What has transpired in Egypt is nothing less than the largest popular revolution in the last 30 years. Two weeks of demonstrations and mass actions put the regime of Hosni Mubarak on its last legs–but only 2 days of strikes were enough to bring him down. Masses of working class people have participated in the protests, swelling the ranks in the streets, but once the working-class began to operated in an organized fashion, the regime could not sustain itself. As the Revolutionary Socialist Organization of Egypt said: “The regime can afford to wait out the sit-ins and demonstrations for days and weeks, but it cannot last beyond a few hours if workers use strikes as a weapon.”
The ruling classes of the world are now on notice: the people are back, in a big way.
While it is good and necessary to celebrate this victory, we must also understand that this political revolution is not yet a social revolution–and beyond that, it is but a very minor political revolution. Cultural change is sweeping Egypt in a way that it has not in a very long time, caused by the movement for democracy from below. The explosion of popular organization in the form of independent unions, neighborhood defense committees and new political organizations will forever change the face of Egypt, the Arab world, the entire Middle East and the world itself. However, the regime created by Mubarak remains in place.
The regime of Hosni Mubarak is a creation of local Egyptian elites who worked in tandem with US, Israeli and European interests to repudiate the Arab Nationalist regime of former Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s government came into existence in 1952 following a revolt by military officers against the British-installed monarch King Farouk. Nasser himself did not take power until 1954, but he was the major architect of the 1952 overthrow.
Nasser’s regime opposed forms of popular self-organization but gained an enormous amount of respect from the people of Egypt and the entire world with his robust opposition to Israeli imperialism and indeed following the 1956 Suez Crisis, world imperialism itself. The regime operated via nationalizing major industries in order to develop the country’s economy.
The Arab Nationalism of Egypt was supported by ruling elites to counter revolutionary internationalism, and its limitations (especially via the nation-state) were made clear during the 1970’s. Below Nasser in the hierarchy of the regime was Anwar Sadat, who began the process of creating the regime that is in power today in Egypt. Sadat made peace with Israeli apartheid, giving de facto support for continued imperialist bludgeoning of the Arab world. Without fear from the Egyptian government–the only effective counterweight to Israeli aggression–the Israeli government was able to spend the following thirty years demolishing the region in the name of “security.” Invasions and occupations of Lebanon coupled with airstrikes on Iraq and multiple vicious campaigns against the “internal” threat of occupied Palestine became the rule of the day.
A splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Sadat, a kind of “chickens coming home to roost” moment for the Egyptian ruling class. To counter working-class self-organization and revolutionary internationalism (not to mention more consistent and independent secular Arab nationalism) the government in Cairo did what many other governments across the Muslim world did during the 1970’s: bolster–both directly and indirectly–religious political groups to provide the only effective opposition (the most cynical version of this policy in the region was the Israeli intelligence services’ support for Hamas in Gaza during the First Intifada in order to counter the Arab nationalism of the Palestine Liberation Organization).
Following this, the next person in line in Sadat’s regime–the former head of the Air Force–was none other than Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak’s government–as part of the US-brokered Camp David Accord with Israel–would receive $1.3 billion dollars in military assistance a year over the course of the next three decades. As Egypt no longer had an external foe, the intention of this assistance was clear: to maintain the repression of the people of Egypt.
Why the need for repression? Peace with Israeli apartheid and imperial designs on the region was of course not popular in the largest Arab country in the world, but beyond this, the large-scale privatization of Egypt’s industries did not go over well with the people. Massive drops in living standards followed as members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) made millions of dollars. In the 1990’s, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed structural adjustment policies on Egypt with the support of the regime, resulting in economic devastation.
Resistance was, during this period, either violently repressed or co-opted. A place was found for the Muslim Brotherhood–though officially banned–in the pseudo-parliament. The bogeyman of the Brotherhood (alongside more violent Islamist elements whose activity peaked in the 1990’s) provided Mubarak with sufficient justification to crack down on the population in excess.
Resistance to the regime did continue, however. In 2003, a massive protest in opposition to the Iraq War turned on the Mubarak regime itself. In 2005, the Kefaya (Arabic for “Enough”; akin to the Latin American “Basta Ya!” slogan) movement formed around multiple liberal civil society organizations. But the most significant mobilizations were those of the Egyptian working-class and various youth movements (the April 6th Movement was formed around youth trying to support a failed general strike in 2007). From 2007 to 2009, many workers–centered around the industrial city of Malhalla–participated in a strike wave that challenged the authority of the government-sponsored trade union confederation (whose existence served to take the wind out of working-class self-orgnanization). Some of these struggles developed into full-on street battles with the police.
