The Arab Spring: revolution and counter-revolution

by Sandra Bloodworth • Published 12 October 2011

No words can describe my feelings honestly as I watched, together with millions of Egyptians, our former dictator, with his two corrupt sons including the man he was grooming for succession, his torturers-in-chief Adly and co, in a court cage today, as accused criminals in a live-aired trial…

“Fair trials” for the regime officials? The real trials have already taken place in Tahrir Square and other public squares in Egypt. The evidence for Mubarak and co’s crimes are everywhere, from the scars we hold on our backs, to those we buried in the cemeteries, to those who burned to death in trains, to those drowned in ferries.

Mubarak, you are guilty. And you deserve no less than a public execution in Tahrir Square.[1]

Hossam al-Hamalaway, a journalist and blogger at, summed up the emotions felt by millions who had been waiting for this moment ever since Mubarak was toppled in February. Since he wrote these words in early August, hundreds of thousands of workers and students in Egypt have continued to fight for the vision of a free democracy that was raised on high in January. This was after constant attacks on protesters, a legal ban on strikes, delays in bringing Mubarak and his cronies to justice – to name just the most publicised attempts to roll back the Egyptian revolution. Two thousand textile workers outside Alexandria had won a victory against managerial decisions which would have cut their incomes. Ismailiyya, a city of 750,000 near Suez, had been paralysed for days in July by strikes in twenty factories; television workers in Cairo and cement workers were also among the thousands striking, protesting and staging sit-ins.[2]

Their courage and determination echoed the extraordinary defiance by millions across the Arab world facing jail, tanks, bullets and torture – for daring to demand democracy and freedom. The Arab spring had not withered to autumn as some commentators lamented.[3] It has continued to develop along new lines, taking on new challenges, as the protests in Syria continued to grow.

As we prepare for publication, Gaddafi has fallen, although his whereabouts are unknown and fighting continues in Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte. At the same time the end of Ramadan has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets across the country to mark this historic moment. The downfall of a dictator such as Gaddafi, who has terrorised his population for 42 years, is cause for celebration. However, the future in Libya is anything but clear. As Anand Gopal reports from Tripoli, “Beneath the triumph lie immense challenges ahead”.[4]

Socialist Alternative opposed NATO’s intervention in Libya because we oppose all imperialist interventions in any country. Their aim is never to genuinely bring about freedom for the mass of people, but to dominate and control the economy and bend the state to the needs of imperialism. This in no way implied any sympathy for Gaddafi’s regime.

NATO’s intervention creates a somewhat different – and dangerous – situation from that in Egypt, the most important centre of the Arab Spring. NATO leaders like Barack Obama and British PM David Cameron moved quickly to claim credit for the success of the rebels. The US and 30 other countries had recognised the National Transitional Council (NTC) weeks before the end, bolstering its reputation in the West in glowing terms as a government in waiting with whom they can work amicably. This in itself signals a dire warning to anyone who knows the most minimal history of Western imperialism in the Middle East. The NTC consists of many recent stalwarts of Gaddafi’s repressive state, exiles who have related to Western governments for years, military officers, and various riff raff, almost certainly including CIA “assets”, who have no interest in the independent organisation of the masses or in giving them their rights. They are anything but representative of a revolutionary movement.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the NTC, was Gaddafi’s justice minister until February when, like a rat, he deserted what was likely to be a sinking ship. The US find him a “cooperative” figure because they’re used to dealing with him as part of the regime, brought into the Western fold since 2003. By 2007 Business Week reported that at least one Harvard University guru and the Boston Consultancy Business Group had begun a project “to create a new business elite” in Libya.[5] As the files the rebels found when they entered Tripoli show, Libya wasn’t just incorporated into the neoliberal economy. Gaddafi was thoroughly integrated into the US’s “rendition” program of random jailings, torture and death, for which Mubarak was much better known. The Arab revolutions have fractured these barbaric arrangements with dictators across the Arab world. Western leaders feel they have to give some lip service to the mass revolts; they are, after all, supposed to support democracy. But they are anything but enthusiastic for any serious change in this strategic region. As British Marxist Alex Callinicos has argued:

The very depth of Western engagement even with the Arab dictatorship with the longest history of past confrontation with the US and his allies may help to explain the vehemence with which Barack Obama and David Cameron denounced Gaddafi once the revolt against him began – and also perhaps the speed with which Cameron was willing to run up the flag of “liberal interventionism” that had been so discredited by association with George W Bush’s and Tony Blair’s military adventure in Iraq. By helping to deliver the coup de grace to Gaddafi, the Western powers might gain some leverage in an important oil producer, but also belatedly win some credit for supporting the struggle for democracy in the Arab world.[6]

We can add that they were able to take advantage of a tactical mistake by the Libyan rebels. While the armed struggle has been heroic, it has a serious negative side. As Sami Ramadani has argued:

These self-appointed leaders [i.e. the NTC] succeeded in focusing attention on seeking Western military intervention at an early stage of the popular uprising. They encouraged the people on the streets of Benghazi to prematurely resort to arms even before the Gaddafi dictatorship unleashed its savagery on the people. In addition to the brutality of the regime, the early rush to arms was one of the main factors preventing the uprising from gathering momentum across Libya, particularly in the capital Tripoli where more than a quarter of the population lives.[7]

The very nature of armed struggle, with the need for centralised discipline and the limits it places on mass involvement, made this revolution easier for the West to feel they can control compared with those in Egypt, Tunisia or Syria, where the involvement of such wide layers of the population in regular mobilisations makes them more volatile and potentially more radical. Obama and Cameron, along with the rest of NATO, saw an opportunity to maintain their influence and they seized it.

All of this puts the movement in Libya in serious danger of ending up with a regime determined to continue as before minus Gaddafi: the oil continuing to be sold off to the West, enriching an elite while condemning the masses to continuing poverty imposed on them by neoliberal economic policies – and a repressive government if necessary. One of the first acts of Mahmoud Jibril, second in command of the NTC, was to meet with the army command heading the counter-revolution in Egypt and declare that “weapons must be collected from streets and units merged in a new national army and civilian police force”. He warned that “the alternative is for civil unrest to lead to crisis”. And he joined others in raising the prospect of an “international peace mission” to be deployed to secure Tripoli and other areas. He insisted it would be made up of “Egyptian and Arab forces” so that “Libyans will have a stronger negotiating hand”. In other words he does not talk of Libyans having control over their own country, simply maximising their negotiating hand.[8] When we see that the head of the US Committee of Foreign Relations is also discussing a similar proposal, it’s clear that talk of it being dominated by Arab forces is a handy veil to conceal the true nature of what is being considered:

International assistance, probably including an international force, is likely to be needed for some time to help restore and maintain order. The size and composition of the force will depend on what is requested and welcomed by the Libyan National Transitional Council and what is required by the situation on the ground.[9]

It is too soon to categorically declare how the situation will now develop. It’s clear that the Western imperialist powers think they will control the NTC and Libya will continue as a playground for neoliberalism. But Libya is not unique in the fact that the government which is likely to initially emerge from the revolution will not represent the aspirations of the masses who bore the sacrifices which made the victory over Gaddafi possible. The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt has, in spite of having to sack a few of the most hated figures of the old regime, kept that regime in place. And they have been meeting with Western government figures and capitalists to discuss G8 aid. Just as with Libya, such aid doesn’t come free of strings. Press releases from the G8 meeting in May made it clear: “new democracies are encouraged to open their economies”.[10] The phrase has an ominous similarity with the name given to Anwar Sadat’s policies begun in the 1970s in Egypt and which began the process that has produced mass misery: Infitah or “the opening” or “open door”. In February and March there were all the signs that the West saw the Arab Spring, not as an opportunity for the masses to win a better life, but as a threat to the West’s influence. But they later began to move to try to keep some glimmer of credibility in order to shore up their interests. Obama shifted gear, hypocritically declaring that he regarded the Arab revolutions as presenting an “historic opportunity…to pursue the world as it should be” – meaning, of course, the world as it suits US imperialist interests. As one journalist wrote, referring, not to Libya, but to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia:

