North Africa’s uneven road to revolution: Role of the working class is key to outcome in Egypt and Libya

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On Dec. 17, 2010, 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself ablaze after being fined for illegally selling vegetables. The flames spread like wildfire across North Africa and the Middle East, as his protest resonated with millions of similarly abused people.

Decades of tyrannical rule and extreme economic deprivation had broadly scattered political tinder. Tunisia’s spark kindled all-out rebellion.

North Africa and the Middle East have not been the same since. Dictators have been toppled or are teetering. Much more than a defiance of the local tyrants, however, the uprisings are a serious threat to the imperialist world order. A few super-rich capitalist countries have extracted enormous profits from this region. At stake now are their oil wealth, military bases, and critical channels for commerce.

Arab workers, unemployed, and youth have a very different idea of who should run their lives. Their demands for political democracy and economic freedom have put them on a collision course with capitalism’s superpowers. This is the fundamental battle now taking place. Egypt and Libya represent contrasting examples of the antagonism.

Egypt’s advances. Egypt has leaped the farthest in this historic revolutionary process. Yearning for democracy, the millions of outraged Egyptians included broad layers of the population — workers, jobless, youth and students, women, middle class professionals, and small business owners.

They demanded and won the ouster of their dictator and the release of political prisoners, and forced the government to demolish the murderous blockade against Palestinians in Gaza. They made it clear they do not want Islamic religious fundamentalists to replace Mubarak’s rule. The powerful role of Egyptian women in the organizing reinforces this secular thrust.

At least 800 Egyptian protesters died in the early days of the insurrection, and the dying still goes on at the hands of the Egyptian military currently running the country. Provocateurs have unleashed violence between Muslims and Christians. The level of democracy rebels have so far won is not enough. But it provides opportunity to educate and build further.

The size and combativeness of Egypt’s working class was decisive during the rebellion. Under Mubarak, the government controlled labor unions. But the last few years of strikes and the current upsurge ignited several independent unions that have joined together in a larger federation.

The founding of the Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions (EFIU) on Jan. 30 was critical. It demanded the right to work, unemployment compensation, and a minimum wage. It asserted the right to form independent unions and called for universal healthcare and education, and now demands re-nationalization of privatized companies. Marxists and other leftists have been involved in the labor offensive from the beginning.

Egypt’s unfolding revolution is producing more and more radical leaders. They will build revolutionary parties, the crucial ingredient for victory.

Libya’s crisis. Hardly insulated from the revolutionary process, protest erupted in Libya on Feb. 15, calling for Gadhafi to step down. But the pace of the revolution is slower there, and the power of counter-revolutionary forces more pronounced.

Libya’s working class is much smaller than Egypt’s, far less unionized, and consists largely of immigrant workers from widely diverse cultures and countries. Nearly two million Black refugees from sub-Saharan Africa live in Libya, many in horrific prisons and detention camps. Racist violence against these workers and refugees is policy for Gadhafi’s regime, which was paid $5 billion by Italy to “keep them out” of Europe. Libya’s role as border guard remains vital to European imperialists.

The pro-capitalist leadership that emerged in Benghazi further hamstrings Libya’s rebellion. It includes ex-members of Gadhafi’s regime, CIA assets, pro-western academics, fundamentalist jihadists, and tribal powers. The self-appointed Transitional National Council (TNC) contains few, if any of the original youth and community activists who have fought and died in their tennis shoes and jeans.

The U.S. saw this uneven and disorganized insurrection as an opportunity to intervene. U.S. Senator John McCain traveled to Benghazi to meet with the TNC. He took pains to assure everybody that TNC wasn’t al-Qaida, and the U.S. ambassador to Libya secured an agreement that exempted TNC from sanctions and allowed it to sell oil.

Unlike Egypt, Gadhafi’s military struck back almost immediately and the rebels were no match. This provided the pretext for the imperialists to offer “humanitarian” military aid. Libya’s populace is now being bombarded by warplanes from several empires.

Imperialist counter-revolution. In Egypt, where mass protests overwhelmed the Egyptian authorities in late January and February, the U.S. and other super-powers called for a “peaceful transition.” To what? To business as usual, but with a new face. In this case, to the Egyptian military, which owns a “vast web of businesses” (The New York Times, Feb. 17), estimated at a full third of the economy. It therefore has a vested interest in maintaining capitalism, supporting Washington, and opposing the workers’ revolution. When Gadhafi called out his military, the U.S. and NATO decided that war, not peace, was their best option to install a new, but accommodating regime.

Clearly, imperialism can live with various forms of rule. When forced to, it is willing to accept the downfall of a favored dictator, but it must do what it can to ensure the bourgeois democracy that replaces the dictatorship has loyal capitalist parties, and that they will emerge victorious in elections. It never calls for democratic transition if the dictator has things well under control, such as in Saudi Arabia.

Where Mubarak was a loyal dictator, Gadhafi is “untrustworthy.” His anti-imperialist rhetoric earned him economic sanctions from the West. Still, the U.S. and Europe reached a number of agreements with him over the past several years, including his participation in the “War on Terror” — in return for eased sanctions and expanded trade. European Union countries now buy 80 percent of Libya’s oil, and Libya is a huge investor in cash-strapped Europe.

The United States and the European Union are not just after Libya’s vast oil reserves. They want to stop the North African revolution. The power that would come from a combined Libyan-Egyptian revolutionary front continues to send chills down imperialism’s spine.

Stepped-up protest in the U.S. against repression and attacks on workers here can only heighten those chills and reinforce rebellion everywhere.

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Also see: United States stays mute on Saudi and Bahraini repression

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