This document was written for the Central Committee meeting of the ODA-DA’AM Workers Party in April 2011. The Challenge editorial board has updated it, adding a paragraph on the housing protests that broke out in Israel on July 14, 2011, partly under the influence of the Arab Spring. The piece will be translated into German for the journal Emanzipation in Winter 2011.
The dictatorship of capital
What characterizes the Arab regimes facing a powerful popular intifada is the combination of an extreme capitalist economic regime with a dictatorship, in which the ruling family and those close to it control the economy and amass extensive private wealth at the expense of the people. In each case, the controlling clique built up huge national monopolies in industries such as textiles, cement, steel and energy as well as in modern sectors such as communications, banking, import and vehicles, plus tourism. It also plundered resources which by right belong to the entire nation and denied its citizens economic and technological development and progress.
In order to attract investment from foreign firms and banks, the Arab regimes were compelled to create a more flexible labor market and promise benefits to the investors (such as the beneficiary deal with gas companies from Israel). On the other hand, they had to prove their ability to control and maintain political stability so investments would not be at risk, because foreign investors demand a strong regime which can assure their profits. Furthermore, these were not just regular profits, but unimaginable sums generated through tax breaks and the repression of competition in the local market. Many bribes passed between these companies and the regime’s functionaries to ensure that deals of this kind were signed.
Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya became states in which citizenship was meaningless. Instead of the state defending general interests, the state served the corrupt and sectarian elite. While enormous wealth accumulated in the hands of this elite, the state became increasingly poor because of loss of revenues from economic projects that had passed to private hands, the reduction of taxes, and the loss of tax revenues caused by the growth of the black market and bribes received by tax officials. The direct result was ongoing deterioration of services such as education, health and municipal services as well as potable water shortages. Housing problems in Egypt reached catastrophic dimensions and millions moved to temporary accommodation, slums and improvised shacks.
One of the central barriers to the development of new democratic movements was the rise of political Islam, which presented itself as the only alternative to the corrupt pro-American regimes in the Arab world. On the other hand, the failure of political Islam to become a better alternative to the pro-American regimes after 30 years of activity finally opened a window to a new way of thinking.
The existence of just two voices on the Islamic Arab political spectrum – the pro-Western regimes and radical Islam – meant that the new Arab revolutions had no party leadership. This is true of the January 25 uprising in Egypt, too. As a result, the ground was not prepared for the creation of a clear political alternative to the existing regimes. The buds of the popular movement in Egypt began to blossom in the year 2000, in the organization of demonstrations supporting the second Palestinian Intifada. Youth and students had a major role in bringing people onto the streets and in expressing opposition to Egyptian policy regarding Palestine and the American invasion of Iraq. With the founding of the Kefaya movement and Ayman Nour’s candidacy for president, the movement progressed to a new phase in which it challenged the regime itself. The movement’s principle demand was for political party pluralism, a demand which became a central pillar of the future revolutionary movement.
To understand the birth pangs of the new democratic movement in Egypt and other countries, one must understand the discourse that has dominated the Arab world for the last few decades. The pro-American dictatorships were confronted by political Islam, which was granted a wide platform to disseminate its views with the aid of Al-Jazeera. The culture of “the resistance” (al-muqawama) took over the Arab nations and spread from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Lebanon to the occupied Palestinian territories. Not a single party or faction succeeded in standing against the resistance. The nations groaning under the burden of corrupt regimes identified with the willingness of the Islamic warriors (al-mujahideen) to die in the battle against the pro-Western oppressive regimes. The feeling that there was a need for action and not just words heightened support for them. But the support for the resistance turned a blind eye to two central problems which characterized the Islamic leaderships. The first concerns their program, which was not a democratic program serving the working classes, but a program favoring a religious capitalist society in place of the heretical Western capitalism. In addition, the violent methods of the resistance raised doubts as to whether it was able to make any real achievements or whether the use of arms would give Israel and the US an excuse to use brutal force, as happened in Afghanistan, Gaza and the West Bank.
