Hands off the Middle East and North Africa

The people’s revolt across the Middle East and North Africa continues to send tremors through the centres of imperialist power. The capitalists are pledging billions of dollars to shore up states and maintain their grip on the region. In Libya they send missiles and helicopter gunships, always in the name of democracy and humanitarianism, never in the name of oil and power. For every dollar they give as aid, they send twenty as weapons. The demands of the risen peoples of the Middle East and North Africa threaten the entire system of exploitation that has ruled over them and much of the world for more than a century – imperialism.

LIBYA

In the early morning of 24 May British RAF Typhoon and Tornado warplanes attacked Tripoli, a city of over one million people. They killed 19 civilians and wounded some 150 others. The criminal NATO strategy to remove the Libyan government combines aerial bombardment with economic sanctions. The intention is to squeeze the government until it fractures amidst a demoralised and hungry population. The removal of Colonel Gaddafi is to serve as both a symbolic and a practical demonstration of imperialist power in the Middle East and North Africa in a context of sustained mass revolt. Neither Libyan government forces nor the opposition are strong enough to overcome the other. The opposition depends upon NATO; Britain and France are escalating the war.

General Sir David Richards, head of the British Army, explained: ‘The vice is closing on Gaddafi, but we need to increase the pressure further through more intense military action. We now have to tighten the vice to demonstrate to Gaddafi that the game is up and he must go’ (Sunday Telegraph, 14 May 2011). Richards called for NATO states to intensify the war effort by directly targeting the Libyan government, rather than protecting Libyan civilians, as specified in United Nations Resolution 1973. ‘The military campaign to date has been a significant success for NATO and our Arab allies, but we need to do more. If we do not up the ante now there is a risk that the conflict could result in Gaddafi clinging to power,’ said Richards. Within days of his remarks the bombing of Tripoli was intensified and Britain and France said they were deploying attack helicopter gunships.

This explicit statement that the objective is regime change was justified by Richards on grounds that it was necessary to protect civilians. The British and French governments want regime change and will kill Libyan civilians to get it. Richards warned: ‘At present NATO is not attacking infrastructure targets in Libya, but if we want to increase the pressure on Gaddafi’s regime then we need to give serious consideration to increasing the range of targets we can hit.’ Libya’s telecommunications’ facilities, ports and government buildings were then bombed. Infrastructure includes power grids, fuel depots, roads, schools and hospitals; the resources that civilians depend upon.

On 17 May NATO said it had conducted 7,000 sorties since 31 March, an average of 149 per day, including 2,700 strike sorties, in which bombs and missiles were used, over 57 per day. There are fuel shortages in Tripoli; the single functioning oil refinery serving the government-held area is operating at 60% of capacity – we can expect it and fuel depots to be NATO targets. Food imports are not banned under UN sanctions – the attack on ports will worsen the already irregular food supplies.

Every effort to broker a ceasefire and negotiations between the Libyan government and its opponents has been rejected by Britain and France and their National Transitional Council allies. On 13 May over 150 senior religious leaders gathered in Brega, northern Libya, to discuss how to end the fighting. They were bombed by NATO, killing at least ten and wounding over 40 clerics. This received hardly any news coverage outside of Libya.

On 16 May the International Criminal Court requested arrest warrants for Colonel Gaddafi, his son Saif Al Islam and the head of the intelligence service, Abdullah Al Senussi, consequently sabotaging Russian and Italian attempts to arrange a ceasefire. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that plans to arm anti-government forces and efforts to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi (such as on 30 April when one of Gaddafi’s sons and three grandchildren were killed by NATO in Tripoli) were blatant interference in a civil war and that the international community should try to stop the fighting and not take sides.

The feeble opposition in Britain to the attack on Libya suggests people have been conditioned to accept that the British state is continually at war and that it can bomb other peoples with impunity. The Labour Party fully supports this crime. That such behaviour becomes the norm has grave consequences. On 18 May the Cuban newspaper Granma quoted former Spanish Prime Minister Aznar as saying, ‘it is not fair to do one thing in Libya and the opposite in Cuba … to protect lives’. The relentless use of violence is presented as serving humanitarian values; it is as depraved as the fascists’ crimes committed in the Second World War.

Imperialist hands off Libya!

Trevor Rayne

EGYPT

Thousands of workers gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the first independent celebration of May Day in Egypt since 1952. The youth and the masses continue to mobilise. In the face of threatened mass protests if former President Mubarak was not brought to account, the State Prosecutor charged him and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, on 24 May over the killing of some 850 demonstrators and abuse of authority for personal gain.

