As a result, all the region’s countries are characterized by extreme class inequality, high rates of poverty, and high unemployment, especially among youth. Those with education and valued skills leave their countries for opportunities elsewhere.
And, in the case of the Gulf monarchies, their economies rely on temporary migrant workers who make up the majority of the laboring population and are deprived of political and civil rights. In Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman, migrant workers represent more than 80 percent of the workforce.
These realities contradict claims made by the international financial institutions and Western states, especially the US, that neoliberal reform would create a “middle class” or capitalist class, which, with imperial support for political reform, would bring about democratization. In fact, it has produced the opposite: deepening neoliberal authoritarianism.
These conditions generated increasing struggle among workers and oppressed people in the run-up to the uprisings in 2011. It has been driven from below by youth, workers, and poor people desperate for political freedom and economic equality.
Struggle and Hope for Revolution
This is not to say that we should adopt an economistic perspective, which reduces everything to economic conditions. There are of course many other contributing factors. But the socio-economic blockage combined with the region’s dictatorial regimes have made it impossible for the masses of people to overcome inequality and express their grievances through institutional processes.
These material conditions predisposed the people to struggle. But those conditions alone were not enough to detonate the uprisings. As Trotsky argued, popular classes turn to revolutionary action when they see the hope of transforming their society:
In reality, the mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection, if it were, the masses would always be in revolt. It is necessary that the bankruptcy of the social regime, being conclusively revealed, should make these privations intolerable, and that new conditions and new ideas should open the prospect of a revolutionary way out.
The hope and new ideas that sparked the revolts in 2011 came from witnessing millions of people in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt demanding the overthrow of their rulers. But the inspiring struggles in those two countries did not come out of nowhere.
In the decade prior to the uprising, significant workers’ struggle occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) played a leading role in opposition to authoritarian regimes, despite the fact that it had been seriously weakened by a combination of repression, privatization of public jobs, and compromises by the union leadership with the regime.
In Egypt, the country witnessed its largest social movement since World War II, with strikes and occupations from different sectors of society. The strikes in the factories of Mahala el Kubra in 2008 testified to the strength of the workers’ movement despite the repression of the security forces. These struggles progressively paved the way for the establishment of independent workers trade unions, who played a decisive role in the overthrow of Mubarak (although not officially recognized) and the first years of the uprising.
Thus, based on years of struggle, the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt showed how mass mobilization could topple dictators. Their victories, if incomplete in the case of Tunisia and temporary in the case of Egypt, inspired the region’s masses to rise up against their own regimes.
MENA Revolts Spark the Global Resistance
The first decade of the new millennium started with the launch of the so-called “War on Terror” in 2001 and came to a close with the Great Recession in 2008 and subsequent global slump. The popular uprisings in the Middle East and North African region opened the next decade, triggering resistance throughout the world against the neoliberal order and governments that enforce it.
The uprisings in the MENA region overthrew the dictatorships of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Khadafi in Libya, and Ali Abdallah Saleh in Yemen, all of whom had been ruling for decades. Without a doubt, the greatest achievement of the popular uprisings was to remind the left that revolution in which masses of people mobilize to remake society is possible. This ABC of revolutionary politics had been widely abandoned among wide sections of the left.
The MENA uprisings inspired revolts throughout the world. A short list includes the Indignados Movement in Spain, Occupy in the United States, uprisings against price hikes and repression in Sub-Saharan African states like Burkina Faso, and similar struggles in many other countries.
The end of this decade of revolt culminated with a second wave of the revolutionary process in the MENA region with uprisings erupting in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Two new dictators—Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria—were overthrown after 30 years of rule, while the sectarian neoliberal ruling classes in Lebanon and Iraq were challenged.
This second wave occurred in the midst of rising massive popular mobilizations throughout the globe for political and social rights and equality from Hong Kong and Thailand to Catalonia and Chile. Massive feminist strikes and protests were also organized to fight against reactionary attacks women’s rights from Poland to Argentina. In 2019 climate strikes swept the world and the decade ended with the Black Lives Matter uprising that shook the political and racial order in the US.
The international popular mobilizations deepened the global radicalization against the capitalist system that exploits and oppresses humanity and destroys the environment all for profit. The pandemic has only deepened grievances around the globe and called into question the legitimacy of governments.
The Counter-Revolutionary Offensive
While the MENA revolts inspired similar uprisings around the world, they also triggered a counter-revolutionary offensive from the regimes, regional powers, and imperialist states. Just like the Russian Revolution in 1917, the uprisings constituted a threat to the capitalist order, especially because its energy reserves power the global economy.