By Yousef K.B.
This is a compilation of the news from the past two days and some analysis of how to make sense of the news. I hope it is helpful.
Protests have only become larger and louder. This came as a direct response to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s response on Friday, January 28th or the lack thereof, in which he remained in power and simply reshuffled his cabinet. A day later he named a Vice President (unprecedented for his rule) and a new Prime Minister. Later that day he ordered them to keep subsidies, reduce poverty, alleviate unemployment, and reduce inflation. People were unfazed, having had 30 years of empty promises, and once again came out to the streets on Saturday.
On Saturday media outlets, especially American ones were transfixed on reports of looting, instead of the events on the ground and the real protagonists the people of Egypt. American media reports have attempted to connect the looting to prison breaks that have occurred, where prisoners have revolted in some cases, and in other cases people from outside of prisons have attacked the prisons to free detainees. I don’t think the two are connected, and attempts to connect them by American and Egyptian state media serves to keep people afraid and portray an image of chaos rather than a revolt, of law-breakers rather than political activists. Reports have come in and it is also widely believed among Egyptians that police, along with state backed paramilitaries and street gangs perpetrated the looting (please see my earlier post a fuller discussion of this). Looting has since then dramatically decreased as people organized neighborhood committees, set up road-blocks and checked IDs. The reported prison breaks have coincided with fires in some prisons and prison guards firing on prisoners. There is an unconfirmed number of deaths and injured from amongst the prisoners. It is important to remember that with the perpetual “emergency law” that has existed in Egypt since Mubarak’s time, the difference between “criminal” and political prisoner is murky at best.
On Saturday an hour before curfew was set to begin, helicopters and military fighter jets were seen flying very low above Cairo in an apparent show of force by the Egyptian state and military. The crowds were undeterred. So far Tahrir Square or Liberation Square in Cairo has been filled with people, and the military has not been able to deter people from gathering there. Protests have also been seen in Suez, Alexandria, and other cities, with protests in smaller cities and neighborhoods unnoticed by us outside of Egypt as reporters are not there to cover them and the internet still down for people to get the message out effectively.
Egyptian Armed Forces
On Sunday, pictures emerged on Egypt state TV showing Mubarak flanked with Military generals around him. The new cabinet that was installed is also littered with military or people with connections to the military. Military presence has only increased on the streets of Egypt and especially Cairo. The military has increased its presence in Heliopolis, where the Presidential palace is located.
There are also reports that the Egyptian military has been deployed in the Sinai Peninsula after receiving approval from Israel. This is in an apparent move to dissuade and stop any smuggling of commodities to Gaza. Even in the regime’s weakest point in the last 30 years, it is still beholden to the interests of and acts in defense of Israeli interests and against Palestinian interests.
Nevertheless the question of the loyalties of the Armed Forces is very much in doubt. Just recently the spokesperson of the Egyptian armed forces read a statement on Egyptian State television saying that the “armed forces will not resort to use of force against the people of this great nation.” While it issues such a statement, military officials are sitting next to Mubarak, in a show of approval for the regime. Which side are they on?
The Egyptian Armed Forces much like the United States are trying to hold off to take a position. In talking about the Armed Forces it is important to remember that there are different fractions within and I’d assume these fractions might be multiplying with different positions. Moreover the Armed Forces are distinct from the police and these interests are not necessarily the same. As security states face grave moments, their functionaries begin to think of their personal interests and how they will thrive once the state falls. I’d speculate the same phenomenon is happening within the security community these days in Egypt. Therefore it is hard to predict or speak to what is happening. Having said that, I think that the Armed Forces are trying to play both sides, and it is taking the role that it will be in charge if Mubarak stays in power or if he leaves. The Armed Forces are getting themselves ready for either outcome, and I believe they are preparing to take the reigns of the state, if and when Mubarak steps down.
The people responded to the incorporation of the military in the government, and chants of “madaniya, mish askariya” or “civilian, not military [government]” were heard. Throughout the streets, interactions between the people and military have been safe and friendly. This is what the military is attempting to negotiate, how does it defend the state and keep the state, while not alienating the people. Remember that the material interests of military leaders depend on the current policies of the state, including their alliance with Israel. Egyptian alliance and overall policy towards the Israelis and Palestinians enables the Military to receive massive support from the US along with access to US-made armaments.
The United States for its part has been in conversation with different levels of the Egyptian government including the Armed Forces. As I have noted in early entries, the US is not about supporting one man, one dictator, but support for an establishment and for a specific type of hegemony. This hegemony is characterized by: its neo-liberal economic policies; its globally integrated economic position; its support for Israel; a counter-balance to Iran-Syria axis; and its opposition to popular movements across the Mid East and North Africa.
American and European Positions
The West is engaged in “crisis management” (never wanting to solve crises at their root). As I argued previously the US wants to see Mubarak in power, but given that Mubarak’s presidency seems no longer tenable it will want the Military to take power to buffer and create a cocoon for the emergence of a new elite constellation to reestablish hegemony. Catherine Ashton the High Representative for Foreign Affairs for the European Union and Robert Gibbs the White House spokesperson echoed the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call yesterday for an “orderly transition to democracy.” Upon being asked to define what he meant, Gibbs responded that they want to see a “process of negotiations with a broad cross section of Egyptian people, including those in the opposition.” He said that inherently this means the government needs to be included. He further mentioned that they are calling for free and fair elections in September when the presidential term of Mubarak is supposed to end, a long with nominal changes in the constitution calling for free expression and end to emergency law. This is clearly a validation of my point that the Americans want a transition period led by the current State to prepare a new elite constellation.
