Autumn of the patriarchs

The rebellious multitudes have laid to rest the Westocentric myth that Muslim masses can be mobilised only through religious exhortation.

Published : Feb 25, 2011 00:00 IST

President Anwar Sadat (right) and Vice-President Hosni Mubarak at a military parade in Cairo just before soldiers opened fire, killing Sadat and injuring Mubarak on October 6, 1981. Sadat opened up the Egyptian economy for Western corporate plunder. - AP

President Anwar Sadat (right) and Vice-President Hosni Mubarak at a military parade in Cairo just before soldiers opened fire, killing Sadat and injuring Mubarak on October 6, 1981. Sadat opened up the Egyptian economy for Western corporate plunder. - AP

A GREAT wave of anger, frustration, defiance and democratic demand is sweeping across the Arab world, from the Atlantic shore to the Gulf of Aden and from Amman to Khartoum. As I write these lines on Thursday, February 3, the epicentre of this great uprising has shifted to Egypt, Cairo in particular, and it is here, in the legendary Tahrir Square, that the fate of it all shall be decided. Some have died by self-immolation, hundreds more have been killed by the police and other security forces, in half a dozen countries. Today, a mixed crowd of well-armed Mubarak supporters in fact a mixture of hired goons and Internal Security personnel attacked the protesters in the early hours of the morning, killing five people and wounding 836. The Army, which the protesters thought would protect them, brought in its tanks but did not intervene; it may yet, but that is hard to predict, and it is not at all clear which side the Army will choose.

Despite all this, the ecstasy of being part of a rebellious multitude, across the region, remains. That ecstasy is now mixed with anger and apprehension. February 1 witnessed some two million people marching in six cities, from Cairo to Port Said, and another March of a Million' has been announced for Friday, February 4, which the protesters have designated as the Day of Departure for Mubarak and his close cohorts. That may well turn out to be even more violent, perhaps forcing the Army to show its hand. Will the Army still stand aside? Will it come forward and join the Internal Security establishment in violent suppression? Or, will the generals arrange a villa for Mubarak in Saudi Arabia, where he can join his Tunisian counterpart, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? That decision shall be made not in Cairo but in Washington and Tel Aviv.


This is the single biggest uprising in modern Arab history, but no one can say for sure whether actual structural changes for the economy and society shall arise out of it beyond some cosmetic surgery. Centred as it is on the specifically secular issues of democratisation, human rights and corruption-free governance, this uprising has already laid to rest the Westocentric myth that Muslim masses can only be mobilised through religious exhortation, and it has refuted the claim of American-sponsored dictators that they are the great bulwark against a rising tide of Islamo-fascism (a word of American coinage) that is sweeping the Arab lands. What are in fact sweeping across the Arab world today are the good old values of the French Revolution.

So fundamentally secular is the whole movement that even the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, by far the largest Islamist bloc in the Arab world, has declared from the beginning that the uprising is not about Islam but about Egypt and that the Brothers seek no special place for themselves in the new order. Indeed, they formed a coalition with four secular groups and have collectively authorised Mohamed ElBaradei, a perfectly secular and Westernised technocrat, to negotiate with the Army on their behalf.

Similarly, Rachid Ghannouchi, the veteran leader of the Islamic Ennahda Party ( nahda is the Arabic word for renaissance), the largest Islamist party in Tunisia, who returned to Tunis after more than two decades of exile, has limited his demand to his party getting legal recognition and being allowed to participate in the democratic processes of his country. He further told Financial Times: Democracy should not exclude communists it is not ethical for us to call on a secular government to accept us, while once we get to power we will eradicate them. His party has officially called for a Constitutional Council which represents all political tendencies and civil society institutions such as trade unions, the Association of Lawyers, and representative bodies of unemployed graduates who played an important role in the revolution, with the aim of building a democratic constitution for a parliamentary system that distributes and de-centralises power on the widest scale possible. I might add that this demand for a new constitution, which is broadly shared across the Tunisian political spectrum, reminds one, irresistibly, of Venezuela and Bolivia, even though the Tunisian agenda is tamer and altogether confined within a liberal matrix.

