Revolt has been in the air

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist and activist who blogs at the 3arabawy Web site. His writings have chronicled the crisis of the Mubarak regime that has culminated in the mass rebellion this year.

He talked about the immediate background for last week's upheaval with author Mark LeVine, a history professor at University of California Irvine, for an interview that appeared on the Al Jazeera Web site on January 27.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters fill the streets of Cairo calling for Mubarak to step downHundreds of thousands of protesters fill the streets of Cairo calling for Mubarak to step down

WHY DID it take a revolution in Tunisia to get Egyptians onto the streets in unprecedented numbers?

IN EGYPT, we say that Tunisia was more or less a catalyst, not an instigator, because the objective conditions for an uprising existed in Egypt, and revolt has been in the air over the past few years.

Indeed, we already managed to have two mini-intifadas or "mini Tunisias" in 2008. The first was the April 2008 uprising in Mahalla, followed by another one in Borollos, in the north of the country.

Revolutions don't happen out of the blue. It's not because of Tunisia yesterday that we have one in Egypt mechanically the next day. You can't isolate these protests from the last four years of labor strikes in Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa Intifada of Palestinians and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada was especially important because in the 1980s and '90s, street activism had been effectively shut down by the government as part of the fight against Islamist insurgents. It only continued to exist inside university campuses or party headquarters. But when the 2000 Intifada erupted and Al Jazeera started airing images of it, it inspired our youth to take to the streets, in the same way we've been inspired by Tunisia today.

HOW ARE the protests evolving?

IT'S TOO early to say how they will go. It's a miracle how they continued past midnight yesterday in the face of fear and repression. But having said that, the situation has reached a level where everyone is fed up--seriously fed up. And even if security forces manage to put down protests today, they will fail to put down the ones that happen next week, or next month or later this year.

There is definitely a change in the level of courage of the people. The state was helped by the excuse of fighting terrorism in 1990s in order to fight all sorts of dissent in the country--which is a trick all governments use, including the U.S.

But once formal opposition to a regime turns from guns to mass protests, it's very difficult to confront such dissent. You can plan to take out a group of terrorists fighting in the sugar cane fields, but what are you going to do with thousands of protesters on the streets? You can't kill them all. You can't even guarantee that troops will do it--will fire on the poor.

WHAT IS the relationship between regional and local events here?

YOU HAVE to understand that the regional is local here. In 2000, the protests didn't start as anti-regime protests, but rather against Israel and in support of Palestinians. The same occurred with the U.S. invasion of Iraq three years later.

But once you take to the streets and are confronted by regime violence, you start asking questions: Why is Mubarak sending troops to confront protesters instead of confronting Israel? Why is he exporting cement to be used by Israel to build settlements instead of helping Palestinians? Why are police so brutal with us when we're just trying to express our solidarity with Palestinians in a peaceful manner?

And so regional issues like Israel and Iraq were shifted to local issues. And within moments, the same protesters who chanted pro-Palestinian slogans started chanting against Mubarak. The specific internal turning point in terms of protests was 2004, when dissent turned domestic.

IN TUNISIA, the labor unions played a crucial role in the revolution, as their large and disciplined membership ensured that protests could not be easily quashed and gave an organizational edge to the mobilizations. What's the role of the labor movement in Egypt in the current uprising?

THE EGYPTIAN labor movement was under attack in the 1980s and 1990s by police, who used live ammunition against peaceful strikers in 1989 during strikes in the steel mills and in 1994 in the textile mill strikes.

But steadily since December 2006, our country has been witnessing the biggest and most sustained waves of strike actions since 1946, triggered by textile strikes in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, home of the largest labor force in the Middle East, with over 28,000 workers. It started because of labor issues, but spread to every sector in society except the police and military.

As a result of these strikes, we've managed to get two independent unions, the first of their kind since 1957 formation of a union for property tax collectors. The new unions include more than 40,000 civil servants, and then health technicians, more than 30,000 of whom launched a union just last month outside of the state-controlled unions.

But it's true that one major distinction between us and Tunisia is that although it was a dictatorship, Tunisia had a semi-independent trade union federation. Even if the leadership was collaborating with the regime, the rank and file were militant trade unionists. So when the time came for general strikes, the unions could pull it together.

But here in Egypt, we have a vacuum that we hope to fill soon. Independent trade unionists have already been subjected to witch-hunts--there are lawsuits filed against them by state and state-backed unions. But they are getting stronger despite the continued attempts to silence them.

Of course, in the last few days, the crackdown has been directed against street protesters, who aren't necessarily trade unionists. These protests have gathered a wide spectrum of Egyptians, including sons and daughters of the elite. So we have a combination of urban poor and youth, together with the middle class and the sons and daughters of the elite.

I think Mubarak has managed to alienate all sectors of society except his close circle of cronies.

THE TUNISIAN revolution has been described as very much a "youth"-led revolt, and dependent on social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter for its success. And now people are focusing on youth in Egypt as a major catalyst. Is this a "youth Intifada," and could it happen without Facebook and other new media technologies?

YES. IT'S a youth Intifada on the ground. The Internet only plays a role in spreading the word and the images about what happens on the ground. We don't use the Internet to organize. We use the Internet to publicize what we're doing on the ground, hoping to inspire others into action.

IT'S AMAZING to think about the crucial role of trade unions in the Arab world today considering more than two decades of neoliberal regimes across the region, whose primary goal has been to destroy working class solidarity. Why have unions remained so important?

UNIONS HAVE always been proven to be the silver bullet for any dictatorship. Look at Poland, South Korea, Latin America and Tunisia. Unions were always instrumental in mass mobilization. You want a general strike to overthrow a dictatorship, and there's nothing better than an independent union to do so.

IS THERE a larger ideological program behind the protests, or is it just about getting rid of Mubarak?

EVERYONE HAS his or her reasons to take to the streets, but I would assume that if our uprising became successful and he's overthrown, you'll start getting divisions. The poor will want to push the revolution to a much more radical position--to push for the radical redistribution of wealth and to fight corruption, whereas the so-called reformers, who will want to put the breaks on, and more or less lobby for change at the top, and curb the powers of state a little bit, but keep some essence of the state. But we're not there yet.

WHAT IS the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, and how will its remaining aloof from the current protests impact the situation?

THE BROTHERHOOD has been suffering from divisions since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada. Its involvement in the Palestinian solidarity movement when it came to confronting the regime was abysmal. Basically, whenever its leadership makes a compromise with the regime, especially the most recent leadership, it has demoralized its base cadres.

I know personally many young brothers who left the group. Some of them have joined other groups or remained independent. As the current street movement grows and the lower leadership gets involved, there will be more divisions, because the higher leadership can't justify why they're not part of the new uprising.

WHAT ABOUT the role of the U.S. in this conflict. How do people on the street view its positions?

MUBARAK IS the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel. He's known to be America's thug in the region, one of the tools of American foreign policy and implementing its agenda of security for Israel and the smooth flow of oil, while keeping Palestinians in line.

So it's no secret that this dictatorship has enjoyed the backing of U.S. administrations since day one, even during Bush's phony pro-democracy rhetoric. So one should not be surprised by Hillary Clinton's ludicrous statements that were more or less defending the Mubarak regime, since one of the pillars of U.S. foreign policy was to keep regimes stable at expense of freedom and civil liberties.

We don't expect anything from Obama, whom we regard as a great hypocrite. But we hope and expect the American people--trade unions, professors' associations, student unions, activist groups--to come out in support of us.

What we want of the U.S. government is to completely get out of the picture. We don't want any sort of backing--just cut aid to Mubarak immediately and withdraw backing from him, withdraw from all Middle Eastern bases and stop supporting the state of Israel.

Ultimately, Mubarak will do whatever he has to do to protect himself. He will suddenly adopt the most anti-U.S. rhetoric if he thinks that would help him save his skin. At the end of the day, he's committed to his own interests, and if he thinks the U.S. won't support him, he'll turn somewhere else.

The reality is that any really clean government that comes to power in the region will come into open conflict with the U.S. because it will call for radical redistribution of wealth and ending support for Israel or other dictatorships. So we don't expect any help from America--just to leave us alone.

First published at the Al Jazeera Web site.