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International Socialism, Winter 2001


Anne Alexander

The crisis in the Middle East


From International Socialism 2:93, Winter 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


As US and British fighter jets screamed across Afghan skies during the Afghan war, many people in the Middle East will have seen a mirror image of their own experiences of the past decade. In the villages of the West Bank they know what it is like to wake up night after night to the sound of helicopter gunships pounding the neighbourhood with rockets. In the dusty, impoverished towns of Iraq, they know too well the terror of cruise missile strikes, and the reality of saturation bombing. Both Iraqis and Palestinians have experienced the slower but equally lethal effects of economic blockade. The Western powers recognise that high technology warfare is at its most deadly when combined with the ancient brutality of siege and starvation.

In the 11 years since the end of the Gulf War the US has suffered no serious challenge to its domination of the Middle East. Neither local states nor regional rivals have yet threatened the ‘New World Order’ constructed by George Bush Sr. and now defended by his son. Russian president Vladimir Putin gave his support for the launch of air attacks on Afghanistan, even though, according to Israeli television reports, George Bush called Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon an hour before he rang the Kremlin. [1] After Israeli forces stormed the Haram al-Sharif and slaughtered protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque [2] in Jerusalem last year, triggering a new intifada, the Arab regimes could only offer reluctant verbal support for the Palestinians.

Yet the war on Afghanistan has only sharpened the underlying contradictions on which US policy in the Middle East is based. The leaders of the Arab world are walking a tightrope between the demands of their patrons in Washington and pressure from their own peoples. This conflict is not simply a result of popular anger at the humiliation of Palestine and Iraq, it is also a result of the contradictions produced by the programmes of economic liberalisation which the US has demanded as part of the price for its patronage.

It is no accident that the key figures in Osama Bin Laden’s organisation, al-Qaida, are from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the most important Arab supporters of the US. [3] In Egypt – the first country in the Middle East to begin a programme of economic liberalisation – ‘structural adjustment’ has been a painful process for ordinary people. Living standards have been falling for more than a generation. Hosni Mubarak’s regime relies on a brutal security apparatus to stifle dissent. The Saudi economy has also been in crisis for more than a decade. Since the early 1980s per capita income has collapsed from $16,000 per year to less than $7,000. [4] Economic crisis and the demands of the US sap the political legitimacy of both regimes. It is a measure of the bankruptcy of the leaders of the Arab world that both the secular nationalist regimes which came out of the great liberation movements of the 1940s and the conservative religious states of the Gulf are equally dependent on American favour.

However, it is also a measure of the weakness of even the Islamist opposition that neither Osama Bin Laden nor the Egyptian Islamist Ahmad al-Zawahiri, described by the media as Bin Laden’s ‘right hand man’, [5] have so far had much success in destabilising their own governments. Ironically, US intervention in Afghanistan has the potential to achieve this more quickly than years of underground work in Egypt or Saudi Arabia ever did. In addition, groups such as al-Qaida will not automatically benefit from the crisis. The current hysteria in the West over ‘Islamic terrorism’ obscures the fact that recent history in the region is full of the failures of Islamist groups to relate to the mass movements they have unleashed. Islamist organisations which have successfully seized state power represent a tiny fraction of the movement as a whole.

This article attempts to map out the contradictions of US policy in the Middle East, and the shaky foundations on which the war in Afghanistan depends. It also examines the economic forces shaping the crisis of imperialism in the region, and discusses the potential for resistance from the nationalist movements, the Islamists and the working class.

The price of imperial power

The crisis in the Middle East is the product of pressure on the region at two levels – firstly through the direct intervention of the great powers, in particular the US, and by the actions of its local clients. The second driving force behind the crisis is the economic pressure created by the imposition of free market policies at the urging of the World Bank and the IMF. The close relationship between economic and military intervention in the Middle East shows that Lenin’s theory of imperialism is as relevant as ever. In 1915 he described how war was built into the logic of the capitalist system, as economic rivalry spilled over into military competition. [6] The intense competition between the rival great powers over the resources of the Middle East, particularly the region’s oil and gas, has guaranteed a century of conflict. At times the great powers have been content to control the area from a distance, through their local client states. For instance, Israel has consciously played a role as the guarantor of European and American interests in the Middle East for more than 50 years. [7]

However, over the past decade the US has increasingly been pulled into direct military action, either with its own forces, or under the cover of the United Nations. At the same time, the impact of what millions now recognise as ‘globalisation’ is just as sharply felt in the Middle East as it is in Asia, Europe or the Americas. The interaction between globalisation and imperialism is creating a crisis in the region which US bombing can only intensify. Imperialism is not a static system. In fact, the opposite is true. Over the last decade we have witnessed an escalating cycle of war and instability across the globe. Each time the US government has taken military action to defend its interests, it has left behind wrecked economies, shattered countries and generations of bitter survivors. Proving the superiority of American weaponry on the broken bodies of Afghan civilians will not produce any kind of durable basis for US control of the Middle East.

It is the US’s relationship with the Arab regimes which has come under the most pressure over the past few years. Through a mixture of selective bribery and thinly disguised threats the US has maintained the support of the Arab governments of the Middle East. Despite loud calls for action over the intifada, the Arab rulers have in most cases gone no further than rhetorical support. Palestinian planning minister Nabil Sha’ath complained in March that only $3 million out of a $1 billion fund promised to the Palestinian Authority at the Arab Summit the previous year had been paid out. [8] Most of the Arab regimes have been willing for US planes to use their airstrips and US warships to pass through their ports. In return, these governments have armed themselves from US stock, and gained access to international credit with the ‘bankers of last resort’ at the IMF. Yet all this has come at a heavy price. The presence of US troops in the Arabian peninsula is a source of shame for many Saudis. A large number of Americans have died in a bombing campaign carried out by opposition groups opposed to US use of Saudi bases. [9] Nearly 20 US sailors died in a suicide attack on the USS Cole at harbour in the Yemeni port of Aden. [10] Even Oman, which has little history of large-scale protest, witnessed angry demonstrations against the US and British bombing of Afghanistan at the same time as thousands of British troops were taking part in military exercises there. [11]

There is a relentless dynamic to all this process. Imperialist direct intervention undermines the US’s local allies and increases the instability in the region. Instead of pulling the strings from a distance, the US is forced increasingly to commit troops and vast amounts of military hardware to maintaining its power. Yet that very military action, although usually successful in dealing with the immediate threat to US interests, in the long term puts more pressure on the US’s local clients. Thus the need to subdue Iraq has led to the permanent presence of US warplanes on Saudi soil, and thus a permanent source of resentment for a significant layer of Saudi society.