Despite the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces making any strike or protest that affects the economy or public life illegal, strikes and protests continue. Workers have begun to establish independent trade unions, strikes for wage increases and minimum wages have been mounted in many sectors of employment. Even the middle classes have mobilised: doctors have struck for a minimum and maximum wage and an increase in state spending on health care; academics have demanded increased wages, free elections of their representatives and more spending on scientific research.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September 2011 and presidential elections before the end of the year. On 10 May five left-wing parties established the Coalition of Socialist Forces, but the Muslim Brotherhood remains the best organised party and is most likely to do well in September. Sectarian forces provoked an attack on the Christian community in a poor part of Cairo on 8 May in which 15 people were killed and 242 wounded. The Coptic Church claims 10% of Egypt’s over 80 million people as adherents. On 13 May tens of thousands of people assembled in Tahrir Square in solidarity against sectarianism and in support of Palestine.

International capitalism has moved swiftly to reinforce the Egyptian state, fearing that the revolution will adopt an anti-imperialist dynamic. Tourism accounts for 11.5% of Egypt’s economy but its revenues have fallen by over a third in a year. Foreign direct investment is down 17%. Foreign exchange reserves dropped from $36 billion in December 2010 to $28 billion in April 2011. Inflation is 12%, the budget deficit is growing and GDP forecasts are for growth to fall from 5.2% in 2010 to 2% in 2011. This is potentially explosive in a country where half the people live on less than $2 a day.

The Egyptian foreign minister said the country needed $10-12 billion in external funding until the end of 2012. On 22 May Saudi Arabia agreed to provide Egypt with $4 billion in emergency funding – Saudi Arabia fears closer relations between Egypt and Iran. On 24 May the World Bank announced $6 billion of funding for Egypt and Tunisia. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said it was providing loans of $4.3 billion to North Africa and the US has cancelled $1 billion of Egypt’s debt and offered $1 billion more for ‘enterprise’.

No doubt the Supreme Council is grateful for this international show of generosity, but it is unlikely to be sufficient to buy off the Egyptian masses.

Trevor Rayne

 

SYRIA

According to human rights groups hundreds of people have been killed in Syria as the military has clamped down on protests against the government that have been ongoing since mid-March. Attempts to organise demonstrations via social networks at the beginning of the year were largely unsuccessful until mid-March when large-scale protests began in Daraa, a poor southern city bordering Jordan.

The demonstrations were fuelled by the deployment of troops using live ammunition and tanks to suppress the protests. The government cut off all communication, water and electricity supplies to Daraa, placing it under siege, and claimed that foreign elements and Islamic terrorist groups were behind the protests. Protests have spread to other Syrian cities, including the capital Damascus. At first, the demonstrators’ demands were for economic and political reform but as the repression increased so the call for the removal of President Bashar Al Assad has become prominent.

Syria has been run by the Al Assad family, as leaders of the Ba’ath Party, since Hafez Al Assad came to power in a military coup in 1970. When Hafez died in 2000 his son Bashar became President. Syria, is a repressive regime, but because of its opposition to Israel and the alliances it has made with Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon, it has long been a target of US and British imperialism. Wikileaks published a US diplomatic cable that showed the US State Department financing a London-based anti-Assad group to the tune of $12m between 2005 and 2010. As evidence of foreign interference and armed insurrection, the Syrian government claims that over 100 police and soldiers have been killed since the protests began.

The government has made concessions, attempting to appease the protesters. At the end of March up to 200 political prisoners were released and the Cabinet resigned. Then, on 21 April, emergency laws in force since 1962 were repealed. Some Kurds, who for historical reasons were stateless although they lived in Syria, have now been granted citizenship. At the end of March hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in support of Al Assad. He has now announced that he will introduce economic and political reforms. A call by opposition groups for a general strike against the regime on 18 May was a failure. On 25 May the state cut diesel prices by 25%.

The US and EU, including Britain, have been increasing the pressure on the Syrian regime. They have now imposed sanctions on Al Assad and leading members of the government, freezing any assets they have and preventing them from travelling to Europe or the US. US imperialism already has sanctions in place that were imposed in 2004 as part of longstanding efforts to undermine the Syrian regime.

Imperialist hands off Syria!

Bob Shepherd

 

YEMEN

On 18 March, 45 demonstrators were killed by government snipers during a protest. On 12 May, Yemeni forces opened fire on demonstrators in three major cities, killing at least 18 and wounding hundreds. So far over 140 protesters have been killed. After four months of protests, on 22 May, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has, for the third time, backed out of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) deal. This was an attempt to force his resignation in exchange for immunity from prosecution for himself and his circle. The deal is supported by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) opposition, who face strong criticism from the people, who see no reason to let Saleh off for his crimes.

US and EU officials have been present during the discussions about replacing Saleh. The GCC is made up of Yemen’s wealthy neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, who fear loss of control over the Bab al Mandab strait, which carries over three million barrels of oil a day.

