The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Past and Potential: The Egyptian Peoples’ Struggle for Liberation


Nearly two million people packed Tahrir square Tuesday in what must be one of the most popular, democratic, and collective struggles for liberation in human history. All over Egypt, in Alexandria, in Suez, and many other places, sister demonstrations complemented the primary rally in Cairo calling for systemic political change and end to Hosni Mubarak’s nearly thirty-year rule. Mubarak has become a hated symbol of authoritarianism and political corruption throughout Egyptian society.

This popular uprising does not exist in a vacuum, however. It was galvanized in part by the Tunisian revolution a week earlier and was organized, originally, through online social media networks before the regime shut down internet access. Yet, the roots of this popular movement are much deeper, coming after thirty years not only of undemocratic rule by Mubarak, but also three decades of neoliberal economic policies that have continuously deteriorated Egyptian living standards. Furthermore, criticisms from within the predominately Arab state have also revolved around Mubarak’s role as puppet for Western powers, particularly the United States and, reflexively, Israel. Hossam el-Hamalawy, a longtime Egyptian dissident, blogger, journalist, and socialist, makes this point clearly:

Revolutions don't happen out of the blue. It's not because of Tunisia yesterday that we have one in Egypt mechanically the next day. You can't isolate these protests from the last four years of labour strikes in Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa intifada and the US invasion of Iraq. The outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada was especially important because in the 1980s-90s, street activism had been effectively shut down by the government as part of the fight against Islamist insurgents. It only continued to exist inside university campuses or party headquarters. But when the 2000 intifada erupted and Al Jazeera started airing images of it, it inspired our youth to take to the streets, in the same way we've been inspired by Tunisia today.[1]

Egypt’s democratic uprising, then, cannot be characterized solely as a political movement or as a “Twitter” revolution. Indeed, as one protestor put it, “this is not about the internet, this is about the needs and demands of the Egyptian people.”[2] It must be recognized that there exists a multiplicity of galvanizing factors that have sparked this nascent movement by the masses. Of these, the four most important are: (1) the undemocratic political institutions, (2) the increasing misery via declining economic conditions, (3) the capitulation to the U.S. and Israel, (4) and the revival of popular social and labor movements in recent years. Before analyzing these interrelated phenomena, however, it is vital that we confirm the popular, democratic, and collective attributes of this anti-Mubarak movement.

A Popular, Democratic, Collective Movement

It should be understood that this is, indeed, a popular, democratic movement. Despite the ambivalent and ambiguous statements provided by U.S. officials, and the outright attack on the uprising by Israeli pundits, every aspect of this movement points to the fact that it is a democratic, popular revolt against what is, at its core, an authoritarian, anti-democratic regime.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous, senior producer of DemocracyNow! and currently in Egypt, painted a vibrant picture of the early days of this popular movement:

In Cairo, tens of thousands of people--from all walks of life--faced off against riot police armed with shields, batons, and seemingly endless supplies of tear gas. People talked about Friday’s protest like a war; a war they’d won. "Despite the tear gas and the beatings, we just kept coming, wave after wave of us," one protester said. "When some of us would tire, others would head in. We gave each other courage." After several hours, the police were forced into a full retreat. Then, as the army was sent in, they disappeared.[3]

That report was from Friday evening. Saturday and Sunday also say hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets. After that, organizers began calling for a million person march on that Tuesday. The popular response far exceeded that. Although no one has exact numbers, all estimates place the number of anti-Mubarak demonstrators at over one million. Some Al Jazeera reporters have estimated these numbers at close to two million. This does not count the hundreds of thousands of people in Alexandria, or the tens of thousands of people in every other major city. The jubilance could be seen on the streets. One demonstrator, Walid Hegazy, proclaimed that “Finally I feel it’s my country. It’s not the country of the police. It’s not the country of the governing elites or the ruling elites. It’s my country. So I’m really proud to be an Egyptian today.”[4]

The “legal” oppositional leaders have been largely tailing the population during these uprisings rather than leading them. Instead, the movement has been wide in terms of ideological participation and not organized through the “legal” oppositional channels. The protests have, for the most part, not been directed or lead by the entrenched, older social movements. As one activist, Nazly Hussein, eloquently explains:

It’s really everyone’s revolution. And I think a lot of people have made it seem like it’s just for the radicals on either side or really a certain party, but that’s not true. If you look around, there’s everyone. Everyone, everyone, everyone, side by side, all with one cause. Women were treated with a lot of respect. I have never been treated with this much respect in Egypt, I must say. I was amazed, amazed at the Egyptian people. They have qualities that I thought they had lost. But no, they haven’t.[5]

