Resolution approved by CWI International Executive Committee
By bringing down two long-standing dictators within a week in April of this year, the revolutionary uprisings in Algeria and Sudan have confirmed the analysis made by the CWI eight years ago, while stunning most bourgeois scholars and commentators. At the time, we explained that the revolutions initiated in Tunisia and Egypt were not just a parenthesis or a short-lived “spring”, but rather the opening salvos of a protracted and complex process of revolution and counter-revolution throughout the region.
These movements are all the more significant as a number of countries which were shaken by mass movements during the first revolutionary wave in 2010-2011 have since suffered from brutal counter-revolutions and devastating wars. The counter-revolution has not succeeded in decisively eliminating the spectre of new popular uprisings, nor has it guaranteed the durability and stability of the regional order.
Egypt is ruled by an even more ruthless dictatorship than the one overthrown in 2011. Never in its modern history has the country known such repression as the one carried out under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule. In April, the regime pushed through a stage-managed referendum on sweeping constitutional amendments that get rid of some of the last vestiges of the democratic gains of the Egyptian revolution. They remove the two-term limit on the presidency, allowing Sisi to remain in power until 2030, and also give him complete control over the judiciary, while expanding further the role of the army in the country’s political affairs.
In the recent period, western governments have closed ranks with the autocratic regime in Cairo. The European Union is praising Sisi as an ally in their efforts to stop refugees reaching European shores. Reflecting the short-term outlook among big business circles, the rating agency Moody upgraded Egypt’s status as “stable” in April, commenting that “profitability [in the country] will remain strong”. Official figures also inform of the highest economic growth rate in a decade (5.5%).
However, under conditions in which the external debt has increased fivefold in the last half decade, whilst the public debt has more than doubled during the same period, and in which 60% of the population lives in poverty and is suffering under the brunt of soaring inflation and subsidy cuts, the stability wished by imperialist powers and Sisi’s dreams of becoming president for life might prove to be short-lived. Earlier this year, a group of ex-ministers and members of the Egyptian intelligentsia wrote an open letter in which they stated that, “You need only wander the streets of Cairo to realise the extent of the internal rage and tension that could any second boil over into an uncontrollable social explosion.” This bears witness to what is brewing under the surface.
In addition to violently suppressing the resistance of the Egyptian workers and of the domestic opposition at large, Sisi’s regime is playing an active role in counter-revolutionary conspiracies across the region. Only days after the removal of the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, delegations from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) rushed to Sudan and held many talks with the Sudanese military junta. In Libya, Sisi’s regime has provided active political, military and intelligence support to the troops of Libya’s own would-be military dictator and Sisi’s admirer, Khalifa Haftar.
Libya is in the grip of a new and intensifying civil war, which is swelling the ranks of the displaced and refugees. Close to 100,000 people have already been displaced by the offensive launched on Tripoli by Haftar and his misnamed “National Libyan Army” (LNA), and that number is rising every day.
Haftar hoped for a quick and smooth victory in his march on the capital. These hopes have clearly petered out. His claim to eradicate armed Islamists, and his positioning as a champion of secularism, are contradicted by the fact that his own LNA is a shaky alliance composed of a significant number of Salafist militiamen, along with former officers from Gaddafi’s army and fighters from various tribes that Haftar has cut deals with. It could become the scene of serious rifts if the current military stalemate continues.
The outcome of this battle will also depend on the attitude of the imperialist powers and the various regional powers involved. The growth of a new war in oil-rich Libya does indeed contain a strong element of a “proxy war”, as it is taking place against the backdrop of a power struggle for influence between Paris, Rome and above all, key regional players. The vacuity and impotence of the UN and the so-called “international community” is again exposed, as regional and world powers are backing each of the two sides and directly fuelling the conflict by delivering them advanced weapons and ammunition.
Some countries seem ready to play both camps, waiting to see on which side the balance will tip. While Moscow has always seemed to favour Haftar, it has built contacts with all major players on the ground. Trump praised the role of Haftar, backed by US allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, in “fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the actions of Haftar, and representatives of the Tripoli-based government, backed by Turkey and Qatar, continue to argue that the US is standing by them as the legitimate government of Libya.
The wavering and contradictions of the US administration reflects its crisis-ridden character, but also its declining leverage and geo-political influence in the region, where it has in effect been relegated to the second row, to the benefit of regional actors, but also as a result of a more assertive imperialist policy from Russia as well as China.
China and Russia have identified North Africa as an important arena to push their business and security interests forward. China has chosen ports across North Africa as a critical component of its ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative. It has also shown its interest in getting a foothold in Tunisia’s port of Bizerte and along Morocco’s Mediterranean coast.
Importantly, both Algeria and Sudan have seen a substantial increase in trade and investment with China in the last two decades. Both countries provide energy exports for China, Algeria alone having seen a 60 fold increase in its exports to China between 2000 and 2017. China is the most important economic partner in Algeria, and has invested billions of dollars in port and infrastructure projects in the country. Sudan is also China’s largest recipient of foreign aid. In addition, both countries have been among the region’s largest purchasers of Chinese weapons.
New social explosions impending
Whereas some countries are bearing the full blows of counter-revolution and war, powerful working class movements are vibrating in other parts of Northern and Arab Africa. The unfolding revolutionary movements in Sudan and Algeria unquestionably demonstrate that no matter how much blood the ruling classes will shed, they will not be able to eradicate the laws of the class struggle, which will always find a way to express themselves.
The attempts by both the Algerian and Sudanese regimes to weaponize the calamitous state of the Middle East as a deterrent against revolution in their own countries failed to produce the desired effects. When the Algerian rulers brandished the Syrian scarecrow to get people off the streets, saying that the protests in Syria had led to a decade of war, Algerian protesters simply responded with the slogan: “Algeria is not Syria.”
This is not to say that the violent counter-revolution that has taken place over the last couple of years has had no effect on the consciousness and on the dynamics of struggle in the region, of course. But we need to stress the limits of this in the context of the entire region boiling with anger and desperation. “You cannot kill us, we are already dead” was a slogan chanted by young Algerian protesters during an earlier movement of mass protests in the Kabylia region in 2001, when facing live ammunition from the police. Sudanese protesters today chant: “The bullet doesn’t kill. What kills is one’s silence”. This pretty much sums up the prevailing mood amongst millions of people in the region, particularly the young and poorest sections.