Leaders of the youth-led protests rejected the GCC and JMP proposal to offer Saleh immunity. They believe Saleh should resign and be bought to justice. Student leader Najeeb Al Sadi told Al Ahram newspaper, ‘the opposition leaders turned “our revolution” into a crisis … Some leaders of the opposition are even worse than Saleh, so people ask what’s the difference?’ Bushar Al Mugtri, a protest leader in Taiz, told Arab News, ‘We consider the deal an attempt to contain the revolution’, and criticised the opposition for agreeing to the deal.

The US pushed Saleh to implement the transition of power so that the country could ‘move forward immediately’ with political reform. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner eventually appeared to condemn the violence of Saleh’s government: ‘We call on the Yemeni security forces to exercise maximum restraint, refrain from violence, and respect the rights of the Yemeni people,’ said Toner, leaving out the fact that the US has been providing the Yemeni government with military training and equipment for many years. Over the past five years the US has provided over $300 million in military aid to Yemen's security forces, with funding escalating under the Obama administration. Under a recent $27 million contract between the Pentagon and Bell Helicopter, Yemen received four Huey II military helicopters. Twelve Yemeni Air Force pilots and maintenance personnel were trained at Bell’s flight instruction facility in Texas.

On 23 May a battle between security forces loyal to Saleh and guards of the powerful Ahmar clan suggest that all-out civil war may be imminent. By 26 May over 70 people had been killed in the battles.

Anthony Rupert

TUNISIA

The situation in Tunisia remains tense in the lead-up to the elections for a constituent assembly*, with demonstrations and strikes continuing across the country.

The demands of the protesters continue to be both economic and political. In the provinces the main concern is the high level of unemployment, which is around 30% for young people and even higher amongst university graduates. The economic situation continues to deteriorate, contributing to the higher than usual number of young Tunisians risking their lives trying to reach Italy by raft.

The Financial Times estimates that 20,000 jobs have been lost since the start of the year due to lock-outs, looting, destruction of factories and vandalism. On top of this, 50,000 workers have returned from Libya due to the war. All this will also have an impact on tourism, especially in the southern provinces bordering Libya.

One example of the battles being fought is the case of British Gas (BG) in Tunisia. On 14 May BG Tunisia threatened to shut down its operations in the coastal town of Sfax after protesters blockaded its employees inside the plant for 48 hours. The protests arose after BG backtracked on an agreement to provide a certain level of micro-credits, reducing them from 5,000 to 2,000 dinars. The community also want BG to deal with local development associations directly, rather than channel funds through a regional commission, and to make casual workers permanent employees. BG was forced to recruit 60 local people. However, local unemployed workers have set up a roadblock demanding adequate water supplies, decent roads and public transport.

In an attempt to stave off a very real threat of revolution, the interim government is attempting to put in place various economic measures. For example, it has put together an emergency package of 200m dinar ($148m) for the poorest 14 regions in the country, including Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine. Another regional development package is also planned. It will be known as the Bouazizi plan, after Mohammed Bouazizi whose suicide sparked the January uprisings.

The largest demonstrations in recent weeks took place in Tunis between 5 and 8 May. The protests were triggered when the former minister of the interior stated he believed the army would stage a coup should the Islamist Ennadha party come to power in the forthcoming elections. Protesters met with severe state repression: over 600 people were arrested and one 25-year-old man was shot dead by troops. The interim government has imposed yet another curfew which has not been lifted as we go to print. However, it is clear that the masses in Tunisia are not prepared to sit back and allow their democracy to be negotiated away by the country’s elite: they are prepared to take to the streets despite continuing repression.

Annie Richards

*As we go to press it is unclear whether the elections for a constituent assembly will take place on 24 July or if they will be postponed until October.

BAHRAIN

Bahraini protesters took to the streets on the 14 February in solidarity with their Egyptian comrades. On 17 February, inspired by the victory of the Egyptian revolution, protesters were on the streets again calling for reform and an end to corruption. They were met with brutality and violence. Bahrain’s government blamed the protests on Iran and called on their partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to send troops. On 15 and 16 March they arrived, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to quell the protests. The US supported this move and said that it was in line with international law. This was presented in the Arab world as the Sunnis’ right to protect themselves from Iran.

Bahrain is important for the US because it hosts the US Fifth Fleet which counters Iranian military power in the region. Bahrain is supported by Saudi Arabia and the rest of Gulf Region. This has not stopped the protesters; rather it made them raise their demands, calling for an end to the monarchy and the departure of the Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain since 1730.

Police brutality was not limited to firing at the protesters but extended to shooting at people holding funerals for those killed by the police, and doctors and other medical personnel carrying people to ambulances. Recent reports indicate that protesters and medical staff have been tortured. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights reports that thousands of protesters have lost their jobs, more than a thousand have been arrested and at least 31 people killed during the crackdown and that journalists – men and women – have been threatened with rape.