Although the youth sparked this movement through social networks, it has drawn in people of all ages, including men, women, workers, peasants, journalists, lawyers, students, secular leftists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. It is an extremely diverse, profoundly broad social movement that has, essentially, brought in all of civil society. Hossam el-Hamalawy also described the scene Tuesday:

The atmosphere here is a carnival, in every sense of the word. You find, you know, I mean, banners that are just hilarious. I mean, if you can read in Arabic, they are all denouncing Mubarak as a dictator, as an agent for Israel and U.S. imperialism, denouncing him for what he did to this country over the past 30 years. Of course, I mean, the activist community here is a tiny minority for a change. It’s a different picture from what we’ve been seeing over the past few years. It’s ordinary men and women from all sects, and from all the provinces, actually, they descended here. And today, I was also happy to know that there will be simultaneous protests happening, coinciding with the Tahrir occupation, in Suez, in Mahalla, in Alexandria and also in other provinces.[6]

Often, liberation struggles are couched in terms of male liberation and in the West is that Arabs tend to be anti-woman. The conditions on the ground shatter these illusions and falsifications. Thus, it should be recognized that women have played a key role in this revolutionary uprising:

[W]omen were protesting just the same way men were. Women were jumping on the cars of the police forces just the same—because we’re both very angry. It doesn’t really make a difference. Women are not less angry than men. But now that we’re actually here, you can see women distributing food, taking care of the first aid. I can’t really define roles, because we’re both doing the same thing. Roles are divided, but not according to gender at all. I thought maybe the people staying the night would be mostly men, but I was proven otherwise.[7]

What is even more significant is the fact that after enormous clashes with the police and their eventual withdrawal from the streets, regular people have taken up the duty of running society. In nearly every modern revolution, people have formed such committees. French workers, in 1968, formed and used workers’ councils to organize the largest general strike ever to shut down a modern industrial country. During 1972 and 1973, Chilean workers set up cordones to defend the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende and demand workers’ control over production. In 1979, workers created independent councils which they called the shoras, fundamental in overthrowing the ruthless Shah.

It is in this spirit that the Egyptian people have formed their “Peoples’ committees,” not only to organize protests, but to keep society functioning at some level as the state apparatus, especially the police, has collapsed. These committees have been vital in organizing demonstrations and dealing with logistical issues. One demonstrator describes the duties of these committees:

[W]e had to do everything ourselves. So, there was a couple days of anarchy, that we’re kind of still in, so people have to protect their buildings. We have communities, families organizing themselves to have like checkpoints on every corner. We have young people from every house or from every family protecting. But we’ve also gone out in the streets to clean up the garbage and to organize traffic…  And so, they’re making sure that we keep this as clean as possible to show that we don’t need this government, we don’t need the minister of interior. We can do this on our own, and we can do it better. It’s safer, cleaner and a much more pleasant life for everyone.[8]

Another one of the important functions the peoples’ committees served was evident during Tuesday’s march of over one million people. Checkpoints were set up at the entrance of Tahrir square and citizens fervently checked the identity of people entering to ensure that none of the state security forces, pro-Mubarak thugs, could make their way in. Furthermore, they have been used to set up defense brigades and peoples’ checkpoints that have protected homes, hospitals, museums, and other important social institutions from looters. In the process, citizen defense committees have sometimes captured these looters and have found that many of them were members of the hated state police forces who had been forced out of the streets on Friday.[9] What is important is that that leaving the demonstrations to participate in these defense brigades does not signal that people are tiring or losing their revolutionary fervor. On the contrary, the defense brigades and committees to protect their homes, clean the streets, maintain vital services, etc. are a vital aspect, perhaps as important as the demonstrations themselves, of this revolution.

This popular movement cannot be removed from its political and economic context, however, both inside of Egypt and in the larger global community. There are limitations that have not yet been tested, and the full potential of this movement is still, at this time, unclear.

Undemocratic Political Institutions

Hosni Mubarak, as of Tuesday night, is still claiming that he will “die on Egyptian soil” and continue his presidency until his term is scheduled to finish in September. The Egyptian people are not having it, chanting for Mubarak to leave “Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” There is no doubt that Mubarak now personifies the extreme political corruption and anti-democratic nature of the Egyptian state. Yet, Egyptian political institutions are larger than Mubarak, and as one woman so eloquently stated:
When we say we don’t want the regime, it does not mean we don’t want Hosni Mubarak as a person and be stuck with someone else who is imposed on us. We want to choose our president because we want to take this country into the future.[10]
In other words, Mubarak’s shuffling around of his cabinet or replacing himself with his hand-picked vice-president would not be good enough for the people. Furthermore, Mubarak never promised he would not run again, stated instead that he simply “had no intentions to.” Yet, as Egyptians are well aware, there is nothing stopping Mubarak from creating a “state of emergency” that would demand his firm hand in stabilizing the country. On top of this, Mubarak’s son and potential successor has not relinquished his leading position in the National Democratic Party, nor has Mubarak called for the illegitimate parliament to be replaced by free and fair elections.