An “orderly transition to democracy” is code for polyarchy, rule by the existing elite. “Orderly” in this phrase that is now the slogans of Western leaders speaks to the desire for the “transition” to come about through already existing elite groups. A fundamental or major re-shuffling of, or the emergence of new groups on the scene is usually anything but “orderly.” A further evidence for this is the refusal of Americans or Europeans to deal with or engage with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kifaya (enough is enough) movement, or other political opposition, choosing only to speak to the military. This is because Kifaya with Arab Nationalist leanings differs on current policies of Egyptian government towards Israel, and the Brotherhood is an Islamist group that is obviously vilified. Washington and capitals across Europe are only comfortable speaking with the military.
The political stakes involved of course is if popular discontent, anger, frustration, and self-activity is allowed to manifest itself it could bring about radical change. Thus current hegemonic forces will want to sublimate the people’s feelings and demands in just a re-shuffling of elite fractions that won’t destabilize the social relations of domination, what the Italian scholar calls a “passive revolution.”
Egyptian Opposition Parties
On Sunday night, Mohammad El Baradei, the former head of the IAEA, showed up in Tahrir square yesterday and made a call for Mubarak to step down. Following this call the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to agree to El Baradei leading a grouping of opposition forces to lead a transition government or to lead a post-Mubarak government. The tactic here on their part is to remain behind El Baradei who is acceptable to the outside world, and not to antagonize the West. It remains to be seen what the Brotherhood is thinking or planning on doing. I would however warn against characterizing this group as Qaeda-like or even akin to the Islamist who took over in Iran. All of these groups obviously (not to American pundits) are very different, and the Brotherhood seems to see itself as one of the many opposition groups without ambition to create a theological state.
Look at my previous post for a discussion of reasons to be weary of El Baradei or technocratic elite takeover.
Response of the Transnational Capitalist Class
The protests have surprised owners of capital worldwide and they are anxiously looking on. The Egyptian stock exchange lost 16% last week before it was shut down. The stock exchange remains closed, and reports put the losses at over 100 billion Egyptian pounds. Moody’s has downgraded Egyptian bonds, and further downgrades are being hinted. The Egyptian government postponed a plan sale of bonds to raise about 4 billion USD. Today businesses are mostly closed. Banks have closed and banned withdrawals and transfer of funds as they fear people taking out their money. Egyptian capitalist classes, as exemplified by statements from Tahir El Sherif of the Egytpian-British Chamber of Commerce are urging Mubarak to step down in the hopes of preventing a total collapse of the economy. However these groups are not calling for a total revamping of the state, but rather a transfer of power, much like what the US would like to see, to other people within the establishment.
Looking broader than Egypt, the most important gathering of leading business people, world leaders, and global political and financial institutions are underway in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Philip Aldrick of the Telegraph reported the following:
“The increase in inequality is the most serious challenge for the world,” Min Zhu, a special adviser at the International Monetary Fund and a former deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, told delegates at the Davos gathering. “I don’t think the world is paying enough attention.” His comments echoed an earlier warning from Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of media giant WPP, that “inequality, the concentration of wealth is a serious issue” and that marginal tax rates may need to rise for the best-off in society. Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at New York University, also warned that inequality “exacerbates political instability”.
This speaks to the fear of the global economic elite, of what can be termed the transnational capitalist class, of recent events across the globe. They are afraid of what seems to be people’s mobilizations without the leadership of parties or organizations where they are decrying government deregulations, cuts to subsidies, and erosion of public sector and services. These mobilizations, most visible and perhaps successful in Egypt and Tunisia are striking fear in the heart of this elite, and their trembling is visible in their discussion of inequality, a concept usually foreign to this grouping.
Next Steps by Revolutionaries in Egypt
People today have called for nation-wide general strike. In Cairo they are calling for a gathering in Tahrir Square and a march to the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis. This “Million Masry (Egyptian) March” is planning on seizing the palace, despite Mubarak having left it for Sharm al-Sheikh. The march will pass state television stations on their way. The military is reportedly lining the march routes, and activists are saying that they expect and are prepared to deal with military intervention. The Armed Forces have said they won’t attack “the people of this great nation,” and hopefully they will remain true to those statements. There are rumors of counter-protesters, most probably government paramilitaries and street gangs that might attempt to intervene, but with millions expected it is doubtful that they can derail the march.
In the most recent development the Vice President Omar Suleiman came out on state television that the constitutional court will look into elections fraud claims. He further stated that the president has told him to begin dialogue for constitutional changes. He further said that he wants to protect against an “Iran-like” outcome to these protests.
Unfortunately for him and Mubarak, they have yet to learn what Ben Ali learned in Tunisia… Too little, too late!
Forwards ever, backwards never.
In solidarity with the people of Egypt, Tunisia, the Mid East, Africa, and the world.