Dateline Egypt: Everything up for grabs in ongoing revolt
On September 9, a huge protest took place outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The protest was driven by anger at Israel's killing of Egyptian police in August, the deep solidarity the Egyptian people feel towards Palestinians and frustrations at the slow pace of change.
By Raul Bassi, Cairo
September 11, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- After the overthrow of Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, a new chapter in Egyptian history is being written and its authors are the people themselves. Anything could happen and everything is up for grabs given the profound political, social and economic crisis in which Egypt's neoliberal system finds itself in.
These events are part of the broader process of revolutions sweeping the Arab world, but Egypt's future will in no small part be influenced by the characteristics and history that make the country what it is today.
The results of neoliberalism in Egypt are clear: poverty, misery and daily struggles to survive.
After 20 years of hardline neoliberalism, Egypt's population of 70 million has been left with limited resources, almost no local industry, a dire lack of basic services and rising unemployment.
This is most evident in Cairo, where each day 6 million workers from nearby surrounding areas converge to swell the ranks of a 30-million strong city already bursting at the seams. With roadways in a disastrous state or unfinished, traffic becomes unbearable.
Another extreme consequence of this poverty and high concentration of people can be seen in housing. Most people live in high-rise apartments of which there are two types: those built in the 1950s and '60s by the government of Gamal Nasser and more recent buildings.
The first type are falling down or in the process of demolition, due to lack of maintenance and funding. The second type are in better shape, but in many cases have been left half built due to lack of funds.
Regardless, both are occupied.
The high level of unemployment has led to the creation of a system I would call “creating a service and asking for money later”. Especially if you are suspected of being a tourist, people will constantly offer to take a picture of you, to be a tour guide, to hail a taxi, carry your baggage or just about anything else you could imagine.
The catch is that not only can you expect to be asked for money for the service, but also discover that the person's partner should also be paid, and sometimes many other people.
When tourism was booming, it helped mask just how profound the impacts of neoliberalism have been. But the tourism sector has been hit hard, with tourism dropping by 80% since 2008 as a result of the global financial crisis.
The roots of neoliberalism can be found in Israel's military defeat of Egypt and other Arab countries in the 1967 war. The result was not simply a military defeat but a defeat for Nasser's project and a process of opening Egypt's economy.
This process accelerated under the rule of Anwar Sadat, who came to power in 1970, with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and continued under Mubarak.
The strategy was to dismantle Nasser's state capitalist regime and replace it with a system geared towards the private profits of companies that acted as subcontractors to imperialist monopolies.
International aid, mainly from the US and Israel, did little to turn this situation around. Instead it was used to corrupt supporters in the government and armed forces, who preferred to keep their share in secret foreign bank accounts. These funds also ensured the maintenance of a monstrous police-state apparatus, incorporating about 1.5 million police officers and about 400,000 soldiers.
In the face of all this, the pride with which ordinary Egyptians talk of their country and history shines through. Not surprisingly, a strong sense of nationalism, combined with deeply held religious beliefs, comes through.
Here the Sufistrand of Islam, rather than the Wahabbi strand associated with Saudi Arabia, dominates with its open, tolerant attitudes that insist more on personal belief than ritual practices. It tends to support a separation between religion and politics.
The first signs of serious resistance to the regime date back to 2007, when important workers strike took place. Parallel to this, small farmers began resisting land expropriations that resulted from the abolition of Nasser's land reform. With a rise in the formation of democratic movements and organisations, a social explosion seemed more a matter of when rather than if.
Today's unfolding revolution is largely made up of three sectors, each with different social weight: the youth, the radical left and the democratic-minded middle class.
It was among the youth that the current movement started, but almost immediately the left and middle class came onboard.
Many have pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood as the main opposition force, but its leadership initially called for a boycott of the demonstrations that brought Mubarak down.
Only after the Egyptian masses had joined in, with 15 million people taking to the streets, did they reverse this position.
