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Eyewitness Egypt: two interviews with Hossam el-Hamalawy

A protester carrying a banner addressed to Mubarak: “The people want you to fall”. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy/3arabawy.

Below are two recent interviews with Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist and socialist activist who produces at the 3arabawy website. The first appeared at Al Jazeera and the second at the Washington Post.

January 27, 2011 -- Al Jazeera via Socialist Worker (US) -- Mark LeVine, professor of history at UC Irvine, managed to catch up with Hossam el-Hamalawy via Skype to get a first-hand account of events unfolding in Egypt.

Why did it take a revolution in Tunisia to get Egyptians onto the streets in unprecedented numbers?

In Egypt, we say that Tunisia was more or less a catalyst, not an instigator, because the objective conditions for an uprising existed in Egypt, and revolt has been in the air over the past few years.

Indeed, we already managed to have two mini-intifadas or "mini Tunisias" in 2008. The first was the April 2008 uprising in Mahalla, followed by another one in Borollos, in the north of the country.

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 of Palestinians and the US invasion of Iraq.

The outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada was especially important because in the 1980s and '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.

How are the protests evolving?

It is too early to say how they will go. It's a miracle how they continued past midnight yesterday [January 26] in the face of fear and repression. But having said that, the situation has reached a level where everyone is fed up -- seriously fed up. And even if security forces manage to put down protests today, they will fail to put down the ones that happen next week, or next month or later this year.

There is definitely a change in the level of courage of the people. The state was helped by the excuse of fighting terrorism in 1990s in order to fight all sorts of dissent in the country -- which is a trick all governments use, including the US.

But once formal opposition to a regime turns from guns to mass protests, it's very difficult to confront such dissent. You can plan to take out a group of terrorists fighting in the sugar canefields, but what are you going to do with thousands of protesters on the streets? You can't kill them all. You can't even guarantee that troops will do it -- will fire on the poor.

What is the relationship between regional and local events here?

You have to understand that the regional is local here. In 2000, the protests didn't start as anti-regime protests, but rather against Israel and in support of Palestinians. The same occurred with the US invasion of Iraq three years later.

But once you take to the streets and are confronted by regime violence, you start asking questions: Why is Mubarak sending troops to confront protesters instead of confronting Israel? Why is he exporting cement to be used by Israel to build settlements instead of helping Palestinians? Why are police so brutal with us when we're just trying to express our solidarity with Palestinians in a peaceful manner?

And so regional issues like Israel and Iraq were shifted to local issues. And within moments, the same protesters who chanted pro-Palestinian slogans started chanting against Mubarak. The specific internal turning point in terms of protests was 2004, when dissent turned domestic.

In Tunisia, the labour unions played a crucial role in the revolution, as their large and disciplined membership ensured that protests could not be easily quashed and gave an organisational edge to the mobilisations. What's the role of the labour movement in Egypt in the current uprising?

The Egyptian labour movement was under attack in the 1980s and 1990s by police, who used live ammunition against peaceful strikers in 1989 during strikes in the steel mills and in 1994 in the textile mill strikes.

But steadily since December 2006, our country has been witnessing the biggest and most sustained waves of strike action since 1946, triggered by textile strikes in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, home of the largest labour force in the Middle East, with more than 28,000 workers. It started because of labour issues, but spread to every sector in society except the police and military.

As a result of these strikes, we've managed to get two independent unions, the first of their kind since 1957 formation of a union for property tax collectors. The new unions include more than 40,000 civil servants, and then health technicians, more than 30,000 of whom launched a union just last month outside of the state-controlled unions.

But it's true that 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 the 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 -- here are lawsuits filed against them by state and state-backed unions. But they are getting stronger despite the continued attempts to silence them.

Of course, in the last few days, the crackdown has been directed against street protesters, who aren't necessarily trade unionists. These protests have gathered a wide spectrum of Egyptians, including sons and daughters of the elite. So we have a combination of urban poor and youth, together with the middle class and the sons and daughters of the elite.

I think Mubarak has managed to alienate all sectors of society except his close circle of cronies.

The Tunisian revolution has been described as very much a "youth"-led revolt, and dependent on social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter for its success. And now people are focusing on youth in Egypt as a major catalyst. Is this a "youth intifada," and could it happen without Facebook and other new media technologies?

Yes. It's a youth Intifada on the ground. The internet only plays a role in spreading the word and the images about what happens on the ground. We don't use the Internet to organise. We use the internet to publicise what we're doing on the ground, hoping to inspire others into action.

It's amazing to think about the crucial role of trade unions in the Arab world today considering more than two decades of neoliberal regimes across the region, whose primary goal has been to destroy working-class solidarity. Why have unions remained so important?

Unions have always been proven to be the silver bullet for any dictatorship. Look at Poland, South Korea, Latin America and Tunisia. Unions were always instrumental in mass mobilisation. You want a general strike to overthrow a dictatorship, and there's nothing better than an independent union to do so.

