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Egypt: The making of a revolution

The mass protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo may have begun with a mobilisation on Facebook. But it’s important to go deeper and understand Egypt’s political and social history to explain what is happening and how it will impact the region and the world, says John Samuel

At the heart of Cairo, Tahrir Square (the Square of Liberation) is surrounded by very important institutions of power and culture. The square was named after the country’s liberation, in 1952, from the rule of a corrupt and feeble monarchy. A group of young military officers forced out the monarchy, a puppet regime of the British colonialists. Now, in 2011, hundreds of thousands of largely middle class people, particularly young, have forced an aging Hosni Mubarak to leave the chair. Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for longer than anyone since Muhammad Ali in the early 19th century.

Over a period of 30 years, the Mubarak regime systematically subverted, marginalised or annihilated any voice of dissent or opposition or democratic freedom. Though in 2005, under pressure from the US, Hosni Mubarak sought to create the smoke screen of a 'democratic' election, it did not stop the eroding legitimacy of the regime. The rise of a corrupt network of rich people around the regime and efforts to install his younger son Gamel Mubarak as the next ruler further alienated a large number of the urban middle class across Egypt.

The growing social and economic inequality, along with the increasing price of essential commodities and decreasing employment opportunities, provided the trigger for expressing the widespread discontent brewing over many years. The popular uprising against another long-ruling dictator in the Arab world, in Tunisia, inspired the younger generation. Al Jazeera televised the 'revolution' in Tunis and young people in Egypt were inspired to give expression to their pent-up anger of years.

This is the first time a majority of them have participated in a protest movement. The loose social network of young people on Facebook to commemorate Khaled Said, a young man allegedly beaten to death by the police, sent out a call for a protest on January 25 (Police Day), to highlight the brutality of the police. Those in the April 6th network (the April 6 Youth Movement grew out of Facebook users coming together to express solidarity with protesting workers in the industrial city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra in 2008 and have become a strong civil society force for change) and a few from the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party of former Presidential candidate Ayman Nour supported the call for a protest mobilisation on January 25. They expected a few hundred, but thousands of people turned up to chant “Liberation!” at the good old Liberation Square. That is how the popular urge for a revolution began.

It is important to understand the present social and political mobilisation in the context of history, geo-politics and international politics in the region.

Political history of Egypt

Egypt is not simply another country; it is the only trans-continental nation-state with an influence in Africa, the Mediterranean region, the Arab world and within the larger framework of the Pan-Islamic world. With a written history of more than 6,000 years, Egypt is the most eloquent symbol of the march of history and power in the history of the world.

One of the first unified kingdoms in the world was founded in the region in BCE 3150 by King Menes, followed by a series of dynasties of the Pharaohs. One of the most evident expressions of power -- the Pyramids -- followed by the development of Alexandria as one of the most important centres of trade, culture and civilisation during the Roman era created an enduring and entrenched sense of the hegemonic role of the country.

Egypt has influenced Europe, Asia and Africa in so many ways all through history. Christianity was introduced in Egypt by St Mark, a disciple of Jesus, and the Coptic Church of Egypt still remains one of the ancient Churches of the world. The journey of Egypt through the Roman Empire, Byzantium, absorption into the emerging Islamic empire in CE 639, and its annexation by the Ottoman Empire in 1571, the emergence of a new monarchy under Mohammed Ali in 1805 and the eventual overthrow of the monarchy of King Farouk in 1952 by the Free Officers Movement led by a group of army officers gives a sense of the complexity of the political trajectory of the country.

It is with the French invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1789 that Egypt began to face the colonial and imperialistic powers of the West, with first French and then British domination. During the Ottoman campaign against the French in 1801, Muhammad Ali, an Albanian general in the Ottoman Army, took control of Egypt.

The colonial powers began taking a real interest in Egypt when the Suez Canal was completed in 1869, in partnership with the French. The Canal completed during the tenure of King Ismail had immense political consequences. The heavy cost of construction of the canal left Egypt with a huge debt to the European banks. To pay back the debt, the people were taxed heavily and this created new political tensions. Making use of this opportunity, the British took over the canal in 1882 and converted the monarchy into a puppet regime and eventually made Egypt a British Protectorate in 1914.

The first political mobilisation against the foreign intruders and the monarchy, and the seeds of the first nationalist movement, was the people’s uprising in 1879 led by Ahmed Rabbi. This led to the first nationalist ministry with a commitment to democratic reforms and parliament’s control over the budget. Fearing the rise of a democratic movement, the British and French mounted an attack against the government and reinstated Ismail’s son Tawfiq as a figurehead, effectively controlled by the British.