Egyptians are fighting for a political revolution, fundamental institutional change that transcends Mubarak. Despite this, there is deep hatred for Mubarak and his rule, and it is absolutely necessary that Mubarak, as a person, is no longer president. However, simply removing the hated dictator is not enough, the people will not settle with superficial change.

Egypt is, technically, a semi-presidential republic that has purportedly representative institutions. However, the country has been under a permanent state of emergency law since the 1967 war with Israel. Mubarak slid his way into power after President Sadat’s 1981 assassination, itself a manifestation of resistance by Islamist groups rejecting Sadat’s authoritarian smashing of Islamist organizations. Decades of political repression have meant that activists from various political parties, especially leftists and Islamists, have not been able to exercise basic political rights. Independent judges that have challenged the Mubarak regime have faced repression. Prison and police violence were often the result of political activism. Thus, Mubarak had essentially ruled unelected and unopposed for 24 years, not being put into the position of being elected until 2005.

This election, however, was marred by fraud, vote-rigging, police brutality, and violence from paid Mubarak supporters. One example of this was that the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably one of the most popular political parties in the country, was banned from the election. Aside from those problems, the election itself was completely illegitimate. In what was the first and only Presidential election in Egyptian history, only 16.4% of the population actually took the time to go to the polls, of whom an embarrassing 88.6% voted for Mubarak. In other words, out of a voting age population of 44.5 million people, Mubarak commanded the allegiance of, at most, a paltry 6.3 million.[11] Prior to this illegitimate election, equally illegitimate “referendums” were held to ideologically cement Mubarak’s regime.

The 2005 presidential election is not an anomaly. All elections in Egypt are largely recognized as shams by the population. As Tarek Osman explains:

...despite huge campaigning on the government's and opposition's sides for the package of constitutional changes, fewer than 22% of registered voters (who themselves are a minority) turned out to vote in the March 2007 referendum (and that figure includes swathes of government employees who are virtually shipped to the polling booths). Moreover, in June 2007 only 7% of Egyptians bothered to vote in the election to the shura (the Egyptian parliament's upper house).[12]

Egypt’s political institutions, then, are simply illegitimate structures of power. There is no popular sovereignty, no accountability, and no serious democratic characteristics to speak of. These repressive political institutions exist in a symbiotic relationship with the growing wealth inequality and exploitative nature of the Egyptian ruling class.

Declining Economic Conditions

The 1952 military coup which overthrew the British-backed monarch King Forouq brought to power a group of so-called “Free Officers” and their leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser, eventually, became the personal manifestation of pan-Arabism and a proponent of state capitalism as an economic model for development. This model was derided as “communism” by Western antagonists and real-world “socialism” by proponents. Nasser attempted to juggle support from the United States and the Soviet Union in an attempt to augment Egypt’s economic power as leader of the Arab world. Oil production, despite being relatively less than the gulf Arab states, was nationalized, providing a model for state control of production and the expansion of the public sector. Similarly, the Suez Canal was nationalized during this period. Profits were redirected, to large extent, into social services and infrastructure development for a period of time. Living standards did, indeed, increase in Egypt as people had access to jobs and services previously unavailable to them.

This phenomenon of Arab nationalism scared the West, who feared they may lose control of the oil-rich Arab world if this development continued. Nasser and Egypt, for a time, became hated enemies of the United States and Britain. The Sunday Herald reports that anti-Nasser mania became so thick among the Western elite that there were even absurd schemes to kill Nasser by poisoning his chocolates or inserting a poison dart in his cigarette.[13] In contrast, millions around the Arab world were drawn in to Nasser’s secular nationalism and he remained very popular within Egypt. Nasser, however, would go on to die in 1970 and, not long after, the economic model he championed would be dismantled.

