforms” had not satisfied the aspirations of his population.

The regimes are caught between their need to appease the Western imperialists in order to get aid, loans and support to deal with the crisis, and fear of their populations. Egypt has a national debt one and a half times the GNP. Faced with strikes like that in the Mehalla al-Kubra plant last year, which won improved pay and conditions in the face of repression, and an increasingly militant Islamic fundamentalist movement, Mubarak is caught in a vice. He could not afford not to back the US intervention, but he did so at the risk of a mass explosion fuelled both by the resentment at economic hardship and outrage at his pro-Western stance. What’s more support for the US won’t necessarily bail these states out of their problems, because the pay-off doesn’t look large enough to end the demands for more austerity from the IMF. Egypt only had a miserable $6.7 billion written off its military debt by the US and another $7 billion written off by the Gulf states, out of a $55 billion debt. This means that mass struggle and resistance are still very likely. But if an alternative to the leadership of the nationalists is to be seriously posed, the mass revolts need to be led by the working class-and that is far from automatic.

The problem is not a lack of worker militancy, but the ideas which dominate the movement. That workers still have illusions in the Arab ruling classes was clear during the Gulf crisis. In their desire to resist imperialism, millions of workers were prepared to support Saddam Hussein uncritically because he seemed to be the most determined opponent of the US. His military confrontation seemed to offer hope that at last the US might get a bloodied nose. The Palestinians hoped it would lead to a serious attempt to win their national rights. In reality Saddam was prepared to drop the Palestinians when he wanted to get out of. the war, and all too ready to crush the rebellions after the war with ferocity. They were right to oppose the US intervention, but what is needed is a movement which knows how to tap the strength of the working class to fight independently of butchers like Saddam.

Another serious weakness in the mass movements is the increasing influence of Islamic fundamentalist organisations. Clare Hill says:

In most cases, the protests have been initiated or led by Islamic organisations. The left has been too weak or too ideologically confused to take the lead.[28]

For example, a radio report said that a 2,000-strong PLO-led march was quickly swamped by a much larger contingent of Islamic groups. The parliament in Jordan, granted after riots in 1989, is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. They demanded when Baghdad was being bombed that all resources and armies of the Arab world be handed over to Saddam. This kind of rhetoric wins them credibility, especially in the absence of any secular organisation prepared to give a lead. In Algeria the Islamic Salvation Front led most of the demonstrations and appeared to be making the most gains from them. The picture is repeated in most countries except Morocco, where strong social democratic and trade union organisations have taken the lead. Their influence as well as that of the left has meant few of the slogans raised are pro-Saddam or use the language of Islam.

Just because reactionary fundamentalists win the leadership, we cannot, as some on the left do, disown the movements. Religion is, as Marx said, the sigh of the oppressed, and in the Middle East it has become the last hope of populations which have fought under secular banners and been crushed many times. With Marxism discredited because of the role of Stalinism, and the backtracking of the PLO, it is not surprising the Islamic fundamentalists have been able to fill the political vacuum. They do so by posing as the most determined, militant anti-imperialist fighters. Marxism will not win a hearing by disowning the movements as they unfold, but only if we wholeheartedly support the masses when they revolt, and engage them in friendly and supportive debate.

It is possible to challenge the fundamentalists. There is already evidence that where the fundamentalists gain some power they quickly begin to discredit themselves. In Algeria where they won the local elections during 1990, moves to impose Islamic dress and other backward measures have already provoked a women’s movement and dissatisfaction with their rule in some areas. It is only by fighting and discovering their own strength that workers will find the confidence to challenge such ideas and to throw off such leadership. When Saddam abandoned the Palestinian cause there were reports that Palestinian fighters drew the conclusion they could rely only on themselves. This could be the beginning of a reappraisal of the politics which have dominated their movement for too long.

