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Arab Workers and the Struggle for Democracy

Since 2011, Arab labor organizations and left parties have been central to movements for democracy and social justice in the Middle East. Frequently overlooked in Western media coverage, from Egypt and Tunisia to Algeria and Sudan, they’ve carried on this fight against tremendous odds.

Protesters chant songs and demands outside the Tunisian prime minister's office on January 24, 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia. Protesters from the countryside and the hamlet of Sidi Bouzid, the town where the "Jasmine Revolution" started, walked through the night to descend on the prime minsiter's office. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

On January 14, 2020, thousands marched down the main boulevard of Tunisia’s capital city of Tunis, festively celebrating the ninth anniversary of the revolt that ousted corrupt autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s former president. Surrounded by a phalanx of security forces, the crowd didn’t raise political slogans. The order of the day was expressing pride in the accomplishments of the 2010–11 “Jasmine Revolution” and hopes for the future.

A short distance away, several hundred gathered in the square in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labour Union, the national trade union federation (known by its French acronym, UGTT). They chanted, “Work! Freedom! Dignity!”: a revolutionary slogan suggesting that these goals have yet to be achieved.

UGTT secretary-general Noureddine Taboubi addressed the crowd, decrying the lack of economic progress since Ben Ali’s departure: “The revolution will go on until the real republic has been established.” Mongi Merzgui, secretary-general of the national union of sanitation workers, continued the same theme: “I’m really disappointed . . . we have freedom of expression, but that can’t create jobs or feed us.”

The OECD’s 2018 Economic Survey of Tunisia confirms the assertions of the UGTT leaders: economic conditions have not improved since Ben Ali’s demise, especially in the western and southern regions and for youth and women. Capital investment has declined. The national unemployment rate is over 15 percent but stands at 30 percent for youth and 20–30 percent in the west and south (about the same as it was before 2011).

Real wages in most sectors have declined, while annual GDP growth has averaged only 1.7 percent since 2011. In return for granting a $2.9 billion loan in 2016, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed for a wage freeze and devaluation of the Tunisian dinar. Devaluation drove inflation up to an annual rate of 7.6 percent by March 2018.

The two January 14 demonstrations exemplify the struggle over the political import of the Arab popular uprisings of 2010–11. Were they simply demands for democracy and dignity? Or were they also movements for jobs and social justice, and implicitly rebellions against neoliberal austerity and crony capitalism? What was the role of the region’s working classes in the uprisings?

The Political Economy of Revolt

Collective actions by workers and the unemployed formed an important part of the movements that ousted Ben Ali in Tunisia and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and challenged the monarchies of Bahrain and Morocco. Workers rarely raised demands for democracy or regime change, except in Bahrain, where the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) has had a left orientation since its founding in 2004. But increasingly frequent and sometimes protracted strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations contributed to a culture of protest that undermined the legitimacy of autocracy.

The 2018–20 popular uprisings in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq — and more briefly Tunisia and Egypt — are sequels to the 2010–11 cycle of protest, driven by the continuity of the main features of political economy and governance before and after 2010–11 in the Middle East and North Africa. Petro-capitalism centered in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman — remains the dominant regime of capital accumulation in the region, even as it is developing beyond the stage of primitive accumulation based on oil and gas rents.

The hydrocarbon-poor countries are integrated into petro-capitalism via the remittances of their migrant workers and aid and investment from the hydrocarbon-rich GCC countries. This regime of capital accumulation is regulated by what Gilbert Achcar characterizes as “a mix of patrimonialism, nepotism, and crony capitalism, pillaging of public property, swollen bureaucracies, and generalized corruption, against a background of great sociopolitical instability and impotence or even nonexistence of the rule of law.” I would add to that list: low human development indices, a repressive public culture, and the prevalence of Islamist movements as the main forms of political opposition.

The hydrocarbon-poor regional states are subject to both the hydrocarbon-rich states and the international financial institutions — the IMF, World Bank, etc. — which are backed by the United States and the European Union. When they need financial bailouts to cover foreign exchange shortages (because of spikes in the price of imported oil, for example) or budget shortfalls, the IMF typically lends them money on condition that they adopt its neoliberal Washington Consensus economic policies, often dubbed Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programs (ERSAPs).

ERSAPs entail cutting public expenditures, privatizing public-sector enterprises, limiting the rights of workers, reducing or eliminating government subsidies on basic consumer goods, making local currencies fully convertible, and enhancing incentives for foreign investment. They are essentially austerity programs that disable public investment in jobs and services, motivated by a dogmatic belief that private investment will perform these tasks more efficiently.

