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The Arab spring is alive and well and living in Egypt
by Assaf Adiv
The claim that there is no and has never been an Arab Spring has become the bon ton in Israel. Millions of people in the Arab world are taking to the streets to realize their ambitions for freedom, but that doesn’t seem to be enough for representatives of the Israeli liberal left. While new forces powered by left wing and worker organizations in Egypt and Tunisia roll up their sleeves in preparation for the next stage, the Israeli liberals can’t wait to eulogize the revolutions as a means of justifying their own passivity and conservatism. And to whose benefit? Binyamin Netanyahu’s, as usual.
n Saturday, December 17th 2011, the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia marked one year since the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the hero of the Arab revolution. The Tunisian television network Al-Wataniya broadcast the ceremony live. Crowds armed with neither flags nor signs gathered in the main square of Sidi Bouzid. It was clear that they were there out of solidarity, not because someone forced them to march to the square on their day off. Women and men who were interviewed for the broadcast spoke in simple terms about their expectations from the elected government and from the revolution in which they took part. An especially touching interview was given by the sister of Mohamed Bouaziz, who expressed absolute sympathy with the goals of the revolution. The speakers who went up on the improvised stage all emphasized the demands that lay at the heart of the Jasmine Revolution – democracy and social justice. The Islamic movement Al-Nahda, which had recently won the election, sent one representative to the event, who received the microphone after local youths and representatives of secular movements finished speaking, and the speech he gave did not differ in content or spirit from those preceding it.
“Haaretz” puts a damper
“Haaretz” reporter Anshel Pfeffer visited Sidi Bouziz just before this one year anniversary and reported from there and from the capital Tunis. His report was featured in a Haaretz weekend supplement from December 17th, which was dedicated to an overview of the Arab revolution throughout the year since its inception. The article was published under the headline “One swallow does not make a spring”, as if to say, no reason to get excited about a revolution that never actually happened. And this is how Pfeffer described the Tunisia he saw before his eyes: the unemployed protesting a lack of employment solutions, students and left wing activists protesting insufficient representation in parliament, and a debate around the question of the niqab (the veil) held at the university. All of these lead the Haaretz reporter to the conclusion that he is looking at a country ridden with despair, disappointment and frustration for lack of progress. I, on the other hand, read in his report about the unemployed who struggle to improve their situation, and the students and social activists who continue their revolutionary efforts in the streets, a kind of vigorous vitality of renewal, the same kind that shone through in the television report from Sidi Bouziz.
The same Haaretz supplement featured other articles, including Prof. Shlomo Avineri’s programmatic article, bearing the headline “Spring, or is it?”. Here as well, the title hints at the author’s agenda – to paint the Arab Spring as an illusion. Avineri does show sympathy for the Facebook-powered youths that we were all so “impressed by”, but quickly concedes that “The harsh truth is that the Tahrir revolution was a revolution of the educated middle class, which does not represent most of Egyptian society. Egypt's real problems are poverty and terrible economic distress. The middle-class protesters do not have answers to these problems, nor do they have access to the Egyptian masses.”
Avineri establishes a fact that no one disputes, but his analysis is partial and misleading. The front line of the Tahrir revolution was indeed composed of middle class Facebook youths, who do not represent the rest of the poor, illiterate population that is removed from any access to modern infrastructure. And yet, the Egyptian revolution is in no way a revolution of the middle class.
The revolution, which took place throughout the months of January and February 2011, was the result of an extraordinary joining of forces between all classes in Egyptian society. Ironically enough, the mistake that Avineri makes in his view of the revolution is similar to the mistake made by some of the youth coalitions from Tahrir Square, who to this day prefer to protest in the street rather than organize into political parties; they even boycotted the elections.
Revolution of the people, not the elites
Alaa Awad, a leading Egyptian Socialist, analyzes the dynamic that led to the revolution (El-Badeel Dec. 5, 2011), and explains how the initiatives of the Shabab movement in Tahrir Square during January 2011 activated the millions of Cairo’s poor living in inhuman conditions, who in the end were the ones to tip the scale against the Mubarak regime. Awad also points out the critical role played by the worker strikes that started on February 9th, in creating a conglomerate of forces that isolated the president and finally defeated his murderous mechanism of oppression. Despite the fact that the Egyptian military still holds the reins of power over the country and prevents the revolution from reaching any further or deeper, the fact of overthrowing the dictator and revoking the legitimacy of the old ruling structure has created a new historical situation, one that the entirety of the Egyptian people identifies with.
In Egypt and in Tunisia, the revolutionary efforts have paved the way, in less than a year, to first time democratic elections being held in both countries. And in both countries the elections turned into a veritable popular celebration, with an unprecedented participation rate of 90% in the first election and 70% in the second. For the first time ever, political and professional unionizing activity could be carried out freely and without hindrance, and the press became available to revolutionary voices. These facts are all the more impressive if we take into account that elections during Mubarak’s reign were nothing but a hollow sham, which no one took seriously. The voter turnout in the Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2010 (only two months prior to the revolution) was no more than 24.47% (according to an international website specializing in assessing electoral participation). Both the leftist parties and the Muslim Brotherhood were banned from public life, and any action undertaken by them was suppressed with an iron fist.