And how is this new world to be built? The model is that of Eastern Europe and the colour revolutions; American soft power and public diplomacy is to be used to reshape the socio-political scene in the region. The aim is to transform the people’s revolutions into America’s revolutions by engineering a new set of docile, domesticated and US-friendly elites. This involves not only co-opting old friends from the pre-revolutionary era, but also seeking to contain the new forces produced by the revolution, long marginalised by the US.[11]

The program in Eastern Europe “turned the countries of that region into low-wage economies dominated by the West”.[12] The secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declared “it is for the people of the region to shape the future of their nations. However…the United Nations should coordinate and lead that work.” In other words, talk of the West welcoming the masses having a say over their destiny is hypocritical cant. There is every intention of keeping them under as tight a leash as the West can get away with – not just in Libya, but across the Arab world.[13] And, just as the NTC is promising to honour Gaddafi’s international treaties, so is the Egyptian military regime committed to all international treaties signed by Mubarak, including recognition of and peace with Israel.

It will be necessary in Libya for the armed rebels who have sent Gaddafi packing, NATO planes or not, to continue the revolution. A social revolution is needed just as in Egypt (discussed below), and just as in Egypt it will be met with fierce opposition. The NTC will see strikes and ongoing protests – which workers and the poor will need to organise if they are to get genuine improvements in their lives – as the “civil unrest” Jibril referred to. Unfortunately, the struggle in Libya opens on worse terrain than in Egypt.

The rush to arms reflected the absence of an organised working class movement such as exists in Tunisia and Egypt. It is a serious weakness, which will make it more difficult to provide coherence and purpose to the masses in the face of NTC and Western attempts to limit the gains for workers and the poor than it is for the Egyptian movement. The latter has had a decade of growing struggle by workers and students in which to prepare and to build the embryo of free trade unions and political organisations. That said, as the British socialist Judith Orr commented, “opposition forces currently united against the regime may well fragment over the extent of the West’s role in rebuilding Libya”.[14] And there were small indications that this might happen: reports that Misratan rebels and others advancing into Tripoli refused to accept the NTC as the legitimate government, with at least one journalist in Misrata reporting that rebels there say they will refuse orders from the NTC.[15] NTC prime minister Mahmoud Jibril is pursuing a policy of putting together an “inclusive” administration, with the urging of British defence secretary Liam Fox. The rebels protested against his decision to appoint Albarrani Shkal, a former army general who defected to the rebels in May, as Tripoli’s head of security. Shkal’s 32nd brigade played a leading role in the siege of areas of Misrata in which civilians were terrorised and murdered by tanks and artillery bombardments. A protest in Misrata’s Martyrs’ Square was small, only 500-strong, but the president of Misrata’s council, Sheikh Khalifa told The Guardian:

I think all the Libyan thwar [revolutionary fighters] will not obey his orders. Not just those from Misrata. Shkal is with Gaddafi. Not long ago he was using troops to shell people in Misrata, Mahmoud Jibril cannot do it just by himself: it is against the people.[16]

He wasn’t the only one prepared to speak out, as The Guardian article went on to report. Hassan al-Amin, returned after 28 years in exile, echoed Zuwawi. He insisted rebel forces “are not going to follow orders from a war criminal”, and one of the fighters, Walid Tenasil, returning to garrison duty in Tripoli said: “Our message to the NTC is: just remember the blood. That is it.”

So as we go to press it is too soon to assume that NATO and the NTC will get everything their own way. While the prospects of a continuing social revolution are less promising than in Egypt, there are signs of activists organising in the neighbourhoods of Tripoli. Gopal reports that Gaddafi’s eventual downfall was not just the result of NATO weakening his army. He reports “revolutionaries who had been preparing for this day for weeks” and details their secretive organisation, involving port and customs workers alongside small shop keepers. His account confirms an earlier one by Juan Cole who reported that the planned uprising began in the working class district of Suq al-Juma.[17] Bank workers held a strike days after Gaddafi disappeared, demanding they be paid as they protested outside, banging on the bank’s doors.[18] This is the kind of action workers will need to take and build on if they are to get their rights.

Apart from how events unfold in Libya itself, the sight of yet another brutal dictator brought down after decades may embolden those fighting back elsewhere – especially against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Sameh Naguib, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt, commented: “The fact is that to see another dictator toppled, even though it is in a more confused way, could boost the Syrian opposition.”[19] There are reports which link increasing defections from Assad’s regime to the opposition and the continuing growth of the movement in the streets with the news of victory in Libya.[20] Juan Cole reported: “Protesters in Syria have cheered on the revolutionaries in Libya, and the fall of Tripoli to a popular uprising last Saturday and Sunday gave new heart to the Syrian reform movement.”[21]

Many of the signs are ominous. In most revolutions it seems at the beginning that almost the whole nation can unite against a tiny number of oppressors. However, that unity cannot last indefinitely. Libya is not facing such questions just because NATO has intervened and is trying to hijack their revolution, but because it is the inevitable outcome of the process of revolution, which brings to the fore the differing class and political interests and aims. The experience of the Egyptian revolution, so important for the Arab Spring to continue and bring real victories for the masses has not been free of similar difficulties.

As Toufic Haddad argued:

[T]he West took a gamble in its actions with Libya and may one day come to regret its support for the Libyan revolution. Where is Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi huckster who was America’s horse for the post-invasion period of Iraq? The man once dubbed “George Washington of Iraq” is not only not running Iraq, but is under investigation by the US for all the money he stole, and the lies he told.

The point is, the dislodging of Qaddafi, if finally successful, will be an important first stage in the success of the Libyan revolution. But it is not the end of the struggle, as Tunisia and Egypt are proving as well. The battle for the orientation of Libya and its political and social make-up, will fall to its people.[22]

Egypt: the need for social revolution

Egypt remains the most important country of the Arab revolution. It has the largest population, has more industrial development than the rest of the region, and is of immense importance to the US as the country which bolstered US influence in the region by maintaining peace with Israel. And, in spite of all the difficulties, real gains have been won. On 4 August, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf issued an executive order to dissolve the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), and Minister of Manpower Ahmed El-Borai demanded that the ETUF’s assets be frozen by the Central Bank of Egypt. This was a triumph for the struggle that was little noted in the English language media. Since its establishment in 1957, the ETUF functioned essentially as an arm of the state, and the executive committee was populated with Mubarak supporters and members of the dictator’s National Democratic Party. An independent trade union movement, based in the labour struggles of the past decade, has been gathering strength since the establishment of the independent union for tax collectors in 2008. On 2 March 2011, workers and labour activists launched the Independent Egyptian Trade Union Federation, creating an alternative to the moribund ETUF. While there were only three independent unions at the time of the January revolution, more than 90 had been established by August.

