Monday, 23 April 2012

Arab Spring Meeting Notes #3 - from Caracas to Cairo

This is the latest in my series of posts of notes from talks I have given at meetings here in Australia since my return from the middle east last year. This one was written immediately after I returned in December 2011 to a meeting of the Illawarra branch of the Socialist Alliance. There are some mistakes &or gaping holes in this one, which I've made it my mission to try and fill so that all of these posts can be developed some form of comprehensive article on the Arab Spring. So telling me I'm wrong, and especially pointing out how, would be much appreciated - as well as constructive criticism of any other sort. Feel free to plagarise all of these talks as much as you want, although read the aforementioned point about getting things wrong first! :p

The situation: A global economic crisis leading to spiralling prices of food and fuel, neoliberal reforms that pulled the support network out from underneath the people and pushed more and more below the poverty line – all at the behest of western institutions like the IMF and World Bank. A  pro-western government responsible for torture, ill-treatment, extrajudicial killings, political disappearances and political corruption, happy to follow these mandates to the letter. The result: a mass uprising, brutally repressed by the regime with hundreds of deaths. This scenario could be used to describe the regimes of the Arab world and the overthrows of 2011, but it's equally describing the situation in Venezuela in 1989, when the Carazaco uprising took place, the regime suspended constitutional order, and anywhere between 500 and 2000 demonstrators were killed. Three years later, Lieutennant Colonel Hugo Chavez led an abortive coup attempt, and the following year President Perez was impeached by the Supreme Court. Why am I raising this in a talk on the Arab Spring? In many ways the example is a useful one to understand the process going on in Egypt, Tunisia & the broader middle-east right now. But I'll come to that later.


When Mohammed Bouazizi doused himself with petrol in front of a police station on December 17, 2010, it was the final straw for many of those suffering under oppressive police states across the region. Decades of neoliberal economic reforms and spiralling oil prices since 2001 had been making life harder and harder for the vast majority living in the Arab world. This situation, this pressure, saw a variety of expressions over the first decade of this century. At first, this took forms which were relatively acceptable to the regimes – especially in Egypt, where solidarity mobilisations with the second Palestinian intifada in 2000-2001 and against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought street politics back to the region where it for the main part had been forced underground. These protests were the first for a new layer of young people who'd spent their whole lives living under the dictatorship.

However, when these young Egyptians and veteran leftists started campaigning for democratic reforms in 2004, forming the Egyptian movement for change (or "kefaya", enough), they began to face major harrasment from the regime. This came to a head in 2005, with the Mubarak regime organising a referendum approving constitutional changes allowing for multi-party elections while still ensuring the process was entirely sewn up by his National Democratic Party (NDP). Despite a strong grassroots campaign, Kefaya, as part of the National Front for Change coalition, only won 12 seats, with the NDP holding a super-majority of 388 seats and the Muslim Brotherhood winning 88. This reflected an important dynamic of this decade, which evolved out of imperialist interventions in the late 20th century; perhaps the majority of the population in most of the region, or at least a large section, saw political Islam, in one form or another, as the natural opposition to the pro-capitalist pro-Western pro-war on Terror regimes. Like the Venezuela comparison, we'll come back to this point; however, for now it's worth noting that, of all the region's countries, this support for political islam movements was perhaps weakest in Tunisia.

After this, and with the worsening of unemployment, poverty & other social conditions, a large layer of Arab youth & workers became increasingly radicalised. This came to a head in 2008, with radical workers in the key textile manufacturing city of Mahalla in Egypt leading a call for a general strike which for the first time articulated the demand for the revolutionary overthrow of the regime, as opposed to reforms or parliamentary change, and pitted the people against the state's apparatus of repression. Asides from poor pay and the corruption of the regime, basic economic issues – especially the major food shortage – were factors in this uprising; the little reportage it got in the Western media oversimplified this episode into a "bread riot", just one of many around the world occuring. In Tunisia, too, there were strikes and demonstrations by workers and the unemployed  in the Gafsa mining region, which were likewise heavily repressed. These struggles gave birth to the revolutionary social movements which found their expression in what's been called the "Arab spring" – for example, Egypt's leading April 6 Youth Movement takes their name from the date of the 2008 Mahalla general strike. And they were also an important test of strength for the revolutionary workers movement, amongst which most of the underground leftists could be found.