After the 2010–11 uprisings, the IMF acknowledged that it had ignored the highly unequal distribution of benefits from the model of economic growth it has been promoting since the late 1970s. Former IMF managing director Christine Lagarde wrote in the IMF blog: “Let me be frank: We were not paying enough attention to how the fruits of economic growth were being shared.” But in practice, the IMF has simply rebranded the same basic portfolio of policies it touted before 2011 as “inclusive growth.”

Axis of Counterrevolution

One major change since 2011 is the higher profile of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in enforcing a regional counterrevolutionary order. Their strategy has been to construct a sectarian “Sunni axis” including Bahrain, Egypt, and, incongruously, Israel, in opposition to Iran and its regional allies — Syria, Iraq, the Yemeni Houthis, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Palestinian Hamas.

In 2011 they intervened militarily to quash Bahrain’s February 14 pro-democracy movement. In 2015, they sent troops to Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels, seeking to restore their chosen candidate to power as president, although Saudi and Emirati policies in Yemen have since diverged. The Saudis backed the Egyptian military and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi against the Muslim Brothers, who gained power briefly after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

In 2017, the Saudis and Emiratis imposed a boycott on Sunni Qatar, claiming that it supports terrorism. The underlying issue is that Qatar has refused to adopt an antagonistic stance toward Iran because the two countries share the world’s largest natural gas field, the South Pars/North Dome field in the Persian Gulf.

Qatar has deployed its vast resources to support Islamist forces across the region, including the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the Ennahda party in Tunisia, which espouse more liberal forms of Islam than Saudi Wahhabism. The Saudi-Emirati boycott of Qatar has not succeeded. But Qatar’s political allies have been decisively defeated in Egypt and Syria and are embattled in Libya.

Ennahda has been more successful in Tunisia, where it has won a plurality of votes in the three national elections since 2011. Despite its record of backing neoliberal and anti-worker policies, Ennahda maintains a base in Tunisia’s impoverished and marginalized western and southern regions that is comparable to support for Trump in the Rust Belt and rural America.

The Tunisian Revolt

The 2010–11 uprising in Tunisia began in the bleak center-west town of Sidi Bouzid, where unemployment and poverty rates were — and remain — far higher than in the rest of the country. Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old fruit seller, immolated himself in front of the government offices on December 17, 2010, after a policewoman humiliated him while confiscating his merchandise, alleging that he had no permit to engage in street vending.

The first solidarity demonstrations were confined to other center-west governorates. On January 4, 2011, Bouazizi succumbed to third-degree burns. The previously regional protests coalesced as a national social movement reached Tunis on January 6.

During these weeks, the thoroughly co-opted UGTT national executive bureau did nothing more than urge the security forces to refrain from using excessive force. However, several second-level or regional UGTT leaders and militant rank-and-file members made common cause with the popular struggle. They lent their political experience, logistical support, and organizational structure to the movement and supported broadening its demands to regime change. After Ben Ali was deposed, the UGTT’s December 2011 congress replaced its incumbent national executive bureau with a left-leaning leadership.

With over half a million members in a country of 11.5 million, the UGTT is the largest civil organization in Tunisia. Its favorability rating in public opinion polls far exceeds that of any political party. In the post–Ben Ali era, the UGTT leadership has delicately balanced political support for secularist political forces (including those friendly to neoliberalism) against Ennahda, pressuring the regime to resist the austerity measures urged by the IMF, and containing periodic outbursts of popular outrage.

It has built its status and credibility by representing popular demands to the regime and by convincing the regime that if it does not meet at least some of those demands, the UGTT will be unable to guarantee political stability.

To pursue this strategy, the UGTT leadership prefers controlled actions, like the one-day national general strike of January 17, 2019, which challenged the government’s refusal to raise the salaries of 670,000 public servants, under pressure from the IMF’s demand for cuts in government expenditures. The strike allowed the UGTT to demonstrate that it is “on the workers’ side,” while remaining within the boundaries of the political game established decades ago.

Unfinished Story

However, wildcat actions unsanctioned by the UGTT national leadership were a major force undermining the legitimacy of the Ben Ali regime. Outbursts of popular rebellion demanding jobs and economic development have erupted periodically since Ben Ali’s demise. They typically begin in the center-west or other impoverished regions of the country.

On January 16, 2016, twenty-eight-year-old Ridha Yahyaoui, an unemployed college graduate in the capital city of the center-west governorate of Kasserine, learned that his name had suddenly been removed from a list of seventy-five candidates about to be appointed to government jobs. In despair, Yahyaoui climbed atop a utility pole, where he was electrocuted.

Mass protests against unemployment and lack of economic opportunity immediately erupted, following a well-established repertoire: marches and a sit-in at the governorate headquarters, while two unemployed university graduates threatened to jump to their deaths from its rooftop. Youth defied a curfew and torched the Kasserine offices of the ruling Nidaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”) party.

