John Edmundson, Workers Party education officer, Christchurch
The biggest political story so far in 2011 has been the upsurge in mass protest in the Middle East and North Africa and the changes in government that have already been ushered in in Tunisia and Egypt. Massive demonstrations have shaken Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria and Jordan. Throughout the Arabic-speaking world, mass movements have emerged, seemingly from nowhere, to challenge long established dictatorial, and largely US-allied regimes that had seemed impervious to change and unthreatened by an apparently passive, depoliticized population. In Libya, civil war has broken out between the rebels, a mix of hastily armed civilians and elements of the army and air force that defected to the revolt, and those military and militia forces that have remained loyal to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Subsequently of course, Western intervention, in the form of bombardments and airstrikes, has ensued under the pretext of saving civilian lives.
So where did these movements come from, how did they arise so suddenly and what potential significance do they have for the region and for revolutionary movements around the world? Many commentators reacted to the massive demonstrations, especially those in Egypt, with surprise, having long regarded Egypt as one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. US administration insiders cited Libya and Iran as much more likely contenders for popular uprisings. Iran of course has seen a renewal of its popular movement and Libya too was soon to be gripped by protest and violent military repression, but how did the pundits get it so wrong about such dependable US allies as Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen? The situation is changing by the day, or in some cases, by the hour, so any attempt to provide up to date commentary would be futile, but an analysis of the background to these events and their potential significance is possible.