There is a power in the Middle East that is the natural ally of the Palestinian struggle, and which holds the key to the liberation of the region. It is more formidable than Hamas, Hezbollah and other purported anti-imperialist forces. But no-one wants to talk about it: the Arab and Iranian working classes.
In the media, almost everything is filtered through the lens of geopolitics, rather than class politics. We are presented with analyses from only a limited range of academics, diplomats or analysts from various state departments. These commentators—“realists”, as they are mostly known in international relations parlance—are generally interested only in the actions of states and their proxies, which are presumed to make up the universe of relevant actors in the conflict.
The bias is not in itself either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine; it is held by outlets that reliably apologise for Zionism and by those (such as Al Jazeera, to take one example) that more consistently report the truth of what’s going on in Gaza. Their analyses are invariably about whether Hezbollah will open a northern front of the war, whether Iran will become directly involved, how Israel and the US might respond to any widening of the conflict and so on.
Those questions are hardly irrelevant. But they ignore the greatest regional power, which only a decade ago, during the Arab revolutions, proved that it had the capacity to challenge the imperialist configuration of the whole Middle East. Today, to the extent that the regional working class appears at all in media discussions, it is usually as a public opinion factor in the calculus of “the decision-makers”: how can those with power navigate a path between, on one hand, their responsibilities as statesmen and, on the other, the popular sentiment of their citizens disposed to Palestinian rights?
The fury at Israel across the region is acknowledged by everyone, but nowhere is the working class considered an actor in its own right, despite its obvious social and economic power.
For example, 12 percent of global trade and 30 percent of all container traffic passes through Egypt’s Suez Canal, just 200 kilometres from Gaza. The broader region contains more than 50 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and nearly half of all known natural gas reserves. The oil fields are concentrated around the Persian Gulf. Along with those fields, the ports dotting that stretch of ocean (including those of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran) are critical for the world economy.
Workers in these areas—from the 14,000 workers employed by the Suez Canal Authority to the hundreds of thousands in the oil, gas and related industries—have the power to send the world economy into a tailspin. That fact is precisely why the United States is so invested in backing the repressive dictatorships that crack down on union organising almost everywhere.
One might retort that the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf are not crucial to Israel, given that most of its trade is via the Mediterranean to Europe and the US. Yet Israel gets away with genocide only because it is greenlighted and funded by the US and other states that are aligned with Western imperialism. The economies of all those states, including those of the reactionary Arab regimes, would be crippled by strike waves that shut down oil and gas production and the region’s shipping lanes.
The combined arsenals of Hezbollah and Hamas have no comparable power to the latent potential of the region’s workers. Israel’s missile defence system can deal with many rocket attacks; but as the Arab revolutions in 2011 showed, considerably more resources are required to contain popular uprisings.
Why then does almost no-one talk about this power? It’s tempting to explain the “geopolitical intrigue bias” of Middle Eastern analysis with reference to the propensity of international relations commentary to be dominated by men absorbed by official power and a desire to feel close to it.
While that probably goes a little way as an explanation, a more plausible one relates to ideology rather than psychology: foreign affairs boffins have been trained to view world politics through the eyes of the people who rule and to try to understand how they position themselves in relation to other state rulers. Their field of vision is necessarily narrow—“the people” are always simply ruled; the powerful, whatever one thinks of them individually, are always the most important decision-makers.
Another important reason for the class blindness is that the political outlooks of the main antagonists are in fundamental ways barely distinguishable from those of their enemies. Their frameworks are nationalist, and their decisions generally are governed by international intrigue.
For example, the leaders of Hamas, like the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation before them, court the oppressor states of the region, rather than the oppressed working-class majorities. Theirs is a calculus of regional alliances and a resistance limited to the military field with Israel. Most obvious in this regard are the organisation’s links to Iran and Qatar. Previously it was Syria, before the group—to its credit—rightly backed the uprising against Assad (although it has now restored ties with the counter-revolutionary dictator).
Relations between Egypt’s dictatorship and Hamas have also reportedly thawed in recent years, despite there being an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s jails, many of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Hamas derives.
Despite all the posturing about fighting imperialism, Hamas has pretty much zero orientation to linking the struggle for Palestine to the struggle of the region’s working classes oppressed by regimes that are part of the Western imperial axis (or against the states more aligned to Russian imperialism, for that matter, which has had fine relations with Israel). With Hamas and other significant Palestinian factions uninterested in the regional working class, it isn’t put on anyone’s radar.
Hezbollah, to use another example, has become an entrenched part of the ruling clique in Lebanon and is thoroughly tied to the counter-revolutionary clerics in Iran. So it has even fewer incentives to try to engage or encourage the mass of the working class in a fight against imperialism. Its own position would be threatened by workers in Lebanon, Iran or Syria trying to disrupt business as usual.
Indeed, the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, maligned the Iranian pro-democracy uprising last year as an “incitement by Western countries and some countries in the Persian Gulf”. The party played an appalling role attacking protesters in Beirut during the political crises of recent years and its fighters previously joined the Syrian counter-revolution. There are no guarantees it will do anything more than engage in a few “made for TV” skirmishes against the Israeli military and lob a few more rockets to give the impression that it is helping the Palestinians while largely sitting on the sidelines.
So the working class doesn’t fit into the professional analysts’ theories about how the world operates. And for political organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah, a mobilised working class would destabilise their patrons and purported friends—the oppressive butchers of the regional ruling classes. (A club Hamas leaders want to join as rulers of their own state.)
Yet the working class is the natural enemy of every regime and all existing imperial alliances. If the workers were organised, there is no power they couldn’t take on. Unfortunately, there is no serious force in the region that has any interest in orienting this way. In fact, nobody even wants to talk about it.