The policy of the Islamic factions led to civil war in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. Increasingly, people began to understand that Islam was not able to subdue Israeli and American hegemony, and that it was using its militant stance to establish its political dominance, while the price in blood was being paid by those who did not necessarily identify with one side or the other.
Alongside radical Islam, a more established form of the faith was also active—for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which even shared governmental roles with the regime. According to this arrangement, the movement agreed to Mubarak’s control while it was able to influence society on religious, social and cultural planes, an arrangement reminiscent of the alliance between the feudal lords and the Church in Europe.
The rise of the new movements signified disappointment with the Islamic factions, both radical and moderate. The popular movement against the Iranian regime was the first breeze of change marking the failure of the Islamic project. Iranian youth and the Iranian middle classes, especially in Tehran, sparked the revolutionary fervor with the slogan, “The nation wants the regime to fall!” If the Khomeini revolution of 1979 heralded the Islamic awakening, the demonstrations in Tehran following the contested elections of June 2009 proved that the Islamic revolution had brought only unemployment, poverty, corruption and oppression, all in the name of the war against the US and Israel.
A year earlier we witnessed an amazing scene. In the textile factories of the Egyptian city of Mahala el-Kubra, a wave of strikes marked the beginning of the end for the Egyptian regime. This was joined by the Facebook youth movement known as April 6, which leveraged the demands of the workers in Mahala el-Kubra. The joint forces created tremendous political power, able to attract almost the entire nation. The result was a change in the political discourse and demands for democracy and freedom of association in a working-class, secular spirit under the slogan, “Democracy and social justice!”
Pushing aside nationalist and Islamist slogans, the new movement channeled the energies of people towards the direct enemy, the dictatorship. The call for the regime’s downfall became the main mission. The Muslim Brotherhood opposed the workers’ movement and avoided taking part in the youth movement as well, complaining that they adopted “western values,” such as the demand for a democratic society and for the right to unionize.
However, the rejection of both dictatorship and Islam is not enough to create an alternative. The fundamental weaknesses of the revolution are the lack of a political party with a revolutionary agenda, and a lack of vision about the character of the society to be constructed.
The political struggle intensifies
All eyes are on Egypt today because the regime that finally gets established there will have decisive influence over the entire Arab world. If the revolution was notable for its lack of political parties, the period following the regime’s fall must be characterized by party rule. This is because democracy is impossible without competition between political programs that compete for the support of the nation. A lack of alternative parties would enable existing factions to reap the fruits of the revolution.
Because there was no democratic, leftwing party to replace the fallen Mubarak regime, the army filled the vacuum. It won public favor because of its distance from the regime’s apparatus of oppression, and because of its success in crossing the Suez Canal in the October 1973 War. The slogan “The army and nation as one!” neutralized the army, but at the same time it ensured the regime a safe way out. This calmed the US and Israel, since the new regime was in good hands, and because a bloodbath was avoided.
However, here the problem of the revolution can be seen. As it continues to demand the end of all the old symbols, the revolution leans on one of the principal bases of the old regime – the army. Now this army is being required to “clean” state institutions of all vestiges of the old regime, and yet it itself was an important component of the Camp David accords between Sadat and Israel; in return for its support it received US funding and was even granted control over an important part of the Egyptian economy.
Although the army was compelled to agree to a democratic regime and the principle of political pluralism, it has not ceased to perpetuate the existing economic and social order. Its leadership accepts the demand to change the dictatorial methods and corruption of the Mubarak era, but has no intention of changing the society’s foundations.
The only way the army can maintain its privileges and alliance with the US is to find an ally among the existing parties. For this reason it tried, even in the revolution’s early days, to reach an understanding with the two rival political factors: the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Party of Mubarak. These three – the Brotherhood, the National Party and the army – were united in their hostility to the revolutionary youth and the working class. This unholy trinity, which had no hand in the revolution, is now trying to usurp it.
