The Unfinished Business of the Arab Spring

The Arab revolt which started in Tunisia last January and swept across North Africa and the Middle East has been a political earthquake. Its aftershocks are still reverberating across the Mediterranean and being felt round the world. Countries in an arc from Morocco to Yemen have been directly affected by protests and revolts and two of the West’s most trusted satraps, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt have been forced from power, while regimes such as Syria and Bahrain survive only by brutal repression. Meanwhile the Western powers have used the revolt in Libya as the pretext to start yet another Middle Eastern war whose aim is, in part, to cushion the shocks of the revolt and control it. However, despite bloody repression in countries such a Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and draconian new laws in the “replacement” regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, the revolt is far from over. In early July, at the time of writing, weekly demonstrations against the Syrian regime continued, despite the killing of over 1600 protesters, while there were fresh demonstrations in Tunisia and in Egypt against the replacement regimes. In Egypt Cairo’s Tahrir square was again occupied. Protesters were vowing to occupy until the military council, which has been running the country since the fall of Mubarak, was removed from power. A secondary demand, indicating the continuing proletarian element in the movement, has been that of increased pay for public servants. In Suez workers have struck demanding increases in pay and punishment of police who murdered strikers in February. They have blocked roads and threatened to close the Suez Canal if their demands are not met. This is occurring despite laws passed by the military junta, in March, outlawing demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes and introducing the crime of “sabotaging the economy”, for which strikers and demonstrators can be fined or imprisoned. While the revolt continues in North Africa and the Middle East it is also providing an inspiration for demonstrators and workers in Europe. In Spain and Greece, demonstrators, clearly following the tactics of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, have occupied squares at the centre of cities as part of their struggle against the cuts and unemployment, which their governments are enforcing.

Imperialist powers wrong footed

The imperialist powers were initially wrong footed by the revolt and have scrambled to keep up with the changes. Only weeks before the January uprising in Tunisia, the IMF published reports praising both Tunisia and Egypt for their sound economic policies and stability. This was despite massive unemployment, poverty and state repression in both countries. What the IMF admired, of course, was the low wages and appalling conditions, which these regimes were able to impose on their working classes, and the consequent high growth rates and production of profit. Needless to say both regimes were key allies of US imperialism. Initially the US and its European allies appeared stunned by the uprisings and felt it best to sit on the fence and await the outcome. Of course, once the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators, whom they had previously supported and praised, were swept away they changed their allegiance and announced their love of democracy and freedom etc. and manoeuvred to retain their influence with the new rulers. In fact, the new regimes are essentially the old regimes with new faces in the ruling positions and the main task of the imperialist powers has been to try and stabilise them and prevent any real change. Existing alliances, such as the US cooperation agreement with the Egyptian military, have been confirmed; while there has been a sudden willingness to lend the new regimes masses of money. When the Egyptian regime, for example, announced in May that it needed to borrow $12bn to prevent bankruptcy in the next 12 months, negotiations were immediately started with the IMF and World bank for loans of $4bn and $2.2bn respectively, while the US offered to forgive $1bn of existing debt and provide a loan guarantee of $1bn. (1) President Sarkozy of France announced that the G8 group of countries would lend Tunisia and Egypt $10bn in direct aid. (2) Elsewhere the US and European “love of democracy” has been noticeably absent. In the case of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain who are key oil suppliers and key military allies in the Persian Gulf it we have seen “love of absolute monarchy” and consent to violent repression of pro-democracy opposition. Bahrain is the base for the US Seventh Fleet and the centre of US military operations in the area, and unsurprisingly the US has sanctioned a full scale invasion by Saudi forces to protect the Khalifa monarchy and suppress the pro-democracy movement. Brutal repression has, of course, followed with civilians being tried in military courts and given life sentences for supporting democracy and denouncing the monarchy. Even doctors who treated the victims of repression have been tortured into confessing they murdered people.