These struggles laid the foundation for the uprising on January 25th–all it took was the catalyst of Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” to touch off the movement. Many middle-class activists–socialist, liberal, and Muslim Brotherhood–linked up via social networking sites and plotted to mobilize mass street protests. A fairly sophisticated strategy of giving the security services false leads (for instance, announcing that the demonstrations would begin in a wealthy neighborhood of Cairo) linked up with a fairly crude strategy of literally walking down the street in working-class neighborhoods and calling for people to join led to massive marches on the 25th. From that moment, everything changed.
Masses of working-class individuals joined the protests, swelling the ranks of the demonstrations to millions of people. The government was unable to use the military to crack down on the demonstrations after the protesters literally fought the police off the streets. Instead of a Tiananmen-style crackdown, the government devised a rather clever strategy of appealing to the popularity of the armed forces (a major part of Egyptian culture following the 1952 uprising against the King and due to the army’s role in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel). The military’s true role was put on display on that fateful Wednesday when paid NDP thugs (and plainclothes police officers) were allowed by the military to attack to the protesters with vicious and crude tactics (including the infamous camel and horse charges).
More and more demonstrators joined following last Monday after many Egyptians went to work for the first time since the 25th and had conversations about what was actually going on (Egyptian state TV did not present the demonstrations as either large, important, or led by the masses of the Egyptian people). Then, just a few days ago, all hell broke loose for the regime.
Workers in the steel, petrochemical, transport, military production, docking, chemical industries went on strike. Masses of doctors, nurses and lawyers took the streets. Journalists for the state media resigned and a major newspaper actually took the unprecedented step of actually siding with the marchers. Mass demonstrations in Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria were joined with a much more widespread uprising across the entire country, even penetrating Upper Egypt (the southern part of the country) for the first time since the entire movement began.
Once workers went on strike, the regime shifted into panic mode. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (which had previous only convened during the 1967 and 1973 wars) has effectively taken control of the country–whether with Mubarak’s blessing or not, it is unclear.
Mubarak’s speech last night was a ridiculous ploy on the part of a regime that clearly has lost its bearings. Multiple leaks and the Army’s infamous Communique Number One raised expectations across Egypt, expectations which were dashed by Mubarak’s words on state television. The very real threat of an insurrection then likely compelled the regime to speed up Mubarak’s resignation, which came a mere hour ago.
It is now more important than ever that the people of Egypt not stop their important movement from below. What is at risk is all of the gains of the past 18 days: the regime is still in power, though minus Mubarak. The same elites continue to hoard the wealth of the country, the same security services persist in their repression of dissidence, the same military continues to rule–now openly. If the people simply return to their homes and cease their activity, the Mukhabarat (secret police) will begin to disappear, torture and murder once more. Workers’ will be forced to make concessions; popular committees will be dissolved; the police will return to the streets en masse.
Against the machinations of the opposition parties and the Brotherhood, the youth, worker and political organizations that have made this revolution need to push onward. A new political organization needs to be formed to lead this popular movement from below. Strikes must continue and spread across the country, as must demonstrations, in order to bring the regime itself down. This will only be possible if the movement penetrates the rank and file of the military itself–a prospect that kept a Tiananmen solution at bay during the past 18 days. If this is done, then the people can push forward this political revolution–and lay the groundwork for a social revolution (one in which the basic relations of society are transformed).
The international solidarity movement must keep up its pressure. Military rule is no solution to the crisis, the people’s demands are for democracy, not generals.
This is the most significant popular revolution in the past three decades. In the United States, the black population forms the bottom rung of the racial hierarchy. Accordingly, any movement for black liberation has massive consequences for the American social order. The black freedom struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s touched off massive social unrest across the United States, laying the groundwork for mass resistance to oppression. The effects of these mobilizations are still felt today. In the world-system, the Arab world occupies much the same position as black people in the States. Accordingly, a massive movement for Arab liberation constitutes a fundamental threat to the global social order. The Arab Spring–as many are now calling it–has the potential of fundamentally remaking the world order.
May this flowering of the Arab Spring only be the first chapter in this epic saga.
Friday, 11 February 2011
Jase Short is a supporter of the US socialist-feminist organisation Solidarity, whose website first published this article.