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Revolution and Imperialism in the Middle East

July 3, 2011

Last night ended with a plenary session on the Middle East, which included five panelists – Ali Abunimah, Glenn Greenwald, Ahmed Shawki, Beesan Kassab and Mostafa Omar.

Omar spoke first about a Tunisian man who burned himself alive, but was misreported in the US. The Tunisian man was a street vendor who was a college graduate and couldn’t find work. He was forced to sell whatever he could on the street and out of desperation took his own life. The US Press reported that he was an independent entrepreneur who was protesting the Tunisia’s crack down of the free market. For Mostafa Omar this story illustrates the lens in which most US journalists see the Arab Spring.

He spoke about the economic conditions of many of the workers with examples of janitors and substitute teachers who are fighting for job security. Omar said that the majority of those who responded to a poll said that the main reason for participating in the uprising was as a resistance to the economic conditions, whereas only 16% said they wanted a Western-style electoral democracy.

Omar then pointed out that there are three major forces of counter-revolution in the Middle East that we all need to pay attention to. First is the US/Israel. Omar gave an example of how the US has been actively working against the uprising in Egypt. Senators John Kerry and John McCain met with military leaders in Egypt after Mubarak was deposed and 2 days later the military attacked the protestors with tear gas from the US that was made in 2011. The second counter-revolutionary forces is Saudi Arabia, which Omar calls the director of regional counter-revolution on behalf of the US. Saudi Arabia is pumping millions into the country to lessen the public desire for revolution. Lastly, the Egyptian ruling class, which is continuing to repress the working class, is also a major counter-revolutionary force.

Omar ended his comments by saying that currently there are 8500 workers on strike in the Suez Canal, a place where weapons have been trafficked to support Israel’s oppression of Palestine. If this strike succeeds, it could have tremendous ramifications not only for the workers but for regional solidarity.

Glenn Greenwald, with Salon.com, spoke next and addressed the challenges around the US led war in Libya. This war begun by the Obama administration has shaped public opinion in some very interesting ways, according to Greenwald. He points out that many of those who opposed the Bush wars are now defending the Obama war in Libya as a “humanitarian intervention.”

Now that we are 3 months into this US war in Libya, there is more evidence of the commonality it has with all other wars. The first thing that was evident was the humanitarian reasoning given by Obama in a speech he delivered to the US public 9 days after he deployed US troops to Libya. The second thing this war has in common with others is a very strong military commitment with very limited purpose. The original purpose was to provide support for a no-fly zone, which is no longer the case.

The third commonality is that the person we demonize was once an ally. This is not the first time, since the Reagan administration also demonized Gaddafi in the 1980s, but then came back into the fold in the US War on Terror in 2001. Under Obama, Gaddafi is once again being demonized. The last commonality is the extremely manipulative rhetoric used by the US administration, particularly the polarizing language of being either for the rebels or for the “genocidal terror of Gaddafi.”

Greenwald also noted how the war is purely illegal in that it not only violates the US Constitution, but it violates a Vietnam era piece of legislation that says that the US cannot engage in military aggression abroad for more than 60 days unless there is a Congressional vote. It has already been 90 days.

Greenwald ended by saying that the bi-partisan nature of this war will be part of the legacy of this administration, along with drone wars. He also mentioned a CIA report provided by WikiLeaks, which showed that the main weapon against anti-war sentiment was a president that was the opposite of the character of Bush, but would continue the same policies.

Ali Abunimah who edits on the online site called Electronic Intifada spoke next and addressed the current status of the Gaza Flotilla, which was attacked by Greek Commandos at the behest of the US. Earlier in the week the Obama administration even announced that he supported attacks against the unarmed Flotilla.

Ali then shifts the focus to Egypt and makes it clear that the revolutionaries in Egypt have also been supporters of Palestinian resistance and have in many ways gained their inspiration from that resistance. He also points out that you cannot support anti-imperialism in the Arab world and not be against Israeli oppression.

He goes on to mention the potential power of the May 15 Nakba protests along the Syrian border. These were people marching for their civil rights and using non-violent means and they were not supported by the Obama administration. However, despite all of the existing plans and ongoing repression of Palestinians their spirit is not broken. One example of how the resistance continues is the growing effectiveness of the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement) that is worldwide.

Egyptian activist and organizer Bessan Kassab spoke next. She also spoke about US imperialism in Egypt and particularly points out Egypt’s participation in the Camp David Accord signing under Sadat in 1978. This relationship between the US and Egypt has continued ever since.

Bessan also pointed out that many of the Egyptians who participated in the revolution were young working class people who rose up out of frustration against the economic conditions in the country. When the Egyptian military finally deposed the Mubarak regime, the military said they are committed to all the international agreements that had previously been signed, like Camp David. Bessan stated that the Egyptians on the ground will not honor that agreement.

She concluded by saying that the Egyptian revolutionaries are committed to a real revolutionary future in Egypt, to fighting imperialism, Zionism and are in support of armed resistance. Her point about an armed resistance was to say that Palestinians don’t need our sympathy, they need weapons to defend themselves.

The last speaker was Ahmed Shawki, an editor with Haymarket Books. Ahmed was in Egypt during part of the uprising and mentions the period before Mubarak fell. He mentions one night in Tahrir Square, where the hired thugs attacked the people revolting with clubs, swords and molotov cocktails. He didn’t know if people would make it out alive, but said it was a testimony to people willing to fight for what they really believe in.

He then talked about the need for ongoing support for a creation of organizations in Egypt, popular organizations, labor organizations, etc. The US is backing the Egyptian military to dismantle and prevent these kinds of organizations from coming into fruition, according to Ahmed.

Ahmed then shifts to discuss the potential and possibility for the same kind of revolutionary resistance in the US. The level of poverty and disillusionment in the US means that there is the possibility of revolution across the country. He said the task of revolutionaries in this country is to find ways to engage people who are desperate and disillusioned and see the necessity of being part of a struggle. He ends by quoting Frederick Douglas on the need to fight and struggle in this country:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will!”

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