So when Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on December 17, there was a huge layer of young Tunisians with whom this act resonated – who had all personally experienced the repression, corruption and harrasment of the regime's police officers, who had personally felt the desperation of being young, unemployed and with little hope for changing their situation, and who had seen how revolutionary action could hurt the regime. The final factor was the technological revolution which had seen cheap broadband internet and internet-ready mobile phones spread through the population in the course of little more than a year. The limited space for digital freedoms was taken up by citizen-journalist bloggers such as Lina Ben Mhenni, Slim Amamou and Azyz Amami. When protests broke out in Bouazizi's city of Sidi Bouzid (not Sidi Bou Said!), young people began posting videos of the spontaneous protests and the following repression on Facebook, and these three bloggers were crucial components, alongside the revolutionary workers, in growing this episode from just another chapter of repression to the point of nadir, the lowest point of the regime's excessed – the final straw.

Overthrowing the Dictators

So with the combination of these different factors, the Sidi Bouzid uprising spread like wildfire in a way the 2008 Gafsa protests had not been able to. And they brought a critical mass of people to the streets, shutting down the country until elements of the regime – including key military leaders – decided to cut their losses and temporarily side with the movement. This triggered Ben Ali's sudden departure – as documented by an air traffic controller at Tunis airport, part of the internet freedom movement, who tracked Ben Ali's plane as it attempted to land in France, the neo-colonial power with the biggest stakes in Tunisia's economy, before he was rejected and eventually fled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he remains – hopefully to live out his days in the city as Idi Amin did!

This victory in Tunisia inspired many young Egyptians, who turned out in their thousands for the January 25 protest against police violence on national "police day". In the words of Basem Osman, a young member of the Socialist Party who I interviewed in Egypt: "Before January 25 I didn't think it would work – just like every other time, we would go, maybe 4-500 people, and the police will arrest a lot of us. But on this day, all of us were surprised – I thought I would go to Tahrir Square and just see my friends, but there were 3000 people in the square. It was the first time I'd seen a demonstration of that size! We didn't think it would continue, but at 1am the police attacked the demonstration, injured and arrested many of us, and the rest of us escaped. But when we fled, we didn't all go to our homes – most of us went to the poor neighbourhoods in Cairo like Abdeen, Shubra – very poor neighbourhoods – and when the police attacked again, many of my friends hid in the houses of ordinary people and told them about the demonstrations. I think this was as important as Facebook or Twitter in building the revolution. "

"I think that the Tunisian Revolution inspired people everywhere, gave people hope, and after that they were ready to demonstrate. Even my family, who normally didn't know anything about politics in Egypt, were asking me, "Are you going to the demonstrations on the 25th of January? We want to go."

The following days saw the Egyptian police respond with far greater savagery than their Tunisian counterparts did, and likewise, protests grew increasingly radical. Thus, on January 28, the first Friday of Anger, hundreds of thousands of protesters stormed and sacked the NDP headquarters. In Basim's words: "I don't believe in armed revolution, but the NDP headquarters is a huge building, which is very conspicuous; I see it every day when I go to work and so do many people, it's very central, and when we see it we feel so bad – it's a symbol of the regime. So when we saw it on 28 January, everyone just wanted to burn it."

I won't speak about the ins and outs of the following 18 days in Egypt; however, it's worth noting that the final blow to Mubarak's rule was not the inability or unwillingness of the military to carry out repression as the police were for fear of triggering a civil war, but the uprising of workers starting with the call for a general strike on February 6.

However, in both Tunisia and Egypt, the overthrow of the dictators themselves as well as their personal cronies who had personally profited from draining the nation's coffers – such as the Trabelsi family in Tunisia, who have fled the country one by one – has not translated into an end to neoliberal policies or breaking free of the imperialist enclosure. The regional political revolution against corrupt regimes has not yet been succesfully in fully removing them. Thus, we can compare the situation to the 1989 Carazaco uprising; the beginning of the ascendancy (potentially, anyway) of a revolutionary mass movement. As Hossam el-Hamalawy, blogger & member of the Revolutionary Socialists put it: "The Egyptian revolution will not be settled in 18 days or months. It’ll take “years” for the dust to settle, may be four or five, I don’t know. There will be waves, ebbs and flows, battles to be won and others lost."

