Achievements of the revolution in Egypt

April 4, 2011

International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki, who was in Cairo during the uprising, looks at the struggle that shook Egypt--and what changes are still to come. This article is based on a talk given at Left Forum in New York City on March 20.

I'M GOING to start by telling one of my favorite Egyptian jokes, and I do so with the acknowledgement that humor in Egyptian culture has for a very long time played a critical political role.

Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose regime lasted from the overthrow of the monarchy and colonialism in 1952 until his death in 1970, the secret police would literally go to cafés to listen to the jokes people were telling as a gauge of the degree of political support for the regime. That continued in more brutal forms under Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser, and then Mubarak, who came to power after Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

The joke goes like this: Nasser, after he came to power and spent a few years pushing aside his rivals and ruling with an iron fist, decided that he needed, as the Godfather films put it, a "buffer"--something standing between him and the mass of the population, on whom he could place responsibility for anything that went wrong.

Nasser searched the country, understanding that the buffer would have to be someone of lesser intellect, someone with narrower horizons, someone with--as the saying goes--not too many ideas to rub together. So he scoured the country and finally came up with Anwar Sadat.

Masses of protesters filling Cairo's Tahrir Square
Masses of protesters filling Cairo's Tahrir Square (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

Sadat, of course, in his turn, accumulated authority into his hands, got rid of his opponents and realized a few years into the process that he needed a buffer. So he scoured the country, looking for someone of slightly lesser intellect, of lower horizons, with even fewer ideas to rub together. And he finally came up with Hosni Mubarak.

Hosni Mubarak then became president. He accumulated power into his own hands and after a few years realized he needed a buffer. So he searched the country for someone of lesser intellect, with even narrower horizons. And he's been searching ever since.

The connection between that joke and the revolution in Egypt today is this: We've seen the removal of the head, and now we're left with the buffer--the old order around Mubarak that is trying to reassert authority. There is, in other words, a process of change taking place that doesn't end with Mubarak's overthrow.

But it can't be underestimated how transformed the situation is already. I'll describe that with an anecdote: Last night, I went to a shop I always go to in New York to get a pack of cigarettes. An Egyptian across the counter sold them to me, and I said, "Mabrouk"--meaning "congratulations." Mubarak may not be quite gone, but he's on lockdown in Sharm el-Sheikh. The man said to me--and I believe this represents a majority of Arab people--"This is our time. Everything has changed for us."

Now, I start with a man selling cigarettes in New York City, because this is the same city that in 2001 saw an attack that produced a wave of organized anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that had repercussions all over the Western world, and military repercussions in the Middle East.

What we're seeing now is the undoing, psychologically and politically, of that cycle. We're seeing a process in the Middle East that has the potential to lead to the undoing of the U.S.-led order that was imposed on the Middle East.

This is the broader significance of the Egyptian revolution that extends beyond the events of Tahrir Square. Remember that the oil empire was created before the Second World War and imposed across the Middle East. When nationalist movements in the Middle East attempted to challenge the domination of the imperialist powers, there was an attempt to deflate and defeat them--this was the concerted aim of American policy.

That's becoming unstuck. It came unstuck first in Tunisia, and since then, it flashed across the Arab world in a process that is still going on.

IT IS very important that people understand that revolutions do not simply mean advance from one day to success the next. Instead, the process that took place in Egypt involved daily, if not hourly, political shifts, struggles, battles setbacks, advances and on and on.

This was the character, even from the first day of the revolution in Egypt, when the demonstrations began on January 25. It wasn't a foregone conclusion that events would lead to the occupation of Tahrir Square. Or that people would come out the second day. There was a battle all the time for the hearts and minds of the people, and for mobilization and organization.

This is important to understand in considering the future of the revolution. Has one class been replaced by the other? No, Egypt is still a capitalist society. Has the old regime been completely dismantled? No. But there are very few instances in history that I can remember the scale of popular and mass mobilizations that we saw across Tunisia and across Egypt, just in the sheer numbers of participants alone.

Just think about the language that's used. In Egypt, the movement to overthrow Mubarak is described as an 18-day struggle, from when the demonstrations started January 25 until he fell on February 11. Set that against his years in power--31 years--and you begin to see the scale of what's taken place so quickly. And that's not to even talk about the return of a pride and dignity among people who feel they are mobilized and have a role to play in determining the future of their own country. So we shouldn't underestimate the change that is taking place.

