by Clay Wadena
As Socialist Action goes to press the revolt of the Egyptian people seems poised to topple the almost 30-year-old regime of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Events are proceeding at breakneck speed, and nothing is guaranteed, but the determination and unity of the Egyptian masses indicates that there will be no end of unrest without Mubarak’s exit.
The uprising in Egypt, which began on Jan. 25, follows on the heels of another popular uprising that started mid-December in Tunisia, and resulted Jan. 14 in the end of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali’s 23-year-old regime. All in all, there have been over 200 deaths in both Egypt and Tunisia as result of police clashes with protesters—a heavy price paid in blood by the citizens of these countries who wish to be free. Millions around the world have been watching events unfold in the region with great interest and solidarity—with the natural exception of the corporate heads and imperialist politicians, who all have much to lose by the fall of the hated dictators.
With particular respect to Egypt, media analysts routinely point out the crisis in foreign policy that the United States has faced—either support a dictator who is an ally in a region that finds America’s foreign policy objectives detestable or support the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people against their ally. To their everlasting shame, though not surprisingly, the Obama administration came out of the gate riding hard for the Mubarak dictatorship.
As soon as the protests began, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to assure the world that the situation was under control, telling reporters that the Mubarak regime was “stable” and urging calm for both sides. On Jan. 27—after news of deaths caused by police firing on peaceful demonstrators had reached the world—Vice President Joe Biden praised Mubarak in an interview on CBS as “responsible.” He then said flat out, “I would not refer to [Mubarak] as a dictator.”
Since then, U.S. officials, including President Obama, have been in frequent contact with Mubarak, apparently seeking a way to gently ease him out of office. The U.S. gave guarded approval after Mubarak defied the will of the people in the streets on Feb. 1 by announcing that he intended to stay on until September, at which time elections could be arranged. The fact that neither Mubarak nor his son would be allowed to run as a presidential candidate, said one U.S. official, “would be a significant step in the right direction.”
But a plan to keep the dictatorship in power for nine more months will hardly placate the people in the street. As crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square watched Mubarak’s limited concession on a giant TV screen, they booed and waved their shoes in the air. “We are not leaving until he leaves!” they chanted. Even the moderate opposition parties in Egypt have joined in a call for Mubarak’s immediate resignation.
Thus, the U.S. has been hedging its bets by giving some attention to finding a pro-Western leader who could take his place. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt met on Feb. 1 with Mohamed Elbaradei, the former head of the UN Atomic Energy Commission, who at this point seems to be the main figure that reformist forces are rallying around. And U.S. officials stated that they would meet with other opposition leaders as well.
One must note the putrid air of Islamophobia and paternalism that courses throughout the mainstream media when Egypt’s future is discussed. Many speakers brazenly declare that Mubarak the dictator is better than the direction a free Egypt might hypothetically take (falsely implying that Egypt is likely to replicate the current Iranian regime).
The fear of Islam—under the pretense of only disliking “radical Islam”—has been one of the main justifications for U.S. support for the “secular” Mubarak regime. This and the immense political and logistical assistance Egypt provides to both the United States and Israel comprise the ways in which repeated American administrations have tried to dress up the brutal dictator Mubarak as some sort of force for progress.
There are some common elements to the conditions and events in both Tunisia and Egypt that to a large extent caused these uprisings. The first is that the economic situation facing the majority of people in both countries is bleak. Particularly for the youth of these countries, unemployment has been fiercely high and future work prospects dim. Additionally, 40% of the people in Egypt—which is the second largest economy in Africa—are living below the World Bank poverty line of $2 per day (and have faced a 17 percent increase in the price of basic food items for three consecutive years). Basic economic concerns, faced by millions around the world in the recession, are the backbone of the people’s resistance.
Frustrating economic situations were combined, in both cases, with dictators who repressed almost every expression of real political opposition. There was effectively no legitimate institutional recourse for democratic dissent in these countries. Leaders and members of opposition parties in both countries have been imprisoned, forced to flee, and in some cases murdered. For the youth coming up, allowing these aging autocrats to continue to monopolize power was indigestible.
Another element that spurred protest in both countries was the constant police harassment and brutality the youth faced. Almost everyone agrees that the spark that set off the protests in Tunisia was the attempted suicide of a youth, Mohamed Bouazizi, after he was harassed, intimidated, and brutalized by Tunisian police. In Egypt, it was the June 2010 murder of the youth Khaled Said by police that became the original reason youth organizers called a protest on Jan. 25, not knowing that when that day came the scope of the protest would be drastically larger because of events in Tunisia.
