About the series: Adalah ("justice" in Arabic) is a diary series about the Middle East, with special (but not exclusive) emphasis on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The authors of this series believe in the right of self-determination for all the people of the Middle East and that a just resolution respecting the rights and dignity of both Palestinians and Israelis is the only viable option for peace. Our diaries will consist of news roundup and analysis. We invite you to discuss them in the comments or contribute with stories from the region which deserve attention. We ask only that you be respectful and that the number of meta comments be kept to a minimum.
Read on for reports from and analysis of the ongoing revolution in Egypt by experts, eyewitness observers and participants.
This afternoon I went to a ‘teach-in’ in Cambridge about the revolutionary uprisings sweeping the Middle East, focusing on Egypt in particular. Speaking were Anne Alexander, Glen Rangwala, Maha Abdelrahman and Dina Makram-Ebeid, an Egyptian activist and research student at LSE. The talks, which came off the back of repeated vigils in solidarity with protestors in Egypt and Libya, were well attended. It is heartening that people in Britain are watching events in the Middle East and North Africa so with such interest, and moreover that they are, as I advocated here, looking to connect the struggles in Tahrir Square, Benghazi, Manama, and Tunis with their own.
For those who couldn’t make it to talks, I’ve reconstructed them from my notes below. I don’t know shorthand, so take any quotes etc. as paraphrases.
Anne Alexander was first up. She was in Egypt over the past few weeks, and she emphasised that while Egyptians spoke to were surprised at the scale of the uprising, they weren’t at all surprised that it happened. There had been plenty of signs that Egypt and Tunisia would erupt, in Egypt not least in the wave of activism – rooted in the labour movement and elsewhere – that had developed over the past decade.
She located the roots of the uprisings in the tensions between the neoliberal economic reforms enacted by both the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes and the local conditions on which they were imposed. These tensions created the space for popular protests to develop, and created the conditions for those protests to develop into a revolutionary crisis that ultimately forced the military to remove a significant element of the regime (Mubarak).
The 1952 coup came off the back of a popular movement, but once in power Nasser offered the population a kind of social contract, in which the people would forego a political role in exchange for welfarist economic measures. This contract trapped the population in mechanisms of political control, notably the Nasserist trade union federation. This had the function of containing any future popular dissent – workers could still take action to oppose specific injustices, but such actions were now framed as attempts to live up to or enforce the Nasserist social contract, rather than as attempts to fundamentally oppose or replace it.
In 2006 this social contract began to break down because of the impact of the neoliberal reforms undertaken in the 1990s (although their history goes back to Sadat’s ‘infitah’ in the 1970s). These reforms sent many jobs overseas and undermined the state welfare system. This gave workers less reason to identify with the state or with the official trade union federation. Alexander emphasised the importance of the state-controlled union as a central pillar of the regime’s control: as well as containing and channelling worker unrest, it was able to mobilise large numbers of people to turn out for rigged elections, which helped legitimise the regime. In other words, the Egyptian state’s neoliberal economic program undermined the basis of its own authority. (An aside: this recalls, superficially at least, Adam Smith’s thesis that feudal lords sowed the seeds of their own destruction when they opened themselves up to commerce, undercutting the basis for their own authority for the sake of “trinkets and baubles”).
The past decade saw a “flowering” of popular protest, under a wide variety of banners and causes. In 2000 there were protests over Palestine; in 2003 over Iraq; from 2004 the Kefaya movement coalesced around opposition to Mubarak transferring power to his son; in 2006 judges marched through the streets of Cairo protesting against electoral fraud – a sign, if there ever was one, of a growing crisis within the Egyptian state.
However these protests were largely discontinuous and fragmented. What changed this was the workers’ movement. Although workers’ protests tended, initially, to be over narrowly economic and local issues, they created the space for independent popular mobilisation. The key turning point was Mahalla – in 2008 workers there began to call for a national minimum wage, a demand that had a clear political dimension and thus represented a direct challenge to the regime. They formed an alliance with bloggers who set up a Facebook group that eventually developed into the ‘April 6’ movement, which played a significant role in the recent uprising. Activists, through the Facebook group, called for a general strike which didn’t materialise, but managed to organise very large protests. The key point to note though is the development of independent networks and political organisations, and the increasing cooperation between the various opposition movements that had developed since 2000. This is what laid the organisational foundations for the uprising in January.
