Egypt or Libya: Which Message Will Prevail?

By Leonard Gentle · 3 Mar 2011

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Picture: freestylee
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The victory of the Egyptians and Tunisians in getting rid of Mubarak and Ben Ali has revitalised activists everywhere. More recently, though, the news has been dominated by the brutality of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Whereas Libya continues the wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, there is a vital difference: Libya presents a picture of people as victims of violence, raising the need for “the international community” to come to the rescue; a tale we’ve heard before in Iraq and Zimbabwe. The Egyptian people, on the other hand, were masters of their own destiny and settled these questions by occupying Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Whatever else happens in Libya and Egypt, it will be important that the Egyptian example prevail and that its broader significance in the world be understood, especially here in South Africa.       

At the moment, the uprising against Gaddafi has encircled Tripoli and left the man holed up in his bunker brokering mercenaries to fight for him. But unlike the other uprisings in the region, the national and global geo-politics are different. The popular upsurges against Gaddafi appear not to be as deep and as universal as in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt.

Libya is still a tribally based association of fiefdoms and Gaddafi appears to have the resources to buy loyalty. The “opposition” is largely winning ground through military defections, rival chiefs shifting sides and senior Gaddafi functionaries breaking ranks.

But Tripoli continues to function whilst the opposition wins geographical enclaves in towns to its East and West through warfare rather than occupying a strategic space at the centre of the capital. It’s a violent war of attrition that is turning ordinary people from active participants in an insurrection to helpless victims seeking refuge. Already there are calls from within Libya for the “international community” to step in.

That call may well be heeded because Gaddafi is everyone’s favourite villain. Moreover, given that the regional uprisings represent instability in the nerve centre of the world’s oil industry, the idea of a UN-sanctified force (really just the USA and a new likely “coalition of the willing”) to “save” the Libyan people and institute an acceptable stable government is not an unthinkable scenario. 

In stark contrast, the strength of the popular movement in Egypt not only paralysed Mubarak; it made it difficult for the Egyptian military to attack the people. 

It was in Tahrir Square that the masses confronted the tyrant Mubarak, shouting their defiance, laughing derisively at his TV broadcasts and defying the military’s call to go home. With Tahrir Square at the epicentre of the struggle, we had the concrete expression of dual power – the regime and all its Western backers versus the people on the square.

Egypt’s revolution may yet go through a number of stages and the outcome is by no means assured. 

Who will prevail? 

The military may well prevail (but not without violently suppressing the revolution). A US surrogate may well be parachuted in. The West may well be forced to opt for an Egyptian Ayatollah Khomeini as they did in Iran (at least when they saw Islamism as a better alternative to radical nationalism). Or a genuine radical democracy may well ensue.

Nothing is guaranteed. 

But the political landscape of North Africa and the Middle East has forever been rewritten -- one which favours greater democracy and independence in a region critical for a whole range of vested interests. Its significance in reviving a new zeitgeist of progressive politics and enlightenment in the world cannot be overestimated.    

It is essential that we understand how these calls for political freedom emerged.  

The uprisings, while commonly presented as spontaneous, in actual fact have their roots in strong working class struggles and social movements. Both Egypt and Tunisia are countries that have witnessed a spike in working class struggles in the last five to ten years, as new industrial cities were built on the backs of what was actually a boom in both economies, fuelled by the development of textiles, tourism and their stock markets.

The IMF was the main praise singer when Mubarak made Egypt market-friendly and achieved growth rates of 7-9% despite the 2008 global crash. But this wealth was confined to a small elite grouped around Mubarak’s cronies. 

Mubarak didn’t only use repression and emergency legislation, he also had the official trade union federation co-opted and acting to discipline workers rather than articulate their aspirations. So when a wave of strikes broke out, they appeared “leaderless” because the official trade union movement, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, was not involved. And when civil unrest broke out it appeared “leaderless” because the Muslim Brotherhood was not involved.                                       

The surge in Egypt’s working class actions was stunning because it openly defied the country’s official union leadership. It is estimated that over two million workers took part in over 3,300 factory occupations, strikes, demonstrations or other forms of protest since 2004.

By 2009, Joel Beinin of Stanford University described Egypt as having “the largest modern labour movement and the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II.” 