Of course, this mood can and will take hopeless expressions in some cases, particularly if not politically channelled into a clear alternative. Tunisia, the country that bourgeois commentators continue to single out as the success story of the “Arab Spring”, has seen cases of self-immolation triple since the 2011 revolution, and has been a major source of recruits for jihadi groups in the region. The arms proliferation resulting from war-torn Libya and the persistence of an important urban and rural lumpenproletariat also means that the danger of new terrorist attacks, and their instrumentalization by the regional states to foster repression, is likely to continue to be part of the political landscape, as shown again by the suicide-bombing attacks in Tunis in June and the subsequent extension of the state of emergency.
Capitalism and imperialism are destroying people’s living conditions, their jobs and their environment, while driving the region into new armed conflicts. In these conditions, it is no surprise that more than half the youth in much of the Arab world would like to leave their home countries, according to the Big BBC News Arabic Survey 2018/19. That number has jumped by more than 10% for those aged 18-29 since 2016. The survey indicates that 70% of young Moroccans were thinking about leaving their country.
Notwithstanding these factors, the new global economic downturn on the horizon combined with the policies of “fortress Europe” will also drive new layers of workers and youth to the conclusion that the scourges of the system have to be fought on their own ground, and that a global transformation of society is necessary. In brief, the conditions nurtured by capitalism inherently carry with them the inevitability of new social explosions and mass revolutionary upheavals.
These will not develop in a straight line, however, particularly faced with the overall weakness of the “subjective factor”, the existence of mass revolutionary parties able to lead these movements to storm capitalism and carry through socialist policies. The dramatic events of the last decade are a powerful reminder that unless such parties are built, new catastrophes will be in store for the masses in the region.
Crisis and economic stagnation
No more than elsewhere is capitalism in Northern Africa capable of developing the productive forces. This is typically illustrated by the mass unemployment that prevails as a chronic feature across the region, especially among the youth. The IMF has a prediction of annual growth of 1.3% for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region in 2019; this would not even be enough to absorb the 2.8 million additional youth entering the job market every year. In the 2019 Arab youth survey, the largest survey of youth opinion in the Arab world, 56% cited the cost of living as the biggest obstacle facing the region; 45% cited unemployment. This represents a huge social time bomb.
A corollary of this situation is the existence of an extremely weighty informal economy. In Morocco’s northeast, 70% of the economy depends on the informal sector. The deaths of two young men extracting coal from abandoned mines in the impoverished eastern town of Jerada in January 2018 brought this reality to the fore by triggering explosive protests for several months.
Since the so-called “Arab Spring”, regional governments have reinforced their border fortifications and surveillance systems. This has often worsened the economies of already struggling border towns, as the contraband economy is not only a source of profits for border officials, corrupt politicians and smuggling mafia networks; it has also become an integral part of the social fabric of local communities.
Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian border towns have been gripped by intermittent protests against the resulting onslaught on their livelihoods. In these marginalised areas, demands for alternative economic options through the creation of decent and well-paid jobs and a vast programme of construction and renovation of infrastructures, financed by the state and democratically coordinated by the local populations and workers’ organisations, are essential.
In the last decades, the share of the rural population in the total population in North Africa has dropped significantly. Tens of millions of people have moved from the countryside to the cities. People living in the cities in the Maghreb countries represented 20% of the total population in 1950; they were 45% in 1970, 62% in 1980, and are projected to be around 70% in 2030. The rampant destruction of petty-private agricultural property, the concentration of land ownership and the lack of infrastructure in the countryside has pushed scores of rural poor to migrate to the cities, adding on to the unemployment there, and swelling the ranks of the urban poor engaged in a desperate struggle for daily subsistence, unlikely to ever find stable wage-paying jobs under a capitalist economy.
Because of these features, the unemployed youth and the urban poor are prone to play an important role in times of mass struggles. Not being attached to formal jobs, they have more immediate freedom of action and even less to lose, hence they can erupt into action before the organised working class. However, those in informal employment or unemployed have limited leverage on their own to undertake successful struggles. Building militant leaderships ready to conduct an all-embracing struggle on the basis of demands unifying these layers with the workers’ movement is vital. Otherwise, parts of these downtrodden layers can become prey to the reaction.
Divisions between these social layers and the waged working class can also arise. It is in the context of the apathy of the union bureaucracy, for example, that we have seen in Tunisia unemployed protesters staging ‘sit ins’ blocking production sites to demand jobs, sometimes without reaching out to the workers inside the companies who could see these actions as a threat to their own employment. In the context of mass unemployment, these divisions will be exploited by the ruling class, for example by portraying workers who go on strike as a “privileged layer” threatening job-creation and the revival of the economy.
Such gaps can only be bridged by rebuilding strong workers’ organisations and reclaiming the unions to transform them into fully democratic and combative instruments of struggle, striving to unite workers, jobless youth and all the poor in action through mass campaigns (for publicly-funded jobs and for sharing work without loss of pay, for decent and affordable housing, for public services, etc).
Young people, who make up the bulk of the population in the whole region, are facing a grim future. However, these conditions are also shaping up the radical outlook of a new generation of revolutionary activists. This generation has been a driving engine of all the mass movements across the region. In Algeria, the trauma of the ‘black decade’ – the bloody conflict between the army and the fundamentalists of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and its offshoots after the coup of January 1992 – was exploited for a long time by the ruling elite and, combined with extensive social handouts, allowed the latter to weather the storm of 2010-2011. But this factor has now largely faded away as a new and more confident generation is rising up, less affected by the defeats of the past.
Since 2011 the IMF has increased pressure on North African governments to follow its austerity programmes to the letter. These governments have been ordered by international creditors to continue to cut subsidies, shrink public sector payrolls, pursue privatization programmes and tighten fiscal policy. This has set the scene for a further widening of inequalities , worsening the economic set-up which provoked revolutionary levels of class outbursts a little less than a decade ago.