Likewise, the US’s reliance on Israel has its price. Every incursion into the West Bank, every 12 year old stone thrower shot dead, every house demolition, adds to the resentment ordinary people across the Middle East feel against the US, Israel and their own rulers. The pressures building up inside Israeli society which led to the election of Ariel Sharon have been one of the driving forces behind the brutality of Israel’s response to the intifada. Sharon gives expression to the voice of that section within Israeli society which favours a military solution to the Palestinian ‘problem’. The far right minister of tourism, Rehavam Ze’evi, who was shot dead by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in October, was one of the most vocal advocates of the policy of ‘transfer’ – a euphemism for the mass expulsion of the Palestinians from Israel and the Occupied Territories. [12] As the contradictions within Israeli society have grown, the right wing has been able to exercise more and more control over the direction of Israeli policy. The Oslo peace process was essentially the work of the Israeli Labour Party. The collapse of the peace deals means that achieving the settlement the US so badly needs will be extremely difficult. This is not least because, as the ongoing intifada demonstrates, Palestinians are no longer prepared to make concessions for empty promises.

The devastation caused by the US-led war on Iraq must rank as one of the great crimes of the 20th century. The figures are a testimony to horror on an unimaginable scale. according to the United Nations 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of the sanctions regime. [13] Another 500,000 children have developed cancer, which many scientists believe is a legacy of the depleted uranium weapons used during the war. [14] Confronted by these figures on the prime-time US news programme 60 Minutes, Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the United Nations, hardly hesitated before replying, ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.’ [15]

In political and military terms, the first few years after the US victory seemed to have proved her right. The destruction of Iraq served as a suitable reminder to friends and enemies alike of the power of the US military. The Gulf War was crucial in pushing a number of states towards an accommodation with the US, particularly those such as Syria, which found themselves without superpower patrons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. US success in the Gulf War also brought significant military advantages:

US troops, planes and weapons stand ready at bases in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere in the region, and the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet prowls the Gulf on virtually permanent assignment. Stationing US military forces in the Gulf was one of Washington’s biggest prizes from the war. Even the truck-bomb attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, which killed dozens of US service personnel, did not lead to troop withdrawals. They are in the Gulf for the long haul. [16]

Despite this the US has also paid a price for its victory. Since 1991 the international coalition which supported US military action has slowly began to unravel. The sheer vindictiveness of the sanctions regime has eroded public support for the siege against Iraq. Madeleine Albright could not speak in public without being met by anti-sanctions protesters. France, Russia and China abstained on the motion to the UN Security Council renewing the sanctions regime in 1999. [17] UN officials Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck and Jutta Burghardt all resigned from high-level posts in protest at what Halliday described as the ‘genocidal impact’ of sanctions. [18] By 1999 the Wall Street Journal commented that it was now ‘unclear which side was more isolated: the dictator who has successfully defied sanctions, or the Anglo-US alliance that insists they remain in place’. [19]

In addition the presence of US troops on Saudi soil provides a rallying call for the radical Saudi opposition. A series of devastating bomb attacks, including the huge truck bomb at the Khobar Towers base near Dhahran, have targeted US military and civilian personnel. [20] The latest attack on al-Khobar city on 6 October killed two US soldiers. [21] Foreign troops are not simply an affront to national pride for Saudi patriots. More seriously, for a regime which legitimates itself on religious grounds, the Saudi opposition can draw on a long tradition of Islamic thought to argue that the US bases are tantamount to blasphemy. Important figures from the religious opposition gave a fatwa, or religious judgement, excommunicating the Saudi royal family from Islam for supporting the US onslaught on Afghanistan. [22] The demand for US withdrawal from Saudi Arabia is a key element of Osama Bin Laden’s campaign against the Saudi royal family. In 1996 he issued this call for action:

The presence of the US crusader forces in Muslim Gulf states ... is the greatest danger and poses the most serious harm, threatening the world’s largest oil reserves. The ordinary Saudi knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Our country has become a colony of America. The Saudis know their real enemy is America. [23]

Dilip Hiro argued recently in Middle East International that some defence analysts see the potential internal threat to the Saudi regime as the primary reason for basing thousands of troops there. In the case of an armed uprising against the Saudi royal family, ‘the presence of US military officials at key Saudi defence facilities, often in civilian clothes ... is regarded as indispensable in order to ensure swift co-ordination and secure communications in such an emergency’. [24]

The end of the oil sheikhs?

The corrosion of the royal family’s religious legitimacy is not the only factor driving the crisis in Saudi Arabia. Until recently the Saudi ruling class was able to buy the obedience of the majority of the native population. Saudi Arabia is home to 25 percent of the world’s known reserves of crude oil. [25] Oil created fabulous wealth for the Saudi royal family and turned a small, poor country into a regional power. It also created a permanent connection between the interests of the Saudi rulers and their political patrons in the US. A joint venture between the US oil companies and the US government during the Second World War laid the ground for the explosion in Saudi oil production. [26] In 1938 Saudi oilfields were producing only 0.1 million tonnes of crude per year, but by 1955 that had risen to 47.5 million tonnes. [27] Oil revenues powered the entire Saudi economy, fuelling a huge construction boom as the petrodollars took shape as airports, highways, offices and palaces for the Saudi elite. The royal family allowed no space for democratic debate, but Saudi citizens enjoyed a high standard of living in return for their silence. Healthcare, education and generous state subsidies in the form of well paid jobs in the government bureaucracy cemented ordinary Saudis to the ruling class. [28]