Within days, the movement spread to the more prosperous and politically influential coastal cities of Tunis and Sousse. Eventually, it extended to sixteen of twenty-four governorates, before subsiding on January 22.

The protests prompted by Ridha Yahyaoui’s death followed the same trajectory as the demonstrations in solidarity with Mohammed Bouazizi that led to Ben Ali’s overthrow five years earlier. Both movements began in neighboring economically neglected governorates before arriving in Tunis.

One difference, reflecting the gains of the 2010–11 uprising, is that as the January 2016 demonstrations began to spread, the UGTT, the Tunisian League of Human Rights, the Union of Unemployed Graduates, and the General Union of Tunisian Students moved quickly, both to support the demands of the movement and to contain its violent aspects.

These organizations share the view that despite its many flaws, maintaining the current regime is preferable to promoting instability that might boost the status of Islamists (either Ennahda or armed jihadis). In contrast, many unemployed youth in the marginalized regions feel they have no stake in the regime.

“What Are We Waiting For?”

On January 1, 2018, under renewed pressure from IMF demands for austerity, the government announced a budget that would raise taxes on gasoline, phone cards, housing, internet usage, and hotel rooms, and reduce subsidies on fruits and vegetables. In response, on January 8, an anti-austerity demonstration broke out in Tebourba, a rural town west of the capital.

It morphed into a violent riot after a fifty-five-year-old man died, probably from tear-gas asphyxiation, after the demonstration. Riotous protests spread from Tebourba to at least twenty other locales via social media with the hashtag #Fech_Nestannew (“What are we waiting for?”) and persisted until January 12.

In addition to the price increases, the lack of jobs, especially for university graduates, was a major underlying grievance. In Tebourba, Oussema Ellafi, an unemployed thirty-two-year-old musician, explained: “We talked with people peacefully, we said give us jobs; we presented applications, and we said we have certificates, and nothing happened. That peaceful stuff doesn’t do anything.”

Imen Mhamdi, a twenty-seven-year-old university graduate currently employed as a factory worker, said that she joined the demonstrations in Sousse because “this government, like every government after Ben Ali, only gives promises and has done nothing.”

Unity or Masquerade?

The UGTT had no organized presence in the January 2018 anti-austerity demonstrations. After the 2016 protests that began in Kasserine, it signed on to the Carthage Document, which enabled the formation of a national unity government including Ennahda and secularist parties. The signatories promised to consider the needs of workers and the poor when implementing further austerity measures.

After the Tebourba uprising, the UGTT urged the government to blunt the impact of the price increases on the most vulnerable. The resulting compromise, typical of the UGTT’s standard operating procedure, was a government promise to increase assistance to 250,000 poor families by $70.3 million and provide better health care to all.

The Popular Front is an alliance of leftist parties that constituted the largest parliamentary opposition bloc, with fifteen out of 217 seats, before the October 2019 elections. It openly supported the Tebourba uprising and sought to spread it and coordinate with other supporters. The Popular Front denounced the UGTT-approved compromise as a “masquerade.” But it was unable to mobilize further actions against it.

The Popular Front splintered before the 2019 parliamentary elections. One of its principal components, the People’s Movement, returned with fifteen seats, while the original Popular Front fell to one — still an overall gain of one for the radical left. However, in February 2020, the People’s Movement became part of a coalition government.

That coalition includes Ennahda and other parties inclined to bow to the demands of the IMF, which is proposing to lend Tunisia another $3 billion to meet government expenses for 2020. This will probably become a field of contestation.

Struggles in Morocco

Nationwide demonstrations of some two hundred thousand people launched Morocco’s February 20 Movement for Democracy in 2011. Political differences and intrigues by the regime have long divided the Moroccan labor movement and weakened the February 20 Movement as well.

The Democratic Confederation of Labour (CDT) has a strong base among white-collar public administration and banking employees and is politically affiliated with the Federation of the Democratic Left, an alliance of three small socialist parties. It joined the February 20 Movement, along with several unions affiliated with the largest federation, the Moroccan Union of Labor (UMT).

In contrast, the National Labor Union of Morocco (UNMT), which is aligned with the Islamist Justice and Development Party, did not endorse the movement. Nor did the pro-monarchist General Union of Moroccan Workers (UGTM), whose primary base is among agricultural workers.

King Mohammed VI parried the demands for greater democracy by increasing the salaries of public-sector workers, raising the minimum wage, and proposing largely cosmetic constitutional amendments, which left the main levers of executive power in the hands of the monarchy. The CDT and its political partners, the February 20 Movement, and the Islamist Justice and Charity movement all called for a boycott of the July 1, 2011 constitutional referendum. Nonetheless, the new constitution passed.

