Egyptian Protests, Grounded in Decades of Struggle, Portend Regional Transformation

Egypt is throbbing with resistance.  Cairo is cloven between the forces of revolution and those of counterrevolution.  Hundreds of thousands of people — on Tuesday, February 1, well over a million — have been streaming each day into Tahrir Square, the largest plaza in the Arab world, located in the heart of downtown Cairo.  Army tanks line the streets, helicopters and F16s buzz overhead, and pro-Mubarak demonstrators, many of them hired thugs, bloodied thousands of protesters yesterday in Tahrir and elsewhere.  Yet the people keep pushing for Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s unconditional ouster, and not just in Cairo.  Alexandria has been convulsed, while Suez, a small city abutting the Suez Canal, has been riven with some of the fiercest street battles between the police and protesters, while workers there have gone on strike, demanding that Mubarak step down from his palace in Heliopolis.

In response to rising rage, Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people on Tuesday, February 1, and promised to step down in September, stating that his “first responsibility now is to restore the security and stability of the homeland, to achieve a peaceful transition of power,” assuring the crowds that he “was not intent on standing for the next elections” anyway.

Barack Obama, in reply to Mubarak’s promise to slowly relinquish his grip on power, said that after his address he had spoken “directly to President Mubarak.  He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place . . . an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and it must begin now.”  Clearly, Mubarak and Obama are coordinating their communications, as well as their strategies.  They should be: Egypt receives $1.3 billion of military aid each year to make sure it follows American orders.

Cutting that aid went unmentioned, so the nature of the “change” to which Obama was referring was unclear — but it is quite unlikely to be the change the people massing in Tahrir Square demand.  When they burn Mubarak in effigy, they show their disdain not just for the man but for the system for which he stands.

Mubarak and Obama are well aware of this, which is why, on Wednesday, February 2, Mubarak sent paid goons, demurely referred to in the Western press as “pro-Mubarak demonstrators,” into Tahrir Square and other major centers of resistance to provoke chaos.  With the streets racked by violence, state managers reason, Mubarak will have justification to set in motion an orderly, top-down transition to a new figurehead at the head of the same governmental system.

Early indications are that he will try to put in place his new vice president, Omar Suleiman.  Perhaps Suleiman won’t work out so well, and Mubarak will revert to another high-level officer from his inner circle.  Notwithstanding the particulars, the general framework of Egyptian and American policy is clear: maintain the system.  To that end, “pro-Mubarak demonstrators” swore on Wednesday to “liberate Tahrir Square with blood.”  “Liberation” has yet to be accomplished; there’s been plenty of blood.  The counterrevolution has begun.

Part of the work of preparing for this counterrevolution is in dismissing the protests as “spontaneous,” a momentary outburst of rage that will be quieted by a bit of change at the top.  In the Momentary Convulsion School of History, people briefly spasm in the streets in response to outside provocation but go home as soon as their masters throw them a few dry bones of change.  Grievances are not deeply felt injustices rooted in economic and political structures, but more like itches to be briefly scratched.

In more advanced versions of this fantasy, the Egyptian protests are just ripples from the revolt in Tunisia, and, like any ripple, they will pass through Egypt, rock it lightly, and then it will be still again.  History tells a different story.  As Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy comments, “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.”  These are ripples, but they are big ones, set in motion long ago, and they originated in socioeconomic tremors that predate the Tunisian uprising by decades.

The January 25 protests that began the current stage of social revolt were organized by several groups, including the April 6 movement, a wide-based group with overwhelmingly young leadership that emerged to mobilize support for the April 2008 strikes at Mahalla al-Kubra, a textile manufacturing center in the Nile Delta.  In Mahalla, 25,000 workers went on strike amidst deteriorating standards of living as the prices of basic foodstuffs careened upwards.  The workers won their demands — their strike was the crest of a massive wave of labor unrest that has hit Egypt hard since 1998.  Between 1998 and 2008, two million Egyptian workers participated in over 2,600 factory occupations.  In the first five months of 2009, over 200 industrial actions took place, a trend that continued through 2010.  Stanford historian Joel Beinin calls it the “largest and most sustained social movement in Egypt since the campaign to oust the British occupiers following the end of World War II.”

The success of this campaign catalyzed other independent labor activity, spurring the formation of Egypt’s first independent union in over a half century — the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers.  Beinin adds that the labor movements, alongside those organizing opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, “inculcated a culture of protest in Egypt.  This has contributed to the formation of a consciousness of citizenship and rights in a far more profound manner than anything that has happened in the arenas of party politics or nongovernmental organization work.”

