Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Egypt's struggle continues

Nine months after Hosni Mubarak fled in the wake of the Egyptian uprising, protests and clashes continue on the streets. Tahrir Square is once more occupied, and there have been violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces. There are some who argue that, as a result of the ongoing struggle, Egyptians are on the verge of a general strike.

The latest news comes as most of the world has long since shifted its attention from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement. That continues, of course, and the Americans remain the most radical end of that movement - with Occupy Oakland calling for a coordinated blockade of ports. They have also been the first to abandon the fetishisation of square occupations, moving indoors in Seattle, St Louis and Washington DC. As somebody said to me today, "who'd have thought we'd be taking the lead from the Americans?"

Returning to Egypt, the immediate problem is that - after taking power in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall - the army have failed to make reforms fast enough. This should come as little surprise, following the early decisions to ban strikes and protests, and the repressive constitution they put in place around the same time. Since then there have been a number of demonstrations, as well as a wave of strikes in September. However, it is proving a lot harder to oust the military and the ruling class than it was to get rid of a single figurehead, and it is hard to know what will happen next.

Liberals in Egypt are simply demanding elections and that the army speed up reforms, but it is clear to many that this is not enough. For a start, the aftermath of the revolution has been a brutal lesson in the fact that a repressive structure goes beyond a single person. That chants of "peaceful! Peaceful!" were met with the response of "enough 'peaceful' already" demonstrates that the reality of the Egyptian resistance and its mythos among left-wing activists are two very different things.

Those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces: by the government’s own admission; 99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed, and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down. Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks even as they fired tear gas and live ammunition on us. But at the end of the day on the 28th of January they retreated, and we had won our cities.

It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose.

If we do not resist, actively, when they come to take what we have won back, then we will surely lose. Do not confuse the tactics that we used when we shouted “peaceful” with fetishizing nonviolence; if the state had given up immediately we would have been overjoyed, but as they sought to abuse us, beat us, kill us, we knew that there was no other option than to fight back. Had we laid down and allowed ourselves to be arrested, tortured, and martyred to “make a point”, we would be no less bloodied, beaten and dead.
The other problem with looking to elections to resolve the problems in the country is the fact that those most likely to benefit from them are the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. The struggle on the ground has been largely secular in nature, exemplified by Christians and Muslims standing side-by-side - the former joining hands to protect the latter as they prayed in recent demonstrations.

There has been a backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood because they are seen as collaborating with military rule, underlined by the fact that the US supports pressing ahead with elections even if they are likely to win. This will not be for the benefit of the Brotherhood themselves, but on the basis that this is the better option for stability - and thus US economic interests - given the level of anger military rule is provoking and failing to quell. The Brotherhood will happily accept this since it grants them power, and meanwhile the Egyptian working class lose out.

The far more positive option, and the one favoured by neither the military, the US, nor the Islamists, is for the Egyptian workers to stand against all their would-be rulers. This will involve making the potential of a general strike into a reality, and seizing control of their own communities and workplaces whilst repelling the government. Otherwise, they are caught between particularly unpalatable options.

This might seem far-fetched at present, but no doubt that initial revolutionary moment did when people first entered Tahrir Square. And as has been said by revolutionaries of the past, "be realistic - demand the impossible!"