Naturally this privilege has always been exercised at the expense of millions of non-citizens who have formed a permanent layer of misery in Saudi society. Menial jobs as labourers, cleaners and nannies have traditionally been reserved for workers from India, South East Asia and other Arab states. These workers have long been considered expendable by the Saudi ruling class – trade unions are illegal, strikes are banned and activists can easily be deported. [29] However, over the last few years this distinction has begun to break down as more and more Saudi citizens have been forced into unskilled, low paid work by the growing economic crisis. The first factor in this process has been the volatility of the oil sector itself. Over the last 20 years oil prices have on average been low compared to the 1970s. Partly this is a result of the last world economic crisis, which has prevented oil consumption from reaching the level of the late 1970s. [30] Combined with other factors such as the oil cartel OPEC’s decision to recapture market share by increasing production, this led to overproduction on a grand scale. According to the International Energy Agency, despite relatively high prices world supply of oil is currently exceeding demand by around 1 million barrels per day. [31] As the US economy slides further into crisis, this excess is likely to increase. Any country which depends on a single commodity, even one so precious as oil, is particularly vulnerable in a global recession. Nearly 90 percent of the Saudi government’s revenues for 2000 came from the oil sector. [32]

The underlying problems in the Saudi economy are compounded by the schizophrenia in Saudi society. Prestige projects from a generation ago still look impressive on publicity photographs for investment brochures, but they hide the reality of a basic social infrastructure which often barely functions. Most Saudi cities suffer regular power cuts and water rationing. Jedda, a port with 3 million inhabitants, has 300 palaces but no sewage system. A population explosion over the last 30 years means that around 100,000 young Saudis are entering the labour market each year. Currently there are only jobs available for around half that number. [33] Officially, unemployment is running at around 18 percent, but the real figure is probably much higher among young graduates. At the same time average income has collapsed. Across the Middle East millions of people live with the gnawing fear that they will never reach the modest standard of living that their parents enjoyed. For young Saudis, the sudden closing down of their horizons has been acutely painful. Jane’s Sentinel defence risk assessments gave this stark analysis of the potential for instability within Saudi society in May 2001:

While the population growth rate exceeds the economic growth rate, the mounting unemployment and resultant disaffected youth increases the potential for instability. Moreover, the exponential growth of the royal family – that numbers in the tens of thousands – is also draining the economy and may compel the inner royal family to curb royal allowances. This could create another disaffected section in Saudi society. [34]

For the Saudi ruling class, the answer to the problem of unemployment is straightforward: ‘We don’t, in the government of Saudi Arabia, admit there is unemployment, basically because there are the jobs ... There are 6 or 7 million expatriates working in the kingdom. Many of those jobs can be done by Saudis.’ [35] Creating a native Saudi working class may ease the pressure on government stipends, but it clearly involves other dangers for the ruling class. In a society which is rigidly ruled from above, there are almost no legal outlets for the frustration of the younger generation. It is at this level where economic resentment grates on the kingdom’s relationship with the imperialist powers. For the time being this is confined to marginal opposition groups which offer a religious critique of the existing regime. As the Saudi working class continues to grow, this has the potential to develop into a force which can give a real social base to the Saudi opposition.

The revenge of the market

The other side of US control of the Middle East is through the financial institutions. Across the region economic problems have heightened social tensions and left the rulers of the region walking a tightrope between the demands of the international financial institutions and the growing frustration from below. So far they have succeeded in maintaining their balance, but, as in Saudi Arabia, the political instability created by imperialist intervention always threatens to push one or more of the Arab regimes over the brink. In every country the pace of privatisation and economic reform is accelerating. In Egypt, although the actual process has been slow, the cumulative effect of years of free market reforms has eaten away at support for the regime.

By contrast, in a number of other countries, such as Lebanon, Iran and Syria, the effects of economic liberalisation have so far been contradictory. In all these countries a section of the ruling class has been able to link the idea of free market reform with the hope of political liberalisation. In Iran and Syria this is a reflection of debates within the ruling class itself about how to reform without losing control of the process. The Iranian economy has benefited from the high oil prices of the past few years, thus allowing the ‘reformists’ grouped around President Mohammed Khatami a chance to continue the process of liberalisation. [36] In Syria power passed smoothly from Hafez al-Asad to his son Bashar, who briefly allowed political meetings and discussion groups to start meeting for the first time in years. However, both the limited Iranian political liberalisation and the brief ‘Syrian spring’ are based on shaky foundations. As the world economy tips further into recession, oil prices are likely to fall, raising the pressure on the Iranian economy. Prices in Iran are still rising sharply – the consumer goods price index for July-August 2001 was up 11.8 percent. In recent years there have been huge numbers of demonstrations in protest at rising unemployment, lack of basic services and public transport. [37] Bashar al-Asad’s toleration of dissent lasted only a few months after the death of his father – the discussion groups have been shut down and opposition leaders sent back to prison. Riyad al-Turk, the leader of the Syrian Communist Party, was returned to jail at the end of August 2001 for writing an article criticising Hafez al-Asad for turning Syria into ‘a hereditary republic’. [38]

In Lebanon privatisation is presented as the way to rid the country of religious sectarianism. Elsewhere old fashioned ideas of state control are blamed for overstaffed and inefficient public sector companies. The Lebanese ruling class, by contrast, has consciously raised the spectre of a return to the horrors of civil war in the debate on privatisation. Under the leadership of Rafiq Hariri, ‘Lebanon’s Berlusconi’, the government has begun a sweeping programme of privatisation. [39] Plans to privatise the electricity supply, fixed-line telephone services and other state firms were drawn up in March 2001. [40] When the government picked out Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, for 1,200 job losses workers’ anger erupted:

On June 21, employees of the Lebanese national carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA) attacked company headquarters and staged demonstrations, after being informed by MEA management of the imminent layoff of 1,200 workers in preparation for the airline’s scheduled privatisation. Top administrators, including the company’s director-general, Mohammed Hout, were kept locked in their offices by angry employees. [41]

Although the strike, which was led by the Shi’ite guerrilla organisation Hizbollah, was eventually defeated, it is clear that, so long as they are expected to bear the costs of liberalisation, workers in Lebanon will rapidly come to hate privatisation as much as their Egyptian counterparts.

