Monday, 16 April 2012

Arab Spring Meeting Notes #1 - Egypt, February

This post is the first in a series of notes from talks that I have given since returning to Australia about the Arab Spring uprisings and revolutionary struggles taking place in the middle-east today. These are raw, and several sections have been copied and pasted from earlier posts I wrote during my time in Egypt & Tunisia last year. I'm posting these in the hopes of getting some critical engagement - pointing out any inaccuracies or errors I've made or alternative theories about the revolutionary upsurge now taking place. Please comment below.

I'd like to start this talk with a little anecdote about the present situation in Egypt which hit close to home on Sunday: Australian journalist Austin Mackell, United States student Derek Ludovici, translator Aliya Alwi and veteran union activist Kamal al-Fayyumi were detained by the police in Mahalla El-Kubra, Egypt on February 11 while trying to interview workers in the city.

From statements posted by Alwi on Twitter, the group faced some "aggression" from locals: "Our car got rocked and beaten against the glass, got called a whore and all sorts of things. Police escorted us to station."

Initially, the group thought they were simply being protected by the police; however, several hours after being detained, the police informed the group that they were being changed with "offering money to youth to vandalise and cause chaos".

Alwi said they were being transferred to military intelligence in the neighbouring city of Tanta in her last tweet; the group were transferred back and forth between different offices and agencies in the two cities as well as the capital of Cairo eight times throughout the three days they were held and then tried.

Mahalla has been the epicentre of independent union activity and strikes in the four years before the January 25, 2011 uprising against Mubarak's rule, continuing throughout the year since. Austin has interviewed workers in the city before; in a video published on April 12 last year, he interviewed Kamal al-Fayyumi about union activity in the city.

The end result of the situation was freedom for all involved on the back of a wave of international & domestic pressure – none of which, shamefully, came from the governments of Australia or America. Austin is still being threatened with deportation due to having overstayed his Visa, and has been told not to leave the country (perhaps banned?), but he remains at large.

Unfortunately, though, that kind of treatment is faced by thousands of Egyptian activists and foreign journalists who want to be part of or just report on the real struggle now underway; and most never receive the attention Austin and Aliya did.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which controls the military authorities (and which, thanks to years of billion-dollar blank cheques from the US, owns of huge swathes of industry). , assumed presidential powers when Hosni Mubarak resigned from office on February 11, 2011. Initially it claimed it was backing the revolutionary movement, but it's clear the SCAF has been Sadat & Mubarak's Greek choir and are keeping up the same neoliberal pro-western agenda now the figurehead is gone.

Activists, unions, bloggers and journalists still face constant harassment — from reactionary "baltageya" gangs made up largely of those with criminal records forced to or paid off to commit political crimes by the interior ministry, as well as from the official state forces like the notorious CSF police department which was responsible for most of the deaths in Tahrir in the last year. The "local resident attack" on Austin & co sounds exactly like the kind of extra-judicial attack often engineered by the "baltageya" – but for many, it ends in an assasination attempt, not just arrest.
More than 12,000 people have been arrested and 8000 charged by military tribunals since the uprising against former dictator Hosni Mubarak began a year ago. Many female detainees have been subjected to cruel and degrading "virginity tests" as part of this, which is something the old regime would never have attempted.

But everything isn't going the regime's way, despite the repression. What Austin was reporting on probably got more attention than it would have internationally thanks to his case – a call by revolutionaries for a general strike on the anniversary of Mubarak's ousting, February 11, after what was possibly the largest EVER demonstration in Tahrir Square on the one-year anniversary of the uprising, January 25.

I spent three different spells in Cairo at the end of last year – in Sept, Oct & Nov – and I was quite lucky to be able to see three different episodes in this ongoing revolutionary struggle. Rather than describe the history of the conflict or what's happened in the last month I'd like to talk about my experiences there last year, as I think it really highlights the direction this movement is going in.

I arrived in Egypt the day before the September 9 protests that brought tens of thousands into the street, marches to the Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Court, and then the storming of the Israeli embassy; Egypt certainly threw me in at the deep end! But arriving in Cairo at almost any point last year would have been like that. I met strangers at protests and on the street who in a very Egyptian way invited me to take tea, most trying to con me in some way, at one point asking me to take part in a wedding ceremony, and who all talked politics. Not everyone on the street was with the revolution, but the atmosphere is one of open debate of politics, leaders, policies and movements – before January 25 last year, the closest most Egyptians came to doing this in public was talking about their football clubs, although that in itself is a somewhat political thing!

