More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Egypt: The distance between democracy and social justice
Many of those who followed events in Egypt have been saying for a decade that Mubarak’s regime is on the verge of collapse. The regime’s total isolation and its deafness to the people’s suffering heralded the events we witness now. The fact that thousands of people from all walks of life have suddenly and spontaneously lost their fear shows not only that their situation had reached a nadir, but that they realized the regime was no longer functioning – and had to go. Mubarak’s attempts to pass the regime on to his son Gamal and the spurious parliamentary elections which eliminated all opposition were the last straw.
The person chosen to “cook the election books” was Ahmed Ezz, the ruling party organization secretary. Together with Gamal Mubarak, he symbolized the character of the current regime. This Ahmed Ezz is an Egyptian oligarch who controls the state steel factory in Alexandria and who, overnight, became one of Egypt’s most wealthy people – just like other associates of the president’s son. From the point of view of ordinary Egyptians, Mubarak’s attempts to groom his son as successor was a sign that Mubarak’s passing would not bring change. Indeed, it would only make matters worse for most of Egypt’s citizens: the rich would get richer while the poor continued to confront hunger and uncertainty. The only way of maintaining the status quo was through violent and merciless oppression of all the regime’s opponents.
The underlying cause of the bitterness that led to the revolt is the shift to a neo-liberal economy and the acceptance of the program dictated by international financial institutions in the 90s. The changes imposed by the program were based on privatization of the public sector which was sold off to a small number of families connected to the regime. The ruling party, the army and the internal security forces defended the arrangement to enable Egyptian and international capitalists to do as they pleased with Egypt’s resources. In this aspect, Egypt is similar to Putin’s Russia or the Argentina of Carlos Menem in the 90s: corruption became the road to riches and the drive to make money was unfettered. Like Argentina, Egypt too was praised by international financial institutions as growth statistics were offered as proof of the system’s success. However, when only the top hundredth of a percent benefit from growth, it cannot solve problems of poverty from which most of the nation suffers. For growth to trickle down to the masses, a more equitable division of profits is required.
El-Mahalla el-Kubra: The spark of ignition
The beginning of the revolt – which became a popular uprising – can be seen in the extensive strike of textile workers in the industrial city of el-Mahalla el-Kubra in 2008. The strike, which involved textile factories employing some 30,000 people, rapidly became a city-wide revolt. The unions’ demands were combined with the expression of clear political opposition to the regime. Posters of the “rais” (the ruler) which had hitherto retained their aura of reverence were torn to shreds. But the strike by poverty-struck workers for better wages was brutally suppressed by the security police. Even Mubarak’s official union did all it could to break the strikers.
The strike made such enormous waves that a group of young Egyptians decided to set up a Facebook group calling on all workers to stay at home on April 6, 2008, in solidarity with the striking workers at el-Mahalla el-Kubra. Mubarak was compelled to promise a rise in the minimum wage. Inspired by those courageous workers, the April 6 Youth Movement was founded, providing a continuation of the unions’ struggle which soon took on a clear political character. It must be noted that opposition parties, from Tagammu on the left to the Muslim Brotherhood on the right, failed to support the strikers and remained outside the democratic movement which led the struggle for three years – up until the current uprising.
One thing must be clearly noted: the Egyptian workers were the vanguard of the struggle against the regime. Their demands for bread and small wage increases expressed the hopes of all. These struggles were free of any nationalist or religious incitement, and were centered around union demands on one hand and growing calls for regime change on the other. The el-Mahalla el-Kubra struggle did not remain isolated. Train drivers also began striking, followed by workers in other cities in the textile and steel industries. Some of the protests were against the privatization of other factories.
Another sign of the increasing power of the Egyptian workers’ movement was the customs workers’ success in forming a union independent from the official union controlled by the regime. All these struggles gave the workers experience and strengthened their belief that results could be achieved. On the other hand, they also severely undermined faith in the regime, which was compelled to back down time after time in the face of public support for the workers and their demands. However, all attempts to coordinate between workers’ organizations failed because of the violent suppression and unceasing persecution of the strikers’ leaders. What the workers failed to do was achieved via social networks by the same anonymous young Egyptians who took the workers’ struggle a step further and brought millions of people onto the streets with a common demand: to bring down with the regime.
Who’ll reap the benefits?
The April 6 Movement reflects the post-modern attitude which has gripped young people throughout the world: the desire to avoid politics. This of course is also its main weakness. Because politics is considered corrupt, many young people try to avoid getting their hands dirty. They make do with protest, but protest is not a political program. Managing a state, changing a regime and creating a new constitution are political acts of the first order. They demand democracy, yet democracy is not abstract freedom but the freedom to decide what form society will take – will it be religious or secular? Capitalist in neo-liberal form or welfare state? What status will women have? What status will be granted to workers, or to capitalists? There is no way of expressing democratic will except through elections, and elections can only be held via political parties which present their political platforms to the people. Their loathing of politics prevents the people, in particular the young protestors, from influencing the character of the regime.
Because the main forces leading the uprising are not represented by any party, the main fruits of the uprising will be enjoyed by the political forces currently active, to the resentment of those same young people who have lost faith in existing parties. At present, a relentless political struggle is being waged between three main blocs: the army, represented by Mubarak’s successor and head of the General Intelligence Services Omar Suleiman; the secular opposition parties led by former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize recipient Mohamed El Baradei; and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has significant power and has played a cat-and-mouse game with the regime for many years. It must be noted that the US is deeply involved and simultaneously supports two of the three main players. Suleiman may be an option for the US if the army succeeds in suppressing the uprising, while ElBaradei may be an option if he wins popular support. The US will also consider talking to the Muslim Brotherhood to gain its support for a broad-based, stable government.