Ghannouchi and his party have taken such positions because they know that Islamism is a relatively weak current in the Tunisian political spectrum. Much more numerous and powerful are the forces represented by the trade union federation, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, and the party associated with it, namely the Democratic Forum for Labour and Unity Party, as well as the newly constituted 14th of July Front consisting of the Tunisian Communist Workers Party, the Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party, the League of the Labour Left, the Movement of Nasserist Unionists, the Movement of Democratic Nationalists, the Baasist Current, the Democratic Nationalists (Al-Watad), and the independent Left. Significantly, the Tunisian Communist Workers Party took a position remarkably similar to that of Ennahda: All the forces that played an effective and crucial role in toppling the dictator, whether political, trade unionist, human rights, or cultural, whether organised or otherwise, are alongside the masses, to be involved in drawing Tunisia's future and cannot be represented by any other figure or body.

Thus, if a truly democratic order were to come to Tunisia or any other Arab country currently in the eye of this insurrectionary storm, and if new constitutions and governments come into being through free and genuinely broad-based processes, not religion but Arab nationalism and redistributive justice would necessarily emerge as the dominant ideologies, while a whole range of forces from trade unionists, communists and Left nationalists to Islamists would get their fair share of representation in it. Which is precisely why imperialism shall not allow that kind of popular, participatory democracy and would want to either suppress the uprising wherever it can or limit the gains of the uprising to merely procedural electoralism with neoliberal structures, corporate power and pro-Israeli alignment remaining in place.

That is why United States Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman was the first foreign dignitary to visit Tunisia after the fall of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.


We shall come later to the economic crises and historical backgrounds, which are the necessary backdrop to this explosion. Let me first say that the way the protests spread from village to city, region to region, from one country to another, and eventually became an overall pan-Arab uprising, bears all the hallmarks of the Information Age and certain kinds of postmodern politics. All the historic forms of opposition and mobilisation known to modern societies political parties, trades unions, the independent press, liberal liberties of various sorts were so thoroughly and successfully suppressed, or at least compromised, by all the dictatorial regimes that the historic forms of revolt, such as a nationwide proletarian uprising led by seasoned party cadre, were simply not possible.

One way of putting it is that these regimes of surveillance and incarceration had given rise to a situation in which some sort of fundamental change had to be made but they had also imprisoned, killed or driven into exile those who could plausibly lead a successful and coherent revolution. Consequently, we have had a historically novel kind of uprising of pure refusal. Other forces have undoubtedly played different roles at different times, but individual acts of desperation or heroism, which had led to local demonstrations here and there, became a massive uprising, within as well as across national borders, only when the cause was taken up by phalanxes of urban and educated middle-class youth. Thanks largely to the temper of these postmodern times, these youth are impervious to the arduous tasks of organisational work that goes into the making of revolutions, but they are motivated, by and large, by the three great rhetorical fetishes of American-style democracy promotion: Human Rights, Democracy and Corruption.

Now, it is obvious that democracy was denied in all these countries, human rights were suppressed and corruption had reached gigantic proportions. So, these are perfectly legitimate issues. But there is an overwhelming tendency to personalise evil in the figure of the dictator and his closest cohorts Ben Ali and family in Tunisia, Mubarak and his son in Egypt, and so on while structural origins and sources of power of these dictators form no part of the consciousness of the majority of what one might call the Twitter revolutionaries. We shall show later that the economies of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt have been devastated by unbridled liberalism and the diktats of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which were happily carried out by those same dictators. Their foreign policies are similarly dictated by the U.S., and their armies are entirely dependent on Pentagon largesse. They take dictation from their foreign masters and, in turn, they dictate to the people of their countries. They serve, and they are rewarded with immense dictatorial powers locally, in lieu of services rendered.