Workers in countries which have started to privatise relatively late have only to look to Egypt to see a likely vision of their future. Egypt was the first of the Arab regimes to open up to Western economic patronage. Anwar al-Sadat’s policy of ‘infitah’, or economic liberalisation, in the 1970s gave a range of incentives to direct foreign investment. Sadat also went to the IMF for a loan, only to be told that the price would be the abolition of subsidies on basic foodstuffs. Egyptians woke up one morning in January 1977 to find that the price of flour, sugar, kerosene and bread had risen by 22 percent. [42] A spontaneous urban uprising on a scale not seen in Egypt since the revolution of 1919 forced a panicky Sadat to reinstate the subsidies. Since that date Egyptian governments have been forced to make their cuts more subtly in the fear that other drastic measures could spark another revolt.

In reality, despite a temporary respite for the last few years of Sadat’s rule, the economic pressure on ordinary Egyptians has not slackened for the last 20 years. The social value of wages has fallen continuously, often as a result of the loss of so called ‘fringe benefits’ which both private and state companies are eliminating in the name of market efficiency. These production bonuses, protected pensions and overtime payments are often all that keeps families out of absolute poverty. [43] The introduction of free market rents into the already desperately overcrowded housing sector has added to the financial pressure. [44] In addition the public health and education systems are approaching collapse after years of degradation. Thus the only way to pass crucial high school and university exams is by paying for the expensive private tutorials which teachers offer to eke out their meagre salaries.

The countryside has felt the impact of market reforms even more harshly. While poor urban families in 1997 spent a staggering 57.9 percent of their income on food, that rose to 63.4 percent for their counterparts in Egypt’s villages. Even more revealing is the percentage of food expenditure which was used to purchase just bread, cooking oil and sugar. among the urban poor these three basic goods accounted for 35.4 percent of food expenditure while in rural areas that rose to 40.3 percent. [45] Land reforms which abolished the limit on landholding size and removed the ceiling on agricultural rents have had a catastrophic effect on tenant farmers. According to the Land Centre for Human Rights, around 700,000 tenant farmers have lost out since the reforms came into effect in 1997. In one year alone the average rent increased five fold from £E120 per feddan to £E660. [46] Even the Financial Times was blunt about the impact of the land reforms. ‘The reversion to pre-Nasserite agrarian capitalism has been abrupt.’ [47]

Throughout the 1990s the IMF and the Egyptian government pointed to the ‘transformation’ of the Egyptian economy by the structural adjustment programmes. Financial reforms following the severe economic crisis and the collapse of the Egyptian pound in the currency markets in 1990 supposedly paved the way for a new era of growth. In fact, as Tim Mitchell explains in Middle East Report, the financial reforms ‘were not so much an elimination of state support (as the neo-liberal version would have it), but rather, a change in recipients’. [48] The state intervened in the financial markets to bail out the banks and underwrite a massive expansion in private sector lending which has fuelled an immense speculative building boom. This has benefited the handful of private companies which are large enough to take advantage of the loans. Many of these hold the local franchise for some of the most powerful multinationals on the planet, such as McDonald’s, Philips and Microsoft. These Egyptian corporations have used the leverage provided by the state at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank to launch themselves into the global marketplace:

These conglomerates produce goods and services affordable to just a small fraction of Egypt’s population. A meal at McDonald’s costs more than most workers earn in a day ... The Ahram Beverages Company, which makes soft drinks, bottled water and beer, calculates its potential market (including expatriates and tourists) to be just five or six million, in a country of 62 million. This narrow market corresponds to that segment of the population that can afford, or even imagine affording, the country’s one million private cars – which is why local manufacturers concentrate on assembling Mercedes, BMWs, Jeep Cherokees and other luxury cars. [49]

Globalisation for the Middle East means precisely this – a cartel, composed of the most powerful sections of local private capital, the upper layers of the state bureaucracy and the army, propelling itself into the second or third ranks of the global elite through the leverage of state intervention and the favour of the international financial institutions, while leaving the rest of the population to rot. Economic pressures have corroded the Arab rulers’ domestic support to the point where it is hard to see any of the current regimes regaining the level of popular legitimacy they enjoyed a generation ago. Across the Middle East the intersection between local economic crisis and imperialist intervention has the potential to generate many further serious confrontations between the local and global ruling classes and the peoples of the region.

Between repression and revolt

It is clear that the objective conditions for a large-scale revolutionary crisis exist in a number of Middle Eastern countries. In addition to the combination of internal and external pressures on a large number of the US’s allies, [50] the potential for linking mass movements across the existing national boundaries has never been greater. New media, in particular satellite television, have played an important role in generalising the intifada. [51]

Yet it is the subjective conditions which are ultimately crucial in turning riots into organised demonstrations, and street clashes with the police into a mass movement. In the Middle East over the past ten years two major currents have attempted to provide some kind of political leadership to the struggles of the people of the region. Firstly, the crisis in Palestine represents the unfinished business from the national liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The renewed intifada, and the key role played by Fatah, the largest nationalist bloc in the PLO, demonstrate the lingering resonance of nationalist ideas. Secondly, the Islamist movement has responded to the crisis of imperialism with a kind of Muslim internationalism, which pits Islamist activists directly at the ‘crusader’ forces of imperialism.

Of all the conflicts in the Middle East, none symbolises the unequal struggle against imperialism better than the Palestinian intifada. The imagery of the intifada – children taking on tanks, the clashes in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank, the mass funerals and demonstrations – has been burned into the memories of a generation across the Middle East. For vast numbers of ordinary people, the impotence of the Arab regimes in the face of rising levels of brutality from the Israeli forces of occupation is just a mirror of their own humiliation.

Understanding how the intifada connects to the wider struggle in the Middle East is a vital part of grasping the real potential for resistance to Western imperialism and home-grown repression. Different political currents have all used not only the symbol of the intifada, but the actual techniques of popular uprising, in an attempt to generalise the struggle in Palestine across the Middle East. The weakness of the Palestinian bourgeoisie, and the completely overwhelming military and economic superiority of Israel have meant that the Palestinian national liberation movement has not yet succeeded in creating a state of its own. In many ways the experience of the Palestinian struggle is a testimony to the resilience of national liberation movements, as it is to the courage and creativity of ordinary Palestinian people. Yet the course of the intifada over the past year also shows the ultimate impotence of national struggle alone.

