Excerpts from a lecture given at Beit Ha’am, a social and political center opened at Rothschild 69, Tel Aviv, following the wave of Israeli social protests in the summer of 2011. Yacov Ben Efrat is Secretary-General of Da’am – the Workers Party.
The title of this lecture suggests a contradiction. The Muslim movements are religious, basing themselves on Sharia law, and oppose democracy. Their source of authority is the Koran, while the source of democracy’s authority is human reason, individual and collective will – the people. Nonetheless, this month we celebrate one year since the Arab Spring began, and in amazement we follow the revolutions sparked by the Arab youth. These youth demanded regime-change for justice and freedom, but when change is translated into the ballot, the Muslim factions come out strong.
The results of the elections in Tunisia and in particular Egypt provoked a hysterical response in the Israeli media. There is talk of the “Arab winter,” dark prophecies abound, and commentators stick to the view that the Arab world is a failed region which will never be able to live in peace with Israel. The evidence? When the Arab world is allowed to choose, it chooses the Muslim Brotherhood.
The rise of political Islam is nothing new. The events of 2001 first compelled the world to face the dogma and power of that movement. Our political party tended to analyze Islam as a social as well as a political force, and since we have already contended with the roots of this movement, we can say with confidence: the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections is not the final word, and does not mean the end of the Arab spring.
As Marxists, we have to face Islam and present a socialist, humanist alternative. Islam is among us: we come up against it in our daily work, at the centers we run in Arab society, we meet it in our activities with workers, with women and with the youth in schools. We strengthen the alternative to the Koran by organizing workers and empowering individuals, as well as the collective.
I can assure you that it’s not just the West which was surprised by the electoral strength of the Islamic movement. The Islamic parties themselves were caught unprepared. For the first time, they have to make the move from being oppositional political parties, which during some periods existed only as underground organizations, to being parties in power, which rose on the secularrevolutionary wave. The Islamic movement in Egypt didn’t even support the uprising, and viewed its leaders as heretics sold out to western values. In fact, victory fell into the Islamists’ hands like ripe fruit, without their having to do anything for it.
Therefore, before we brandish the Islamic demon, we need to understand the character and roots of the new Arab revolution. The Arab spring is not about to be destroyed, because it is part of a deep historical process which goes way beyond the borders of the Arab world.
Now, I want to ask why the Arab spring broke out. You don’t need to go far to find the reasons that brought the youth of Cairo and Tunisia onto the streets. They are the same reasons that brought the youth of Tel Aviv onto the streets, the same reasons that compel people around the world to take to the streets in protest. After the events of September 2001, we wrote that Osama bin Laden was the result of two phenomena. One was the neoliberal system which sentenced the Arab peoples to poverty and despair, pushing them into the arms of Islamic fundamentalism. The other was the indifference of the West towards what was happening on the other side of the world, and its failure to acknowledge its responsibility for it. Poverty can exist for years without necessarily awakening revolt. But when it is accompanied by frustration and anger towards those responsible for the poverty, those who at the same time enjoy the situation and justify it, it can spark revolution.
It could even be said that the process that began with the Arab spring started here, in October 2000, with disappointment in the Oslo Accords – the results of which were enjoyed only by Israel and a thin stratum of the ruling elite in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Echoes of the October violence shook the world and planted an idea in the heads of Islamic extremists from the school of Osama bin Laden: the time had come to take vengeance on the head of the snake itself, on the United States of America. The logic behind the bin Laden insanity was simple – Islam could gather the political fruits of the anger spluttering among the poor and unemployed. The time of Islam had come, they thought.
And indeed, the Al-Jazeera network, based in Qatar and owned by the royal family, promoted bin Laden and presented him as the hero of the Muslim world. The network was never ready to acknowledge that the attacks of 9/11 were acts of terror. On the other hand, the Qatari regime was still happy to host America’s largest military base in the Gulf. Here it should be recalled that the mujahedeen groups, of which bin Laden’s organization is a wild offshoot, were nurtured a decade earlier by the US (during Reagan’s term of office) and Saudi Arabia as a way of fighting communism and the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan.
The crisis, which began in 2001, expanded until it burst in 2008. Signs of the system’s collapse could be seen in 1997 in Thailand and in southeast Asia, in 1998 in Russia, and in the NASDAQ crash of 2000. The collapse of 2008 took place on Wall Street itself and exposed the capitalist system in all its nakedness, its unrestrained and irresponsible lust for easy profit. This crisis continues to shake the world today, Threatening to bring down banks and make entire states insolvent.