The internal contradictions inherent in Nasser-style state capitalism meant that the model could not last forever. As Eric Ruder explains, Nasser’s “attempts to win support from the U.S. and the Soviet Union demonstrated” that the Arab leader “elevated pragmatism and realpolitik over a commitment to any particular economic or political program” and would pursue any policy which “served Egypt’s bid to become the undisputed leader of the Arab world.”[14] While the nationalist model of state development aimed at equality, democratic control over the means of production remained an elusive ideal. The political structures, likewise, reflected the centralized control by a bureaucratic elite and not the democratic control by the masses of Egyptian citizens. In other words, the state capitalist model eventually became its own inhibitor:

…the transformation of economic structures proceeded on the basis of a state capitalism which in no way altered the capitalist relations of production… However great the aspirations and initial steps towards equality, any further progress was rendered highly problematic by the essential incapacity of this social class [i.e., the bureaucrats in control of the state] to formulate a coherent project. Its very nationalism, which had been intended as a revolutionary force, later served to mystify the crucial socio-economic differentiation of the traditional classes and of the privileged layer emerging from the new state-capitalist class.[15]

As Ruder goes on to point out, “Nasser’s nationalism ultimately secured the rule of an Egyptian elite that used nationalist rhetoric to blunt the demands of the growing Egyptian working class.”[16] It was from this Egyptian elite that Sadat and, later, Mubarak instituted their authoritarian regime.

Subsequently, Sadat introduced the “intifah,” or open-door policy, in order to combat the debt, inflation, and high oil prices that came to represent the later stages of the Nasserite model. Intifah was, essentially, an all out embrace of the neoliberal model:

Infitah was a sweeping program to impose a neoliberal agenda on the economy, including the loosening of currency controls, the creation of tax-free enterprise investment zones, and the return of various public sector industries to private control (or at the minimum subjecting them to market pressures).

This process from 1970 onward meant that Egypt would move itself away from the Soviet Union and towards the West. This new open-door policy significantly decreased the standard of living for Egyptians. Wealth inequality increased dramatically, and the social services and public sector Egyptians had come to rely on were drastically slashed, either in the form of direct cuts or privatization. From 1961 to 1981, Egypt went from being one of the world’s largest food exporters to a nation dependent upon food imports to survive. The Egyptian elite, however, augmented their economic power during this period by extracting their wealth from the poor:

While the lowest 20 percent of the population held 6.6 per cent of national income in 1960 and had improved their share to 7.0 per cent in 1965, they dropped to 5.1 per cent by the late 1970s. By comparison, the income of the highest 5 percent dipped slightly to 17.4 per cent from 17.5 per cent between 1960 and 1965 but increased markedly to 22 per cent after several years of Sadat’s policies.[17]

These harsh economic policies continued for the next three decades under Mubarak’s regime. The wealth gap continued to increase, real wages declined, and Egyptians were forced to spiral into economic misery.

Today, Egypt is the most populous country in the region with over 80 million people. Gross Domestic Product per Capita has steadily increased an average of 2% every year from 1975 to 2000.[18] Yet, economic conditions for the mass of Egyptians have only worsened. Infant mortality rates remain high at 26 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with only 6 per 1,000 for the United States. Literacy remains just slightly above 71% for adults and is far lower for females at 59%.[19] As of 2003, 52.7% of Egyptians lived on less than $2 a day.[20] From 1995 to 2005, distribution of income for the lowest 10% of the population has decreased from 4.4% to 3.9% while for the wealthiest 10% it has increased from 25% to 27.6%.[21] In 1976 the official unemployment rate was 4.6%, increasing to 9% in 1996, and topping off at 13% in 2007[22] before the onset of the world economic crisis. Since then, it has remained in the double digits. The workweek remains high at 48 hours and the unionization rate is only around 7% of the workforce.[23] From 1987 to 1996, average real wages for Egyptian workers decreased from $58.3 per week to a paltry $45.[24] Attempts at unionization have been met with repression and demands to increase the national minimum wage from $6.30 a month[25] to $240 a month have fallen on deaf ears.

According to the 2005 Household Income, Expenditure and Consumption Survey (HIECS) about 40.5% of the Egyptian population are in the range of extreme poor to near poor:

- 21% of the Egyptian population was near poor, meaning that about 14.6 million Egyptians can obtain their basic food requirements in addition to some basic services.

- 19.6% of the Egyptian population was poor, meaning that about 13.6 million Egyptians (one out of every five) had consumption expenditure below the poverty line and could not therefore obtain their basic food and non-food needs.

- 3.8% of the Egyptian population was extreme poor, meaning that about 2.6 million of the Egyptian poor could not obtain their basic food requirements even if they spent all their expenditure on food.

