On Wednesday, May 2, paid thugs hired by Egypt’s military rulers murdered at least 20 participants in a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Defense (MOD). While the initial core of the sit-in, begun the Friday before, consisted of supporters of a Salafi (conservative Islamist) presidential candidate, one of several disqualified by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), they were soon joined by revolutionary youth who have consistently called for an end to the military regime. Since the massacre there have been reports of detentions of activists; some were released soon after, while the fate of others are still unknown.
Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm reported that, the day after the murders, thousands marched to the main square in the neighborhood of Abbasseya, in which the MOD headquarters sits. This neighborhood has been the scene of previous battles in front of the MOD, and the military has repeatedly used hired hands to attack protesters (claiming the thugs were neighborhood residents angry at protesters disturbing their peace and quiet). Yet an Egypt Independent reporter noted that Abbasseya residents cheered marchers from their balconies.
In response to the massacre, revolutionary forces called for anti-SCAF marches on Friday, May 4—but this time in Abbasseya, not in Tahrir Square. On May 3 the military held a press conference demanding the sit-in end and warning youth not to hold their Friday protest in front of the MOD.
Magdi Abdelhadi wrote in the British Guardian that “a year ago, ‘down with military rule’ was the slogan of a fringe group, The Revolutionary Socialists. Today, it has become adopted by almost all activists, including the Islamists, the military’s erstwhile friends.” Among those most active in Abbasseya are socialists who are also a leading force in Egypt’s growing independent union movement.
Coincidentally, another sit-in launched in Cairo in April highlighted the plight of Egyptian workers—but of those employed in Saudi Arabia. On April 18, a sit-in in front of the Saudi embassy in Cairo was launched to demand the release of Ahmed al-Gizawy, an Egyptian lawyer imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for criticizing the latter country’s treatment of Egyptian workers. Gizawy had denounced the kafeel (sponsorship) system, which leaves migrant workers at the mercy of their sponsor, and was sentenced to a year in prison and 20 lashes on charges of insulting the Saudi King. In response to the sit-in the Saudis closed their embassy in Cairo.
Al-Masry Al-Youm pointed out that Gizawy “is only one of thousands of Egyptians languishing in Saudi prisons. … Gizawy’s arrest unleashed anger at the often-ignored record of human rights violations against Egyptian prisoners in Saudi Arabia.” Rather than call for Gizawy’s release, SCAF Chief Hussein Tantawi called his Saudi counterparts to apologize for the protests.
Al-Masry noted that “many Egyptian migrants are incarcerated in Saudi Arabia’s prisons and stripped of their human and legal rights, often for years. Families of the detainees have been organizing protests around this issue since 2008….
“One of the main reasons for the suffering of Egyptian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is the restraining kafala system, which gives employers full control of workers’ residency permits. Workers cannot change jobs or exit the country without written consent from their initial employer or sponsor.”
Kafala allows employers to confiscate workers’ passports, withhold their wages, and accuse them of fabricated crimes leading to detention. Gezawi had filed a lawsuit against King Abdullah to complain about the arbitrary arrest, detention, and physical abuse of thousands of Egyptian guest workers under this system.
The flow of labor between the two countries is paralleled by extensive, and deepening, economic ties. Egypt Independent reported recently that the amount of trade between Egypt and Saudi Arabia increased during the first quarter of 2012 by 50% over the same period in 2011. Saudi investments in Egypt are estimated at around $12 billion.
Egypt’s imports from Saudi Arabia during the first quarter of 2012 amounted to about $682 million, while the total of Egypt’s exports was about $528 million, part of a growing balance of trade deficit in favor of the Saudis.
Reuters noted that the embassy crisis came at a time when the Egyptian regime was turning increasingly to Gulf capital for economic aid. After assuming power, SCAF had initially rejected an IMF loan, worried that the country’s workers would reject the onerous austerity and privatization programs always imposed by the IMF as conditions for loans. But the regime then backtracked and asked for the loan. This in turn impelled it to ask for more Saudi aid so as to be able to better meet IMF demands for smaller budget deficits, which in turn would hopefully reassure potential investors. Said Reuters: “The IMF repeatedly has said that Egypt will need ‘adequate external financing from Egypt’s international partners,’ a phrase that economic analysts understand to mean in-kind loans from European, American, and particularly Persian Gulf Arab donors.”