Why did the Muslim Brotherhood triumph?
The results of the election strongly reflected the power dynamic prior to them. In Tunisia, the moderate Muslim party Al-Nahda got 40% of the vote, with the rest going to liberal and socialist parties. Because of the many divisions among the secular forces, 32% of the electorate gave their votes to parties that didn’t get past the election threshold.
In Egypt, things are a little more complicated. Under pressure from the Egyptian streets, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which has been steering the country since the removal of Mubarak, was forced to declare elections for the Provisional State Council, which were eventually postponed from September to November 2011. The night of the elections, the temporary government appointed by the army proposed legislation that would limit the authority of the parliamentary body, and a crisis ensued. The three main parties contending for the future of Egypt are the military council, the Tahrir Square youth, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The first two find themselves in a state of constant conflict that has in recent months deteriorated into blood-soaked confrontations.
On November 28, the Egyptian people queuing for the ballot boxes could hear echoes of the clashes at Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmud Street, which claimed the lives of dozens of protesters. Some of the organizations representing the revolutionary youth responded by boycotting the elections, and by doing so forfeited the opportunity to win the trust and support of the general public. The rifts in the ranks of the left around the issue of participation in the elections caused much damage to its ballot results.
The victories of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Nahda movement in Egypt and Tunisia are therefore a manifestation of the stages that the revolutionary movement has reached in these two countries. The popular support for the Muslim Brotherhood stems from a number of factors: first, they had been there for 80 years in the role of an opposition party whose leaders and activists were continuously persecuted for their views. This fact gives them prestige and credibility. Secondly, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement are supported by Saudi Arabia and the rich Gulf countries; this financial backing enables them to fund an enormous system of food distribution, health clinics and welfare projects, mosques and religious schools, as well as a generous portion of voter bribery. Thirdly, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Nahda movement in Tunisia benefited from the weakness of the left, which has been floundering in a perpetual state of confusion and disjointedness for the past few decades, with no unified platform or leadership.
One of the more prominent left-wing leaders in Egypt, Ahmed Bahaa El-Din Shaaban, claims that the mass participation of the Egyptian public in the elections is proof of maturity, and that it obligates the left to accept the result of these elections and to prepare itself for the next stage (interview for Al-Sabar Magazine website Dec. 21, 2011). Shaaban explains that the Egyptian people has elected the traditional Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties due to a lack of political awareness. The severe social and economical problems that Egypt currently faces, says Shaaban, will not allow the Muslim Brotherhood-headed government to propose viable solutions, and the result will be a process of political disillusionment and development, which will open new opportunities for the left (see box).
A concrete example of the dynamic described by Shaaban could be seen in the elections for the Egyptian Doctors’ Union held last October. In these, many secular candidates, including Dr. Mona Mina, a female doctor of Coptic origin who has been an activist for young doctors’ rights since before the revolution, defeated leading candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had control of the union during Mubarak’s reign and who had cooperated with the regime to suppress democratization within the union.
Back to the “no partner” approach
All of this remains invisible to the Israeli liberal left. Blindness towards the Arab Spring is not exclusive to Netanyahu, who looks for any excuse to justify his uncooperative behavior. As the above cited quotations indicate, representatives of the liberal left share the view that the Arab world is not ripe for democracy.
This attitude is a recycled version of the “no partner” mantra, preached notably by Ehud Barak. As said above, Prof. Avineri’s analysis, claiming that “the Tahrir Square youth may be enlightened, but the Egyptian people want radical Islam, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” is a distortion of the reality emerging around us. The more Israeli forces align themselves with the revolutionary Arab movement, as it is manifested by Alaa Awad, Ahmed Bahaa El-Din Shaaban, and Dr. Mona Mina, and the more these forces support their struggle for democracy, freedom and social justice, the easier it will be to create a dialogue and to have a real partner for peace. The road to that destination passes, as we know, through the '67 lines, through the struggle against the Occupation and for total equality for Arabs in Israel. This agenda benefits all the progressive forces in the area and constitutes the key to a better future for the peoples of the area, including the Israelis.
- Translated by Avital Tsype
- Translated by Avital Tsype
Alaa Awad: The Egyptian revolution was a revolution of all the social classes. (Selected passages from Alaa Awad’s article published in the Egyptian daily El-Badeel on December 5, 2011)
The mass movement on the streets, at town squares, at work places and inside institutions - this was the crucial factor in the struggle against tyranny. One cannot understand this key factor, without understanding the social makeup of each social stratum and the tools they used to fight oppression. The social composition of the forces that started protesting on the streets on January 25, 2011, were mainly middle class youths, who suffered a deep feeling of oppression under the dictatorial regime, which was based on a system of policing that hurt the pride of the Egyptian people and used many forms of torture and manipulation against it. The masses were forced to deal with unemployment and the constant fear of plunging under the poverty line. The multitude of youths were recruited through social network sites, as most of them were of a relatively educated class, and knew how to operate computers and social networks.