The underlying reason for this is simply the huge inequality between the two sides. Palestinian stone-throwers are facing the fourth largest military power on the planet, behind which stands the might of the greatest military power, the US. The scale of Israeli violence has been much greater than during the first uprising of 1987. This violence has been systematically applied since the very start of the uprising. A report by the respected Israeli human rights group B’Tselem on the events at the Haram al-Sharif after Ariel Sharon’s visit there shows clear evidence that the Israeli army responded to a large, but mostly non-violent, protest with massive force. [52] The pattern of Palestinian deaths is also revealing. According to Palestinian sources, more than 200 children have been killed by Israeli troops during the last year. A very large proportion of these died as a result of wounds to the upper body or head, a clear indication that they were directly targeted, rather than simply falling victim to ‘crossfire’ as the Israelis have often claimed. [53] Beyond the hundreds killed, there are tens of thousands of Palestinians who have been permanently disabled by injuries received during the conflict. Given the meagre resources available to the Palestinian health system, and the crushing impact of economic blockades, these bald figures represent huge pools of misery for tens of thousands of Palestinians. The outbreak of the intifada has not stopped the flow of aid and arms from the US to Israel. In October 2000, only days after the massacre of Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the Israeli Air Force concluded its largest ever deal with the US. This included the delivery of eight Apache combat helicopters as well as 14 Beechcraft light patrol craft and jet fuel worth $111 million. [54]

In addition, the Oslo peace accords during the period 1993 to 2000 have physically changed the terrain on which the battle is being fought. The fragmentation of Palestinian territories, as set out in the negotiations, has enabled Israel to exercise much greater control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip than was possible in 1987. By dividing the Palestinian areas into separate enclaves, cut off from each other by metalled Israeli highways, which are patrolled by Israeli troops, the business of occupation has become more, not less effective:

The matrix of control, though it lends a benign and civil face to the occupation, is sustained only by raw military power. The 16 June edition of Yediot Akhronot quoted the Israeli Chief of Staff, Shaul Mofaz, speaking before soldiers at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza. ‘If tanks are needed,’ he declared, ‘tanks will be brought in, and if attack helicopters are necessary, attack helicopters will be brought in ... Our ability today to cope with confrontations with Palestinians is better than in the past and the events of Nakba Day [protests to mark the anniversary of the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948] proved that’. [55]

There are now at least 100,000 more heavily armed settlers in the Occupied Territories than there were in 1993, representing, in effect, an extra arm of the Israeli military, which has been used increasingly to harry and kill Palestinian fighters and civilians. [56] During the Oslo period Israeli border closures shattered the Palestinian economy. [57] Signs of growth during the first half of 2000 have long been buried by the economic cost of the new uprising. [58]

Ironically, the one aspect of the new intifada which has the most potential to threaten Israeli security is closed off to the current Palestinian leadership. The new militancy of the ‘Israeli Arabs’ is a serious challenge in the heart of Israel itself. These are the Palestinians living inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. For the first time since the 1970s they rose in revolt as the Occupied Territories went up in flames in October 2000. The protests in Nazareth and other Palestinian towns were not simply gestures of solidarity – they reflected years of pent-up anger at the systematic racism of the Israeli state. Palestinian villages are prevented from accessing government funds to improve water, electricity or sewage facilities. Palestinians are even prevented from legally building new homes. In the workplace Arab wages are only about one third of the level of Israeli Jews.’ [59] In October 2000 the Israeli army shot dead 13 Arab protestors and ignited a protest movement which shook Israeli political opinion to the core. [60] The Palestinians within Israel have the potential to undermine the tacit policy of separation, which Israeli politicians have been putting into practice in the Occupied Territories. Their presence in the heart of Israel – at 20 percent of the Israeli population they form a substantial minority – undermines the entire notion of the Zionist state. Yet the logic of a generation of peace negotiations has pushed the Palestinian leadership towards accepting Israel’s right to the land behind the ceasefire lines of 1948, and thus to keep the Palestinians of Israel itself and the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories divided. [61]

These contradictions have been reflected at the level of the Palestinian street organisations. The first intifada represented the coming of age of a generation of militants within the Occupied Territories, who came to form an alternative political centre of gravity to the exiled leadership of the PLO and Fatah in Tunisia. [62] This time the uprising is taking place in the context of an existing Palestinian Authority. The intifada has sharpened the contradictions within organisations such as Fatah, which still retain immense moral authority and organisational weight on the Palestinian streets. One of the effects of the Oslo peace accords was to create a Palestinian police force, which recruited a large number of the militants who had come to political maturity during the first intifada. These men found themselves expected during the years of ‘peace’ to police and suppress protests against the Israeli occupation in co-operation with Israeli forces. As the confrontations with the Islamist movement Hamas grew sharper, and as the Palestinian Authority became increasingly more corrupt and repressive, the tanzim, Fatah’s local activist base, started to challenge the existing PLO leadership to reform. As Graham Usher explains, ‘On the one hand, the tanzim provide the military and political base of the PA’s rule. On the other, they are its loyal – and yet potentially most seditious – opposition’. [63]

The new intifada has allowed Fatah to rebuild the tanzim, and has cemented the informal alliance between the secular nationalist movement and the Islamists. However, there is a fierce debate within the movement as whole about the direction of the intifada. Fatah’s discussion bulletin of July 2001 carried an article addressing this question directly. The author argued in favour of widening the ‘popular’ aspects of the intifada – the strikes and protests led by local committees – but also for ‘the formulation of a clear military and security strategy ... in order to shake the confidence of the occupying Zionist forces, to the point where their losses mean they can no longer sustain the occupation.’ [64] The accelerating pace of assassinations and the re-emergence of the PFLP as a guerrilla force show that versions of this strategy are being put into practice by a number of the key nationalist organisations.

