When workers’ struggles shook the Middle East

27 March 2024
Jordan Humphreys

As Israel’s latest brutal war against the people of Gaza drags on, the need to challenge the Zionist state and all those who facilitate its genocidal campaign couldn’t be clearer.

For many leftists, the only viable opposition to imperialism in the Middle East appears to be armed groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, or governments hostile to the West such as Iran and Syria. Workers don’t get a look in.

Yet there is a hidden history of working-class struggle in the region that dates back many decades. These struggles not only challenged the domination of the region by imperialist powers, but also shook the rule of all those who sought to exploit and oppress the masses.

During the 1940s, a powerful workers movement emerged in Egypt. Britain had occupied the country since 1882. After a nationwide revolt in 1919, the British gave formal independence to Egypt, but still retained much control over the country—including the stationing of British troops on the Suez Canal.

Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman in their study of the Egyptian labour movement, Workers on the Nile, reveal that militant textile workers were the backbone of the movement, particularly those in Shubra al-Khayma, an industrial centre north of Cairo. By 1945, the General Union of Mechanical Textile Workers in Shubra al-Khayma and Cairo had nearly 15,000 members, making it the second largest union in the country. Beinin and Lockman write that the strength of the union was based on an extensive network of workers organised in steward committees and a group of brilliant socialist activists. The textile workers also helped organise other sections of workers across Egypt.

In October 1945, the leaders of the textile workers supported a move to set up the Workers Committee for National Liberation—The Political Organization of the Working Class, which had a weekly socialist newspaper called al-Damir.

Al-Damir championed the struggles of workers and argued that both imperialism and capitalism had to be challenged in Egypt:

“Imperialism ... together with the Egyptian capitalists and landowners plot and plan against the Egyptian people. The people have no other way therefore than to struggle against British imperialism and local capitalist exploitation at the same time if it desires resurrection and liberation.”

In this spirit, al-Damir and the Workers Committee for National Liberation demanded not only an end to British control in Egypt, but also the nationalisation of industry, the breakup of the major companies, a transformation of rural life and the right for workers to fight against economic exploitation.

The Egyptian government was terrified. On 21 October, the prime minister met with them and offered legal protection if they made him the editor of al-Damir! The workers, of course, refused.

Having failed to coopt the movement, the government moved to crush it. Bosses started a wave of mass sackings aimed at the key activists, and from mid-December the military occupied Shubra al-Khayma. In response, textile workers launched a week-long strike that was brutally repressed, with more than 600 workers arrested.

Meanwhile, university students had started a protest movement of their own. This began after the revelation that the Egyptian government had sent Britain a memorandum offering to extend and strengthen their military alliance. In February 1946, thousands of students at Cairo University held a conference to denounce the memorandum and the government’s repression of the textile workers. The students were viciously attacked by police, leaving hundreds wounded.

A National Committee of Students and Workers was formed to unite the struggle against the Egyptian government and the British military forces. The committee issued a call for a general strike to begin on 21 February, which was dubbed “evacuation day”, i.e. the day when British troops and their collaborators would be forced to evacuate the country.

The anti-Zionist Jewish Marxist Tony Cliff describes what happened on the day:

“‘Evacuation Day’—about 100,000 workers and students made a strike and demonstration in Cairo. The spirit of the demonstrators was clearly revealed in the fact that none of the traditional parties had any sway over them. When Ahmed Husayn, the leader of the fascist party ‘Misr al-Fatat’ tried to worm his way into the midst of the turbulent masses, he was greeted with cries of ‘Down with Fascism!’ and was forced to retire without speaking. The solidarity of Moslems, Christians and Jews was an oft-repeated slogan throughout the demonstrations. Sudanese students studying in Egypt who called for a common struggle against British imperialism were carried shoulder high.”

Cliff explains that the National Committee was truly “representative of the masses”. Its “members were chosen in democratic elections from each faculty and trade union” and in “every quarter of Cairo special local quarter committees were also elected” with worker activists in the big foreign companies having a “decisive influence on the direction of the movement”. In Alexandria, Cliff says that anti-Stalinist Trotskyist activists held a majority on the city-wide committee.

The February general strike was followed by another massive strike in March, and strikes and demonstrations continued until the late 1940s. While the Egyptian government was able to cling to power, its legitimacy was fatally undermined, opening the space for nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers to seize power in 1952.

Such scenes were repeated in Iraq, which was shaken by huge protests and general strikes that fused anti-colonial and class demands during the 1940s and ’50s. Oil workers played the key role, using their strategic position to shut down an industry that accounted for 61 percent of government revenue.

As in Egypt, the British granted Iraq nominal independence in 1932, but this was a facade. They retained military forces in the country (including control over the airbases) and pressured the Iraqi government to sign a deal giving them control over oil production until the year 2000.

When the Iraqi government in 1948 began to negotiate a new deal that would continue this arrangement, a protest movement of students, workers and the urban poor erupted—later called al-Wathba (the Leap).

