egypt: “democracy, social justice and human dignity” – but when, and how?

Tali Janner-Klausner reports from Cairo on the unfolding Egyptian revolution, including the recent international solidarity conference

Hosni Mubarak was a hated despot, and became a symbol of the many, varied and interlinked hardships that Egyptians face. At this month’s “First Forum of Solidarity with the Arab Revolutions” there were no doubts that though the symbol has come crashing down, the root causes of these hardships remain and must be confronted.

the establishment sacrificed Mubarak, but want to hold back further change

The intense popular anger that came into its own so spectacularly in Tahrir Square festered through decades of oppression under a corrupt and restrictive dictatorship. Economic and social issues cannot be separated from the political concerns that the ‘great and the good’, from Obama to the world’s media, choose to focus on. Egypt is a country of staggering exploitation and inequality. Half the population is struggling under the poverty line of $2 a day while Mubarak may have stolen up to $70 billion for himself and his family. Unemployment and food prices rose while lucrative industrial monopolies or powerful ministerial portfolios were given to loyal and often incompetent cronies who wrecked what they didn’t steal.  

Nevertheless, the achievements of the revolution have so far been limited to the narrowly political, and SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s military junta) are keen to keep it so. Their recent acceptance of a $3 billion IMF (International Monetary Fund) loan is as clear a sign as any that they plan on continuing down the path of neoliberalism that Mubarak paved with his policies of privatization and removing grain subsidies. Not for nothing have protesters chanted against the power of the IMF and World Bank in the same breath as denouncing imperialism and Mubarak’s regime. Mubarak’s last finance minister once worked for the IMF and is now serving a 30 year prison sentence for corruption.

SCAF and their supporters may point to the recent raising of the minimum monthly wage from 100 to 700 Egyptian Pounds (just over £70 sterling. Yes that’s one zero there). Labour activists have denounced this as insulting. The common demand at strike after strike for at least five years was for 1200 Egyptian Pounds, with a yearly increase to factor for Egypt’s high levels of inflation. Meanwhile calls from the impressive new Federation of Independent Egyptian Trade Unions for social security and a maximum wage no more than ten times the minimum fall on deaf ears as far as the military junta are concerned.

Unfortunately, at the moment the political gains of the revolution are also painfully limited. The state institutions that for decades have rolled out violent repression have been shaken and scaled back, but are fundamentally still in place. The millions of Egyptian protestors and striking workers demonstrated their own power but left the power of the army, the security services, industrial capitalists and the like, intact and mostly in the hands of the same people, with the same interests as before. The aforementioned economic policies of SCAF are a testament to that.

Many Egyptians have expressed their exuberance at their newly won freedom of speech, and it’s worth remembering from our relatively privileged position in Britain that it means a huge amount to millions of people to now be able to speak their mind to neighbours, discuss politics with strangers on the bus, or simply walk around Tahrir Square with an impassioned placard if they wish to. Details are telling, from the emergence of a vibrant street art movement to the relieved smiles on the faces of those who told me that they no longer live in fear. It is, as the phrase goes, a qualitative change, one to celebrate and be proud of. But it is also a severely qualified change, one that millions are unsatisfied with. One can rage away about Mubarak and his family, but an Egyptian blogger was jailed for three years for criticising the leadership of the armed forces. The hated emergency laws are still in effect. At least three times since Mubarak resigned, the army has attacked crowds in Tahrir Square to disperse protestors. Without Egyptian women’s formidable participation in the uprising, whether with megaphones, medicines or molotovs, Mubarak would still be sneering down at us today. Yet after his fall, eighteen female protestors had to endure painful, invasive “virginity tests” at the hands of the armed forces after being arrested at a protest. With the twisted logic of entrenched bigotry the army representative claimed that they had carried out this mass sexual assault to verify whether the women had been sexually assaulted.

Perhaps most tellingly, after a revolution carried forward on the back of industrial action of a staggering energy and scale, SCAF passed a law banning all strikes or any form of protest that may disrupt economic activity.

These limitations are just one side of the picture. Though some in Egypt say that they trust the army to carry out reforms and that the people should go back to work, these tend to be the better dressed, the better off, those with something to lose from social and economic reorganisation. In fact, there has been a constant wave of popular outrage at the failings of SCAF, as embodied by the hundreds of thousands who protested against the military junta in last month’s “Second Friday of Rage”. The despicable “virginity tests” sparked national outrage and many protests. Strikes continued despite the ban, including a highly organised doctors’ strike in which they built their own national network from scratch. New trade unions are proliferating in every major industry, and combining their efforts, thus casting the old Trade Union Federation into well-deserved irrelevancy – it had become practically an extension of Mubarak’s regime, another vehicle of control.

 democracy

The constitutional referendum in March contained only limited political reforms, such as judicial overview of the elections and limiting presidents to serve two four year terms. It was passed by a significant majority, keen for democratic change, but was opposed by many left-wing activists. At the moment it looks like there will be parliamentary elections around September, with the new constitution to be the responsibility of whatever government is voted into the existing structures. This sequence is also opposed by many activists, because holding elections without giving ample time for new political parties to form and develop would be to the advantage of the established political forces – members of the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. Holding elections before a new constitution is written would also entrench the power of those elected, who will be less likely to want to change the system that got them into government.

