Tower Hamlets Council have announced that the church of St. John, Wapping, will finally receive a heritage plaque for the gravesite of Thomas Rainsborough (1610-1648).(1) As acknowledged leader of the Leveller cause within the Putney Debates, he became known as Colonel Rainsborough in Cromwell’s New Model Army, where he served with great courage and distinction, finally being killed in a commando raid to seize him at the siege of Pontefract (1648). At the Putney Debates, held in 1647, the constitutional structure of the England that was to come was decided – it represented the fighting out of the different ideological positions among the coalition that formed the rebel forces of what kind of cause they were truly fighting for. As has often been remarked in the historiography of the English Civil War, like with any revolutionary cause the rebels soon split between a radical and a more reformist wing. Unlike in the case of the later French or Russian Revolutions, it did not wholly come to force to decide the matter between them, but the Putney Debates foreshadowed the dominance of the reformist wing against the radical – perhaps inevitable given how much some of the radical demands were ahead of their time. Continue reading “A Plaque for Rainsborough”
While the eyes of the world public have been on the internationalized conflagration in Libya, and we now have to bemoan the loss of Bahrain as a site of revolution after its bloody suppression with the connivance of Saudi-Arabia and the United States, events have been developing in a revolutionary fashion in Syria. This country is a longstanding opponent of American influence in the Middle East but also itself notorious for its meddling in the affairs of its neighbour Lebanon. The Assad clique, representing the Alevite minority in a strongly Sunni majority country, have professed themselves as most Arab dictators in such a position as forces for nationalism and progress as against the reactionary powers of sectarian politics and liberal openness to American power. With the Arab world divided in many ways between these three pathways, the Assad-Nasser-Saddam Hussein path of nationalism and state-building may appear to be the most progressive. At the least, one could be inclined to see in it a way towards the ‘developmental state’ that could lift the economic and social levels of the peoples concerned to a point where they would actually have the consciousness and ability to resist their domestic tyrants without the help of clergy or American bombers. But of course in practice they have proven as opportunistic, as stubborn and as tyrannical as their colleagues of the clerical or the Westernizing kind, and their appeals to ‘Arab socialism’ as a different way forward have long ago been revealed to be so much hollow talk. In Syria as much as in all such countries the order of the day is corruption, repression, and hypocrisy. The frequent adventures abroad and the talk of defending larger interests, whether of their so-called ‘socialism’ or the Palestinian case are but masks for the massive enrichment of a small elite at home while the people are held mute and ignorant, leaving them with little more than religious fervor to give them a sense of dignity and an ideological source for resistance. And the Assad clique has repressed even that with characteristic bloody-mindedness, virtually levelling the city of Hama when a religious rebellion against the regime of Assad sr. broke out in 1982. This suppression was done with such force that almost everyone in the city who had not fled was killed en masse, reminding one of the ‘liberating fervor’ of the Crusaders. The primary organizer was none other than Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of the current President and his main competitor for this position, sidelined since. Continue reading “Is the end near for the Assad tyranny?”
There are many confused reports coming in about events in Libya, but so far things appear to be going in the direction of revolution, despite the widespread bloodshed committed against the protesters by the Ghadaffi regime. Some claim that the city of Benghazi, the second largest in the country, is in the hands of the rebels; other state that Tripoli itself is under siege. There have been reports that people have attempted to storm Ghadaffi’s compound and have been repelled with heavy losses. In the meantime, the weak position of yet another seemingly almighty regime is confirmed by the haphazard appearance of one of the Colonel’s many sons on state television, who bored his audience with a lengthy and incoherent rant blaming the circumstances on essentially everyone but the real culprit – the oppressive government itself. Needless to say, this will do nothing to stop the protesters nor will it convince anyone outside Libya of the government’s good will or competence. The fact that Ghadaffi, according to repeated information, has seen fit to send special forces and even mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa against his own people is an indication of the hollowness of his appeals to socialism or being a popular hero, and it reveals the absurdity of his ‘Jamahiriya, a state of all the people. Instead of distributing the oil income and developing his country, Ghadaffi protects the foreign companies and distributes bullets among the crowds. A government which has been ruling for 42 years, the longest period in the Arab world and one of the longest in the world altogether, is now teetering on the brink of destruction.
