Revolution #237, June 26, 2011

Paris and London Conferences: Stirring Debate about Lessons and Challenges of the Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa

Observations from a Correspondent

In the wake of the unprecedented, regime-toppling uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, two conferences titled The Middle East and North Africa—Prospects for Revolution recently took place in Europe. The first was in Paris on May 28, the second in London on May 30. Some 200 people attended altogether.

It is exactly at times of such upsurge as seen in the Arab world that people search for answers to why the world is as it is, and how it can be changed. Igniting hope among many around the world, these uprisings have given heart to all who want to see a radically different one and have dealt a blow to the popular perception that the existing world is eternal.

Meeting an Important Need

The conference organizers represented different political forces and opinions. But they shared a felt need to deeply address critical issues and challenges raised by these recent upsurges. What has actually been achieved, and what must be achieved if the aspirations expressed in these revolts are to be fulfilled? And the conferences were seen as an important occasion for learning more about the complexity of the continuing struggles on the ground and the questions they raise, and interacting with a wider circle of revolutionary-minded and progressive people, both Arab and non-Arab.

In recent months, programs in solidarity with the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have taken place in Europe. This has been important and must continue—and solidarity was an element of the Paris and London conferences.

But some of the organizers were aiming for something more: to stimulate a deeper level of engagement in the face of a major challenge. If these movements are left to follow their spontaneous path, then sooner or later a new version of the old order will be cemented back into place—and the window of hope opened by these struggles will be slammed shut again.

Efforts were made to frame discussion and exchange around critical questions. Is spontaneous revolt alone enough to achieve genuine liberation? What kind of revolution is needed, not only by the peoples of the Arab countries but all of humanity? Can Western-style democracy play a positive role in societies of extreme repressiveness? What about the role of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and North Africa? Is it possible to achieve a revolution outside the framework of Western imperialist domination and the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism? What is the role of communist science and leadership in the kinds of movements and upsurges that have erupted? Can communist revolution truly transform oppressive institutions, oppressive economic and social relationships and antiquated and enslaving ideas and values?

Discussion and Debate in Paris and London

The lineup of speakers in Paris was Salameh Kaileh, a Palestinian Marxist; Adel Thebat, a representative of the Communist Workers Party of Tunisia; Raymond Lotta, political economist and writer for Revolution, newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA; Hassan Chatila, Syrian communist (see interview in AWTWNS110516); Shahrzad Mojab, activist, University of Toronto professor, specialist on women and the Middle East, from Iran. Lotta and Mojab went on to speak at the conference in London.

The London conference featured Nawal al-Saadawi, the well-known Egyptian novelist and feminist activist, whose books include Woman at Point Zero, God Dies by the Nile, and Memoirs from the Women’s Prison. Also speaking were Amir Hassanpour, University of Toronto, from Iran; Sami Ramadani, senior lecturer, London Metropolitan University, from Iraq; and Aitemad Muhanna, researcher in gender issues in Gaza, Palestine.

Several speakers analyzed the situation in various countries, pointing out that each has its own particularities, as well as making more generalized comments about the nature and goals of the upsurges. There was discussion of the larger impact these upsurges have had and are having. The U.S.-NATO intervention in Libya was widely condemned. Several speakers drew lessons from the historical experience of communist-led revolutions. At certain points in the conference, there was more direct engagement over differing views and positions. But at other times, the necessary debate over critical questions did not get as sharply focused and systematically pursued as is needed.

At the Paris conference, a representative from the Workers Communist Party of Tunisia (PCOT) described the continuing struggle in Tunisia. He argued at the Paris conference that a revolution had taken place. The task now is to safeguard the gains by getting candidates into positions in parliament and to work to create more democratic space in order to achieve liberation at some time in the future.

This position was sharply contested by Raymond Lotta. He argued that Tunisian society was still ruled by exploiting classes and dominated by imperialism—and that in a period of crisis and upsurge like this, the task is precisely to maximize and accelerate revolutionary preparation towards the seizure of power. To do otherwise is to squander the creative energies and heroic determination of the youth and others who took to the streets.

Hassan Chatila talked about the nature of Syrian society, highlighting the extreme oppressiveness and concentration of wealth, and also described aspects of the struggle against the regime of Bashad Assad. The regime is viciously cracking down on protesters, and leftist forces should be mobilizing and leading—but, Chatila noted, there is a shameful history of much of the organized and official Left supporting the regime.