One final similarity worth noting is the general refusal by army troops in both Tunisia and Egypt to fire on protesters. Most analysts agree that the fact that Ben Ali could no longer rely on the army to counter the pro-democracy protesters forced him to abdicate power and leave the country. Likewise, the Egyptian military’s announcement on Jan. 31 that they wouldn’t fire on peacefully demonstrating citizens, and that the grievances held by citizens were legitimate, seemed to put Mubarak in an untenable situation. We must note, however, that army troops did nothing to aid protesters who were attacked by pro-government goons on Feb. 2.
Meanwhile, Mubarak is using every trick up his sleeve to stop the protests, including shutting off the internet and a majority of cell-phones. He has also sought from the beginning to portray the protests as the beginning of chaos that would tear Egypt apart.
This last issue is quite important, as Mubarak is attempting to divide the opposition by casting security concerns and appeals to the sanctity of private property as the main issues for Egyptians to be concerned about. Mubarak reiterated this theme in the speech he gave the evening of the “March of Millions” protest on Feb. 1. But the Egyptian masses haven’t been buying it from the beginning; and took it upon themselves to stop the narrative that the protests were about looting and destruction in its tracks. They formed neighborhood defense groups, which organized block by block to stop looting and destruction (which almost all Egyptians believe is the work of the police forces).
The stakes are high for the outcome in Egypt, both due to the implications it would have on international relations (vis a vis the Israel-Palestine conflict) and because Egypt controls the Suez Canal (which is a crucial point of global trade). Western powers cannot stand a stoppage of goods and oil passing through the Suez Canal due to unrest; and they know that it will be very difficult to find any incoming Egyptian administration that is as friendly to American and Israeli interests as the Mubarak regime has been.
It is no secret that the Egyptian people do not approve of the horrible treatment given to their Palestinian brothers and sisters; in fact, the Egyptians protested against the Mubarak regime in support of Palestinians on multiple occasions, facing down police repression every time. And while reformist leaders like Mohamed Elbaradei are quick to dismiss Western fears that a democratic Egypt might revise its foreign policy to be more favorable for Palestinians than during Mubarak’s reign, the bottom line is that Egyptians should be able to decide for themselves.
The events of Tunisia and Egypt have inspired people all around the world. Protests in which the participants have evoked Tunisia or Egypt have erupted all around the Middle East—including Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan. Even mainstream analysts believe that Mubarak—if he does indeed fall from power, as most predict—will not be the last leader to fall from this wave of unrest. Some leaders are already taking extraordinary measures in efforts to undercut any detractors; Jordanian King Abdullah II fired his entire cabinet on Feb. 1, ordering his new prime minister to immediately pursue political reforms.
Outside of the region, these uprisings have also inspired worldwide solidarity protests—usually held to demonstrate support for the Egyptian protesters and to oppose the imperialist support given to the dictator Mubarak.
The people of Tunisia, despite the inspiration they have given to many, face a precarious situation; they have gotten rid of a dictator but have no assurance that lasting political or economic gains will result. As it is now, the current Prime Minister (Mohamed Ghannouchi) of the interim government has reshuffled his cabinet and promised reforms, but is viewed as a discredited ally of the ousted dictator. Not only are lasting political gains unsecured, but the economic concerns of the Tunisians have also been hardly addressed at all.
Egyptians face a similar predicament. Will this uprising result in tangible gains that not only address their democratic concerns but also their dire economic situation? To achieve both political and economic change, Egyptians will need to build organizations that fight independently for working-class interests. On this note, the news that a new Egyptian union federation has been formed (which will not be directly controlled by the Mubarak regime) and that an indefinite general strike is being undertaken are very welcome.
As their struggle develops, it is to be expected that more and more Egyptians and Tunisians will understand that in order to substantially better their conditions, they will need to construct a revolutionary political party that is fully representative of the working class of their countries, and that can also speak to the aspirations of the peasants, youth, and other oppressed people. Ultimately, they and the people of the entire Middle East will need to do away with the rotten neo-colonial regimes that dominate the region and take the same road that the Cubans took 50 years ago toward making a socialist revolution.
It is necessary for concerned people around the world to demonstrate solidarity with those struggling for political freedom and economic change. We must oppose the funding and maintenance of repression and autocracy by the U.S. government. Protests are scheduled locally and regionally in support of Tunisians and Egyptians. And this will be a major theme of the antiwar protests scheduled for April 9 in New York City and April 10 in San Francisco.
U.S. hands off the Middle East!
> This article was originally published in the February 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.