A decade has passed since a tidal wave of revolt swept across the Middle East and North Africa washing away autocratic regimes in its wake. That this happened seemed to have not only taken the local dictators by surprise, but also the rest of the world. And yet it should not have done. After years of state repression combined with economic hardship that had been made worse by the 2008 financial crisis, working people had had enough and rose up to fight for political democracy. High unemployment, especially among young workers, and poor economic prospects were the tinderbox. The suicide of a street seller in Tunisia was the spark.
We can see similar dynamics recently working themselves out in Russia and Myanmar. In January, Alexey Navalny, a long-time opponent of Putin, returned to Russia after being treated for nerve agent poisoning in Berlin. He was arrested and imprisoned on a charge of violating his parole conditions relating to a suspended sentence he received in 2014 for embezzlement. This sparked rallies and protests across Russia. Some have descended into violence as the police cracked down heavily on the demonstrators.
On 1st February in Myanmar, the military, after alleging that voter fraud had helped the National League of Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyi’s party) to secure a landslide victory in the November 2020 general election, deposed and detained the elected civilian rulers, including Suu Kyi, and declared direct military rule for one year. In response mass protests have erupted, which have elicited a severe crackdown by the police and the military. Public servants, health workers, teachers and other workers have gone on strike in an attempt to end military rule and restore civilian government.
What is common to these protests is the deteriorating living standards suffered by workers which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and popular disenchantment with the corrupt capitalist rulers who have been accumulating greater amounts of wealth. We can only sympathise with these workers struggling to obtain democratic rights. However, we believe it would be a mistake for them to put their trust in political leaders such Navalny and Aung San Suu Kyi. Notwithstanding their particular flaws – Navalny is a Russian nationalist and harbours anti-immigrant positions, and Suu Kyi, while in power, has defended the state persecution of the Rohingya Muslims – they are both committed to upholding the capitalist system which is the source of workers’ social problems. They would be overseeing the exploitation of the working class.
Sadly, the uprising of the Arab Spring ten years ago did not bring about democracy for the workers. With the possible exception of Tunisia, autocratic dictatorships still prevail in the region. This does not mean that workers should give up the political fight. On the contrary, we urge workers to fight not just for political democracy but for a fundamental change in how we organise society. What is needed is a class-conscious working class to organise globally to capture political power democratically to rid the planet of capitalism and establish genuine socialism, a worldwide society without national borders, money or social classes, where everyone can participate equally and enjoy free access to social wealth.