North Africa, the West, and the Egytian Revolution

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By Eric Walberg. Republished  from Al-Ahram article Why?

Understandably, the West’s small Arab and leftist communities followed Egypt’s revolution with bated breath and came out to celebrate its triumphal conclusion around the globe. It was a rare privilege as a Canadian to live through this world-shaking event, which will reverberate for long into the future.

Western media generally welcomed the overthrow of a dictator — great headline news — but it was treated as something worrying by Western leaders, who tried to downplay it much as did official Egyptian media till the fearless leader fled the palace. Egypt has been a generously paid ally for the US in its Middle East policy of protecting Israel, and the hesitancy of the US government in supporting fully what should have been a poster-child spin-off of much- touted US ideals was both frustrating and highly instructive.

Canadian government support for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was even more staunch until vice-president Omar Suleiman’s 20-second resignation speech 11 February, clearly written with a metaphorical gun to one or both of their heads. This craven loyalty to an autocrat reviled by his people was the US-Israeli preferred solution. Much better to cool the passionate revolutionaries, allow the system to adjust (and survive).

But perhaps more important, to continue Egypt’s state-of-emergency laws that allow the regime to keep Israeli critics and devout Muslims under raps, and just as important allow the US to “render” undesirable Muslims there to be tortured. Imagine if the records of these renditions over the past decade by the US (even Canada) to Egypt were to come to light, falling into the hands of the revolutionaries, much like Britain’s secret treaties in WWI fell into the Bolsheviks’ hands?

“They’re not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” quipped Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper glumly. He could well be articulating — in his own tasteless way — the sentiments of the Egyptian military establishment. The revolution on the surface amounted to one faction of the military ousting another. All the actors were/are high-ranking military officers. Those now in power, nominally headed by Minister of Defence and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces Mohamed Tantawi, are now trying to push determined demonstrators out of Tahrir Square, get people back to work, shut down further strikes, and keep their US military advisers (not to mention the US president himself) assured that the centrepiece of Egyptian foreign policy remains in place.

It is hard to believe now that just a few weeks ago, Mubarak was invincible, his visage gracing at least one page in every newspaper every day, meeting with some Western leader, posing with Israeli notables, confident that he was in control of his desert ship-of-state. As evidence of his misrule and open discussion of the perilous state that he left Egypt in pours out of newly liberated media, people are overwhelmed, irritable and depressed, after the euphoria of the wrenching shift in people’s thinking that the revolution entailed.

It seems that Egypt’s suffering and oppression are something alien to Western experience. But this is far from the truth. As the fervour spread like wildfire during the first few weeks, I recalled how the small leftist community in Toronto was equally self-righteous and eager for change, how neoliberalism has left Canadian society with yawning income disparities not much different than those of Egypt. The most obvious difference being that the general standard of living in Canada is much higher and the middle class (still) more numerous. It struck me how much more oblivious Canadians are to the injustices of their society, which it is the duty of politicians to address. But the very idea of such a spectacular event as happened here to address issues of social justice is impossible to imagine.

US commentators are already comparing the revolution to the overthrow of Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos (21 years) and Indonesian president Suharto (31 years). Iranian leaders note the eerie coincidence with their own revolution of 11 February 1979, with more than half the population of Iran out to demonstrate their solidarity with Egyptians.

Despite the many differences, Iran and Indonesia are the closest parallels: an anti-colonial revolt against a repressive pseudo-Muslim autocrat intent on passing the reins of power to his son. Their revolts triumphed when the army and police gave up supporting the US-backed leader, much as Egypt’s security apparatus did. The long repressed Muslim Brotherhood is the Sunni equivalent of the Iranian clerics. Even if the US can steer Egypt into the secular Indonesian model, it will still have to come to terms with the fact that Indonesia does not recognise Israel, that any future Egyptian government will almost surely renegotiate the 1979 peace agreement with Israel and be a friend to Hamas.

However, the most stark and instructive parallel is between pre-revolution Egypt and the current US, which, like Egypt, has reached the end of the same gruelling 30-year neoliberal road that Egypt did under Mubarak’s reign, jettisoning any pretense of a just society. The coincidences abound: both the US and Egypt began their ill-fated journeys in that very 1981, with the ascendancy of US president Ronald Reagan and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat, though Sadat had actually pre-empted the US with his dismantling of much of Egypt’s socialism.

Each presidency since then has either embraced or been pressured by the exigencies of capitalism and electoral democracy to enact greater and great tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, meanwhile cutting social services and increasing spending on so-called defence. They regularly flout the consensus of their electorates on all major issues, from the environment, social services, jobs, to weapons production, invasions, drug laws and the Cubas and Irans which flout the empire.

Income disparity is arguably the strongest impulse to revolt. As measured by the gini coefficient (0 is perfect equality) Egypt stands in a far better light at 0.34 than the US 0.45 (Canada is 0.32).

Egyptians seem to be much more politically astute than their Western counterparts, more willing to admit that their leaders take bribes, lie, follow policies dictated by business or lobbies and which counter public opinion. But it was the poor Egyptians, fed up with the super rich flaunting their ill- gotten gains, that ultimately created the tidal wave of support to bring the revolution to its triumphant conclusion.

Just try to imagine an equivalent wave of outrage by the millions of downtrodden American poor. US police have no trouble beating and jailing hundreds or thousands during a large demonstration if necessary. The US has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world, where many can be considered political prisoners. The US army, being mercenary (excuse me, professional), would have little compunction to fire on any group threatening the sanctity of the political establishment. Conscription is a vital brick in building a democratic society, really an essential safeguard allowing the society to be dismantled if it turns into a jail, a brick which has been lost to the US and its satellites. A brick that Egyptians used to telling effect.

How can Americans expect a president to be fair and hear them when he must raise $1 billion from corporations to outspend his equally compromised rival in elections? Senator John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities”. New York Times analyst Bob Herbert looked enviously at Egyptians’ longing for democracy, comparing the US political system to a “perversion of democracy”, bemoaning that at the very moment Egyptians are discovering it, “Americans are in the mind- bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.”

And yet Americans blissfully pledge their allegiance, weep on 4 July and during presidential inaugurations, despite the unassailable evidence of the injustices both domestically and abroad of the system they live under. Egyptians, though just as nationalistic, were able to see through the façade of their pseudo-democracy and rise up to overthrow the guilty parties. They are the heroes of all true democrats in the world. The few people particularly in North America who see through their own transparent political façade can only look on wistfully.

What became the anthem of the revolution — “Why?” by Mohamed Munir — was written shortly before the 25 January spark that burned away (let’s hope) much of the chaff accumulated during 30 years of neoliberal “reforms”. He cries out to his homeland like a spurned lover who vows to take his country back from the usurpers:

If love of you was my choice

My heart would long ago have changed you for another

But I vow I will continue to change your life for the better

Till you are content with me.

How different from the equivalent American song — Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” — self-pitying and hopeless in this, the world’s sole superpower:

You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much

‘Till you spend half your life just covering up.

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