The development of the uprising between 25 January and 11 February (when Mubarak resigned) mimicked these broader trends in a condensed form. The protests were initially called by bloggers, liberal activists, and so on. They managed to bring tens of thousands on to the streets – an impressive number, but not enough to challenge the regime. Events then took on a momentum of their own, with hundreds of thousands of people spontaneously joining the demonstrations. However, in this stage the protests still brought people onto the streets as individuals. The turning point was the wave of strikes – by 9 Feb some 300,000 workers were on strike across the country, some with explicitly political demands. This was fundamental in forcing the regime to “crack” at the top.
Above all the military leadership feared a split within their own rank and file. While signs of soldiers defecting were few, they were powerful, and army officials feared a fragmentation of the military perhaps more than anything else.
The Egyptian revolution is still, she concluded, a long way from realising its objectives. The state and military apparatus is largely intact. What has changed is the “spirit of Tahrir” – people now have a vastly expanded sense of the possible. They have been “transformed”.
Next up was Dina Makram-Ebeid, who has been involved in activism in Egypt for a long time, as well as in the movement against the cuts in Britain. She had also just got back from Egypt. She gave a personal account of the revolution, but also sought to draw links between the struggle over there and the struggle against the government’s economic programs in Britain. As she declared at the start of her talk, “the fight is not just in Egypt.”
She recalled speaking to her friend, a fellow activist, on 24 January. “Don’t worry”, he told her, “tomorrow is the revolution!” She was sceptical – prior to that the largest protest was around 19,000 people after the Church bombing. The fact that the 25 Jan protests developed into the mass movement they did took her and other activists – her prescient friend aside – completely by surprise.
When she flew into Cairo she wasn’t sure what to expect. She had never been in a revolutionary situation before. When she arrived she was disappointed – everything seemed so normal. Where was the revolution? Where were the grand changes? The spectacles? But gradually, she saw the revolution – it existed “in the cracks”. She saw a man regulating traffic because the police had been withdrawn. She stopped at a kiosk to buy crisps and found people talking about the Constitution. In her street she spotted a group of men sitting around chatting like old friends, having organised themselves into a neighbourhood watch group to defend the street from released prisoners and Mubarak’s gangs. A week ago they didn’t even know each others’ names. The revolution manifested itself, in other words, above all in new forms popular organisation and solidarity. It “changed completely the way we relate to each other”.
It was in this respect that Makram-Ebeid saw the parallels between the struggles in Egypt and the UK. In both cases they are struggles for “another world”, for alternatives to the existing set of choices. The Mubaraks and the Camerons of the world endlessly repeat the same mantra: ‘there is no alternative’. It was one that, on some level, she herself had internalised prior to leaving for Egypt. But what the revolution showed above all that people acting together can change their society on their own terms, and fashion their own alternatives.
Now, after the revolution, Egyptians are being told that they should move towards a Western-style liberal democracy, or that they face a choice between the ‘liberals’ or the Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly people struggling against the cuts are being told to advocate for a return to the welfarist contract of the post-war period. “Why should we?” These are false choices, “set” alternatives. Real alternatives “are not copies”. They develop out of new forms of organisation and collective action.
She ended by describing her experience camping in Tahrir Square. It was the first time that people ever really “saw” each other. Egypt, like Britain, was a “blind society” – people were segregated by ideologies, or by class, or by religion, and didn’t really see or understand others from different groups. In Tahrir Square people got the chance to really look at each other properly, and talk to each other, and work together.