In 2012, in return for a $4.1 billion loan to Morocco, the IMF demanded new austerity measures, with cuts in public investment, social spending, and pensions. Like the UGTT, the Moroccan unions prefer to engage in European-style “social dialogue” with the regime and employers. When their demands are not met, they typically resort to limited strike action.

On October 29, 2014, the UMT, the CDT, and a splinter from the CDT, the Democratic Federation of Labour (FDT), jointly called a twenty-four-hour general strike, because the government had refused to engage in dialogue over the austerity measures embodied in the 2015 state budget.

The unions called for lower taxes on wages and consumption, the repeal of legislation criminalizing union activity, and a halt to the firing of workers for exercising their right to free association. They wanted improved public services, guarantees of secure and stable employment with an end to precarious labor, and measures to address the needs of retirees living on pensions.

The Moroccan government did not meet these demands. Consequently, the UGTM joined the UMT, CDT, and FDT in calling for another twenty-four-hour general strike over similar issues on February 24, 2016. The CDT called for a third general strike on its own three years later.

The Rif Movement

Strikes like this do not build the unity and power of workers: rather, they contain them within boundaries tightly policed by the monarchy. However, were the contentious actions of workers to breach those boundaries, they would be subjected to harsh state repression, as was the case for the movement of popular protest that erupted in the northern Rif region in October 2016 and persisted for ten months.

The death of Mouhcine Fikri triggered the Rif Popular Movement, or “Hirak Rif.” Fikri was a fishmonger who had been crushed behind a dumpster bin where he had sat, trying to prevent police from confiscating his swordfish, which they claimed he had caught in a prohibited period. The circumstances exactly parallel the confiscation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s merchandise, which sparked the Tunisian popular uprising. The movement was organized around Amazigh (Berber) identity politics.

The Rif is historically an economically and culturally marginalized region, similar to Tunisia’s western and southern regions. The movement’s demands centered on respect for and preservation of Amazigh identity and language. But it also called for the construction of a regional cancer hospital, university, library, theater, roads, and fish-processing facilities.

Harsh repression overpowered the Hirak Rif by August 2017. In July 2019, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his accession to the throne, King Mohammed VI pardoned 4,764 prisoners, including most of those jailed for participation in the Rif Popular Movement who were still in prison.

Ousting Mubarak

Egyptian workers were the most visible component of the burgeoning protest movement that undermined the government of former president Hosni Mubarak during the decade before his ouster on February 11, 2011. From 2004 to 2010, there were 2,716 strikes and other collective actions, involving over 2.2 million workers, a substantial escalation over the already high level of labor protests since 1998.

Many of these actions stemmed from opposition to the consequences of privatization, or fear that the government would carry out further sell-offs of public enterprises. This workers’ movement organized itself entirely from below and against the will of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which is an arm of the state. Its agenda emerged as one of the popular slogans of the 2011 uprising: “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice!

Mubarak’s departure satisfied the majority of demonstrators: they did not understand that his removal did not satisfy the popular demand for “the fall of the regime.” Since calls for democracy or regime change were not the primary motivations of the workers’ movement, that movement persisted and escalated in the more permissive atmosphere of the next few years. Strikes and labor protests skyrocketed to 1,377 in 2011 and 1,969 in 2012: more than double and triple the previous annual highs of 614 in 2007 and 609 in 2008.

Leftist and populist labor organizers established the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) in the course of the movement demanding Mubarak’s ouster. They announced its existence on January 30, 2011 at a press conference in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the popular uprising.

EFITU’s founders were the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, a pro-labor NGO; the Independent (in other words, not affiliated with ETUF) General Union of Real Estate Tax Assessors, established in 2009 after a phenomenally successful wildcat strike in 2007; the much smaller independent unions of health care technicians and teachers; the 8.5-million-member association of retirees; and representatives of workers from several industrial-production sectors.

The Right to Vote, the Right to Bread

After Mubarak’s overthrow, forty EFITU leaders and socialist activists met in Cairo on February 19 and adopted a declaration of “Demands of the Workers in the Revolution,” including the right to form independent trade unions, the right to strike, and the dissolution of the ETUF. They resolved:

If this revolution does not lead to the fair distribution of wealth it is not worth anything. Freedoms are not complete without social freedoms. The right to vote is naturally dependent on the right to a loaf of bread.

Soon after this small gathering, there was a larger public event in Cairo on March 12. The Trotskyist labor journalist, Mostafa Bassiouni, moderated a panel that included the newly installed labor minister, Ahmad Hasan al-Bura’i, a professor of labor law and a longtime advocate of independent trade unions, EFITU president Kamal Abu Eita, and Kamal Abbas, the general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services.

Abu Eita had made his reputation by leading the 2007 tax assessors’ strike. Abbas had established the center with the veteran communist labor lawyer, Youssef Darwish, after he was fired for leading two strikes at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company in 1989. Minister Bura’i promised that workers would soon have the right to establish and join any union of their choice. He also pledged that the government would stop interfering in union affairs.

