Safi Shams grew up in Israel and recently completed his master’s degree research on the 19th century American industrial revolution at UML. He shares his observations on events in Egypt and Tunisia as of two days ago:
The recent events at Egypt and Tunisia echo similar themes and emanate from similar motivations: skyrocketing unemployment, starvation (especially in the case of Egypt), autocracy and dictatorship without an expiration date. However, have no illusions that protests are – in contrast to how they are often represented by mainstream media and, well, mainstream people!– eventually about material needs as well as political ones. The idea that this is a “North African or Arab-specific problem” of political corruption and ruthless, uneducated leaders is nothing but a pseudo notion. If they are really fighting about “free speech”, then they should have stopped by now – these protests were full of speech and “venting”! It is all these factors combined.
The scale of these protests is unprecedented – in Egypt, the largest protests before the current ones took place in 1977 for example, when the IMF-mandated hikes in food prices drove many to starvation; or the one resulting from the recent fires in Russia that raised the price of wheat, mobilizing protesters waving loaves of bread in the streets (Yes! A fire in Russia, not a speech by Obama!). The idea that some slaphappy service like Twitter or Facebook are behind such uprising are as obscure as claiming that Obama’s speech in Cairo moved the masses into action. So, one main point to keep in mind here: people are not robots, unquestionably absorbing catalysts and mobilizations, regardless whether the “mobilizers” are the Muslim Brotherhood, Obama, or some green-revolution-stop-war-I-love-the-world upper middle class activist! Catalysts are appropriated ideas, and just as consumption needs money, appropriation needs tools: fundamentalism needs knowledge of religion, “green” activism requires knowledge about environmental decline along with a “what to do” package and so on.
In both Tunisia and Egypt labor unions and labor activists independent from unions were at the front of the demonstration, more so in Tunisia though. A Tunisian professor, Mohsen AlGhreibi, told “Elbadil”: “attention seems to be fixed upon all parties previously unrecognized.” These include “Al Nahda”, ONE party with a declared Islamist agenda. The rest include The Nationalist Movement, The Communist Worker’s Party, AlWatad (a democratic-socialist party), AlMod (a Maoist party) and more! Although some of these parties have been in existence for decades, the fact that they were not recognized under the recent regime caused their activities to be covert; hence their performance in the open political arena is yet to be seen.
The case is similar in Egypt, although unions do not have a semi-independent federated structure as they do in Tunisia; In other words, unionists in Egypt are backed by the government to replace the independent unionists who were severely prosecuted, facing long-term imprisonments. Live ammunition used against striking workers at the steel mills in the late 80s and early 90s was not unrepeated by the Egyptian government. However, the fact remains that despite the state’s attempts to control unions in Egypt, they still manage to organize strikes –often independently from unions. The textile city of Malha is a good example here, with a large population of workers regularly protesting their work conditions. Strikes at Malha and cities like Suez, among operators of the Suez Canal, were among the mass-protests as well.
In Egypt, thanks to Mubarak’s U.S.-backed iron fist, no opposition was left, and the leadership of the secular left that started crumbling since Gamal Abdel Nasser (a champion of the Non Aligned Movement and a secular-leftist leader) was severely prosecuted and reduced to practically nothing. Hence, since Mubarak was indiscriminately a dictator and a neo-liberalist with a carrot, we see alliances in Egypt between the labor party and the Muslim Brotherhood – both oppressed under Mubarak and united against him. This might seem absurd, given the radically different agendas led by both parties, yet we must remember that such a dictatorship breeds precisely that: fundamentalism that feeds on poverty!
“AlShaab”, the newspaper issued by the Egyptian Labor Party (whose activities were “frozen” by the Egyptian government in 2000; its leader imprisoned), voices several concerns against Mubarak’s oppressive regime. Unemployment, class hegemony, and political freedom among them. However, one can clearly see how the party celebrates an Islamist-nationalist portfolio. As with other labor parties (also in Tunis), uncritical pro-American and Israeli alliances are unquestionably repudiated. Commenting on the current events, the party calls for preserving the “national Islamic identity” of the revolution – yet we can easily see that the current events are not under this or that party per se.