The dilemma of the middle-class youth who have risen so heroically against these servant-dictators is that they are themselves products of American liberalism, and some of the leading elements among them have been trained and funded by such American institutions as Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Centre for Non-violent Conflict. They then float or join a variety of civil society organisations and they know how to organise Facebook and Twitter communities for democracy agitations if and when necessary. The rhetoric of democratic reform that periodically emanates from the high and mighty in Washington inspires them, as does Barack Obama's slogan of Change contentless but delivered with great rhetorical aplomb. They look at the U.S. as the harbinger of democracy and hope that if they make enough noise and trouble in the streets, and if they can demonstrate the magnitude of protesting numbers, Obama will somehow dismiss the likes of Mubarak from imperial service. That has been the structural problem with some aspects of these uprisings. However, their sheer explosive scale has been truly exhilarating, for once put into motion, the process necessarily brings into the streets numerous other kinds of elements that cannot be controlled so easily.

The great weapon of this uprising has been the Internet and the electronic media more generally. Much has happened because of the immediacy with which visual images of the latest events can circulate around the world through 24x7 news channels, YouTube, Al Jazeera and even cellphones. Similarly, there is a breathtaking rapidity with which millions can be brought into overlapping networks of communication through e-mail, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. These are powerful weapons for mobilisation of unarmed, angry masses. But it is also the case that their enemies have real weapons. Will this confrontation between revolt and repression get resolved in favour of the rebellious multitude and lead to fundamental change in the system? That is rather hard to imagine.


The demand for democratisation could be granted more easily in a peripheral country like Tunisia, and it is only after a democratic order has fully emerged there that the actual struggle for social and economic justice will begin. But Egypt? Since 1952 the fate of Egypt has determined the fate of the Arab world as a whole. Cairo was for long the intellectual and artistic centre for Arab intelligentsia in diverse countries. Demographically, it is half of the Arab world. The Nasserite overthrow of the monarchy paved the way for a series of anti-monarchical revolutions in the Arab world. Secular Arab nationalism spread from one country to another when Egypt, under Gamal Nasser, became the beacon for that kind of nationalism.

Conversely, modern Islamism also spread from Egypt to the rest of the Arab world, and Saudi Arabia came to figure prominently in this evolution only later. Not the defeat of the Arab armies in 1967 but Anwar Sadat's subsequent treaty of peace and alliance with Israel, fully implemented by Mubarak, has been the single largest setback for the Palestinian struggle on the pan-Arab scale. The close cooperation between Israel and Egypt is the lynchpin guaranteeing Israeli domination of the region as a whole, and the U.S. has invested more in the Egyptian Army than in any other except the Israeli military.

Will the U.S. allow all this to slip out of its hand, and does it not have enough power inside Egypt the security establishment, the Army, the corporate rich of Egypt to re-stabilise the situation in its own favour? Only time will tell. Essentially, the U.S. is faced with a choice: it can arrange for the departure of Mubarak and his cohorts, allow a controlled democratising process in which reliable men like ElBaradei can be put in charge of the transition, and hope that the elections held under this umbrella will be won mainly by the liberal, IMF-oriented elite, even if the Muslim Brotherhood garners a significant part of the vote. This is the outcome that most protesters, from the Twitter revolutionaries to the Brotherhood, seem to have aspired for. The other option is that of doublespeak: condone, indeed engineer, sufficient degree of street violence to justify intervention by the Army, which then stabilises Mubarakism with or without Mubarak himself, and then combine this with high-pitched public condemnation of violence and demands for punishment of the culprits. Israelis will clearly prefer the latter option and have already mobilised their powerful Zionist lobbies in the U.S., Britain and other countries to put Obama into a corner over this. Words of highest praise for Mubarak have come as much from Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, as from Tony Blair, whom someone described quite justifiably as the only American Britain has had as its Prime Minister.

