England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Middle East and North Africa – Revolution and Counter Revolution

The Middle East and North Africa are aflame once more. Egypt is racked by demonstrations and over 2000 protestors have been arrested; Cairo was brought to a standstill for a day at the end of September, and now an electrical appliance factory employing 3000 is on strike. The Iraqi regime faces daily street protests despite the shooting of nearly 100 demonstrators. Significantly the demonstrations are not of a sectarian character and have united Shia and Sunni alike in opposition to the corrupt and ineffectual government, with demands for jobs, public services like electricity, and an end to cronyism.

The overthrow in April 2019 of the dictatorships of Bouteflika in Algeria and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, within a week of each other, is further living proof of the willingness to struggle of the workers, the urban poor and especially the youth.

Protesters fill Iraq’s Tahrir Square FPP [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]


In 2010-11 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed drastic terms on the Arab regimes in the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008-09. Privatisations, reduced subsidies for bread and other staples, stiffer loan repayments, along with the violent repression of the most basic rights of expression by hefty State apparatuses, all combined to drive the masses onto the streets, especially the youth. This was the trigger for the so-called Arab Spring, a generalised uprising of workers, women and youth against dictatorships in the Middle East and across North Africa.

The movement began in Tunisia, sparked by the self-immolation of an impoverished street vendor, but was driven by the powerful trade union movement – despite the latter’s corrupt leadership – and it removed the dictator Ben Ali. In Yemen and Egypt too dictators fell; in Bahrein a three-month state of emergency ensued. Notwithstanding ethnic and religious differences across the region every country felt the force of the movement. Everywhere there were strikes, demonstrations and occupations. The movement gave hope to millions, and not just in the Middle East itself.

However, in the absence of clear Marxist leadership, the revolutionary upsurge gave way to counter-revolution. Mubarak in Egypt was replaced by Morsi, to be followed by Sisi and his generals, each regime more repressive than its predecessor. In Syria a powerful uprising degenerated into a vicious sectarian civil war, exacerbated by the intervention of a wide range of competing foreign powers, causing deaths and displacement on a monumental scale. In Libya too a civil war over eight years has left the country prey to warlords and militias. For a period the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) threatened to overrun the region in its attempts to establish a caliphate, eradicate all opposition and expunge democratic rights. Only in Tunisia has it been possible to retain some of the democratic gains in the 2011 movement. Until April 2019, that is, when Algeria and Sudan exploded.


The movements in Algeria and Sudan have reasserted the tremendous potential power of the working class. Although numerically small, the Sudanese working class has a rich tradition of struggle, and has experienced three revolutions since 1964. It is no coincidence that the cradle of the movement in Sudan was in Atbara, an industrial city in north-eastern Sudan that had been the birthplace of the country’s trade union movement and a past stronghold of the Communist Party. The Algerian working class occupies a strategic position, as one of the strongest in the region, alongside the Tunisian workers, and on the African continent as a whole. It was the two general strikes in March which created the splits in the ruling class and prompted the withdrawal of their support from Bouteflika.

Since the fall of Bouteflika and al-Bashir workers in both countries have sought to wrest their unions from the hands of previous supporters of the regime. In Algeria opposition within the trade unions forced their leader Sidi Saïd, friendly to the old regime, to declare that he would not stand for re-election. In Sudan attempts to resurrect unions that had been ruthlessly repressed by al-Bashir’s regime are under way, for example, with the railway workers in Atbara, the dockers in Port Sudan, and the workers of the Central Bank of Sudan.

A key feature of the Sudanese movement has been the formation of revolutionary committees (‘resistance committees’). They first appeared in 2013 during an upsurge in protests against the regime and spread throughout Sudan in the spring, sometimes absorbing workers’ strike committees. The bloody repression on 3rd June gave a further impetus to their creation, as a means of defence against the infamous Janjaweed militias, as did the suspension of the Internet, which forced activists to rely on physical face-to-face contact, distribute leaflets by hand etc. These committees are of enormous significance and will certainly be watchful of the compromises which the middle class leadership of the Sudanese Professional Association has made with the military council, and in mobilising against any future attempts at repression.

The reaction of the Algerian ruling class has been more circumspect. The armed forces, who fought an unspeakably vicious war against Islamists in the 1990s, are known for their brutality but have been reluctant to intervene for fear of provoking an even more powerful mass movement. Lahouari Addi, a sociologist of Algeria at University of Lyon, also highlighted another important reason behind the military command’s restraint: “because they are not sure their troops will be loyal to them”. However there can be no question of placing any faith in the armed forces, in Algeria, Sudan or anywhere else. This was one of the main mistakes in the revolution in Egypt, the idea that the ‘army is the friend of the people’. In the last analysis the army is a tool of the ruling class, trained to obedience and repression. What is required is to win over the ranks of the army, and even the low-ranking officers, from support for the regime by a clear programme of democratic rights and social change, assemblies in the armed forces, and a determined lead on the streets and squares.

Algeria and Sudan have shown that the revolutionary processes in society cannot simply be repressed out of existence but will re-surface, often on a higher level before because of popular consciousness of previous false steps.


The region as a whole is marked by dire poverty and unemployment, especially among the youth. These are youthful societies; the median age (half the population below, half above) in Sudan is 18.9 yrs, in Egypt 24.3 yrs. Unemployment rates of 20-25% are not uncommon, rising to 40% among young people. The IMF itself has predicted annual growth of only 1.3% for the Middle East and North Africa in 2019, which would not even be enough to absorb the 2.8 million additional youth entering the job market every year.