What does all this mean? In past years, the American establishment’s view of foreign policy was that if the hated ideology of Communism were able to take over just one country, it would soon topple all the others, one by one. This so-called ‘domino theory’ was the justification given for the brutal intervention in the Vietnam War by successive US Presidents. In reality, there was never much indication that it was true – self-proclaimed Communist leaders taking over in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Mozambique had no real effect on their surrounding countries. Now, however, a real domino effect seems to be taking place, and one that the United States finds as baffling as the one they originally feared. It is the domino effect caused by the rising of the Arab peoples, in particular their large proportions of young people. For decades on end, Arabs have lived under various petty tyrants of one stripe or another, often for entire generations under just one or two different rulers. These geriatric figures would claim now to be pan-Arabists, then to be defenders of Islam, sometimes friends of Palestine, sometimes modernizers, whatever suited their needs at the time. But the only consistent aspect of their rule, whether in Yemen, in Syria or in Egypt, was their corruption, their repression of all political independence, their fear of an informed populace, and their ruthless use of violence, torture, and intimidation against anyone who might appear as a challenger to their rule. These latter-day pharaohs are now being overthrown one by one, and not a single outside power is capable of preventing it. Pressured by the high youth unemployment, the lack of prospects, and the dropping living standards as a result of the crisis’ impact on food prices, the Arab peoples have woken up from their government-induced sedation and discover that they are strong. Mao said: ‘imperialists are paper tigers’, and by this he meant to strengthen the confidence and will of his people against the seemingly overwhelming might of the United States. And indeed, the United States, with all of its armies and all of its money and all of its power, was defeated by the armed people of Vietnam and had to evacuate its personnel by helicopter from Saigon. The Arab peoples are now discovering that their own dictators, the ones who have imperialized their own nations, plundered their peoples’ wealth, talked down to them with tales of pretend heroism while preventing any independent source of information or opinion to spread in their lands, are in the end paper tigers as well. Nobody seemed as firmly in the saddle as Hosni Mubarak, given 1.5 billion dollars a year from the United States and in charge of one of the region’s largest armies as well as one of the most feared security apparatuses – and yet, when the people rose, he was overthrown within two weeks.
For too long have the Arabs in the world been seen as weak and cowardly. The idea was always, explicit or unspoken, that in any part of the world popular resistance could become a reality except in the Arab world. Arabs, it was often proclaimed behind closed doors in foreign ministries and intelligence agencies, were people who were willing to put up with any dictatorship, who were willing to accept any misery, as long as they were spoon-fed stories of martial glory and religious fervor. The greater Middle East was the playground of absolute monarchs, petty generals, and armed fanatics, and behind all of them the strategic manipulation of the US and other Western nations, favoring and disfavoring them not unlike the Roman Emperors of old did to their vassals. But if this revolutionary movement succeeds and carries its task through to the end, this story will be forever known to be myth. For the Arabs have finally risen up, not just against their own rulers, but at least as much against the condescension of the world’s ‘opinion makers’ and pundits, against all the experts on their affairs, and have shown that they have a will to be free and a right to rebel as much as any Jefferson or Marat. Nobody had foreseen that this would happen, least of all that it would happen so fast, and right now, but such is the nature of all revolutionary events in history. Let us hope that this wave of revolt will sweep away more of the ‘muck of ages’ in this region: Ghadaffi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Kings of Bahrain and Morocco, perhaps even the arch-tyrants, the House of Saud. But however these individual struggles may end, one thing is certain: there is now once again hope for the greater Middle East, and Arabs anywhere in the world can once again raise their head in confidence, no longer mocked.
To the great joy of all progressive minded people in the world, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and its ad interim replacement by a military regime is not by any means the end of the current revolutionary wave in the ‘Arab world’. Quite on the contrary. Not only are many Egyptians not accepting arbitrary military rule by a clique of corrupt generals as sufficient (however much sympathy they may have for the individual conscript fellah‘s son), but in other countries the people are rising up as well. The next weakest links in the chain of oppression in the Middle East and North Africa seem to be at this moment Bahrain and Libya, and to a lesser extent Yemen and Algeria. In the latter cases, the outlook is difficult: the military in Algeria is already in full control of the country and is able to use the bogeyman of islamism very effectively, knowing full well that most Algerians despise the corrupt and impotent regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika but prefer it to another protracted period of civil war and massacre. Yemen’s decrepit rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came to power after the imperialist-supported side of Yemen annexed the Soviet-supported side, is not strong at all in terms of his own political power. However, the United States has had a constant military activity in the country since the start of the Obama presidency in order to destroy certain islamist forces there, and Saudi Arabia’s extensive military power is also regularly applied across the border to defeat certain insurgencies which it sees as proxies of Iran. In both cases, this implies the revolutionary groups among the people of these countries are directly confronted with substantial military power as their direct opponent, rather than being able to confront the state as an entity apart from the interests of the average soldier. The result is a much lesser likelihood of success, given the unequal strength prevailing between the sides.