The majority of Bahrain’s population is Shia but the country is ruled by a Sunni minority. The Shia Muslims have always suffered poverty, discrimination and unemployment. Shiite Muslims have been excluded from government and military employment in Bahrain. The government has been importing Sunni Muslims from Pakistan and Syria and naturalising them in order to increase their number.

Britain responded to the protests by inviting the Bahraini King to Downing Street, after withdrawing Royal wedding invitations from the Syrian and Libyan ambassadors. Bahraini students studying in Britain who have protested against the repression in their country have had their funding withdrawn by the Bahrain government without comment from the British government. On 19 May Obama urged Bahrain to embrace dialogue not force, but did not condemn the violence or the use of external military forces to quash the protests.

Shams Al Arab

Racist Europe lines up to exclude refugees

Just as the governments of France, Britain and Italy competed to outbid one another in the rhetoric of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ as they made their case for mass bombing in Libya, so too they compete to proclaim the most aggressive and racist response to refugees from North Africa fleeing upheaval and economic collapse. The refugees, who provided useful cover for regime change under the fraud of ‘the protection of civilians’, are transformed into the enemy as soon as they dare leave North Africa.

Since the beginning of the year, over 25,000 migrants, mainly from Tunisia, have arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. They have been joined by 12,000 refugees, many from sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing civil war and NATO bombing in Libya. Conditions on Lampedusa are hellish, with Medicins San Frontieres condemning them as intolerable and ‘below humanitarian standards’. In early April, 61 men, women and children were left to die of hunger and thirst on a boat sailing from Tripoli to Lampedusa, despite contact being made with a military helicopter and French warship. According to the UNHCR, one in ten migrants dies on the journey from Libya.

The numbers of migrants involved is relatively small compared, for instance, to the 400,000 refugees who fled to Germany following the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. The vast majority have settled in Egypt, Algeria and other Arab countries, with 200,000 Libyan refugees in Tunisia alone. But after France broke the rules of the Schengen Agreement by closing its borders with Italy following the latter’s decision to issue temporary visas to thousands of Tunisian migrants, the political crisis has intensified and led to a central component of the European single market being dismantled. A meeting of interior ministers in May agreed to the reintroduction of passport checks and increased national control over internal borders in a bid to stem migration.

The original Schengen Agreement between Germany and France in 1985 was expanded to include 26 European countries (not UK or Ireland), with an overall population of 400 million people, throughout which internal borders were abolished. This was a key component of the European project, aiming at economic integration and maximum freedom of movement of goods, capital and people. At the same time, Europe’s external borders were massively militarised. Hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on developing a security and surveillance apparatus capable of sealing off Europe from the populations of the oppressed countries who, offered no protection from the misery and violence of globalisation, might dare to seek a new life in glittering, if fading, Fortress Europe.

The staggering hypocrisy of British and French imperialism was underlined when they refused to participate in a ‘burden-sharing’ agreement whereby countries would volunteer to resettle north African refugees. Nick Clegg backed the Home Secretary’s decision not to help a single person fleeing from the humanitarian disaster of the Libyan war, describing the agreement as ‘some sort of version of pass the parcel’. As Simon Tisdall wrote in The Guardian: ‘War creates refugees. This is not a new idea. The wealthy western ones came out months ago, by RAF helicopter and US navy ship. What’s left are the ones nobody cares about.’

The divisions in Europe reflect the growing divergence of interests within the zone since the financial crisis of 2008. On 18 April Der Spiegel warned of ‘a deep divide within Europe, particularly between the affluent north and the less affluent south’, with divisions over European economic policy and the bail-outs of Greece, Portugal and Ireland and over the initial drive for war in Libya, with Germany allying itself with China and Russia in abstaining from the vote. Against the backdrop of mass unemployment and austerity, extreme right-wing populism and nationalism is gaining momentum. Denmark further undermined Schengen by re-erecting border controls with Sweden and Germany to appease its anti-migrant coalition partners in the Danish People’s Party; in Finland, the extreme nationalist, anti-migrant True Finns party came from nowhere to record 20% of the vote in the recent election. In Italy, Berlusconi has been stoking the flames of racism in Milan’s mayoral election, writing on his party’s website that ‘Milan cannot turn into an Islamic city, a Gypsy town full of Roma camps, besieged by foreigners to whom the left want to give the right to vote.’ The French government has been rounding up migrants with extra border police and controls against the backdrop of upcoming elections and a resurgent National Front.

Amir, a young Tunisian who had made it from Italy to France, told Der Spiegel, ‘First you applaud our revolution, and then you chase us halfway across the continent. Is this supposed to be your democracy?’

Joseph Eskovitchl

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 221 June/July 2011

 

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