Labor revolt emerged as a countermovement to the Mubarak regime’s neoliberal economic reforms.  Those reforms shattered the authoritarian populist model, put in place by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, which protected basic living standards, often by controlling the prices of basic staples.  Amidst rocketing inflation, stagnant wages — many in Egypt live on 400 Egyptian pounds a month, equal to around $70, or close to two dollars a day — and structural unemployment concentrated amongst the youth, this social compact broke down.  The population is extremely polarized, split on the model of most societies in the global South: a sparse middle class, with a small wealthy sector living in Zamalek or Maadi, or in outlying suburbs like Heliopolis, suspended above their society, while masses of poor inhabit the slums of Cairo and struggle — literally — for their daily bread.

One cannot easily separate polarization of wealth from dictatorship.  Wealth and proximity to political power are tightly intertwined in Egypt.  Columbia historian Timothy Mitchell notes that the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s put public funds into fewer and fewer hands, diverting resources away from labor-intensive industrial and agricultural development.  The state now “subsidizes financiers instead of factories, speculators instead of schools.  Although the IMF [International Monetary Fund] has shown no interest in raising the question, it is not hard to determine who benefits from the new financial subsidies.  The revitalized public-private commercial banks lend big loans (tax-free) to large operators.  The minimum loan size is typically over $300,000 and requires large collateral and good connections.”  In a telling indicator of the sharply unequal nature of income distribution, Mitchell notes that perhaps three percent of the population accounts for 50 percent of consumer spending.

Unrest has not merely been a response to destitution, but also a reaction to the systemic foreshortening of the social horizon, a phenomenon that cuts across social classes.  Seventy-five percent of the unemployed are below the age of 30.  Those with the lowest levels of education have the lowest levels of unemployment; university graduates, on the other hand, have a 30 percent unemployment rate.  The protests have cut across a wide cross-class segment of Egyptian society: workers, teachers, Islamists, women and youth, including some of the underemployed children of the middle and upper classes.  Some of the upper-class anger at Mubarak is fury at a dictatorship fused with corruption that has crowded out magnates running businesses with poor connections to state elites.  The common thread is an intolerance of anymore living under an authoritarian police state.

Predictably, Western media is misreporting the role of both labor and the Muslim Brotherhood, understating the role of the former and overstating the role of the latter.  The agenda is to obscure socioeconomic grievances and promote the narrative that the choice is between an authoritarian but secular government and a democracy that will bring Islamists — code for the Taliban — to state power.  The corollary is that people are not in the streets struggling for social revolution but to put in place a variant of Islamofascism.  Thus, people shrug, the revolt must be drowned in blood.  This narrative is indefensible.

For one thing, the ideological makeup of the Muslim Brotherhood is different from that of the more regressive Islamist anti-imperial forces.  Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood refrained from endorsing the initial call for January 25 to be a National Day of Rage.  Scarcely any Islamist slogans have been voiced at the demonstrations.  Most of the rhetoric has been secular and nationalist: “The crescent and the cross against murder and torture,” for example, referring to unity amongst the Muslim majority and the Christian minority.

It’s true that the Brotherhood would play a strong role in any remotely democratic post-Mubarak regime, as it is the largest organized political force in Egypt.  But that is not something anyone should fear.  The Muslim Brotherhood has eschewed violence over recent decades.  Thousands of its activists languish in Mubarak’s prisons, victims of state repression.  Comparisons that evoke al-Qaeda are simply slander.  If anything, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has been marked by its accommodationist and nonconfrontational stance vis-à-vis the regime in recent years, rather than the reverse, and to widespread consternation among dissidents.

Another underreported facet of the social mobilizations is that, on January 30, envoys from independent unions along with workers from the metal, chemical, automotive, textile, pharmaceutical, iron, and steel industries announced that they were creating a new Federation of Independent Egyptian Unions.  That same day, they endorsed an indefinite general strike until Mubarak steps down.  Attention is centered on Cairo’s momentous Tahrir uprising, but proportionally, smaller cities and towns like Mahalla and Suez are denser with protest.  They are also centers for the Egyptian working class.

Before discussing how to proceed, Obama consulted with the US’s key regional partners: Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and King Abdullah II of Jordan.  They urged Obama to support Mubarak, while Netanyahu has urged Israel’s Western allies to tone down criticism of Mubarak.  They don’t necessarily care about Mubarak, but about what he represents: continuity of policy.  They are aware of what the future holds if there is a sharp and radical rupture: the quiet, swift click of falling dominoes as the regional system collapses, autocracy by autocracy.

The New York Times reported that, “Israeli officials expressed concern that Mr. Mubarak’s abrupt exit could jeopardize the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.”  Translated from bureaucratese into English, their concern is neither with Mubarak nor his exit, but rather with managing the transition.  For Israel, a hostile Egypt on its borders will provoke confrontation and, eventually, open conflict — conflict that will end in either regional conflagration, the end of the occupation, or both.