Of course, economic crisis does not provide a one-way ticket to revolution. But clearly, economic circumstances are a crucial underlying factor behind the huge level of anger prevailing among large sectors of the population. Protests in recent years in every country have often focused on the question of unemployment, economic marginalisation and the rising cost of living. There is no question that a new global recession would exacerbate these issues considerably.
This being said, economic factors are not the only potential conduit to provoke mass movements, nor do they represent a complete explanation in and of themselves of those that have taken place. The repressive nature of the state in the region, for example, and the daily contempt, harassment and impunity by corrupt state forces, add to the explosive mix.
North Africa’s power structures are based on an intricate entanglement between the political and economic power of the ruling class – as epitomized by the ruling monarchy in Morocco, which has built a tentacular business empire over the country’s economy. In countries like Egypt, Sudan and Algeria, the army is more than a vital component of the bourgeois state; its top brass holds enormous economic power as well. This means that any economic demand can rapidly take on a political character, and vice versa.
These features – economic weakness and dependence, as well as authoritarian regimes – are the result of North Africa’s position in the global capitalist system. Imperialism and capitalism have produced an uneven and combined development, in which a majority of countries are dominated and subordinate to bigger powers. Regimes in North Africa try to balance between, and satisfy, different powers, who in return support their brutal rule. In recent decades, neo-liberal attacks on living conditions, demanded by the IMF, have underlined the international character of the crisis in the region. So too do the arms race and the wars fought with the imperialist powers involved.
Proletarianization of the middle layers
In Morocco, tens of thousands of teachers employed on casual contracts have been on repeated and sometimes prolonged strike action this year, demanding integration into the national education system alongside their colleagues and an end to the privatisation of public schools.
In fact, the teachers have proved themselves to be among the most militant sectors of the working class, at the forefront of important class battles in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Sudan. In all four countries, they have been involved in hardened strike action and protests in recent years, demanding better pay and conditions, but also pushing for bold political demands. In Algeria for example, teachers played a leading role in the mass movement that toppled Bouteflika, with six independent unions of teachers and education workers calling on their members to go on strike on 13 March to join the struggle calling for Bouteflika to go. In Sudan, teachers, but also doctors, have played a key role in the uprising against al Bashir.
This reflects a broader social phenomenon. Mainstream commentators have often made a big case of the middle class being the driving component of the revolutionary movement in the so-called “Arab Spring”, as they do today particularly in relation to Sudan. But what is often referred to as middle-class professionals or the “middle layers” (teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists…) are, for the most part, increasingly experiencing conditions that are more akin to a new proletariat. Prior to organizing the recent protests, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA, the umbrella of the mostly professional unions which has played an important mobilising role in the revolution) came into the public eye for the first time with a study on the minimum wage of Sudanese professionals, finding them all below the poverty line, in some cases making less than $50 a month.
A section among these layers still regard themselves as an ‘educated elite’ standing above the rest of the working class. This is certainly the case for the leadership of the SPA in Sudan, which has been trying to find a non-existent “third way” between the independent revolutionary mobilisation of the working class and poor masses on the one hand, and the negotiations with counter-revolutionary generals on the other. In that, they typically reflect the political oscillations of the middle class in a time of sharpened class contradictions.
Yet the economic crisis, decades of savage neo-liberal policies, and the sharp depreciation of local currencies have hit the middle-layers hard, shattering in the eyes of many the mirage of being part of the middle class – and this is precisely one of the reasons why they are rebelling against the existing order. This has pushed many into embracing the methods of struggle of the working class and incorporating the trade union movement.
The organized workers’ movements across all the Maghreb countries started the year with public sector strikes. In Tunisia this took the form of a 24-hour general strike in the civil service and public sector on January 17. While the main official demands of the strike were for wage increases and against the government privatisation plans, the strike had a profoundly political character, with slogans clearly adopting a confrontational course against the country’s government and the IMF.
Tunisia’s current political system contains features of a bourgeois democratic regime, but an extremely unstable one, rather than a consolidated one. As we have explained before, this so-called “Tunisian anomaly” is only possible thanks to the influential role of the UGTT (Tunisian General Labour Union), which has acted as a powerful counterweight against the restoration of a dictatorship.
A mechanical reading of this situation would conclude this is a thorn in the side of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. In reality, Tunisia is in a state of extreme flux, and the revolutionary parenthesis opened in January 2011 has not been closed.
In 1930, Trotsky wrote ‘A letter on the Italian revolution’, in which he explained that after the fall of the fascist regime of Mussolini, Italy could become again a “democratic republic”. But he went on to explain that this would “not be the fruit of a bourgeois revolution, but the abortion of an insufficiently matured proletarian revolution. In the event of a profound revolutionary crisis and mass battles in the course of which the proletarian vanguard will not have been in a position to take power, it may be that the bourgeoisie will restore its rule on democratic bases.”
A similar process is at play in Tunisia today – with the leadership of the UGTT playing a similar role in helping the ruling class consolidate its bourgeois counter-revolution, as did the leaders of the Italian Communist Party after the war – with the important difference that there is no economic basis remotely close to the economic upswing of the post-war period to assist the Tunisian ruling class in erecting a stable bourgeois democracy.
This is clearly manifested by the prolonged and uninterrupted state of political crisis facing Tunisia for the last 8 years, with ten governments already since the fall of Ben Ali, a very fragmented political arena, regular splits in the ranks of the main bourgeois parties, and the constant formation of new parties, against the background of mass popular disaffection with the entire political establishment.
Unfortunately, this situation has not spared the Tunisian left. In May, nine MPs from the left coalition ‘Popular Front’ submitted their resignation from the parliamentary bloc of the coalition, bringing in the open the internal crisis that was looming inside the Popular Front for a long time. This crisis results from its past political betrayals and current stagnation, made worse by an increasingly bureaucratic internal culture and the unprincipled power struggles between its main Stalinist and Maoist components in the run up to the November presidential elections.
Revolutions in Sudan and Algeria
The working class and the trade unions
The uprisings that shook Algeria and Sudan, while so far not having the same international aftershocks as in 2011, have profound implications for the wider region. The fact that both countries are crossroads between North and sub-Saharan Africa accentuates that point. It is no coincidence that this year already at least ten African governments have resorted to internet shutdowns and social media blackouts, most of them to try and stifle protests. Neighbouring regimes are undoubtedly nervous. In April, just three days after Bouteflika’s resignation, the Moroccan Court of Appeal upheld the prison sentences of up to 20 years issued against dozens of activists and leaders of the 2016-2017 ‘Hirak’ protest movement in the northern Rif region.