The question of a referendum on changes to the constitution sharpened political positions and marked the line dividing the revolution from the counter-revolution. The army with the Muslim Brotherhood and the other fundamentalist forces came out in favor of the proposed amendments, ostensibly in the name of Islam. The broad coalition which led the revolution, however, was against the amendments. Those opposed asserted that the proposed changes fall far short of what is needed and that the entire constitution which had enabled the dictatorship should be scrapped and a new constitution adopted, one that would express the principles of the revolution even before new elections.
The defeat of those who wanted deeper changes exposed the fact that the power of the revolution’s creators to recruit the masses had been weakened. One reason was the lack of a party with an experienced political core. The political revolution has not spawned an approach for erasing the poverty and backwardness, nor has it addressed political ignorance, which makes fertile ground for forces hostile to democracy and the principles of the revolution.
In the face of the counter-revolutionary forces, the youth and the parties who joined the revolution have no option but to continue to demonstrate in Tahrir Square. Clearly all the achievements accomplished till now are results of the pressure created by the Friday demonstrations of millions. These demonstrations include calls to expel all relics of the former regime, to liberate all detainees, to “purge” the media of the old regime’s symbols, and to try all those who stole from the public purse or committed other crimes against the people. But as long as the alliance between the army, the Muslim Brotherhood and the vestiges of the old regime holds power, there is danger that the revolution will die.
The reasons for the revolution were not just corruption and political oppression, but also the extreme exploitation of the workers and the ban on free unionization. The workers were the ones to initiate the revolution, and they continue to be the engine driving it as they demand higher wages, the dismissal of corrupt managers, an end to the employment of migrant labor instead of local workers, and the removal of those associated with the former regime from key positions in unions. The Egyptian workers are giving real significance to the slogan, “Social justice!” The army and its allies want to get the youth back into the cafes and the workers back to work. Thus it issues orders against demonstrations and strikes, which it calls “sectarian activities,” in an attempt to create the impression that they serve the interests of a small sector, disconnected from the general public interest.
The political debate around the revolution’s future centers on the question of whether it will become the great modern Arab revolution or whether it will become a footnote in the pages of history. The distinction of the Egyptian revolution has been its nonviolent nature, which was created by the youth who led it. It has proved that the Arab peoples want a secular, democratic and pluralistic regime, open to world culture. The revolution’s leaders see themselves as linked to progressive factors in all fields – industry, science, art and culture. They dream of an open society, in which women enjoy equal status and freedom, in which everyone has the opportunity to advance and express their creative abilities. The Egyptian revolution did not present a socialist agenda, but a program for a welfare state which would ensure the just distribution of national wealth without invalidating the role of capital as a central factor in driving the economy and without preventing it from making profits.
The Egyptian revolution is up against a neo-liberal economic system run by an alliance between local capitalists who control key economic sectors and foreign investors, and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. This coalition’s members expect democracy to serve capital, but even they now understand they will have to accept limitations such as political pluralism and opening the regime to competitive elections.
The regime taking shape in Egypt is a regime of coexistence, a hybrid creature somewhere between a conservative society controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood via a kind of social autonomy, and unbridled capital which wants continued privatization of public institutions and the reduction of the welfare state.
The Palestinian question enters a new era
The fate of the Palestinian people was and remains linked to the fate of the Arab world, especially Egypt. The October 1973 war and the Egyptian army’s success in tarnishing the Israeli army’s prestige led to the Palestinian uprising and the transfer of the uprising’s center of gravity to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As a result of the change to the balance of forces in the region, and the strengthening of the USSR’s status following the American fiasco in Vietnam, the PLO’s status rose and it achieved international recognition as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. On the other hand, at the end of the 70s, the Palestinian struggle received a harsh blow when Egypt signed a separate peace accord with Israel at Camp David.
From being a strategic enemy of Israel and the US, Egypt became an ally and a central pillar of their policies in the Middle East. The first result of the Camp David accords was Israel’s attack on the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon in 1982 which ended with the expulsion of the PLO to Tunis and the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.
The first Palestinian intifada, which broke out at the end of 1987, did not achieve its objective – the end of the occupation – not only because of the paralysis of the Arab world but also because of the collapse of the USSR two years later, which marked the start of the unipolar American era and the spread of economic globalization. The first intifada ended with the Oslo Accords in 1993. The PLO declared that the armed struggle had come to an end. In effect it promulgated the notion that, given the balance of forces, Palestinians must be reconciled to Israel and be content with a Palestinian Authority (PA) subordinate to Israel. However, Oslo did not guarantee the creation of a Palestinian state and the dismantling of the settlements.
The signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement to implement the Accords took place in Cairo in May 1994, with the participation and support of President Mubarak. Israel imposed a security closure on the occupied territories which prevented Palestinian workers from entering to earn a living, as they had been doing since 1967. At the same time, a corrupt, dictatorial PA grew. It was unable to meet the people’s most basic needs, never mind supplying a solution to the political crisis. The lives of the Palestinians in PA territories became unbearable up until the second intifada of 2000.
The second intifada broke out as a result of poverty and unemployment, and because of the loathing towards and lack of faith in the corrupt PA. It expressed the rage of the entire Arab world against corrupt regimes, mired in policies subservient to the US and Israel. It also expressed rage against the harsh economic conditions. Political Islam took advantage of the situation to offer an “alternative” – jihad as the road to struggle, suicide as revolutionary culture.
Al-Qaeda’s attack on the US in September 2001 was an attempt to take control of the Arab world by exploiting the anger against US policy in the Middle East and against Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. But this attack, which won Arab public and media support, opened the era of the “clash of civilizations,” giving US President George W. Bush an excuse to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars divided the Arab world and provided Iran with an opportunity to establish its influence in the region, after it watched the fall of its great enemy, Saddam Hussein, from a safe distance.
The plague of division within the Arab world, which brought civil war in Iraq and Lebanon, spread to the Palestinian arena. Hamas took advantage of the anger and the public support for resistance without considering the terrible price the Arab nations would have to pay. On the other hand, in keeping with its opportunistic approach, it entered the “democratic” game which had resulted from the Oslo Accords (which it had opposed). It won the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council. The Palestinian schism grew. In 2007 it erupted in civil war, after Hamas took control of governmental institutions in the Gaza Strip and expelled the PA.
The internal Palestinian schism is fed by the schism in the Arab world – supporters of Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah on one side, supporters of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Mubarak’s Egypt on the other. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions put an end to this schism and overturned the political table.
The events of the last decade prove that the line taken by Hamas, whether via suicide attacks within Israel or rockets fired from Gaza, cannot achieve its aim: the defeat of Israel. Since the last war in Gaza, Hamas has stopped its resistance and committed itself to a ceasefire without making this dependent on the lifting of the siege on Gaza or the liberation of land.
On the other hand, the line taken by the Fatah-led PA, namely futile negotiations and dependency on the US, has merely served as a cover for continued Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. It did not compel Israel to change its recalcitrant position, retreat from the territories or recognize a sovereign Palestinian state. As a result of the schism in the Palestinian arena, two different regimes exist in the territories – one in the West Bank and one in Gaza. One is under Fatah control, the other under Hamas, and between them the Palestinian people remain in poverty and unemployment without freedom of movement or even basic services.
The regime in Gaza is oppressive, not so different from the dictatorships of the Arab world. The regime in the West Bank adopts neo-liberal capitalist policies and relies on contributions from other states which pay the wages of functionaries in the PA – the territories’ largest employer. Thus the Palestinians in the West Bank have become hostage to foreign contributors, whose only aim is to maintain stability in the region and protect agreements with Israel.
As a result of the revolutionary change in the Arab world, both Fatah and Hamas have lost their allies. The removal of Mubarak is a lethal blow to PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), just as the shaking up of the Syrian regime is a blow to Hamas. Hamas did not hide its view of the Arab revolution when it declared its support for the Syrian regime, which massacres its own citizens as they seek freedom.