These events marked the high point in the unity and morale of the independent trade union movement. But they also exposed its weaknesses. Only three independent unions had emerged through local actions over the previous decade. None of the wildcat strikes of the late Mubarak era were coordinated beyond the level of a single enterprise. Few representatives from the provinces attended these meetings in Cairo.

With the exception of Kamal Abu Eita, who had been president of the tax assessors’ union, EFITU leaders had no experience leading a nationwide organization and few resources. Kamal Abbas’s small NGO had fewer than half a dozen staff. They did not imagine the center as an alternative national leadership to the ETUF. Moreover, after a year, the EFITU split over personal and political differences. Abu Eita remained president of the EFITU, while Abbas and his supporters formed the rival Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress.

Sisi’s Triumph

The split did not affect the workers’ movement directly: it peaked at 2,239 collective actions in 2013, 82 percent of which took place in the first half of the year. But the movement was ultimately dispersed by the reactionary military coup of July 3, 2013 against President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brother who had narrowly won Egypt’s first free presidential election the previous year.

In May 2014 the coup leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, won a stage-managed presidential election with 97 percent of the vote. The “workers’ candidate,” Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer and former executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, pulled out of the race, protesting against the unfair electoral law. All but one of the other potential candidates were pressured to withdraw.

El-Sisi gradually crushed all forms of social and political opposition, consolidating a praetorian dictatorship much harsher than that of Mubarak-era Egypt. First his government violently suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, then it attacked the independent workers’ movement. Finally, it intimidated every conceivable form of opposition and independent thought.

The number of strikes and other forms of collective action by workers plummeted after the coup. Nonetheless, a strike wave from the summer of 2015 to January 2016 involved over twenty thousand textile workers in the Nile Delta, six thousand workers at the Egyptian Aluminum Co., and tens of thousands in oil services, iron and steel, coke, cement, the subsidiary firms of the Suez Canal Company, and conductors of the Egyptian National Railways.

In a move typical of the massive repression imposed by el-Sisi, the web pages of the publication Mada Masr which reported on these strikes have been taken down. Since then, the Egyptian media has reported very few collective actions by workers, for fear of being shut down.

Resurgence

A brief spate of protests in September 2019 ignited hopes for a revival of oppositional politics in Egypt. But few employed workers took part. The prompt for these demonstrations came from Mohamed Ali, a construction contractor turned actor, who had worked with the military before going into self-exile in Spain. He posted Facebook videos plausibly alleging that el-Sisi and his inner circle had squandered public funds and enriched themselves: the same accusations previously made against Mubarak and the circle of businessmen around his son Gamal.

Thousands of protesters, many of them teenagers and youth from working-class and poor neighborhoods, gathered spontaneously and without leadership in Cairo, Alexandria and six other cities on September 20 and 21. The state security forces responded with violence, but were not entirely effective in dispersing the crowds, which encouraged further (albeit smaller) protests on September 27.

On that day and over the course of the following weeks, somewhere between two and four thousand people were arrested, the largest dragnet since el-Sisi became president. The movement was crushed. Nonetheless, the government recognized the underlying economic grievances by restoring subsidies for rice and pasta to 1.8 million people who had been disqualified after the government raised the income level for eligibility.

Emerging Trends

Three trends emerged among Arab opposition movements during the mid-2010s that were more fully developed in the Sudanese and Algerian uprisings of 2018–20. First, white-collar workers and university graduates became more prominent participants in strikes and protest movements. During Egypt’s 2015–16 strike wave, unemployed holders of MA and PhD degrees, K-12 teachers, and white-collar civil-service workers were especially visible.

Tertiary degree holders — such as doctors and health care workers, teachers, civil servants, and media workers — accounted for just over half of all Egyptian labor protests in the third quarter of 2015. (Tellingly, the website of the Mahrousa Center for Socioeconomic Development, which reported these figures, has since been taken down, and no figures for subsequent years are available.) This resembles the long-established militancy among primary and secondary teachers, health care, postal, telegraph, and bank workers in the UGTT, and the strong presence of left-wing activists in these sectors.

Secondly, gender issues and the participation of women have become more salient than they were in the 2010–11 uprisings. In Bahrain, the monarchy has harassed the GFBTU because of its active participation in the 2011 pro-democracy movement. Nonetheless, the GFBTU convened a national congress in 2016, at which four of the fifteen members elected to its national secretariat were women.

The GFBTU has long advocated the unionization of Bahrain’s one hundred thousand migrant domestic workers, most of whom are women. In June 2019, to mark International Domestic Workers’ Day, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Domestic Workers Federation to promote their rights and welfare.