The movements in Sudan and Algeria represent the revolutionary continuity of what happened 8 years ago, while having also developed their own, original features. Importantly, they have also absorbed some of the lessons of the revolutionary experiences of the recent past.
This is particularly the case as regards the defeat experienced by the masses in Egypt. The difference between the largely celebratory reaction of the Egyptian revolutionary masses to the overthrow of Mubarak, and the reaction of the Sudanese and Algerian movements to the removal of their dictator, was noticeable. In the latter case, the level of defiance of the military was from the start on a comparatively different level, and slogans explicitly rejecting an Egyptian scenario were on display. A popular slogan chanted on the sit-in in Khartoum was “Either Victory or Egypt”. Another one heard in Algeria is “Algeria is un-Sisi-able.” This shows that the experience of the Egyptian military coup has penetrated popular consciousness internationally – particularly in countries like Sudan and Algeria, with their history of military coups and where the army occupies a key role in the state machine.
The movements in Algeria and Sudan have also reasserted the tremendous potential power of the working class. Although numerically small, the Sudanese working class has a rich tradition of struggle, having experienced three revolutions since 1964. It is no coincidence that the cradle of the movement in Sudan was in Atbara, an industrial city in northeastern Sudan that has been the birthplace of the country’s trade union movement and a past stronghold of the Communist Party.
The Algerian working class occupies for its part a strategic position as one of the strongest in the region and on the African continent as a whole. The country is Europe’s third-biggest natural gas supplier and a large oil producer as well.
In Algeria, the unfurling of two successive general strikes accelerated splits and defections within the regime, and was instrumental in forcing the ruling class to eventually give up on Bouteflika. In early March, the expressed support brought to the movement by the local branches of the UGTA (General Union of Algerian Workers) in the historic workers’ bastions of Rouiba and Reghaïa, in the large industrial suburbs of Algiers (where there is the biggest concentration of factories in the country), was a turning point, announcing the decisive entry of the working class as a social force into the movement.
One might say the involvement of the working class was more spectacular in the run up to the overthrow of Bouteflika than since. This is what has pushed the Financial Times to reassure itself by declaring in mid-June that “Street protests, which draw hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life every Friday, have avoided calls for a general strike or the permanent occupation of public squares, which would be perceived as escalations.” Yet it is clear that the experience of the waves of mass strikes conducted in March will have stayed in the minds of every Algerian worker, and are likely to come back on the agenda in the near future.
The toppling of Al Bashir and Bouteflika has also initiated a process of re-appropriation of the trade unions by the working class. It has taken varied forms and depths in both countries, but generally goes in the same direction: attempts to develop grassroots union structures democratically controlled by the rank-and-file.
Algerian trade unionists and leaders of key regional federations of the UGTA have organised rallies demanding the immediate resignation of the UGTA General Secretary Sidi Said, a staunch supporter of the old regime. Slogans have included “All out to win the UGTA back for the class struggle. All out to kick the regime and the oligarchs out of the UGTA. All out to get rid of Sidi Said and his clique”. Under pressure, Sidi Said was forced to announce that he would not be a candidate for his succession to the 13th congress of the federation on June 21 and 22, a congress that had initially been announced for January 2020.
However, while less publicly compromised, the new General Secretary of the UGTA is a product of the same bureaucratic clique, and the congress remained a bureaucracy-controlled and highly protected affair aimed at ensuring “change in continuity” and at keeping the “troublemakers” away. The struggle to purge the union from the corrupt, regime-friendly bureaucrats remains on the order of the day and should be crowned by the demand for a special congress where only delegates duly and democratically mandated by the base would decide the future of the union.
While the UGTA has maintained some important regional and sectorial strongholds, its support has been considerably eroded by decades of betrayals and the tight collaboration of its leadership with the state and the bosses. In this context, a range of “autonomous unions” have emerged in recent years and developed a certain influence, particularly in public sectors such as health and education. Last year these unions converged into a ‘Confederation des Syndicats Autonomes’ (CSA, ‘Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions’) which represents around four million workers. Hence the necessary task of re-appropriation of the UGTA by its base should be combined with united front proposals orientated towards these autonomous unions, in order to build workers’ unity in action.
In Sudan, the picture is somewhat different, as the trade union movement there suffered from far more brutal methods of state subjugation. In the 1990’s the unions were purged to an extent never seen before, their members imprisoned and tortured en masse, and draconian sanctions were imposed on workers taking strike action. The official General Union of Sudanese Workers became completely subservient to the ruling power. The SPA itself has had to operate underground for most of its short existence.
But it is a measure of the tenacious union traditions that since the fall of al Bashir, some of the previous members of the unions, along with a new layer of younger workers, are attempting to resurrect the unions that had been destroyed by his regime, with and organizing to rebuild them. This has been the case with the railway workers in Atbara, the dockworkers in Port Sudan, the workers of the Central Bank of Sudan, the journalists who formed a ‘Committee for the Restoration of the Sudanese Journalists Union’, etc. Moreover, workers in some cases have also moved to wrest control of the official trade unions by removing the leaders who had collaborated with the old regime. Under pressure, a freeze was even imposed on the regime-affiliated unions by the military junta once Bashir was removed from office. However, just as the first strike plan was set, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) cancelled the freeze, allowing these crony unions to operate again to try and cut across the development of independent unions.
Though largely underreported, the development of local revolutionary committees (the “resistance committees”) seems to have taken in Sudan a far-reaching character, perhaps more than it did in Egypt and Tunisia back in 2011. This is in part because the formation of the first resistance committees in Sudan dates back as early as 2013, when the country witnessed an upsurge of protests against the regime; these committees have re-emerged on a wider and more organised scale this time, and have included the setting up of strike committees in a number of workplaces. The regime is very conscious of the danger of this development, which explains why leaders of resistance committees from Khartoum neighbourhoods have been killed in targeted assassinations by the regime’s militias.