Second, and relatedly, in Tahrir self-mangement was critical, because there was no longer a state to rely upon (on the contrary: measures had to be found to combat the state). The forms of self-organisation that developed were incredible. Protestors established their own hospital; a prison was constructed in the abandoned Metro station to hold captured ‘pro-Mubarak’ thugs; a military front was organised to defend the square from attack (interestingly, it was people from Suez – the province known for fighting the Israelis – who took the lead on this front, camping under the tanks). Some of the forms of self-organisation were even comical – in the queue for the toilets you had to say “poo” or “piss” depending on what you needed, and the guy organising would say, “right: four poos over here, three pisses over there”. People found ways to organise themselves, from the big things on down. And inside the toilets themselves, people were still talking about politics. “This was a crazy state!”
This spirit – the “Tahrir spirit” – is what needs to be sustained and developed in the months to come. Its key message is one that popular movements around the world, including those in Britain, should take heart from: there are alternatives.
Glen Rangwala sounded a more pessimistic note. While protests were escalating in Tunisia, he was travelling in the Gulf states – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar. The sense among people there was of “complete disloyalty” to their autocratic political systems, and strong sympathy for the Tunisian demonstrators. But this was accompanied by a very strong sense of: “it could never happen here”.
A month on and things are very different. There is now a sense that change is not only possible but inevitable. But this newfound sense of political agency is not simply something that individuals feel; it is also something that the state sees.
The Gulf states have typically relied upon two strategies to pacify their populations when unrest threatened: “democracy of bread” – the dishing out of mild welfarist measures to buy protestors off; or “defensive democracy” – mild political reforms that undercut protests without fundamentally changing the balance of power (e.g. Algeria, 1988). Both these methods proved ineffective in Tunisia and Egypt. The remaining autocratic states in the region have therefore lost faith in their ability to control their populations. Thus, lesson of Egypt and Tunisia for the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, and elsewhere is: you don’t get anywhere by compromise. Offering mild economic or political concessions won’t fatally undermine the protests, and will simply be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
The fact that the uprisings are increasingly focused on the fundamental structures of rule also limits the room for compromise on the part of leaders. They essentially face a single choice: to depart, or to stay through brute force of arms. Rangwala therefore fears increased bloodshed and violence in the coming months.
In Libya now the eastern part of the country has effectively broken away from the ruler, but the state is using force – foreign mercenaries – against the population to sustain its rule. Along with the fact that much of the military is from abroad, a sixth of the population resides in Libya illegally. So the room for open opposition from these quarters is questionable. The possibility of a prolonged conflict and significant outflow of refugees is significant. Bahrain may also suffer a systematic breakdown of political order as the regime fights back.
In the face of all this uncertainty, planners in the US and Europe are finding it very difficult to predict where these societies are going. In late January President Obama was still calling for “dialogue” between the regime and Egyptian protestors. In these conditions, Western powers will be increasingly tempted to rely upon and promote the one institution in the region that they know well – the military. 80% of the Egyptian military’s budget comes from the U.S.; 86% of U.S. aid to Egypt goes to the military. The relationship between the U.S. and the Egyptian military is not built on narrow policy grounds but on broader inter-operability and familiarity – decades of working together on military drills, sharing intelligence, and so forth. So Rangwala’s advice to demonstrators in Egypt and elsewhere is to be vigilant against external attempts to hijack the as-yet-incomplete revolution through support for the military establishment.
Maha Abdelrahmanwas just back from Egypt, where she spent a week in Cairo and two days in Tahrir Square. (She gave a talk before setting off to Egypt ten days ago - I wrote it up here.) She was in the square when Mubarak resigned. This is “one of the most difficult times” in modern Egyptian politics. The popular uprisings succeeded in dissolving the old parliament and forcing elections in six months time. Right now everyone is trying to gain a purchase in the new political environment. New parties, groups and organisations are springing up every day – so many that it is impossible to keep track of them all. The Muslim Brotherhood has established the ‘Justice and Freedom’ party. A leftist democratic workers’ party has also been set up to give formal political expression to the workers’ movement, which is still very much ongoing. Semi-public figures who no-one has ever heard of before are setting up their own parties (“Egypt’s Social Party”, etc.). More importantly, lots of coalitions are being formed. Some of them are based on those who participated in the revolution, for instance the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, which brings together members of the ‘April 6’ movement, the Muslim Brotherhood youth, and so on. A coalition of 15 rights groups has also been formed to create a party – until now these organisations were divided by ideology and disputes over funding.
