Egypt: Left debates the Arab Spring, democracy and imperialism

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"For social equality" -- May Day 2011 in Cairo.

By Nicola Pratt

June 29, 2011 -- Jadaliyya -- Egyptian, Arab and international socialists and progressive forces met in Cairo June 3-5, to discuss the future of the Arab revolutions in light of imperialism, Zionism and global capitalism. The Forum in Solidarity with the Arab Revolutions was organised by a number of progressive groups in Egypt and represented the first attempt to revive the annual Cairo Conference against Imperialism and Zionism, which was shut down by the Egyptian authorities in 2009.

The Cairo Conference began in December 2002 in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Initially, it was an attempt to build international alliances against the Iraq war and to insert Egypt into the global justice movement. It was held annually and evolved into a key platform not only for forging links between Egyptian and international activists, but also for building discursive alliances between different political and ideological trends (principally socialists and Islamists), as well as bringing together different popular and democratic struggles within Egypt. At its height, in 2008, the conference welcomed more than 1000 Egyptian, Arab and international activists to debate and discuss the struggle against imperialism, Zionism, neoliberalism and despotism.

Democracy’s imperial baggage

The notion that the struggle of the Arab people for democracy and freedom is inseparable from the struggle against imperialism, Zionism and neoliberalism was articulated in the Declaration of the Fourth Cairo Conference (in 2006). Such a declaration by a broad spectrum of political forces in the context of an anti-imperalist conference represented a new development in Arab politics. Historically, the relationship of democracy to (anti-)imperialism has been fraught with difficulties. In the heyday of Arab nationalism, freedom from colonialism and imperialism was regarded as the priority. Some even viewed multiparty democracy as a potential weapon in the hands of feudalists and imperialist lackeys. In an interview in 2000, the late Ahmed Abdalla, a former leader of the post-1967 student movement in Egypt as well as a highly respected author, told me:

Our attitude as students was to defend patriotism and democracy. But we lived the contradictions of this because our leaders used patriotism against democracy. Because of Nasserism, we were led to believe that democracy was a bourgeois idea.

Nevertheless, a number of activists from the student movement of the 1970s embraced the need for democracy and individual rights, based on revisions of leftist/nationalist thinking. Several of these shunned the ineffective political parties founded after Anwar al-Sadat’s introduction of a multiparty system in 1977 and went on to found independent associations such as the New Woman group (1983) and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) in 1985.

In the 1990s, there was a growth in the number of non-governmental organisations advocating human rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights and democratic reforms. They often came under strong criticism from leftists and Arab nationalists, who saw them as accommodating imperialism through their use of universal language of rights, their links with international organisations and their acceptance of funding from Western organisations and governments.

The decision of whether to accept "foreign funding" led to a split in the EOHR in 1992. On the one side were those who viewed foreign funding as a means of undermining the building of a popular, democratic movement in Egypt. On the other side were those who believed that the selective acceptance of funding from those organisations not associated with negative Western foreign policies would enable the continuation of human rights work. The panic against the foreign funding of advocacy NGOs, labelled by many leftists, Arab nationalists as well as the regime as "damaging to national interests" contributed to creating a supportive environment for regime crackdowns on advocacy NGOs. The amendment of the NGO law in 2000 and the imprisonment of Saad Eddin Ibrahim in 2001 were illustrative of the regime’s attempts to use "the threat of the foreigner" to silence possible dissent.

Despite the growing despotism of the Mubarak regime, the second Palestinian intifada from 2000 onwards and the US-British threats against Iraq from 2002 succeeded in mobilising Egyptian people on an unprecedented scale and shifting political activism from the headquarters of parties and NGOs to the streets of Cairo and other cities. In response to regional events and popular mobilisations against US and Israeli policies, Hosni Mubarak and his regime decided not to distance themselves from the US and Israel but rather to maintain Egypt’s strategic alliance with Israel and remain obedient to US foreign policy. The seismic shifts in regional and international politics after 9/11 helped to shift the discourse among leftists, Arab nationalists and Islamists from "democracy as a tool of imperialism" to "dictatorship as a tool of imperialism".

Democracy as a tool of anti-imperialism

The 2011 Forum in Solidarity with the Arab Revolutions demonstrated yet another modification of the articulation of imperialism and democracy. Unlike in previous Cairo conferences, where the Islamist resistance (namely Hizbollah and Hamas) had been supported in the struggle against Zionism and imperialism, in this forum participants criticised Hamas and Hizbollah for their failure to support the democratic aspirations of the Palestinian and Syrian people, respectively. In previous Cairo conferences, Iran and Syria had largely escaped criticism because of their support for the Islamist resistance. However, this forum expressed support for all struggles against authoritarianism in the region, without exception. Rather than viewing the Syrian uprising as weakening resistance against Zionism in the region, many participants emphasised how the revolution in Syria would strengthen the struggle against imperialism and Zionism. As one Syrian activist told the forum, "The [Syrian] people are asking why not one shot has been fired to free the Golan but the regime kills a 13-year-old boy, Ali Hamza?"