The problem is that the militarisation of the intifada on its own cannot possibly liberate the Palestinians. The last intifada, which was fought out on far less difficult terrain, resulted in the Oslo peace accords, now rejected by a large proportion of the Palestinians. In any case, the liberation of Palestine is not simply dependent on the conditions within Palestine itself. The role of the Arab states in supporting the US and Israel makes this clear. The impotence of these regimes, themselves the products of the radical anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 1960s, is a testimony to the impossibility of achieving liberation within the confines of the national state.

The failure of political Islam

The collapse of the dreams of national liberation is a significant factor in the rise of the Islamist movements across the Middle East over the last 20 years. Islamists thread together the struggle in Palestine, the crisis in Iraq, the question of Kashmir, and of course the struggle of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan into a kind of ‘Islamic internationalism’ based on the idea of armed confrontation with the forces of imperialism. In many countries, Islamist groups form the main opposition to the compromised local rulers who are the US’s local agents. Even before the attacks on the World Trade Centre the Western media portrayed Islamist organisations as one reactionary bloc. In reality, there is little common ground in organisational methods or even on major political questions between many of the Islamist groups, and history has shown time and again that they will not automatically benefit from a crisis in the local regimes.

Islamist groups currently active in the Middle East fall into two broad categories. The first are relatively broad based reformist parties or student groups which operate within the legal or semi-legal framework of the electoral system and the student unions. The second group are highly unstable armed movements, usually small in numbers, which have proved extremely vulnerable to state repression. Only in certain specific cases, in particular in Lebanon and Palestine, have any of the Islamist groups managed to sustain mass movements which have a significant armed cadre. There is a continuous dynamic between the two wings of the Islamist movement. In response to state repression of open, legal activities, small layers of disillusioned activists break with the main movement and turn to illegal paramilitary activities. It is widely accepted that one of the factors which gave the final impetus to Islamic Jihad’s decision to assassinate Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 was Sadat’s mass arrests of a huge layer of opposition figures from the semi-legal Gama’at Islamiyya student movement, including the brother of Khalid al-Islambouli, one of Jihad’s key activists. [65] Yet the armed groups have never managed to capture the state on their own and have generally paid the price for confronting the armed might of the ruling class. [66] Neither Jihad nor the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Gama’at Islamiyya was able to take advantage of the assassination of Sadat to seize power in Egypt.

The relationship between the Islamist movements and the state has always been contradictory. On one hand the Islamists attract support on the basis of their critique of the existing state. In many countries in the Middle East they appear to be the only credible and consistent opposition force around. Yet these same states have often played a significant role in nurturing Islamist opposition groups in the past as a counterweight to the left. [67] More importantly, the closer mass Islamist movements get to challenging the state, the more their leadership tends to vacillate and attempt to strike a deal with the existing ruling class. Usually this deal is based on the Islamist leaders’ ability to control the mass movement they have unleashed, and on a number of occasions this strategy has threatened to completely fracture the movement. [68]

The contradictions within the Palestinian movement Hamas are an example of this process. During the years of the Oslo agreements Hamas fighters appeared to be the only Palestinian militants prepared to confront the forces of occupation. Hamas grew, in the space of less than a decade, into the major opposition to the PLO in the Occupied Territories. The more successful Hamas was in its military operations, the more severe was the Israeli response. This increased the pressure on Yasser Arafat both from the Palestinian street, where Hamas had begun to build a real base in the vacuum left by Fatah, and from Israel which was demanding a clampdown on Hamas activists. On several occasions the leadership of Hamas called off all military operations to relieve the pressure on Arafat, only to find that they could not abruptly ‘turn off’ the movement they had created, particularly when Israel was increasing the pressure on the Palestinian territories. The tensions within Hamas threatened many times to break into outright warfare, with the younger layer of activists and fighters threatening to ignore the ceasefire declared by the leadership, and even to target some of those same leaders if they continued to co-operate with the Palestinian security forces. [69] This dynamic could be seen at work again in the aftermath of the launch of US air strikes against Afghanistan. Huge student demonstrations in the West Bank were fired upon by the Palestinian police, who killed a number of demonstrators for the first time since the beginning of the new intifada. In response to the police attacks, the Hamas leadership scrambled to strike a deal with Arafat to keep the streets quiet. [70]

If Hamas, despite its mass base, finds it difficult to turn its radical rhetoric into a serious challenge to the Palestinian bourgeoisie, by far the weakest of the local ruling classes, the task facing the armed Islamist cells of al-Qaida is even greater. These disparate groups of armed militants, despite military successes against US targets, have no real connection to the struggles of ordinary people, and no effective way of creating one. As Olivier Roy explained in Le Monde Diplomatique in 1998:

The social content of the Islamic revolution is foreign to them. In Egypt, for example, the Gama’at Islamiyya approved the agrarian counter-reform carried out by Mubarak ... they are largely disconnected from the real strategic issues of the Muslim world (except in Pakistan and Afghanistan). Their distinctive feature is their internationalism and their lack of territorial base. [71]

As armed resistance movements throughout history have discovered time and time again, assassinations and suicide bombings on their own will never shift the balance of social forces in favour of the oppressed. The Islamist movements of the Middle East face the same problems as Fatah and the secular national liberation movements when they opt for a strategy of military confrontation with imperialism. In addition they have offered no alternative for the millions of people across the region whose lives are being wrecked by global capitalism. In many cases the armed groups simply ignore these questions. Where Islamists have had some success gaining access to the structures of the state, for instance in Iran, Sudan, and at the level of local government in Algeria and Turkey, they have often ended up imposing the same economic programmes that they opposed in the past. [72]

Towards an Arab intifada

The only real force for change in the Middle East is the working class. Unlike the liberation movements which have attempted to confront imperialism through the nation state, organised workers clearly have the potential to challenge the existing imperialist order across national borders. In an era when corporations and states organise at an international level to guarantee their profits, an international response from the workers who are paying for the crisis is not only possible but necessary. This is true in the Middle East, just as it is anywhere else in the world. As the events of the last few years show, the impact of neo-liberal policies is rapidly creating the conditions for a social explosion in one or more countries in the Middle East. Structural adjustment and privatisation have provoked strikes and protests across the region. These very processes are not only pushing workers to resist, but also creating a bigger working class, as the case of Saudi Arabia clearly shows. At the same time, the social impact of these policies undermines the ideological basis for neo-liberalism. Opposition activists in Syria are arguing for political liberalisation as a counterpart to economic liberalisation. The experience of Egypt shows clearly that in times of economic crisis structural adjustment can only proceed within a framework of brutal political repression. [73] Although it is only at an early stage, there are some signs that activists in the Middle East are looking closely to the anti-capitalist movement for inspiration. For instance, in response to the planned World Trade Organisation meeting in Qatar in November 2001, Lebanese activist groups organised a counter-conference modelled on the forums of Prague and Genoa to debate the issues of globalisation and imperialism.