The Muslim Brotherhood is undoubtedly supported only by a minority of Egyptians, as was clear from the largely secular dynamics of the uprising and the Brotherhood’s almost nonexistent role in it, after years of advocating obedience to political authority. The estimates of their support I’ve heard or read tend to be between 20% and a third. It is discredited as an opposition group after having brokered a deal with SCAF that saw the Brotherhood legalized and denouncing those who protest against the military junta as traitors to the revolution. Many of the Brotherhood’s own youth disobeyed this and participated in the recent protests, as they did after January 25th, when it all kicked off. Many young members are also unhappy that the leadership openly supports free-market capitalism (with some anti-monopoly rhetoric thrown in for good form). These divisions also weaken the Muslim Brotherhood, though for now it remains the only properly organised political group in Egypt with a pre-existing support and activist network. They will certainly win plenty of seats in the elections if held in September, but they simply don’t have enough popular support to be anything like as powerful as Mubarak and much of the western media have hysterically built them up to be.

Aside from that, the political scene in Egypt is still fluid and developing (and very confusing!), hence the demand for elections to take place at a later date, to give new groups time to establish themselves. Mubarak’s hated National Democratic Party has now ceased to exist; it’s burnt out headquarters still gaze out over downtown Cairo in testament to the anger and loathing it provoked. Meanwhile dozens of small parties have been formed and are racing to collect the five thousand signatures necessary to qualify as a political party. Among these are several Islamist groups of varying extremes, liberal social-democratic groups, and a coalition of far-left political groups called the Popular Alliance Party.

There are also a plethora of non-party political organisations coming into existence, including continuations of youth and women’s committees.

The “First Forum for Solidarity with the Arab Revolutions”

After months spent watching developments in Egypt with heart in mouth, I leapt at the chance to go to a political event in Cairo. My vague prior knowledge of its predecessors, the Cairo Conferences Against Zionism and Imperialism, gave me mixed expectations. These were large international meetings held since 2001, organised by various left-wing Arab groups together with the Arab nationalists, international anti-war campaigns, the SWP’s international body and a host of Islamic organisations. In 2009, Mubarak famously shut down the conference.

At best, it led the call for the international anti-war protests in 2003. At worst, it hosted politicians from Iraq’s repressive Ba’ath party. Like the Stop the War Campaign in Britain, the Cairo Conferences contained little criticism of the despotic regimes whose “anti-imperialism” was enthusiastically praised, but times have changed.

This year the conference was organised mainly by socialist and communist groups, all with understandably much more important things going on to distract them from effectively building or planning for the weekend. These are busy days for activists in Cairo, and on the same weekend there was a very large women’s conference as well as events relating to youth committees and economic forums. So it was understandable though disappointing to find that instead of the 2000+ of previous years, there was not more than 150 people present at any point.

The British delegation was large, around forty people all told, with representatives from Counterfire, International Socialist Group (the Scottish split from the Socialist Worker’s Party), Workers’ Power and the SWP.

The opening session alone would have made it worth any number of hours travelling or sitting through less engaging speeches later in the weekend. Speakers stood for three minutes each, sharing their ideas and stories of how people in their countries are challenging some of the most coercive state security apparatuses in the world. I felt like I was standing in the eye of a hurricane, several times at the edge of breaking into tears. Speakers from Yemen and Iraq, from Syria and Sudan, Lebanon and Spain, Egypt and India, and many more besides. From reminders about the failings of liberal capitalist democracy to how the symbol of Tahrir has ignited similar protests in squares in the unlikeliest of places. Collective courage in the face of unbelievable state violence. Unpicking the strategies of the international media for playing down the importance of insurrections. Direct democracy from the neighbourhood safety committees in Cairo to reaching consensus in assemblies of thousands of people in Puerto del Sol. There was a strong, proud sense of solidarity and strengthening each other in an international struggle. This remained throughout the weekend though there was much that I was to find very frustrating.

For a start, as the conference progressed I was troubled by the fact that despite the famous dynamism and direct democracy of the camps in Tahrir and elsewhere, many of the hierarchical “old left” traps were fallen into.

This no doubt exacerbated problems with the content of the conference. The classic disempowering set up of speakers up on stage taking up most of the time and focus would have been tolerable considering the fascinating subject matter, were it not for the amount of demagoguery and repetition that took place. After a few hours it started to feel like too high a proportion of the time being taken up by speakers, mostly men with decades of involvement in their particular party or campaign, repeating similar formulas about the international imperialist and Zionist projects, which presumably no one in the audience needed convincing about. We were impatient to talk strategy, learn what worked and plan for the future. At the end of the conference a declaration was read out that had been written by the organisers with no outside involvement or time to submit amendments.

