Mubarak unleashes thugs

The masses need to arm themselves and win over soldiers to their side, writes Eddie Ford

With events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world still moving rapidly, the 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak continues to cling onto power like a limpet. Inspired by the mass revolt in Tunisia which within days forced the dictator Ben Ali to flee the country, millions are demanding that Mubarak goes.

Of course, it is not just Mubarak the masses want rid of, but the entire regime and all those associated with it. The same is true of the Tunisian masses who continue to resist the post-Ali 'unity' government that is stuffed with figures from the political-military establishment. More than that, what we are clearly witnessing in Egypt - no matter what the eventual outcome - is the beginnings of a democratic revolution from below which seeks, albeit in an inchoate way, to sweep away the current state-governmental system in Egypt.

This was made more than obvious by the 'million man march' on February 1, when some 250,000 people (of both sexes) converged on Cairo's Tahrir Square - with an equivalent demonstration in Alexandria, Egypt's second city. In what was the largest protest gathering in living memory, widely reported by various mainstream journalists as having the atmosphere of a "festival" or "carnival", the masses vented their hatred for Mubarak and his cronies - chanting out in unison, "The people demand the fall of the regime" and "Mubarak must go now".

The anti-Mubarak uprising is made up of Egyptians of all religions and denominations - and those of none. A real rainbow coalition, if you like. That is, except for the wilfully blind, the mass movement is not some attempted power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood or some other such Islamist group. Indeed, all the evidence points to the MB being to a large extent left behind by events - it is certainly unable to exert control or leadership over the uprising, doubtlessly to its frustration. The masses are not looking to the Islamic Republic of Iran or anything like it as an example that they want to emulate - why swap one tyranny for another?

The high spirits and confidence in Cairo was largely attributable to the announcement by the army that it would not use force against the demonstrators - the top brass saying they recognised the "legitimacy" of the people's demands. In other words, the army appears to have distanced itself from Mubarak and is not prepared to openly defend him. Not that this means that the army is for democracy - of course not. But the generals are clearly worried about keeping their own privileges and cannot fully rely on the soldiers they command. Would the rank and file be prepared to open fire on the protestors that have been fraternising with them?

So the regime is splintering. That explains the decision by the leadership of Mubarak's National Democratic Party to unleash thousands of thugs onto the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Paid a pittance, many lumpen elements are nevertheless prepared to march with pro-Mubarak slogans and attack his enemies with stones, sticks and Molotov cocktails. Quite clearly, however, this is a desperate move; though it might allow the army to intervene by claiming that it wants to restore peace and keep the two factions apart. But Mubarak's days are clearly numbered. International support is draining away. Interestingly in this respect the Socialist International expelled the NDP from its ranks on January 31 - its past affiliation says all you need to know about the SI (to which, of course, the Labour Party in Britain also belongs). As for the hated police force - a brutal band of torturers and extortionists, especially the paramilitary Central Security Forces - they are back on the streets. Hence the working class and its allies need to hit back by combining mass demonstrations with a general strike and the formation of a popular militia. Only if the masses are armed themselves can rank-and-file soldiers be won.

They also need to arm themselves with a correct political programme. No faith should be placed in the cross-class politics which unite the left with the Nasserites, New Wafd and Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian Communist Party says that the revolution "will continue until the demands of the masses are achieved", but it wants to reconcile those demands with the setting up of a "presidential council" and a "coalition government" with liberal, bourgeois and outright reactionary parties (ECP statement). On the contrary, a provisional government needs to be born of a complete, far-reaching revolution, which puts power in the hands of those below - ie, the workers and small farmers - not a rotten deal with the army, the bureaucracy, big business and the mosque.

Time's up

Ruling class divisions, in Egypt and internationally, have opened up a huge space for popular initiative. Mubarak's sponsors in the west have concluded - though very reluctantly - that he must go and go soon. Hence the talk suddenly emanating from Washington about the "legitimate demands" of the Egyptian people, etc. A theme subsequently taken up by David Cameron, who, speaking in parliament, insisted that the transition needs to be "rapid and credible and it needs to start now".

Obama has sent a special envoy to Cairo, a former US ambassador to Egypt - the rumour is to give Mubarak his marching orders personally. But Mubarak is intent hanging on - for the moment. He still hopes to weather the storm. He has claimed that he had always been planning to quit in September - just that, you understand, he had never made that position "public until now". However, he will not go before that. Mubarak boasts that he had "exhausted" his life "serving Egypt and my people" and "will die on the soil of Egypt" - an obvious reference to Ben Ali, who is now residing in Saudi Arabia. Whether gracefully or not, Mubarak finished his TV address in a defiant, finger-wagging way by attacking the protestors for being "manipulated by political forces" that wanted to cause "mayhem and chaos" and endanger the "stability of the nation". Old autocratic habits die hard, it seems.

Too little, too late though. That is how the people in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt saw it, now chanting "Irhal!" (Go!) and "We will not leave! He will leave!" Reuters reports one protestor as saying that Mubarak's pledge to go in September was "useless" and "only inflames our anger". Similarly, former United Nations weapons inspector and the west's favourite opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei - who joined the crowds in Tahrir Square - dismissed Mubarak's offer to eventually leave office as no more than a "trick" to stay in power.