The Libyan war, which the US and Europeans started in March, supposedly to “protect civilians” demanding democracy from the brutal dictatorship of the Gaddafi regime is clearly aimed at getting western hands on Libyan oil. Libyan oil is important since it is low in sulphur and Libyan reserves amount to approximately 10% of the world’s “sweet light crude” oil. The US and Europeans obviously consider that the Benghazi opposition will give them better access to this oil than the Gaddafi regime and so they intend to bring it to power. This opposition appears to be largely made up of defectors from the Gaddafi regime, not previously noted for their “love of democracy” and is said to have been fostered by the French secret service. NATO is now acting as the air force for the Benghazi rebels, who call themselves the Transitional National Council (TNC), while its military specialists train the rebel army. The main countries prosecuting the war have now recognised the TNC as the legitimate government and are preparing to release the Libyan funds, confiscated when the war began, to the TNC for prosecution of the war. (3) The war was started under the pretext of protecting civilians by imposing a no fly zone over Libya. All this has long since been forgotten and the objective is now simply destroying the Libyan military and ousting the Gaddafi regime. The fact that the war is clearly not for the protection of civilians is shown by the indifference the western powers show to the hundreds of civilians killed in Bahrain and the 1600 or more civilians who have so far been gunned down by the Syrian regime.

All these contradictions serve only to expose the hypocrisy of western imperialism as it tries to justify its actions with high sounding principles. In fact, what is happening is the protection of economic and strategic interests by deceit and naked force, without the slightest concern for the welfare or rights of the people in the area.

However, while the imperialist powers try to damp down the flames of revolt the forces driving the Arab Spring and the unrest in Europe and the US continue to fan the flames.

Impulse of the economic crisis

The Arab revolt and the unrest in Europe are both driven by a common force, that of capitalism’s economic crisis. The financial crisis which exploded in 2008 was a symptom of a longer crisis whose roots lie in the secular tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Reduced profitability of industrial capital has caused profits to be invested in speculation rather than productive capital. The result of this is to massively inflate values of assets subject to speculation and so produce “asset bubbles “, such as the dot-com bubble or the sub-prime mortgage bubble. These higher values cannot be sustained by the profits produced by industrial capital and eventually collapse precipitating a write down of capital values and a general crisis. The crisis of 2008 shook the entire structure of capitalism more severely than anything since the 1929 stock market crash. The banks and financial institutions sustained such tremendous losses that the major states had to refinance the banks and convert their losses into national debt. The aftermath of this was an industrial crisis caused by banks withdrawing credit which undermined industrial activity and caused a collapse of trade. For workers worldwide, including the Middle East, this produced layoffs and wage freezes or wage cuts. This was particularly severe for workers in the Middle East. Egypt’s exports to the EU, for example, halved between 2008 and 2009, and those of Tunisia and Morocco to the rest of the world fell by 31% in 2009. (4)

At the same time as unemployment and pay cuts were being forced on workers the price of basic food stuffs started to rise. This has been caused by some extreme weather events (5) and renewed speculation on food stuffs. A further cause of the rise in cereal prices was rise in oil prices which always directly increase the price of producing food but which also resulted in maize being diverted from human consumption to manufacture of alcohol and bio-fuels. After the financial collapse of 2008 food prices initially fell but from mid 2010 they began to rise dramatically again. The price of wheat, for example, was $157/tonne in June 2010 but by January 2011 it had risen to $326/tonne a rise of over 100%. Workers were therefore hit by the effects of an industrial crisis and an agricultural crisis. For workers in the Middle East, wheat forms a significant part of their diet. For an Egyptian family, grain amounts to 48% the average value of food consumed.

Egypt, which has a population of 83 million, is the world’s largest grain importer and imports 8.8 million tonnes annually. Tunisia is also highly dependent on grain imports. Although it imports only 3.5 million tonnes annually, its population is only 10.5 million. Hence its imports amount to 3 times those of Egypt per person. The severity of these rises can be understood by simple arithmetic and in Egypt food prices rose by approximately 80% in 2010.

In Europe the strategy of transferring unsustainable banking debt to the state has proved a short term expedient since this has simply made the state debt unsustainable. The only way the state could gather sufficient profit to pay off interest and capital on these debts is to take profit from wider sections of the economy than were available to the banks. The state is able to do this via taxation or by cutting its spending or both. In fact, the European governments are doing both these things. Increased taxation is coupled with massive cuts in expenditure, notably expenditure on social benefits paid to the working class such as unemployment benefits, housing benefits, healthcare, pensions and so on. These measures are producing sharp falls in living standards. It is clear that in Europe, the Middle East, and indeed worldwide, that the working class is being forced to pay the costs of the crisis one way or another.

The Arab spring has seen defensive struggles against increasingly intolerable conditions converted into an offensive struggle against the structures of the state and in Egypt and Tunisia sections of the police and army collapsed. This has shaken the Arab ruling class more profoundly than at any time since they achieved nominal independence from colonial domination. However, although the ruling elites have suffered a severe shock, the bourgeois class has regrouped its forces and remains firmly in control. The reason for this is, of course, that the movements were not class movements had no clear goal or programme and have been shot through with illusions. These illusions will require a much longer and deeper period of struggle before they can be thrown off.