Statistics alone cannot show how this crushing poverty enervates such a prodigious segment of Egyptian society. As Tarek Osman points out, “Egypt's lower classes are deprived not only of employment opportunities, passable education, and any luxury whatsoever; they are lacking basic human needs such as decent shelter, clear water, and humane transportation systems.” This is exacerbated by the “gradual withdrawal of the state from its market-regulating and social-provision role.”[26]

Furthermore, the Egyptian middle classes have felt the economic decline as well. The diminishing of the public sector means that a failing education system has lead to a “general low levels of skills” plaguing even Egypt’s educated class. In terms of purchasing power, Egypt’s middle class is less powerful than it has ever been. Meanwhile, the “vast prominence and influence of a small group of businessmen and financiers,” along with the National Democratic Party’s new guard, “has left Egypt's middle class painfully aware of the hollowness and fragility of its traditional position in the society.[27]

This has resulted in Mubarak dissolving any potential base of support. The Egyptian ruling class has isolated the poor, the working class, and the middle classes. Mubarak’s power now relies, internally, upon state security forces and party officials and, perhaps even more vitally, upon billions of dollars in external military aid from the United States.

Egypt as U.S. Client State

With massive protests erupting all over Egypt and millions of people demonstrating all over Egypt, Obama still could not mutter the words that Mubarak ought to step down. As violent, pro-Mubarak thugs attacked pro-democracy demonstrators on Wednesday, the State Department urged both sides to show constraint. Many reports from Al Jazeera have claimed that the pro-Mubarak “activists” are state police forces or thugs paid by NDP officials, disproving the claim that Mubarak holds a vast allegiance of the Egyptian people. Numbers have been estimated at “several thousand” pro-Mubarak thugs in Cairo on Wednesday, compared with close to two million pro-democracy demonstrators the day before. Thus, with this influx of NDP supporters, Wednesday has proven to be the most violent day yet with clashes between two diametrically opposed sides. Conveniently, this violence comes one day after Mubarak threatened that violence would erupt in the streets without his iron fist and stabilizing presence. Even with this orchestrated violence by the NDP, the Obama administration did not out-rightly condemn Mubarak’s regime or call on him to step down, urging instead that he simply to enact reforms in a timely manner.

In this respect, as Noam Chomsky points out, Obama follows a long line of continuity:

The United States, so far, is essentially following the usual playbook. There have been many times when some favored dictator has lost control or is in danger of losing control. There is kind of a standard routine: Marcos [Phillipines], Duvalier [Haiti], Ceauşescu [Romania], strongly supported by the United States and Britain, Suharto [Indonesia], keep supporting them as long as possible. Then, when it becomes unsustainable, typically say if the army shifts sides, switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names.[28]

There is a reason for all of this, however. It is not that the Obama is simply a pacifist and his administration is committed to non-violence. This is proven false simply by the fact that Obama has waged violent war against the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, while promising Israel, one of the most militaristic and violent societies in the world, $30 billion dollars of military aid over the next decade.

Instead, Obama’s ambivalence comes from his Egypt’s primary role as U.S. client state in the Middle East. U.S. officials are trying to play their cards right, balancing international public support with the Egyptian struggle with their decades-long support for the corrupt, authoritarian dictatorship in Egypt. Egypt is, aside from Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. Colombia, another internally repressive society, comes in a close third. Yet, it is this prodigious U.S. military and economic aid has propped up an unpopular Mubarak regime for years:

The magnitude of U.S. aid to Egypt since the 1970s is staggering. “The U.S. has provided Egypt with $1.3 billion a year in military aid since 1979, and an average of $815 million a year in economic assistance. All told, Egypt has received over $50 billion in U.S. largesse since 1975.” Corruption has created a very thin layer of obscenely wealthy Egyptians at the top, starting with Mubarak’s own family that has amassed a fortune counted in tens of millions of dollars. Conditions for the rest of Egyptian society are desperate: unemployment that has remained in double digits for years, per capita income of less than $6,000 dollars annually, and periodic food crises.[29]

This support serves a dual purpose, however. Not only does it cement U.S. hegemony in the region, it also acts as a form of corporate welfare for powerful military interests. As William Hartung explains:

It’s a form of corporate welfare for companies like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, because it goes to Egypt, then it comes back for F-16 aircraft, for M1 tanks, for aircraft engines, for all kinds of missiles, for guns, for tear gas canisters… Lockheed Martin has been the leader in deals worth $3.8 billion over that period of the last 10 years; General Dynamics, $2.5 billion for tanks; Boeing, $1.7 billion for missiles, for helicopters; Raytheon for all manner of missiles for the armed forces. So, basically, this is a key element in propping up the regime, but a lot of the money… is basically recycled. Taxpayers could just as easily be giving it directly to Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics.[30]

There have been numerous accounts of protestors finding tear gas canisters, used by police to disperse the popular movement, with the label “Made in the U.S.A.” printed across the bottom. On Sunday, F-16s flew dangerously low to protestors in an attempt to scare off the crowds. People, defiantly, roared back in a futile attempt to overcome the percussive sound blasts from the jets. The United States, then, has been a principal proponent of the Mubarak regime and, undoubtedly, has helped the regime stay in power through an influx of repressive military machinery.