We do not know what the thinking in Washington actually is, but the most recent turn of events is ominous. Escalation of violence against the protesters from one day to the next has been great. The Army spokesman told the pro-democracy protesters even before this escalation to go home and help restore normal life. Omar Suleiman, Egypt's most sinister spymaster and terror chief, whom Mubarak appointed as Vice-President after the protests became massive, said after the escalation of violence against the protesters that the protests must end now. Ominous, indeed. Suleiman has roughly a million personnel of the Internal Security forces at his disposal, and he is one of the most ruthless men alive.

We shall return to Suleiman later in this article. A good indication of one of the options that was being considered for Egypt in Washington came on January 29 when a statement of policy recommendation was issued in the name of a Non-partisan Working group on Egypt, which describes itself as a consortium of policy experts from Carnegie, the Council on Foreign Relations, Human Rights Watch, the Centre for American Progress, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Foreign Policy Initiative and Freedom House that is, the elite of American foreign policy establishment as well as the Democracy Promotion establishment. The recommendation was as follows:

Only free and fair elections provide the prospect for a peaceful transfer of power to a government recognised as legitimate by the Egyptian people. We urge the Obama administration to pursue these fundamental objectives in the coming days and press the Egyptian government to:

Call for free and fair elections for President and for Parliament to be held as soon as possible;

Amend the Egyptian Constitution to allow opposition candidates to register to run for the presidency;

Immediately lift the state of emergency, release political prisoners, and allow for freedom of media and assembly;

Allow domestic election monitors to operate throughout the country, without fear of arrest or violence;

Immediately invite international monitors to enter the country and monitor the process leading to elections, reporting on the government's compliance with these measures to the international community;

Publicly declare that Mr. Mubarak will agree not to run for re-election (emphasis added);

The concluding sentence in this passage is, of course, primarily decorative, and the whole thing may well have been part of a public relations exercise to claim that the U.S. establishment really was in favour of the democratic uprising. The significant fact is that the recommendation did not call for Mubarak's resignation and the formation of a transitional government involving democratic forces, to hold those elections. The free and fair election was to be held by the Mubarak regime itself.


This whole chain of events began with a local event on December 17 at Sidi Bouzid, a small town located in central Tunisia, when a 26-year-old unemployed graduate set himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide after the police had roughed him up; he died some days later. Amid the protests that followed, 22-year-old Houcine Falhi electrocuted himself in the course of a demonstration in the same town after shouting out, no to misery, no to unemployment. The demonstrations spread quickly to neighbouring towns and regions, leading to a march of 1,000 in the capital city of Tunis, while more public suicides were taking place in Tunisia as well as Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania, each one of them as a protest against the high rates of unemployment and the rising prices of food and petroleum products adding to the rage of the majority of populations who were in any case suffering from the same IMF-mandated processes.

By the end of December, protests had become a veritable uprising, with trade unions, banned political parties and groups, bar associations, artists, singers, journalists and many others from all walks of life joining in daily demonstrations. The police responded with brutal repression and firings in which 66 persons were known to have died by January 14 when the armed forces helped facilitate the departure of the dictator for refuge in Saudi Arabia and then intervened to protect the population against police brutality.

The striking feature of these developments in Tunisia and elsewhere is that while those suicides and early mass rallies had taken place on directly economic issues, that focus got diluted and was replaced with a different focus on dictatorship, regime corruption and suppression of human rights as soon as capital cities erupted into uprisings and the leadership shifted from the immiserated strata to the metropolitan middle classes. Huge demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo were remarkable for virtually absolute lack of demands, slogans and placards referring to neoliberal policies, imperialist penetration of national economies, and the Washington-based international financial institutions.

A bit of history might be useful to know at this point. The first massive bread riots in Tunisia occurred in 1984, motivated by a 100 per cent hike in the price of bread. That hike, combined with the elimination of food subsidies, had been part of the structural adjustment programme (SAP) demanded by the IMF in lieu of a loan agreement. Fifty people died in police firings at that time. Habib Bourguiba, who had led Tunisia to independence from French colonial rule, was still in power. He reversed the hikes, fired his Minister of the Interior who had ordered the firings, and refused to abide by SAP conditionalities. General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali removed Bourguiba in a coup three years later, opening the way for the privatisation of public assets and the implementation of those same IMF conditionalities with an iron hand. Within a few months, a major agreement was signed with the IMF along with a parallel free trade agreement with the European Union that paved the way for European commodities to flood Tunisian markets and the country to become a pool of cheap labour for E.U. capital.