The question, thus, is will these revolutions win their demands? That's the question I was asking myself when I went to Egypt in September; that's what I will now try to answer.

The Revolutionary Movements

Arriving in Egypt the day before the September 9 protests that brought tens of thousands to Midan Tahrir, marching to the Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Court, and then thousands storming the Israeli embassy, certainly threw me in at the deep end! But arriving in Cairo at almost any point would have been like that.

After February 11, Friday protests -- in Cairo's Tahrir Square and nationwide -- continued more or less every week, with protesters reclaiming it for major sit-ins during July in the hundreds and then again in November in the thousands. These protests have also taken on the regime in more radical ways as the year has progressed; first over a guaranteed transition to civilian rule, then demanding the end to political repression, especially military trials for protesters, then after the October 9 massacre of dozens of Coptic Christians, openly calling forGeneral Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (the real power behind the throne; personally members control around 25% of the economy – us aid), to step down. #noscaf and #fuckscaf are the Twitter tags of this movement!

But even outside of what could be called the "democracy" movement of bloggers and activists, there has been mass democratic struggle in almost all layers of society, and the Tahrir protests are really only the tip of the iceberg. Most days when I walk around the city or meet various people there are little sit-ins or protests or speakouts happening outside ministries or public buildings. More than once I was simply spending time in my room and saw protesters marching past from my balcony that I had heard nothing about!

New workers' movement

The lion's share of these protests are by parts of the new workers' movement, which, as I outlined, were growing for several years before 2011. The official trade unions and syndicates, more than 4000 in total, were sewn up by the NDP, but in the last few years underground independent unions have been forming out of wildcat struggles within Egypt's major factories and businesses. Now there's more than 150 independent unions, and more are being established all the time; some of these unions have won official recognition, and are leading struggles – both for economic demands like better pay and conditions, but also for structural reforms, to get rid of Mubarak's cronies and for more worker control of workplaces.

For example, one protest march I saw was by secondary school teachers, who are striking for better pay, demanding the removal of the minister and more funding for public education – a major issue, as all Egyptian families have to shell out for either private schooling or extra tuition due to the inadequacy of the state schools. These protests broke out into a close to general strike in October, just one example of the many sectors of the economy where strikes & labor activity have occured. The Egyptian Socialist Party and other revolutionary socialists have prioritised working in this area, which is one of the reasons why it's been growing so successfully.


The key figureheads of the old regime are imprisoned or on trial in absentia, but in pretty much every big business, ministry or government department and public service – Mubarak-era cronies are still in power, and the networks of corruption still exist. The repression of protest and activism may have eased up since February 11, but corruption – such as the bribes to get things done in the system – have worsened. And in some ways, such as the military trials – which have imprisoned over 12,000 activists, and sentenced 8000, as well as subjecting all female protesters to "virginity tests" – are worse than anything carried out under Mubarak.

On this basis, it's clear to most Egyptians that the revolution hasn't changed much yet, but the revolutionary movement still seems to have the support of most people on the street. The trade union movement is a big part of this – revolutionaries aren't just talking about the nebulous structure of the whole political class, or rights and class in an abstract way, but also conducting campaigns against specific individual figures at all levels of power, who ordinary people know are corrupt and are stooges of the rich and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (which, thanks to years of billion-dollar blank cheques from the US, owns of huge swathes of industry).

The Elections

The most recent occupation of Tahrir has largely petered out in recent days, especially given that the expected suspension of November 28's elections never materialised. Mostafa Ali, of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists, has said:
"THE political sentiment in Tahrir is ahead of the country. You can think of it as the revolutionary vanguard in society among students and workers and youth--but it is much larger than in January. Political consciousness has developed tremendously.
These are people who understand that the SCAF is the continuation of the Mubarak regime. They are beginning to understand the connection between political and economic issues. They are beginning to grapple with the role of police in society. And they are the ones who understand that the ruling class played a trick on them by using Mubarak as a scapegoat in order to save the rest of the political system.
So you have a minority in society--symbolized by Tahrir--which has advanced politically and in terms of its consciousness. And it's ahead of the rest of the country in that sense. Back in January, a majority of people in the country wanted Mubarak to go, so they supported Tahrir. At this moment, that isn't the case regarding the SCAF.
The revolutionary vanguard is much, much larger. Its willingness to fight is unbelievable--it fought five days against the police. But the majority of the workers and poor people have not yet concluded that the SCAF must immediately return to its barracks. Or they don't think we have the power yet to push the SCAF to return the barracks."

