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Egypt: disturbing trends above, contradictory trends below

A World to Win News Service.

Recent events in Egypt indicate attempts by the US-backed military regime to restabilize the situation on a basis that goes against the aspirations and expectations of many of the youth and others who toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The attacks on women demonstrators in Cairo 8 March were a weather vane. There is a rising cold wind representing a convergence between the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists as a force standing against basic social change, and what must be frankly seen as the force of tradition and backwardness that is contending with the people’s deep longing for liberation.

What was called for as a “Million Woman March” on International Women’s Day, in a reference to one of the final demonstrations before Mubarak was forced out, did not reach its goals. The crowd in Tahrir Square numbered only a few hundred or a thousand at most, according to news reports. But it was extremely important in two ways. First, the radicality and relevance of its demands for equal rights for women can be seen in the viciousness with which it was attacked. Second, it brought together a broad section of women, especially but not only young, including women wearing hijab (head scarves) and those whose heads were defiantly uncovered. Some men came out with them as well. These are brave forces with broad roots who are determined to keep the movement going forward.

The protest was surrounded by a far larger crowd of men, who heckled them and chanted that women’s place is in the home. There was a long period of shouting and debate. Some men argued that this demonstration, held in honour of the martyrs of the anti-Mubarak movement as well as demanding rights for women, was an insult to men. They were incensed by the women’s demand that women be allowed to run for the presidency, since, they said, women shouldn’t be involved in politics at all.

The women persisted in the face of verbal and physical abuse and danger. Many argued vigorously with their accusers. Groups of women and men fought to free women who were being grabbed at and abused. Army security forces in the square did not intervene, except to fire shots in the air at the end as the demonstrators were finally forced to withdraw.

Women participants have described the men’s behaviour as similar to the crowds of pro-regime thugs who violently attacked the anti-Mubarak protests earlier. This is a complicated question, since at least some of the crowd of men seen in video footage are clearly Islamists, who ended up supporting the anti-Mubarak movement. Interviews and participants’ accounts give little reason to believe that it was hard to get together a mob of the same kind of ordinary men who routinely harass and sometimes abuse ordinary women on Cairo’s streets, whether wearing hijab or not. (Four out of five women report having been subjected to this, and two out of three men admit having subjected them to it, according to a survey taken in 2008 by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights widely believed to be accurate.)

The following day the army did intervene in Tahrir Square – to clear it of the remaining demonstrators and finally tear down their tents. Although the protest camp was far smaller than in the days leading up to Mubarak’s ouster, it was a symbol and rallying point for those who feel that far more change is still required.

More than 190 people were arrested. The army targeted the women for some of the most vicious treatment. According to an Amnesty International report based on interviews with women protesters, at least 18 were held in a military detention centre in a Cairo Museum annex near the square. They were handcuffed, beaten with sticks and hoses, and subjected to electric shocks in the chest and legs. Forced to strip naked, their pictures were taken and they were told that the photos could be used against them in the future. Officers demanded to know whether or not they were virgins and submitted them to degrading “virginity checks”. They were told that those who were not virgins would be charged with prostitution.

All of the women were brought before a military court. Several received suspended one-year prison sentences. They were all released 13 March.

Women were at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak movement, and the general atmosphere in Tahrir Square was mainly supportive of their presence. For weeks, up until the day when Mubarak fell and men sexually attacked an American woman reporter, women reported little or no harassment. Several told reporters that for women daily life in the protest camp was like paradise compared to the humiliation they faced on the streets. For millions of Egyptians, Tahrir Square represented the possibility of a different kind of society.

The military’s behaviour on 9 March basically put their stamp of approval on the mob attacks on the women’s rights demonstration the day before. Bad as this is, it is part of an even worse larger picture coming into view.

This became fairly plain in the referendum the military held 19 March, meant to clear the way for parliamentary elections within a few months. The military chose a panel to decide what issues to put to a vote and the date. The panel’s instructions were, “Get this over with quickly.”

The referendum was to approve changes to the 1971 constitution. One proposal was to eliminate the changes Mubarak had made to allow him to stay in office indefinitely – which of course the people themselves had already overruled. There was also a proposal to allow candidates to run as independents. This would allow the Muslim Brotherhood to run for parliament as long as they did not officially represent their party, which cannot run in its own name because the constitution bars parties constituted along religious lines. The new parliament could change that.

Symbolically, at least, the most important item on the referendum was the addition of a clause forbidding an Egyptian president to have a “foreign” wife. This item combined male chauvinism, national chauvinism and religious intolerance (a popular current of opinion blamed Egypt’s woes on alleged female influence on its presidents – Mubarak and his predecessor Anwar Sadat were married to women with English Christian mothers). The mob that attacked the 8 March demonstration had also objected to the presence of foreign women among the protesters.

The junta has tried to send some conciliatory messages to the protest movement. The former Interior Minister and other Mubarak regime figures now face trial for killing demonstrators – after protesters led by former political prisoners in Cairo and Alexandria stormed the Amn Dawla (State Security Investigation Service) headquarters and brought out incriminating documents that overworked paper shredders had not yet had time to destroy. The new Interior Minister announced that the SSIS, the secret police whose agents reputedly number in the hundreds of thousands, would be dissolved and replaced with a new organization.