The fact that the internet was almost entirely cut off by the TMC from early June onwards has contributed to bringing the role of this network of local resistance committees centre stage, as protesters have been forced to find a way to counter the junta’s telecoms and internet shutdown, and used these committees to rally their neighbours, organise community meetings, call demonstrations, hand out printed leaflets to replace digital communication, etc.
Although this can change, from this important angle the revolutionary character of the movement has so far been more pronounced in Sudan than in Algeria. In Algeria, while struggle committees have emerged in some cases, and “autonomous committees” have been set up by students in most university faculties, so far this process seems to be more patchy and not as advanced – even compared to the mass movement in Kabylia in 2001, when the masses created committees clearly substituting themselves for the official state structures.
State and counter-revolutionary violence
In the latter case, as well as in Sudan today, the murderous state repression also acted as an incentive for people to set up defence committees in order to protect themselves. However, in Algeria the State violence has been largely subdued so far.
The fact alone that the Algerian generals, notorious for their brutal methods, appear reluctant to use violence against protesters speaks volumes about the social volcano on which they are sitting, and the fear of igniting something much bigger. The military has so far held back from carrying out a bloody crackdown, fearful that this will only intensify the struggle against the current regime. The numbers at the weekly Friday protests were declining in June, but the situation remains extremely volatile and any attempt to rein down the movement on a large scale would ignite it immediately. Lahouari Addi, a sociologist of Algeria at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon, also highlighted another important reason behind the military command’s restraint: “because they are not sure their troops will be loyal to them”.
This of course cannot be taken for granted. The regime has opted so far for a more targeted, pre-emptive form of repression to flex its muscles in preparation for a wider reaction. This has included the arrest of a number of activists, the most prominent of whom is Louisa Hanoune, the general secretary of the ‘Workers’ Party’ (Parti des Travailleurs, PT), who was detained on May 9, accused of “conspiracy against the authority of the State”. While having a militant past and still referred to as a “Trotskyite” by the press, Hanoune is known for her close links to Bouteflika’s family. After the initial demonstrations in February, she ridiculed herself by affirming that the slogans of the movement were “not against Bouteflika”. Her arrest appears to have as much to do with account settling between rival factions inside the regime as it has to do with her mild criticisms of the current government.
In Sudan, the exposure of the class divisions within the army and the rebellion of the lower ranks played very important roles in the 1964 and 1985 revolutionary uprisings. The instinctive sympathy for the revolutionary struggle actively expressed by many rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers was also a driving motivation behind the general staff ’s rush to get rid of Omar Al Bashir in April, in an attempt to keep control over their own troops. Hence bold class appeals towards the army ranks, along with the building of democratically controlled workers’ and popular defence forces, should be a key aspect of our approach to disarm and defeat the reaction. By siding with the people, soldiers of course risk being court-martialed and severely punished. That means a real split between the army ranks and their reactionary officers can only materialise through advancing a bold political and social programme capable of giving confidence to the soldiers that the revolution can win, and galvanising them to decisive action.
The traditions of mutiny inside the Sudanese army are a key reason why al Bashir’s regime propped up the security branches of the state and incorporated paramilitary groups to build a pliable state machinery in the event of a revolutionary challenge to his rule. His regime oversaw a massive expansion of intelligence services and various militias.
In 2014, the EU launched the so-called ‘Khartoum Process’, part of which consists in outsourcing border policing to regional states to stop the flow of migration between the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. This has involved training and funding Libyan coast guards, who round up migrants at sea and return them to the brutal conditions of the Libyan prison camps, where they face starvation, torture, rape and slavery. It has also involved supplying the Sudanese government with millions of euros that were channelled to the paramilitaries of the ‘Rapid Support Forces’, an offshoot of the brutal Janjaweed militia involved in mass atrocities during the Darfur conflict, who were thus charged with the task of tightening the noose on African migrants and refugees trying to flee towards Europe. In other words, the EU has had a direct hand in propping up and professionalising the militias that carried through the counter-revolutionary massacre of June 3.
The Khartoum sit-in massacre of June 3 marked a counterrevolutionary turning point in Sudan. As a commentator aptly put it, that week “Darfur had come to Khartoum”. There is no doubt that behind this murderous onslaught was the fear not only from the domestic ruling class, but also from the TMC-backing regional despots (particularly the monarchs in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with the Egyptian regime) of a movement that had become a source of inspiration for millions across the region. They encouraged the rulers in Khartoum to strike at the core of this movement driven by their urge to put to sleep any revolutionary temptations that might develop in their own backyards.
The tactical appreciation of this gambit was rather tempered in Western capitals and embassies. In an unusual public statement, the US state department revealed that its undersecretary had made a phone call to the Saudi deputy defence minister to ask him to use Saudi influence in order to calm down the carnage in Sudan. Although Russia took a belligerent stance, echoing the RSF’s (Rapid Support Forces) justification of the massacre, the so-called “Troika” (US, Britain and Norway) and the African Union, via Ethiopian mediation, invested renewed efforts since then to try and restrain the “excesses” of the Military Council while pushing the opposition into accepting a power-sharing agreement with it.
Clearly, some wings of the ruling class, especially in the west, are conscious and worried that a renewed destabilisation of the country could result in new waves of refugees knocking on their doors; but more immediately, that a premature bloody crackdown on the movement could provoke further revolutionary escalation.
And they are right. Indeed, the 3 June massacre did not have the same knock-out effect on the revolution as did, for example, the August 2013 Rabaa massacre by the Egyptian military, which paved the way to a period of sustained repression by the newly established regime of Sisi. As Marx once explained, a revolution needs from time to time the whip of the counter-revolution. This is typically what happened in Sudan in early June: the working class response to the carnage came with a nationwide general strike which lasted for 3 days. The impressive levels of strike adherence in all sectors, despite the open threats from the TMC leaders, attested to the workers’ militant mood and determination.
The SPA – strategy and tactics
During the strike, the Sudanese Professional Association encouraged protesters to build barricades on the main roads and side streets, but instead of guarding them, wrongly advised them to immediately run away. “Barricade and withdraw,” their messages stated. “Avoid friction with Janjaweed forces.”
