Revolution #224, February 6, 2011
Editors’ note: As we go to press, events in Egypt are developing rapidly. Go to revcom.us for updates.
A massive and courageous uprising has erupted throughout Egypt—the most populous Arab country—with the youth at the forefront. What direction this will ultimately go, and how far, is to be determined. But this uprising already has been—and even more could be—an important element in shaking up the whole reactionary world order—giving oxygen to all those who hunger for liberation or are even dissatisfied with the way things are.
Fury: Broad and Deep
For three long, terrible decades, the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt imposed “stability” through what human rights groups have described in terms like “Egypt’s torture epidemic” directed at all kinds of opponents of the regime—and especially since the 1990s at “secular and leftist dissidents”—as well as “large numbers of ordinary citizens.” (Human Rights Watch, 2004)
But within a span of only about a week, protests emerged and then developed into a nationwide uprising involving broad swaths of society which defied tear gas, clubs and guns, and demanded an end to the regime.
The immediate chain of events began elsewhere in the Arab world. On December 17, 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street merchant, set himself on fire to protest police confiscating his fruits and vegetables. His act touched a nerve throughout Tunisia—a North African country (like Egypt) wracked by rising prices of basic survival goods and widespread unemployment. Escalating confrontations between people and the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali were violently suppressed, but waves of protest, repression, and more protest drove Ben Ali from the country on January 14. Protests continue in Tunisia as people demand all authorities connected to the Ben Ali regime must get out of the government. (See “The good news from Tunisia,” A World to Win News Service.)
The fall of Ben Ali’s brutal regime had an electrifying effect throughout the Arab world. Protests broke out throughout Algeria where, during four days of protest in early January, hundreds of people had been injured by police and at least three killed. Large-scale protests have broken out in Yemen as well—the poorest country in the region.
On January 25, Egyptian activists, organizing mostly online, seized the date of an official commemoration of the police forces. A call circulated on Facebook for a “Day of Revolution against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment” was signed by 100,000 people, with a stated goal to “end the silence and the submissiveness regarding what is happening in our country.” Thousands marched through Cairo, heading towards the offices of the ruling National Democratic Party, as well as the Foreign Ministry and the state television. Similar protests took place in towns across the country. When police fired tear gas and water cannons, demonstrators demanded “Down with Mubarak!”
Other protests on January 25 took place in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, the Nile Delta cities of Mansoura and Tanta and in the southern cities of Aswan and Assiut.
As the uprising spread, repression escalated, and in response, more protest erupted. Authorities fired tear gas and shot rubber bullets, and shut off access to Internet and text messaging services. An article in the British newspaper the Guardian reported that even before that happened, anonymous leaflets advised people to spread organizing materials “by email and photocopy, but not to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which are being monitored by the security forces.” (“Egypt Protest Leaflets Distributed in Cairo Give Blueprint for Mass Action,” UK Guardian, January 29, 2011)
In the days following January 25, protesters clashed with police in Cairo slums and in the center of the city where museums, tourist hotels, government offices and foreign embassies are located (this is the district where many of the televised protests took place). Some government and police offices were occupied or burned. Al Jazeera reported that police killed at least three protesters when they tried to storm the hated Interior Ministry—home of the repressive apparatus. The Foreign Ministry, notorious for upholding and promoting Egypt’s collaboration with Israel, including in the inhumane blockade of Gaza, was also a focus of protests.
In Mahalla al-Kobra, the center of Egypt’s textile industry, riot police fired tear gas at protesting stone-throwing workers. Conflict has been particularly fierce in the city of Suez where Egypt’s burgeoning sweatshop economy is centered—Al Jazeera reported that 11 people were killed by police there, and 170 injured.
In the sparsely populated but vast and strategic Sinai desert bordering the Gaza region of Palestine and Israel, hundreds of Bedouin tribes people and police exchanged live gunfire.
Large sections of more privileged sectors of Egyptian society have joined the protests. Al Jazeera reported that lawyers took to the streets in Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Toukh, north of Cairo. Jack Shenker, an Egypt correspondent for the Guardian, told Democracy Now! that the street protests include“middle-class people who are generally enjoying quite a comfortable standard of living... They’ve got a lot to lose, and yet they’re still being motivated to come out, to be beaten, to be hit by water cannons, to be carried off into the desert [where Egyptian police make a practice of dumping seized and brutalized protesters].” (Jack Shenker on Egypt Protests: “Fear Barrier Seems to Have Been Broken,” Democracy Now, January 27, 2011)
Speaking of the mood and significance of all this, one correspondent wrote, “As police stations and ministry of interior installations continue to burn through the night in many of Egypt’s cities, the Arab World is waking up to a new dawn. In more than 18 years of living in Cairo, I have never felt the sense of cautious hope that exists in Egypt now, particularly among young men and women who feel that for the first time in their lives they may actually be able to determine their own destinies.” (“Egyptian Youth And New Dawn Hopes,” by Firas Al-Atraqchi, Al Jazeera, January 29, 2011)
On Friday, January 28, after three days of upheaval, Mubarak took to the airwaves to attempt to strike a conciliatory tone. He sacked his cabinet (a move he has done in the past) but refused to step down. He defended the massive violent suppression of protests by claiming, “the way police forces dealt with our youth” was “taking initiative to protect them ... before those protests turned into riots that threaten the system and obstruct the daily life of citizens.” He promised “more speed in halting unemployment and enhancing living conditions, fighting poverty and standing firmly against corruption.” But his essential message was an ominous threat to “defend Egypt’s safety and stability.”