Women’s Emancipation and the Veil

Women made up a large percentage of those attending the conferences. At the London event, the oppression of women was a major focus of discussion.

Shahrzad Mojab spoke from what she described as a revolutionary feminist perspective. She drew out lessons from the experience of the revolutionary upsurge in Iran in 1979 and the consolidation of power by the reactionary mullahs. She pointed out that the imposition of the veil was one of the first and most serious attacks by the mullahs following the overthrow of the Shah. But at the time, progressive forces failed to fully oppose the oppression of women, and to educate and mobilize against the veil. Mojab explained that the attacks and measures against women were not only oppressive in their own right but also key elements of the broader theocratic restructuring of the Iranian state.

One young Muslim woman in the audience insisted that women today are wearing the veil by choice and for moral reasons—in an increasingly decadent society. Some in the audience shared this view. Others argued strenuously that the veil is emblematic of a whole patriarchal system and ideology. Lotta raised that both the burkha and the thong symbolize and concentrate chains of oppression bound up with the enslaving forces of Western imperialism and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism—and that both of these forces and outlooks must be opposed.

Nawal al-Saadawi argued that the idea of the veil as empowering is a form of brainwashing. She also spoke to the oppression of women in the world at large; she said it is an outrage that people in France are not speaking out and rallying against sexual assaults on women after the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician and former head of the International Monetary Fund charged with committing a criminal sex act, attempted rape and sexual abuse against a hotel worker in New York City.

There was some debate as well about whether there is a positive side to Islamic fundamentalism, since these forces have some contradictions with imperialism and some are involved in grass-roots organizing.

Democracy, Revolution, Communism

Issues of democracy, revolution, and communism were posed. At the London conference, Sami Ramadani put forth the position that imperialism could not tolerate any kind of democracy in the Arab world, given the Middle East’s strategic importance, in terms of resources and geopolitics. Lotta argued that even in Third World countries of strategic importance, imperialism can utilize multiparty elections and constitutional change to re-solidify its domination; and that if there is no revolution that expels imperialism and establishes a new state power and economy, then the military, which represents the local exploiting classes and imperialism, will continue to enforce oppressive economic and social relations.

Several speakers held that parliamentary elections and political rights are the best thing that can be achieved now, and that communism is a 20th century concept, no longer relevant. Others disagreed and spoke to the importance of clearly seeing the need for overthrowing the system and breaking free from capitalist-imperialist global relations and all forms of exploitation and oppression.

Amir Hassanpour spoke of the “daring” of going into the streets, but another kind of “daring” as well: posing a revolutionary alternative to the capitalist world order. He talked about the landmark character of the Soviet and Chinese revolutions. Yet these revolutions were defeated, and there is the task of further developing revolutionary theory. Lotta talked about how Bob Avakian has summed up the lessons of the first wave of socialist revolution of the 20th century—and that this summation and the vision Avakian is bringing forward of a vibrant and dynamic socialism marked by intellectual, artistic, and scientific ferment and pulsing with experimentation, debate, and contestation is crucial to launching a new stage of communist revolution...and to achieving genuine emancipation in today’s world.

Nawal al-Saadawi brought direct experience of the upsurge in Egypt into the proceedings. She had taken part in the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and has been in touch with many young activists. But she brought a wider view to bear as well. She stressed that the system we must get rid of is one that oppresses people through capitalist economics...through all forms of religion...and through patriarchy. She challenged the audience with her conviction that any movement for social change requires a spirit and practice of “dissidence and creativity.”

Saadawi and Lotta in Conversation

On June 1, Nawal al-Saadawi and Raymond Lotta engaged in a public conversation at Goldsmiths College of the University of London.

Saadawi elaborated on the conditions in Egypt leading up to the social explosion that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. She and Lotta continued their exchange over the difference between an uprising and a revolution that breaks society out of the grip of imperialism and initiates all-around transformation—and the ways in which U.S. imperialism is still very much in command of Egypt’s economy and military. In response to comments from the audience, the two talked about the role of Israel and Zionism in the region, and the unjust, illegitimate, and immoral character of the Israeli settler colonial state. There was discussion of whether Marxism is able to deal with issues of gender. In all, it was a lively, substantive, and respectful exchange—and both speakers expressed a desire to continue their public dialogue.


While the Paris and London conferences did not fully achieve their goals in terms of attendance, and while engagement was uneven over the bigger issues at stake in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, these events represented a necessary first step and promising beginning. Some key issues and challenges were etched out, and new channels for dialogue and debate were opened.

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