While the RS are in some ways taking an ultra-left line on the struggle, this assessment is spot-on.

Most Egyptians are willing to put their faith in Ikhwan, in the parliament, and in SCAF's administration of the transition; they know that, if these is outright manipulation or a backwards step by the government, they have the power to get rid of them. But this is a dangerous situation, as the military regime has signalled its intent to enshrine its power under the new parliament & president, ensuring that its budget and authority will not be under civilian mandate or scrutiny. The coming period is a test for the revolutionary movement, and calls for a display of leadership to take this fight to the new parliament and SCAF and expose them as stooges of imperialism with no desire to break from the neoliberal consensus.

Revolutionary left

Meeting with comrades of the Egyptian Socialist Party (a socialist unity project which seems like the closest thing here to Germany's Die Linke or Australia's Socialist Alliance) was really illuminating, especially for putting the particular struggles in context and finding out more about what's been going on with the independent trade union movement.

Key leaders of the democracy movement are also affiliated to one or another of the socialist parties which have formed post-February 11; the Revolutionary Socialists have been joined by several of the leading blogger/democracy activists, while the Egyptian Socialist Party, for example, has joined by many of the leaders of the Kefaya movement.

Another aspect has been pro-poor work on a more direct level; revolutionary youth have been going into poorer communities, especially the informal slum settlements on the edge of Cairo, and helping to establish committees and networks simply to fight for access to basic infrastructure, jobs, food, etc. This is very exciting; there's a big layer of revolutionary "Tahrir" youth who are joining the organised left now that it's out from underground and openly propagandising.

While I was meeting with a comrade at the downtown Cairo office of the Egyptian Socialist Party, there was a meeting of around 20 young members, some with pre-January experience in politics but most without, debating the best ways to take the revolution forward. It was certainly a world away from some of the sleepy education meetings I've been part of in Australia! Many of the "Tahrir" youth can tend towards an ultraleft emphasis on protest, occupation and confronting the state – to what extent to embrace this tendency instead of emphasising the many kinds of party-building and activism needed to grow the movement has been something of a debate among the left here.

The revolutionary left in Egypt is well aware of the need to keep this struggle growing; to strengthen the parties and forces of the left so they can lead the struggle is everyone's primary task – while at the same time doing as much as possible to work towards unity, such as opening joint party offices in smaller cities where the left was unable to organise during the underground Mubarak years. However, over the elections, there have been some significant splits; the ESP and some other revolutionary groups, including a split of radical youth from the Muslim Brotherhood, still contested the elections, while the RS and some of the other Tahrir protesters called for a boycott, which basically failed.


Travelling to Tunisia was a bit of a shock after the turbulent revolutionary spirit of Cairo. When I first arrived, I was especially shocked by the fact that Avenue Habib Bourguiba and the Kasbah square (the two sites of major protest in the capital Tunis) are under occupation by the police, with razor wire set up outside the prime minister's office, the Ministry of Interior, the French embassy and pretty much anywhere that people will specifically protest against. The army is on the streets too; I've got no idea if they still have a pro-revolutionary image here, despite its US funding, but it is much smaller than the police forces. Either way, the streets are definitely under wraps at present, and mass struggle has been much more successfully contained.

Mass protests and strikes definitely slowed down in Tunisia, at least in the major urban centres of the coast, over the course of the constituent assembly elections, which took place on October 23. The assembly brought the islamist Ennahda (rennaisance) to power, although only with 37% of the vote. This timetable is designed, as far as I can tell, to tread the line between reining in the revolutionary energy of Tunisia's youth and winning enough legitimacy among the majority of the population to avoid a "second revolution" protest wave breaking out. However, Tunisia's revolutionary movement has seen a resurgence post-elections, with a wave of labor activism including strikes & an unemployed movement occupying for more jobs for local communities starting in the final days of October, as well as mass demonstrations in Tunis outside the new parliament.