This tactic leaves people isolated from each other, especially when the internet is shut down. It undermines the opportunity to debate collectively on how to resist and fight the regime, and to display the movement’s strength. The exchange of experiences and the boost to people’s confidence that mass protests, picket lines and workplace and neighbourhood assemblies offer is cut off. It leaves people at the mercy of the militias and state forces, who are handed over the control of the public space, and leaves the masses unprepared to face and defeat their onslaught. Since then, protesters have instinctively reacted against this approach by undertaking night-time marches and demonstrations in order to reclaim the streets once again.
The general strike could have lasted longer if its leaders, not knowing what to do with it, had not called it off after three days, without having forced the Military Council to cave in. However, the SPA leaders had initially called for an open-ended political general strike and mass civil disobedience in order to “bring down the military regime as the only measure left” to save the revolution. They had also declared before the strike that no more negotiations would take place with the TMC. Instead, they decided to show their “goodwill” to the TMC and the Ethiopian mediators who had come into the country to encourage an agreement on a transitional government by cancelling the strike and going straight back to the negotiating table.
This is the unavoidable logic of trying to maintain a united political bloc within the opposition coalition, the ‘Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change’ (FDFC). The SPA represents the activist core of the FDFC, but the latter is a cross-class alliance involving pro-capitalist parties such as the National Umma Party, which has been acting all the way through as an open paralyzing brake on the revolutionary struggle. This party, largely distrusted for its regular alliances with the old regime, publicly objected to the first general strike on June 10 and tweeted on the very first day of the second general strike: “It’s not right to continue a civil disobedience without a timeframe.”
On Sunday June 30, the masses displayed again their readiness for a revolutionary showdown, launching a new and imposing counteroffensive, the “Million’s March”, which resulted in what were probably the largest street protests in Sudanese history to demand the end of military rule.
In the midst of these successive high peaks of mass action, the SPA leadership could have issued a call for the resistance committees, the strike committees, and other grassroots organisations to link up on a local, state-wide and national level, with the aim of federating a national assembly of revolutionary delegates that could have brought about a government of workers and the revolutionary masses, deposing the military council and vying for power.
The class-collaborationist policies of the FDFC, to which the SPA leaders tied their fate, led them instead to the conclusion of a formal power-sharing agreement with the Transitional Military Council on 4 July. This agreement set up a ‘sovereign council’ composed of 11 people, five military, five civilians, and an additional one presented as a civilian (in reality, a retired military officer). The junta is also in charge of appointing one of their own as head of the council for the first 21 months after its formation. This means that the majority on the council will be loyal to the TMC, whose effective hold on the key levers of power and terrorising militias is left untouched.
No doubt this agreement will be used to disorient and demobilise the masses, and for the junta to renew its crackdown on the revolutionary movement under the pretext of restoring “order”. Such a deal with the hangmen of the revolution is an open betrayal of the revolutionary masses and has thrown confusion in the streets. After eight months of relentless struggle, and in the absence of a perceptible alternative, elements of fatigue do exist and sections of the masses saw this agreement as the only realistic way of bringing the TMC “under control”. However, the supposed euphoria described by the mass media following the announcement of the deal was rather tame and limited, and the current illusions will most likely be ephemerous.
The conclusion of this pact was met with bitterness and anger among the most advanced sections of workers and young revolutionary activists. It has also graphically exposed the class contradictions inside the FDFC. Thus our agitation should put a renewed emphasis on the need to break with all the political forces and elements inside the FDFC standing over this rotten agreement and prepared to compromise with the butcherous generals. We should use this tragic example to highlight the need for an independent mass party and for accountable leaders that are unreservedly on the side of the revolutionary struggle waged by the workers and the oppressed masses. The forces for building such a party can emerge from the process of sharpening political differentiation that will inevitably result from the recent deal.
Indeed, no peaceful co-rule is possible between the revolution and the counter-revolution. The current arrangement will not prevent the interests of the millions of workers, young people, women and poor fighting for a Sudan free of dictatorship and poverty to be put on a renewed collision course with the interests of the murdering generals and warlords at the head of the TMC.
Trotsky’s ‘Lessons of Spain’ remain an extremely valuable reading to educate the new generations on these key programmatic questions. In it, he explained that, “The word ‘republican’, like the word ‘democrat’, is a deliberate charlatanism which serves to cover up class contradictions.” Replace ‘republican’ by ‘civilian’, and this is as relevant today as it was then. The demand for a civilian government has been used all along by local bourgeois forces and imperialist powers to advocate a government defending the continuation of capitalism in Sudan and promoting their interests.
However, it is also vital to appreciate the different level of consciousness of the masses on such questions in today’s revolutionary processes in Sudan and Algeria. This demand is understood differently for the large sections of the population in both countries that have taken up this slogan, many of whom have known nothing but military rule. As the new sovereign council in Sudan does not even have a fully civilian façade, it is likely that the demand for “civilian rule” will continue to have a large resonance for a while and be seen by many as a way to convey the need to bring down the military junta. It is hence important to articulate our demand for a workers’ and poor farmers’ government skilfully, not attacking the demand for a civilian government in a frontal manner, but highlighting the opposing class interests that lie behind this slogan.
Any pro-capitalist coalition government, regardless of its civilian or semi-civilian formal composition, will be extremely unstable, navigating between the awakened but unsatisfied aspirations of millions of Sudanese, the patronage of entrenched security and military apparatuses, and a catastrophic economic situation, buckling under huge debts and rampant inflation. Britain’s ambassador to Khartoum correctly stated that, “If the will of the people of Sudan isn’t implemented, then I think we go back to popular uprising.” Yet if the Sudanese working class and popular masses do not take power into their own hands, wings of the ruling elite will be tempted to resolve the crisis through their own way, cutting through the prolonged period of instability by resorting to a coup, or “new 3 Junes”, possibly on a wider scale.
The possibility for the ruling class to play the islamist card, using right-wing political Islam to deceive the revolutionary movement and protect the interests of capital, as it did for a time in Tunisia and Egypt, appear more limited. Political Islam is at a loss in both Sudan and Algeria. In Sudan, the Muslim Brotherhoods are not a prominent opposition force; they shared power with al-Bashir from his coup in 1989 onwards. A key feature of the Sudanese uprising is its open opposition to the rule of both the military and their fundamentalist allies. The Sudanese masses have shouted slogans that accused islamists of being responsible for the tyranny of the regime.