About 50 percent of all UGTT members are women. But no woman had ever sat on its national executive bureau until Naïma Hammami won a position at the UGTT’s 2017 congress. She is a member of the Secondary Education Union, whose members have gone on strike repeatedly since 2011.

Thirdly, the current wave of uprisings has rejected sectarianism and ethnic strife. The uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon, which began in October 2019, originated as a response to increased taxes, the high cost of living, lack of economic opportunities, and the failure of governments to provide basic services.

But they also explicitly challenged the sectarian apportionment of political offices introduced in Iraq by the United States after the 2003 invasion and Lebanon’s more long-established sectarian constitutional structure. This posed a challenge to the Saudi-Emirati effort to build a Sunni-based, anti-Shia counterrevolutionary axis in the region.

Revolution in Sudan

Sudan’s 2018–19 revolutionary uprising embodied these new trends: white-collar workers and professionals provided militant leadership; women played a prominent role, making up as much as 70 percent of the participants in some demonstrations; and there was a sustained effort to unify the country’s ethnic communities, several of which had fought civil wars against the regime of Omar al-Bashir, who seized power in an Islamist military coup in 1989.

Moreover, unlike the other uprisings in the current cycle of protest, the Sudanese uprising is also linked to the historic leadership of the working class by the country’s Left. The Communist Party of Sudan was one of the strongest in the Middle East. It had a militant base in the Sudanese Workers’ Trade Union Federation (SWTUF) established in 1950.

In 1971, after a leftist coup the party had supported failed, it suffered harsh repression, from which it has never recovered. After coming to power, al-Bashir attacked the remaining base for left-wing, working-class politics by dissolving the SWTUF, reforming it under government supervision, and banning strikes. Nonetheless, the railway hub of Atbara, 220 miles south of the capital of Khartoum and a former stronghold of the Communist Party, is where the Sudanese revolution began.

Sudan has been impoverished since its second civil war with the south between 1983 and 2005 culminated in the independence of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011. The annual inflation rate skyrocketed from 18 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2018. Rising prices prompted widespread demonstrations in 2013, 2014, and 2016.

In October 2017, the United States partially lifted twenty years of trade sanctions, opening the door to normalized diplomatic relations and financial assistance from the IMF. A November 2017 IMF report offered the standard neoliberal policy recommendations, urging the Khartoum government to eliminate subsidies on wheat and fuel, unify currency exchange rates, and float the Sudanese pound, which would mean a steep devaluation.

The government did devalue the pound, which raised domestic prices sharply. The annual rate of inflation doubled in January 2018, provoking weeks of demonstrations.

Freedom and Change

Anti-austerity demonstrations erupted with renewed force in Atbara on December 19, 2018, in response to a threefold increase in the price of bread since the beginning of the year, and higher fuel prices (due to subsidy cuts recommended by the IMF). From Atbara, protests spread to other provincial cities before reaching Khartoum. The geographical distribution of the demonstrations made it harder for the regime to contain them.

Professionals joined the movement on December 26, when doctors affiliated with the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) proclaimed a nationwide strike. Other professionals subsequently also went on strike.

The SPA represents seventeen associations of doctors, lawyers, journalists, engineers, veterinarians, pharmacists, etc. It has provided the leadership and coordination for the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a broad alliance of twenty-two organizations and parties. On the first day of 2019, the FFC issued the “Declaration of Freedom and Change,” demanding the immediate removal of Omar al-Bashir as president.

The emblem of the Sudanese revolution is a viral video of “the woman in white,” Alaa Salah, standing atop a car, dressed in a traditional white gown, leading a crowd chanting “revolution” and other slogans against al-Bashir. Salah is a university student in engineering and architecture and a member of Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups — MANSAM, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Freedom and Change.

After four months of protests and civil disobedience culminating in huge demonstrations on April 6–7, the army decided that al-Bashir had become a liability. With approval from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the military arrested al-Bashir on April 11 and formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC), an exact replay of the Egyptian army’s dismissal of Mubarak in 2011.

Egyptian Lessons

However, the Sudanese opposition had learned from Egypt’s experience. Demonstrations continued, demanding that the TMC relinquish power to a civilian-led transitional government. Following a general strike on May 26–29, the chairman of the TMC, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, consulted with Emirati, Egyptian, and Saudi leaders.

Those talks appear to have resulted in a decision to smash the civilian opposition movement. On June 3 the Rapid Support Forces — which incorporate the Janjaweed militias responsible for genocide and mass rapes during the civil war in Darfur in 2003–9 — and other security units attacked demonstrators in Khartoum, killing 128 and raping seventy women.

The SPA responded to the “Khartoum massacre” by calling for “complete civil disobedience and open political strike,” which compelled the TMC to resume negotiations with the Forces of Freedom and Change. The strike ended on June 12 with the release of political prisoners.

