Growing poverty, the brutal blows of the economic crisis, the yearning for freedom from a regime of terror, indignation about corruption, are continuing to fuel revolt among the populations of the Middle East, especially in Egypt.
After the huge mobilisations last January and February, since 18 November we have again seen the occupation of Tahrir Square and big new demonstrations. This time, the target of the anger has mainly been the army and its leaders. These events prove, contrary to what we are told by the bourgeoisie and its media, that there was no ‘revolution’ at the beginning of 2011 but a massive movement of protest. In the face of this movement, the bourgeoisie was able to change the country’s masters: the army has been acting exactly like Mubarak and nothing has changed in the conditions of exploitation and repression for the vast majority of the population.
The bourgeoisie uses lies and repression against thedemonstrations
All the main Egyptian cities have again seen this general discontent with living conditions and with the omnipresence of the army in the maintenance of order. The climate of protest has been as hot in Alexandria and Port-Said in the north as in Cairo; there have been important confrontations in the centre of the county, in Suez and Qena, and in the south, in Assiut and Aswan, and in the west in Marsa Matrouh. The repression has been ruthless: 42 deaths and around 200 wounded, even according to the official figures. The army does not hesitate to hurl its anti-riot squads against the crowds, using highly toxic forms of tear gas. Some people have died from breathing it in. Some of the dirty work of repression has been sub-contracted. Specialist snipers have been using live rounds with impunity. A large number of young demonstrators have been cut down by these mercenaries. The police, to make up for the fact that they only have rubber bullets at their disposal, have been systematically firing at people’s faces. There is a shocking video going the rounds and which has provoked a great deal of anger among demonstrators; in it you can hear a cop shouting “take out their eyes!”, congratulating a colleague “You got him in the eye, well done my friend!” (L’espress.fr). And many demonstrators have indeed lost an eye. On top of this we have to add arrests and torture. Often the troops are accompanied by “militia”, the “baltaguis”, who are used in an underhand way by the regime to sow disorder. Armed with iron bars and wooden clubs their tactic is usually to isolate demonstrators and beat them up savagely. Last winter they were the ones who burned tents in Tahrir Square and played a hand in numerous arrests (LeMonde.fr).
Again, contrary to what the media would have us believe, women, who are today playing a big part in the demonstrations, are often sexually assaulted by the security forces and are for example frequently subjected to horrible humiliations like ‘virginity tests’. In general they are treated with respect by the demonstrators, although assaults on some western journalists (like the one against Caroline Sinz, a journalist from France 3 in which young ‘civilians’ were implicated) have been widely publicised. However, “the clashes in Tahrir should not make us forget that, on the Square, a new relationship between men and women is being established. The simple fact that the two sexes can sleep in close proximity in the open air is a real novelty. And the women have seized hold of this new freedom. They have become an integral part of the struggle” (Lepoint.fr).
We are being led insidiously to think that the occupants of Tahrir are hooligans because they “don’t care about the elections” and so are endangering the “transition to democracy”. This from the same media which, having supported Mubarak and his clique for so long, then welcomed the “liberating” military regime, taking full advantage of the population’s illusions in the army.
The key role of the army for the Egyptian bourgeoisie
Even if the army is being strongly discredited today, the main target of popular anger is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its leader Hussein Tantawi. The latter, minister of defence for ten years under Mubarak, and seen as a clone of the dictator, has been told by huge crowds: “leave”. But the army, Mubarak’s historic base, is a solid bulwark and continues to hold onto the reins of the state. It never stops manoeuvering to ensure its position with the backing of all the big powers, especially the USA, since Egypt is a vital piece in the latter’s strategy for controlling the Middle East, a factor of essential stability in its imperialist policies in the region, above all with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. By claiming that the “the army has gone back to the barracks”, the bourgeoisie has for the moment managed to hide the most essential thing. Not without reason, the daily Al Akhbar warned that “the most dangerous thing that could happen is the deterioration of the relationship between the army and the people”. In effect, the army has not only had a major political role since the arrival in power of Nasser in 1954, forming an indispensable pillar to the regime; it also has a key economic role, directly running a number of big enterprises. Since the defeat in the Six Day War against Israel in 1967, and above all since the Camp David Accords in 1979, when tens of thousands of soldiers were demobilised, the bourgeoisie has been encouraging large parts of the army to turn themselves into entrepreneurs, out of fear that the demobilisation would mean a heavy extra burden on the labour market, which already suffered from massive endemic unemployment: “It began with the production of material for its own needs: arms, accessories and clothing, then, in time, it launched itself into different civil industries and invested in agricultural enterprises, which were exempt from taxes” (Libération, 28.11.2011), investing 30% of production and oiling all the wheels of Egyptian capital. Thus, “the SCAF can be seen as the administrative council of an industrial group composed of firms held by the (military) institution and managed by retired generals. The latter are also ultra-present in the upper echelons of the administration: 21 of the 29 governorships of the country are led by former army and security forces officers”, according to Ibrahim al-Sahari, a representative of the Cairo Centre for Socialist Studies, who adds: “we can understand the anxiety of the army faced with the social troubles and insecurity which have developed in recent months. There is a fear of the contagion of strikes in its enterprises, where its employees are deprived of all social and trade union rights, and where any protest is seen as form of treason” (cited by Libération, 28.11). There is good reason for the iron fist with which it rules the country.