The founding conference of the Federation was held at the headquarters of the journalists’ union. Entitled “What the workers want from the revolution”, the meeting brought together several hundred trade unionists from different towns and sectors of activity. The pillars of the project were the autonomous unions that had recently emerged: the unions of land tax collectors and of health technicians, the pensioners’ union and the independent teachers’ union. Among those participating were representatives of telecommunications workers, textile workers, the iron and steel industry, the Workers’ University of Cairo, as well as those from the “new” cities of Al-Sadate and from the provinces, like the trade unionists of Al-Mahalla. On the other hand, the attempt to found a workers’ political party faces obstacles which highlight the need for the revolution to continue. Parties based on class are outlawed by the military council. “At our core we fight for the rights of one strata of society, the poor, but nowhere in the world does that count as a reason to disqualify a political party, except in Egypt,” said Haitham Mohamadein, a founding member of the Democratic Workers’ Party.[23]

Around the world the heroic struggle of the Arab masses is a warning to the ruling class that once aroused, masses of people cannot easily be persuaded, even by brute force, to retreat into the passivity which preceded these upheavals. And they are an inspiration to anyone who wants to see a free society. They are blazing a path along which millions need to tread if we are to turn the growing crisis in the system into a rebellion capable of winning that world. However if millions are to follow, if they are to find the way to revolutions which can truly win freedom, we have to do more than celebrate their courage, determination and inspiration. We need to draw the lessons which can be learned from the suffering and sacrifices of those who have given their lives, of those who mourn their loved ones, and who confront the forces which are prepared to drown whole populations in blood in order to defend their exploitative and oppressive system. The Arab revolution poses many questions of general relevance for all those standing up for justice and freedom.

As we argued in the last issue of this journal, the struggle for democracy could unite the vast mass of the population. But this unity could only be temporary because the broad layers involved represent very different class interests. Anne Alexander explained who the millions involved in the revolution are:

Some are from Egypt’s middle classes, to be sure: students, professionals, English-speaking executives employed by Google, liberal politicians. Their quarrel with the old regime lay primarily in their political marginalisation: the common experience of police-state brutality which united so many sections of Egyptian society. But for the vast majority who joined the uprising, political exclusion and poverty are two sides of the same coin. They are the workers, small business people, artisans, the unemployed and underemployed whose families can’t support them, those who toil in the shadow economy of petty street-trading and hustling.[24]

The conflict between these agendas was always going to raise challenges for the masses. It meant the unity of the first phase of the revolution could not last – something that only experience would make clear to wide layers of the population. After the fall of Mubarak, many of the protesters accepted as sincere the claims of the SCAF to represent the revolution. Workers, many of whom have not been paid in months, the poor and the marginalised, need and expected economic gains from their revolution. Food prices in April 2011 were 20 per cent higher than a year earlier, and these increases came on top of reduced subsidies and rising prices over the last few years.[25] However the SCAF regime was never going to satisfy these demands and desires. As well as a commitment to Mubarak’s international treaties, the SCAF regime has made it clear from the first that they are determined to continue the neoliberal economic policies of the last three decades.

At first, people protested, but in a friendly way, expecting a hearing from the military government. But as a wave of strikes which had begun days before Mubarak’s overthrow and mass rallies in Tahrir Square continued, it was not long before the military dictatorship outlawed strikes, attacked peaceful protests and even conducted virginity tests on women protesters. The perseverance of hundreds of thousands met with the force of military rule in the interests of “business as usual”. And this created a process in which those masses could begin to clarify the political issues which confront the movement. The protesters want justice for their martyrs, but what have they seen? In early August Asmaa Mahfouz was brought before a military court charged with inciting violence against the military and insulting the armed forces simply because she spoke out about the army’s refusal to oversee the freedoms people had fought for. Ten thousand have been convicted in military courts while the perpetrators of murder against protesters, Mubarak and the backers of his former dictatorship, are dealt with in civilian courts.[26] As a member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists has argued:

As in any revolution, those who lose power are prepared to do anything to regain it. The remnants of the NDP, the security police, and billionaire businessmen connected to the old regime continued to make attempts at rolling back the revolution.[27]

And so deep divisions have opened up between an increasingly coherent counter-revolution and those who want at least the basic right to trade union organisation, a minimum wage, decent working conditions, and genuine democratic reform. By late July the slogans raised in protests had taken on a tone of explicit hostility towards the SCAF regime. This is a critical step forward because the regime does not just depend on repression in order to limit the gains of the revolution. The counter-revolutionary forces are conducting an ideological battle to demoralise those who see the need to continue the revolution and to bolster the confidence of those who are determined to limit it. Hesham Sellam has documented how a language of counter-revolution has developed and is used against those who continue to fight to take the revolution forward:

Shortly after the resignation of Husni Mubarak on February 11, Egypt witnessed the rise of what Egyptian authorities and media outlets began describing as ihtijajat fi’awiyya or small-group protests. The Arabic term fi’a simply means “group,” but has acquired negative connotations and might be compared with how the term “special interest” is used to disparage American labour. In post-Mubarak Egypt, officials have used its adjectival form fi’awi in reference to any demonstration, strike or sit-in advancing demands related to distribution of wealth, whether the protesters are blue- or white-collar employees, and whether they are calling for higher wages, greater benefits, improved working conditions or replacement of corrupt management personnel.[28]

The image conjured up of the military and the people as one hand has been increasingly discredited, in spite of the military regime’s best efforts to maintain a rhetorical pretence of support for the ongoing revolution.[29] The army command was the first to invoke the use of the term fi’awi – to justify outlawing strikes and the right to protest. In July the spokesperson for the Military Council, General Fangari, appealed to the memory of the days of unity and saluted the martyrs. Then he backed up calls by middle class former protesters for a return to “normal” and “business as usual”, invoking the same rhetoric with the threat to

take all necessary measures to confront the threats which encircle the homeland unless this questioning of the ongoing process ceases…as do the rumours and misconceptions which lead to the discord and rebellion and the promotion of the interests of a narrow minority over those of the country as a whole.[30]

Army spokespeople shake and poke their fingers at their audience as they try to intimidate workers from pursuing their own agenda. But they are backed up by an array of Tahrir Square’s liberal, intellectual youth, politicians and commentators. The array of spokespeople and commentators using this distorted language reflects the dangers confronting the mass of workers, the poor and marginalised:

[T]he Muslim Brothers’ spokesman Essam El-Erian accused fi’awi protests of undermining national consensus and expressed “understanding” for the army’s point of view. Usama Haykal, editor-in-chief of the liberal Wafd Party’s daily, warned that the demonstrations could “destroy” the gains of the revolution. In March, a group of correspondents in al-Fayyoum announced that they would not cover fi’awi demonstrations because “while legal, they are poorly timed.” In April, Egypt’s grand mufti, Ali Gum’a, went so far as to say that “instigators of fi’awi demonstrations violate the teachings of God”.[31]

Bread and butter issues such as a living wage are denigrated as a threat to Egypt – because they are a threat to those who only want a veneer of democracy over the continuation of the neoliberal agenda of the past three decades. Demands for corrupt managers to be sacked, for the renationalisation of companies and the guarantee of jobs are a threat to the rule of capital and their unquestioned right to exploit the vast majority at whatever cost. And so strikes are increasingly being slandered as counter-revolutionary acts that must be stopped. Essam Sharaf explicitly compared them to attacks by thugs.[32] The Revolutionary Socialists replied to the army’s attempt to paint the genuine revolution as reactionary:

We are not “questioning the ongoing process”, rather we are announcing that the process is slow and compromised in order to protect the killer police officers from justice. We are telling the world that ten thousand of the children of this country are locked up in military prisons after suffering the worst tortures. We know that the system is making the maximum effort to stop the people from regaining the wealth which was looted from them over the decades…

We are not “spreading rumours” but spreading the truth that you are trying to hide the truth that poverty and repression, torture and detention, are still everywhere… The people’s interests are not “narrow”. The demands for a loaf of bread, for health care, education, housing fit for human beings, freedom of expression, the right to work and the achievement of justice are at the heart of the demands of the revolution. They do not compare to the narrow self-interest of businessmen and their associates, who, not content with plundering the people’s wealth…[only] care about their bank accounts [which] are still swelling and that they continue to drain the blood and sweat of the workers for as little pay as possible.[33]

As Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University observed in June:

There is total class warfare going on in Egypt… If middle upper class, urban people in Cairo and Alexandria get some of their demands met, they could [sic] care less about minimum wage, or the fact that the healthcare system is complete crap… The dominant discourse that’s coming out on TV is that it’s not the right time to protest for these things. Like “You shouldn’t have a living wage right now, you’re being greedy.”[34]

Facing the challenge of counter-revolution

This class war is not a reason to despair. It is the inevitable outcome of a serious fight by the masses for a decent life. Its challenges have to be met. Hundreds of thousands continue to demonstrate that they have the courage and determination to make that challenge. But it also means clarifying political questions raised by this class war if the masses are to triumph. How the left responds to complex questions could make the difference between victory in the future and serious defeats. One such complexity is how to respond to the political advance of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. The Islamists’ successful mobilisation of a huge rally in Tahrir Square on Friday 29 July is clearly a challenge to the left. However this challenge will not be met by simply counterposing secularism. Sameh Naguib observed:

There is something of a state of hysteria in the discussions on the left and among the liberals about the Islamist movement in Egypt at present, fuelled by the fact that while we are in the first stages of the biggest popular revolution in Egypt’s history, the forces of the left are small and divided, but the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest organisation on the Egyptian political scene.[35]

As Naguib points out, support for the military regime and opposition to the continuing workers’ struggles is not limited to the Brotherhood. Amr Hamzawy, a popular liberal, has “even called for the formation of groups of young people and public personalities in order to spread propaganda against strikes among the workers. A wide range of intellectuals and revolutionaries of yesterday are inciting for smashing strikes with the cooperation of the army…”[36] The Salafists – ultra-religious conservative Muslims who foster extreme hostility towards Christians, even burning down a Coptic church – are being encouraged by the army to compete with the Brotherhood as the religious face of the counter-revolution. While the Brotherhood vacillated, they did in the end support most of the the mobilisations in Tahrir Square. The Salafists did not, and are more viciously anti-women and intent on sectarian hostility to the Copts. The Brotherhood built their mass support by playing the role of a loyal opposition to Mubarak, in spite of regular periods of repression. So they were able to maintain their organisations when the left was virtually crushed. And they played a role which drew masses of the poor into their orbit, not simply because of their religious teachings, but because they provided social networks of support made necessary by the neoliberal policies of the secular state:

Parallel to its work in the universities and professional syndicates, the Brotherhood expanded its mass base in poor neighbourhoods. Private mosques, Islamic charities and NGOs were utilised as “mobilising structures” to activate a growing network of cadres and to win new influence…the Islamists were able to fill the vacuum [created by the state’s retreat from providing social services], creating a mass base of supporters that included not only disaffected students and graduates but also workers and sections of the urban poor.[37]

They appeal to this wide range of different social groups and classes with the vague promise that Islam is the solution to their woes, whether it be the lack of decent jobs for graduates, or the abject poverty of the marginalised poor or lack of decent wages and conditions for workers. Naguib argues that the left’s obsession with the abstract notion of secularism plays into the Islamists’ hands by making it seem that the people’s religious beliefs are under threat. “Secularism…as an abstract principle with no connection to the interests of the working class and poor, is meaningless, and in fact defence of secularism on such a basis only serves the Islamists.” The central task for the left is to continue to build the struggles and independent organisations of the working class, to develop organisations among the masses which can deepen the social revolution. Then the counter-revolutionary intentions of the Islamists will be exposed. This is the only basis on which to defeat not just the Islamists, but the counter-revolution as a whole. The Muslim Brotherhood’s mass base could well fracture as the revolutionary process develops, as Naguib explained:

Permanent vacillation between opposition and compromise, between escalation and calm, is a result of the nature of the Brotherhood as a popular religious group which comprises sections of the urban bourgeoisie side by side with sections of the traditional and modern petty bourgeoisie (students and university graduates), the unemployed and large sections of the poor. This structure remains stable at times of political and social calm, but turns into a time bomb at moments of great transformation, when it becomes almost impossible to reconcile the various contradictory social interests under a broad and vague religious message.[38]

This is a question not of religion versus secularism, but of revolutionary class politics versus bourgeois politics which opposes attempts to go beyond a political revolution to social revolution. And it is not a question unique to Egypt. The supposed threat of Islamists taking over in Syria has been a refrain by those who are inclined to support Assad; invoking this fear is more palatable than voicing outright support for his brutality. A former leftist liberal, the Syrian poet Adunis (Ali Ahmad Sa’id), uses the role of the mosques as gathering places for the opposition as an excuse to refuse support for the mass protests which have rocked Syria since March, reflecting what Syrian author Yasin al-Hajj Salih calls “secular sectarianism”.[39] Sinan Antoon’s riposte is as much a critique of this (political, not communal) sectarianism as it is of Adunis:

Adunis’s stance on this point suggests just how detached he is from the lived reality of his own country. Not only have many of the protests in Syria erupted first on university campuses, but the choice of mosques as gathering places cannot be said to express a particular religious ideology, since few other equivalent institutions exist…and Syrian citizens do not have the luxury of picking and choosing between many sites for staging their protests. Indeed, there have been moving reports of Christians and atheists who went to mosques on Fridays in order to take part in what was sweeping the country.[40]

Ghadi Francis is a former member of the Syrian Socialist National Party (based in Lebanon) who was expelled for writing in ways that “did not reflect the party’s political views”. Reporting from inside Syria, he pointed out to those secular activists who use the presence of Islamists in the resistance as an excuse to withhold support that the blame lies with the secular Baathist regime which for decades “has left people with no other place to gather [and organise] outside religious spaces.”[41] Khalil Issa, in a comment about the Lebanese Communist Party, summed up the problem which plagues the left (and not just in the Middle East):[42]

Here, secular sectarianism consciously or unconsciously inflates a minority sensibility which is horrified by cries of Allahu akbar [Allah is great], and salutes a sick elite that does not see a sufficient “revolutionary consciousness” among the Syrian masses. The communist comrades boast that they do possess it [i.e. revolutionary consciousness] just as those who claim to possess the keys to paradise. This might also reflect a class disdain expressed by a small bourgeois leadership towards workers and peasants who are being killed.[43]

In every revolution there are competing political programs and aims, reflecting different class and social interests. These will inevitably include Islamists in many countries. The left has to come to terms with how to defeat them by showing the strength of the argument for class struggle without counterposing this to religious beliefs held by millions. The Islamists will only be undermined by having their political program exposed as at best inadequate for the task of satisfying the masses’ aspirations for a better world, and at worst, counter-revolutionary. This is a crucial and recurring question confronting the left, reflecting the continuing legacy of Stalinism. Stalin outlawed religious observance in the USSR and Communist Parties derided religion as a matter of principle. That’s why the Islamists can label the left “communist” and “anti-Islam” as though they are the same, and get a hearing. The left will only overcome this legacy when they can demonstrate that their program of class struggle is the only way to win what the masses yearn for. Victories in Egypt, even if small, lay the basis for workers to win more substantial reforms and to continue to take the revolution closer to genuine regime change and justice for the mass of Egyptians. This process will put increasing pressure on the Islamists. The revolutionary left has a crucial role to play in this process of clarification which will depend on political argument as well as experience of the class struggle. As Lenin argued in 1917, broad layers of workers and the oppressed will learn what is needed only by a combination of their own struggles and experience and the arguments put forward by revolutionaries. These questions must concern Marxists wherever we are.

Syria: which side are you on?