A power-sharing arrangement between the civilian opposition and the TMC was established, with a mixed civilian-military Sovereign Council as Sudan’s executive power until elections are held in mid-2022. General al-Burhan will chair the council for the first twenty-one months, followed by a civilian for eighteen months.

The FFC sought to delay elections, in contrast with the rapid move to elections in post-Mubarak Egypt, in order to give the debilitated political parties time to reorganize. The Sovereign Council appointed a transitional cabinet including four female and fourteen male civilian ministers and two male military ministers — an expression of the partial success of the revolutionary movement to date.

General al-Burhan has close relations with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In February 2020, with their support and the encouragement of the United States and Saudi Arabia, he met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda. This suggests that al-Burhan is inclined to join the Saudi-led counterrevolutionary “Sunni axis,” in exchange for the United States removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and more support from the IMF.

Taking on Le Pouvoir

In December 2018, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria since 1999, declared his intention to run for a fifth term in the presidential elections due to be held the following April. Bouteflika began having serious health problems in 2005 and suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013 that rendered him wheelchair-bound and unable to give a speech.

Rarely seen in public thereafter, Bouteflika was the figurehead for a clique of military, internal security, governmental, political, and business leaders, collectively known as le pouvoir (the power). In collaboration and competition, they ruled the country. Le pouvoir decided that running a barely sentient Bouteflika for a fifth presidential term was the best way to maintain power.

Many Algerian youths felt abused by the indignity of being nominally led by an incapacitated octogenarian. After sporadic protests in scattered locales, they used social media to call for nationwide demonstrations on February 22, 2019. The turnout was massive and initiated Algeria’s “Smile Revolution,” or, more seriously, the Hirak Movement). From February to April, the Hirak spread geographically and gained momentum with weekly demonstrations. Universities and schools went on strike. The presidential elections were postponed.

Two-thirds of Algeria’s forty-one million people are under thirty. Overall unemployment is over 11 percent; but more than one-quarter of working-age youths are unemployed. These young people have been the core of the Hirak. But the underlying grievances of the Hirak stem from le pouvoir’s inability, because of its internal divisions, to set a clear economic course — either toward neoliberalism, in accord with the 1994 Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program (ERSAP) signed with the IMF, or toward a renewal of its founding populist anti-imperialism.

The consequence of that failure has been decades of economic stagnation, high unemployment, and multiplying corruption scandals. In 2010–12, the Algerian regime was able to stem protests by lowering the prices of basic foodstuffs, increasing the supply of wheat, and creating some jobs. However, the sharp decline in oil prices since 2014 rendered such remedies impossible in 2019.

Bouteflika’s Fall

The leadership of the officially recognized trade union federation, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), is part of le pouvoir. Autonomous unions unaffiliated with the UGTA were legalized in 1990. However, the government has repressed them, arrested their leaders, and refused to recognize them. Autonomous unions generally supported the Hirak. In some sections of the country, even the local UGTA leadership supported it.

The Trade Union Confederation of Productive Workers (COSYFOP) and the Autonomous Union of Workers in the Public Gas and Electric Company (SNATEG) called a general strike for March 10–15. It was even supported by Cevital, the largest non-energy private conglomerate. Raouf Mellal, president of both COSYFOP and SNATEG, declared that Algerian workers want “a transitional government that includes key figures from the opposition and promotes national unity.” The autonomous unions threatened another general strike on April 7 if a transitional government was not formed.

In response to the mounting popular pressure, on April 2, Bouteflika’s erstwhile ally, the army commander Ahmed Gaïd Salah, forced him to resign. Many powerful political figures in Bouteflika’s circle were arrested. The extensive list included his younger brother, Saïd Bouteflika, two former prime ministers, two former intelligence chiefs, a former chief of police, a dozen ministers, the leaders of the four political parties that supported Bouteflika, some of the richest people in the country, and several army officers.

The old regime was partially dismantled. This was an impressive achievement for a movement with no national organization or organic connection to opposition parties weakened by years of political participation on the terms of le pouvoir. Nonetheless, the fundamental structure of power remained in place. General Salah became the strongman of the interim regime. Its other key figures were fixtures of the Bouteflika era.

The interim government arrested many Hirak leaders. One of the outstanding figures was Karim Tabbou, head of a small, unrecognized democratic-socialist party, the Democratic and Social Union. He was imprisoned on September 11, 2019 for “weakening army morale” after publicly criticizing General Salah.

The interim government also targeted independent trade union leaders. Raouf Mellal was arrested and tortured after Bouteflika’s resignation in April and spent the next few months on the run. In September, one COSYFOP member was jailed for filming a march of union members; another was detained and tortured. Ibrahim Daouadji, secretary-general of OSATA, another autonomous union confederation, was arrested on October 12 for criticizing the military and civil authorities together with his three-year-old son. Rym Kadri, president of the COSYFOP-affiliated education workers’ union, was arrested on November 24 for participating in a sit-in demanding the release of political prisoners.