Apart from contributions from the floor, there was very little said about liberation campaigns of oppressed minority groups. The importance of equal rights for Coptic Christians was discussed, but they notably have more organised political power and media focus on them than do women, LGBT people, disabled people or migrant workers. There was also no discussion about Iran, despite its regime’s influence over the situation in several Arab countries and the uprising two years ago which undoubtedly inspired many Egyptian activists. Whatever the reason for this omission it wasn’t about Iran not being an Arab country, as there were speakers from Spain, Britain and the USA speaking about the relevant events in their countries.

The discussions about Israeli and Palestine ran through the entire conference though much of what was said was limited to denouncing the Zionist and imperialist projects, to the detriment of thorough analysis. I wanted people at the conference to hear how Israeli activists working against the occupation and for justice for the Palestinian people are strengthened by the courage and creativity of Egypt’s revolution. It was saddening though expected to be told under no circumstances to reveal that I am Israeli as well as British, both for my safety and because some of the conference organisers felt that it would undermine the event in the eyes of many on the Egyptian left if it were known that they were hosting an Israeli citizen. As a friend from the Egyptian Socialist Renewal Current apologetically explained – “well we’re both internationalists here but there is a big problem with the Arab left being very conservative on this issue. The world “normalization” is an accusation here”.

Nevertheless I and a Turkish activist who dared speak of the Israeli working class courted controversy (I said what I had to say but identified myself only as a British Jew) and scorn. A Palestinian speaker responded to me by saying that “I could accept the hand of someone Jewish outside of Palestine, but never a Jew in Palestine, for they are an occupier”. The layers of denial behind this statement are impressive. Even if he really does see the only endgame as a situation where 5 million “occupiers” up and leave, surely it’s self-defeatist to refuse solidarity in any case? So if I bump into him at a protest in Palestine someday, will he ask me to leave?

I was also surprised to hear several speakers using patriotism as a compliment for individuals or a movement, as if national pride was a useful quality for the transformation of society. The protests in Egypt have been characterized by enthusiastic flag waving and themed by the national colours. Flags were even handed out by the army during the celebrations after Mubarak’s fall. However this should be challenged rather than integrated into left-wing discourse. I can understand the sentiment, the idea that Mubarak was acting against the whole nation’s interests and that Egyptians want to show their renewed national pride. But of course looking at it in these terms obscures the class character of Egyptian society – it was not all sections of Egyptian society who suffered under Mubarak, and it is not every section of Egyptian society that has the power to take industrial action to challenge the regime. If we speak only of the nation, then those businessmen and officials who for the sake of only their own bloated livelihoods urge strikers to go back to work might have a point. If we speak only of the nation, why bother having a conference of international solidarity at all?

Despite these criticisms, over all it was an inspiring and very useful experience to be there. Many debates were nuanced and interesting. On NATO intervention in Libya; on forms of democratic organisation; on the role and development of industrial action; on the need for a social transformation of society; on state repression; on whether the debate over a civil vs religious society is an important one or a distraction from class struggle; on the Muslim Brotherhood and whether or not they should have been invited to the conference. One speaker from the SWP in Britain regarded it as a “fundamental mistake” not to invite them so that their members could participate in the discussions concerning them, as well as because they had played a major role in previous conferences, and anyway their organisation is deeply divided and many of the young members disagree strongly with the conservative leadership of the party. One of the responses was from an Egyptian who had been involved in organizing the conference. He said that calling for the Muslim Brotherhood to be represented at a radical anti-regime conference would be like having SCAF present through their allies. It was hearing those discussions that made me feel lucky to be there despite the drawbacks.

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Rarely is a region in such a state of flux as Egypt today. There’s a breathtaking disparity between the power and dynamism of popular resistance to the actual gains made so far. Much has fundamentally changed in how people see their own collective agency in relation to state and corporate power, but much fundamentally remains the same in most political and economic institutions. Fear that the regime will retrench itself with only minor changes are valid, as are hopes that independent trade unions and local democratic committees with proliferate. Egyptians have shown that they have the ability to transform their society, but also that the ability alone is not enough.

 

Sources and further reading:

http://www.unionbook.org/profiles/blogs/egypt-founding-declaration-of founding declaration of the Egyptian federation for Independent Trade Unions

http://www.avaaz.org/en/mubaraks_fortune/?cl=938605472&v=8371 On Mubarak’s personal fortune

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/07/egypt-imf-loan Egypt and the IMF

http://news.egypt.com/english/permalink/8263.html Labour activists denounce new minimum wage

http://www.arabist.net/blog/2011/6/9/egypt-a-new-constitution-first.html The liberal case for the “Tunisian model” of constitutional change

http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentPrint/1/0/10342/Egypt/0/Ahram-Onlines-idiots-guide-to-Egypts-emergent-poli.aspx Detailed descriptions of political groups active in Egypt

http://www.workersliberty.org/node/590 Analysis of the 2003 Cairo Conference

http://www.tahrirdocuments.org/ I was unfortunately unable to make use of what looks like an excellent archive, but the Arabic speakers among you will enjoy this site

http://luna17activist.blogspot.com/2011/06/final-declaration-of-forum-of.html Final declaration of the Forum for Solidarity with the Arab Revolutions