By late August at least 2,500, possibly many more, people were dead but the protests continued to grow against the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In early August the city of Daraa had been under virtual siege and in Latakia, where there had been huge protests, thousands – including Palestinians from a refugee camp of 10,000 – were herded into sports stadiums after having phones and ID confiscated. The cities of Hama and Homs were under constant attack by government forces. Nothing could be clearer: Assad has been a dictator continuing the tradition set by his father before him; and now that the fear which induced passivity has been broken, masses of the population are determined they won’t stop protesting until he is gone. But unlike the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, this heroic struggle has not won the enthusiastic support of many on the left.

Some fundamental issues are raised by the debates about what attitude to take to the Syrian rebellion. In Australia, there has been fairly broad agreement on the left that we need to support the revolution, helping organise demonstrations alongside Syrians and other Arabs. Unfortunately, this is not the case internationally. Political currents from radical Islamists and nationalists to some who call themselves socialists have been found profoundly wanting. Hezbollah, tied to Iran, which backs Assad, have revealed the fundamental weakness at the core of their politics as they continued their support for Assad in spite of his murderous crackdown. General Secretary of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, who willingly backed the earlier uprisings across the Arab world “began stuttering”, as one critic put it, when the people of Syria rose up. “First, we should be committed to Syria’s stability, security and safety”, he declared, when over 1,000 had been gunned down and countless scores jailed and tortured. Whose security was he talking about? Assad’s or the masses demanding democracy? It became clear when he continued: “We call upon the Syrian people to maintain their regime of resistance [referring to Assad’s reputation for standing up against Israel and supporting Hezbollah] as well as to give way to the Syrian leadership to implement the required reforms and to choose the course of dialogue.” Hamid Dabashi rightly condemned Nasrallah for his betrayal:

You cannot wear a revolutionary garb one day and then a pathetically apologetic disguise another… Nasrallah is now outmanoeuvred, checkmated, made redundant by history, by, of all things, a magnificent Arab Spring, in which he has no role, no say, and no decision. Nothing… He has failed the test of history – of knowing when to abandon tyrants benevolent to him for their own reasons but abusive and criminal to their own people.

It is not accidental that Iran’s Ahmadinejad is on the same page with Hassan Nasrallah in defending the Syrian regime – for they are all made of the same cloth.

[Nasrallah has been] voluminously loquacious in siding with tyranny [in both Iran and Syria], exposing his utter and pervasive hypocrisy.[44]

There have been reports of protesters in Syria tearing down pictures of Nasrallah and burning them, others of them burning Hezbollah and Iranian flags.[45] Revolutions test the theory and practice of organisations. Hezbollah’s failure to support a genuine mass revolution against their patron was to be expected – aid and succour from rulers is always corrupting. But even some on the left have failed to recognise which side should unquestionably get our support.

The traditions of Stalinism weigh heavily on the left, especially in the Middle East where questions of imperialist domination have been key to politics for over a century. The early Third International (Comintern) argued that there needs to be a clear distinction between the politics of socialism – with a vision of a free, classless society won by revolution led by the working class – and nationalism, where the goal is simply the democratic right to have an independent state. Such states exist within the imperialist system, and the national leaders seek to find a niche in that system, not to overthrow it. Lenin was explicit on this point in the theses on the national question which he prepared for the Second Congress of the Comintern in June 1920. He wrote that there was “the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries.”[46] But with the Stalinisation of the Comintern that accompanied the counter-revolution of the late 1920s inside Russia, the theses became a dead letter. Increasingly, as Stalin and his successors became conscious of themselves as a bureaucratic ruling group, they attempted to find bourgeois allies around the world. Communist parties fell in behind nationalist figures, promoting statised economies, even militarised, dictatorial states, as socialism or at least some kind of workers’ state. After all, this fitted with the lie that Stalin’s Russia was communist. And so a confused tradition – particularly strong in the Middle East, but not confined to there – still blights the left to this day.

Even some on the far left have accepted dictators as socialist leaders, for decades supporting figures like Gaddafi and Assad, who maintained their rhetorical hostility towards the US and Israel.[47] But their posturing was never the same as genuinely anti-imperialist politics. They are nationalist leaders who desire a strong state which can carve out a place in the world system. Ending the system of imperialism was never on their agenda. Until the 1990s this was often a way to play off the Eastern and Western blocs against each other, hoping to win increased aid from one or the other. But being a client and supporter of Russia did not indicate they were socialists, simply that they sided with the Stalinist ruling class against the West. Their secular stance was also mistaken by their supporters as a sign of leftism. At home, hostility to the US, seen as the main enemy in the Middle East, fitted with the desires of their populations and became a means to cohere national unity, downplaying class divisions. But in spite of the fact that both Gaddafi and Assad ruled over their populations just as brutally as any other dictator in the region, for decades their left wing supporters deluded themselves that they were socialist leaders who should be defended against imperialism. In fact, they had been drawn back into the Western fold in the last decade.

This mistaken support for such odious figures, held by small numbers in most countries, may be of little consequence. But in Lebanon, where the left is in a position to build solidarity, provide material support for the Syrian revolution, and help clarify the politics, tactics and strategies needed to win, the left are divided over what attitude to take to the Syrian Spring. As Hala Abdullah, the Syrian filmmaker, wrote as part of a film screening event in support of the Syrian revolution:

At the start of the Lebanese civil war when the Lebanese right asked the Syrian regime to interfere…the regime responded and intervened militarily because it was worried that a democratic and liberal leftist regime would develop and take root. We were still young and determined then and we acted against the Syrian intervention by protests that were suppressed, and we were put in prison… The fear then is not different from the fear today.[48]

Abir Saksouk, a Lebanese activist who is “pro-resistance” replied in the same forum to the constant refrain warning that Syria will descend into sectarian strife if it is “destabilised”. She pointed out that questions of stability are irrelevant when a people are calling for change:

A fear of what’s going to happen [exists] in every context. I’m fearful of people in Egypt hijacking the revolution…and I’m totally scared of what’s happening in Bahrain. But we have to be hopeful and we can’t ask people not to revolt because we’re scared about the future. This is exactly what these regimes want us to think.[49]

Precisely – but not only the Arab regimes. The West want us to fear the change that can only come through revolution. The outcome of any revolution is uncertain. The masses have to learn how to defeat their enemies, even to recognise who is a genuine ally and who is part of the counter-revolution. The left can only hope to help shape the struggle to the advantage of the masses if they stand with them when they rise up. Ignoring these features of all revolutions, there is a constant refrain from some leftists that the Syrian (and Libyan) resistance is fractured into competing social groups as if there is something sinister about this. It is telling that many on the the left do not raise the disparate array of organisations and political currents involved in the Egyptian revolution as a reason to withhold support. Even the more brazen assertion of their program by the Muslim Brotherhood and their role in the counter-revolution has not led to the same degree of hand-wringing and doubt about the Egyptian revolution.

In any case, in the marches of the hundreds of thousands in the streets of Syria’s cities, banners are regularly held on high bearing the symbols of the cross and the crescent, representing the efforts being made to emphasise Muslim-Christian unity. Druze areas have been part of the uprising, declaring their solidarity, and there is no evidence that Sunni-Shia rivalry fractures the movement. The need for solidarity against Assad’s murderous crackdown can help solidify the unity between different communities. The role of the left must be to put forward arguments for this solidarity, not keep raising the threat of sectarianism as if it’s inevitable.

Tragically, it’s not clear that there is a left of any size in Syria or Lebanon that can play this role. It might be expected that radical intellectuals and nationalists cannot be trusted in revolutionary circumstances; but the Lebanese Communist Party has little chance of playing a role in pulling a layer of activists to a consistently revolutionary stance, or of leading the movement in a revolution. A memorandum from the Party in April reminded the Syrian people that they have the right to “mobilise through all peaceful and democratic means for the sake of social, political, and economic reforms”. But as Khalil Issa pointed out, there was no mention of the many martyrs, murdered by the regime in the preceding weeks. The memorandum expressed the hope that the Assad regime would implement promised reforms quickly – promises the mass movement clearly understood were lies from the start. But if this statement may be ambiguous, one of the Party leaders made it clear in a speech which talked about “Syria confronting internal strife, which imperialist America and Israel strike towards in cooperation with some of the collaborating forces…which are steeped in reactionary politics.” Issa asked, “Have the national opposition members in Syria like Michel Kilo, Aref Dalila and Yasin al-Hajj Salih, who are all ‘comrades’ by the way, suddenly become agents of the imperialist ‘circles’?”[50] The Lebanese CP, as well as accepting arguments which deny the presence of a genuine uprising against dictatorship and brutality in favour of conspiracies about Western manipulation, recycles all the paranoia peddled by the Western imperialists. They warn that Islamism hovers in the wings delegitimising any struggle of the masses; and they echo Israel and Iran’s worry that Syrian “instability” will destabilise the area.

Activists who previously have cooperated to fight sectarianism and to support the Palestinians are now seriously divided over their response to the Syrian rebellion. The Sunflower Theatre in southern Beirut was the only venue which would stage the film showing mentioned above. Bilal al-Amine, a writer and activist who describes himself as “on the left” and is well known at left wing protests, is not prepared to support those demonstrating against Assad’s Baathist regime. He admits there is a legitimate uprising happening in Syria, but then argues there is a “counter current” which is led by the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western Arab groups. There is an attempt to bring down the regime because it’s part of the “resistance axis” he argues, and he invokes Assad’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas as the explanation.[51]

But despite Assad’s occasional anti-US rhetoric, in recent years he had begun a process of accommodation which led to the US re-installing an ambassador in Damascus in early 2011 – something his apologists ignore. Unlike Mubarak and other dictators in the Arab world, Assad maintained his rhetorical hostility towards Israel; but he did nothing about Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, nor did he insist on the right of return of the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees stranded in his country. So contrary to all the accusations that the resistance is nothing more than the puppet of the US and Israel, the truth is the imperialists did not initially support the overthrow of Assad. It was five months into the rebellion before Hillary Clinton stopped calling Assad a “reformer” and began to say he should step down. Previously she and other Western leaders had simply called for Assad to exercise restraint. Steven A. Cook wrote in The Atlantic in May:

[T]here remains a coalition of nations that appear to be acting under the belief that the Assad regime is better than what might come next. It’s an odd group in the rather strange new world of the Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. For the Israelis, already reeling from the loss of a regional strategic asset – Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt – the predictability of Assad’s Syria was some consolation. Israel and Syria may be in a technical state of war, but the Syrians have scrupulously kept the armistice on the Golan Heights and it has been a long time since Syria’s military posed any significant security threat to Israel.[52]

Israel sees Assad’s regime as an important bulwark against genuine militant opposition to them. The strategic think tank, Stratfor spelled out the actual role Assad plays: “a known and manageable devil from the Israeli point of view.”[53] Perhaps a more reliable assessment comes from Rami Makhlouf, who controls about 60 per cent of Syrian wealth through his network of business interests, and as cousin to Bashar al-Assad, is part of the regime’s inner circle. He is said to have “stated that the security and stability of Israel is tied to the stability of Syria’s current regime”.[54] But left wing apologists for Assad prefer to paint a picture of Assad’s regime as a defender of Palestinians against Israel, justifying their lack of sympathy for the uprising. El-Amine has argued:

If an Arab revolt doesn’t address the issue of Palestine, especially if it’s a country that borders Israel, then your revolution is only half complete. You can’t have liberty when you have a state like Israel causing so much of the region’s injustice.[55]

The truism that the Middle East will not be completely free until the expansionist, apartheid state of Israel is overthrown and its genocide of the Palestinians ceases tells us nothing about how to respond to the Arab revolutions. And in fact, because the left was not soft on Mubarak, who ever raised concerns that Palestinian rights were not foremost in the mass protests in Egypt? There, where Mubarak was known to have openly collaborated with the West and Israel in the oppression of the Palestinians, the issue did not become prominent in the revolution until after the overthrow of Mubarak. It is completely utopian to imagine that in the first round of resistance to dictators and poverty wider issues of the rights of others will be at the fore. Whether the masses making the revolutions consciously commit to defending the Palestinians as soon as they move into action cannot be our litmus test for support. Bringing down dictators, fighting for democracy and better lives for the mass of workers and the poor are supportable. It is the responsibility of the left to raise the political level of the movements as they grow and develop. However, there is a logic to the process of revolution which will raise issues of the wider region and how the masses should respond to them. The history of the past decades strongly suggests that it is unlikely that when called upon to support the Palestinian struggle, successful revolutionary movements would not spring to their defence. Now that it is being raised in Egypt, thousands have demonstrated their support for the Palestinians against Israeli attacks.

Echoing arguments by bourgeois commentators about the need for stability, raising the danger of sectarian civil war, these arguments, aimed at causing doubt and undermining confidence in the Syrian revolution, have been given a hearing even by some socialists in the West. Camille Otrakji, the initiator of One, a site devoted to discussing why Syria should establish peace with Israel, was granted a long, friendly interview by the US website MRZine.[56] Otrakji had previously told the New York Times that the Syrian opposition was not a legitimate resistance, but was being manipulated by the West. He dismissed the significance of the hundreds of thousands protesting, claiming they represented very little compared with the millions in Egypt, ignoring the enormous disparity in population size between Syria, with around 22 million and Egypt with nearly 83 million. Taking up the familiar refrain, Otrakji peddled all the scare-mongering about the likelihood of sectarian strife, and the danger of destabilising the region. But he went further. He claimed that accusations of regime brutality are fabricated, and that Assad was about to implement promised reforms. This was followed up by MRZine promoting a statement by Venezuela’s foreign minister giving unequivocal support to Assad and condemning the opposition. It is difficult not to agree with the moderator of, Louis Proyect:

All of it [the statement] is garbage but this is particularly offensive: “President Hugo Chavez received from President Bashar al-Assad a complete picture of the real situation in this brother Arab nation, where a fascist conspiracy is seeking to sow chaos and disorder, with the goal of subjecting the nation to the dictates of the Western power.”[57]

Counterpunch, another left wing US website, also weighed in to discredit the Syrian opposition, running an article in April by Peter Lee, a businessman. He asserted – referring to Syrian state-run TV for evidence! – that “the people of the cities of Daraa and Homs, following Saudi incitement and using popular demands as an excuse, began to resort to violence.”[58] This and other articles on left wing sites seem to think it automatically discredits an opposition if they have “used violence”, and especially if they take up arms. Since when did the left disown those fighting for justice because they tried to defend themselves in the face of horrendous state violence? When to resort to violence is a tactical question. Even if we disagree with how a movement responds to provocation from the state, this is not a reason to withdraw support.

Lee seriously expects us to believe that the whole resistance to Assad is being manipulated and orchestrated by a “joint operation headquarters in the Saudi Embassy in Belgium” put together by “the United States, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia”. Of course the West tries to meddle in the opposition movements in the Middle East; they have tried to do so in the Egyptian revolution. There is nothing new in this. Conspiracy theories about the supposed control the West can exercise over protest movements are nothing new. This was the refrain used against the democratic revolutions against the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe by those on the left who had backed them as “Communist” or at least some kind of deformed “workers’ states”. It does Counterpunch no credit to have run such drivel. Why hundreds of thousands continue to come into the street risking death, injury and jail in their thousands does not seem to need explanation for such conspiracy theorists. It’s not as if Counterpunch and MRZine are relentlessly anti-revolution. Counterpunch ran a useful article in August, rebutting many of the very same arguments Lee put forward. Ramzy Baroud summed up what should be ABC for anyone who is anti-capitalist and for human freedom: the regime’s rationale for its crackdown on pro-democracy protests “is challenged by a history of regime hypocrisy, doublespeak, brutality and real, albeit understated willingness to accommodate Western pressures and diktats.”[59] But if the left’s alternative media is to play a positive role, it needs to carry a consistent line in support of struggles against all aspects of capitalism, not give credence to arguments which simply re-package the counter-revolutionary propaganda of the mainstream press.

In spite of the vacillations of some on the left, a revolution which deserves our support is unfolding in Syria. Ghadi Francis has travelled across Syria, talking to people everywhere. “Francis thinks that the protests have already made irreversible change in Syria: ‘What’s happening [in Syria] is great in the sense that there is a black era of fear broken forever … [the protests have already] broken too many walls’.”[60] It is to their undying shame that anyone on the left cannot recognise a fight against tyranny and for freedom when it happens.

Politics, spontaneity and revolution

Any political vacuum created by the left apologising for the oppressors creates an opportunity for those forces in the resistance who are prepared to deal with the US and weakens those who clearly do not want US intervention in their struggle. And this raises the question of political organisation and leadership. There are those who claim the Arab revolutions are purely spontaneous, that their strength is that they are leaderless. Michael Hardt and Toni Negri even go so far as to query whether they should be called “revolutions” because this misleads us to think that they will follow the same process witnessed in revolutions such as 1789 or 1917. They argue that these are a new kind of revolt, following the example of the anti-capitalist protests of a decade ago. The features of these new movements are:

a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in the network but cannot direct it… [T]he multitude is able to organise itself without a centre…the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power.[61]

But this is to misrepresent the revolutions. All revolutions involve an element of spontaneity, or an elemental change in what people are prepared to do. But, as Gramsci said, “In the ‘most spontaneous’ movement it is simply the case that the elements of ‘conscious leadership’ cannot be checked, have left no reliable record.”[62] While the Arab revolutions have their own unique features, there are similarities in all revolutions which enable us to formulate ideas about the strategies and tactics which are most likely to ensure victory. And one of the recurring themes of revolutions is the “spontaneous” nature of their beginnings. The February revolution of 1917 in Russia is often raised as an example of a purely spontaneous revolution. However, if we look carefully, we find that working class women had been preparing for the “manifestation” on International Women’s Day.

At least some women were preparing for months before, weighing up the odds, assessing their actions and options. Since 1915 there had been “bread riots” or “food pogroms” by working class women… This time they sent a circular to the soldiers asking them for protection rather than bullets.[63]

A few days before IWD, women trolley-car workers had visited the soldiers’ barracks to ask if the soldiers would shoot at them. The soldiers’ assurance that they would not do so ensured that the trolley-car workers joined the demonstration. And on the day, the women textile workers went from one factory to the next, calling everyone out, including the more powerful and better organised metal workers. The revolution had an element of spontaneity, in that hundreds of thousands overcame their fear of the state and responded to the call to come out.[64] The Arab revolutions clearly involve both these elements. In fact political leadership played a key role in both Tunisia and Egypt, the two most successful revolutions so far. In Tunisia rank and file workers had to organise against their union leaders, corrupted by years of working in tandem with the state, in order to mobilise union members to join the struggle. Egypt is even clearer. There has been a decade of struggle in which political organisations have crystallised. These groups, many very small, played a key role in organising the first protest on 25 January. They included human rights campaigners, liberals, radical students, leftist Nasserists and revolutionary socialists.

And now that the first phase of the revolution has passed, those activists have to face the issue of how to defeat the counter-revolution. They have to find ways to cohere the most determined, the most class conscious, in order to win wider layers away from the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, they have to be able to explain why some of those who joined in the Tahrir Square protests are now demanding that workers go home and wait for an “orderly transition”. They have to be capable of providing the political confidence to wide layers of workers to continue to fight for their own demands and to build their own independent organisation. None of this happens by chance. As Alex Callinicos has pointed out:

The dynamics of the Egyptian upheaval reveal, not the lyrical insurgency of the centre-less multitude, but rather what Gramsci called “a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organised and directing will of the centre converge”.[65]

When you consider the threat to the revolution looming in both Tunisia and Egypt if the masses cannot find a way to continue to resist and develop the social revolution, and the extremely serious dangers confronting the Libyan revolution, then glorification of a lack of a centre, of a lack of a political program is useless at best, irresponsible at worst. It does not serve the interests of the mass of workers and the poor. If revolutionaries ignore their responsibility to offer a way forward, other political forces will fill the resulting vacuum.


Hala Abdullah’s concluding remarks to the Sunflower Theatre forum are a clarion call to all those who support the masses’ fight for democracy and a better world. And it is a rebuke to those who hesitate to give their support to a resistance movement that has shown itself capable of incredible courage and persistence in the face of a merciless assault from the Baathist regime:

Whoever says that the shaking of the Syrian regime will result in the shaking of the whole region and that any change will be dangerous for the whole region is right. A change in Syria will change the region, the decomposed, corrupted and oppressive region.

A change in Syria will allow freedom to go on a promenade like a beautiful young woman. On a promenade, naked, and with no fear on the shore of the Mediterranean sea.[66]

Genuine revolutionaries look forward to that day. However there is still the need for ongoing struggle, not just in Syria, but across the Arab world. Pictures of a massive, joyful, demonstration in Tripoli on Friday 2 September offer a sign of hope. Tens of thousands of women came out to show their support for the rebels, while the guns were kept at a distance from the well-guarded Martyrs’ Square. There are reports of small protests even in Bahrain, despite the vicious repression; while the revolution edges forward in Egypt in spite of the counter-revolutionary forces.

These developments are of immense importance for world capitalism. The world’s ruling classes will find it difficult to ever go back to how things were before. And it is not just the Arab Spring which causes nightmares for the capitalist parasites.

The world crisis continues to unfold. Austerity measures in Europe, Britain, Ireland and the US threaten to reverse all the improvements in living standards workers had won over decades of struggle. The riots that swept across Britain in August are a hint of things to come. They illuminated the anger and bitterness below the surface which can erupt unexpectedly. This time it was the murder of a black man by police. Who knows what provocation by authorities might provoke the next upheaval. The role of socialists must be to stand with the oppressed whenever they try to make their voices heard, to articulate the theories and argue for the actions needed to develop mass working class confidence and organisation. While all manifestations of struggle are better than passive and apathetic acceptance of capitalism’s many crimes against humanity, if we are to win the new world we so desperately need, it will take mass revolutions. And these must be led not by disparate elements, some of whom turn to counter-revolution once they witness the determination of the mass of workers, but by the working class, the only force that can lead the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed and give voice to their needs and desires. Such a movement can create new, collective, democratic organisations on which that new society can build. We have seen tiny embryos of the kind of organisations the exploited and oppressed are capable of in Egypt. For the first time in decades, revolution is on the agenda, and workers are shaking their chains. Developing an understanding of the revolutionary process unfolding in the Arab Spring is the responsibility of revolutionary socialists. It is a breathtaking challenge as well as an opportunity to build a revolutionary socialist organisation wherever we are and to prepare for the battles to come.


[1] Hossam el-Hamalaway, “The dictator behind bars”, 4 August 2011,

[2] “Egypt: new wave of strikes greets start of Ramadan”, Mena Solidarity Network, 2 August 2011; for a broader picture of working class struggle since the start of the revolution see Anne Alexander, “The growing social soul of Egypt’s democratic revolution”, International Socialism Journal, 131, Summer 2011.

[3] Robert Fisk, “Egypt’s revolutionary youth are being sidelined”, The Independent, 2 August 2011, was just one.

[4] Anand Gopal, “The Tripoli uprising”, Foreign Policy, 1 September 2011,

[5] Alex Callinicos, “The return of the Arab revolution”, International Socialism Journal 130, Spring 2011, pp.15-16.

[6] Callinicos, “The return of the Arab revolution”.

[7] Sami Ramadani, “After the Spring”, Socialist Alternative 168, June 2011, p.11.

[8] Interview with Mahmoud Jibril, Al Ahram, 28 August 2011,

[9]Libya is free – it must be occupied”, 23 August 2011,

[10] “G-8: Nations, banks to give $40B for Arab Spring”, AP report on Al Ahram, 27 May 2011,

[11] Soumaya Ghannoushi, “Obama, hands off our spring”, The Guardian, 26 May 2011.

[12] Editorial, Socialist Worker, 25 May 2011,

[13] “NATO to help Arab revolts ‘blossom’, says Rasmussen”, Naharnet Newsdesk, 17 June 2011, (emphasis added).

[14] Judith Orr, “Is Libya on the road to freedom?”, 27 August 2011, Socialist Worker.

[15] Patrick Cockburn, quoted in “Who really won in Libya?”, 23 August 2011, Socialist Worker,

[16] Chris Stephen, “Misrata rebels defy Libya’s new regime”, The Guardian, 29 August 2011.

[17] Gopal, “The Tripoli uprising”; Juan Cole, “The great Tripoli uprising”, 21 August 2011,

[18] SBS TV World News, 31 August 2011.

[19] Sameh Naguib, “A voice from Egypt: Libya’s impact will be contradictory”, 27 August 2011,

[20] “After Gaddafi fell, more defections in Syrian army reported”, Reuters report on English Ahram, 27 August 2011, 19957/World/Region/After-Gaddafi-fell,-more-defections-in-Syrian-army.aspx; ABC’s World Today, 31 August 2011, reported increasing defections but did not link them to Libyan events.

[21] Juan Cole, “Fall of Tripoli echoes loudly in Damascus”, 27 August 2011,

[22] Toufic Haddad, “The winner in Libya is undetermined”, 30 August 2011,

[23] Mohamed Elmeshad, “Egypt’s left: searching for status”, Almasry Alyoum, 8 August 2011,

[24] Alexander, “The growing social soul of Egypt’s democratic revolution”, p.82.

[25] Alexander, “The growing social soul of Egypt’s democratic revolution”; Mohammad-Reza Shalgooni, “Revolution and counter-revolution in the Arab world” part 3, 4 May 2011,

[26] Leila Fadel, “Egypt’s activists still face ‘police state’ justice”, The Age, 16 August 2011.

[27] Sameh Naguib, “Unfinished revolution”, International Socialist Review, September-October 2011, p.25.

[28] Hesham Sallam, “Striking back against Egyptian workers”, MER 259,

[29] See Naguib, “Unfinished revolution”, pp.24-25 for details of army attacks on the rights of workers, students and protesters.

[30] Statement by the Revolutionary Socialists, “The mask has slipped: instead of military salutes we now hear the generals’ threats”, 12 July 2011,

[31] Sallam, “Striking back against Egyptian workers”.

[32] Naguib, “Unfinished revolution”, p.24.

[33] “The mask has slipped”, e-socialists.

[34] Quoted in Abigail Hauslohner, “Has the revolution left Egypt’s workers behind?”, Time World, 23 June 2011,,8599,2079 605,00.html#ixzz1QROTugOu.

[35] Sameh Naguib, “The Islamists and the Egyptian revolution”, Socialist Review (UK), June 2011.

[36] Naguib, “The Islamists and the Egyptian revolution”.

[37] Sameh Naguib, “Islamism(s) old and new”, in Rabab El-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet, Egypt. The Moment of Change, Zed Books, London, 2009, p.114.

[38] Quoted in Alexander, “The growing social soul of Egypt’s democratic revolution”.

[39] Khalil Issa, “The Lebanese left fails in Syria”, Jadaliyya, 7 June 2011,

[40] “Sinan Antoon, “The Arab spring and Adunis’s autumn”, 11 July 2011,,; and see “Statement of Syrian Christians in Support of the Revolution”, 19 July 2011, pages/index/2181/statement-of-syrian-christians-in-support-of-the-r.

[41] Matthew Cassel, “Lebanon’s left splits over Syria”, Al Jazeera, 26 June 2011,

[42] For a discussion of the problems on the Western left see Mick Armstrong, “Islamophobia, secularism and the left”, Marxist Left Review issue 2, Autumn 2011.

[43] Issa, “The Lebanese left fails in Syria”.

[44] Hamid Dabashi, “Arab spring exposes Nasrallah’s hypocrisy”, Al Jazeera, 22 June 2011, 2011618103354910596.html.

[45] “Hizbullah on edge in face of Syria revolt”, 26 July 2011, Naharnet Newsdesk,; the flag burning was said to have occurred in Saqba, Reuters, 24 June 2011.

[46] Lenin, “Theses of the Second Congress of the Comintern”, June 1920,

[47] For a critique of the left’s attitude to Gaddafi see Corey Oakley, “Confronting the Stalinist legacy”, Marxist Left Review 2, Autumn 2011.

[48] Cassel, “Lebanon’s left splits over Syria”.

[49] Quoted in Cassel, “Lebanon’s left splits over Syria”.

[50] Issa, “The Lebanese left fails in Syria”.

[51] Cassel, “Lebanon’s left splits over Syria”.

[52] Steven A. Cook, “Unholy alliance: how Syria is bringing Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia together”, The Atlantic, 9 May 2011, international/archive/2011/05/unholy-alliance-how-syria-is-bringing-israel-iran-and-saudi-arabia-together/238084/.

[53] George Friedman, “Re-examining the Arab Spring”, Stratfor, 15 August 2011,

[54] Ibtisam Azem, “The Syrian people will determine the fate of Syria: An interview with Burhan Ghalyoun”, Jadaliyya, 26 July 2011, index/2203/the-syrian-people-will-determine-the-fate-of-syria.

[55] Cassel, “Lebanon’s left splits over Syria”.

[56] Elias Muhanna, “No revolution in Syria: an interview with Camille Otrakji”, MRZine, 3 May 2011,

[57] Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, “Hugo Chavez, Monthly Review and the Syrian torture state”, 26 May 2011, 2011/05/26/hugo-chavez-monthly-review-and-the-syrian-torture-state/.

[58] Peter Lee, “Syria and the delusions of the Western press”, Counterpunch, 15-17 April,

[59] Ramzy Baroud, “Competing storylines in Syria”, Counterpunch, 5-7 August 2011,

[60] Cassel, “Lebanon’s left splits over Syria”.

[61] Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, “Arabs are democracy’s new pioneers”, The Guardian, 24 February 2011.

[62] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, p.196.

[63] Sandra Bloodworth, How Workers Took Power: The 1917 Russian Revolution, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2008, p.16.

[64] Bloodworth, How Workers Took Power, pp.11-18.

[65] Callinicos, “The return of the Arab revolution”, p.20.

[66] Cassel, “Lebanon’s left splits over Syria”.

US vs Free Syrian Army vs Jabhat al-Nusra (and ISIS): History of a hidden three-way conflict

Michael Karadjis answer the “comic-book view widely expressed in tabloid journals of the mainstream, left and right", that alleges the Syrian rebellion against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad is a conspiracy of incompatible forces.

The origins of the criminal Assad dynasty

Omar Hassan confronts the myth that the Assad dynasty in Syria was ever socialist or anti-imperialist.

US imperialism and the war for the Middle East

Corey Oakley analyses the counter-revolutions which have swept across the Arab world since the mass revolts of 2011.