At the core of the revolt was the April 6 Youth Movement, which ran a war room in downtown Cairo, issuing leaflets and Internet missives to the crowds filling Tahrir Square. The group takes its name from April 6, 2008, when Egyptian authorities cracked down brutally to suppress a strike among textile workers in the industrial town of El Mahalla El Kobra. It’s worth noting that the much applauded young woman credited for issuing the call to action via Facebook in the run up to the mass demonstration of 25 January, is in fact, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement.

Then there is a group known as “We Are All Khaled Said,” a movement led by tech-savvy students and labour activists that had its origins in a three-year-old textile strike in the Nile Delta and the killing of a 28-year-old university graduate, Khaled Said. 

Despite vigorous efforts by the authorities to suppress them, both groups reached out beyond Egypt's college-educated youth to the unemployed and underemployed and also made common cause with older activists who made up a hardy band of pro-democracy advocates and movements. 

On 30 January 2011, in Tahrir Square, a new independent Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions was formed. The new federation demanded that all detainees be released immediately. They also demanded the right to work, unemployment compensation, a minimum wage and something that should be familiar to South Africans: “decent work.”

If the Egyptian story is to prevail then we are looking at an issue of broader global political significance, which has much relevance for our own struggles for democracy in South Africa.

A whole new dawn of social justice is being ushered in.

The feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, once bemoaned our tendency to "think that we are not the master of our destiny; we no longer hope to help make history, we are resigned to submitting to it". By the late 70s such regret, repackaged as celebration, had become the stuff of a growing consensus. The late 80s told us that history itself had come to an end. The sort of history that ordinary people might make was to faded away within a "new world order," a world in which a narrow set of elites would control all the main levers of power.

Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian, went on to characterise the last 30 years as the Age of Reaction – starting with the crushing of Chilean democracy in 1972 and consolidated with the victories of Thatcherism and Reaganomics: a period in which notions of social change and transformation had been defeated alongside the great social movements of social democracy, national liberation and feminism. 

Sure enough, for much of the last 30 years, global elites waged a relentless assault on the people. Trade unions were decimated, real wages cut, public services privatised and public resources plundered. 

This period unleashed neo-liberalism and its corresponding social attitudes: “me-first” and Margaret Thatcher’s famous aphorism, “there is no such thing as society.” The BEE crowd here in South Africa of course caught the tail end of this mood; epitomised by Smuts Ngonyama’s “I didn’t struggle to be poor,” Kenny Kunene’s sushi parties and Julius Malema’s ANCYL.

The first signs of resurgence in progressive social forces could be found in the renaissance of social movements in Latin America and the willingness of progressive nationalistic governments in Venezuela and Bolivia to seek alternative policies to the Washington Consensus and the domination of the stock markets. And then capitalist triumphalism came crashing down with Wall Street in 2008.     

Given recent developments in Egypt and Tunisia – and this is important in SA where our own negotiated solution was conducted under conditions that were unfavourable to democracy – the notions of insurrection and “people’s power” are once again on the agenda.    

While much has been made in the past of the miracle of South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy, the truth is, of course, that the transition was neither a miracle, nor peaceful…and not even that democratic. Much is now clear about the elite pacts made between a dying apartheid regime and the liberation movement in which the ANC traded political power for guarantees that South Africa’s elite economic order would continue and its global ambitions entertained. 

From the side of the ANC, it was always clearly spelt out to its own activists that global conditions were unfavourable for any more transformative agenda. What was on the table was the best deal on offer. For many activists then the hope within the Tripartite Alliance was that the state machinery and legislation could be used to change the balance of forces in favour of the majority. And a strong civil society would act as a lever or a watchdog keeping the ANC honest. But of course there couldn’t be such a balance of forces for too long. Over time the ANC embraced the very corporations and the very neo-liberalism policies it was supposed to contest.

But Egypt, Tunisia and the Arab uprisings are signs that the world has forever changed. Of course, no one can say how the North African mobilisations will develop, or how far they will spread. But we do know that they have already changed the course of history, and that they will continue to change it. In each new confrontation, they have demonstrated anew the truth of an old conviction that will always be more powerful than any amount of violent repression or scornful dismissal: the people, united, will never be defeated.

Current neoliberal austerity assaults continue in Europe and elsewhere. Certainly in South Africa, Pravin Gordhan’s 2011 budget is a celebration of that neo-liberalism (more tax breaks for big business whilst threatening the poor with a VAT increase). But, after Egypt, now everyone knows, however, that it will only prevail if we allow it to.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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