In Libya’s second most signficant city, Benghazi, there have been major protests – which is a rare public show of dissatisfaction indeed against the clownish opportunistic regime of ‘Colonel’ Ghadaffi. This latter figure, the supposed protector of his people against all outside influences and powers, has shown his love for the people by having them shot at, killing at least 24 across the country. The secret police apparatus of the country has since then been in overdrive to find and repress any sign of resistance. Much like the other failed regimes that have now been overthrown, the first response of the government has besides been to organize a Potemkin ‘counterdemonstration’, which shows nothing so much as to what extent appearance and reality are constantly manipulated into diverging by the various Arab dictators, who fear nothing more than an informed population. (Another example of this is Ghadaffi’s instinctive response to blame WikiLeaks for the events: tyrants always are inclined to shoot the messenger, as the expression goes.) In Libya at least Ghadaffi will not have the opportunity of presenting himself as the savior of the Western interests against the specter of Islamism, though: both because of the virtual nonexistence of the latter as a political force there and because of Ghadaffi’s own showmanship against the United States in earlier periods of his reign. This ensures that at least it will be a direct confrontation between his government and his people, which is the best scenario for revolutionary change.
Bahrain appears to be the most interesting case at the moment. Despite the great wealth earned from oil in that country, the government is a reactionary absolute monarchy ruled by Sunnis, while the population is majority Shia and suffers from an almost complete lack of political or social freedom. Moreover, the Sunni aristocracy has been actively attempting to import other Sunni aristocrats from Saudi Arabia and other countries in order to strengthen their position, a cynical move which shows the utter disregard for the real social development of their nation’s people the governments of this region have. Inspired by the revolutionary uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and elsewhere, there have been severe protests and demonstrations in Bahrain as well. These protesters, representing the interests of the majority in Bahrain against the monarchists and their Saudi and American masters, have been brutally repressed and fired upon by the government forces, who apparently seek to destroy any potential for revolution there by swiftly drowning it in blood. They will, however, not succeed. When two previously impervious autocrats in larger countries have been overthrown by popular action, Mao’s observation that reactionaries are paper tigers will have passed mere abstraction and become an immediately perceptible reality to the peoples of the Middle East, including in Bahrain. This applies also to the United States’ major military presence there (the US has used the country ever since its pseudo-independence from Britain in 1971 as a staging base to threaten Iran with and to control the Gulf). The US will now have to show its true colors: will it support the bloody Sheikhs and so maintain its military strategic position at the expense of its supposed commitments to democracy and progress, or will it choose to support the revolt? Staying aloof will, depending on the course of events, be likely to be an implicit endorsement of the former, just like American inaction on the question of Egypt was based on the premise that any intervention in word or deed was likely to make the situation worse in terms of support for the US. Yet the consequence of inaction is that the default prevails, which usually means the persistence of tyranny: this the Western politicians, with all their ‘democratic’ credentials, usually praise under the banner of ‘stability’.
President Mubarak’s non-resignation this evening expresses such a fundamental contempt for the Egyptian people that it is difficult to believe his regime will be able to exist one week hence. With the pompous and grandiloquent style of any puffed up petty tyrant, he waxed lyrical about practically every patriotic subject he could think of but offered absolutely nothing to the revolutionaries other than the mere possibility of formal Constitutional changes, which would change the procedure for his succession and which may or may not get rid of the emergency law which has held the country in his grip for decades. The shift of real power from Mubarak to Omar Suleiman is, if possible, even a retrograde step: Suleiman was head of the main intelligence agency (the Mukhabarat), and although the average Egyptian has had less to do with this than with the corrupt and brutal police force, it is still hardly a beloved state institution. Moreover, Suleiman in this role has been consistently the go-to man for the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies in their many manipulative attempts at controlling Egypt as the lever for the Middle East and Israel in particular. There is no reason to believe that Suleiman has any more interest in the progress of Egypt, even just towards a liberal democracy, than Mubarak did, and his appointment seems to have been mainly calculated to appease the military leadership, beneficiaries of American largesse. This move then is a cynical attempt at placating the West in their strategic interests and the army within Egypt, while leaving as little as possible transformed. The Egyptian people will not accept this. Continue reading “Whither Egypt?”