The self-confidence displayed by the heads of capitalist superpowers gave way to alarm and panic, which taught citizens a thing or two about the nature of the economic system and the connection between capital and government. The public’s faith in the system was irreparably shattered, and we’re not talking about just a nation or two. This is not just an Arab, Greek or American crisis – this is a global phenomenon, an entire system that’s come to the end of its path. Unlike at the beginning of the new millennium, when they talked of a “clash of civilizations,” this time we’re talking about the end of civilization as we know it.
In Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, the Arab states which experienced revolt, the system was embodied in a capitalist dictatorship which functioned for the benefit of local oligarchs and their cronies. Citizens no longer received basic services – no running water, no cooking gas, no schools, no hospitals, no housing. Those with money obtained what they could privately, but those without lived a life of poverty.
The ideology of the ruler is not important. It doesn’t matter if he supported the American axis (Egypt, Tunisia) or the “opposition” (Syria). In both cases, Arab citizens lived in wretched poverty, without freedom of speech or association, unable to elect an alternative leadership and improve their condition. It must be noted that Oslo too failed to create a normal society. The PA joined the free-market camp (the Paris Agreements) and left the vast majority of the people not only under occupation but also without any improvement in standards of living. Here too the system was the same as that which won the backing of the US and the IMF; it was accompanied by clear dictates: reduce public spending, privatize, deregulate – otherwise you won’t get a credit rating that will enable you to manage the economy, which will mean the end of your state.
For decades the Arab world has been ruled by dictators. The interesting question is, what will happen now, after the Egyptian people has risen up? In Israel, the popular theory went that Mubarak was holding down the Egyptians in such fear and hunger that there would be no chance of revolt as long as they were sunk in their daily struggle for the next plate of beans. We never held to that theory. We never believed that peoples could be subdued by means of hunger. We did not accept the claim that “democracy doesn’t suit them,” or that any kind of regime could last forever. There is always a handful of revolutionaries who, in the name of greater ideals, rise up and change the system.
The question is, from where does the revolution derive its power? In Egypt, as in other Arab states and the rest of the world, it was the power of information, science and technology which called the intellectuals to action. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed that the West is the source of all evil, and anyone who draws close to the West and adopts its values is a heretic. They warned against the loss of identity and against disintegration, as is happening in the West. But we maintain that the West is not one dimensional. It has an oppressive and colonial face, but it also has a strong dimension of secular rationalism, of science and progressive education, which cannot be rejected. On this basis Arab society can develop. The revolutionary youth understood that if they want to generate change they must not throw out the baby with the bathwater: they must adopt Western values of democracy and the principles of the welfare state. With these ideas, they succeeded in drawing the entire Egyptian people after them.
Two movements impelled the revolution onwards: the one dubbed the “Facebook youth,” and the other consisting of the workers who had waged union struggles for three years prior to the uprising. These workers opposed the official state union and insisted on setting up alternative, democratic unions. The regime was afraid of independent organizing and suppressed the strikes with great force, using the secret police and the official union. Nonetheless, the workers’ movement gained strength until, on April 6, 2008, a workers’ intifada broke out in one of the state-owned textile factories in the Nile Delta, in the city of al-Mahala al-Kubra.
When we saw the workers tearing up posters of Mubarak, we understood that something serious was taking place, that the barrier of fear had been breached. We sent two of our members to Egypt to understand what was happening from close up. We said to ourselves, this is the moment we have been waiting for, something new is taking shape here. Until that moment, the political game in Egypt had been played on a narrow stage, sandwiched between pro-American Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab Left was captive to the view that any opposition to Mubarak would strengthen the Muslim movement. This false equation led the Egyptian Left to support Mubarak, the Palestinian Left to support Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and the Syrian Left to support Assad. A third option was nowhere to be seen. Yet suddenly, in Egypt, the workers rose up and came out against Mubarak and against the Muslim Brotherhood, demanding tangible solutions. The intellectuals called their movement “April 6,” after the workers’ intifada in al-Mahala al-Kubra, and thus the two movements flowed together.
However, after so many years of dictatorship, and after the disappointment in the Left, in Egypt as in Israel, the youth preferred to define themselves as “apolitical.” They thought the state could be managed from Tahrir Square through demonstrations. But they soon learned this wouldn’t work: we can’t declare ourselves to be the people, and we can’t force ourselves upon the people; the people must choose us. Then, when the Tahrir youth understood their electoral weakness, they did all they could to prevent elections. They knew that since they had no party, they couldn’t succeed in elections and they would lose to the old regime or the Muslim Brotherhood, who were both well organized and prepared.