On January 28, at the peak of the harsh confrontations between the revolutionaries and the police, a different social sector began to distinguish itself, that of the poor, the residents of the makeshift slums (ashwaiat) on the outskirts of towns, who suffer from unemployment and only manage to get part time and temporary jobs. This stratum lives in the conditions of extreme poverty, and it is the social class that paid the highest price for the neo-liberal policies, the privatization and robbery of national resources, that the capitalist government used against the people.
Those who suffered most from the subjugation and arbitrariness of the police regime, who fell victim to constant pressure and persecution, they were the ones who defeated the system of oppression and forced it to retreat from the streets faced with their surging anger. This was a major change in the makeup of the revolutionary crowds, a change that was extremely important in advancing the revolution and achieving its first political victory – the overthrow of Mubarak and the defeat of his mechanism of tyranny.
Despite the important role of the poor, and despite the number of victims that they sacrificed in the street fights and in the town squares, they received no compensation, neither officially nor from the media. They have no representation in the youth coalitions, and their martyrs did not show up on the posters that filled the town squares and the television screens after the overthrow of Mubarak. Moreover, the military council and a number of political parties wag an accusing finger at them as at thugs who acted against the law.
Another important fact, which had a deciding influence on speeding up the process of Mubarak’s deposal, was the appearance of the worker movement on the revolutionary stage, starting from February 9 when the worker strikes began to expand. And yet, in the absence of an organization that could lead this revolutionary intifada, leadership became an issue of spontaneity, which ended up causing internal division. Only after the overthrow of Mubarak did the left begin to rebuild itself, the left that was once identified with the Tajmua party, under the wing of the Socialist Popular Alliance party.
The revolution is currently in its primary stages – the next stages will be dominated by the social question, which will confront the Muslim Brotherhood with issues that it cannot resolve.
Part of an interview with Ahmed Bahaa El-Din Shaaban (Asma Aghbarieh Zahalka – Al-Sabar Magazine website 21.12.2001)
The Islamic and democratic movements, as well as the military council – they are all at a dead end. The religious forces are facing the social issues test, and a vote for them is contingent on their ability to come up with solutions to the basic problems of Egyptian society. This is a dream that requires them to take drastic steps and to tighten their belts for many years. It demands state involvement and giving back the money stolen from the people, and a renewed emphasis on the social role of the state. I don’t think that the Muslim Brotherhood will take measures for the benefit of the people, because they belong to the bourgeois class, and their interests rely on privatization, not the exact opposite process. People expected that the elections would bring back stability and improve the daily reality lived by the Egyptians. But now it’s time for the real test. The public clearly says, we’ve tried Mubarak and Sadat, now let’s see what the Muslim Brotherhood can do. If they don’t fulfill our demands, we will know the way to freedom and to new elections.
The voter turnout in the elections was immense, and showed that the people are taking back their stature and their power, that they are redefining themselves. Even though the nation gave its vote to the Muslim Brotherhood, it will know to get back in control when the time comes. The Brotherhood is well aware of this fact. The mass participation in the elections is what drove me to change my position on boycotting (Shaaban is referring to the dispute among the ranks of the Continuous Revolution Coalition, in which he supported the boycott of the elections, but remained a minority and accepted the majority opinion, which demanded independent participation in the election – A.A.).
Today there are between 60-70 thousand mosques in Egypt, which are being used to spread ideas, such as the idea that those who call for democracy are heretics, a title they also bestow upon the Copts. These are dangerous words. Religious parties are public about their demands to implement Sharia Law and found a religious state, and their definition of democracy as hostile to Islam. These parties define those who vote for a liberal, secular or Christian party as heretics. There are billions of Egyptian pounds being pumped in from the Gulf states, so it’s no wonder that the results of the elections are problematic and don’t necessarily reflect the orientations of the society.
Having said that, I am not fearful about the future. Democracy will take its course. The most important thing is that the people chose of their own free will. When all is said and done, you cannot say “no” to the elections because it’s the public’s right to choose as they see fit, and to correct their course later if they are proven to be mistaken. The people feel that they can say “no” to those who don’t keep their promises. Therefore, I am not worried about the election results, because I believe that the democratic process takes time. You can’t overthrow a tyrannical and oppressive regime in only 18 days, because the revolution has to take its time. What we witnessed during the 18 days in January and February was, in my view, the first battle of the revolution. There will be more waves and other stages to follow, which will have a distinctively social aspect. This is the reality that becomes clearer with time. Just two days ago, the textile workers at Mahala El-Kubra, Kafr El-Zayat and Kafr El-Dawwar – around seventy thousand workers – announced that they would call a strike if their rights weren’t recognized.
In recent times we have witnessed strikes break out among port workers, teachers, doctors and other professional sectors. In my opinion, the next strike will be the end of the Muslim Brotherhood myth and the paradise that they promise to the people. The nation has high expectations of them, because people believe that they can offer solutions to their problems. We can already see the government struggle to raise the minimum wage to 700 Egyptian pounds a month. The coming days will see conflict around the core issues of the social struggle, which has already begun making its way back to the foreground.