Unity is only temporary
The anti-Mubarak coalition will break apart once alternative political and economic interests are presented, writes Yassamine Mather
The dramatic events unfolding in the Arab world will have long-lasting effects on the political and economic situation of the region and beyond. In Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen we are witnessing uprisings against dictators who have been in power for over 30 years. These events take place against the background of the global financial crisis, as the countries of the periphery bear the brunt of the fall-out.
For more than two decades the Egyptian state embarked on a policy of privatisation of its industries, services and facilities - in a country where under president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70) "even the grocery shops were nationalised". Under the 'structural adjustment programme' agreed with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, 314 public sector enterprises were eligible for privatisation. By mid-2002 190 had been sold off.
It is no great surprise that workers have been the main losers under these policies. As services and wages were cut, subsidies and benefits disappeared. There was little job security. While even bread became too expensive for the majority, for the elite Egypt's economy was booming. The rich in their villas around Cairo and other main urban centres in their gated communities did not listen when workers demanded a rise in the minimum wage - set at $7 per month in 2010. One Mubarak official went as far as claiming the average wage was around $70 a month anyway.
Until January 2011, Egypt was hailed as a success story by international financial institutions. In the World Bank's Doing business report, Egypt is named as one the top global performers in four of the past seven years. The government of prime minister Ahmed Nazif oversaw annual GDP growth of 5%-7%. Yet, in the most populous Arab country, it seems this was not high enough to sustain its population. The gap between rich and poor has continued to widen, with 40% now living below the poverty line. A fifth of Egypt's 80 million population live on less than $1 a day. Since 2008 the rate of unemployment has risen constantly. In February 2010 official figures put it at 12.9% in urban areas, although the real figure, as in all capitalist economies, is much higher. Unemployment amongst graduates is also high and many of them accept jobs with low wages to survive.
Mubarak's regime attempted to deliver its promise of political stability and growth by banning opposition parties and organisations. For the markets this authoritarian regime offered a degree of reliability, but in fact trouble was never far away. During 2007, strikes spread from the textile and clothing industry to building, transport, food processing, telecommunications, oil and many others. By the summer of that year white-collar employees, civil servants and professionals were in dispute with their employers or the state. In 2008 outrage against soaring inflation, the scarcity of basic food, as well as discontent with the regime, led to riots. According to Al-Ahram Weekly, "The city is burning. Thousands of demonstrators are out on the street, throwing stones, chanting anti-government slogans and defying the batons of the riot police, tear gas and bullets." Since the mid-2000s Egyptian labour activists have reported over 3,000 factory occupations, strikes and other workers' protests.
Given the worsening economic situation, and opposition to repeated electoral fraud, dictatorship and corruption - not to mention a sense of national impotence vis-à-vis Israel - the current uprising in Egypt was predictable. Yet it seems to have come as a shock to world markets and politicians alike. On Friday January 28, as demonstrations in defiance of bans and curfews took place in Cairo, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 166 points - the biggest one-day fall in nearly half a year. Oil prices rose by more than 4% and everyone knows this is just the beginning. The Saudi stock market, the region's largest, registered a one-day drop of 6%, entirely due to events in Egypt.
After years of implying that the peoples of the Middle East are genetically disposed to obeying corrupt dictators, the western press and media have been forced to admit that in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc the battle for democracy, better living standards and against corrupt dictatorships has entered a new phase. All this not as a result of US/Nato military intervention, but, on the contrary, action from below against pro-imperialist dictators. The humiliating retreat of one of the most important allies of the hegemon capitalist power and the prospect of the downfall of the recipient of major US loans, whose government's repressive policies were never challenged by the US or EU, will have major implications.
Last week in Davos, Masood Ahmed, the IMF's Middle East director, observed: "There is now rising concern about the chronic levels of youth unemployment in the Middle East, and these events have shown that governments need to address this. If they do, that could unlock human resources and really boost growth." Of course, the same could be said of any capitalist economy. The crucial question is, at a time of global economic crisis, capitalism relies on unprecedented rates of unemployment to maintain control of the working class. In the Middle East as elsewhere, rulers are faced with a dilemma: high levels of unemployment combined with rocketing price rises pave the way for volatile political situations.
After last year's events in Greece, Iceland, Iran and Ireland - all political crises shattering illusions of economic stability - how can anyone imagine the current upheavals in the Arab world will not in turn worsen the economic situation for world capital? According to the Financial Times, "Now gravity has reasserted itself; just as it did two years ago with respect to subprime loans, or Greek debt." The 'emerging' economies are crumbling with unprecedented speed.
Imperialism is worried and western leaders' show of concern for the 'transition to democracy' in the Arab world and the Middle East is too little and too late. Nevertheless pro-western dictators across the globe must be disconcerted by this sudden change of heart in imperialist capital cities.
Favourable for business
In Davos last week, two ministers of Tunisia's transition government told delegates that "Tunisia is open for business again." Mustapha Kamel, the new central bank governor, tried to talk up the post-Ben Ali situation by saying there is now "a much more favourable business environment".
