This article appeared in Solidarity on 25 May 2011.
As I write these words, news has come in of the failure of Syria’s opposition to hold a general strike.
One is reminded of Sherlock Holmes’ comment about the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. When told that “the dog did nothing in the night-time” Holmes famously responded, “That was the curious incident.”
It is not unusual for civil society organisations in repressive societies to issue a call for a general strike.
What is unusual is that the Syria call – reported on Facebook – got an instant statement out of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) expressing its strong support.
And then nothing happened. The general strike fizzled out.
What appears to be going on is that trade unionists, democrats, and human rights activists around the world are eager to see the “Arab Spring” succeed.
We all desperately want to see Qadaffi finally ousted from power. We want to see the Assad regime in Damascus fall. And more than anything, we long to see the end of the Iranian theocratic dictatorship.
But wanting to see these things happen is not enough. We must be aware of the social forces at work in these different countries and learn to anticipate events rather than be surprised by them.
The ITUC clearly doesn’t want to be caught off-guard the next time there is a popular uprising in the region.
But it’s vital to understand why the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were so successful, and why they have stalled in Libya and Syria.
Anyone who visited Egypt and met with the activists in groups like the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS) a year or more ago would have realized the potential for an uprising.
Egypt, though an authoritarian society under Mubarak, had a civil society of sorts. Independent trade union organisations were being formed – the real estate tax collectors, for example. Strikes were common. You didn’t have to be an expert to see change coming.
Tunisia had a real trade union movement (the UGTT), one with limited independence but real enough to be able to break from the regime at the right moment.
But Syria and Libya are not like that at all. We’ve heard little about independent worker organisations there in recent years.
Without something like the CTUWS, and its years of experience with building independent workers’ organisations, it will be much harder to organise strikes – let alone a general strike – in a country like Syria.
That’s why if one looks for a country where workers might actually stage mass strikes, form independent unions, and topple a regime, one needs to look to Iran.
Iran is in some ways like Egypt was a few years ago. There is a very strong and militant workers’ movement, independent of the regime. It has staged large-scale strikes, most notably shutting down Tehran’s public transport system. The regime has reacted with severe brutality, hunting down union leaders and jailing them. Trade union activists have been flogged and murdered. But the resistance continues.
General strikes are not usually successful when called by well-meaning activists on Facebook – not unless there is a basis in the real world, in the working class, of independent organisations. We had that in Egypt, but didn’t have it in Syria. That’s the reason why Mubarak faces spending the rest of his life in jail, while Assad remains in power.
What didn’t happen in Syria this week – the dog that didn’t bark in the night-time – has much to teach us about how popular uprisings take place, and what needs to be done to make them succeed.