Arab Spring and Imperialism

[The “Arab (and North Africa) Spring” enters its second year, where in country after country the complex interplay of domestic people’s movements, regional alliances, and imperialists (of both the crisis-driven old variety, and newbies making new global assertions)–are hellbent on asserting very elusive controls.  Such would-be controllers continue to be frustrated, and while this provides openings for revolutionary people to seize the time, their organizational, political, and military tools have been lacking–so far.  Time will tell how this will play out.  Deepankar Basu, writing in Sanhati, takes on the challenge of clarifying the different contradictions and forces at play. — Frontlines ed.]


February 20, 2012

by Deepankar Basu, Sanhati

The unprecedented wave of mass movements that started in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, with smaller scale demonstrations in Lebanon, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia has the potential to completely change (a) the socio-economic dynamics within the Arab world, and (b) the relationship of the Arab world to imperialism. To understand the dynamics and implications of the unfolding movements, it seems useful to abstract from the details of the movements in particular countries and take a broad brush view of matters. Moreover, to construct a broad brush view it seems important to disentangle two aspects of (or basic contradictions driving) the situation, not only in Syria that is the current focus of world attention but the Arab world in general.

The first, and primary, aspect is that all these movements, often taking the form of mass uprisings, are movements for democratization of their respective societies, a movement against decades-old authoritarian and brutal regimes backed by imperialism. In most cases, over the last two decades, these regimes saw a convergence between authoritarianism and neoliberalism. One way of stating this is to say, using an old-fashioned terminology, that the primary contradiction that is driving these movements in the contradiction between authoritarian (often neoliberal) regimes and the broad masses of the people in these countries.

The second, and to my mind secondary, aspect is the reality/possibility of imperialist intervention. Using the old-fashioned terminology once again, one could say that the secondary contradiction that is maturing in these events, that is driving these movements, is the contradiction between imperialism and the broad masses of the people.

Note that both contradictions are basic, in the sense that they are both active in the current situation; the current conjuncture is shaped by an interplay between them. But between the two it is also important to distinguish the primary from the secondary. What is the rationale for characterizing the contradiction between the broad masses and authoritarianism as the primary contradiction? The rationale is the following observation: each of these movements, without any exception, started as movements for democratization and against neoliberal authoritarian regimes; each of these movements retain that thrust. Hence, it seems very likely that what is being expressed through these movements is the maturing of the contradiction of these neoliberal authoritarian regimes and the popular classes. If at any point there is direct military invasion of a country by imperialist powers with the intention of turning the country into a colony, then the second contradiction, i.e., the contradiction between imperialism and the broad masses, would become the primary contradiction.

If this is a correct characterization then two implications follow immediately.

First: a left response should first and foremost stand in support of the movements for democratization, and against the neoliberal authoritarianism that characterizes most of these regimes from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria. Any analysis which does not start here would be flawed and one-sided because it would miss the primary contradiction driving the movement. This view, for instance, was expressed by the Worker’s Communist Party of Tunisia; it has been expressed by a broad coalition of left groups in Egypt; it has been put forth in a nuanced and historically informed analysis of the revolts in Syria by Omah S. Dahi and Yasser Munif.

Second: a left response should be staunchly against any foreign military intervention, especially unilateral interventions by US imperialism. Any analysis that does not emphasize this would be incomplete and incorrect as well because it forgets the secondary (but basic) contradiction. This,
second, aspect calls for two observations.

First: most of these authoritarian regimes were backed by one or the other imperialist power, often with mediation through other states. Hence, the movement for democratization is inherently anti-imperialist in orientation. This is one reason why anti-imperialists should support the movement for
democratization without any hesitation. But, just because the authoritarian regimes were backed by imperialism does not imply that the contradiction between imperialism and the broad masses is the primary contradiction. It is the local ruling class coalition that wield state power and not any coalition of foreign ruling classes. Hence, the contradiction between the popular classes and the local ruling class coalition, represented by the State, that is the primary driver of socio-economic change in these countries.

Second: as these movements for democratization gains steam, the “Great Powers” gradually shift their allegiances away from the regimes that they backed previously, and start looking for new avenues for intervention to ensure their continued presence in the post-uprising dispensation. In this search, the imperialist powers almost always choose to side with the most regressive forces within the opposition, militarize the conflict and marginalize the democratic and progressive forces within the opposition. This makes it imperative that all progressive and democratic forces staunchly oppose imperialist military interventions.

It would, therefore, seem that many on the Left who focus exclusively on the dimension of imperialist intervention make the mistake of missing out the primary contradiction. Equally, those on the left who do not recognize the possibilities of imperialist intervention, and the problems thereof, leave out the secondary contradiction. It must be added though that the mistake of the first group seem to be weightier than the second group’s.

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