Contours of the Arab Counter-Revolution

Commentary: Omar Hassan, Socialist Alternative (Australia)

In the early days of the Arab revolutions it seemed like the dictators and their Western allies were paralysed, helpless in the face of the popular movements. Ben Ali fell after only one month of protests, and Mubarak gave up in a similar timeframe. It was a fire sale, a dictator a month, and the only question was which one was to fall next.

Six months later, it’s clear now that this phase of the struggle is well and truly over. The counter-revolution has mobilised and consolidated its forces. The Arab revolutions are under siege from all sides.

The capitalist classes, both local and international, have an enormous range of tools at their disposal in the struggle against the Arab masses. Though there can be contradictions and disagreements between the various parties – even within the different wings of the American state – they all agree that the revolutions need to end as quickly as possible.

This explains why it is that “radical” Salafist organisations can be funded and supported by the US, why secular liberals can happily cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, why Israel can come out and defend its erstwhile enemy in Bashar el-Assad, and why billionaires can (retrospectively) come out in support of revolutions.

Holding back the revolutionary wave is their priority. Everything else is secondary.

The old regimes are still in power across the region. They have learnt the lessons from Ben Ali and Mubarak, and have been much more prepared to use brutal violence to cling to power.

In Bahrain the revolutionaries have suffered a serious defeat. In a bitter twist, many of those who participated in the demonstrations are now being tried for the deaths of their comrades at the hands of the police. Medical volunteers who risked their lives to treat the wounded are being charged with somehow providing guns to the protesters. For now it seems that the movement is over.

Though the Syrian regime has had less success in crushing the uprising, it too has been vicious in its use of tanks and machine guns against demonstrators. The response to the crackdown has been heroic and the attacks have pushed the movement towards calling for the total overthrow of the Ba’athist regime. Yet the Assad clique remains in power, its security forces more or less intact.

Similarly, in Morocco, Jordan, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere the movements have yet to achieve their first task – the overthrow of the regime.

But even where the figureheads have fallen their institutions remain intact. In each case, allies of the old leaders have simply stepped in to fill the power vacuum left by their departure. The old authoritarian constitutions have been left more or less unchanged, the hated security services rebadged, and so on.

The Egyptian army has been the organisation most successful in rebranding itself as an ally of the revolution. This an impressive achievement given that Mubarak himself was a military general, that the military enjoyed enormous privileges under the old regime, and that it has been aggressively cracking down on free speech, the right to protest and other basic gains of the revolution.

As the largest and most powerful military in the Arab world, the Egyptian army is among the most important forces for counter-revolution in the region.

For the revolutions to achieve their aims, even in the countries where the tyrants have fallen, they will need to continue to push to totally destroy the old structures of the state.

In trying to do this workers and the poor will inevitably confront (some are already confronting) those who to varying degrees supported the revolutions in toppling the dictators, but are clearly for the preservation of capitalist stability.

There are two different aspects of this counter-revolutionary movement.

The first is in the secular liberalism of parties like the Free Egyptians Party. The FEP claims to have supported the revolution from day one. If elected it promises to ensure a secular, democratic and “pluralistic” Egypt, as well as free education and a raft of other social services.

Yet despite all this liberal parties such as the FEP are fundamentally reactionary. They are the political expression of pro-Western capitalists hoping to increase their control over a post-revolutionary Middle East. Their goal is to limit the outcome of the Arab Spring to relatively superficial changes to the political structures, while leaving the neoliberal structure of the economy intact.

The FEP for instance thinks Egypt needs an even more neoliberal free market economy than that presided over by Mubarak, which puts them nicely in line with the IMF agenda. Crucially, it also opposed demonstrations on May 27 and more recently, on the basis that order and stability was crucial for the reconstruction of Egypt. But what would you expect from a party presided over by a billionaire businessman?


On the other hand there are the Islamists.