As Lenin argued 70 years ago, socialists cannot expect a “pure” class struggle. Revolutionaries cannot wait for an ideal working class mobilisation to develop, but must be part of the struggle as it exists. In the Middle East, national and class conflicts are closely linked and feed off each other. Marxist analysis offers an understanding of that contradictory reality, and a strategy for victory in both struggles. Imperialism can only be defeated if the Arab masses are united under a revolutionary, working class leadership.

[1] The Middle East, 191, September 1990, p7.

[2] The Middle East, 193, November 1990, p25.

[3] Guardian, 6 February, 1991.

[4] Clare Hill, “Fracture lines”, Socialist Worker Review, 139, February 1991, p10.

[5] The Middle East, 195, January 1991, p18.

[6] Quoted in Clare Hill, “Fracture lines”, p11.

[7] Guardian Weekly, 17 February 1991.

[8] Quoted in Clare Hill, “Fracture lines”, p9.

[9] Guardian, 6 February 1991, p13. A word of caution here: it has been commented to me that this story was from pro-Zionist sources and so may be exaggerated. Nevertheless it fits with other accounts of the support for Saddam’ s attacks.

[10] Guardian Weekly, 17 February 1991, p8.

[11] The Age, 19 November 1990.

[12] Guardian Weekly, 10 February 1991, p19.

[13] Maxime Rodinson, Israel and the Arabs, Penguin, Ringwood, 1982. This is a good summary of the manoeuvres of imperialism and their influence on the development of the region. He comments (pp25-6): “A common tactic on the part of the colonizing powers was to apply the policy of ‘divide and rule’. They would give support to minority interests and ethnic groups to counterbalance the unifying and assimilatory tendency of the Arab nationalist movement. The French, for instance, attempted to exploit in this way the Druses and the Alawi in Syria, and the Berbers in the Maghreb. The British did the same in Iraq with the Assyrians, Nestorian Christians speaking an Aramaic dialect.”

[14] Celine Whittleton, “Oil and the Iraqi Economy”, in Saddam’s Iraq – Revolution or Reaction?, Zed Books, New Jersey, 1986, pp54-55.

[15] Rodinson, Israel and the Arabs, p27.

[16] Phil Marshall, Intifada. Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance, Bookmarks, London 1989, p165.

[17] ibid., p167.

[18] See Tony Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917, Bookmarks, London 1989, pp123-139, for a summary of the development of the theory. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, Pathfinder Press, New York 1969. “Results and Prospects” is the work in which Trotsky first developed his theory and was first published in 1906 after the defeated revolution of 1905.

[19] Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile – Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, London 1988, p83.

[20] ibid., p99.

[21] ibid., p115.

[22] Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, translated by Alix Holt and Barbara Holland, Pluto Press, London 1980, pp76-80. “Theses on the National and Colonial Question from the Second Congress of the Communist International”, reprinted in Marxism and the National Question, No. 7 in the Education for Socialists series, Socialist Workers Party, London.

[23] See Phil Marshall, “Palestinian nationalism and the Arab revolution”, in International Socialism, 33, Autumn 1986, for a detailed account of the history.

[24] Gilles Perrault, A Man Apart. The Life of Henri Curiel, Zed Books, London 1987, p148. Perrault says Curiel’s DMNL and the Egyptian CP were the only organisations in the Arab world to recognise the existence of Israel in 1948 and adds “There is no doubt that if the Kremlin had opted for the opposite position, DMNL would have fallen into line”.

[25] ibid., p174

[26] See Diane Fieldes, “Should the Palestinians recognise Israel?”, in The Socialist, December 1988, for the arguments explaining why this is the case.

[27] Information for this section comes from reports in the press, in particular The Middle East. The detail of events in the mid-eighties are mostly from David Seddon, “Riot and Rebellion in North Africa: Political Responses to Economic Crisis in Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan”, in Berch Berberoglu (ed.), Power and Stability in the Middle East, Zed Books, London 1989.

[28] Clare Hill, “Fracture lines”, p9.

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