This issue examines the political impact of the economic crisis that has wracked Tunisia and Morocco over the first half of this decade. Even as we prepared this issue, the combustible recipe of austerity decrees and popular desperation exploded into violence in neighboring Egypt, in the industrial town of Kafr el-Dawar, near Alexandria. The decision in mid-September to double the government-controlled price of bread touched off the seething resentment of poor and working class Egyptians at the galloping price increases of uncontrolled market items over the last year. The final blow was a three percent increase in payroll deductions for all state workers. The riots in Kafr el-Dawar began as a sit-in strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, and expanded into a general protest as townspeople and relatives from nearby villages joined in. The government responded by retracting the price increases and by extending the three-year-old state of emergency for another year and a half.
The world economic recession forms a backdrop to these social crises. But, as David Seddon argues in his discussion of Tunisia and Morocco, the “open door” policies of all three regimes derive from the distinctive class structures and balance of forces within their societies. The spontaneous mass anger in Kafr el-Dawar echoed the uprisings early this year in Tunis and Marrakesh; the regimes rescinded specific price hikes but also moved to strengthen security in order to ‘respond adequately to all situations,” as Tunisian Prime Minister Mzali put it. Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia together account for some 73 million people, more than 44 percent of the total in the Arab world. How those three societies deal with mounting economic pressures and social crises there will have tremendous impact on the future of the region.
One urgent political question is why, so far, these crises have produced only unorganized and momentary uprisings, and not sustained challenges to the existing social order. Nationalism is usually the glue that binds political parties together with ruling regimes in a kind of consensus. Nowhere is this more evident than in Morocco. Paul and Clement’s article looks at this question through the prism of the Moroccan trade union movement, and provides a few clues within that history. But much work remains to be done to comprehend the basis of workers’ nationalism in the Middle East and elsewhere.
There is one striking difference between Egypt and its neighbors: ever since the mass upheaval over food prices in January 1977, the US has considered Egypt too critical to leave to the medicine men of the International Monetary Fund. In Egypt’s case, free market prescriptions have been subordinated to the larger good of preserving Washington’s strategic ally regimes. This solicitude for the regional ‘forces of order” is much more apparent in the case of Israel. Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in Washington in early October, sought a $1 billion increase in US military and economic grants (to $3.6 billion next year), plus $1 billion a year in loans for the next five years, plus an $9.6 billion debt to US taxpayers, Peres would postpone installments due until the new Congress, convening in February, can decide how much of that total it will formally “forgive.” Peres’ pitch is unabashedly military: “Are you ready to invest in the American posture in the Middle East?” he asked the editors of the Washington Post, daring them to “imagine the Middle East without Israel.”
There are many who have already made some effort to imagine the Middle East without Israel the gendarme state, the colonial power, the arms merchant. One such group in Israel is the Israeli Committee of Solidarity with Nicaragua. They are seeking support for their campaign to end Israeli support for the Nicaraguan “contras” and Central American dictatorships like Guatemala and Haiti. They can be contacted at PO Box 37358, Tel Aviv 61373. One such group working in the States is the Washington Area Jews for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Formed in the summer of 1982 to oppose the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the group has consolidated its presence and broadened its focus to challenge US policy in the Middle East and to support Israeli negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization leading to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. For information about WAJIPP’s activities and newsletter, write them at PO Box 4991, Washington DC 20008.