In Algeria, the experience of the black decade has made the people deeply suspicious of both. The MSP, the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has for its part collaborated with the army and supported Bouteflika from when he first took power in 1999 right up to 2012. Most protesters reject attempts by fundamentalists to hijack the movement as strongly as they reject the generals’ claim to do the same. Demonstrators in Algeria even expelled some Islamist figures from their protests.
This is compounded by the remarkable fact that women have played a frontline role in these mass struggles from day one. Women have played a major part in Algeria’s revolutionary history and are renewing these traditions, putting their own demands to the fore as well as actively organising in the broader movement. In Sudan, during the crackdown of 3 June and in the subsequent days, rapes and sexual assaults against women activists and protesters were weaponised by security officials and militias to break women’s revolutionary spirit. A protester was quoted by the BBC saying, “The [militia] knows that if they break the women, they break the revolution.”
The current climate is thus not currently very conducive for the political agenda advocated by Islamic fundamentalists. Having said that, stagnation and setbacks in the revolutionary process, combined with the feelings of popular frustration that they can generate, could create more fertile soil for these reactionary forces in the future. The TMC itself has been trying to whip up Salafist groups against the opposition by accusing the latter of being largely controlled by “anti-Sharia atheist figures”. To this must be added the proactive counter-revolutionary manoeuvres and the money funnelled from the Wahhabi Gulf States.
The new situation opened up by the ousting of al Bashir in Sudan is taking place amid an intensifying international power struggle for influence in the region. Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one side, and Qatar, Turkey and Iran on the other, has spilled into the Horn of Africa. Sudan has become a key battleground of this rivalry.
Between 2000 and 2017, the Gulf States invested $13 billion in the Horn of Africa, mainly in Sudan and Ethiopia. Last December, representatives from Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia gathered in Riyadh to discuss the creation of a new Red Sea security alliance. The UAE has had a military base in Eritrea since 2015 and is building another one in Somaliland. The Saudi regime plans to build one in Djibouti as well.
Turkey has made inroads into the region too, fostering close relations with the Somalian government, establishing a military facility there and securing contracts for Turkish firms, who now manage the capital’s ports and airports. The Turkish regime concluded various trade and military deals with al Bashir’s regime in 2017, notably an agreement for the Turkish state to be handed over Sudan’s Suakin Island, in an attempt to establish a military foothold on the Red Sea.
The overthrow of al Bashir has opened up a new situation, allowing the cards to be reshuffled somewhat, with the Saudi axis outmanoeuvring Turkey and developing an ascendancy over the current military rulers in Khartoum. The heads of the Military Council have declared that Suakin Island is an “inseparable part” of Sudan, and made pledges to back the Saudi regime against all threats emanating from Iran and to continue deploying Sudanese troops to Yemen to assist the Saudis in their war against the Houthis.
The Saudi-UAE coalition has used Sudanese soldiers to outsource its war on Yemen, reducing the number of Saudi deaths, hence tempering internal dissent. However, the fact that the Sudanese masses have prominently raised the demand to bring Sudanese troops out of the Yemeni battlefield in the context of their revolutionary struggle shows how much mass working class action in one country can help revert the reactionary trends regionally. How that can be sustained of course eventually depends on the programme and leadership guiding those struggles. Yet there is no doubt that the continuation of the war in Yemen and the sending of poor Sudanese to serve as cannon fodder for the interests of the Saudi elite will nourish the revolutionary rage against the ‘new’ regime in Khartoum.
As we have discussed in our ranks in the past, the terms “Arab Spring” and “Arab revolution” need to be treated cautiously. This is even more so when it comes to the revolutionary movements in Algeria and Sudan, countries where significant minorities of the population are not Arab and where sensitive national questions exist. A Marxist programme to solve the national question, linking up the struggle against national oppression with a class-based programme, is crucial to overcome the ruling class’s attempts to exploit and deepen national divisions.
Sudan has never been an integrated nation; like most African countries, it is a poisoned gift inherited from the divide-and-rule policies of western imperialism. The 43 million population of what constitutes the current territory of Sudan is 70% Arab, with the remaining 30% being Arabized ethnic groups of Beja, Copts, Nubians, and other peoples. There are also close to 600 tribes in Sudan, who speak more than 400 dialects and languages. Racial and tribal divisions, particularly between ethnic Arabs, who live along the Nile river, and darker-skinned Africans, who constitute a majority in the peripheral regions, have been exploited to the full by Al Bashir’s regime to consolidate its power.
However, when in February, al Bashir attempted to pin the ongoing protests on alleged terrorist students from Darfur, the tactic backfired spectacularly, with many protesters taking up the slogan, “Oh you arrogant racist, we are all Darfur.” This highlights one of the unique features of this movement in comparison to past revolutionary struggles in Sudan: its geographically overarching character. The revolutions of 1964 and 1985 were mainly limited to the capital and the urban towns of the north, with a sharp divide between the centre and the peripheries; this time it is really a “national” movement, organically encompassing every corner of the country, uniting in action the working people and poor irrespective of their ethnic background.
This being said, if the revolutionary struggle is not successfully driven forward and does not eventually achieve a fundamental restructuring of society along socialist lines, entailing the right of self-determination for all oppressed nationalities (such as the Nuba and Darfuri peoples), the long-standing divisions, including the danger of ethnic warfare, can resurface.
In Algeria, the spectacular eruption of the masses also took place on an extended geographic scale, with a surge in the 48 “wilayas” (departments) of the country. The movement is particularly mobilised in the Kabylia region, where economic and social grievances are mixed with a strong Amazigh (Berber) identity forged through decades-long attempts by the Algerian regime to suppress the Amazigh minority’s linguistic and cultural rights, by imposing an arabization policy coupled with economic marginalization. The recognition of the Amazigh language as a national and official language is a recent development (2016), and one done only under tremendous pressure from the masses.