Tens of thousands of Egyptians reclaimed Tahrir square after several weeks of police occupation on September 9, demanding an end to military trials of civilians and for judicial freedom. The atmosphere was like nothing in Australia I'd been to – somewhere between a protest, a vast open-air conference with ongoing workshops and debates around the clock, and a democracy festival on the scale of the BDO music festival here.

Throughout 2011, Friday protests -- in Cairo's Tahrir Square and nationwide -- have been going on more or less every week. The week after September 9, there was a protest at Tahrir Square of around a thousand against the military trials; a fortnight later, 1500 at "back to the barracks" protests demanding a quicker timetable for creating a civilian government. The politics of these protests and the movement as a whole have kept getting sharper and more radical since.

But even outside of what could be called the "democracy" movement of bloggers and activists and Tahrir square, there has been mass democratic struggles in almost all layers of society, and the Tahrir protests are really only the tip of the iceberg. As such, the situation in Egypt, or indeed Tunisia or Libya or Syria or anywhere else, shouldn't just be considered in terms of who has taken power or who is leading the movements. But I'll come back to that.

Another crucial stage occured in October, when a majority who had previously been taken in by the SCAF's lies saw through the veil.

Walking around downtown Cairo on October 10, everything felt relatively normal ― if, perhaps, a little more tense than usual for post-January 25 Cairo, with Tahrir empty and lots of shops closed.
That is, until I came across the wrecks of burnt out cars on the Corniche el Nil in Maspero, just north of Tahrir Square, being pulled apart by enterprising young men.

The night before, Coptic Christians marched from Shubra to protest acts of discrimination against Copts by the interim government and islamist gangs being funded from the Gulf, including the destruction of St. George's Church in Aswan and the forceful break-up of a protest on October 5. The marchers were assaulted by unidentified groups of thugs – undoubtedly baltageya - before being arrested & massacred en masse by the military and police.

At least 26 people were killed in the ensuing violence, many by army armoured personnel carriers that drove straight into the crowd of thousands, gunners firing wildly above and into the crowd – now iconic images.

The regime has been busily exploiting religious tensions within Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, trying to split the unity between Christians, Muslims, atheists and other Egyptians shown during the occupations of Tahrir Square.

This includes broadcasts from the state media, which, as protesters were being massacred on October 9, were busily reporting that Christians were stealing weapons from the army and killing Muslim soldiers.

Yet, despite this campaign, the graffiti around the city showing the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent, with the words "2gether 4ever", has been some of the best preserved since the start of the revolution.

Another rumour repeated to me on the streets of downtown Cairo as the bloodshed was unfolding was that the protesters were marching to support Mubarak or try and influence the outcome of his trial and those of his colleagues in crime, which were just wrapping up and being broadcast in every shop on every tv and every radio – even the KFC & McDonalds at Tahrir!

No doubt seeking to bolster their own support base and fan the flames of religious tension, the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement calling on Copts to cease protesting for the sake of "democracy".

“There are certain channels, means and times for demanding legitimate demands and all Egyptian people have legitimate demands, not only our Coptic brothers,” said the statement. “This is certainly not the right time to demand them since the current government is an interim government and the general conditions are abnormal."

The Brotherhood demanded the regime keep the current timetable for elections, which they did bringing Ikhwan to parliamentary majority in January.

The Revolutionary Socialists, on the other hand, condemned the oppression of Copts "which goes hand-in-hand with a policy of divide and rule between Christian and Muslim working people".
"We will continue to defend our revolution, and the people’s right to free expression, to protest, demonstrate and strike, in order to restore our stolen rights, and to cleanse the country of the roots of corruption, which is still poisoning our revolution and attempting to overturn it," their statement read.
The interim government responded violence and international condemnation by launching a quick inquiry, detaining 25 suspects implicated in the violence. It added the “Equality Law” to the penal code, which stipulates special punishment for anyone who carries out any action that causes violence against individuals or communities based on gender, race, language or religion, or which might lead to unequal opportunity or social inequality. But police have abandoned enforcing ordinary laws since January 25, except when they want a bribe. The only police I saw not lurking around on the street or facing off against protesters were the traffic cops.