Imperialism intensifies the impact of economic crisis across the Middle East by creating conditions in which anger over economic issues can quickly spill over into a more generalised challenge to the system as a whole. The issue of Palestine is a key marker for this process of radicalisation. Demonstrations by students in Egypt at the outbreak of the uprising were quickly joined by workers. Slogans on the protests moved on from demands for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to the issues of price rises, government corruption and state repression. Journalists and lawyers also took part in solidarity action including strikes and occupations. Banners and chants attacked the Mubarak regime for its links to Israel and America, and a group of students, following the example of anti-capitalist protests in Prague a few days earlier, smashed up a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. [74]

The war in Afghanistan has only increased the pressure on the local regimes, and on the US. Yet ultimately what will determine whether the anger on the streets develops into a sustained mass movement is a subjective factor – the clarity of its political leadership. The fate of the national liberation movements and the contradictions of the Islamist organisations show that neither of these forces can provide that kind of leadership. The importance of a Marxist analysis of the crisis in the Middle East has never been clearer. The need for revolutionary socialist organisation in the region has never been more urgent.


Thanks to Dave Renton for comments on the draft of this article, and to Simon Assaf for some of the material on Saudi Arabia.

1. Israeli TV, Jerusalem Channel 2, 7 October 2001.

2. English and Israeli sources usually refer to this area as ‘Temple Mount’. The Arabic name for the area is Haram al-sharif, and the mosque is known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque, or the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhara in Arabic).

3. J. Burke, Bin Laden’s network: Hijacking suspect was Bin Laden Bodyguard, The Observer, 30 September 2001.

4. R. Khalaf, Riyadh fears fallout from war: Saudi Arabia’s support For The US is likely to increase domestic unrest, Financial Times, 8 October 2001.

5. Ahmad al-Zawahiri appeared beside Osama Bin Laden in the videotaped statement aired by the Qatari satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera on the night US air-strikes began against Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera, 7 October 2001.

6. V. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Beijing 1966). A number of important articles discussing imperialism since the Second World War were published in this journal during the Gulf War. See, for instance, J. Rees, The new imperialism, International Socialism 48 (Autumn 1990); and A. Callinicos, Marxism and imperialism, International Socialism 50 (Spring 1991).

7. See P. Marshall, Intifada: Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance (London 1989), for a full discussion of the role played by Zionism and Israel in the Middle East.

8. Egyptian state news agency, MENA, 14 March 2001.

9. R. Khalaf, Saudi job famine that feeds terror, Financial Times, 19 October 2001.

10. Al-Jazeera, 13 October 2000.

11. Agence France Presse, Students protest again In Oman over US strikes On Afghanistan, 9 October 2001.

12. S. Goldenberg, Far right leader Who fell victim to his own ideas, The Guardian, 18 October 2001.

13. See D. Leigh and J. Wilson, Counting Iraq’s victims, The Guardian, 10 October 2001, for a rather sceptical commentary on the origins of these figures.

14. K. Sengupta, Inside the pariah’s den: a special report on life in Baghdad Ten years after the Gulf War, The Independent, 24 November 2000.

15. A video of this interview was played at the trial of the men convicted of the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Africa. See CNN, Bombers’ defence focuses on US policy on Iraq, 4 June 2001,>

16. P. Bennis, And they called it peace, Middle East Report 215 (Summer 2000),

17. UN press release, 17 December 1999, available online at

18. R. Saad, It’s Called Genocide, Al-Ahram Weekly, 6–12 July 2000,

19. P. Bennis, op. cit.

20. D. Abdallah, Bomb kills 23 Americans, wounds 250 in Saudi Arabia, Reuters, 26 June 1996.

21. The fatwa against the royal family, The Economist, 13 October 2001, p. 65.

22. Ibid.

23. Quoted in D. Hiro, America’s shifting Middle East policy, Middle East International, 28 September 2001, p. 28.

24. Ibid., p. 29.

25. Energy Information Administration website,

26. A. Sampson, The Seven Sisters (London 1981), p. 112.

27. P. Marshall, op. cit., p. 75.

28. N. MacFarquhar, Leisure Class to Working Class in Saudi Arabia, New York Times, 26 August 2001.

29. International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights (2001),

30. C.D. Masters, E.D. Attanasi and D.H. Root, World Petroleum Assessment and Analysis, paper given at the Fourteenth World Petroleum Conference, Norway, 1994, and published on the web by United States Geological Survey Eastern Energy Resources Team,

31. Managing a fluid situation: crude oil prices have fallen more steeply than the market expected, Financial Times, 8 December 2000.

32. Ukaz (Jedda), 4 August 2001.

33. N. MacFarquhar, op. cit.

34. Gulf States Risk Pointers, Jane’s Sentinel, 9 May 2001.

35. N. MacFarquhar, op. cit.

36. G. Dinmore, Iran Treads Softly Towards Moderation, Financial Times, 11 June 2001.

37. Islamic Republic News Agency, Consumer goods price index up by 11.8 percent for July–August, 14 October 2001. Also on privatisation, see G. Dinmore, Iran’s Workers Vent Sell-Off Frustrations, Financial Times, 19 June 2001.