Despite that, the leader of the Wafd and Tagammu parties say they are prepared to negotiate with Mubarak. Traitors - and they are denounced as such by others, not least the MB. There should be no dialogue, no deals with the Mubarak government. Instead preparations need to be made for a nationwide insurrection, which alone can sweep away the hated regime.

Self-evidently, Mubarak and his regime are utterly despised by the overwhelming majority of Egyptians. The contrast with Abdel Nasser's Egypt could not be greater. Though Egypt under Nasser was hardly a democracy, let alone 'socialist' (more an authoritarian, state-capitalist bureaucracy, which crushed dissent to its left or right: eg, the Muslim Brotherhood) it still retained mass support through the perception that it was acting in the interest of the masses, whether it be nationalising the Suez Canal or standing up to Israel militarily (even if it did get creamed each time). But Mubarak's Egypt is the exact reverse, seen by the masses as a state for others - principally the US, Israel, France, the UK and a tiny sprinkling of home-grown neoliberal nouveaux riches. An everyday living insult, and humiliation, to ordinary Egyptians and the very idea of pan-Arabism in general. Therefore the explosion of anger and hatred, which had always been there, bubbling away underneath the surface of Egyptian society, just waiting for a spark to ignite a mass uprising. And, of course, that spark was Tunisia.


Now the 'Tunisian effect' has become the Egyptian domino - or so the regional powers and imperialism fear, for good reason. The beginning of the week saw a militant wave of mass protests hit seemingly sleepy Jordan, with thousands of opposition activists ranging from Islamist groups to trade unionists gathering in the capital - waving banners demanding the jailing of corrupt officials and politicians.

Poverty and unemployment is now endemic in Jordan, with about 25% of the population out of work. The main demand of the demonstrators was for the resignation of the loathed prime minister, Samir Rifai - who is blamed for a steep rise in fuel and food prices and for obstructing political and democratic reforms. Panicked, feeling the heat of revolution coming from Tunisia and Egypt, King Abdullah II promptly sacked the entire government - not just Rifai - and instructed the new prime minister-designate, Marouf al-Bakhit, to "undertake quick and tangible steps for real political reforms", which "reflect our vision for comprehensive modernisation and development in Jordan".

The same story goes for Yemen - only more so, if anything. Over the last few days tens of thousands have demonstrated in Sanaa, calling for the removal of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who just like Mubarak has been in office for the last 30 years (becoming leader of North Yemen in 1978, then ruler of the 'unified' Republic of Yemen in 1990 and eventually the first president of the 'reunified' republic in 1999). Chanting "Time for change", ordinary Yemenis have been infuriated - leaving aside the grinding poverty they have to endure - by parliament's attempts to relax the rules on presidential term limits and by the suspicion that Saleh, in what is now an unfortunate tradition in the Arab world, is trying to hand over power to his eldest son, Ahmed.

Tunisia. Egypt, Jordan, Yemen: all in the grip of crisis, all shaky, all ripe for revolution. Who next - Saudi Arabia, the ultimate nightmare for the west?

Yes, the democratic contagion is spreading across the Arab world. Over the last few days, we have heard fine, sanctimonious, pro-democracy words from the likes of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, William Hague, etc - something of a recent conversion with regard to the Middle East, it does have to be said. But in reality they fear the prospect of real democracy and people power coming to the region, so the likes of Tony Blair (supposed 'peace envoy' to the Middle East) are raising the bogeyman of "extremists" gaining control in Egypt - usually interpreted as code for the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists, but the label would also be stuck on any anti-imperialist force, not least one under the hegemony of the working class. The need to prevent such an eventuality is why there has be a "managed" or "orderly" transfer in Egypt, which defuses the masses and essentially gives power back to the ancien régime (minus a few faces).

By definition, a Middle East where the masses rather than despots started to exert power would be one that was much harder to control - far less subservient to imperialism and its interests. Certainly one, to put it mildly, that would not accept the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people. A free Egypt, as part of a pan-Arab revolution that rages across the entire region, would challenge the hegemony of Israel - which at the moment is a regional super-power acting, in the last analysis, as a Middle East outpost or garrison for imperialism. No wonder that Jerusalem is extremely alarmed by the Egyptian uprising, calling upon the US and Europe to "curb their criticism" of Mubarak so as to preserve "stability" in the region - ie, maintain the status quo which so favours Israel. "The Americans and the Europeans are being pulled along by public opinion and aren't considering their genuine interests", complained one senior Israeli official - going on to say that the "abandoning" of Mubarak will have "very serious implications" (Ha'aretz January 31). Israel wants to remain the only 'democracy' in the Middle East, so as to keep the Palestinian and Arab masses boxed in and subdued - hence little or no threat to Zionist supremacism. Welcome to the democracy of oppressors.

First Tunisia and then Egypt have shown us the incendiary nature of pan-Arabism. Some comrades on the revolutionary left call for a "socialist federation of the Middle East", or some other such approximate formulation. A worthy, but abstract slogan, with no political dynamic behind it. Rather what goes with the grain of history is the unity of the Arab nation - the question being which class will take the lead?