Whilst the imperialist media lavish attention on the phony ‘revolutions’ peddled by the stooges in Benghazi and Homs, they have little to say about the progress of the ‘Arab spring’ in its birthplace, in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet although the imperialists would prefer us to assume that it’s all over bar the shouting there, the masses clearly see matters differently.
Rocketing food prices lit the bonfire under Ben Ali and Mubarak in the first place, as protestors hoped to escape grinding poverty and insecurity by clearing out the corrupt cliques at the top.
Since then however, with their countries destabilised but with no fundamental change to the comprador elites and their adherence to IMF diktat, merely a change of faces, their economies have gone from bad to worse. Whilst tourist revenue and foreign investment have slumped, the ruling classes have marked time, praying that the popular ferment will die down of its own accord. In this hope they are proving sorely disappointed.
Much popular anger in Egypt has focused on the failure to bring to justice those responsible for slaying hundreds and injuring thousands in the course of the protests that ousted Mubarak.
With the sole exception of one police officer (tried in absentia at that), nobody has yet been convicted of the murder of the many hundreds of civilians killed over the 18 days of the uprising, and this unfinished business just will not go away. Even if Mubarak, who so far has evaded justice under cover of a sick note, actually faces a court on 3 August as promised by the government, the conduct and outcome of other former ministers accused of human rights abuses has only poured oil on the flames of popular anger.
The trial of former interior minister Habib al-Adli and his aides, charged with killing some 850 protestors during the uprising, was held behind closed doors, with only lawyers and handpicked journalists permitted to attend, while relatives of the slain waited behind police barriers outside the courtroom. When at the end of June word filtered out that the court had ordered a month’s postponement, the news sparked fresh protests, feeding into renewed demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
Another court decision, to let seven police thugs charged with murdering 17 protestors and injuring another 350 walk free on bail, provoked a riot in the courtroom that spilled over onto the street, blocking traffic for hours.
Meanwhile, as the criminal courts are treating Mubarak’s cronies and hired thugs with kid gloves, military courts are prosecuting hundreds of civilians who have dared to stand up to repression. Among those so persecuted was a woman who was tortured and subjected to a humiliating ‘virginity test’ in open view of military prison workers.
Role of the army
Whilst for the moment the protestors’ demands have focused on getting rid of the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the role of the army remains ambivalent.
Fraternisation was a striking feature of the January uprising, and the army high command continues to vacillate over its relationship with imperialism, leaning on the government to reject the $3bn loan from the IMF that the government had itself requested!
Unlike the usual imperialist loans, this was offered at a low interest rate and was aimed at buying social peace for long enough to consolidate a regime under imperialist tutelage. The promise dangled in front of the government was a supposedly unconditional transfusion of cash with which to fund some popular measures of social amelioration: some concessions on welfare, a minimum wage.
The minister of labour spoke plainly on the latter: “Do you know what will happen if we fail to set a minimum wage? People will go back to Tahrir Square and they will burn everything.” The very institutions of international finance that had previously put the Egyptian masses on the rack of structural adjustment now hoped to pose as their saviour, the better to bring the revolution fully under imperialist influence.
Instead, General Sameh Sadeq instructed the government to cancel the loan, citing “five conditions that totally went against the principles of national sovereignty”. The government obediently turned the IMF down, opting instead to borrow some emergency cash from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
By going along with the IMF loan, the government would have further undermined its ‘revolutionary’ and patriotic pretensions. By rejecting the IMF loan, it deprives itself of the chance to offer some temporary sops to the masses to stave off further protests. In short, the government is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.
The working class holds the key
Whilst the protests in Cairo and other big cities have great symbolic importance and command the most media attention, the roots of the social revolt are to be found in the poverty and exploitation of the mass of workers.
Indeed the 6 April movement in whose name the January uprising began, sometimes described now as a ‘youth’ movement, actually commemorates the date in 2008 when the textile workers of the industrial region of Mahallah rose up in protest at the cost of living, initiating many of the forms of struggle now seen as a trademark of the recent struggles: pitching tents in front of the factory gates, publicly slashing portraits of Mubarak and rallying all opposition forces.
The region’s biggest textile factory, in Misr, was nationalised by Nasser and is one of the few enterprises that escaped reprivatisation at the hands of Sadat and his successors. Again, it was public transport strikes that helped break Mubarak’s back.
The internationalism of the revolution also finds its finest expression in proletarian struggles. In January 2009 workers at a fertiliser factory in Suez downed tools in order to prevent exports to Israel during Operation Cast Lead, and in January 2011 they again mobilised the people behind political strikes.
One of the most progressive achievements of the revolution to date – the opening of the Rafah crossing to Gaza – reflects the profound internationalism of the Egyptian proletariat, for whom Sadat’s demolition of Nasser’s political legacy of fraternal solidarity with the Palestinian nation stinks no less than Sadat’s demolition of Nasser’s economic legacy of public ownership. Reversing both are key demands of the national-democratic revolution, to the accomplishment of which the working class holds the key.
In Tunisia, too, it was the organised strength of the working class that delivered the coup de grace to the Ben Ali regime, when the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) brought it to its knees with a general strike. And there too, the ousting of the old regime was as much a slap in the face for world imperialism as for the local comprador stooge. As Israeli prime minister Netanyahu said of Ben Ali’s downfall, “Israel has lost a great friend in the region.”
Tunisian relations with Israel are a burning issue of the Tunisian revolution. On paper the government is pledged to support Palestine and abjures normalisation of relations with Israel; in practice prime minister Sebsi has appointed as deputy foreign minister Jihnavi, who in a previous incarnation headed up Tunisia’s interest section in Israel.
As in Egypt, most of the subsequent changes have been cosmetic and protests continue to suffer repression, dished out by a security apparatus in reality little different from that which served Ben Ali. Any hope that revolutionary Tunisia would subside back into business as usual, however, has been dashed by the actions of imperialism itself, whose aggression against sovereign Libya has resulted in yet further destabilisation of Tunisia as thousands flee across the border to escape the war zone.
The toppling of Mubarak and Ben Ali was not the end of the revolution but the start.