But the Tunisian revolutionary struggle wasn't ended, despite the election sucking up the energy of a good number of democracy activists and the organised left. Like in Egypt, there are struggles within every element of society to get rid of corrupt figures from the old regime. For example, on my second day in Tunis I saw two protests: one, a group of around 650 graduate secondary teachers staging a sit-in at the Ministry of Education to demand the government create jobs for them, I saw on my way walking to another demanding the release of a police officer whistleblower who revealed that two recently appointed figures were corrupt and were responsible for killing protesters.

Tunisian left

One factor that made a difference in Tunisia's revolution beginning first was the difference in unionism; unlike in Egypt, where the state unions and syndicates were quite tightly controlled, leftists were able to hide under the umbrella of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail) at the local branch level under Ben Ali dictatorship, although the top leadership was bought off by the regime. The UGTT was one of the key bodies, along with the blogger-journalist-activists, in spreading the uprising from the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, to the bigger cities along the coast, due to the slightly greater leeway for activity at the local branch level.

There have been some initiatives to set up independent trade unions, including by the police, which have been quashed by the regime; I'm yet to hear of any purging of the UGTT of Ben Ali collaborators, but I really don't know what the state of play is there or whether the UGTT remains a functional body actually leading the workers' movement. I know that a conference is taking place in December for revolutionary unionists to discuss how to help grow the movement, so stay posted on that one.

One exception worth mentioning is the national union of students; it had some leeway to struggle under the first post-colonial dictator Bourguiba, but was totally infiltrated by Ben Ali and became totally useless. Since January 14 it's been reclaimed and is leading struggles on campuses, over basic things like money for textbooks or students unfairly dismissed by the corrupt administrations still in place at most universities.

Due to the closeness of the relationship with France, many exiled left organisations organised among the diaspora in France for the last 10 or 20 years and have now returned; some of the more radical of the centre-left formations, which look likely to do well in the elections, such as Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedoms), are in this category. Revolutionary groups have returned since Ben Ali's downfall. The Left Worker's League (LGO), the main Trotskyist group, seems to fall into this category; most of the democracy activists and young people I've spoken to here don't even know who they are, and I haven't been able to get in touch with them or meet them yet.

Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia

I did manage, however, to meet with a member of the central committee of the Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia (PCOT), which played an essential role in the uprising against Ben Ali (largely through their involvement in the UGTT) and who seem to be the biggest and best force on the left here. Despite their affiliation to the Hoxhaist (Albanian Maoist) international tendency, they have the sharpest line on the ongoing revolution and how to keep advancing the struggle of anybody that I've spoken to here. It is definitely the only big-name party in Tunisia that didn't switch to safe rhetoric due to the approaching election, and it is still talking about revolution!

The biggest weakness that I'd identify of the PCOT is that it isn't as well respected among democracy activists, or as big a part of that movement as, for example, the revolutionary socialists in Egypt are. Indeed, many of the leading blogger-journalist-activists here, such as Slim Amamou (who was named the minister of youth within the second post-January 14 government, although he recently resigned that post) and Azyz Amami, are leaders of the Tunisian Pirate Party, which seems to be taking on the role of groups like April 6 or the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth in Egypt. And still more are standing for election as independant candidates.

The PCOT is a very old party, which struggled underground for a long time, which means it is well positioned to organise for the elections – this, I think, may have deterred people who are rightly cynical of the electoral process. However, revolutionary young people are definitely looking to the organised left, and to the PCOT especially (the local "goth" subculture in Tunis, for example, is full of PCOT militants!). The PCOT's main office in Tunis was absolutely bustling with young people doing various things for the election campaign.

And post-election campaign, PCOT has played a massive role in leading the resurgence of revolutionary struggle; their activists were central to organising Tunisia's #occupy protests on 11th November, as well as the ongoing Bardo sit-in outside the parliament building where the new Constituent Assembly, demanding that the new constitution be put to a referendum, the prosecution of police officers responsible for killings during the uprising against Ben Ali, suspending international debt repayments incurred by Ben Ali's regime, and community democracy reforms very similar to Community Voice's platform! Live broadcast of assembly sessions, etc.

So – will these struggles win? I've tried to paint as accurate a picture I can of these movements, their strengths and weaknesses, and their sway in the population as a whole. The struggle may take years, and it may never bring revolutionary parliaments or governments like Chavez. Each revolutionary process has to confront and break down the power of the state in its own way. But I am optimistic and confident that yes, these movements will win.

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