Egyptians fight for springtime against the forces of winter
A World to Win News Service.
“The status quo in the region is clearly untenable,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a gathering of representatives of the big powers in Munich 5 February. Speaking in blunt terms because she was addressing her fellow tormentors of the Middle East and the globe, she urged them to deal with what for them is an unpleasant truth.
Of course, what she did not say, even when speaking behind the backs of the people, and did not have to say when addressing her colleagues, is that it has been the U.S. and its allies who imposed the status quo that the people and youth of the region, and right now Egypt, are trying to crack open at the risk of broken bodies.
What the U.S. and its allies are now trying to put into place in Egypt is a new and reinforced version of the status quo. The U.S. and the European powers seem of one mind about this task. President Barack Obama and other U.S. representatives have made clear that they not only support Omar Suleiman, the military intelligence chief President Hosni Mubarak anointed his vice president, they consider him the essential ingredient in achieving what they openly state as their goal in Egypt, a “stable, orderly transition”.
A transition to what? The centrality they place on Suleiman goes a long way toward answering that question. He is Mubarak’s right-hand man of long standing and head of the secret police. Trained in the U.S., he is a classmate and close colleague of the American generals who commanded the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Suleiman was delegated by the CIA to torture America’s enemies. He is the Egyptian Washington most trusts to protect U.S. interests. Most importantly, beyond his personal qualities, he is a product and leader of the armed forces who have run the country ever since the overthrow of the British-led monarchy in 1952 and who are the West’s main hope that nothing fundamental will change in Egypt.
Yet the protest movement is supposed to believe that he and the other generals are going to bring about or at least preside over real change and the fulfilment of the people’s aspirations.
Whatever elections may be held, and whatever rights may have to be conceded to the people, for the U.S. the most important is maintaining as much continuity of the old state structure as possible. This means especially the army, not only as the central pillar of the state, as it is in every country, but also with its specific character in Egypt as the arbiter of political life.
But the U.S. and the Egyptian armed forces face a critical contradiction: without at least some break with the old ruling structures, people might not consider the new-old regime acceptable. Yet if concessions are granted and some of these structures are broken with, that might raise hopes and embolden the people to demand more radical change. “Revolution against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment”, as the call for the 25 January “Day of Rage” put it, and more, an end to the poverty for the majority, the futurelessness faced by even educated youth, the humiliation of the nation and the whole intolerable numbing status quo that Mubarak has come to represent.
Either way, this is not going to be an easily-solved problem. That means that no matter what Washington and its Egyptian partners want or even what they do, it may be a long time before winter returns to Egypt.
This situation presents the U.S. with inherent constraints in its efforts to regain control. One way this contradiction manifests itself is around Mubarak’s continuing presence. All of Washington (which hasn’t been this united in years) and much of the Cairo elite suburb of Heliopolis seem to agree on the obvious truth that this 82-year-old ailing autocrat has no real future and that his son Gamal has none either. So it is striking that Frank Wisner, the man Obama sent to have a heart-to-heart talk on his behalf with Mubarak, told the Munich conference that Mubarak should leave but not quite yet. The same sentiment was later expressed by Clinton when she was asked to react to his statement. (The New York Times and BBC, 7 February 2011)
Wouldn’t it seem that the best thing the generals could do would be to dump Mubarak, if they want to encourage demonstrators to leave the streets and back up their claim that they stand with the people? Some observers have pointed to bonds of personal loyalty among armed forces leaders (appointed by Mubarak) as the reason for the repeated insistence by the new Prime Minister (and air force head) Ahmed Shafiq and Vice President Suleiman that Mubarak must stay for now. This may well be a factor. But there also seems to be an element of cold calculations: if Mubarak is not allowed a “graceful exit” but is driven out by the people, that might make it all the harder for the armed forces to resist the people’s other demands. Suleiman is trying to get the people to get off the streets and go home not by giving them what they want – Mubarak’s head on a platter – but by trying to get opposition forces to negotiate about anything else but that.
In fact, the U.S. and the generals are so desperate to negotiate rather than capitulate that they are even trying to include the Muslim Brotherhood, even as they continue to argue that the armed forces must stay in power as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. On 7 February, after a day of talks between Suleiman, the Brotherhood and minor opposition parties that seemed to reveal little room for agreement, Obama pronounced, “Obviously, Egypt has to negotiate a path, and I think they’re making progress” – the “progress” being not that the negotiating parties are drawing closer but that they are negotiating at all. The point of these negotiations is to convince the people in Tahrir Square and the streets of other cities that the future is no longer in their hands.
Equally telling are the points around which the still-Mubarak regime, with Washington’s support, has tried to focus political attention. Suleiman wants the establishment of a committee to consider amending the constitution, specifically Article 76, which effectively prohibits generals and Muslim Brotherhood members from running for president, and Article 77, which authorized Mubarak to be re-elected as many times as he wants – a law that the people have now overruled. Another little problem is that in the present parliament, elected only a few months ago with U.S. approval, Mubarak party members hold 86 percent of the seats, an embarrassing indication that elections don’t necessarily have much to do with the will of the people.
It has been widely said by observers in Tahrir Square that the army has been using carefully calibrated tactics meant to simultaneously reassure demonstrators and encourage them to leave. The presence of tanks and other armoured vehicles has been meant both as a show of defending the demonstrators and an implicit threat. People prevented the army from clearing the square by sitting down in front of advancing tanks, and many spent the night of 5 February sleeping with their heads stuck in tank treads to keep them from moving. This shows both their hope for army support and their willingness to die for their demands. But what has not been as widely commented on is the fact that Clinton/Suleiman’s political manoeuvres share the same purpose: to drive the people back to enforced passivity. Certainly the regime and the U.S. would like nothing better than for everyone to go home and for political life in Egypt to fizzle out as it fixates on constitutional changes and elections.
Actually, while the stated demands of the people’s movement do not call for a new political and economic system, they have brought it onto a collision course with the imperialist structures of domination as they presently exist.
First of all, people want Mubarak out now. The U.S. and the generals might have to give in, but exactly how Mubarak goes may make a big difference in the mood of the people and even the political landscape. Further, many people don’t want him to escape to some Disneyland. They want him and his henchmen tried and punished. Since his henchmen are more central to pro-U.S. “stability” than ever, this is a real contradiction.
Secondly, they want Mubarak’s state of emergency lifted right now. When an interviewer asked Suleiman when he planned to do that, he responded indignantly, “What? Now?” Even as the armed forces claim to stand with what they call the “legitimate demands of the people”, under the state of emergency laws still in force they are still arresting people without charges, often physically abusing them and in some cases holding them. This includes dozens of Egyptian activists and bloggers (whose Web activity is used to track them down), foreign journalists and NGO workers, and so on. “Human rights groups said that security officials under Mr Suleiman, even as he talks about leading a transition, are continuing to abduct and detain without charges people it considers a political threat.” (NYT, 6 February 2011) The government seems to be not so much seeking to eliminate the protesters, which given the size of the movement and the state of the country would be impossible right now, but to deliver a message.
This is a grave situation. The “police state” that people hate Mubarak for constructing remains intact. Many people say that even though their hopes that Mubarak would give in to the “march of a million” 4 February turned out to be too optimistic, if they leave Tahrir Square and disperse now, they may be hunted down one by one in their homes. The army has been systematically filming, photographing and checking IDs. A number of reports from the square indicate that some people believe they have gone too far to turn back. They may lose their lives fighting for real political change, but they may lose them anyway if they don’t succeed.
Much more than their safety is at stake. The political education and evolution of the Egyptian people in the very likely extended period of effervescence ahead requires that they be able to speak, exchange views and debate fearlessly. Whether or not the state of emergency is abolished will play a big role in that. People’s rights to expression, communication, publication, assembly and so on are not just abstract questions, they are very important in shaping the ongoing political process. Suleiman’s promises amount to saying the people’s rights may be respected later, when the movement ebbs and political life begins to flow through official channels, but not now when they most need them.
This not just a question of rights as expressed in law, as important as that is. How Mubarak goes is very related to whether or not people will feel ease of mind, as well as renewed energy to push further. Conversely, if Mubarak or people like Suleiman are in charge, no matter what the law says people will rightly feel threatened. The demand that Mubarak be punished is not only a demand for justice in regard to his past crimes, but also has to do with how much people will feel free to discuss and act on politics in the future.
The U.S. claims to be supporting the people’s rights, but any political or even regime change led by Washington is, by definition, meant to serve the interests of the U.S. and not the people. In fact it could only be in direct contradiction to the people’s demand to have their country back. The U.S. government’s manoeuvring is not just an the international level; Washington is actually working to achieve its aims within Egyptian society itself, especially through the Egyptian officer corps it financed and trained, and more generally through the big military and civilian capitalists dependent on American capital and the world market, and their ability to influence some of the middle classes. At the same time, the military’s claims to defend the rights of the people are meant solely to preserve and bolster the army’s central role and are just as much in contradiction to the people’s demands.