Electoral Trap

The army insisted on early presidential elections to prove that order was being reestablished and set the date for December 12, 2019. The Hirak sought to delay the vote so that opposition political forces would have time to organize and compete on an equal footing with candidates of the regime.

On November 1, the thirty-seventh weekly Friday demonstration of the Hirak, and the sixty-fifth anniversary of the start of Algeria’s War of Independence, hundreds of thousands protested in Algiers, opposing the December 12 presidential election date. Demonstrators carried posters proclaiming, “The elections of a corrupt power are a stupid trap.” They boldly chanted slogans against Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah and called for a civilian-led constituent assembly.

The demonstrators also called for the release of forty-one people who had been arrested for displaying the Amazigh flag at a rally in July. There is no law against displaying the Amazigh flag. Nonetheless, the forty-one had been detained on charges of “undermining national unity.” Five more were arrested for the same “offense” on November 1.

The Forces of the Democratic Alternative (FDA), a coalition that includes several socialist parties and the Amazigh-based Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), as well as the Islamist Justice and Development Front called for a boycott of the presidential election. As part of the campaign to prevent the December 12 election, COSYFOP called for a general strike on November 6–7.

As Raouf Mellal said:

We categorically reject these rigged military elections, which aim to abort any kind of democratic change. This is our opportunity to create a law-abiding civil state, and we will go all the way to peacefully restore the sovereignty of the people.

The Old Order Clings On

At one level, the boycott was a success: the official turnout was a low 40 percent, while the RCD claimed that the real figure was only 8 percent. However, the election went ahead, with five candidates taking part, all of them figures of the old regime. The winner, Algeria’s current president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, had been prime minister under Bouteflika. A new political order has not emerged.

Two days before the presidential election, the authorities arrested Kaddour Chouicha, president of the independent union of higher education workers and vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights. After twenty-eight days in detention, he was acquitted of the charges on March 3. Yet many other human rights defenders and Hirak leaders remain in detention.

Continuing the policies of the Bouteflika regime and the transition government, Tebboune retaliated against independent unions that support the Hirak. On February 5, police sealed the COSYFOP headquarters in Algiers. COSYFOP then held a Congress on February 15–16, where it elected Zakaria Benhaddad to replace Raouf Mellal as its president. Benhaddad has sought to depoliticize the union: “In the new statutes, we have specified that political activism is excluded, and that anyone who wants to exercise politics has only to join a political party.”

Uncertain Future

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed political activity throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In Iraq, the organizers of the regular demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square announced that the movement would be suspended until the pandemic was over.

In Lebanon, Assolta4 TV, Fourth Estate — Lebanese Revolution TV began test broadcasts in mid-February. Its initiators sought to create an independent media outlet for the popular uprising. So, the Lebanese movement had already gone partially online when demonstrations began to peter out in late February. But the channel did not appear to be operating by the time that security forces forcibly destroyed the last few remaining tents in downtown Beirut on March 27, enforcing a 7 PM to 5 AM curfew that the authorities had imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

In Tunisia, UGTT secretary-general Noureddine Taboubi announced that all strikes, protests, conferences, and meetings would be postponed for the duration of the pandemic.

In Sudan, the Forces for Freedom and Change began to lose confidence in the Sovereign Council when it cashiered soldiers and officers who had supported the revolution from the army. The SPA called a demonstration for February 20 to demand that they be restored to the ranks. Security forces responded with tear gas and violence. Soon after, the council closed schools and universities, suspended flights, and sealed the borders in response to COVID-19.

It simultaneously announced a delay of the investigation into the Khartoum Massacre. Because of this context, many believed that the Council was exaggerating the severity of the pandemic, in order to avoid exposing the crimes of the army during the revolutionary uprising. This prompted demonstrations on March 16, which appear to have been the last open expression of resistance to the military elements of the Sovereign Council.

In Algeria, the authorities sentenced Karim Tabbou to an additional six months in prison on March 24. Earlier, he and several other prominent Hirak figures had called on the movement to suspend its regular demonstrations from March 20 after fifty-six consecutive weeks of action. Several secular opposition groups — the Socialist Forces Front, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, and the Workers’ Party — joined them in this call.

COVID-19 has rendered the political future uncertain in the Middle East and North Africa, just as in other parts of the world. Consequently, it is impossible to predict the final outcome of the 2018–20 uprisings. However, the 2010–11 uprisings, and their sequels in 2018–20, are likely to be only the first stages in a protracted struggle over the underlying political and economic conditions that gave rise to those movements.