The attempts to prevent elections and continue the demonstrations without proposing an alternative created a vacuum. This vacuum was filled by the army, whose status in the eyes of the public grew stronger. We did not agree with the Tahrir youth. We called on them to run in the elections. The elections, which were born out of the strength of the uprising, offered them – for the first time – the opportunity to organize and present themselves freely before the people. We also claimed that free elections – regardless of who won – are the revolution’s greatest achievement.
The disagreements over the elections divided the revolutionary factions in Egypt. The communist party and the Trotskyist organizations boycotted the elections. A new leftist bloc, “the ‘Revolution Continues’ Coalition”, with whom we share a common language, decided to field candidates. Then something amazing happened: the turnout, which had been less than 20% in Mubarak’s days reached 62%. Thousands stood in line before the voting places. This fact cannot be erased. These people felt that the revolution had brought them tangible results and were not willing to give them up.
The problem is not the vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. For most of the electorate, there wasn’t an alternative. The Muslim Brotherhood is present in every tiny village and every dark alley, via the mosques. Even before the revolution the movement provided essential services and worked among the people. Without a functioning education system, and with illiteracy affecting almost half the population, it is not surprising that religion became a decisive factor in the lives of Egyptians. Thus, when the Muslim Brotherhood presented itself in the elections, the people decided to reward it and give it a chance. This is how the Egyptian elections must be understood.
It would be a mistake to conclude from the Brotherhood’s success that we are going back to the Sudanese or Afghan model. Radical Islam, which tried to enforce Sharia, has stopped being popular and its place is being taken by a more moderate model. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as in Tunisia, is not due to a revival of Islamic fundamentalism, but the loathing felt towards the dictatorships. Even Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, who declared ten years ago that suicide bombing was a way to vanquish Zionism, acknowledges today that the democratic model must be adopted.
There are claims that the Muslim Brotherhood will suppress tourism, forbid the wearing of bikinis or the drinking of beer, and thus strangle the Egyptian economy. To these claims the Brotherhood replies: “All will be permitted! It won’t be the sheikh who decides what’s forbidden. We will act democratically.” Maybe the time has come for the Islamists to take over the regime and prove whether they are able to deliver the solutions for which the Egyptian and Tunisian peoples fought. Now, when they are no longer in opposition, the people won’t buy their ardent speeches on the Great Satan or the Zionist Entity as an alternative for a decent life. The people demands work, health, education, and housing – real answers to pressing issues. The Muslim Brotherhood does not have the answers, yet it doesn’t want to remain exposed. That’s why it’s busy establishing coalitions with bourgeois parties, such as the New Wafd, to share responsibility. Managing a state is not like managing a charitable organization, and funds from Qatar are not sufficient.
On the other hand, the Left will not be able to establish itself unless it begins working among the people. Disappointment with the Muslim Brotherhood will lead people to seek another option, and the Left’s task is to offer this. The Muslim Brotherhood needs to know that the revolutionaries will not disappear – and in fact it already understands as much. The leftist organizations have moral strength on their side because they led the revolution, and the Egyptian people gives them credit for this. They have the power to criticize any regime which tries to steal the revolution’s achievements.
In short, the Egyptian revolution is not just dependent on what happens in Egypt or the Arab world. The Arab states are poor; most of their financial resources are held by multinational companies and local tycoons. The Egyptian government must feed 80 million citizens, and it can’t rely on oil or coal – it has only the waters of the Nile, the Suez Canal and tourism. It can’t work miracles. In addition, what happens in Egypt depends on what happens in the western world and also on what happens here in Israel. The situation in Egypt is only a symptom of the collapsing global system. In Spain, for example, unemployment has reached the record figure of 21.3%. Young people who emigrated there from South America are going back home to seek work.
We too have responsibility – toward the Palestinians, toward those mired in poverty here, toward the Egyptians… Every change here has the potential to assist them, and vice versa. If we do nothing except moan about the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood will continue to rule. To get out of this crisis we must unite: either we all change the system, or we all drown. True, it’s not easy, and we have to contend with Bibi, who is no better than the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the Occupation. But last summer’s protests are a fact, and our presence here is a fact. We must act, and we can act. The fate of the Muslim Brotherhood is in the hands of the Egyptians and indirectly in our hands too. We all share the same fate.
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger