Writing in the Globe and Mail just after the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in a popular revolt, Micheal Bell, a former Canadian ambassodor to Egypt stated that a similar event would not happen in Egypt. Egyptians were too fatalistic.
But to everyone’s surprise the impossible did happen in Egypt. Mubarak was thrown out and the seeds of revolution have been sowed. As Slavoj Zizek wrote on February 10th “The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society.”
This universal intervention of justice dignity and freedom in Egypt has created the start of a new historical sequence, maybe most similar to the uprisings in South Korea, Burma and the Philippines in the 1980s.
As we begin to digest the gravity of events in the Arab world we must realize that the many moving parts and competing narratives lay just under the surface of the of the universal event.
The narratives, I think can be broken down into three tendencies, which at times overlap with each other. The first is the obvious liberal narrative of the people over throwing their autocratic leader and demanding a something resembling western liberal democracy. Expectedly this narrative dominated the mainstream media in the west and even to a large extent the coverage provided by Al Jazerra.
This narrative is intimately tied to the technology used to circumvent state control. Stories which talk about individuals such as Wael Ghonim, an internet activist who works for Google, as being the spark for the revolution are really stating the largesse’s of late capitalist technology finally allowed people to express their true desire for democracy.
Another major narrative to emerge in explaining the Egyptian uprising is the obvious conservative racist one. The narrative spin is that while the youth genuinely want change in Egypt, there is a darker ominous presence lurking behind the scenes: Islamists. According to this narrative explanation, Egypt is just another Iran in the making and the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamic groups using the uprising to position themselves for a take over of power. This narrative, popular in mainstream Israeli discourse and in conservative circles, relies on a racist assumption that Egyptians are fatalistic and incapable of having a democracy.
Both of these narratives use and contribute to the third major narrative, Egypt in crisis. While not a fully formed explanation, the crisis narrative has been the predominant prism in which the events of Egypt have been viewed through. The crisis of authority has caused chaos on the ground and some sort of stability needs to be found in Egypt. According to this explanation Mubarak must go because he can no longer provide stability. Here we can see liberals and conservatives converge. Obama, Republicans, factions within Israel, the Egyptian ruling class and even ordinary Egyptians themselves can agree on this point albeit for differing reasons. The media coverage on TV and in print focused on the chaotic element above all else. I believe the tag line for most TV coverage and headlines in western papers lead with something along the lines of “Egypt in Crisis.”
An interesting narrative used by both liberals and some western radicals is to try to explain the events in Egypt as spontaneous. While on some level this is true, much of the events happening in late January and early February were unpredictable and unplanned. However, to say that this was completely spontaneous does a disservice to the hard work done by ordinary Egyptians to not only prepare for the uprising but to sustain it as well.
The protests that broke into Tahrir Square on January 25th were planned with meticulous detail and with a keen sense of tactical awareness. 20 demonstrations were planned for that day using social media and preexisting community networks. They were planned to take place outside public places such as mosques. The organizers knew that dispersed locations and sheer number of sites would stretch the security forces, especially since January 25th was national police day. They also planned a secret rally location outside a popular sweet shop in the working class neighbourhood of Bulaq al-Dakrour. Fliers and word of mouth allowed the organizers to build for this secret rally while not betraying its intentions.
The day on January 25th the security forces boxed in all 20 rallies except for the secret rally, which broke through to Tahrir square. Without the meticulous planning of the organizers January 25th would have fizzled.
The dominant narratives about Egypt that have emerged in the past couple of weeks have missed the mark because they simplify the situation in all the wrong ways. It must be repeated that the situation in Egypt contains many moving parts, but it is not beyond understanding. That being said even a cursory look at the internal factions and the geopolitical players in Egypt will reveal that the situation in Egypt is not just another colour revolution. So here are some of the forces at play in Egypt.
The police in Egypt are run by the Interior Ministry, which was very close to Mubarak and the Presidency and had become politically co-dependent on him. But police stations gained relative autonomy during the past decade and direct ministry control, while strong, was not absolute. When the police basically lost control of the situation on the 28th it was a major blow to the regime but not fatal.
The Central Security Service, another security faction of the regime, are sometimes mistaken for the police. They are low-paid and the weakest of the security forces. After January 28th the ceased to be an effective state security force.
Both the Interior Ministry and the Central Security Service, turned to hiring gangs known as, Baltagiya, which ruled over Egypt’s vast slums to ensure direct and brutal control over the people. The regime used the Baltagiya precisely because of their barbarity. Rape and torture were their calling cards. On February 2nd the world witnessed how Egyptians have been ruled for the past decades.
The military itself is a very distinct state faction that has many competing tendencies within itself. (The Air force and the Presidential Guards were unsurprisingly closest to the regime) While the Egyptian military played an important role in political and public life up to the Camp David Accords in 1979 it has since evolved an altogether different role. The military is the recipient of all sorts of largesses from the Mubarak regime and the United States for its support of Egypt’s support for Israel. The well funded, but demobilized military, has become a major player in the Egyptian business world. They represent and to some extent embody the nationalist capitalist faction of the elites.
The Intelligence Services, a faction of the army, are close to America. They have been the temporary winners of the Egyptian uprising. Omar Suleiman, the former head of the Intelligence Services was thrust into a position of defacto president before Mubarak stepped down.
The business elites in Egypt can be divided into two general tendencies. The first in the crony capitalist faction that was close to the regime and benefited from the corruption. The second general faction is the national capitalist, those who abhor the subservient role of Egypt plays in the world both in a geopolitical and neoliberal sense. The Mubarak regime’s movement toward neoliberal development threatened traditional elites and when push came to shove they threw their lot in with the protesters.
As the protest continued in Egypt, capital flight was becoming a serious problem for the business elite by extension the army. In the first week of protests alone, investors transferred out hundreds of millions of dollars. Currency reserves in the country dwindled. The market, as always, punishes instability. Business elites, even those who weren’t dead set against the regime saw the writing on the wall.
The United States gives roughly 1.5 billion dollars in aid to Egypt. Egypt since Camp David has been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid after Israel. A large portion of that aid goes to the security apparatus. Aid was never stooped nor curbed because of human rights abuses. America sees Egypt as a key ally in the Middle East. It controls the Suez Canal, a vital choke point for global capitalism and it shares a border with another key ally, Israel. The U.S. fears instability and the installation of a government that would reflect the will of the people. Nationalized industry, a reevaluation of the relationship with Israel and foreign control of the Suez is a nightmare for America and Israel.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest, largest and most well organized opposition group in Egypt. They are not revolutionaries. They are moderate Islamists in general (though there are more radical tendencies within the organization) they recently formed as a political party. From the beginning of the latest protests they have been on the sidelines, only jumping in with both feet at the last moment. They have not been a driving force in the current sequence.
The April 6th movement and other revolutionary youth groups played an important role in organizing the initial protests and making sure that those organizing efforts reached beyond youth circles and into working-class districts. They were key in propelling the struggle forward and making sure that there was no compromise with Mubarak.
The trade union movement played a key role. While not organizing the initial protests the networks created by the trade unions in the last decade were key into the spreading of the protests into different areas and deepening the roots of the struggle. The last decade has seen the greatest strike wave in Egypt in a lifetime, over 1.7 million workers engaged in more than 1,900 strikes and other forms of protest from 2004 to 2008. It was when the mass strikes started happening on Wednesday the 9th that Mubarak was removed days later.
The socialists have also played a prominent role in the uprising. Socialist groups, many of which are tied to trade unions, have been organizers, especially in working class neighbourhoods. The secular nature of the uprising and the prominent role of women in the organizing is part due to the influence of revolutionary socialist within the student, and labour circles. There are rumors of quasi-popular militias springing up in working class neighbourhoods.
The pace of social transformation happening in Egypt is next to impossible to keep up with. Mubarak is out. The military is ruling by decree. They promise to hold free and fair elections. They cleared Tahrir Square by force. They promise to keep the widely unpopular “peace deal” with Israel in place. They banned strikes and large public meetings.
Protests continue, some in celebration and some in defiance. Many workers have gone on strike across Egypt. The problem with uprisings, for the elites anyway, is that they spread. Expectations of the Egyptians have been raised. They witnessed the power of collective action. They were subjectively changed by the commarderily experience of protest and defiance. They risked their lives and they didn’t do it for cosmetic changes. Kicking Mubarak out doesn’t solve the dire economic situation most Egyptians find themselves in.
It is probable that the level of political activity will subside in the short-term as the Egyptians wait and see how the different elite factions will act. However, the patience of people who know their own power is limited. The struggle for Egypt continues.
Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist, recently wrote in the Guardian “We have to take Tahrir to the factories now. As the revolution proceeds, an inevitable class polarization will take place. We have to be vigilant. We hold the keys to the liberation of the entire region, not just Egypt. Onwards we must go, with a permanent revolution that will empower the people of this country with direct democracy from below.”
The forces unleashed in the early weeks across North Africa will not be contained with ease. The hope of Egypt is the hope of the impossible. To everyone’s surprise world history has been rewritten and Egypt has become a battleground for universal emancipation. Long live Tahrir Square!