The movement's initial demands were very broad and democratic in nature. They did not represent a direct challenge to Egypt's economic order of the government's subservient foreign policies.
But as the movement swelled, youth sections and the left began advancing a more radical program. It called for an end to the police/military regime, an end to neoliberalism and an end to Egypt's subservience to US and Israel interests.
In essence, it was a program for democratic, social and anti-imperialist revolution.
This alliance of youth and left forces was critical to mobilising the Egyptian masses in the face of brutal repression that left more than 850 dead.
But for most of those that took to the streets, Mubarak's February 11 resignation and the decision by the military to step in seemed to fulfill their desires.
This does not mean the impetus to demand more has gone. More than 50 new independent unions have formed, small farmers have continued to fight and many of the poor that joined the February demonstrations are taking part in popular neighbourhood committees in defence of the revolution.
Demonstrations have continued. These have forced the ruling military council to comply with some of the promises it made.
These include paying compensation to families who had loved ones killed in the demonstrations, starting legal proceedings against Mubarak and some of his accomplices, and stepping up talks of elections.
On September 9, a huge protest took place outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The protest was driven by anger at Israel's killing of Egyptian police in August, the deep solidarity the Egyptian people feel towards Palestinians and frustrations at the slow pace of change. Protesters used sledgehammers and their bare hands to tear down a security wall and storm the embassy. Embassy papers were seized and the Israeli ambassador and diplomatic staff flew back to Israel.
Importantly, five socialist groups came together in April to form an Alliance of Socialist Forces.
Similarly, a national council involving 150 organisations has been established. It includes socialists, youth sectors, democratic parties, independent unions, peasant groups and several social organisations,
So far, the Muslim Brotherhood has refused to join. This confirms the well-known fact that they oppose the continuation of the revolutionary movement.
Role of the Muslim Brotherhood
This is perhaps unsurprising for a group that was set up with the help of the British embassy and the Egyptian monarchy in response to the anti-imperialist student revolts of the 1920s.
Under Sadat and Mubarak, it was the only tolerated "opposition" party. It opposed workers' strikes and peasant struggles.
The lack of any political program, beyond vague talk of building an Islamic state, has meant a pragmatic acceptance of neoliberalism and US control has dominated its outlook.
As a consequence, the Muslim Brotherhood could play any role in the political life of Egypt.
Despite saluting Egypt's democratic revolution, the US and Europe would much prefer a supposed "Islamisation" of the Middle East than confront real revolutions.
The Muslim Brotherhood is well placed to cover that need.
I am optimistic, but then I am biased.
It is clear that as the revolution pushes forward, it will increasingly come into further confrontation with the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Europe.
These powers are committed to the defeat of the democratic movement, and are ready to use any tool, including “political Islam” to achieve their aims.
On the other side, the Arab revolutions have coincided with the wave of protests sweeping Europe and the revolutions unfolding in Latin America for more than a decade.
One of the sharpest analyst of the Arab world, Samir Amin, wrote in an August 22 Monthly Review article: “The 'springtime' of the Arab peoples, like that which the peoples of Latin America are experiencing for two decades now and which I refer to as the second wave of awakening of the Southern peoples ― the first having unfolded in the 20th century until the counteroffensive unleashed by neoliberal capitalism/imperialism ― takes on various forms, running from explosions aimed against precisely those autocracies participating in the neoliberal ranks to challenges by 'emerging countries' to the international order.
"These springtimes thus coincide with the 'autumn of capitalism,' the decline of the capitalism of globalized, financialized, generalized, monopolies.”
Whether spring or autumn, now is the time to take sides.
[The author would like to thank the many Egyptians who were willing to sit down and talk with him, in the process helping to dispel some previously-held myths. In particular, he thanks comrades from the Egyptian Socialist Party and Egyptian intellectual Samir Amin, although the author takes full responsibility for conclusions drawn in the article.]