'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Egypt Erupts (Part 2) 

UPDATE 3: More on the situation in Suez, from Egyptian Chronicles. Apparently, clashes between the police and the protesters are intensifying, but the army has not been called into city. Instead, people may have mistaken the uniforms of the police for those of the military, as they are reportedly similar outside Cairo. It is well worth reading the Egyptian Chronicles post in its entirety.

UPDATE 2: An excerpt from an excellent interview of International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki and Egyptian American activist Mostafa Omar by Lee Sustar:

WILL THE political demands of the protest merge with the economic demands of workers?

Mostafa: I'm not sure who put the call out for a national strike. But what happened on January 25 in the textile city of Mahalla is telling. A demonstration that started in the morning with 200 people had, by the end of the day, reached 45,000 people. I suspect a lot of workers who have been protesting want to continue demonstrating.

The other remarkable thing is that the Egyptian national trade union federation--led by people appointed by the government--has partially broken with the government in the two weeks following the Tunisian uprising. They want price controls, an increase in wages and a system of subsidized outlets for basic food. People can't find staples like tea and oil. For the union officials to demand this is unheard of, because these people supported neoliberalism. That is the impact of Tunisia.

Meanwhile, the conditions facing workers are growing worse. The official unemployment figure is 12 percent, but the real figure is 24 or 25 percent. Food prices are out of control. One kilo of tomatoes--a staple good--is $2; it used to be 35 cents not long ago. That's prohibitively expensive in a country where government workers make only about $26 a month. The question of hunger is real. And now the IMF is pressuring the government to remove the subsidies on gasoline prices.

That's a big reason why--and people in the West often miss this--there has been an increase in the workers' struggle over the last three years. Every day, there's a strike--and on the day of action, there were 12 major strikes. The government settled them right away by promising everything they wanted.

THE U.S. media focuses always on the supposed threat of "Islamic radicalism" in Egypt as in the rest of the Middle East. Is it a factor in this struggle?

Mostafa: Twice now, the Muslim Brotherhood has abstained from any call for a national strike or a national demonstration. First in 2006, and again this year, it didn't support the day of anger.

They are still the biggest political force in the country, but they refuse to enter into a confrontation with the government. It's really the workers' movement and the radical youth that are the driving force, not the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is still the main opposition party with the most clout, but it isn't behind this at all.

A lot of young people and workers coming into the movement in the last two weeks are open to democratic and socialist ideas. Even a lot of the young supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are open to a different analysis--one that doesn't just see the conflict as Islam vs. the West. On one protest, for example, an obviously religious man carried a sign that said it doesn't matter if you're Muslim or Christian, join the struggle.

That's a big change from January 1, when violent attacks on Christian churches made it seem like the country was on the verge of civil war between Muslims and Christians. Last year saw more attacks on Christian churches than any time in modern Egyptian history. But today, there are many Christians who have joined in common struggle with Muslims against the police and corrupt state, even though church leaders called on them to stay away from the protests.

All this means that there is an opening for the left--especially the socialists--to grow. There is new blood in the movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood isn't fighting. It's the left that is taking up this fight, along with new radicals.

By way of background, it is important to remember that the IS, through people like the late Chris Harman, and, probably, Ahmed Shawki as well, placed a strong emphasis upon establishing an enduring contact with the Egyptian working class. Mostafa Omar's emphasis upon public dissatisfaction with deteriorating economic conditions, and the delegitimization of governmental institutions that accompanies them, is evocative of Greek protests in late 2008 and early 2010, even if the Greek protests possessed an enduring anti-authoritarian character that, to date, has not yet clearly emerged in the current Egyptian ones.

Hat tip to t at Pink Scare

UPDATE 1 (3;27PM Pacific time): Unconfirmed reports that the Egyptian army has replaced the police on the streets of Suez, with all forms of communication shut down by the government. Meanwhile, the streets of Cairo remain unsettled.

INITIAL POST: For those of you who have Facebook accounts (and, please, now is not the time to argue the merit of it), you can go to the We Are All Khalid Said page for updates in addition to the other web sources that I provided yesterday. The most recent posts on the wall (11:42AM, Pacific time) there indicate that the protests remain intense, and that the government has yet to suppress them. For example, there are reports from Suez that the city remains under the control of protesters and that the government is using live ammunition against them. Meanwhile, other reports state that there is street fighting across central Cairo. Some express the hope that the protesters are outlasting the military and the police, who are increasingly fatigued. Of course, Lenin's Tomb, The Arabist and 3arabawy remain good sources of information as well.