While the imperialist relationship with Britain sparked the uprising, the Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batau argues in his epic The Old Social Classes and New Revolutionary Movements of Iraq that it was also rooted in the “social subsoil of Baghdad” and was a “revolt against hunger and unequal burdens”.

No wonder then that, when students launched a mass march in Baghdad on 20 January, hundreds of railway workers and many poor people from the urban slums joined the protest. The police tried to break it up and opened fire on the crowd, killing two students. Batau describes what happened next:

“As word of the outrage spread, resentment mounted to a fever heat. Tempestuous protests pervaded the streets. Crowds thick with Communists, and armed with huge canes, clashed with the police, who became much like an aidless flotsam in a wrathful sea. An atmosphere redolent of social revolution enveloped Baghdad.”

The revolt reached a high point on 27 January, when a huge crowd of students and workers attempted to cross the Ma’mum Bridge in Baghdad only to be fired upon by machine guns—between 300 and 400 died. That evening, the Iraqi premier fled the country, a new government was formed, and the negotiations with the British over the deal ended.

The al-Wathba was suppressed but soon followed by the Intifada (uprising) in 1952. Strikes continued even after a group of nationalist military officers took power in 1958, and Communists could reportedly mobilise over a million workers and students onto the streets.

Similar movements took place across the Middle East during the postwar decades. In Iran, a workers movement emerged in 1942. By 1946, hundreds of thousands of workers were organised in more than 100 unions, and 65,000 oil workers launched a successful three-day strike. Petroleum workers in Bahrain led a series of mass strikes against British rule, culminating in a three-month-long uprising in 1965 that pressured British troops to withdraw in 1968. Similarly, from 1959 to 1963, refinery and dock workers in Aden were the vanguard of a mass movement to drive the British out of South Yemen. Strikes and worker protests were a regular feature of life in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait during the 1940s and ’50s.

This history reveals that working-class struggle is not foreign to the Middle East. However, if workers were so keen on challenging imperialism and capitalism during this period, why didn’t worker-led revolutions take place?

The answer to this question can be found in the politics of the various Middle Eastern Communist parties. Communists played a significant role in the emergence and leadership of the workers movements during the postwar years. But they were deeply influenced by Stalinism and took direction from Moscow. The Soviet Union argued that Communists should seek to form alliances with the so-called patriotic capitalists in the Middle East, who supposedly had a common interest with the workers in defeating imperialism. The Egyptian revolutionary socialist Hossam el-Hamalawy argues in an interview with the Left Berlin blog that while the “Communists played a central role in the strikes”, they “were Stalinists who believed in two-Stages theory, which explained that it was not yet time to have a social revolution”. The role of Communists was to mobilise the masses to drive out the imperialists, but not to encourage workers to seize power themselves.

In Egypt, this meant that Communists softened the strident calls for working-class independence made by the textile workers and al-Damir in order to construct an alliance with other classes.

When Nasser and the Free Officers seized power in 1952, Communist-led trade unions welcomed them as leaders of the national revolution and called off a general strike of transport workers. Less than a month later, a bitter strike broke out at Kafr al-Dawwar, a textile centre south of Alexandria. After shots were fired between striking workers and managers, the military arrested hundreds of workers, and two union leaders were sentenced to death with the approval of the Free Officers. Beinin and Lockman argue in Workers on the Nile that Communists toned down criticism of the sentences in the vain hope that they could still work for sections of the Free Officers. Instead, Nasser continued his repression of the Communists, even while his government grew closer to the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Communists decided to dissolve their organisation and join Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union party.

This basic story was repeated in country after country. The Iraqi Communists played the key role in defeating British control over their country and yet they let their allies, the nationalist Ba’ath party, take power, due to their belief that the revolution could only be national, not socialist. Then in 1963, the Ba’ath government turned around and crushed the Communists, killing thousands of their members.

Workers had shown their immense power to shake not only the strength of the imperialist forces, but all those who sought to exploit and oppress the people. But their leaders tied their fate to various middle-class national parties that only wanted capitalism controlled by Arabs rather than by foreigners. As the Marxist historian Anne Alexander has argued in an article about the Iraqi revolution for International Socialism, “despite the deep crisis and eventual collapse of the old order, it was not the working class that benefited”. Instead, the “Communist parties, hamstrung by Stalinist ideas of an alliance with the ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’, tied the fate of the working-class movement to nationalist goals”.

Since then, Middle Eastern workers have continued to mobilise. Textile workers in Egypt once again played an important role in the Egyptian revolution of 2011 that overthrew the dictator Mubarak. In 2019, teachers in Jordan launched the longest ever public sector strike in that country. Iran has seen years of strikes alongside popular protests against the government.

Socialists look to these movements as the ultimate force that can resist imperialism and capitalism in the region, and we hope for a day when workers’ struggle brings down all the imperialist forces, exploiters and dictators in the Middle East.

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.