38. R. al-Turk, ‘al-saubat al-kharijiyya tuakid al-haja ila al-infitah wa itlaq quwa al-shaab’, al-Hayat, 10 August 2001, p. 8. Riyad al-Turk’s use of the word ‘infitah’ in the title of this article is indicative of a mood on the left in Syria and Lebanon that economic liberalisation should be combined with greater political openness. The term ‘infitah’ was used by Anwar al-Sadat, successor to Gamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt, to describe his ‘open door policy’ of economic liberalisation. In Egypt the word is associated with the sleazy heyday of Sadat’s rule, when ordinary people saw prices rise and living standards fall, but a layer of speculators, known as ‘al-munfatihun’, made fortunes from government contracts. The internal debate in the Syrian ruling class on this issue reflects the fear among sections of the ruling Ba’ath Party that once the process of liberalisation has begun they will be unable to control it from above.

39. A. Abu Khalil, Lebanon One Year After The Israeli Withdrawal, MERIP Press Information Note 58, 29 May 2001.

40. Lebanon’s Hariri re-evaluates Economic reforms, Reuters, 8 March 2001, and R. Baroudi, Restructuring the electricity sector is the key to economic health, The Daily Star, Beirut, 11 October 2001,

41. A. Morrow, Lebanon shoots its wounded, Business Monthly (Cairo), August 2001,

42. Al-Ahram, 18 January 1977.

43. H. El-Laithy, Structural Adjustment and Poverty, in A. El-Mahdi (ed.), Aspects of Structural Adjustment in Africa and Egypt, Center for the Study of Developing Countries (Cairo, 1997), p. 140.

44. N.C. Pratt, The Legacy of the Corporatist State: Explaining Workers’ Responses to Economic Liberalisation in Egypt, Durham Middle East Papers (November 1998), Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (Durham 1998), p. 24.

45. A. El-Mahdi, The Economic Reform Programme in Egypt after four Years of implementation, in A. El-Mahdi (ed.), op. cit., p. 28.

46. S. Nasr, Tenants’ fate, Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 February–3 March 1999.

47. D. Buchan, A Return To Agrarian Capitalism, Financial Times, 10 May 2000.

48. T. Mitchell, Dreamland: The Neoliberalism of Your Desires, Middle East Report 210, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

49. Ibid.

50. S. Aburish, The coming Arab crash, The Guardian, 18 October 2001.

51. See, for instance, Ahdaf Soueif on the powerful impact of Al-Jazeera in A. Soueif, It provides The one window through which we can breathe, The Guardian, 9 October 2001.

52. Y. Stein, Events on the Temple Mount – September 29 2000: Interim Report, B’Tselem, [Download]

53. Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute, Factsheet: Palestinian Intifada (28 September 2000–13 September 2001); Palestinians Killed September 28, 2000–September 28, 2001. [Note by ETOL: This link contains similar information to that referenced in the note.]

54. A. Barzilay, IAF’s largest ever helicopter deal with US seen ending crisis over Phalcon affair, Ha’aretz, 3 October 2000.

55. J. Halper, The 94 percent solution: a matrix of control, Middle East Report 216,

56. See, for instance, Amnesty International report on the sentence given to Nahum Korman, an Israeli citizen who killed a Palestinian girl of 11. He was ordered to complete six months community service, while Su’ad Hilmi Ghazal, a 15 year old Palestinian girl who injured an Israeli settler, was jailed for six and a half years. Amnesty International, Israel/Occupied Territories: Impunity for Killers of Palestinians, 24 January 2001 (MDE/004/2001),

57. A. Alexander, Powerless in Gaza: the Palestinian Authority and the myth of the peace process, International Socialism 89 (Winter 2000), pp. 41–43.

58. S. Roy, The Palestinian Economy After Oslo: Decline and Disfigurement, in R. Carey (ed.), The New Intifada (London, 2001).

59. See reports by the Arab Association for Human Rights at

60. Palestinians within Israel are frequently attacked by the right for their lack of ‘loyalty’ to Israel. In August this year the education minister, Limor Livnat, proposed that Arab schools which commemorated Nakba Day to mark the loss of Palestine in 1948, instead of Israeli independence, should be barred from accessing extra funding unless they could prove their loyalty to the Israeli state. A. Fisher-Ilan, Ben-Shabbat rips Livnat’s linking loyalty to school funding, Jerusalem Post, 27 August 2001, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

61. See M. Sid-Ahmed, The Israeli Arabs, Al-Ahram Weekly, 14–20 December 2000, for an analysis of the contradictions involved from an Egyptian perspective.

62. See G. Andoni, A Comparative Study of Intifada 1987 and Intifada 2000, in R. Carey, op. cit., for a full discussion of the contrasts between the two intifadas.

63. G. Usher, Fatah’s Tanzim: origins and politics, Middle East Report 217,>

64. Intifada: Miwazin al-Quwa, Fatah, issue 13, vol 37 (first half of July 2001), p. 25.

65. G. Kepel, The Prophet and Pharaoh (London 1985), p. 210.

66. See C. Harman, The Prophet and the Proletariat, International Socialism 64 (Autumn 1994), pp. 3–63 for a comprehensive analysis of the Islamist movement.

67. G. Kepel, op. cit., pp. 138–141.

68. See C. Harman, op. cit., pp. 30–37.

69. M. al-Dirassat al-Ishtirakiyya, Filastin: Ruyia Thawriyya (Cairo 2001).

70. Ismail Abu Shanab, Hamas spokesman at the Islamic University, told reporters after the police shot a 13 year old boy dead, ‘These events are regrettable. We live under aggressive occupation and we must turn all our efforts to resisting the occupation – H. Morris, Palestinian police shoot dead two protesters, Financial Times, 9 October 2001.

71. O. Roy, Fundamentalists without a common cause, Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1998, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.] See also Roy’s book, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, Mass 1994).

72. C. Harman, op. cit., pp. 49–54.

73. See, for instance, numerous Amnesty statements available at , including Egypt fails to end torture, 7 May 1998 (MDE 12/23/98), Prison conditions and deaths in custody, 24 September 1998 (MDE 12/46/98), Hafez Abu Sa’ada returns to Egypt: authorities must stop now harassment of human rights defenders, 10 March 2000 (MDE 12/08/00).

74. M. al-Dirassat al-Ishtirakiyya, op. cit.

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