Illusions of the “Peoples’ Movements”

From the start the movements behind the Arab revolt were heterogeneous inter-class movements which tended to be dominated by the petit bourgeoisie. In these circumstances it is inevitable that the illusions which are present in the more articulate middle classes come to the surface and tend to colour the demands which the movement makes and what it achieves. This can be seen in the general support for nationalism throughout the “Arab Spring.” In general the movements were determined to paint themselves as the true defenders of the nation by carrying national flags and even, in the case of the Libyan rebels, reviving flags of the old monarchy. It is ironic that so many of the Libyan workers were migrants from North Africa, the Indian subcontinent and even China thereby demonstrating, in fact, the international nature of the working class. Although workers participated in the movements from the beginning, they participated as individuals and were unable to impose their aims on the movement. When finally the Tunisian and Egyptian workers moved collectively for their own interests this proved decisive and the resistance of the bourgeoisie crumbled. Ben Ali and Mubarak were removed from power and some of the workers demands were met. This can be contrasted with Libya where workers did not participate as a class force and the revolt degenerated into a bourgeois civil war. In Libya the working class was further weakened by the departure of migrant workers, who make up about 30% of the working class. (6) At present the situation in Bahrain and in Syria is also one in which the working class has not committed itself to the uprising. The Syrian regime is able to sustain itself via a policy of divide and rule and continues the bloodletting, while in Bahrain the movement appears to be degenerating into a sectarian Sunni/Shia struggle.

The retreat of the Tunisian, and particularly the Egyptian regimes, in the face of class struggle confirms that the working class is the only class with the ability to force the bourgeoisie to concede the demands of the “peoples’ movements.” However, the demands of the movement at present represent only illusionary reforms. Two demands are worth considering briefly, the demand for “democracy” and that for “free trade unions.”

The demand for “democracy” has been raised in all the uprisings of the Arab Spring. What is meant by this is the “bourgeois democracy” which exists in Europe and the US. The hardship and poverty, which the bulk of the population suffer, was seen as a result of the autocratic government which cannot be held to account by the people. It is somewhat ironic that the movement in Spain, which occupied the central squares of many cities for a month, also raised the demand for democracy, though they were meaning a democracy free of the influence of capitalist corporations. This shows the importance of the democratic illusion for the world’s ruling classes. In fact, democracy can never be free from the influence of capitalist corporations as the Spanish protesters imagine. In class society political power can only be an expression of the economic power of the dominant economic class and no amount of meddling with representation and voting can change this. The dominant economic class controls, not only the production of the commodities required to sustain life, but also the production of ideas, and is therefore dominant intellectually. It has the ability to control the results of elections and referenda through this domination. Democracy without equality is a contradiction in terms and capitalism is, of course, based on inequality. This is why under capitalism democracy is a complete fraud, but a very useful fraud as far as the bourgeois class is concerned. It fools the people into thinking they have some influence on what their governments do and at the same time stops people realising that the real cause of their problems is the class nature of society which is based on the exploitation of one class by another. Only under a classless society, that is a society of real equality, can true democracy exist. That the” Arab Spring” put the demand for democracy on its banners was a great relief for Western ruling classes and in general they were able to welcome this demand, since they know that bourgeois democracy will change absolutely nothing. Conceding “bourgeois democracy” will simply bring the Arab masses to the position in which the European and US working class finds itself, namely exploited through the system of wage labour and told they can only legitimately change this by voting for different factions of the ruling class in elections every four years or so.

A further demand was that for “free trade unions”. In the North Africa and the Middle East trade unions are generally controlled by the state and have no semblance of independence from the ruling class. The formation of independent unions appeared, to many workers, as a way of advancing their struggle and winning concessions from the capitalist class. This is another illusion. Trade unions today are tools of the ruling class used for controlling and policing the class struggle. This is true no matter what degree of formal independence they have from the ruling class and the state. The reason for this is that the position they occupy within the capitalist system is one of negotiating the price and conditions of the sale of labour power. This position necessarily accepts the entire capitalist framework, namely capital exploiting wage labour. Unions attempt to try and make this system function smoothly and to make it operate to the benefit of wage labour. Since unions accept the capitalist system they also accept the role of dealing with its problems which inevitably entails enforcing the logic of the system on the working class. This is why trade unions in Europe and the US, which are nominally independent of the state, consistently enforce the needs of the capitalist system, in the shape of redundancies, wage freezes, or wage reductions and cuts in social services on their members. At best the unions act as shock absorbers delaying the imposition of these things and putting up a token resistance. As in the case of democracy, independent trade unions are extremely useful for the capitalist class because of the control they exercise on the struggle of the working class. An illustration of this is the role the capitalist class played in South Africa in setting up independent unions under the apartheid system to control the class struggle. These unions once they were set up were used as a means for controlling the class struggle and today they are in a formal alliance with the government. Setting up of independent trade unions in the Middle East will simply reproduce the system which exists in Europe and the US. The ruling classes in Europe and the US were therefore able to welcome this demand rather than seeing it as a threat.