In the early days of the revolution there was much fearmongering in the Western media about the dangers of an Islamic revolution, particularly centred around the Muslim Brotherhood. So a few facts first.

The Muslim Brotherhood is basically a conservative organisation of the status quo, but this is mediated by its relationships with the different Arab regimes. In Syria for instance, it was totally banned and repressed (which gives it a slightly more radical tinge), while in Egypt it was tolerated by Mubarak for over 20 years, at times organising election lists and demonstrations with the ruling NDP.

Generally, its leadership includes some of the wealthiest people in Egypt and its core activists are from the educated middle classes – doctors, lawyers and the like – none of whom have much desire to rock the boat. National differences notwithstanding, the organisation is more or less comparable to the pro-capitalist, moderate “Justice and Development Party” ruling Turkey at the moment – which despite pro-Palestinian posturing and Islamist verbiage has developed strong economic and political ties with Israel, America and the EU.

So just like the liberals, the Brotherhood essentially wants a slightly modified status quo. This has become clearer in the run-up to the elections, where it has united with a number of liberal parties in an electoral alliance. More evidence came to light just last week, when US state officials indicated they were initiating dialogue with the Islamic party. The Brotherhood’s leadership welcomed this move with open arms.

Then there are Islamist forces outside the Brotherhood. These are the Salafist groups. Spewing sectarian, misogynistic, anti-revolutionary bile, these forces have been using Saudi money to grow amongst sections of the poor in the Middle East for decades now, and opposed the revolution in Egypt from day one.

Far from being the hostile enemies of America you might expect, the Salafist organisations and the West often act in counter-revolutionary harmony. For instance in Lebanon they provide the shock troops of Hariri’s pro-American March 14 grouping; in Egypt Mubarak tolerated their organisations more than any others; while in Syria they make up the most reactionary and pro-Saudi component of the uprising.

Nowhere are the Salafists likely to come to power – their violent and sectarian methods are not popular in the revolutionary climate in the region today. Rather, the danger is that they provide a pretext for others – say, the Muslim Brothers – to come in and impose “order” on the revolutions, an order which will mean the end of the revolutionary organising and an inevitable crackdown on the left.

Foreign intervention

It is impossible to talk about the forces of counter-revolution without addressing Western intervention. It is no accident that Libya, the country where the West most involved itself, is also the country where the revolution has the most problems. Gaddafi has been entrenched, civilians are being killed by NATO bombs, and the mass struggle against the regime has been replaced by the military one.

Yet this is the only case where the West has been able to intervene directly. Its leaders have been hamstrung by the fact that the people of the region are deeply hostile to foreign intervention, for very good reasons. They’ve overcome this to some extent by training others to do their dirty work for them, and they are assuredly throwing their weight around behind the scenes, but it’s far from an ideal situation for American policy wonks used to having their own way.

The Israeli army faces similar difficulties. In the context of the Arab Spring an Israeli attack could lead millions to demand a revolutionary war against the Zionist state. Needless to say, this is not exactly in line with US interests.

Of course, the West has any number of counter-revolutionary tricks up its sleeve.

The IMF’s recent offer of a three billion dollar loan to Egypt at zero interest is a case in point. Labour historians have rightly pointed to the damage that decades of IMF “assistance” has done to Egyptian society. Mubarak used the cover of “structural adjustment plans” to sell off state assets to his cronies and undermine the living standards of workers and the poor.

Popular opinion forced the military council to reject the loan this time around, but fiscal pressure to do otherwise will continue to mount given the weakening condition of the Egyptian economy.

On a similar note, Qatar has proposed the creation of a Middle Eastern Development Bank. The press release for this wonderful plan compares it to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which “helped the rebuilding efforts in countries in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War.” Its goal is to “help the ailing economies of Tunisia and Egypt” but as an added bonus it plans to “put aside tens of billions of dollars for yearly lending for political transition in countries in the whole region”.