Courage and determination, but the limits cannot be breached in Egypt
The continuation of the repression and the protests of the “committees of families of the wounded” were the focus of the anger against the army, but the motivation was not simply to call for the military to give up power, for more democracy and elections. The worsening economic situation and the black hole of poverty are also pushing the demonstrators onto the streets. In conditions of mass unemployment it is becoming increasingly difficult for people just to feed their families. And it is precisely this social dimension which the media are trying to hide. We can only salute the courage and determination of the demonstrators, who have been standing barehanded against state violence. Their only ammunition is paving stones and rubble, against cops armed to the teeth. The demonstrators have shown a great will to organise themselves for the needs of the struggle. They are obliged to organise and they have shown considerable ingenuity in the face of the repression. Makeshift hospitals have been set up all over the squares, with human chains serving as ambulances. Scooters are used to take the wounded to safety. But the situation is not the same at the time of the fall of Mubarak, when the proletariat played a decisive role, when the rapid extension of massive strikes and the rejection of the official trade unions were largely responsible for the military chiefs, under the pressure of the US, deciding to dump Mubarak. The situation for the working class is very different now. Since April, one of the first measures taken by the army was to toughen laws “against strike movements liable to disturb production in any group or sector, so undermining the national economy” , and to call for the unions to get a stronger grip. This law included punishments of a year in prison and fines of up to 80,000 dollars (in a country where the minimum wage is 50 euros!) for strikers or anyone inciting strikes.
While the movement today has been rejecting the power of the army, it is still weakened by many illusions. First and foremost, because it has been calling for a “civil democratic” government. It’s true that the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafists, who see themselves on the verge of forming such a “civil government” (which will just be a facade because real power will remain in the hands of the army) have distanced themselves from the protest movement and have refrained from calling for demonstrations, preferring to negotiate their political future with the military. Nevertheless, the mirage of “free elections”, the first for 60 years, seems to be momentarily sapping the anger. However, even if they are real, these democratic illusions are not as strong as the bourgeoisie would like us to think: in Tunisia, where we were told that 86% voted in the elections, this was only out of the 50% who are entered on the electoral lists. It’s the same in Morocco where the rate of participation in the elections was 45% and in Egypt, where the figures are still very vague (62% are entered but there were only 17 million voters out of 40 million).
Today, leftists everywhere are shouting “Tahrir shows us the way!” as if it was just a question of copying this model of struggle everywhere, in Europe as well as America. In fact this is a trap for the workers. Not everything can be taken from these struggles. Their courage and determination, the now famous slogan “we are not afraid”, the will to gather en masse in the squares to live and struggle together... all this really is an invaluable source of inspiration and hope. But also, and perhaps above all, we have to be aware of the limits of this movement: the democratic, nationalist and religious illusions, the relative weakness of the workers... These obstacles are linked to the limited historical and revolutionary experience of the working class in this region of the world. The social movements in Egypt and Tunisia have given to the international struggle of the exploited the maximum of what they are capable of achieving for now. They are reaching their objective limits. It is now up to the most experienced sections of the proletariat, living in the countries at the heart of capitalism, and especially Europe, to take up the torch of struggle against this inhuman system. The mobilisation of the indignados in Spain is part of this indispensable international dynamic. It began to open up new perspectives with its open and autonomous general assemblies, with its debates where there were often interventions that were clearly internationalist and which denounced the charade of bourgeois democracy. Only such a development of the struggle against poverty and the draconian austerity plans at the countries at the centre of capitalism can open up new perspectives for the exploited not only in Egypt but in the rest of the world. This is the precondition for offering humanity a future.
. This is also obviously the case in Syria where the regime has killed over 4000 people (including over 300 children), bloodily repressing demonstrations since March. See our article in this issue.