These agreements were followed by a massive wave of privatisation, which became the first source of capital accumulation for Ben Ali, his family and the family of his wife, a former hairdresser who recently absconded to Abu Dhabi with several tonnes of gold taken from the national treasury even before her husband had flown off to Saudi Arabia. Cables from the American embassy that were published by WikiLeaks reveal that in the embassy's estimate these two related families either owned or controlled 50 per cent of all Tunisian economy, while much of their wealth was stashed away abroad. Policies ensuing from the implementation of the Washington Consensus and the Free Trade Agreement were thus the real source of the corruption that became such a central issue in the recent uprising. This structural basis of the corruption that became such a focal point after the leadership of the uprising shifted to the middle-class intelligentsia goes unmentioned in the pro-democracy agitations.

Corruption was simply moralised as evil conduct (which, of course, it is) but without any mention of the processes and the international institutions that made it possible. This is particularly surprising because the uprising in fact involved all classes of Tunisian society: the middle class, which led the uprising after it arrived in Tunis, is quite possibly the most sophisticated and best educated middle class in the Arab world, and for all the compromises that dictatorial regimes imposed upon it, the Tunisian trade union federation is also quite possibly the most sophisticated in that region.

That exclusive focus on dictatorship, human rights and corruption may well have been strategic in order to mobilise the largest number of people from all classes, to avoid alienating the American-made Army, and to reassure the Democracy Promotion establishment in the U.S. It is conceivable, though not very plausible, that once procedural democracy is in place there will also be a transition to economic nationalism and redistributive justice: a revolt against Empire and its dictatorship! Only time will tell. What one can say is that such a transition, even if desired by the new democratic dispensation, shall have to face the wrath of the institutions of the Washington Consensus and the Bankers' Europe (which is what E.U. really is), as well as the domestic repressive apparatus which has been assembled under Franco-American tutelage. Empire lives, and has the ultimate power, inside Tunisia.


As I write this, a combined total of two million people are said to have marched across six Egyptian cities, from Cairo to Port Said. Another March of A Million is scheduled for Friday, dubbed as the Day of Departure (for Mubarak, the 82-year-old tyrant of Egypt). The scale of the demonstrations must have stunned the regime; the idea that the same would be repeated a couple of days later, on a Friday, when hundreds of thousands congregate in the mosques at noon and cannot be prevented from congregating, must have filled the regime with a sense of foreboding. There had been sporadic violence against the demonstrators until then, mostly by the police. Stunned by one march and fearing the next one, the regime moved, unleashing its so-called Mubarak supporters security personnel posing as ordinary citizens and paid goons on a smaller scale the first day, to test the waters, and more ferociously the next day. We cannot say what comes next.

The regime has had time and the resources to prepare. The Egyptian state is by far by far the most powerful in the Arab world. That was so even in Nasser's time when Western powers shunned it. Since then, after Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel and opened up Egyptian economy for Western corporate plunder, the Egyptian state has received some $80 billion from the U.S. as reward for renouncing Arab nationalism and colluding with Israel instead. The largest chunk of that largesse has gone to the armed forces. The Egyptian state is said to have an Internal Security Force of over a million, with an annual budget of over a billion dollars, which is simply awesome by Arab and African standards. Omar Suleiman, who was until recently the chief of Internal Security and is now Vice-President as well, is quite possibly the man with the most effective power inside Egypt, perhaps more than Mubarak, who relies on Suleiman's apparatus.