This is a wave of struggle that's spreading beyond Egypt, of course. I'll use one particular issue of one newspaper issue to illustrate this--the Financial Times on February 24, which is almost two weeks after Mubarak left office. On page A5 of this issue, you find a story on a general strike in Greece, the eighth one in 10 months against austerity measures imposed by the PASOK government. Now you might think that's a little buried--except that on page A4 is a report on India and the biggest demonstrations in memory against unemployment.

So this is the picture that you get not just in Egypt, but in many countries around the world. You have the compare the situation, especially in Egypt, but not only there, to the definition of the circumstances when revolution becomes a possibility--that the old order can't continue in the same way that it was organized, nor are masses of the population willing to tolerate it without a fight.

The important thing to determine whether that fight continues and grows is whether people remain mobilized. And this is an important aspect of the experience of Egypt--which is the fact that one mobilized, people aren't easily demobilized. It took only 18 days for Mubarak to be pushed aside. But since then, there has been a struggle for Egypt's future that is taking many, many forms.

That can be seen in any newspaper you pick up in Egypt today. Take this story in the Daily News Egypt, with the headline "Military prosecution released 27 detained at Lazoghly." This article is about a mass demonstration that took place on March 6 in the middle of Cairo against Egypt's state security apparatus--what took place was tens of thousands of people surrounded the headquarters of the state security forces, and then attempted, as other protesters had in other Egyptian cities, to raid the building and remove its secret files.

This has been another step forward for the Egyptian revolution, and it came at the beginning of March at a time when it wasn't clear whether the military was succeeding in restoring calm. Instead, people across Egypt attacked the headquarters of the security apparatus and took away the files. They've discovered that state security was involved in the murder of Egyptian actors and actresses abroad. They discovered that state security was behind the instigation and the systematic enflaming of tensions between Muslims and Christian Copts. They discovered who had been spying on them. They discovered who was torturing them.

This represents more proof that when people are mobilized, it is difficult to demobilize them. But at the same time, we know that the imperialist order will try to do everything in its power to contain what's going on in the Middle East.

HERE, WE have to say something about Libya, because in my estimation, what began in Tunisia and moved to Egypt also sparked Libya and the other conflagrations across the Middle East.

There has been a common script in these uprisings that goes something like this: The dictator says, "I'm not a dictator." And the mobilizations grow larger. He unleashes the secret police or the regular police or the army against the demonstrations. The demonstrators fight back, there's a power struggle, and the demonstrations win out. The dictator says, "I will grant some reforms, even though I'm not a dictator." And the demonstrations get bigger. Finally, he says, "I will never step down!" Which is usually the day before he announces he's stepping down.

That worked in the first two examples of Tunisia and Egypt. But then somebody drew a line, and that somebody was Muammar el-Qaddafi. He was one of the few remaining supporters of Hosni Mubarak, along with Saudi Arabia, the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Drawing the line for Qaddafi means not giving an inch, and instead drowning the country in blood--which is what he's been doing.

Today, the West is bombing Libya as its way of getting a foothold back into the Middle East. We oppose that war on Libya because we know it isn't for its stated "humanitarian" reasons and because Western intervention will make it harder for the struggle for democracy to prevail.

But at the same time, we must have nothing whatsoever to do with a defense of the Libyan regime--and we should join all those who support the people of the Middle East getting rid of their dictators.

But there is a broader question and concern about the revolutionary wave in the Middle East, which is what will replace the old dictators. This is obviously an issue for the Western powers, but there is also hesitation and questioning among some on the left. For example, what about the Muslim Brotherhood? What about Islam? What if the revolutions turn into another Iran?

These questions and hesitations on the left are misplaced. Self-determination used to be a given on the left. It should be a given again--especially when millions engage themselves in a process of their own liberation, as they have in Egypt and Tunisia and beyond. We should not be the people to say that we have a checklist of the things you need to pass by us before you deserve self-determination.

I have a very clear point of view on what kind of future would be best for the mass of Egyptians. I think it would be one that rejects U.S. petrodollars and U.S. domination of its region. I also think that it would be one that rejects a capitalist society that has impoverished the majority of the populations, while enriching a minority.

That struggle is the struggle taking place in Egypt that many people are looking to today. But we can also say that our task here is to give our support to these movements that are fighting against dictatorship--as a condition of the struggle for emancipating ourselves in this country.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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