The revolutions and attempted revolutions that have swept the Arab world have demonstrated the power of ordinary people, but also the adaptability of imperialism, writes Ultán Gillen.
The western media have a clear, simple narrative of the events that have swept the Arab world. Oppressed people suddenly demanded access to westernstyle democracy, and have succeeded in sweeping away several corrupt dictators.
This movement has been led by young people using new forms of social media like twitter and facebook to outwit regimes stuck in the past. Only in Libya, where Gadaffi clings to power militarily, has a brutal dictator succeeded in holding back the tide of history.
This is a powerful story. It also hides more about what is happening in the Arab world than it reveals. For two centuries, the most basic revolutionary demand of all has been for bread. Bread was at its highest price in living memory the day the Bastille fell, and Lenin built a revolution around the slogan, “Peace, Bread, Land”. Protests in the Arab world began with the demand for cheap food. As Fidel Castro has warned for some time, the consequences of global warming and the use of massive amounts of crops for biofuels in the US and Europe have included substantially higher food prices for the poorer regions of the globe. We have seen the political consequences in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. In other words, poverty, inequality and class struggle have been at the centre of the protests, with trade unions and left-wing parties and activists playing prominent roles. Barely a peep about all this in the western media.
The role of imperialism has also been obscured in the dominant narrative. The Egyptian dictator Mubarak and his like depended upon the support of imperialism, and served to keep the region, and its oil, safe for capitalism. Hence Washington’s initially lukewarm response to the protests. Only when the people were on the verge of sweeping away the regimes by their own efforts did the US, UK and others remember their support for democracy. While bombing Gadaffi, the imperialist powers ignored government troops backed by Saudi forces massacring anti-government protestors in Bahrain. The difference of course being that Bahrain’s despotic monarchy and the Saudi tyrant have been long-term allies of the US.
The Egyptian army has also made clear it intends to maintain its grip on power in its attacks on and torture of protestors since Mubarak fell. Again, NATO remains silent. Imperialism is seeking simply to replace its front-men while giving the illusion of change.
In 1848, a wave of revolutions swept Europe. Within a year, the reactionary monarchs used their armies to effect counter-revolutions almost everywhere. There is a real danger that the Arab revolutions face a similar fate.
Article published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.6