The possibility for this question to flare up again, in part whipped up by the chauvinist, divide-and-rule provocations of the military clique in Algiers, has recently been indicated by the attacks made by Army Chief of Staff Gaïd Salah against the prominence of the Amazigh flag in street demonstrations. After he announced on 19 June that only national flags would be authorised, tens of protesters carrying Amazigh flags were arrested by the police.
The Algerian regime has been trying over the years to continuously dress itself up in some form of “progressive” façade. For example, it rhetorically supports the cause of the Saharawi and Palestinian people, and has taken a guarded approach on the foreign interventions in Libya, Syria and Yemen. It has also refused the installation of transit centres for migrants inside the country. However, this is only one sign of the coin. While Algeria has not yet become a complete lackey to imperialism, it is colluding with imperialism on many fronts. The regime has signed an “exceptional partnership” with French imperialism, with whom its has collaborated in its military intervention in Mali. In February, the Algerian army participated in Burkina Faso, then in Mauritania, in large-scale military manoeuvres placed under the supervision of the Africom. These contradictions in the foreign policy of a regime traditionally oriented to so-called “non-alignment” can only widen in the coming period, a period of heightened inter-imperialist competition regionally, and mass political awakening domestically.
Similar contradictions persist in the Algerian economy. The energy and mining sectors remain mostly state-owned, to the dismay of the neo-neoliberal wing of the regime and of western companies who want to accelerate free-market reforms. In recent years the Algerian government has held back on much of the promised liberalisation of the economy, halted the privatization of state-owned industries and maintained the “investment law”, which says that national companies associating with foreign partners must own a majority of the shares. These issues will continue to fuel tensions between competing factions of the ruling class, even more so in the context of a more assertive working-class movement and of the main political figure who acted as an “arbiter” of these tensions now unseated.
Democratic rights and the fight for socialism
Following in the footsteps of Algeria’s bonapartist traditions, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah is trying to pose as the new providential man. To try and win over the population, he threw some of the country’s main oligarchs and Bouteflika cronies in prison and launched anti-corruption probes. To assert his authority, he relied on the application of article 102 of the Constitution, which sacrifices the President but maintains the current hyper-presidential Constitution, the government, the constitutional council, the two Houses of Parliament and all the institutions of the old regime.
The presidential election initially scheduled by the regime for July 4 was cancelled as a result of its mass rejection in the streets and as more and more mayors and magistrates, under boiling pressure from below, announced their refusal to organize it. In such a context, the rallying call for free elections to a nationwide revolutionary constitutional assembly, supervised by local committees to be formed in all communities to ensure the democratic and uncorrupted character of the vote, takes on a particular importance.
As the masses are coming out of authoritarian rule, Marxists should pay due importance to the defence of and fight for all democratic rights, such as freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, the right to organise and the right to strike, the release of political detainees etc. But of course, these should not stand on their own, but be part of a comprehensive programme for socialist change. Furthermore, we must emphasize that the working class and revolutionary people can only trust their own forces in order to conquer and maintain such rights. For example, it is the mass struggle in Algeria that allowed the reconquest of the right to demonstrate throughout the country, particularly in the capital Algiers, where it had been banned by the regime since 2001.
The PST (Socialist Workers’ Party) in Algeria, part of the USFI, argues in favour of a “provisional government to defend national sovereignty”. The Sudanese Communist Party advocates a “democratic and civilian-led transitional authority”. These slogans suggest that a stable democratic stage can be secured without overthrowing capitalism; they do not delineate the class content of the government the revolutionary masses should fight for. These are both variants of the old Menshevik theory, adopted later on by the Stalinists, according to which the democratic and socialist stages of the revolution are two distinctly independent historical chapters, nourishing the dangerous illusion that a viable form of a democratic regime favourable to the masses can be obtained without questioning bourgeois property relations.
In practice, this theory has paved the way to treacherous political alliances and governmental collaborations with pro-capitalist enemies, draping themselves with a progressive mask to better fool the masses and put down their struggle. These policies have irremediably resulted in catastrophic defeats for the working class in revolutions, from China in 1925-27 to Iran in the 1980s. They constitute a central part of the explanation for the weak state of the left today throughout large parts of the Middle East and Africa.
The Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), who once commanded tremendous political influence as one of the largest communist parties on the continent, was historically decimated as a result of this disastrous “stages” policy, consistently tail-ending what were presented as the “progressive” sections of the national bourgeoisie, rather than pursuing an independent class policy to unite the masses behind socialist goals.
Tragically, the current leaders of the SCP do not seem to have drawn any lessons from their own history. In a statement published in early June, the party openly admitted that it, “had to submit to the wishes of a majority of its partners at the FDFC and accepted to sit down with the TMC to negotiate a handover of power based on terms of power sharing with the TMC. On our part we saw such a drastic change of position as costly in terms of meeting the aspirations of the millions of our people for a genuine change and not the least we had to endure the apparent and loud discontent of some of our loyal members, friends and sympathizers. However, as we were governed by the terms and rules of FDFC, we chose to move pragmatically and to take the position that ensures the unity of the opposition under the leadership of FDFC.”
The same logic was behind the slogan for a “government of national competences” campaigned for by the Popular Front in Tunisia in 2013. It ended up in the sealing of a programmatic deal between the Popular Front and ‘Nidaa Tounes’, i.e. the main political party representing the old dictatorial regime and pro-restoration forces, under the pretext of building a “civilian” front against the right-wing Islamists of Ennahda. The Popular Front never really recovered from that terrible betrayal and squandered a tremendous revolutionary opportunity that had objectively posed the question of working class power in Tunisia in the summer of that year.
To secure any victories won in mass revolutionary struggle and lay the basis for an end of the current misery, crisis, exploitation and oppression, a socialist transformation of society is needed. Trotsky explained in the theory of the permanent revolution how all tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution – the national question, land, democratic rights, “modernisation” – are linked to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.
Whereas the magnificent revolutionary uprisings in Algeria and Sudan have displayed yet again the revolutionary heroism that workers, women and youth are capable of, the leaderships of the current political forces of the organized left are unfortunately not up to the historical tasks posed by these movements. This only highlights the importance for the CWI to renew its efforts to assist the building of revolutionary Marxist forces in these countries and all across the region.