Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Days of rage; will the Arab revolution spread?

Central Cairo is a 'war zone'. The police have used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets against protestors - including firing at the heads of demonstrators. It is difficult to be sure of the numbers involved at the moment but twitter feeds from Tahrir Square in the middle of Cairo are talking about 50,000 people and an occupation of the square. This astonishing picture shows workers in the industrial town of Mahalla Al-Kubra (scene of a strike wave that culminated in the abortive uprising of 6th April 2008) surrounding the riot police of the central security. Every demonstration happening here is illegal, in a country where a trip to the police station can see you imprisoned incognito, sexually assaulted or worse.

  That's how things go when you've had a revolution in the near neighbourhood. The Egyptian 'day of rage' has been explicitly organised to emulate the Tunisian revolution - a good argument for why spontaneous action alone is not enough. The slogans across the country speak clearly enough of the protestors' aims:

        'Tell the police, tell the army, we cannot find a loaf of bread
         Oh Gamal [Mubarak] and your dad, Mahalla hates you'

and the wonderful, haiku-like translation from Alexandria:
    'Revolution, revolution, like a volcano,
      Against Mubarak the coward.'
Posters and symbols of Mubarak and his ruling NDP have been torn down and destroyed. The NDP offices and parliament have been besieged, much as the Tunisian RCD are now getting their just deserts. A common comparison drawn is with the bread riots of 1977 that almost felled Sadat: if anything, this movement is bigger. Perhaps the greatest tribute to its potential is that Hilary Clinton has called for the protestors to show 'restraint' in their struggle to free themselves from one of the US favourite outsourced torture solution providers. 

 With all this going on, it may seem easy, perhaps trite, to pick on  the preposterous claim that Egypt unlike Tunisia, is unripe for revolution. Indeed, one might treat such 'experts' with the indulgence reserved for a talkative but uncomprehending child were it not for slanders like this one ; ' If 200,000 people take to the streets, they will only shout slogans in favor of the cross or in favor of Islam.' Utter, utter drivel and disproved by today's events. These have in no small part been organised by the same people who brought Copts, Muslims and secularists together in the aftermath of the dreadful church bombing earlier this month.

The party of order is in disarray, spouting contradictory non-sequitirs to reassure itself. Egypt is not 'middle class' enough to have a revolution, they say. People usually say the opposite. Conditions in Tunisia were both so unbearable that a revolution was inevitable and yet at the same time the Tunisian people benefitted from a secular, cultured and well-heeled middle class who could instruct masses. Witness, once more Amr Hamzawy arguing that
'the Tunisian middle class expanded the social protests spearheaded by the poor and the unemployed, moving them from remote spots to big cities ...it linked social and economic grievances to Ben Ali's corruption and raised a greater demand for [political] change'

This statement is true if you swap the word 'middle' for 'working' class - which is what we conventionally call wage earners, who organise the collective action of withdrawing their labour through trade unions. That is why a split is now emerging between supporters of the old regime and the organised working class in Tunisia. There is a difference between the Egyptian and Tunisian cases here in that the Tunisian UGTT (although part of the Bourguibist state apparatus) enjoyed partially free elections. The Egyptian trade union federation officers are appointed by the dictatorship.

   The good news is that for almost all of the past decade Egyptian workers have struggled against this regime, to the extent of founding their own independent unions. Strikes spread across the country in 2006-7 from the epicentre in Mahalla el-Kubra eventually leading to the uprising in that city in 2008. In 2009, in a police state where independent workers’ actions are illegal, there were 478 industrial actions by workers, including 184 sit-ins, 123 strikes, 79 demonstrations and 27 rallies.  Rather than the Muslim Brotherhood or the increasingly ineffective Mohammed El-Baradei, it is the networks born out of these struggles (such as the April 6th movement) that have mobilized for today's day of rage. This is the context of the revolt, an accumulation of grievance against the combination of Thatcherite economics and Stalinist police state that characterises nearly every Arab regime.

  Egypt is indeed a much bigger state with more US backing than Tunisia - but with that comes an increased potential for the working class. As the Economist puts it
 With its 84m mostly poor and frustrated people, Egypt is the pivot. It is the main ally of the West and a force for moderation in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If it should implode, the geopolitics of the entire Middle East would be turned upside down.

The title of that article is 'Let the scent of Jasmine spread'. The aroma may not be so pleasing to neo-liberal nostrils after all.
  UPDATE: At least two, possibly three protestors were killed yesterday and protests have been called again for today although Facebook and Twitter seem to have been blocked in Egypt. Several hundred more people are still being held by the security police.  The occupation of Tahrir square (look at the picture above and remember what everyone  in it risked) was broken up by violent police action, it seems. The demands of the protest were announced as
1)the immediate departure of Mubarak from power.
2)the dissolution of the Nazif cabinet
3) a freely elected parliament
4)the formation of a national government.

Extraordinary footage is emerging. Here is the protest from Tahrir Square. They're saying 'the people want the fall of the government.'

And here is one of ordinary Egyptians chasing away the security police. Can these people go on being ruled in the old way? Can those in charge of the running police go on ruling in the old way?

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