The Egyptian, Tunisian and Syrian people want to enter history as people who built up a democratic modern regime. They are not struggling just for a different dictator. This is a balanced policy which rules out deterioration into war but also avoids pointless negotiation. With this background, we can understand the initiative taken by Palestinian youth, who called for ending the division in the Palestinian arena. Their stance challenges both Hamas and Fatah alike. It places responsibility for the situation of the Palestinians on the shoulders of both factions. Palestinian youth, unlike their comrades around the Arab world, are not calling for the downfall of the regime, because they take the Israeli occupation into account as the factor against which resources should be aimed. However, the call to end the schism does not merely blame the occupation, but points an accusatory finger at those who led the nation into an internal struggle.
The call for bringing down the regime is a clear slogan which can be realized by mass revolutionary action. In contrast, the call to end the schism lacks a mechanism for realization. The only way to end it is to unite all the factions under one political roof, like during the first intifada. But this cannot happen as long as Fatah refuses to give up its policy of negotiation and security cooperation with Israel and the US, while Hamas, for its part, refuses to give up the resistance (al-muqawama) and its refusal to negotiate with Israel.
Unity would demand fundamental change in the two movements; in fact, it would require them to change their very identities, and so it is unlikely to happen. Thus the recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah leaves many questions open and does not change the basic situation. The main conclusion that may be drawn from the Egyptian revolution is the need to create a third political option, not dependent on the US but also opposed to the Islamic resistance. The revolution was not created by that resistance, but rather by the Facebook youth. These are like the Palestinian youth (shabab) who call for unity, who are stuck between the oppression of Hamas and that of the PA.
Instead of wasting their energy on futile attempts to mix oil and water, it would be better if the Palestinian shabab present a program of opposition to the occupation based on lessons drawn from the failure of both suicidal resistance and negotiations. Such a program would need to express profound reforms linking the internal struggle with the external struggle, and prioritizing the interests of the Palestinian working class. Under the slogan “social justice”, it must encourage the formation of free and independent unions and meet the basic needs of the nation. Basic internal change was and continues to be the only way to resist the occupation.
The Oslo Accords failed because instead of removing the settlements they enabled their expansion and installed the PA, whose main function was to relieve Israel of direct responsibility for administering the territories. The Fatah regime in the West Bank and the Hamas regime in Gaza manage the daily lives of the residents, but real sovereignty remains in Israeli hands. The dismantling of the PA would open the way for direct opposition to the occupation via mass action in which all revolutionary forces would be reunited.
The Israeli occupation and democratic change
The revolution in Tunisia took Israel and its security services by surprise, but the Egyptian revolution was no less than a landslide which left the Israeli establishment dumbfounded and helpless. Israel had relied on cooperation with Mubarak regarding its policies towards the Palestinians and the continued construction of settlements. The confrontation with Iran and the struggle against its influence in the region were more important to the Egyptian and Saudi regimes than the Palestinian issue, while Israel played a key role in deterring and restraining Iranian aspirations. Counting on this, Israel’s rightwing government managed to torpedo all US initiatives to solve the Palestinian issue on the basis of two states for two peoples.
At the start of the Egyptian revolution, the Israeli establishment hung its hopes on Mubarak’s ability to suppress the uprisings. When US President Obama announced that Mubarak had to step down, Israel’s anger was directed at him while Netanyahu’s government continued to stick by Mubarak, even after it became clear that millions of people were demanding his resignation. When Mubarak finally went, Israel turned to Egypt’s Higher Military Council to ascertain its attitude to Israel, and received assurance that the situation was stable and that Israel’s security was in no danger.
Netanyahu’s relationship with the White House has gone through a number of crises because of the Israeli position, which opposes all serious negotiation with the Palestinians on final borders and the end of the conflict. The US sees progress on the Palestinian issue as critical to American interests at a time when its forces are stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US understands that its blind support for Israel gives political Islam an opportunity to direct the anger of the masses toward America, shaking the regimes of its allies in the region. Netanyahu succeeded in thwarting all attempts to end the bloody conflict with the Palestinians only because the divided Arab world was willing to keep quiet about what was going on in the territories, and Obama was in a weak position before the Republican Party which took over Congress in the last midterm elections.