As the uprising has spread, forces who at first stood on the sidelines, ranging from the banned but large Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to former UN weapons inspector Mohamed El-Baradei entered the fray, joining the protests.
And as we go to press, the Egyptian army has been deployed in the streets, and the situation remains extremely tense throughout Egypt.
A Society With No Future for Youth
The median age in Egypt is 24, with a third of the population under the age of 15. Young people, even those with the means to higher education, see no future for themselves. According to the World Bank, the highest rate of unemployment in the country is among college graduates. Visitors to Egypt frequently find themselves surprised to find the young man selling phone cards on the streets or the young woman behind the desk at a tourist hotel holds an advanced degree from a European university.
And this situation is framed by a society wracked with poverty. While a small elite tied to the regime lives in luxury, official government figures put Egypt’s poverty rate in 2010 at 23.4 percent, up from 20 percent the previous year. At the same time, people have been hit with skyrocketing food prices. In the last six months, the price of tomatoes (an essential part of Egyptian meals) has jumped six-fold. Meat and poultry prices have doubled.
In smog-choked Cairo—home to eight million Egyptians—five million people live in sprawling slums, often without access to basic services like clean water, sanitation and electricity.
The U.S. Role & the Israel Connection
Just after Mubarak’s speech was denounced throughout Egyptian society as empty promises and ominous threats, U.S. President Obama took to the airwaves to say he had just gotten off the phone with Mubarak. Obama’s speech seemed formulated to appear to sympathize with the Egyptian people, while attempting to create a pathway to credibility for the regime, and positioning the U.S. to have credibility and room to maneuver if Mubarak is driven from office.
Obama framed his comments by noting the U.S.’s “close partnership with Egypt…including working together to advance a more peaceful region.” That “close partnership” was forged when Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the “Camp David Agreement” in 1978, under the sponsorship of the U.S. That treaty marked a major turning point in the Middle East—basically guaranteeing Israel would not face off militarily against the most populous country in the Middle East in return for the U.S. cementing the Sadat (and later Mubarak) regime into power with enormous amounts of military aid.
The Camp David agreement provided invaluable freedom for Israel to continue and intensify the oppression of the Palestinian people, and to serve the interests of U.S. imperialism in the region. (For background on Israel and its role in the region and the world, see “Bastion of Enlightenment or Enforcer for Imperialism: The Case of Israel.”) In short, it was a shameful, indeed, criminal betrayal of the Palestinian people—one whose spirit and direction Mubarak has continued and deepened.
In both its ensnarement in the economic tentacles of global capitalism, and its political and military role as a regional bulwark of Western and especially U.S. interests, Egypt is an oppressed nation in which U.S. imperialism ultimately and sometimes very directly determines the relations and lives of the people. Over the past two decades, Egypt has been the second largest recipient of U.S. military “aid,” much of which goes to the military, or is channeled into buying the loyalty of a section of the corrupt elite. Egypt’s economic “development”—the sweatshops of Suez, the tourist-based economy, and the operation and functioning of the strategic Suez Canal—are driven by capital from foreign imperialists. And Egypt’s political and military role in collaborating with Israel and its suppression of the Palestinians is dictated by the interests of U.S. imperialism.
The chains of imperialist domination can only be ruptured by breaking Egypt out of the whole global network and system of imperialism. This requires, and can be carried out, through a new-democratic revolution, which is the first stage of proletarian-led socialist revolution in an oppressed nation, and part of the world communist revolution aimed at ending all oppression and exploitation worldwide.
Great Potential … Great Challenges
A new generation of Arab youth has announced that it is fed up and ready to die to make a change in how society is governed. Quite naturally there are many different ideas among them as to what kind of change is needed. That’s a very good thing! A whole process has just begun, through which people begin to learn about the world as they transform it.
There are many dangerous pitfalls to traverse on the road to come...but just what has happened thus far—this courageous standing up on a mass scale—is a major accomplishment and major development in its own right.
Real revolutions—profound and foundational changes in the essential nature of a society—do not arise spontaneously from uprisings (see sidebar: “A Profound Lesson...And A Deep Challenge”). But the kind of upsurge rocking Egypt, and spreading throughout the Arab world, can be a major ingredient in sparking revolutionary sentiments and strengthening the impulse toward revolutionary organization.
A challenge has been issued by the courageous youth of Egypt. Everyone who wants to see another way brought forward in this world of oppression is called upon to support them politically. One important way is to get this issue of Revolution out broadly in society—so people can learn the truth about what is really going on. It would be a serious mistake to underestimate how something like this is changing the thinking of people, even within the U.S., who up to yesterday thought any real change was impossible.
This is also a moment to distribute and promote Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, widely—to let people know, both from that part of the world as well as everyone else whose ears have been perked up to hear the sounds of liberation, that the only, very possible and profoundly liberating, answer to this madness is the communist revolution and to let them know what communist revolution actually is.
From demonstrations against U.S. attempts to suppress the uprising in Egypt, to forums—formal ones or street-corner gatherings—there is an opening to reach out to people with the real solution to all this, even as we unite with people to resist U.S. and Israeli attempts to prop up Mubarak and/or in other ways sidetrack and/or repress the struggle. There is a moment to reach out extremely broadly to those who are inspired by this upsurge—to hear their sentiments, to learn from their experience and how they are seeing things, and to let them know about and connect them with the movement for the complete emancipation of humanity from all chains of oppression—the movement for revolution and communism.
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