The diplomatic tension between the two countries also follows investigations by the Egyptian government of corrupt Saudi business practices, investigations that would have been unheard of under Mubarak and are only happening now because of mass pressure to free the country’s economy from exploitative and corrupt foreign control.
U.S.-Saudi moves against regional revolution
Meanwhile, the Saudis were also busy tightening military ties with the U.S. as part of deepening involvement in the entire region’s affairs, all designed to roll back the general Arab uprising.
Vijay Prashad wrote in Counterpunch that “in late March, Hillary Clinton traveled to Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There she met with King Abdullah, and then helped him inaugurate the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum. (The GCC is the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab NATO, whose members include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates).”
Washington has also dramatically stepped up its alliance with the “new” regime in Yemen (i.e. the one in place after President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure, but leaving most of the rest of the old regime, including other Saleh family members, in office). The U.S. has increased drone strikes against the government’s opponents, despite repeated outcries at the heavy civilian toll. John Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism official, recently explained the rules under which such strikes occur, rules that allow targeting of individuals whose names are not even known but who supposedly possess “unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack.” In other words, make damned sure a drone doesn’t see you carrying a set of pliers anywhere near a jeep that’s in proximity to an alleged terrorist training camp!
The U.S. has also raised its monetary support to the Yemeni military to $1.2 billion, almost matching the annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt.
On a nearby front, the Saudis, after having sent troops in March 2011 to crush a revolt in Bahrain, are now seeking to exercise overt economic control of the country. On May 2, a speech by Crown Prince Naif to a GCC meeting confirmed widespread speculation that the Saudis wanted to move toward a Gulf-wide common economic unit. Naif proposed to move from “cooperation,” as in the GCC’s name, to a gulf-wide economic “union.” So far only Bahrain has bitten on the idea, which is not surprising given the country’s heavy dependence on the Saudis.
The incentive for Bahrain to further its integration with its neighbor comes on the one hand from a still-growing mass opposition, and on the other from an economy which is steadily weakening as investors, both from the Gulf and from imperialist countries, reassess the stability of their investments.
The IMF reported on April 17 that while Middle East oil exporters could see a 4.8% GDP growth this year, Bahrain would be lucky to eke out a 2% increase and would likely have similarly poor performance the following two years.
Bahrain’s dependence on foreign investors has been dramatically heightened by its transformation into the Cayman Islands of the region, i.e., a haven for capital thanks to its tax, regulatory, and investment policies. So the loss in recent months of financial sector business and jobs to other Gulf countries has the country’s rulers peering into the abyss—and glancing nervously backward for a Saudi hand to stop it from plunging in.
The Abu Dhabi newspaper The National noted, “Bahrain’s offshore banking sector, which recycles international liquidity throughout the Gulf, is heavily reliant on funding from European banks, which are quickly withdrawing capital amid sector-wide deleveraging as a result of the euro-zone sovereign-debt crisis.
“’The volatile nature of foreign liabilities placed in Bahrain’s wholesale banks was exposed during the Arab Spring,’ analysts from Moody’s wrote.” This uncertainty will of course only be heightened as the Europe-wide economic crisis deepens.
Hunger Strikes in Bahrain, Palestine
Knowing the shaky ground on which it stands, the Bahraini regime continues its intransigent repression against all opposition, including continued ignoring of pleas by supporters of leading dissident Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja for his release. Al-Khawaja has been on hunger strike since February 8th, and his family reported in early May that he was being force-fed through an IV.
The opposition mounted protests against the Formula One Grand Prix auto race held in Bahrain on April 22nd.
Meanwhile a thousand Palestinian political prisoners launched a hunger strike on April 17th, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day. By press time their number had swelled to 2,000. The prisoners are demanding an end to isolation and solitary confinement, administrative detention/imprisonment without charge, and access to family visits, education and media.
Several strikers have been without food for over two months, the point at which death could come at any moment.
Israel’s government has responded to the strike with brutal retaliation, including further repressive measures against the prisoners as well as beatings and arrests of protesting supporters outside the prisons.
For information on how to support the prisoners, see samidoun.ca
> The article above was written by Andrew Pollack and first appeared in the May 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.