In the last three decades the working class has become more international than ever before, and the crisis is forcing the capitalist class to attack it in every country. Workers in the so-called “developed” countries are under an attack just as ferocious as that unleashed on workers in the “developing” countries. Workers in “developing” countries need to free themselves from the illusions that the means of political control of the state or means of policing the class struggle in the “developed” countries represent a way forward. The way forward is independent class struggle oriented to the overthrow of the capitalist system of production. To do this requires bypassing the structures set up by the bourgeois class to control the political and class struggles. Structures which allow the participation of the mass of the working class and operate by direct democracy are what are needed.

Peoples’ Assemblies or Workers Councils

The occupations of squares of major cities and the attempt to organise the protest movement via bodies set up by these assemblies represents a move to break free of the means of control which the capitalist class enforces. Political structures, political parties and trade unions are all bypassed, and a forum for open discussion is created. This is a clear step forward. The difficulty, however, is that of progressing from discussion to action given that the assemblies are inter-class in nature and hold masses of divergent views. As has been said above the working class has proved too weak to influence these assemblies. The assemblies in Europe have also been characterised by a mistrust of all political parties not simply bourgeois ones. In the assembly in Syntagma Square in Athens, for example, political parties were prohibited from speaking in the discussion forums. This clearly limits political development in the assemblies. However, there is obviously a possibility that a general mobilisation of the people in occupations, such as we have seen in the Middle East and southern Europe, could be used to facilitate the creation of workers councils. These councils could send representatives to the peoples’ assemblies and speak on behalf of the workers. While the occupation of centres of cities is an irritation to the ruling class, these occupations are something they can tolerate. What they cannot tolerate is collective strike action as occurred in Egypt. Once it becomes clear that collective power of workers is the only force able to win anything from the capitalist class, workers representatives could influence these assemblies and give them an anti-capitalist orientation. This could lead to the strengthening of political forces in favour of communism (7) and a fluid situation in which the power of the bourgeois class is challenged. Ultimately, the workers councils need to become an alternative centre of power. When this occurs the peoples’ assemblies will be irrelevant and the question of revolution will be posed.


(1) See Financial Times 19/04/11 IMF loan of $3bn was subsequently agreed.

(2) See Guardian 6/6/11.

(3) The US alone holds $61bn of Libyan funds. See Financial Times 16/7/11. It is likely that some of these funds will find its way into the coffers of NATO. Libyans will be forced to pay for the bombs NATO rains down on them.

(4) See World Bank figures quoted in “Le rivolte arabe parlano al proletariat del mondo intero” in Prometeo O5 March 2011.

(5) The droughts and floods in various food producing areas can be attributed to alterations in weather patterns caused by global warming which is intimately connected with capitalism’s continual need expand production. See “Environmental Disaster or Communism” Revolutionary Perspectives 52.

(6) The exact numbers of migrants in Libya are not officially stated but thought to number between 600 000 and 2 million. See

(7) By communism we mean production for human need in a classless society. This has absolutely nothing to do with the system which existed in Russia which was a form of state capitalism.


It's interesting that when the leftists talk about democracy it's always in the abstract never in the concrete. As the article makes clear there is nothing called democracy in the abstract there is only class democracy in this case bourgeois democracy which has a variety of functions such as conferring legitimacy on the capitalist system, mediating between different factions of capital in deciding on a strategy to facilitate capitalist explotation. All of this makes it smoother than any other form of class rule for the bourgeois. Which makes it so appealing to both the Arab bourgeois and the Imperialist powers.