Reactions of governments, especially Israel and the U.S., voice various concerns. They are not only concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt is also a main supplier of natural gas to Israel. Companies such as Isramko fear a hike in prices of natural gas, which will of course threaten their market performance. In fact some Egyptian sources claim that Egypt has been exporting cement to Israel who is obviously building cement-intensive walls and settlements. Additionally, some fears in Israel were voiced regarding the value of the NIS as the outcome of an investors-panic in the region. Also let us not forget the panic over the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest waterways, to which the U.S. has unrestricted, guaranteed access under Mubarak’s government, and through which most goods and oil shipped to Europe pass (Canal workers, as already mentioned, have been striking for a while and clashing with the authorities).
The first stock market to be affected by the Egyptian riots was the Saudi Arabian, tumbling over six points in the second day of the unrests. However, U.S. and other investors were affected as well. Additionally, there are close ties between the U.S. and Egyptian armies; Egypt is the largest recipient of US aid after Israel; U.S. military bases are spread on Egyptian soil and have launched several operations from there; and the list goes on… here, then, lies the hypocrisy: support a dictator, and pontificate about democracy at the same time! Other concerns claim that a democracy might hand the power to some fundamentalist group: something like “What if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election as did Hamas in Gaza?” Well, why whine about “accepting the other” and “voicing minorities” if this is not what we want? Why are members of the KKK and Tea Party allowed to vote but not “communists” in America (who were extremely prosecuted even during the so-called civil-rights movement!). Of course we do not want a fundamentalist government in Egypt or elsewhere, but what if this U.S.-backed regime with brutally elitist economic and social policies is the prefect fertilizer for fundamentalism? I’ll get back to this point later, for now let us keep in mind that economic necessity and fundamentalism are perfect lovers: in Cairo and in Gaza, fundamentalists provide jobs, schools, books and more!
As I said earlier, it is clear that the events are moved by economic necessities. Already in the World Economic Forum, where leaders are enjoying relative relief from the press, fears of the unrests extending due to the continuous increase in the prices of commodities are slowly creeping. Ironically, the so called “green revolution” has increased the demand for bio-fuel through ethanol producing grains, which increased the demand beyond what can be supplied to both needs; food and fuel production that is. Peter Barback, chairman of Nestle, warned governments from the excessive support for bio-fuels: it’s either food or fuel, he implied (Haaretz). Here is another remarkable revelation: to satisfy the bourgeois “green-revolution”, working classes go into starvation. My point is not to degrade the value of alternative energy, but here is what I am degrading: the utopian premise that small modifications here and there can achieve a “noble goal” (in this case bio-fuels and green energy) under the same system. I don’t think so.
The beauty of the events in Egypt lies in the exposure of the hypocrisy of the “disseminators” of democracy: on Tunisia, Obama showed “support” for the movement (well, since Zen ElAbedin was no longer needed, really, in the region); when it came to Egypt, a week after, he choked – “Oops! Not you…” Obama refrained from commenting on the events, when he did it was rather ambiguous and hesitatingly supportive of Mubarak. Relax, Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister said it for you! For Netanyahu, it would be great to have neighboring democracies “because democracies do not initiate wars” (Time, Jan 28th). “Having said that,” he continues, “I’m not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process.” Needless to say, this does not represent Israelis, Americans and so on (for instance there was a demonstration in Israel in front of the Egyptian Embassy, supporting the protesters in Egypt). Yet the notion expressed by Netanyahu that these people are not “ready” for democracy (whatever that means) is incredibly dominant among both mainstream and “liberal” parties, including all “Obamaptimistics” who assumed that Obama charmed the people of Egypt yet “they’re not ready.” John McCain, on Fox News, called the Middle-East protests “a spreading virus” that must be stopped; “Obamaptimistics” cheer for democracy but, well, not for everyone. Here is what both sides (along with Israel, Mubarak’s government and their like) really fear: a secular-leftist movement! In fact, in the long term, they love religious fundamentalism (it is, eventually, their creation!). Examples are endless of course: Hamas in Gaza was initially created by Israel (this is not a conspiracy theory, but a fact declared by Israel quite comfortably!) to break the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which had a socialist-secular agenda. AlQaida as we know very well was initially created by the CIA (Ben Laden as the leader etc.). In fact, Afghanistan, considered today the hub for religious fundamentalism and extremism, used to be a communist, secular country just a few decades ago.
Now in case all this does not ring a bell, please allow me to ring it gently: Fundamentalism, regardless in what religion, is completely reliant on the disappearance of the secular left! And Egypt is no exception. Lower-income working classes nearly in all cases adopt either fundamentalism (and by that I include the Tea Party, KKK, and the far-right in America; along with the English Defense League in Britain; along with Muslim Brotherhood; and along with Zionism in Israel). Was it a coincidence that the vacuum resulting from the disappearance of the secular-left in America, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere was filled by some form of fundamentalism? Or that, in the case of America, the so-called liberal ideology (or center-left) became restricted to middle and upper-middles classes? Can’t we see any consistency between material conditions (education, income and so forth) and political orientation? Where the secular-left is brutally prosecuted -as it was in America, Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan, and the list is long…- fundamentalism grows, and unfortunately justifies atrocities to “restore democracy” and so forth. In Tunisia, where a very high percentage of the population is educated and secular, we can clearly see the absence of radical Islam.
We are right to worry about who is going to take over after Mubarak, since he made sure that all opposition (especially the secular-leftist ones) be obliterated. However, we must bear in mind that nothing worse than Mubarak’s regime can happen to the Egyptians: the extreme inequality he created fed the Muslim Brotherhood all the better. Yes, there might be a violent transition, but more equal conditions and the revival of the secular left in Egypt that might succeed the unrests will inevitably pave the way for the gradual absence of fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism, let us not forget, is the most readily adoptable ideology being available through quite informal traditions. Just think self-critically for a moment: when did you start caring about “fair-trade” coffee, understood the vitality of national health-care, started caring about the environment, and took a stand against religious fundamentalism and say the Tea Party? Didn’t you need some form of education to do so? Well, not everyone has that: and this is where economic inequality comes in!
While it is crucial not to confirm with the mainstream depiction of events as strictly pertaining to “Islam” or any other religion, it is equally important not to be attracted by a whining, reactionary tone that focuses on repudiating the depiction of Islam as “evil”. Again, the danger here is placing “Islam”, “nationality” where it doesn’t belong: placing it at the core of the events while it clearly isn’t! Hence reinforcing exactly what the mainstream media is doing: talking about Islam, Islamism, Arab culture, and perhaps Twitter!
Both the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes relied quite desperately on “cosmetic” changes that attempt to increase the inclusion of opposition – simply expanding the ruling, “restricted circle”. So far, these have not worked, especially in Tunis. Committees known as “popular links” are forming in Tunisia, including many members who were never involved in politics before. These committees are aiming at sustaining the “goals of the revolution” in the case of a quick transition. However, to what extent they can influence the transition, and what legal authorities they have remain unknown. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the U.S. seems to be seeking deals with the army, who remain ostensible neutral. This is what we need to fear: a pseudo-change occurring in both countries. Then, I would say, start worrying about fundamentalism.
On Tunisia, AlGhreibi (the professor quoted above) makes a good point, claiming that “cosmetic” changes of pseudo-democracy will not work, since corruption is “labor intensive”: it is eventually a large network of tacitly compliant white collar bureaucrats – the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt lost that! However, alternative regimes that extinguish the protests but change nothing are still possible, and again, that should be our fear.
 “Interview with Hossam el-Hamalawy” Jan 27th 2011, http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/01/201112792728200271.html
 http://www.calcalist.co.il/markets/articles/0,7340,L-3499481,00.html; http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4020834,00.html
 “Interview with Hossam el-Hamalawy” Jan 27th 2011, http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/01/201112792728200271.html
 Associated Press, “Saudi exchange tumbles on Egypt protests” Jan 28th, 2011 http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hBM3tiQv9RM7JL2mWXCVKyGYy58w?docId=c53a4b198806456b8f57862de66e927f ; “Saudi shares tumble on Egypt protests”, The Telegraph Jan 29th, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/markets/8290237/Saudi-shares-tumble-on-Egypt-protests.html ;
 – “Calling for Restraint, Pentagon Faces Test of Influence With Ally” NY Times, Jan 29 2011. < http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/world/middleeast/30military.html?_r=2&hp
With Egypt, Diplomatic Words Often Fail” NY Times Jan 29th 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/weekinreview/30cooper.html?hp=&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=2&adxnnlx=1296939627-4MnBSAHEdNAwhTYwuF73Gw
 “How Much for the Basics?” January 25th 2011, the World Economic Forum http://www.weforum.org/sessions/summary/how-much-basics?fo=1
 “World leaders frightened by food inflation amid Mideast unrest” January 27th 2011 http://english.themarker.com/world-leaders-frightened-by-food-inflation-amid-mideast-unrest-1.339597
 “Why fear the Arab revolutionary spirit? The western liberal reaction to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia frequently shows hypocrisy and cynicism” by Slavoj Zizek, Feb 1st, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/01/egypt-tunisia-revolt