Is there a larger ideological program behind the protests, or is it just about getting rid of Mubarak?

Everyone has his or her reasons to take to the streets, but I would assume that if our uprising became successful and he's overthrown, you'll start getting divisions. The poor will want to push the revolution to a much more radical position -- to push for the radical redistribution of wealth and to fight corruption, whereas the so-called reformers, who will want to put the breaks on, and more or less lobby for change at the top, and curb the powers of state a little bit, but keep some essence of the state. But we're not there yet.

What is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, and how will its remaining aloof from the current protests impact the situation?

The Muslim Brotherhood has been suffering from divisions since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada. Its involvement in the Palestinian solidarity movement when it came to confronting the regime was abysmal. Basically, whenever its leadership makes a compromise with the regime, especially the most recent leadership, it has demoralised its base cadres.

I know personally many young brothers who left the group. Some of them have joined other groups or remained independent. As the current street movement grows and the lower leadership gets involved, there will be more divisions, because the higher leadership can't justify why they're not part of the new uprising.

What about the role of the US in this conflict. How do people on the street view its positions?

Mubarak is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel. He's known to be America's thug in the region, one of the tools of US foreign policy and implementing its agenda of security for Israel and the smooth flow of oil, while keeping Palestinians in line.

So it's no secret that this dictatorship has enjoyed the backing of US administrations since day one, even during Bush's phony pro-democracy rhetoric. So one should not be surprised by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ludicrous statements that were more or less defending the Mubarak regime, since one of the pillars of US foreign policy was to keep regimes stable at expense of freedom and civil liberties.

We don't expect anything from US President Barack Obama, whom we regard as a great hypocrite. But we hope and expect the US people -- trade unions, professors' associations, student unions, activist groups -- to come out in support of us.

What we want of the US government is to completely get out of the picture. We don't want any sort of backing -- just cut aid to Mubarak immediately and withdraw backing from him, withdraw from all Middle Eastern bases and stop supporting the state of Israel.

Ultimately, Mubarak will do whatever he has to do to protect himself. He will suddenly adopt the most anti-US rhetoric if he thinks that would help him save his skin. At the end of the day, he's committed to his own interests, and if he thinks the US won't support him, he'll turn somewhere else.

The reality is that any really clean government that comes to power in the region will come into open conflict with the US because it will call for radical redistribution of wealth and ending support for Israel or other dictatorships. So we don't expect any help from America--just to leave us alone.

[First published at the Al Jazeera.]

Hossam el-Hamalawy.

Crisis in Egypt: Blogger/journalist first-hand stories -- Hossam el-Hamalawy answers Washington Post readers' questions

January 31, 2011 -- Washington Post -- Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian blogger and journalist from Cairo who writes the popular blog 3arabawy, was online January 31 to take questions about what is currently happening on the ground in the Egyption capital.

El-Hamalawy has been an editor at several Egyptian papers and is currently at Al Ahram English, a leading English-language daily.


Boston, Mass.: How long before Mubarak steps down? If he does, do you worry about a power vacuum? Do you see ElBaradei as property interim leader until free and fair elections can be held?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I see him stepping down pretty soon or else he will be taken into custody of the protestors and will be put on trial.

I do not worry about power vacuum because the people are already taking initiatives on the ground to fill any security or political vacuums as we saw in the case of the popular committee that are running security now in the Egyptian neighbourhoods, following the evacuation of the police.

Regarding ElBaradei, I do not want to see him as an interim leader because he will diffuse the revolution, not take it forward.


Sheffield, U.K.: Which are the opposition parties capable of replacing Mubarak and will they respect the call for elections?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I don't see any of the current opposition groups capable of providing an alternative at the moment. And what I hope for is that we end up with direct democracy, not liberal democracy. Direct democracy is based on collective decision making from below based on the committees that are springing up now in the neighborhoods and hopefully soon in the factories.

Liberal democracy is voting for rich fat cats once every five years.


Bluffton, Ohio: As a university student interested in social justice and social change, what can American students alike do to help during this situation?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: They can protest in the front of the Egyptian embassies and consulates and pressure their own government into cutting the aid they give to the Mubarak dictatorship.


Durham, N.C.: How much truth is there to rumours that police are behind the looting?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: These rumours are largely through many of those criminal thugs who work closely with the police who use them against political dissidents previously in elections and in protests.


Coon Rapids, MN: Do you think the new government will be a secular one?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: At the moment it is very hard to say what the outcome of the uprising will be since it's not over yet. However, the Islamic forces are not running the show. Personally I'm hoping for a secular system.


New York, NY: I am a Coptic Christian and would like to know if Coptic youth are taking part in the protests? And if you have spoken to any of them what are their hopes for Coptic rights if the regime leaves? Please give us some information. Thank you.