In his relations with the Empire, Suleiman has been, more than anyone else in the Arab world, the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) main conduit in the infamous renditions, a programme in which U.S. agents abduct individuals from all over the world on one kind of suspicion or another and then secretly render them to client regime in West Asia, to be tortured, to extract confessions from them, to simply kill them in some instances as routine disappearance. Suleiman's key involvement in this scheme dates back to the 1980s, almost two decades before the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, and the subsequent formal declaration of a War on Terror. That war is actually much older than the Bush presidency, though, undoubtedly, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq took it to quite another level.

Mubarak and Suleiman are, so to speak, Siamese twins; they have terrorised Egypt as a duo, and one cannot survive without the other. Mubarak, once a chief of the Egyptian Air Force and now formally the Commander-in-Chief of Egypt's Armed Forces, relies much more on Internal Security than on the Army, and most of the opposition, including ElBaradei, seem to be labouring under the illusion that while Internal Security may be serving Mubarak, the Army is on their side and will eventually intervene to protect them. That may yet happen, but only if a signal comes from Washington, which will probably first apply to Tel Aviv for approval before sending such a signal. What we do know is that as soon as the Tunisian uprising became a national one and started producing effects all over the Arab world, the Chief of the Egyptian Army flew off to Washington and spent a whole week there. He was obviously not having just a picnic there in the midst of a gruesome East Coast winter. He undoubtedly returned with a whole range of alternative contingency plans. We do not know what those plans are.

That same logic is at work in the appointment of Frank G. Wisner, who has been associated with the CIA as well as the state for some 40 years, as a special envoy at the height of the Egyptian uprising. Wisner has previously served as U.S. Ambassador in Zambia, the Philippines, Egypt and India, and he now works for Patton Boggs, a firm that lobbies for the Egyptian state. On its website, Patton Boggs says:

We have advised the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and have handled arbitrations and litigation on the government's behalf in Europe and the U.S. Our attorneys also represent some of the leading Egyptian commercial families and their companies, and we have been involved in oil and gas and telecommunications infrastructure projects on their behalf. We have also handled negotiation of offset agreements and managed contractor disputes in military sales agreements arising under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Act.

It further said: The firm looks to Ambassador Wisner to use his expertise in the Middle East and India to assist its American and international clients.

The special U.S. envoy is thus at once a representative of the Egyptian state in the world of public relations, law and commerce and an individual who combines in himself overlapping allegiances to the CIA, the State Department, and U.S. corporate and, in addition to all that, he is also the representative of the U.S. government to oversee actions of the Egyptian government in relation to the uprising.

We do know that Netanyahu, Israel's far-Right Prime Minister, has put his foot down against the removal of Mubarak, and that Netanyahu's word matters more in Washington than the voice of two million Egyptians in the street. And not only Netanyahu. We can understand the panic that Israeli intelligentsia feels at the prospect of a successful uprising in Egypt when we read in Haaretz, Israel's most liberal newspaper, these words by Ari Shavi:

[F]or 60 years the American empire kept the world stable, and provided relative quiet, peace and prosperity. The current U.S. President, Barack Obama, is undermining the American empire. Obama's betrayal of Hosni Mubarak is not just the betrayal of a moderate Egyptian President who remained loyal to the United States, promoted stability and encouraged moderation. Obama's betrayal of Mubarak symbolises the betrayal of every strategic ally in the Third World. Throughout Asia, Africa and South America, leaders are now looking at what is going on between Washington and Cairo.

We also know that Mahmoud Abbas, the unconstitutional President of the Palestinian Authority but in reality a poodle of the Israelis, phoned Mubarak to proclaim his solidarity with the Egyptian dictator. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are working together to save Mubarak from the wrath of millions of Egyptians. One feels speechless.

All this is what the millions who marched in Egypt are up against. A mobilisation that started so suddenly and one that went from the protest of a few thousands in Cairo to a march of two million across the Nile Delta, from Cairo to Alexandria, in less than two weeks, with no leading force or centre, surely deserves the title of a spontaneous uprising of the multitude. The belief that they could face down a global coalition of imperial power as well as so elaborate and powerful a machinery of internal repression and brutality does seem rather naive. But, then, spontaneities and naivete also come out of concrete histories.

