Just when it felt like Western imperialism had the upper hand in North Africa and the Middle East, a firestorm unfolded. First in Tunisia, followed by sparks igniting in Oman, Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and, yes, Egypt, uprisings and mass demonstrations have started shaking the Arab World.
In many respects the uprising in Tunisia was among the most surprising. Tunisia, a virtual neo-colony for the French since it first achieved independence in 1956, has been ruled by two successive pro-Western dictators. Yet, in a matter of days, stability devolved into a mass movement against corruption, tyranny and economic injustice. The spontaneity of this upsurge, along with those shaking the Arab World as a whole, does not mean that there has been a lack of organization and a lack of protracted struggle. In each country various social movements have been in operation for years carrying out extremely difficult, and often life-threatening, struggles for democracy and economic justice. Amongst these social movements has been the under-reported labor union movement.
In watching events unfold in the Arab World, and especially in Egypt at the moment, it is important to understand what is NOT happening. Contrary to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, what we are not seeing is one or another variety of an Islamist uprising. In each country—and Lebanon is a special case that is in the midst of a particular political crisis—there has been a convergence of forces from the opposition. Whether in Tunisia or Egypt, the opposition includes Islamists, but it is far broader, involving communists, socialists, nationalists as well as pro-capitalist democrats. This in and of itself is a remarkable development particularly in light of the amount of attention that the US media has given to Islamist movements in the Arab and Muslim worlds to the exclusion of everyone else. In fact, until Tunisia, one could have been led to believe that the only opposition forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds were Islamists of various stripes.
A second point to make here is that while the pictures from these mass movements are overwhelmingly of men, women have been very active including in spokesperson roles for segments of these movements.
A third point is that it is far from clear where these uprisings and mass upsurges will go. In each country there is no leading political party or even an organized political front of forces speaking for or mobilizing the opposition. While this is exciting to the extent to which it displays for all the world the anger, frustration and courage of hundreds of thousands of people, this movement can dissipate, and actually it can dissipate quickly, if history is any judge. If, in the case of Egypt, the Mubarak regime decides to try to wait out the uprising or militarily crush it, the question will be (1)whether there is sufficient unity within the ruling bloc to support such actions, and (2)whether a leadership core and organization from among the people can cohere that can take the movement to its next stages.
The Obama administration, and the imperialist establishment as a whole, was certainly caught with its pants down. Egypt is a key strategic ally for the USA in North Africa and the Middle East. It is the second largest recipient of US aid (after Israel) and is viewed as an essential force for imperialist-defined stability in that region. Its tolerance, if not connivance, in the isolation of Gaza in the face of the Israeli-imposed blockade is one small example of the role that the Mubarak regime has played at the service of the USA.
Thus, the US is caught between the rhetoric of democracy, free elections, etc., vs. its need for pro-Western stability in the region. The latter course has generally won out, irrespective of the tyranny of a particular regime. Now, however, the world is watching as the flames spread throughout the Arab World demanding a self-determined democracy, rather than any sort of regime imposed on it by the USA or its allies.
This is a time to celebrate the courage and determination of those who have marched day after day for progressive change. It is also a time to ensure that the Arab World is able to exercise its own direction without imperial influence. That means cutting US military aid to dictatorial regimes and no US covert funny-business, including US-imposed successor regimes. It also should mean that those supporting a progressive, democratic future for the Arab World find ways of assisting the social movements that are engaged in this fight. They will not succeed based on magic.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an editorial board member of BC, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.”