Yet, Egypt is not supported simply because it happens to be a cruel, autocratic regime. Instead, it is supported because Mubarak has opened itself not only to neoliberal economic policies, but also has completely capitulated to U.S. military demands. For instance, as the imperial ambitions of the Bush regime manifested themselves in the Iraq invasion, Egypt opened up its airspace for U.S. use and allowed free passage for U.S. Navy ships through the Suez Canal. On top of this, Mubarak has provided support for the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, despite some rhetorical flares to the contrary. All of this is in contrast to the vast majority not only of Egyptian, but Arab opinion as a whole.

This phenomenon goes back many years. Beginning with Sadat, the Egyptian ruling class tried desperately to break with the Nasserite-style pan-Arabism. Solidarity among all Arabs, especially support for the Palestinian liberation struggles, was an object of scorn:

For example, as Sadat attempted to consolidate his power, he reacted by unleashing a vicious anti-Arab campaign reasserting that Egypt’s primary identity is “Pharaonic.” A whole period of rejecting Arabism and scapegoating the Palestinians for Egypt’s wars and poverty was led by the state-run media and permeated public culture.[31]

While Egypt remains rhetorically committed to “peace” for the Palestinians, this rhetoric has very little effect on their foreign policy. Israeli newspapers, at the onset of these demonstrations, urged that international criticism of the Mubarak regime be silenced. They feared that a popular, democratic uprising would mean more solidarity and support for the Palestinian struggle. Egypt’s ruling class understands that its position in society rests upon their imperial benefactors. Indeed, as with other corrupt Arab regimes, the Mubarak regime has attempted to balance pro-Palestinian rhetoric to calm its impoverished population with pro-imperialist policies to please its real constituencies, the U.S. and Israel.

Inherently, then, the millions of people taking to the streets to demand the overthrow of Mubarak are a direct threat to U.S. and Israeli interests. Imperialist “domination in the region cannot be shattered without overthrowing those junior partners [such as Egypt] of imperialist exploitation, the ruling classes in the Arab world.”[32] Already, the seeds of revolution are being sown across the Arab world. The Tunisian revolution was simply the first shot in what appears to be a much wider regional phenomenon. The Egyptian continuation of this process greatly threatens U.S. interests. Furthermore, the revolutionary fervor is spreading. Already the rumblings of discontent are being felt and reports of protest have come from other Arab states. Jordan has dismissed its government and in Sudan students have clashed with police. Yemen’s president for 32 years, a corrupt U.S. ally, has already publicly stated he will not seek re-election in 2013, while protestors are planning a large public rally against the government for Thursday.

This upsurge in popular resistance to corrupt regimes sweeping the Arab world comes as a welcome development. It is possible, although not guaranteed, that millions of people will, finally, throw off the yoke of Western hegemony. The final outcome, however, will rest largely upon the composition of the social movements propelling them forward.

Revival of Popular Movements

In recent years Egypt has witnessed a revival of mass struggle primarily in two areas. First, the Palestinian Intifada of 2000 galvanized large-scale political action. Second, labor battle beginning in 2006 saw the onset of enormous strikes that gripped the nation and sent shockwaves through the Mubarak regime. These two popular uprisings, in conjunction, both influenced and invigorated the Tunisian uprising. The Tunisian revolution, in turn, fueled the Egyptian struggle against Mubarak. Both the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution, then, cannot be separated from the recent history of struggle that had gripped Egypt the decade prior. The third factor in this is the increasingly civil relationship between leftists organizations and the Muslim Brotherhood. This phenomenon may have influenced the ability of various political parties to come together and take a united stand against the Mubarak regime.

The Second Palestinian Intifada of 2000 sparked widespread support among the Egyptian people. The Egyptian people, despite the propaganda campaigns to the contrary, recognized and rejected the anti-Palestinian policies of their leaders. University students eventually organized a demonstration supporting Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Yet, it quickly spread to the high schools and, then, to the larger population. The people pushed for solidarity with Palestinian struggle and condemnation of Arab regimes that were actively capitulating to the U.S. and Israel. Likewise, and against the wishes of their pro-U.S. dictator, some fifty thousand people took to Tahrir square in 2003 at the onset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Despite the brutality of the police, protestors and demonstrators carried on. It was Mubarak’s compliance and subjugation to imperial powers, combined with the corrupt political system and declining economic conditions, that pushed Egyptians over the top. One Egyptian socialist details the movements next evolution:

