Sunday, 30 January 2011

Egypt, the tipping point and the military

The Egyptian intifada is the most wonderful thing that has happened for decades, and it is at a critical point. The apparatus of fear, the security forces, have melted away from the main streets and resorted to looting. Jets have just buzzed Tahrir square (I have just heard one over the line to Al Jazzera English with Comrade Hossam)  where people are back,defying the curfew and continuing to demand the end of the regime including Omar Suleiman.  Al Jazeera itself has been banned but Hossam reports that people are determined and taking control of their own security by forming self-defence committees in the neighbourhood.

 Night is falling and, as everyone knows, the army's reaction is going to be the key. Mubarak is on a sinking ship, watching his rats leave: his sons are in London (chase them if you find them), Ahmed Ezz, the personification of the unity of personal corruption, neoliberalism and abasement to Zionsim has resigned. Reports have come through of literal capital flight - 19 private Egyptian planes arriving in Dubai last night. Mubarak first said there would be no concessions, then managed to combined looking weak with enraging the protests by making no concessions but seeming like he had to. Someone is giving orders but I don't think it's actually Mubarak anymore. Hilary Clinton has just said on CNN that the US seeks an 'orderly transition of power'. This looks Shah-like.

But watch that phrase 'orderly transition of power'. It means keeping power for the currently existing order. Suleiman is, as everyone by now surely nows, as despised as Mubarak. As much as Ahmed Ezz, he represents in personal form the regime of which the people demand the downfall - a securocrat at the head of the apparatuses of oppression that have weighed on the Egyptians for so long, and the link between the Egyptian regime, the US and the Israeli occupation in keeping the Palestinians in their place. He is not a very good choice to mask the easing out of Mubarak. That is why there is an unhealthy hint of 'orderly transition' in the planes and live fire that can still be mustered by the remnants of the state.

Will the soldiers shoot? Someone is still giving and taking orders but equally there are widespread beautiful scenes of fraternization. Could the troops fire on so many of their own people? The pattern of repression - from use of police, to security police, to army tanks and now perhaps to air force indicates a dynamic of moving the armed state functionaries literally further away from the protestors. The 'July Revolution' of 1952 - the coup that brought Nasser to power - came after the mass burning of Cairo earlier that year but the Egyptian army today is not that of sixty years ago. For one thing it's been in power that long and that's what people want to fall.

 The question isn't whether officers will take power (they're in power) but whether the lower ranks will obey their orders. The Free Officers were largely composed of people from middle peasant backgrounds (two thirds of them, according to Ellen Trimberger in her book Revolution from Above). Their programme comprised the strengthening of the army through the expulsion of foreign influence, industrialisation and agrarian reform (Hussein, 1973:96). The new regime sought to shift Egypt’s source of foreign currency from the export of cotton – the main mechanism of combination by which capitalist relations had penetrated the country – towards a strategy of self-sufficient industrialisation (Hinnebusch, 1985:23). In so doing Nasser took his place amongst the wider category of regimes that had emerged from the crises of national liberation resolved by ‘middle class nationalists determined on independence in the global arena and national unity internally’ (Hinnebusch 1985:15). They ‘hoped to create a strong Egyptianized state with the aid of an up-to-date army, and compensate the failure of the traditional representatives of the ruling class’ reflecting their keenly felt awareness of the political consequences of Egypt’s uneven development in the ‘politico-ideological inferiority… with respect to foreigners, loss of the state's moral authority, and anachronism of the traditional political parties’ (Hussein, 1973:95).

 The revolution happening now is the result of the eventual bankruptcy of that project after the 1967 defeat, the death of Nasser and the turn to neo-liberalism under Sadat's infitah. The top brass are now part of the nexus of mukhabarat, business cronies and patronage that comprises the Egyptian ruling class.The heroic stage of the Arab petty bourgeoisie in uniform, if it ever had one, has long past. In the 1980s the Egyptian military built up a significant portfolio of industrial investments (especially in food but including at one point even an opera troupe) that have remained in the hands of officers, even as Mubarak sacked the man in charge of the programme as a potential rival. Even if you think Hugo Chavez is a model to be emulated, do not expect one here.

But the army has 450,000 men in it. The lower ranks come from the people who are protesting. This is what is leading to the fraternization. This disintegration of discipline may be being tolerated right now but once the example is there it's more difficult to go back. The protests are not simply observers of the army either. The more of them and the more determined they are (I feel very foolish writing those words, as if I had a right to judge the unprecedented courage of these millions of heroes) the more pressure on the ranks. The Egyptian army has not sustained the acceleration of contradictions brought about by war and external defeat, as the Russian army had by 1917 and the Portugese by 1974, but it is too big to be completely isolated from the people. The emergence of popular alternative power centres exerts an attraction on those who might otherwise believe 'order must be restored'. There are elements of such alternatives in the neighbourhood committees now being set up on Tunisian lines to defend against the looting remnants of the mukhabarat. I'm reading reports of strikes in Suez, Isma"iliya and Mahalla, which will pose similar questions of popular organisation.

The books mentioned above are
Hinnebusch, Ray. (1985) Egyptian Politics under Sadat: The Post-Populist Development of an Authoritarian-Modernizing State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hussein, Mahmoud. (1973) Class Conflict in Egypt, 1945-1970. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Trimberger, Ellen Kay. (1978) Revolutions from Above. New Brunswick: Transaction Press.

