Saturday, 2 June 2012

Arab Spring Meeting Notes #4 - What We Aren't Being Told

This is the fourth in my series of meeting talk notes, which started here. Feel free to use these in whatever way, and let me know if there's anything I've gotten wrong or missed out on important pieces of the puzzle.

I've got 10 minutes, which is not enough time to talk about full history of the Arab Spring, and not even really enough time to talk about my experiences in the region in any depth. Instead, I want to highlight the key things that we aren’t being told about the Arab uprisings by the powers that be. I feel they help us to see the most important things about this period of struggle.

One is what these uprisings were about – this is the first and foremost western media distortion, that the youth of the Arab world just wanted the West’s liberal democratic rights to go with their iPhones. This is lmost completely untrue.

The Arab Spring began with immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the city of Sidi Bouzid, in Tunisia's underdeveloped interior which had suffered under the IMF policy splitting the country up into three economic zones based on how easy it was to get goods from those areas to the ports. His situation was created not just by police intimidation, but by the political repression going hand in hand with the economics of third world neocolonialism.

The first few days of wild protests throughout the interior region, especially in the mining cities like Ghasserine, Gafsa, etc which had previously risen up in 08, were not "Facebook" revolutions – which is another western media mistruth. But the internet did prove hugely important - several brave bloggers, inc Slim Amamou and Azyz Amami of the Tunisian Pirate Party & Lina Ben Mhenni of Tunisian Girl / nearly nobel prize fame travelled out to the region rising up, documented bodies in hospital, and spread word to the networks of activists in the big coastal cities of Sfax, Sousse, Tunis; the first two got arrested for this.

So the internet was a tool, but if there weren’t a layer of youth in the region that had been radicalised by a decade of growing struggle – student activism, democratic activism like the 05 election campaign in Egypt, the mini uprisings of 2008 in Egypt & Tunisia – a layer of youth ready to fight the regime in Sidi Bouzid, then these revolutions wouldn’t have happened just because there was Twitter or Facebook.

In fact, when I visited Tahrir square between September and November of last year, the majority of protesters there didn’t even have smart phones. Certainly there are some better-off students and others who are part of the movement who do, but the vast majority of the protesters come from the urban poor population.

The street protests of the January 25 uprising in Egypt were called online by the April 6 Youth Movement and We Are All Khaled Said, inspired by Ben Ali's downfall in Tunisia but responding to the growing anger over the death of Khaled Said in June of 2010, drew the biggest numbers of any protest in 50 years - tens of thousands. However this only took on critical mass after the police attacked Tahrir square and broke up the protests; bridges, main routes were all occupied by police, so many activists took refuge in the homes in neighbouring suburbs - and ordinary people with no access to internet, only state TV, who had heard about and were excited about but unsure of the protests, were won over. On the 28th, there were hundreds of thousands in Tahrir. Those kinds of numbers, combined with a general strike in the second week of Feb, forced the military regime to abandon their support for the figurehead of Mubarak as the elites of Tunisia had done with Ben Ali only weeks earlier.

The fact that these revolutions were as much about demands for a change in economic policies as political freedoms can be seen from the importance of the involvement of the urban & rural poor, and also from the fact that an essential component of them has been labour activity – strikes across private & public sector industries. This is something the western media also consistently fails to mention – as it did for the four years prior to them while strikes and labour protests exploded across the region. And workers continue to press for economic justice. Some Egyptian hospitals have been taken over by the doctors, nurses and caretakers and are being run democratically. In every level, workers are winning demands for better pay, conditions, more democracy at work and to get rid of Mubarak & Ben-Ali-era cronies. How? Not by accepting the power of the new parliament, but by struggling for it themselves.

This brings us onto the next western media angle, also adopted by the post-dictator governments: that the uprisings were great, they won their demands for an elected parliament, now there’s some instability but it’s time the people of the region to get back to work and get on with building their country. This is consistently the attitude of not only the Western press but also our politicians and those of the successor regimes in the middle-east, so it’s perhaps the most crucial mistruth to see through.

When I bumped into her by chance in a café in Tunis where lefty blogger types tend to congregate, Lina Ben Mhenni summed up the most salient response to this that I've heard when she said:

“The revolution did not finish on January 14 (the day Ben Ali was overthrown) — it started on January 14! Ben Ali left the country, but he is just the head of the system.

Every day I am more and more convinced that the whole system is still there. The police are back to committing violence, there are more and more limitations on freedom of speech.

The media is still manipulated by government and political parties — and bloggers and cyber activists continue to play that role of citizen journalists.”

The fact that there has been relatively free elections in Tunisia & Egypt (in some ways even more free in Tunisia than here in Australia – with strictly regulated media & public advertising equally set aside for each candidate) and in lots of other countries through the region in response to the uprisings is a big win for the revolutionary movements. But these revolutionary movements are far from fulfilled. The fundamental economic questions, and even the fundamental political ones, remain to be addressed. The newly elected regimes of Egypt & Tunisia, comprised of Islamist majorities working with “liberal” pro-capitalist forces – ie those who had money or influence before the uprisings began – have both committed to the neoliberal Washington consensus of more IMF loans conditional on restructuring, privatisation, ending subsidies sharpening inequality, etc. They’ve both re-affirmed their roles as team players in the regional geopolitical status, against the wishes of their people – as can be seen from the protests which stormed the Israeli embassy in Egypt on September 9 (again an angle; the major protests in Tahrir, at courts and govt offices earlier in the day were ignored in the mainstream reportage). So the heads have changed, their base of power may have shifted, but there has been little real change; as such, the revolutionary movements are still growing, and still fighting.

Some of the wins of the Arab Spring, though, can be seen in other things; the upsurge in women’s rights activism in Tunisia, for example, or community organisation amongst the poorer villages, suburbs and informal slums surrounding Cairo. These struggles going forward, whether again the government or on different issues like feminism or solidarity organised with those suffering in the frozen interior in Tunisia through the winter, are coming out of the fact that there is a huge new layer of young, inspired, revolutionary youth, who are debating politics in the cafes and streets, and who are convinced they can change the world

The responsibility of us as people wanting a better world here in the west is primarily to learn from the Arab Spring, and secondarily to show solidarity to it. Above all, we should take the spirit which has come to define the era of the Arab Spring – that another world is possible, an alternative to this system is possible, if we fight for it – and make it a reality here in Australia.

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