One other thought came to me while reading the article and it was that in the west the period of post war boom and the debt bubble allowed a certain freedom for the bourgeoise to govern using the form of parliamentry democracy. Of course this form is based on class explotation and was shown in it's true colours with the combination of the end of the post war boom during the 1970's and the crash of 2008. The period we are now in makes it less likely that parliamentry democracy will be sustained without liberal doses of repression as can be seen with the response in the UK to the recent riots. In the Arab world the economic crisis makes parliamentry democracy even less appealing as a way forward foor the local bourgeoises.

The age of parliamentary democracies may be drawiing to a close to be replaced by even more authoritarian governments. That is unless as Marxists we can begin to draw enough workers into a marxist organisation and put forward workers councils as the only way forward for working class liberation globally but also for human liberation. Failure is not an option.

How do we get from assemblies to workers councils? As it says above, the assemblies are inter-classist. So how do you mobilize the people in the occupations (assemblies?) as in the Middle East, " to facilitate the creation of workers councils." I thought the creation of councils grew out of the revolutionary action of the class. It cant be, shouldn't be, something imposed from outside. At this time of minimum action from the working class, to be putting forward the formation of workers councils must be regarded as premature. I find this an odd and disturbing suggestion coming as it does from the ICT. Is it not a little idealistic? Does it not lack a materialist and Marxist basis? But perhaps I have misunderstood what you are saying. Can you elaborate?

Kinglear the bits you quote from the final paragraph, appear to me to merely be the author's desire to strike a positive note. I don't see how it is "idealistic" since the bits in question are speculative ("there is obviously a possibility...").

On the more general point I think the first point to stress should be that no organisational form is a guarantee of the success of a class movement. So while class-wide organs such as workers councils or more primitive equivalents will undoubtedly appear at high point in class struggles, it certainly is not a given that the process of communist revolution will procede in a linear fashion as your post abvoe suggests. In fact, I would tend to think given current low ebb in working-class consciousness that we will proceed from more confused, inter-classist formsations of forms of forms toward proletarian class struggle.

Just to follow up what Android says about the inter classist nature of revolt during the current period of capitalist crisis. If we look at the February 1917 Russian revolution we see at the begining an inter class movement which involved various segments of Russian society all united around the desire to end the war, bread and land. It was during the course of intense class struggle leading up to October that class consciousness became sharpened and workers learned through experience that the slogans being put forward by the Bolsheviks were the only realistic slogans if these three demands were going to be met. It was this inter-relationship between the class in action and the party which laid the foundations for the October revolution.

This activity seems to be the common thread which runs through all mass struggles it starts of as Android says in a theoretically confused way but if an organisation is present which has won the confidence of the workers through it's activity over the period leading up to the revolutionary crisis then there is more of a chance that workers will be able as a class to take power by smashing the capitalist state.

We can see this in the current period where the masses have still to cohere a working class consciousness. To put forward the argument that the assemblies of today are inadequate to realise the demands of workers and they need replacing with workers councils seems to me to be what a revolutionary organisation should be doing. After all when we talk about organisations rising spontaneously we should remember that it's people involved in the struggle who are making the demannds for workers councils.

For some reason not altogether clear, Androids suggestion of my seeing things in an essentially linear fashion has really narked me. So well done Android. But the whole process of learning from experience is linear isn't it? And Dave's example of the class learning something between February and October 1917, is linear too, isn't it. Apart from that I'm all for speculation, and would love to wake up next week and find rash of workers councils dotting the planet.

I think that the reason why linear thinking has got such a bad press is due to the view that events move from a-b-c smoothly and without hindrance. So for instance taking my example of the 1917 February revolution as the starting point linear view would say that the overthrow of the Czar led inevitably to the establishment of the provisional government which in turn was superseded by the soviets led by the Bolshevik party. While this in general terms is correct there was an ebb and flow to the class struggle which at times led to gains for the revolution and other times set backs to the revolution. While looking at the event in retrospect we can see the linear development of the revolution this event occured in a contradictory and confilictual manner. One other negative effect of seeing class struggle solely in a linear fashion I think is that it allows a stages vies of historical development to occur. For instance that for a socialist revolution to occur a bourgeoise revolution has had to have occured. Which in the current period of capitalist crisis is nonsense.

I agree with Kinglear linearity is useful and I do regard events as occuring in a linear way but that there are disjunctions and set backs in these developments. I do think that the only way forward for the working class is through workers councils but they will only develop after workers have gone through a process where reformism, trade unionism, nationalism, racism have been deligitimised through workers struggles. Through this deligitimisation workers councils will then quickly develop.

However workers councils are just one part of the solution the other question is the political content of these workers councils. For that question to be answered will depend upon the influence that the communist left has in the workers councils.