Someone should tell the new Tunisian government that it was the "favourable business environment" that paved the way for last month's upheavals. Unless they come up with an economic miracle, the rebellion of unemployed youth could well continue and in the absence of working class parties Tunisia may well fall into chaos.
On January 30 Tunisia's Muslim leader, Rached Ghannouchi, returned after 22 years of exile. He insisted that he had no plans to run for the presidency, and would instead help to "anchor a democratic system, social justice, and to put a stop to discrimination against banned groups. We are taking part so we can move to a true multi-party system without corruption or oppression." It was almost word for word what ayatollah Khomeini said just before returning from exile to Iran in January 1979. No wonder some Tunisians were wary of his arrival. At the airport they held up banners reading: "No Islamism, no theocracy, no sharia and no stupidity."
Unlike Tunisia, where there is a long tradition of secularism and the Islamists are relatively weak, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to play a significant role in any future government. Some consider it Egypt's most popular unofficial political organisation, yet it was caught unprepared for the strength of the protests that started last week, and had to rally its forces to intervene more effectively over the last few days, starting with its traditional stronghold, Alexandria.
The 'Brotherhood' was founded in 1928 and has long fought to establish sharia law in Egypt under the slogan, 'Islam is the solution'. Yet on Saturday January 29 an MB spokesman was quoted on Al Jazeera TV as saying his movement was not interested in forming or being part of a government. On Sunday, however, the organisation said it was talking to other opposition groups with a view to forming a committee to coordinate the protest movement. According to spokesman Saad el-Katatni, former Iraq weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei (pictured) would be a member of the committee, but not necessarily its leader. (ElBaradei, who is talked of as Egypt's interim leader, might not be aware that in Tehran people are already calling him the Egyptian Bazargan - a reference to Mehdi Bazargan, who became the interim prime minister of Khomeini's Islamic regime in February 1979.)
Some think the influence of the MB has been overstated. Khalil al-Anani of Durham University said: "There is widespread exaggeration about the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian society, and I think these demonstrations have exposed that." According to Anani, "The Mubarak regime was adept at inflating the influence of the Brotherhood and painting them as a threat to Egyptian society and to the west. It was the pretext for Mubarak's rule, and it was a lie." The MB has always seen itself as a political and social movement, claiming to protect the poor against tyranny and foreign powers. It has founded 'charitable' institutions, hospitals, pharmacies, schools and food distribution centres, and most of its support relies on networks built around these 'social charities'. However, in addition to holding conservative views on issues such as women's rights, the MB is anti-communist and has been hostile to independent working class popular organisations.
Egyptians should also be aware that Islamists in Iran, Turkey and Iraq have set up similar social institutions to gain support when in opposition, only to use the very same institutions to accumulate wealth for their cronies, once in power. In the case of Iran, it took less than a year for the Islamic charitable organisations to become the centres of corruption and financial deceit.
In Egypt the April 6 Youth Movement has played a prominent role in organising and coordinating the recent protests, making use of the internet, social networking sites and Twitter until they were blocked by the regime. The group is named after the 2008 attack by the authorities on striking textile workers. Its activists are mainly secular, but they have made alliances with other anti-Mubarak forces.
According to the western press and media, Egypt's new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, has offered to open a dialogue with the opposition in order to discuss a programme of reforms. Commentators have described him as a "distinguished" and "respected" man. But it turns out that he is distinguished for, among other things, his central role in Egyptian torture and the US 'rendition' programme.
Because of the brutal suppression of the left by Mubarak and Anwar El Sadat before him, there is at present no viable secular, progressive opposition party to challenge the governing National Democratic Party established by Sadat in 1978. Many of the parties considered 'left of centre' uphold sharia law. The Egyptian Arab Socialist Party calls for "the adoption of Islamic sharia as a main source of legislation" and, although it supports freedom of religious affiliation and expression, its main concern seems to be "preserving Egypt's Islamic identity". The Young Egypt Party supports the adoption of a "socialist Islamic economic system", while boosting the private sector. Similarly the Social Justice Party, whose declared aims include enhancing the principles of democracy and socialism and protecting the gains of the working class and peasants, wants to keep Islamic sharia as a guide for Egyptian legislation.
On Sunday January 30 representatives of the Egyptian trade union movement met. They announced the setting up of the new Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions and committees in all factories and enterprises to protect and defend workers. They declared their intention to set a date for a general strike. Workers' strikes during the last three to four years have paved the way for this week's uprising, but in the absence of political leadership it is difficult to envisage how trade unions can respond to demands for radical economic change.
In opposition to Mubarak there is unity. Everyone - secular or religious, men and women, rich and poor - have joined forces to call for regime change from below. Political and economic divisions are not yet evident. However, no-one believes such unity can continue once it is a question of a positive alternative. The balance of class forces will decide. That is why it is vital that the Egyptian workers' movement makes its presence felt.
1. Mohamed ElBaradei in an interview with Robert Fisk The Independent February 1.
3. Financial Times January 27.
5. The Guardian January 31.