In December 2004, the first public demonstration for the new movement for change happened, which we refer to as Kifaya, which means “enough.” The first slogan of the movement was, “Down, down [with] Mubarak!” Other slogans appeared against Mubarak’s plan to transfer power to his son, Gamal, to be the next president. The slogan of the movement was no to the continuation of the regime and no to the handing over of power to his son Gamal. This led to other demands, including an end to the emergency laws that were in place for more than twenty years, and another was to call for a free, democratic process for political parties and movements.[33]

Economic conditions for Egyptians, however, were not improving. Therefore, it was not simply political issues and foreign policy that concerned Egyptians. Conditions for the Egyptian masses were dire throughout the 1980s and 1990s and any moves by labor during this period to increase their standing in society were met brutally by police. In 1989, state police used live ammunition against strikers during strikes in the steel mills and again in the textile strikes of 1994. The state machinery was blatant in its defense of capital in these cases.
The sham election of 2005 escalated things in Egypt as well. After Mubarak’s façade of democracy in 2005, Egyptians understood the anti-worker policies of privatization and attacks on labor would continue. In late 2006, however, Egyptians fought back and organized the most enormous strike wave since the end of World War II. Malhalla, a Nile Delta town with around 27,000 workers, triggered the strike and it quickly spread like wildfire to nearly every sector of society. Even with the partial victory of these strikes, and the eventual recognition of a new union for thousands of workers, there remain serious differences between the revolution in Egypt and the union-led revolution in Tunisia:

One major distinction between us and Tunisia is that although it was a dictatorship, Tunisia had a semi-independent trade union federation. Even if the leadership was collaborating with the regime, the rank and file were militant trade unionists. So when time came for general strikes, the unions could pull it together. But here in Egypt we have a vacuum that we hope to fill soon. Independent trade unionists have already been subjected to witch hunts since they tried to be established; there are already lawsuits filed against them by state and state-backed unions, but they are getting stronger despite the continued attempts to silence them.[34]

Yet, within these developing political and class struggles, a new and previously unlikely civility began to develop between two previously bitter enemies. The radical left, especially newer organizations centered around the Revolutionary Socialist Tendency, began to form partial alliances with younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Prior to this, fistfights on university campuses were commonplace between the two groups:

Bad blood between the Egyptian left and the Brothers has a long history, from the Islamists’ coordination with King Farouq in breaking strikes in the 1940s to President Anwar al‑Sadat’s encouragement of violent Islamist assaults on leftist university students in the 1970s. Most independent leftist organizations in the 1980s and 1990s hewed to a line on political Islam similar to that of the Egyptian Communist Party…equating Islamist organizations, reformist or radical, with fascism.[35]

With the advent of the new political movements centered around the Palestinian intifada, often spearheaded by leftists, some of the younger Muslim Brotherhood members opened up to their socialist counterparts. Likewise, younger leftists began to reject the “fascist” label that was broadly applied to all Islamist organizers. A split began to emerge between the older, more conservative leadership and the younger, more military Muslim Brotherhood members willing to work side-by-side with socialists. Yet, as socialist activist Hossam El-Hamalaway points out:

Today, the majority of factions on the left still stand opposed to (or express caution about) joint actions with the Islamists, most notably the newly evolving Democratic Left (a reformist tendency centered aroundal‑Busla magazine), the Egyptian Communist Party, the People’s Socialist Party and a faction of the human rights community. But the Brothers and those comrades who will work with them remain engaged in mutual confidence building. The Muslim Brothers’ leadership is staunchly gradualist, and always on the lookout for compromises with the Egyptian regime. That stance will likely impede a further rapprochement with the radical left, unless the Brotherhood’s base of youth attains a greater say in when, and how, their powerful organization bestirs itself.

Still, these developments show that the potential for collective political action was developing prior to 2011. Mubarak’s capitulation to the U.S. and Israel, the increasingly desperate condition of working people, and the increased political activity and civil dialogue between opposition groups were all vital components in preparing the Egyptian people for the revolutionary uprising in 2011.