Ultimately, this incident was crucial in turning mass consciousness against the SCAF; prior to it, polls showed only 10% believed SCAF was against the revolution, afterwards, between 40 and 60%.
Each episode of mass repression beyond the constant ongoing attacks on the movement might buy the regime a little time and stability, but it has radicalised more and more people.

As I said, the Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan were the winners of the Dec-Jan parliamentary elections, which were poorly managed and, while not directly rigged and indeed quite open compared to elections under Mubarak, bound to deliver a result to reactionary anti-revolutionary forces given the conditions for the new parties and the flow of money from the gulf to religious parties, and the best representatives of Tahrir, the "Revolution Continues alliance" of radical social democrats, left-liberal, left-Islamist and socialist forces, won only 8 seats of the 454, with the Egyptian Socialist Party winning none at all. Largely, this was because of protests going on in November before and through the elections, which was the last time I was in Cairo.

I arrived in the night before the elections would begin, which was the tail end of a two-week wave of street battles against vivious repression than included more than 20 deaths and a huge number of injuries, many caused by snipers with birdshot ammunition aiming to cripple & blind protesters. These protests were designed to push the SCAF to hand over power to a civilian "salvation council" for the course of the elections, but by the week leading up to the elections the military made a gamble and stopped attempting to clear the square itself, while appointing a new government and PM – Kamal Ganzouri, another stooge of the military once PM under Mubarak – and in response, Tahrir protesters & those at the smaller sit in outside the Cabinet of Ministers which was calling for Ganzouri's resignation largely boycotted the election. But the call for a boycott went out too late and was up against too much propaganda from the regime, the Brotherhood & other forces to pick up widespread support.

Occupy Cabinet was one interesting thing to note, as it was a lot like Occupy Sydney (only 300 camping at the largest, down to 25 overnight) with its own security line, makeshift tarp tents and medical stations, with a lot broader support than #O has here, but still quite a way ahead of the mass consciousness – many Egyptians came through the lines to see what it looked like, and some of them told me they didn't support the group even though they supported Tahrir (which through Nov-Dec had more like 500 at any one time, maintaining a complete occupation of the roundabout and entrance to the Mogamma state offices).

In a sense the failure of the movement to take a united approach to the elections showed the issues with lack of a united leadership for the protest movement; the Revolutionary Youth Coalition uniting key groups like A6YM and supporters of El Baradei (which had one member elected to parliament) has not beed democratically elected, while the socialist left (ESP & RS probably being the most notable) has not yet built a mass audience. Promisingly, many of the Occupy Cabinet protesters were from a variety of left groups – of the ones I spoke to one from ESP, one from Communist, one from the MB youth split, several El Baradei supporters, and many more independants who were quite open to all those different tendencies – but there's no forum yet that I know of for these revolutionaries to discuss taking a lead, rather than responding to the developments of the movement.

So I'll wrap it up with a quick update on what's been happening in the last month. The new parliament has been calling on unions & protesters to shut up and get the country's struggling economy back on its feet, maintaining the vicious attacks on protest, and signalling they will take out more loans from the IMF on the condition of economic restructuring – so the current stage of the movement is awakening Egyptians to the knowledge that political Islam is no real alternative to the Mubarak consensus.

As I said, the January 25 first anniversary protests were bigger than even the original uprising, which shows that despite the savage repression and the confusion of the parliamentary elections, the basic demands of the movement – real civilian government and an end to military influence, and above all an end to neoliberal attacks and real pro-poor economic reforms – still have mass popular support and are still bringing people onto the streets.

The region has reached an era, after a half-century ascendancy of dictators and neoliberalism, when the 99% are fighting back and claiming the ascendancy. The leaders of this movement now are the ones who developed still under the old ascendancy of tyranny and capital, and the forces taking power in elections are those who have money or influence, not those who in any real sense represent Tahrir. But that doesn't mean we should write off the struggles as a whole; as socialists who support the right to self-determination, we should show critical solidarity with these struggles, and while remaining aware of the contradictions as they emerge or deepen, should see past these to the real struggles against capital that are at the heart of the Arab Spring.

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