The task ahead is difficult and it will be messy. Most of those now taking the lead have very little political training. What they do have is energy. Political meetings that are barely advertised and held in rooms designed to hold 40 people are filled with hundreds of people, full of energy and wanting to participate. The organisers of these meetings are typically very concerned – what to do with all these newcomers?
The new generation of youth activists come from two broad backgrounds. Many come from the youth wings of formal political parties. Modern political parties in Egypt were established in the 1930s. The period from the 1930s to 1952 is often recalled with nostalgia as the “liberal era”, because it had a parliament. But this is an overly rose-tinted view of the past. There was indeed a parliament, but the monarch dissolved it at will and worked closely with the British occupation to prevent it from having any real power. Genuinely popular parties had no real influence.
After the coup Nasser dissolved political parties, on the basis that his party would represent within it all the various political tendencies. But it excluded the only two that mattered: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communists.
In the 1970s Sadat permitted the creation of three parties, of which the NDP was one. This was a political move to curb the influence of Nasserists and enable him to enact neoliberal reforms. But while some political parties were legalised, the Emergency Law – which prohibited political gathering, made the parties reliant on the government for funding, prevented them from distributing literature, etc. – prevented the emergence of any opposition party with a genuine popular base.
Alternatively, many youth activists come from a background of protest outside official channels during the past decade of popular demonstrations. Some come from the Kefaya pro-democracy campaign, others from the labour movement. These protests tended to be characterised by a “complete absence of leadership” (in the sense of centralised hierarchy). They were also “cross-ideological” – Kefaya, for instance, included liberals, leftists, Nasserists and Muslim Brothers. This broad ideological base was reflected in Tahrir Sq.
So in their current attempts to stake out a place in the new political environment, these youth activists, whether they come from the formal political parties or from the past decade of loose, decentralised popular protest, will have to work against their backgrounds as well as within them.
Someone asked about the role the Muslim Brotherhood had played in the uprising. Abdelrahman answered that they had not provided ideological or political leadership. However, at times Muslim Brotherhood activists had provided key organisational leadership. For instance when Mubarak sent thugs riding on camels to attack protestors in Tahrir Square, Muslim Brotherhood activists took the lead, along with football supporters (!), in organising the defence. They were the only ones with experience of dealing with violence by the state.
An audience member argued that it was a mistake to see the uprisings as motivated by demands for liberal democracy. They were above all motivated by economic concerns. Rangwala insisted that the uprising in Egypt was “cross-class”, and so couldn’t be explained simply in terms of economic deprivation. However, as the revolution develops, he suggested, class divisions within the demonstrators may become more pronounced. Abdelrahman agreed, pointing out that class-based splits can already be observed, with many middle-class protestors calling for a return to normalcy in the face of working class determination to continue the wave of strikes. “Class struggle is the name of the game in Egypt now”, she said, and people are well aware of it. The Muslim Brotherhood itself is riven with contradictions. As the only serious opposition party for many years its constituency expanded massively, encompassing Islamists, secularists, rising middle-class business owners, poor workers, and so on. How these contradictions will now play out will be very interesting.
How to have an Egyptian-style revolution here in Britain? Particularly when our unions are so ineffective and slow-moving? Anne Alexander replied by citing the role of the trade unions in the Tunisian uprising. The union leadership in Tunisia was deeply tied to the regime, but pressure from below broke those ties and forced the leadership to call for a general strike. This suggests, she argued, that even unions with conservative or timid leaderships can be transformed into effective vehicles for popular dissent.
What can citizens in Britain do to help? Dina fielded this one. “How do we help the ‘Arab Street’? Have a revolution here.”
Originally published at New Left Project