As Clinton emphasized in her Munich speech, what the U.S. has to do in Egypt is very difficult. The kind of transition her government is trying to engineer “takes some time. There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.” The NYT reported, “She also underlined the need to support Egypt’s state institutions, including the army and financial institutions, which she said were functioning and respected.” (5 February 2011)
These institutions are not neutral, even if many Egyptians may still think so. The subordination of the Egyptian economy to international capital takes place within the spontaneous workings of the market, but political structures of domination are also required. They are necessary for the U.S. monopoly capitalists to keep down the Egyptian people, fend off other monopoly capitalist powers and serve the U.S.’s overall geopolitical goals of empire, which involve profits not just in a particular place at a particular moment but overall and long term. These political structures are ultimately based on class alliances between international monopoly capital and local exploiters dependent on them. Because this means more than a few sell-out puppets, these institutions are not built up overnight or easily improvised.
The U.S. has class partners it can trust running the army, judiciary, bureaucracy and other levers of political power. Even though some U.S. government officials have been worried that the base of the Mubarak regime is too narrow, that it is too confined to those who directly profit from their relationship to the state and excludes other, perhaps newly rising capitalists, and that there are whole sections of middle class businessmen and professionals who feel smothered by this situation, still, to quote Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden, as long as Mubarak was “a stable ally” they “would not call him a dictator.” Now that the people have made him extremely unstable, and his presence a potential force for further instability, they might want to turn to others. But that’s not so easy, in part because the existing structures are an obstacle to that.
For instance, Clinton said that if Mubarak does resign, then according to the Egyptian constitution the speaker of parliament and not Suleiman would have to become head of state. That’s one problem – how to construct legitimacy for a regime when what’s happening is mainly that the U.S. is giving orders. She also pointed out, in the Munich speech, that Mubarak’s resignation would, according to the constitution, require elections within two months. But constructing an imperialist-friendly multi-party system would not be so easy either, given that the bulk of Egypt’s ruling class inside and outside the state is in Mubarak’s party or identified with his one-party system.
These considerations are further complicated by Egypt’s strategic location and importance as a main anchor of American domination of the Arab world and a neighbour to Israel. Just to give one example, it’s hard to imagine how an elected Egyptian government which claimed to represent the voice of the people could, without paying a political price, use batons, water cannons, tear gas, electric prods and gunfire against Palestinians, as Mubarak’s security forces did during the January 2008 “jailbreak from Gaza”.
But to the degree that even people opposed to foreign domination think that their goals and interests can be met by democratic rights and especially by elections, they are vulnerable to all sorts of imperialist tricks. Experience has shown that even in the third world, the toppling of “police state dictators” and autocrats does not necessarily mean liberation from the clutches of international monopoly capital and American political domination: the lack of liberation after the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the Suharto regime in Indonesia, the Duvalier regime in Haiti and the apartheid regime in South Africa are all examples worth pondering.
Even the fall of the Shah in Iran, while it led to an Islamic regime that the U.S. sees as a real problem, did not lead to the country’s liberation. And while the Egyptian revolution led by Gamal Nasser that toppled the monarchy delivered a big blow to Britain and took some steps forward, it eventually came under the sway of the U.S. and gave birth to Mubarak and his made-in-USA generals.
More than regime change is required. In each of these cases, old political institutions gave way to new ones to varying degrees, but what stayed the same was the country’s subordination to imperialist capital, not only externally but in terms of the organization of its internal economy and its internal social relations, and its political structures, especially the political rule of local partners of imperialist capital. Even in Iran, for all the anti-imperialist rhetoric of its reactionary government, the logic of the world market ultimately dictates.
The basic problem is not really one of “free and fair elections” or “majority rule”. As has been seen in Egypt in the last few weeks, where the majority stands at any given moment is fluid, with the number of people willing to fight for radical change ebbing and flowing according to events and their own estimate of what currently seems possible. Certainly there are times when the silence of millions of people is objectively favourable to the reactionaries. The U.S. and its Egyptian military are counting on these factors and hope that the determination, fearlessness and energy that the people have displayed on the streets can be defused, dulled and dissipated through constitutional and electoral manoeuvres.
What is needed in Egypt is not just a different regime but a different political and economic system. It requires defeating and smashing the old state, including the military, and establishing a revolutionary democratic dictatorship, what Mao Tsetung called New Democracy. This means the rule of those classes whose interests lie in breaking free of imperialism, not finding a way to collaborate with it, opening the door to socialism and eventually a communist world. That’s the only kind of revolution that can lead the emancipation of the Egyptian people and the flowering of their collective and individual abilities that have been crushed for so long. Despite the reversal of the Chinese revolution after Mao’s death, still that country’s ability to free itself of foreign domination and transform one of the world’s most backward societies into a example of emancipation points to the possibility of a whole different trajectory for revolution in Egypt.
Egyptians fighting for their country’s future need to think about that and join the conversation with those who are already working to take the world on that trajectory.
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