Not only were democratic struggles supported as a tool in the struggle against imperialism, but, simultaneously, the forum considered imperialism as a threat to democratic struggles. Almost all participants condemned the NATO intervention in Libya as a Western attempt to contain and control the Libyan revolution and, by extension, all the Arab revolutions.

However, a representative of the Libyan February 17 coalition stated in the forum’s opening session stated that, "We don’t see Western intervention as negative but as saving civilian lives. Libyans are fighting for freedom. Long live the Libyan revolution!"

The final declaration of the forum asserted its "firm support for the Libyan people’s revolution against the criminal Kadhafi regime. It also condemned the military imperialist intervention in Libya, justified by the barbaric confrontation of the Kadhafi regime of popular peaceful protests, calling for stopping this intervention immediately". In practice, the issue of the NATO intervention in Libya continues to be debated among the left in Egypt and in Europe.

Less controversial was the forum’s discussion of the dangers of the offers of loans from the G8, IMF and World Bank to Egypt and Tunisia in the name of "assisting the democratic transition", but which in reality attempt to deepen neoliberal economic reforms — the same economic reforms that led to the impoverishment of the majority of Egyptians and Tunisians and fuelled the revolutions in those countries.

Reconceptualising democracy

The re-articulation of the relationship between imperialism and democracy amongst activists in the region challenges Western narratives about the "victory of liberal democracy". All participants expressed a desire to reconceptualise the notion of democracy itself in order to reflect the desires of the people. As Yehia Fikry of the Centre for Socialist Studies argued, with regards to Egypt:

Political change is not the only demand. There is anger because of the lack of social justice. A slogan in the revolution was, “A kilo of meat costs 100 pounds and a square meter of land is one pound”. Billionaires get a chunk of land for pennies because of their links to the regime.

Several participants described the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak as only the first step in the revolution. Since Mubarak stepped down, there has been a continuation of social struggles, including workers' strikes for better pay and workplace struggles to unseat managers, directors and other figures associated with the previous regime. The final declaration of the forum, expressed its "conviction of the connection between democratic struggle from below and social struggle, and the link between anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism".

However, several Egyptian participants at the forum explained that sections of the Egyptian population against are hostile to the continuation of the revolution, viewing social demands as a threat to the consolidation of democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood has become the key political force, acting in tandem with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, that criticises ongoing socioeconomic struggles. The Muslim Brotherhood also opposed the calling of a "second day of anger" on May 27, which saw tens of thousands of Egyptians rally in Tahrir Square calling for speedier political reforms. A member of the Coalition of the Revolution Youth, one of the groups behind the "second day of anger", told the forum: "The military is trying to divide the revolutionary forces through a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood. They are separating political demands from social demands."

Before the fall of Mubarak, the Cairo conferences had witnessed a strengthening alliance between the left and Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. For Egyptian socialists, an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood was necessary to build a broad movement against the Mubarak regime. For socialists in the West, building links with Islamists was part of the struggle against Islamophobia, which had increased sharply in the post-9/11 context. Nevertheless, due to the hostility of its leadership towards continuing the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood was not invited to attend the forum.

This decision was not without some controversy. Apparently, the Nasserist Karama party, another joint organiser of the former Cairo conferences, refused to attend the forum because the Muslim Brotherhood was not invited. On the other hand, the Egyptian Communist Party members at the forum voiced their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation with a regressive ideology and as a threat to political and social transformation. In between these two points, several Egyptian (and international) socialists noted the contradictory nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and the potential of reaching out to the youth and working-class members of the brotherhood who wish to continue the revolution.

Challenges ahead

The forum was an opportunity to celebrate the gains of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the bravery of protesters from Tunisia to Bahrain, and to highlight the huge potential of the Arab uprisings to transform the unequal socioeconomic and political relations that have helped to sustain authoritarianism, Zionism and imperialism in the Arab world for more than six decades.

Nevertheless, massive challenges face such revolutionary transformations. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions put the West on the back foot for a period, but the West has shown that it is not about to give up without a fight. The loan conditionalities imposed on Tunisia and Egypt by the G8, IMF and World Bank represent a serious challenge to the aspirations of the majority of people in the region for social and economic justice, while domestic neoliberal elites (including the military and the Islamists) represent a serious challenge to popular struggles against socioeconomic injustices. This, in itself, may undermine the consolidation of any meaningful democracy.

Meanwhile, the threats to the "axis of resistance" (Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas) from below may provide new opportunities for renewed attempts by the "axis of evil" (that is, US, Europe, Saudi Arabia and Israel) to deepen its penetration of the region and enhance the neoliberal order, at the expense of the rights of most ordinary people, including the Palestinians.

In this context, the forum’s call "for building the largest possible regional and international networks of solidarity in support of Arab revolutions" is not only a slogan but an imperative. Arguably, the revolutionary aspirations of the people of the Arab world not only depend on the bravery of the Arab people but also on the ability of people in the West to resist neoliberal deepening in their own countries.

[Nicola Pratt is lecturer in comparative politics and international relations at the University of East Anglia.]