Given that levels of poverty and political corruption have somehow managed to increase in Eastern Europe after the end of the Stalinist regimes, it would seem reasonable to be somewhat sceptical.

The Saudi-Gulf alliance

This last initiative points to the final factor in the counter-revolutionary forces facing the Arab Spring: the Gulf States, particularly the newfound alliance between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Now, it is something of a cliché in the Arab left to pin all that is reactionary on Saudi Arabia. For decades it has been used as a reason to defend the so-called “progressive regimes” in Iraq and Syria. Many so-called leftists are stuck in this Stalinist mentality. For them, the movement in Syria is against an anti-imperialist country, and therefore little more than an “Anglo-Americozionist-Saudi-Qatari” conspiracy, or a CIA coup.

Yet despite the historical problems with this obsession with Saudi Arabia, it is clear that the Saudi royal family is one of the key lynchpins of imperialist stability in the Middle East. While Israel has been passive and the US tentative, Saudi Arabia has been able to adopt an aggressively anti-revolutionary foreign policy.

The reason for this is that unlike Israel, America or the EU, Saudi Arabia is an indigenous capitalist force in the region. Unlike the others, Saudi Arabia works within the Arab institutions, such as the Arab League and the increasingly active Gulf Cooperation Council. Its integration into these regional forums is important in a region where pan-Arabism remains a strong current.

For years Saudi Arabia has been cultivating networks of Wahhabi (i.e. Salafist) schools and mosques throughout the region. Saudi Arabia’s close ties with both Egypt and the US help explain why it was that the Salafists were the only group to be allowed a TV station in pre-revolutionary Egypt, and why they are now strong enough to go around organising bashings of Christians, women, and others. As one neo-conservative commentator explains:

Wahhabi-Saudi policy has always been two-faced: that is, at the same time as the Wahhabis preach hostility and violence against non-Wahhabi Muslims, they maintain a policy of alliance with Western military powers – first Britain, then the US and France – to assure their control over the Arabian Peninsula.

It has also been expanding the size and scope of the counter-revolutionary activities of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi-led regional bloc of oil-rich pro-American regimes. This body was the vehicle for the crushing of the uprising in Bahrain, and has also been central in attempting to diffuse the revolutionary possibilities in Yemen.

In recent years Saudi Arabia has been developing a media strategy, with a number of well-funded TV stations and newspapers broadcasting one-sided, pro-Saudi perspectives to the Middle East daily.

Assisting them in this project is the new, improved Al Jazeera Inc. While millions enjoyed its unprecedented coverage of the early period in Egypt and Tunisia, there has since been a clear shift away from that sort of reportage. The station has become more and more like Western outlets – silencing criticism of the Gulf states and ignoring the revolutions that don’t suit the interests of the Qatari ruling class. Rumours of a formal alliance with the Saudi royal family are backed up by the fact that that Saudi corporations have now been permitted to advertise their products on the station.

The credibility gained from its earlier coverage of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions means that Al Jazeera is far better placed to shape mass opinion than the crude propagandists of the other Arab-owned stations or Western outlets like CNN.

The battle continues

Despite this impressive array of forces aiming to stop the revolutions in their tracks, it is hard to see how any lasting stability can be achieved in the short term. The spectre of the global economic crisis continues to haunt the region, with the possibility of a double-dip recession in America and defaults by entire nations in Europe. All of this is certain to impact negatively on the already fragile economies of countries like Syria, Tunisia and Egypt.

There are other, subjective sources of instability too. Just this week we’ve witnessed a new round of small but militant protests against the military council’s failure to punish acts of police violence in Egypt. It is difficult to make predictions, but struggles between workers and the poor and those who aim to limit the revolutions seem inevitable, as the basic economic demands made throughout the revolution remain unfulfilled.


T. All. said…
Very neet article. The masses of the arab region must know their enemies and carry on the revolutionary uprising and say NO to any negotiation with reactionary, imperialist-backed layers of their societies.

Socialism or barbarism!!


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