A major protest demand was met when Ahmed Shafik, a military man Mubarak, in one of his last acts, had made Prime Minister, stepped down and was replaced by Issam Sharaf, Mubarak’s ex-Transportation Minister who came to Tahrir Square to express solidarity with the protesters.

However, the decades-old state of emergency is still in force and being viciously wielded. It authorises the military to arrest people and hold them without charges or bring civilians before a military tribunal. Not all of Mubarak’s political prisoners have been released, and perhaps a thousand people arrested since Mubarak’s fall are still being held. Some have already been sentenced to five years in prison. Currently the ruling military council is considering legislation to make demonstrations and sit-ins illegal.

The military’s focus on the referendum and early parliamentary elections, then, is not driven by a desire to let the people speak freely, become informed and make decisions but to channel and silence the protest movement and establish a new legitimacy for the rule of the same classes and many of the same men who have long ruled Egypt.

Holding parliamentary elections soon, observers agree, would short-circuit the long period of ferment and political and social debate that the military clearly wants to avoid, and favour two parties: Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, whose extensive patronage network brought it millions of members, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Mubarak regime’s relations with the Brotherhood were contradictory. Men associated with the Brotherhood served as high officials in part of his government. Mubarak, like Sadat, modified the once secular constitution to declare that Sharia (Islamic religious law) is the source of Egypt’s civil law. While for a long time the Brotherhood was allowed to operate semi-openly despite its supposed illegality, in later years Mubarak also manoeuvred to cut down their influence and exclude them from parliament. The secret police jailed and tortured their rank and file members by the thousands. The Brotherhood at first boycotted the movement to get rid of Mubarak, then joined it when it seemed to have a real chance to win.

“There is evidence the Brotherhood struck some kind of a deal with the military early on,” Elijah Zarwan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group told The New York Times. The ICG is an authoritative source because as a think tank working out future Western policy it is supported by former heads of state and officials of imperialist powers. “It makes sense to the military: You want stability and people off the street. The Brotherhood is one address where you can go to get 100,000 people off the street.”

The Brotherhood can do more for the military than get its own members off the street. In recent days Islamist forces have been scuffling with secular people who want to conduct street protests themselves. There are somewhat different trends within the Brotherhood, and outside its ranks is a widespread Salafist movement whose declared aim, unlike the Brotherhood, is strictly religious rule. But there seems to be a trend for Islamic forces in general to oppose attempts by secular forces to continue the protest movement.

When the new “pro-revolution” Prime Minister Sharaf came to address a crowd in Tahrir Square, the prominent Brotherhood figure Mohamed al-Beltagi was standing beside him.

The referendum seems to have represented the implementation of this new unholy alliance. Although almost two-thirds of the country’s eligible voters didn’t bother to cast a ballot, all the constitutional changes the military had allowed to be put up to a vote were overwhelmingly approved. To judge by reports from Cairo, Brotherhood officials and members brought people to the polls, queued them up and told them how to vote (and chased away people suspected of being a “no” influence.)

At first Brotherhood leaflets pronounced that it was a religious duty to vote for the amendments and that the object of the referendum was to confirm Islam as the regulator of political and social life. Later, when this was widely criticised, they said that a vote for the amendments was a vote for stability.

No one can doubt that this is true – a certain kind of stability, the kind that suffocated Egyptians for so long until the rebellion. It is no surprise that millions are still asleep, many wilfully. Now the question is whether or not the millions who have awakened to political life and dared struggle for big changes in their lives, their society and their world are going to be silenced.

In this situation, the International Women’s Day demonstration, objectively and in the minds of a great many people, both those who supported it and especially those who hated it, embodies a central element characterizing the two roads Egypt faces.

The demand for equal rights for women on all levels of law and in practice defies one of the most deeply rooted and extensive features of this society. As in other countries, in Egypt the patriarchal subjugation of women is a basic part of the glue holding together a whole network of relations of exploitation and domination. It is essential to the rule of those classes that both represent these relations and have become junior partners to imperialist monopoly capital and foreign political domination.

Further, even in the imperialist (monopoly capitalist) countries where women have won formal (legal) equality through struggle, the logic of the capitalist system has not met and cannot meet the deeper demands for the liberation of women from the powerful persistence of patriarchal domination and old and new chains of inequality and oppression – or in other words, the yearnings that motivated most of the women who demonstrated in Tahrir Square 8 March.

How relations will work out between between Egypt’s US-trained, financed, armed and lauded military and the variety of Islamic forces is still to be seen. But it has become clear that

whether women should go home or keep marching has already become a political dividing line between those who are overjoyed to have thrown out Mubarak but are still unsatisfied, and the most ferocious opponents of social change, those who feel that things have gone far enough or too far already, and want to bring the social upheaval and effervescence to a halt.

(See the 23 March Amnesty press release; “Egypt’s First Vote” by Yasmine El Rashidi on the New York Review of Books blog page; the articles by Michael Slackman in the 24 and 28 March New York Times; and the daily coverage in the English edition of


March 31, 2011 - Posted by | A World to Win, articles, Breaking with the old ideas, communalism, culture, History, kashmir, movements

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