Immigration no longer offers a way out. 70% of young Moroccans want to leave their homeland but the EU’s ‘Fortress Europe’ policy makes a legal route impossible and the alternative routes are only available for those with thousands of dollars and at appalling risk. The tourism industry along the Mediterranean has been badly affected by Islamic fundamentalists’ attacks; this has hit Egypt and Tunisia particularly hard, and the latter has received a further blow in the failure of Thomas Cook, which had a near monopoly on Tunisian hotel resorts. The spectre of economic recession in Europe will squeeze workers in this sector further. The prevalence of the ‘black economy’, especially smuggling, offers only insecurity and the possibility of arrest. The formerly middle class professions, for which many of the unemployed graduates are supposedly being prepared – journalism, medicine, teaching – are increasingly proletarianised, indeed it is teachers who have often led the way in strikes against the regime, as in Algeria, and recently in Jordan, where over 100,000 schoolteachers have struck for four weeks and won pay rises of between 25 and 75%. There is no prospect of stability; even Tunisia, the supposed ‘success story’ of the capitalist commentators, has seen eight governments in ten years, the recent elections have paved the way for an even more fragmented parliament, and incidents of self-immolation have increased threefold in recent years, a sure sign of a new level of desperation, greater even than 2010.


None of the rival imperialisms which bestride the region, nor their various clients, are capable of ensuring the peaceful development of the resources in the Middle East and North Africa for the benefit of the masses. Moreover there is not a ruling class anywhere prepared to stand up to imperialism. There are only rulers – sheikhs, generals, bankers, corrupt bureaucrats – whose recurring nightmare is that the workers, urban poor, small farmers and youth will cast aside ethnic and religious differences and rise up against them. And they are right, because this is what happened in Algeria and Sudan earlier this year.

The working class is key. Wars, climate change and rural poverty are driving the population into the cities, where the greater social weight of the proletariat is keenly felt. Intermediate layers – small farmers, market traders, government employees – are increasingly being driven down into the ranks of the working class. In every country imperialism has created industrial zones where workers are herded into factories, often much larger than those in the UK, to produce at a fraction of European labour costs. Across the region dockers, railway workers, bus drivers, oil refinery workers have the power to paralyse the economy. A combative working class, with a clear programme and demands, can cut across religious and ethnic divisions, and can draw other oppressed classes to it, welding them into a force for socialist change.

The International Socialist Alternative has sections in Israel-Palestine, Tunisia and Turkey. We aim to build sections across the Middle East and North Africa to provide vital leadership to the workers and oppressed masses. This is what we stand for:


  • opposition to imperialism, NATO and the UN. There are no solutions under capitalism
  • no UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel or any pro-capitalist regimes in the region
  • the right of self-determination of the Kurds
  • for an independent socialist Palestine, in the context of a two-state solution on a socialist basis solidarity with non-sectarian movements of workers and dispossessed
  • for democratic trade unions, free of government control, and for mass workers’ parties
  • a voluntary socialist federation of the Middle East and North Africa


The legacy of imperialism

Imperialism, initially UK and French imperialism, bears a heavy responsibility for the nightmare in the Middle East.

Up to a hundred years ago, under the Ottoman Empire centred on Turkey, different religious and ethnic communities largely co-existed peacefully, with little conflict between Shia, Sunni, Jews, Greeks, Kurds, Christians, Druze and many others. But the post WW1 settlement carved up the region into newly formed states and spheres of influence, with Britain dominant in Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, France in Syria and Lebanon.

Both imperialist countries ruled by fostering sectarian division and playing one community off against another. Under French influence the state apparatus and armed forces in Syria, a predominantly Sunni country, almost exclusively originated from the Shi-ite Alawite population. Britain, in the famous Balfour declaration, promised a homeland for the Jewish people which, when the state of Israel was established in 1948, led to the forced displacement of millions of Arabs who, decades later, fester in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, a permanent source of resentment and conflict.

Arab nationalism and the Soviet Union

After WW2 the rise of Arab nationalism appeared to offer a way forward for the impoverished masses in a region rich in oil. Monarchies toppled throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Army and air force officers seized power in coup and counter-coup. Left nationalists began to assert themselves against imperialism. Similar processes were underway in non-Arab Iran, with the coming to power of Mossadeq in 1951 who nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, until he was deposed in a British-engineered coup two years later. In Egypt Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 and there Was even an attempt to overcome the barriers of the nation state through a United Arab Republic embracing Egypt and Syria. This attempt failed but the nationalist regimes, in their conflicts with imperialism, were forced to seek assistance from the Soviet Union which had emerged strengthened from the war.

A weakened Britain and France progressively withdrew from the region, with the French finally defeated after a bloody war in Algeria. US imperialism stepped into their place, terrified of the growing influence of the USSR, which was offering aid for development projects, training armed forces and establishing military bases. More importantly, the Soviet Union offered an economic and social model which appeared attractive to the colonels and lieutenants: nationalisation to modernise the economy, a powerful military and security apparatus, and a one-party state. In some countries, notably Syria and Ethiopia, it looked for a period as if capitalism had virtually been snuffed out, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 reversed that trajectory.


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