The whole history of Arab pride and Arab nationalism has come to be condensed for the vast majority of Egyptians in the question of Palestine, and there is a repressed history of shame and anger that most Egyptians have felt over more than three decades about the collusion between their rulers and Israel. In more recent years, this sentiment was expressed in numerous acts of solidarity with the Palestinians after the second Intifada broke out in 2000. There has been an equally long history of shame and anger about their rulers' subservience to their imperial masters, and this has been expressed in numerous acts of revolt since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hizbollah who saluted the wholly secular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as soon as they broke out, became a household hero in Egypt after the Israeli invasion of 2006, not because the mass of Egyptians (Sunni at any rate) had suddenly converted to militant Shia Islamism but in admiration of the resistance Hizbollah had put up against the Israelis on behalf of the Lebanese nation.

Nor has the Egyptian working class been altogether supine. Despite all government repression, approximately 28 per cent of the Egyptian workforce is unionised today, with the majority of those members employed in the public sector. I am not sure about the use of the term social movement in this context but Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor, is broadly correct in referring to Egyptian labour activism as .the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II. According to a report presented at a symposium hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in February 2010, there have been more than 3,000 labour protests by Egyptian workers since 2004. The report goes on to say that this figure [dwarfs] Egyptian political protests in both scale and consequence.

The Egyptian labour movement was very much under attack during the 1980s and 1990s by the police, who used live ammunition against peaceful strikers in 1989 during strikes in the steel mills and in 1994 during the textile mill strikes. But steadily, from December 2006 up to the present, Egypt has witnessed the biggest and most sustained waves of strike actions since 1946, triggered by textile strikes in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, home of the largest labour force in West Asia with over 28,000 workers. This combination of pan-Arab nationalism and working class militancy is the material background out of which this spontaneous uprising was at all possible.


The magnitude of these rebellions has also served to divert attention from three other momentous developments in the region.

First, Lebanon. The U.S. had planned to get the United Nations-mandated Commission of Inquiry into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri issue indictments against key members of Hizbollah, get the organisation outlawed by the U.N. and obtain international arrest warrants against leaders of Hizbollah. It was quite to be expected that Hizbollah would not honour such warrants, that a turmoil would ensue inside Lebanon in the shape of a Shia-Sunni conflagration, and that Israel could perhaps use this opportunity to invade Lebanon yet again on the pretext of implementing a U.N. mandate but really to avenge its defeat by Hizbollah in 2006.

Instead, Hizbollah retaliated by causing the government to fall and a new government to be formed, led by its own allies. We may never know how the U.S.-Israeli axis might have responded if rebellions had not broken out across the Arab world, possibly jeopardising U.S.-Israeli interests across the region. In a sense, Lebanon was saved by Tunisia and Egypt.

Second, Palestine. In the very early days of these Arab uprisings, Al Jazeera and Guardian started publishing a huge pile of documents, cumulatively known as the Palestine Papers, revealing the triangular relationships between the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas (story on page 28). These documents show Abbas as being hostile towards the Arab world and colluding with Israel, whom he urges to eliminate Hamas even if it involves continued siege of Gaza and unimaginable sufferings of the population there. In the process, he is shown to have offered to let Israel annex virtually the whole of East Jerusalem and to drop the key demand regarding the rights of the Palestinians evicted from Israel from their homes in 1948 and thereafter. In different times, all this would have led to an uproar not in the Arab world but also globally. Overshadowed by the great ongoing uprisings, The Palestine Papers simply did not have that kind of explosive impact. However, realities of that magnitude do not just go away. Palestinians under Israeli occupation in Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank, on the Israeli side of the Green Line' as well as those spread out across the world now have documentary evidence of what many, perhaps most, have known in their hearts. The fate of the Palestinian Authority is sealed, as is the fate of the American-orchestrated charade known as the Peace Process'. It is very likely that Hamas shall now emerge as a major force in the West Bank territories as well.