Conclusion

As of Wednesday evening, Mubarak has still refused to step down. Yet, the Egyptian people are adamant that they will not accept his rule, not superficial political changes. The atmosphere is one in which there will be no negotiations with this corrupt, brutal regime. Already, pamphlets circulated Wednesday afternoon and calls for another massive demonstration are being put forth for Friday, February 4th. Three major blocs, the Movement of the Youth for Liberation, the Socialist Bloc for Change, and the Voice of Revolution, are calling for this demonstration.[36]

The Western media, and even Al Jazeera, have been looking at El Baradei, a “non-aligned, secular” politician, as a possible alternative to the Mubarak regime. In spite of this, it is very likely that El Baradei, if he takes power as an interim leader, will, in the words of El-Hamalaway, “diffuse the revolution, not take it forward.”[37] The Egyptians are struggling, first and foremost, for democracy. However, without the sort of direct democracy, evidenced by the popular committees running society at the moment, that can control how the resources in society are distributed, it is likely that Egypt will remain subordinate to Western powers and their neoliberal economic policies. Collective decision making and a radical redistribution of wealth are desperately needed in Egyptian society. If, as has happened historically, wealthy reformers co-opt the popular, democratic cries from the poor and from workers, it is likely that Egypt’s revolution will produce little more than a superficial change in leaders. What Egyptians must demand is a fundamental restructuring of society, one that allows the institutions of society to be democratically constructed and the resources to be democratically distributed. Furthermore, the Egyptians must demand a government that truly represents them on the international scene, and stands firmly against U.S.-Israeli hegemony.

It is hard to say at this time what sort of society will come from the ashes of the Mubarak regime, or how long this protracted struggle with his crumbling dictatorship will continue. It is clear that the left is playing a vital role in this movement, but it is not clear whether or not the left is strong enough to win over the majority to its program or to protect against the co-opting of this popular movement against elite, superficial reformers. At this time, we can only celebrate the historical struggle of the Egyptian people, and hope desperately that they do not replace one form of oppression and exploitation with another.


[1] Interview with Hossam El-Hamalawy, Al Jazeera, 2011: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/01/201112792728200271.html
[2] Video interview of protester from Monday, Jan 31st: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtLJpzUp2Z8&sns=em
[3] Live from the Egyptian Revolution, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, DemocracyNow!, 2011: http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2011/1/29/live_from_the_egyptian_revolution_by_sharif_abdel_kouddous
[4] Voices of the Egyptian Revolution, 2011, DemocracyNow!: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/2/2/voices_of_the_egyptian_revolution_democracy
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] The Rebellion Grows Stronger, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, DemocracyNow!, 2011: http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2011/1/30/live_from_egypt_the_rebellion_grows_stronger_by_sharif_abdel_kouddous
[10] Video interview of protester from Monday, Jan 31st: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtLJpzUp2Z8&sns=em
[12] Egypt: A Diagnosis, Tarek Osman, OpenDemocracy, 2007: http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy_power/protest/modern_egypt
[13] Sunday Herald article detailing abscure plans to assassinate Nasser, 2000: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4156/is_20000319/ai_n13945412/
[14] Egypt, Israel, and the U.S., From Nasserism to Collaboration, Eric Ruder, International Socialist Review, 2011: http://www.isreview.org/issues/70/feat-egypt.shtml
[15] Marie-Christine Aulas, “State and ideology in republican Egypt,” in Fred Halliday and Hamza Alavi eds., State and Ideology in the Middle East and Pakistan (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988), 137. Quoted in http://www.isreview.org/issues/70/feat-egypt.shtml.
[17] Marvin Weinbaum, “Egypt’s ‘Infitah’ and the politics of U.S. economic assistance,” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 21 no. 2 (April 1985): 217. Quoted in http://www.isreview.org/issues/70/feat-egypt.shtml
[21] Ironically, the wealth gap is smaller in Egypt than in the United States, which has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.
[22] Challenging Neoliberalism, 2007: http://www.isreview.org/issues/54/egypt.shtml
[23] Global Policy Network, Egyptian Economic Indicators, 2003: http://www.gpn.org/data/egypt/egypt-data.pdf
[24] Nominal Wages: CAPMAS, Employment, Wages and Hours of Work (Ewhw), Several Issues AND El-Ehwany, N. & H. El-Laithy (2001) Poverty, Employment and Policy Making in Egypt. Quoted in http://www.gpn.org/data/egypt/egypt-data.pdf
[25] Al Jazeera article detailing protests over the ridiculously low minimum wage in Egypt: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/05/201052161957263202.html
[27] Ibid.
[30] Interview on DemocracyNow! detailing the level of U.S. military aid provided to Egypt: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/31/made_in_the_usa_tear_gas
[32] Moshe Machover and A. Said (Jabra Nicola), “Arab revolution and national problems in the Arab East,” The International, Summer 1973, www.matzpen.org/index.asp?u=101&p=revolution.
[33] Class Struggle in Egypt, International Socialist Review, 2008: http://www.isreview.org/issues/59/feat-egyptstrikes.shtml
[35] Comrades and Brothers, Interview with Hossam El-Hamalawy, 2007: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer242/hamalawy.html
[37] Hossam El-Hamalawy answering readers' questions on Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2011/01/31/DI2011013102323.html
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