As things appear at present, it seems Mubarak is trying to transfer power to the army as smoothly as possible, as demanded by Obama. But Obama, while talking loftily about young Egyptians and his support for democracy, considers it vital that Mubarak makes a rapid exit so that the army can constitute an anchor for the new regime. On the other hand, El Baradei and his supporters seek a civil government along western lines, and want the army to go back to the barracks after its heavy involvement in politics during the last 60 years. The Muslim Brotherhood for its part will try to maintain its influence on society and even increase its religious autonomy and strengthen Sharia law, without making any immediate claims on the regime. Of course, if the army continues to control Egypt, the uprising will have been abortive. This is clear to the masses who thronged to Tahrir Square today and refuse any negotiations with Suleiman. Obama will not oppose the army’s attempts to persuade the people to go peacefully back to their homes, but if such persuasion fails, there will be no option but to form a temporary government and prepare for democratic elections.
Which economic regime will take over?
What economic regime will take over after the revolution? This is the major question which has not been addressed at all so far. What will happen to all those wealthy elites which are the basis of Mubarak’s regime and whom that regime serves? It’s clear that all political forces currently competing to reap the rewards of the uprising support the economic system in place today. After all, in their opinion, socialism has been proved a failure and the welfare state has collapsed. The struggle, then, is over the political regime while all efforts are made to avoid undermining the economic structure. Egyptian democracy will continue to nurture private capital and support privatization while the nation will be left with a choice between Islamic capitalism like Iran or secular capitalism like the west, or most likely Turkey.
It’s clear that a change of regime will alleviate the plight of most of Egypt’s 85 million citizens, but a deeper solution to the Egyptian people’s problems has not yet appeared on the horizon. The unemployment, housing and water crisis is so grave, it will take a generation or more to solve – and only if the state directs all its resources into solving it. However, more likely there will be an attempt to foster coexistence between a market economy and a welfare state. The rich may continue to get rich, but they’ll be required to pay taxes to assist in rebuilding a tattered society. If this happens, Egypt will cease being a paradise for foreign capital, and development and industrialization programs will be put on hold. Internal power struggles will continue while the regime remains unable to meet the needs and expectations of the workers, young Egyptians and unemployed who led the uprising.
The lack of a party with a clear social orientation aiming to serve the interests of the workers leaves the Egyptian revolution in the hands of the capitalists. However, this uprising does create the conditions for the development of a workers’ and young people’s movement while freedom of association, freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate are assured. In other words, the main achievement of the uprising could be the creation of a democratic environment, or a “public space” which enables workers’ movements to act and set up independent unions – and also parties which meet the needs of the workers and advance their political education and empowerment. This uprising is not the final word. It expresses the democratic stage of the path to social justice, which was without doubt the spark that set off the revolt and will continue to goad the workers in their struggle.
Peace with Israel
Unlike the Free Officers’ Revolt of 1952, in which the defeat of 1948 and the creation of the State of Israel highlighted the weakness of the Arab nations, Israel is not the main subject of the current uprising. There is no feeling of historical humiliation which spurs on the Egyptian masses, yet this uprising will nonetheless have a significant effect on Israel and its place in the region.
For the first time, Israel faces something it finds hard to swallow. According to the worldview held by Israeli commentators, the uprising heralds the creation of a new Iran on Israel’s southern border. In Israel’s eyes, the Arab world is divided among three types of regime: moderate and friendly regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan; Islamic regimes; and hostile nationalist regimes like Syria and Libya. The concept of a democratic Arab regime does not exist in the Israeli security vocabulary, and thus there is no information about how to defend Israel against such a regime.
While the US, even during Bush’s term of office, was already preparing itself for the fall of Mubarak, Israel stuck its head in the sand. While the US funded NGOs and movements calling for democracy, Israel gave its unreserved support to Mubarak. Egypt without Mubarak has become a nightmare that Israel dares not utter: the regime has fallen, the police have deserted the streets, parliament has closed, the ruling party has collapsed, yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres continue to call on the international community to support Mubarak.
To its regret, Israel will have to cope with a new enemy – one much more dangerous than it has known till now: democracy and social justice.
The Egyptian uprising and the earlier Tunisian uprising renew the link between Arab citizens and the outside world. These revolts herald a new culture, a new society that aims for progress and freedom in the developed world after 30 years of struggling in darkness. The Arab nations join their comrades in Latin America and parts of Asia in sending dictatorships packing – and have thus gained the support and solidarity of Israel’s “traditional friends” around the world. Now it will be easier to demand that Israel takes a small step for its citizens and a giant step for mankind, and put an end to the occupation.
Egyptians are hostile to Israel, not because it is democratic and has a developed society and economy but because it is an occupying power. Moreover, Israel doesn’t only symbolize the occupation, but also the changes Egypt has undergone since the peace agreement when the oligarchs took over the economy and the lives of ordinary Egyptians became almost unbearable. Israel became the main supporter of the regime which served Israel’s interests while exploiting and oppressing its own people.
If the uprising is successful, Israel will no longer have a monopoly on the claim to democracy in the region, and it will become clear to all that “the only democracy” in the Middle East is in fact an occupying power whose values do not sit well with the values of the enlightened world. Israel and Egypt have much in common despite their enormous differences. Here too capitalism has created a holy matrimony between capital and the regime; here too corruption spreads throughout the system. Socioeconomic gaps grow ever wider while the Israeli oligarchs control the economy and the nation’s resources. Israel is not only characterized by the occupation, but by the absence of social justice and true democracy. But don’t be concerned – an Israeli uprising is still a long way off. All the negative aspects of Israeli society pale beside those of Egypt. However, the winds of change which began with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia will not bypass Israel which is desperately in need of change and real peace.