And, here's the latest from The Guardian, which also provides a live blog for breaking news:

Running battles between police and anti-government protesters continued in Egypt for a second day, despite the declaration of an official ban by the government on protests and gatherings, and a massive deployment of police in the country's capital.

Riot police and plain clothes officers armed with staves and bars broke up a demonstration outside one of Cairo's biggest tourist hotels, the Ramses Hilton, on the banks of the river Nile.

Tonight groups of demonstrators and police are still playing a violent game of cat and mouse through the city centre's streets – with protesters quickly re-grouping after being broken up.

The sound of police sirens and detonating tear gas canisters could be heard across the city, in the biggest protests against the regime of 82-year-old president Hosni Mubarak in three decades.

Finally, I believe that the protests in Egypt are a good opportunity for us to recognize the false classifications that permeate media coverage of the events there. For example, there is the fact that Tunisia, where the first protests erupted, is considered North African, while Egypt is Middle Eastern, despite their close proximity to one another and their socioeconomic relationships with European countries across the Mediterranean. All three of these vague geographic classifications have stereotypes associated with them, and can lead to absurd results, as As'ad Abukhalil observed today:

Who are those people who cover the Middle East in the New York Times

Look at this sentence: Word of the broad protests in Egypt were slow to circulate here, given that Egyptian television was not reporting them. Tell the writer that every home in the Middle East is able to watch hundreds of channels, including news channels like Aljazeera which covers the entire world. How dumb is this?
Posted by As'ad at 10:30 AM

It is not hard to imagine how reporter John Leland wrote this statement given the internalization of a Eurocentric hierarchy that considers Europeans cultured, North Africans imperfectly so, after all, Tunisia, Morroco and Algeria had the purported benefit of a prolonged French imperial occupation, and Middle Easterners least so. Such a stereotype erases the social, economic and cultural cross-pollination that has occurred not only in recent decades, but over two thousand years of Mediterranean, African and Asian history. Hence, the very plausible possibility that the protests in Tunisia and Egpyt are also related to the ones in Greece is ignored, while we are still subjected to the use of that implicitly pejorative term, with its implications of otherness, emotion and irrationality, the Arab street in relation to this subject.

Apparently, the use of the term is so deeply ingrained that one incessantly encounters it everywhere, even in reports originating in the Arab and Muslim world. It appears to serve the primary purpose of foreclosing any meaningful engagement with what is actually happening in the places under discussion, as well as distancing Americans and Europeans from the aspirations of Arab and Muslim people with which they might otherwise more strongly identify. Of course, the Palestinians have been the most tragic victims in this regard. For those who accept the stereotypes associated with Arabs and Muslims, Israel remains a bastion of European civilization in an otherwise primitive world.

As already noted, there is a different way of relating to what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, one that attempts to take into account the social, cultural and economic richness of their lives, one that fully humanizes them, an approach to which I alluded in my review of Tariq Ali's recently released novel, Night of the Golden Butterfly:

One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is Ali's recognition that the adored Maoism of his youth was rooted in Han Chinese nationalism, and hence, could not ultimately provide a model for revolutionary change in the lesser developed world. Here, we hear an echo of his tragic recollection of China's realpolitik decision to align itself with Pakistan when Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) attempted to secede in 1971. Islamic rightists taunted leftists like Ali as they killed and raped the populace, shouting Chairman Mao is with us, not you! He brings this out through the Jindie, a Pakistani Chinese Muslim woman whose family emigrated to Pakistan in the late 19th Century after the Han suppression of a Muslim rebellion in Yunnan province.

Here, too, as he has done in the earlier novels of the Quintet, Ali touches a upon a theme much highlighted by anthropologists in recent decades, the mutability of ethnic identity. In The Art of Not Being Governed, James Scott describes how the hill peoples of Southeast Asia took on new identities, with changes of religion, social organization and language, seemingly at the drop of a hat in response to perils. While the course of Jindie's life is not this extreme, she is, by the end of the novel, a Pakistani Chinese Muslim who has raised a family in the US. What is she? Pakistani? Chinese? Muslim? American? Of course, the answer is that she is all of them, and more, she is, first and foremost, a woman.

Ali has publicly said that he was motivated to become a novelist by his interest in discovering what do you do in a period of defeat? His brilliance lies in his decision to excavate, contemplate and give fictional representation to this subject within the context of Islam and its relationship with Christianity and the West. But his recognition of the importance of the experiences of people like Jindie also suggests that a resurgent left will someday emerge, centered around an understanding that people have a multiplicity of identities beyond the simplistic ones imposed upon them.

Although we have yet to fully develop such an understanding, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt suggest that we may be closer to doing so that we realize, and, moreover, the more that we adopt this perspective, the more successful we will be.

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