Israel’s main ally, America, is aware of this possibility and, due to the influence of the Israel lobby in the US, will seek to prevent it.  But the lobby is influential in promoting a bellicose foreign policy in part because Israel’s foreign policy objectives — an Arab world peppered with dictatorships and destabilized states — line up with those of the arms manufacturers, who profit from regional arms races, and with those of the oil majors, who profit from the high prices associated with regional instability.  A neutered, pacific Israel would no longer work as a regional juggernaut for promoting those sectors’ interests.  With Israel no longer protecting Western corporate interests, uprisings in the Arab sheikhdoms that stand astride a frothing river of petrodollars would be next.  Too much is at stake: the profits of every Western oil company depend vitally on Middle Eastern fossil fuels and the financial system relies on recirculating and reinvesting the profits extracted from elevated oil prices, while the arms exporters count on regional conflict and the portion of the petro-profits that remain in regional hands to eventually flow into their coffers.

Simultaneously, Israel administers the region, creating free trade zones in Jordan, the Occupied Territories, and Egypt that are highly profitable for American corporations.  Egypt’s domestic economy relies on normalization, or regular trade, with Israel — which it would cut if there were real political change — as well as incestuous deals cut between the state and “private” enterprise.

Revealingly, the Egyptian stock exchange and world markets alike have been sliding downwards in response to the threat the revolt represents to both domestic accumulation in Egypt and the interests of capital worldwide.  In older parlance, the term would have been class war.

Within Egypt, the keystone of this system is the military and its control over the population, and, thus, its safeguarding of the social system from the threat of radical change.  For that reason, Obama’s spokesperson, Robert Gibbs, has promised that the American stream of military aid to Egypt will flow unhindered, an unmistakable signal to the generals: maintain the regional matrix, even if Mubarak eventually must go.  Many have misinterpreted the Egyptian army’s statement, which was released on Monday, stating: “The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people. . . .  Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirm that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”

The army hardly needed to resort to force.  Instead, it merely needed to stand by on Wednesday as hired thugs threw Molotov cocktails at peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square, and as men on camels and horses rode into the crowd with batons, injuring people and hoping to sow chaos and, thereby, to ensure that people think that the Mubarak government must stay in place to ensure an “orderly transition.”  Eyewitness reports from Al Jazeera correspondents show that many of the captured thugs have police IDs.  Meanwhile, government propaganda asserts that it has been Muslim Brotherhood militants throwing firebombs on the people.  The army “is calling on protesters to go and stay home for Egypt’s security.”

It is still unclear how this situation will play out.  The US government would have preferred that Mubarak had stayed in power in perpetuity.  A backup plan is a hand-picked successor to Mubarak who would maintain Egyptian collaboration with Israel, the quid pro quo for the $1.3 billion worth of aid the US remits yearly to Egypt, overwhelmingly to the military in the form of weapons and planes, ensuring that the money cycles back to the American military-industrial complex.  The Egyptian people are unlikely to settle for such sops.  As Nasser Abdel Hamid, a member of the National Association for Change, told Al-Masry Al-Youm, “We might have negotiated a diplomatic solution with the regime, but after today’s developments, the fight will continue; what happened will not weaken it.”  The other option is to turn the revolt into mass slaughter: the Pinochet option.  But to do so will probably require more repression than just street thugs can muster.  The regime would require the services of the army.

Yet, as a Middle East Report editorial notes, “The army likely cannot fire upon the demonstrating crowds if the regime judges that necessary.  The top brass has sworn not to; the Pentagon has echoed the White House in urging adherence to that policy; and, most importantly, the first bullet will shatter the shows of solidarity between the soldiers and the pro-democracy movement, as well as the army’s honored place in Egyptian political culture.”  More likely is the palace coup option, as, in the wake of the somewhat embarrassing — because unsuccessful — violence on Wednesday, Western officials called for accelerated transition within Egypt.  The backup plan is in action.  Should the protesters overcome the government’s maneuvering for a palace coup, it is possible that the US has a final card in its back pocket: Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a name frequently bandied about by foreign media and analysts as a possible successor to Mubarak.

But in Egypt, ElBaradei is hardly talked about.  As Egyptian journalist Philip Rizk told me, “He is not the people’s choice.  He is the choice of the international community,” adding, before Wednesday’s repression, that he was “pessimistic.”

“It’s going to get violent,” said Rizk, “and I think ElBaradei will get in no matter what.  Too much is at stake for the international community, for the US, for the IMF.”  ElBaradei would likely keep in place the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but would very likely open up Egypt’s Rafah crossing into Gaza for large flows of goods and people, allowing for economic development and better lives for the Palestinians living there.  Rizk added that, for Egyptians who have been living under the jackboot of dictatorship for decades, ElBaradei would be an improvement over the octogenarian Mubarak, who has outlasted four American presidents.

But there are those looking at more distant horizons, too, and who are less pessimistic about the possibility of Egyptian society reaching them.  As el-Hamalawy comments, “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-à-vis the US hegemony on the region and Israel.”

“ElBaradei,” he adds, “is not the man for that.”

Max Ajl is a writer and activist.  Visit his blog Jewbonics: <>.  This article was first published in TruthOut on 3 February 2011 under a Creative Commons license.

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