Popular Struggles in the Middle East

by Andrew Pollack
Syria: Syria has joined the ranks of countries participating in the regional uprising. The largest and most frequent protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have been in the southern city of Deraa. But protests also occurred in Damascus, Latakia, and other cities. Human rights activists say that over 100 protesters may have been killed by the regime in March.
On March 30, Assad gave a speech that ended up being just a reprise of slanders against protesters as agents of imperialism, or Zionism, or even Palestinians trying to start a civil war!
In keeping with its goal of regional “stability,” Washington has stuck with Assad. Hillary Clinton told the press that the United States would not intervene in Syria militarily. She quoted Congress members who had recently visited Syria and who called Assad “a reformer.” The Syrian president has grown closer to the United States in recent years, earning his reward in the form of the return of an American ambassador to Damascus after a six-year hiatus.
Syria has accepted prisoners from the U.S. under “special rendition,” i.e. the program of sending prisoners to countries where they can be tortured by friendly regimes when it’s too risky to have U.S. inquisitors at Guantanamo to do it. Seymour Hersch, in several New Yorker articles in recent years, has portrayed the eagerness of Assad to mend fences with the U.S., including by talks with Israel, even if carried out mostly behind closed doors. Bassam Haddad, director of Middle East Studies at George Mason University, has also pointed to Assad’s adoption of neoliberal economic policies “that have created huge gaps between different segments of Syrian society.”
Hard on the heels for his expressions of support for Muammar Gadhafi, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez came to the defense of Assad after the killings, calling him a “humanist” facing violent protests backed by the U.S. and its allies. Chavez said he had spoken to Assad and referred to him as “our brother.”
Like Gadhafi, Assad throws out meaningless anti-imperialist rhetoric, and provides just enough material support for some resistance fighters in exile to buy their silence. But you can’t fool people all the time: The Angry Arab blogger quoted a Reuters report that “protesters in the Syrian city of Der‘aa shouted slogans denouncing Maher Assad, brother of the Syrian president and head of the Republican Guard. ‘Maher, you coward. Send your troops to liberate the Golan.’”
Egyptian workers reject crackdown on protests
In mid-March the Egyptian cabinet issued a decree (which still has to be approved by the military junta ruling the country) criminalizing “protests, sit-ins and gatherings” that supposedly interfere with normal business operations. The bill was immediately rejected by worker and youth organizations, who said they will continue protests.
The cabinet claimed protests must end because it has answered most workers’ demands and would address the rest through future legislation or regulations.
The bill was motivated by the continuing actions of workers against corrupt and incompetent officials and executives at their workplaces, and the determination to use newfound political organizing space to achieve economic and social goals.
On March 20, a military-sponsored referendum for constitutional changes was passed overwhelmingly in the face of opposition from most of the forces that led the uprising. Those forces feared that the changes left in place an undemocratic constitution crafted by the dictatorship, and would call snap elections without giving time for new parties to be formed.
A number of new parties and alliances are in various stages of formation, including social-democratic and revolutionary groups.
Opponents of the amendments also pointed out that rather than amend a constitution drafted by dictators, a constituent assembly should be formed to write an entirely new one. In the end it seems the measures passed precisely because the old ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood still have a massive organizational headstart over the new parties in formation.
Meanwhile, youth leaders declined an invitation to meet with the visiting Hillary Clinton, pointing to U.S. support for Mubarak. 
BAHRAIN: On March 15 Saudi troops entered Bahrain, and the next day government forces attacked protesters, killing at least 13.
Washington has endorsed claims by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that the former’s troops entered Bahrain legally, to protect against alleged threats from Iran.
The country’s trade-union federation called an open-ended general strike until foreign troops had left, but it was halted after a week following assurances that workers would not be attacked at checkpoints. Meanwhile, some unions and activists have called for protection for South Asian immigrant workers, targeted by vigilantes angered at use of Pakistanis in the regime’s security forces. This is another sign of the need for regional Arab-African-Asian workers’ solidarity to cut across indigenous and immigrant divides created by dictatorial regimes in the service of capital.
Iraq’s ‘Day of Salvation’
On April 9, as protesters join the national antiwar march in New York, a new coalition in Iraq will hold a “Day of Salvation” against the occupation. The event will build on recent protests against the Iraqi government’s failure to provide services and jobs, especially the Feb. 25 “Day of Rage,” in which close to 70,000 rallied. The coalition has called for protests targeting the force most responsible for the country’s destroyed economy, the U.S. occupation. They will hold rallies at U.S. military bases and at Iraqi government institutions.
Their demands include the departure of occupying forces, revocation of the security agreement with the U.S., revocation of the sectarian and ethnic quota system in the political process, transparent elections without the interference of occupation forces, release of political prisoners, and jobs.
The coalition also announced that April 9 would mark “the launch of a long-term sit-in in all Iraqi provinces to mark the eighth anniversary of the brutal American occupation. … This sit-in will not last hours or days, but will continue night and day until the protesters demands are met. … For our sit-ins we will set up tents in front of U.S. military bases, which are located in every Iraqi province.”
On the Feb. 25 “Day of Rage,” 14 were murdered by government forces; the brutal repression pushed protesters to go from demanding reform and better conditions to demanding that the government resign.
Unions and unemployed organizations have been rallying for years against the lack of electricity and drinking water, against hunger and unemployment, and faced in retaliation imprisonment, torture and murder. Joblessness is said to be in the range of 60 percent to 70 percent of the workforce.
Connections to the revolt throughout the Middle East are made in banners warning the government: “O inhabitants of the Green Zone—think about the others,” and, “Remember the fate of Arab dictatorship regimes and how their people revolted.”
> This article was originally published in the April 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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