But after the recent revolutionary events, Netanyahu’s time for puttering is up. Moreover, now it has become clear that his intransigence had an important role in undermining the credibility of regimes friendly to Israel such as those in Egypt and Tunisia. The revolutionary change in the Arab world is causing the formation of a public consensus which can no longer be ignored in any step taken from now on.
The only thing that interests the rightwing Israeli government is to remain in office. From the first, it has concerned itself with electoral considerations alone: its role was to stop Kadima from taking over. On this basis, a coalition was formed between the Likud and other rightwing parties which are adamantly opposed to the principle of two states for two peoples and the end of the occupation.
The Egyptian revolution moved time forward, and put Netanyahu’s government in direct confrontation with a new Arab and global reality. The fall of Mubarak’s regime has led to the collapse of Israeli policy, which relied on division in the Arab world between the “axis of evil” and the “moderates.” Today, a new axis is forming, an axis of democracy and social justice, which includes Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Yemen. This new axis will undermine every Israeli excuse for an aggressive policy towards the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular.
In the past, the White House demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction for a limited period to enable it to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, after the Egyptian revolution has placed a new equation before Obama and the international community, the US will have to choose between two options: support for the occupation or unequivocal support for the democratic changes sweeping the Arab world. The occupation and democracy cannot go together.
On the other hand, Israel too cannot continue to rely on the groundless claim that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. The occupation, which has gone on for more than 40 years, together with various racist laws recently passed, expose Israel as a state which discriminates against its citizens on the basis of ethnicity, religion and nationality. Soon Israel will no longer be able to excuse its policies by claiming it is surrounded by enemies who want to destroy it.
Clearly the isolation in which Israel finds itself following the Arab revolutions will only grow. Obviously this also depends on the stand adopted by the revolutionary forces building the new future. In the Palestinian arena, new forces may arise which will internalize the profound changes taking place and take advantage of them in the struggle against the occupation. Thus a golden opportunity will be created to isolate Israel in the international arena and completely delegitimize the occupation policy. The just Palestinian struggle against the occupation will win support in Arab and international public opinion, because it is based on the same principles that were at the basis of the Egyptian revolution.
The Israeli public, which has lost all faith in its political leadership, faces a huge challenge. It can take advantage of the opportunity to start a dialogue with the revolutions in the Arab world, finding a common future without war, occupation and racism. Israel’s vast arsenal cannot change the basic situation. If Israel wants to maintain its existence and its place among the nations, it has no option but to end the occupation and change its policies towards its Arab citizens.
On July 14 what may be called a social intifada broke out in Israel. (For more on this, see our piece, The Tent Intifada, which has also been translated into German.) Thousands of Israeli citizens, mostly youth, erected a “tent city” to protest high housing costs, but the protest rapidly widened to encompass the high costs of living in general, including health and education. All these issues were summed up in the protest slogan, “The people demands social justice!”, adapting slogans used by the Egyptian and Syrian protesters. Till now, the protest in Israel has limited itself to the demand that Netanyahu return to the principles of the welfare state, but it could well take up political demands regarding the occupation and the Arab population in Israel.
Indeed, the millions of Arab youth who took to the streets have reshuffled the deck, and a real peace between peoples is now for the first time conceivable. But social justice in Israel will not be enough: the youth in the region will measure Israelis by their attitude to the Palestinian people. Those Arabs who demand democracy in their own countries expect the people of Israel to do right at last by the Palestinians. This will be a condition for peace and mutual relations. Here then is the big challenge for the tent-dwellers. Netanyahu is doing all he can to perpetuate the nationalist conflict. It’s the drug that keeps his Likud alive. The time has come to be rid of him, so that Israel can join the democratic process that is gripping the region as a whole.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger. The piece will be translated into German for the journal Emanzipation in Winter 2011.