Hossam el-Hamalawy: Despite the call by the Coptic church in Egypt not to take part in the protests because the church is closely affiliated to the Mubarak regime, but many of the Coptic youth are taking part in the uprising and the Muslim protesters largely welcome that and in demonstrations there are always slogans chanted by the demonstrators calling for unity between Copts and Muslims against the regime and denouncing sectarianism.


London: What does "diffusing the revolution" mean for you? What is the aim of this revolution if not an interim leader and then a properly and freely elected new government?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: The revolution for me is about radical redistribution of wealth and a government that will represent the will of the Egyptian people when it comes to civil liberties in addition to a pro-resistance stand vis a vis the US hegemony on the region and Israel. ElBaradei is not the man for that.


Toronto, Canada: We see the size of the street protests but what types of organisations are springing up to organise these? For instance neighbourhood committees, factory committees, political parties. Or is it still primarily "spontaneous" and localized organizations?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: In many cases the protests are spontaneous but slowly there are grassroots organisations that are mushrooming to manage the protests, including the neighbourhood committees, the few independent trade unions we have and hopefully soon factory committees.


London: Do you see this as a popular, mass-led revolution? What chance do the Muslim Brotherhood have of hijacking it?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: It is a popular mass revolution indeed. However, history is full of previous cases where groups have hijacked the uprisings. Up until now the Brotherhood have not presented themselves as an alternative to Mubarak. But who knows about tomorrow?


Washington, DC: If Mubarak steps down, is there a fear that a radical regime will take his place instead of a democratic one? How likely is that to happen?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: If you are talking radical, like in radical redistribution of wealth and active support for the spread of regional dissent against both the local Arab dictators and the Western backers, then we welcome the radicalism. But if it was radicalism in the direction of religious fanatacism we definitely do not want that and I see no signs on the ground that religious fanatics are taking over.


Barcelona, Catalonia: Was Tunisia a "Berlin Wall moment" for the Arab world? Do you think it's likely that many other dictatorships in the region will fall in 2011?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: The real Berlin moment was the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000 that started a chain reaction all throughout the Arab world providing inspiration for street dissent. Having said that, the Tunisian revolution is indeed a catalyst in a process that has been brewing for 10 years now.


Austin, TX: We're only hearing about what is happening in Cairo, and to a lesser extent some other big cities. What's going on in rural Egypt?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: In rural Egypt ... if you mean the provinces, which are not necessarily rural, these protests continue on a daily basis and sometimes they are even more militant than the ones in Cairo.


Newfoundland, Canada: What do you think Mubarak's strategy is, or are he and his ministers just living in a bubble detached from reality? It is very odd that the government would continually impose curfews and then do nothing to enforce them -- it just emboldens people.

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I think Mubarak is confused and desperate so he is trying every trick in the book. But it's not working because the street pressure continues and escalates. Mubarak hoped for the end of the protests when he sent in the army expecting that people will be scared by the sight of the tanks and fighter jets. But it backfired.


Bielefeld, Germany: Which country in the Middle East will be next? Do you think many more countries will experience such events like in Egypt?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I think many countries in our region are about to embrace their own intifada. I think Yemen, Jordan and Algeria might be next.


New York, New York: What incentive does Mubarak have to resign? What if he just decides to ignore the protests? Do you think the protesters can continue their momentum? Egypt is a country of over 80 million people -- do you feel the protests are representative?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: No dictator has an incentive to leave and they only leave when they are forced to and I feel the tipping point to be coming very soon. And yes, the demonstrations are very much representative of the Egyptian people because you find men and women, Copts and Muslims, veiled and unveiled women, children and old men and women, so you have all the strats of Egyptian people.


New York: Thus far, it appears that a very small percentage of Egyptians are demonstrating. Why is that? What percentage of Egyptians do you think the demonstrators represent?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I think this is a mistaken idea and it's enough to tune in the TV stations to watch the hundreds of thousands basically in every province to understand that this has become a mass uprising.


Sheffield, UK: Why do you think the West has been so hesitant and incremental in transitioning their support from Mubarak to the Egyptian people?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: Western governments like all other governments care about their own interests and do not put much value on what choices they make on who to ally themselves with except for their personal gains. That's why the Obama administration made foolish statements like those made by Joe Biden refusing to label Mubarak as a dictator simply because Mubarak is a friend of the US government and Israel.


Boston, MA: From your narrative it appears that you are supporting a socialist restructuring of Egyptian economic life in the post-Mubarak era, but there are also many in Egypt who would support something more akin to the European liberal social-democratic model. Are you qualified to give an accurate representation of what approach most protesters are agreeing upon?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: No one claims that there is an agreement yet among protesters about the post-Mubarak regime and I was very much clear in my previous answers that I was expressing my personal hopes towards what Egypt should look like. However, at the end of the day the majority of the Egyptian people will decide which direction to go.

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