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 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?

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Trotsky, Lenin and Coco Chanel's lessons for Tunisia

'With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation'  Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects
'No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear' V.I. Lenin, The April Theses

        'The Revolution, having begun as a bourgeois revolution as regards its first tasks, will soon call forth powerful class conflicts and will gain final victory only by transferring power to the only class capable of standing at the head of the oppressed masses, namely, to the proletariat. Once in power, the proletariat will not only not want, but will not be able to limit itself to a bourgeois democratic programme.'
Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects
 'The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable...The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena and is completed on the world arena.'
        Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution

'Fashion fades, only style remains the same.Coco Chanel

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Tunisian Revolution: Twilight of the Jumlukes?

Every revolution, Marx remarked, begins with flowers. It is rather gratifying then that 'jasmine', rather than some insipid shade from the State Department sample book, is trending as the appropriate adjective for the Tunisian intifada. This is not just another of the Moor's bon mots - he meant that every revolution begins with a moment of unity against the old regime, a joyful prising open of politics by the masses into which rush different visions of the possible new society, visions which will necessarily themselves come into decisive conflict with one another. Tunisia is undergoing just such an interregnum. Ben Ali has fled to Jeddah, so despised that pilots refuse to fly his relatives to France.  The state remains, and it doesn't know what to do.

 The mukhabarat and the army are flailing violently around, surely aware of the fate that awaits them, while the regime remnants try to cling on by agreeing to a 'coalition government' with parts of the opposition (who are not the moving force behind the intifada). This would lead to elections and then most likely to a side-step to neo-liberalism with a democratic face of the kind seen in Eastern Europe after 1989. This is only one possibility, however much it is pushed by the State Department and Ben Ali the torturer's 'Euro-Mediaterranean' partners. It would also only exacerbate the unemployment and poverty that led to the explosion in the first place. ّWhat would deal with that, as the redoubtable comrades of the Cairo Centre for Socialist Studies, is an extension of the revolution to overthrow not just Ben Ali but the economic system he served, and the spread of that revolution to the other shop-worn dictatorships of the Arab world. Tunisia presents the possibility of the overthrow of what the PFLP used to call 'Arab Reaction' - and, might we hope, of permanent revolution?

Where is the licence for this optimism, intellectual as well as wilful? One can point first to the speed with which in Tunisia, as so often elsehwere, apparently solid structures of oppression have crumbled away to the astonishment of mainstream commentators and 'analysts'. Going to the mosque in a suspicious way was enough to get you a visit from uncle Zeen's unpleasant friends - and now people are doing this. It says 'freedom'.

 Second: this is, to an almost vulgarly Marxist degree, an anticapitalist revolt. It began, as most people know, with the attempted self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazzi, young man living in a provincial town and harrassed by police goons who tried to stop him selling vegetables. Further attempted protest suicide, then police homicide of protesters, followed. The political and economic demands of this movement have been  fused from the beginning. As Larbi Sadiki, in an analysis tinged with Fanonism, argues :
It is not the Quran or Sayyid Qutb - who is in absentia charged with perpetrating 9/11 despite being dead since 1966 - Western security experts should worry about. They should perhaps purchase Das Kapital and bond with Karl Marx to get a reality check...The armies of 'khobzistes' (the unemployed of the Maghreb) - now marching for bread in the streets and slums of Algiers and Kasserine and who tomorrow may be in Amman, Rabat, San'aa, Ramallah, Cairo and southern Beirut 
  Indeed - but there is more to the Jasmine revolution even than just the rage of the dispossessed shabab. Proletarian organisation, rather than just dispossession, has also played a role. The Tunisian labour movement has had heroic chapters in its history from the days of French colonialism onwards but was then integrated into the state under Bourguiba.  The leadership initially refused to call a strike in support of the demonstrations, although local activists seem to have been involved. A general strike was held on Friday the 14th leading to the demonstration that ousted Ben Ali. As Juan Cole rightly points out, 'You don’t get massive crowds like the one in Tunis without a lot of workers joining in'. The lesson here is not lost on Mubarak, Assad, Abdullah and the rest - nor will it be on the Egyptian workers who have moved through cycles of revolt since 2007.

   The potential for the rest of the Arab world, and especially its workers, to follow the Tunisian example is intoxicating and real. Algerian khobzistes have already taken up the challenge. Every country in the region has the same basic social situation as Tunisia: if anything Tunisia was thought of as rather prosperous. Once, 'radical' regimes overthrew the monarchs and promised 'freedom, socialism, unity.' They delivered none out of three. The 'jumlukes' - a combination of the Arab words for monarchy and republic, coined to desribe the regional convergence around the principle of hereditary despotism - are in trouble. Even Jordan (on which I will produce a further post later) has joined in. Last year brought some fighting spirit to the teachers' union, port workers in dispute in Aqaba and talk of a 'hot autumn' around the predictably rigged elections. Now a 'day of rage' has been declared in Amman, and roadblocks set up around the towns. The demonstrators have been chanting 'Ben Ali, send the plane back for Rifa"i' (the Jordanian Prime Minister). Cairo has its own variant: 'Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi is waiting for you.' The puns are different but the demands are the same. We may yet welcome two, three, many jasmine revolutions.