Third, Israel. The Labour Party, whose founders had led the movement for the creation of Israel and which had remained the unchallenged ruling party of Israel from its creation in 1948 up to late 1970s and the one that trapped Yasser Arafat in the ignominious Oslo Accord finally collapsed during precisely this time of Arab uprising, giving forces of the very far-Right a sort of fascistic Zionism complete hegemony over Israeli politics. If the current Arab uprisings fail mainly, if they fail in Cairo we can expect the most vicious Israeli designs in relation to not only the Palestinians but also all its neighbours, specifically Syria and Lebanon.


There is now little sunshine left for the petty patriarchs of the Arab world, not quite monarchs but virtually monarchical in the extent of their arbitrary powers. Ben Ali ruled autocratically for 23 years and is now cooling his heels in the villa in Saudi Arabia where Idi Amin, the beastly dictator of Uganda, spent his last years. Muammar Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya for just over 40 years, was so distraught by the Tunisian uprising that he addressed a clownish message to the people of Tunisia admonishing them to not only accept Ben Ali as their President but, in deed, appoint him as President-for-Life, pretty much as Qaddafi himself has been.

Mubarak has ruled for 32 years. Americans may or may not arrange for his political survival for now, but it does seem most likely that 2012 shall dawn without him at the helm of Egyptian affairs. The uprising in Yemen has been so huge that Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been President since 1978, has announced that he will not run for the presidency again, just to save his skin. How long the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan or the Assad family in Syria shall last is anybody's guess.

We cannot predict the outcome of the ongoing uprisings. As said earlier, the signs are ominous. In any case, we can close with a broad generalisation. The great flaw in the secular and progressive' Arab nationalist regimes that arose out of anti-monarchical, anti-feudal, anti-colonial movements the Nasserist in Egypt, the Baathist in Iraq and Syria, FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria was that they were hostile to the two great lineages of the Enlightenment, liberalism and Marxism, which had been ascendant in the Arab World during the half century or more prior to the rise of those progressive' regimes. They killed communists, suppressed democracy, stifled all the intellectual and artistic life which did not explicitly support them. The autocracies that have dominated the non-monarchical Arab world the Mubaraks and the Salehs of this world retained the very worst aspect of those regimes of developmentalist authoritarianism but renounced all their progressive aspects.

The uprisings of today have the potential of recovering that Arab past which had once subscribed to the values of the Enlightenment and sought to connect itself to the great civilising revolutions of modernity: the French discourse of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the Marxist vision of radical equalities, classless society and the kind of communist project that Marx had once described as the perfection of democracy. These uprisings are not anywhere near that, but potentially, they could reach out towards those horizons. That is the reason the whole world trembles and hopes for their victory.

But, then, what happens if these uprisings of secularity and democratic demand are beaten back? Two things will probably happen.

First, Zionism will then have the opportunity to move towards a Final Solution for the Palestinians, surely, but also dominion over its neighbours in Syria and Lebanon (Jordan it already has in its pocket).

More crucially, millenarian Islamist extremism will probably spread like wildfire. Egypt was the land where militant Islamist extremism arose out of the defeat of 1967, and when, a decade and a half later, those who had been apprehended as members of the conspiracy to kill Sadat rose in court to tell their story, the majority of them said they had been Nasserist in their early youth but then came to believe, after the defeat, that secular governments were incapable of defeating Israel; hence the Islamist underground.

If the current uprisings are defeated, the outcome shall be much more devastating since the victors shall be not Israelis and their sponsors (the U.S.) but their local, Arab clients who ruled in the name of containing Islamism. In that situation, a significant section of this huge rudderless mass, already mobilised by these uprisings and then disoriented by the defeat at the hands of their autocratic leaders who always pose as champions of secularism, may well turn to Islamist extremism, out of disillusion and spite.

I fear that the Obama-Clinton combine may not quite grasp what is at stake here, blinded as they are by imperial imperatives.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment