Ten years ago, in July 2001, 200,000 protestors converged on Genova, Italy, to disrupt the 27th G8 Summit, at which the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US — plus the President of the European Commission — were meeting to discuss issues of global significance, including the debt burden of poor countries, world health issues, the environment and food security.
The 1990s in the West: The rise of the anti-globalization movement
For the protestors, gatherings of the world’s most powerful countries — or other organizations supporting the status quo on a global scale — were symbols of the dark forces of globalization, and meetings had been the focus of huge protests since June 18, 1999, when a Carnival Against Capital (also known as J18) was held in the City of London to coincide with a G8 summit in Köln, Germany. The J18 drew on a long tradition of protest dating back to the 1960s, but with particular reference to the anti-road protests, the Reclaim the Streets movement, and the protests against the Criminal Justice Act, which had galvanized dissenters in large numbers from the early 1990s, and which, in turn, were influenced by the travellers’ movement in the 1970s and the 1980s, and the anti-nuclear protests focused on Greenham Common and Molesworth.
While these movements had dealt with environmental issues, land reform, the seizure of public spaces and freedom from State oppression, they were largely national in focus. The J18, however, building on preliminary events in 1998 (an international meeting of grassroots activists in Geneva in February 1998, a Global Street Party in 20 different countries during the G8 summit in Birmingham in May, and an anti-World Trade Organization protest in Geneva that same month, when, elsewhere, 50,000 Brazilians participated in a “Cry of the Excluded” march, and 200,000 Indian farmers and fishermen took to the streets of Hyderabad demanding India’s withdrawal from the WTO), widened the scope of the protests, with actions taking place simultaneously in 43 countries around the world, and it crystallized into what became known as the anti-globalization movement, fundamentally challenging the unfettered transnational capitalism that underpinned State control and exploitation, and immediately becoming global in scale when protestors from all around the world converged on the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle, in November 1999.
Between November 1999 and July 2001, protestors from around the world took aim at a succession of international meetings, including protests at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2000, at an IMF and World Bank summit in Prague in September 2000, at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April 2001, and in London on May Day 2001, when the British police first introduced “kettling.”
At Genova, however, the authorities fought back with lethal force. Three protestors had been shot and injured at protests outside a EU summit in Gothenburg in June 2001, but in Genova an Italian policeman shot and killed a 23-year-old activist, Carlo Giuliani, and the authorities’ determination to clamp down violently on the protests was also revealed through a series of nighttime raids on buildings housing protesters. At the Diaz Pascoli and Diaz Pertini schools, where protestors had established media centres that also provided medical and legal support, police raids left three activists, including British journalist Mark Covell, in comas. In total, over 60 people were severely injured, although a parliamentary inquiry later concluded that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of police.
However, elsewhere in the late 1990s and the start of the 21st century, the focus was not, as in the West, on an emerging youth movement challenging the financial status quo, and the continuing exploitation of the developing world by the world’s most powerful countries.
The 1990s in the Middle East: After the Communist “threat,” the West supports dictators against the Islamist “threat”
Across the Middle East, for example, a different narrative, with its roots in the colonial legacy and the Cold War, was developing. Fearful of socialist movements that would threaten their financial interests, the countries of the West had supported — or had helped install — brutal dictatorships whose continued oppression of their people prompted the rise of new resistance movements in which Communism gave way to militant offshoots of Islam. The West was particularly terrified by the Iranian revolution in 1979, which reinforced its determination to keep hardline Islamists at bay, but was generally less aware of how other factors were playing a major part in reshaping dissent throughout the Middle East.
Central to these new movements was the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s (bankrolled, ironically, by the US, as well as by Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf countries), as battle-hardened mujahideen returned to their home countries and saw the appeal of overthrowing their own dictators. However, they were also reinforced by violent clampdowns — in Egypt, for example, during the same period, and in Algeria in the 1990s, where the West precipitated an almost unbelievably bloody civil war by backing the military when Islamists threatened to win electoral victory in 1991 — and were also fed by the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel, and, from 1991 onwards, by the presence on Saudi soil of US forces who refused to leave after helping to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.
By 1996, Islamist dissent found its own almost unspeakably bloody reworking of the anti-globalization movement when al-Qaeda, a core movement of mujahideen, who, in the wake of the Afghan conflict, had become focused on the overthrow of regimes oppressing Muslims anywhere in the world, shifted its focus to the United States, under the leadershp of Osama bin Laden, and, perhaps most crucially, members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, seemed to have become unquenchably vengeful after being tortured in Egypt in the 1980s.
After attacking US interests in 1998 and 2000 (in the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, and the attack on the USS Cole), al-Qaeda achieved its aim of drawing the US into a global war through the terrorist attacks on the US mainland on September 11, 2001.
The 2000s: The “War on Terror” and the complete demonization of Islamists — and of Islam
Overnight, the global landscape changed. Terrorism became the obsession of the first decade of the 21st century, an ill-defined war was launched in Afghanistan, another entirely illegal war followed in Iraq, and the US drew on the vilest detention policies of its brutal allies in the Middle East by establishing a global network of secret torture prisons, specifically utilizing the expertise of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Uzbekistan, and also establishing its own torture prisons in Thailand, Poland, Romania and Lithuania, and in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ironically, the US appears only to have fulfilled bin Laden’s aims, establishing a “clash of civilizations” that suited al-Qaeda’s global jihadists, with all their talk of infidel crusaders and Jews, and that also played on the worst instincts of supposedly Christian nations, who found that their old bogeyman — the Soviet Union — could effortlessly be replaced with a new one — fundamenalist Islam, or, more generally, Islam itself, with a timeline stretching back to the Crusades for those inclined to revel in a Manichean struggle between two branches of the Abrahamic religious tradition.
This has been a disaster for relations between Christians and Muslims worldwide, leading to widespread Islamophobia in Western countries and a rewriting of history, in which liberation struggles in Bosnia and Chechnya, for example, have been recast as terrorism, and any opposition to the dictators of the Middle East has also been regarded as terrorism — even when, as with Libya, for example, opponents of Gaddafi’s regime used to be considered as victims of oppression until Gaddafi strategically decided to become an ally in the “War on Terror.”
The impact of the “War on Terror” has been no less ruinous in Muslim countries, where there has been widespread anger and indignation, and untold numbers of Muslims have, correctly, perceived that the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the thousands of people brutalized in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere are — or were — all Muslims, and that, therefore, something akin to a modern Crusade must indeed be taking place.
2011: The “War Against Tyranny”; People Power banishes the Islamist threat, anti-globalization returns, and the West and the Middle East have a common enemy
Suddenly, however, the landscape has changed again, as popular uprisings across the Middle East fundamentally challenge the assumptions of the “War on Terror” — that dictators are needed more than ever to restrain the fundamentalists who, otherwise, would be establishing their own barbarous regimes and, of course, threatening Western interests.
In Tunisia and Egypt, where the dictators Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were deposed, and in other countries where the people are rising up against their long-established dictators — primarily Libya, where Gaddafi has responded with typical brutality, and Algeria and Yemen, plus Iran, where the regime may not technically be a dictatorship, although it exhibits all the brutality associated with unaccountable authoritarian regimes — the movements that were triggered by the single self-immolation of a Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 19 last year, are driven not by Islamist groups, but by the people, who are demonstrating that dictatorships can be toppled by sheer numbers.
Throughout the region, young people, who have known nothing but dictatorship, are rising up, forming alliances with trade unionists and disgruntled professionals, while the Islamists have either been content to stay in the background (as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) or, like Ennahdha in Tunisia, were largely imprisoned or in exile when the revolution that toppled Ben Ali took place.
If the Islamists had been centre-stage, I have no doubt that the West’s response to the popular revolutionary movements spreading throughout the Middle East would have been very different, as Western leaders would have been able to insert them into their tired “War on Terror” narrative. As it is, however, Western leaders have generally had to mouth platitudes about democracy and the will of the people, while refusing to become too engaged, as they are presumably aware that, for decades, their actions have actually demonstrated that they have no interest whatsoever in the welfare of the people of the Middle East, and that they have, instead, supported the very dictators who have either fallen or are now clinging onto power.
Moreover, the revolutionary zeal in the Middle East, which is inspired by economic desperation and the enduring misery of living in police states run by Western-backed torturers, is also reflected in the stirrings of popular dissent in the West. Just as an economic tipping point may have been reached in the Middle East through the manipulation of global food prices by Western speculators, protestors in the West are also beginning to revolt against the criminals of the unfettered financial markets, who have been allowed to continue their disgraceful global pillaging, despite causing the economic meltdown of 2008, and despite being bailed out by taxpayers. In some ways, the revolt in the West has involved young people picking up the baton of the anti-globalization movement, which has only sporadically made its presence felt in the last ten years.
Leading the way is the UK, prompted in particular by the activities of the Tory-led coalition government, which, despite having no mandate (with the Tories obliged to forge an aliance with the Liberal Democrats) and despite both parties having lied or omitted to mention their policies on the election trail, is now pampering the financial markets to an unprecedented degree, aiming to make the UK into the world’s largest tax haven, while introducing swingeing cuts to government spending, using the financial crisis as an excuse.
In its attacks on welfare, on university funding, on the NHS, and on almost every aspect of the British state that has not been privatized in the last 30 years, the government seems to delight in its plans to make as many people unemployed as possible, while cushioning its friends — and funders — in the City and in big business. However, although the response so far has generally been muted (with the exception of the students and schoolchildren who took to the streets last November and December), a widespread anger is just below the surface, and the rise of new protest groups — in particular UK Uncut, a direct action group that is focused unerringly on corporate tax avoiders and the banking sector, and that has just spawned a rapidly spreading offshoot in the US — indicates that the British government’s vile, ideological assault on the British people (with the exception of the rich and the super-rich) is likely to meet with increasing resistance.
I don’t mean to suggest that there will be revolutions in the West — as I think citizens of Western countries are too self-absorbed or diverted from the truth to notice what is happening until it is too late — but I do believe that, perhaps for the first time in living memory (or at least since 1990’s Poll Tax Riot), a substantial number of people believe that the government should be forced from power rather than be allowed to pursue its destructive agenda until the next election in 2015.
Moreover, with variations on the British story taking place throughout the West — with bankers unpunished, corporations systematically avoiding tax, austerity measures introduced that will only impact on those who had nothing to do with the economic crisis, and the gap between the rich and the poor widening still further from its current historic levels — all the elements are in place for the people of the West and the Middle East — and wherever else popular dissent erupts — to find that they share a common narrative, one which involves resistance to the relentless exploitation by the few, to enrich themselves still further at everyone else’s expense, and, when these forces are challenged, repression, be it through military means, arbitary detention and torture, or supposedly legitimate legislation, in which the magic words “choice” and “fairness” are meant to disguise the last push of a privatization agenda that seeks to destroy the final vestiges of the State’s responsibility for its people.
By now, with its lies and unaccountability exposed time and again, the push to privatize everything by playing on aging scare stories about the dangers of socialism ought to have been thoroughly discredited and replaced with new political movements that focus on the needs of society and of the people — a new socialism, if you like — and not on the further enrichment of Prime Ministers, Presidents, CEOs and dictators.
As the “War on Tyranny” undermines the tired clichés and distortions of the “War on Terror,” I hope for nothing less than a contagion of revolutionary impulses that spreads throughout the world, as without it, I fear, we are rapidly returning to the middle ages.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.