The beginning of the Islamist and Arab nationalist movement against western imperialism and British colonialism emerged in the latter part of the 19th century. Al-Azhar University became the fountainhead of the political and knowledge process in the region. It is in such a context that the pan-Islamic movement against western imperialism, propagated by Jamalluddin Afghani, found many followers in Egypt. Afghani was a scholar, activist, religious reformer and campaigner who significantly influenced the Islamic discourse in British India, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Russia, and within the Ottoman Empire. The ideological work of Afghani helped to create a pan-Islamist critique against imperialism and colonialism. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al Banna, was a follower of the pan-Islamist ideology propagated by Jammalludin Afghani.

The Muslim Brotherhood began as a social-religious reform movement in 1928, and attracted the attention of an emerging educated middle class that was unhappy with British imperialism in the Arab region, particularly in the context of the geo-politics of oil. So the organisation emerged as an entrenched socio-religious force with a hundred-year legacy of Islamist critique of imperialism.

The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood has very significantly influenced by Islamist politics in the Arab world, South Asia and elsewhere. Though many of the more militant pan-Islamist movements, including Hamas and Al-Qaida, emerged through the political trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood, the MB itself is more of a socio-religious transnational organisation rather than a political party. Today, it is no longer a monolithic organisation but more of a network with extreme fundamentalists, moderates and liberal Muslims within its fold.

The Muslim Brotherhood, though officially banned in Egypt, has formally declared its stand against violence. In spite of an official ban, it still remains the most organised social, religious and political force in Egypt. However, one also has to understand that in a country of around 83 million people, the Muslim Brotherhood is estimated to have only around 100,000 active members and another 100,000 supporters working through a network of mosques, clinics and charity organisations.

Egypt has been the fountainhead of new thinking, knowledge formations and new waves of Islamist politics. One of the key issues in Egypt and the Arab world is still the Palestinian issue. There were four wars between Israel and Egypt. In spite of a widely shared sense of discontent against Israel in the Arab world, Egypt signed a peace accord with Israel following the Camp David treaty in 1979 and established diplomatic relations with Israel. The peace treaty was more between the two regimes and less between the two peoples. Hence, there is widespread discontent against the perceived hegemony of the USA and Israel in the geo-politics of the region.

Movement for democracy

Today, Egypt is at the heart of the Arab world, a country with immense geo-political and economic implications. The people of Egypt have not only a collective memory of civilisation, but also a vibrant legacy of influencing the knowledge and political processes of the region. Every time I visited Egypt I was struck by this shared sense of collective memory about a culture and civilisation that goes much beyond the confines of religion.

So the present people’s campaign against the regime of Hosni Mubarak needs to be seen in the larger historical, political and ideological context of Egypt and the Arab region. A network of progressive civil society organisations and NGOs played a key role in enabling invisible modes of mobilisation for months before January 20. As someone who knows many of these actors on the ground, I could see this coming.

The present mobilisation and protest is due to a number of cumulative processes and in such a process there are a whole range of actors across and beyond various ideological shades. So if someone wants to discover a 'left' or 'Marxist' revolution, they are simply indulging in wishful thinking, very far from the real political dynamics on the ground. The present mobilisation has direct links with (a) Huge unemployment (b) Rampant corruption and a completely corrupt and cynical police force (c) Crony capitalism and high levels of social and economic inequality (d) Sky-rocketing prices of essential commodities (e) Use of the state to silence its critics (f) A range of political processes, largely Islamist critique, and shared sense of anger against the US (f) The impact of new media and the 'revolution' in Tunisia (g) Widespread anger at the perception that Hosni Mubarak is representative of American interests in the region (h) The real pressure of economic crises felt by so many poor people due to the sky-rocketing price of essential commodities.

The uprising is partly a 'reaction', but it is also partly opportunistic as the general election in Egypt is scheduled to be held in September and no one wants to have the son of Hosni Mubarak as the candidate of the 'one and only' National Democratic Party.

The immediate triggers for these protests are the high levels of unemployment among educated middle class youth and the high prevalence of corruption and complete erosion of the legitimacy of the government. A whole range of actors from human rights activists, socialists, Islamists, professionals and members of the Muslim Brotherhood are involved in the present campaign. In fact, many of the young people at the forefront of this campaign also happen to be from the educated middle class with neoliberal inclinations. So any effort to theorise the mobilisation of such diverse interests and ideologies into a particular framework would be problematic.

Implications of political transitions

What are the key implications of the ongoing political mobilisation and movement in Egypt?

1) The health of political parties is very important for the sustenance of any democratic system. And Hosni Mubarak, over a period of time, slowly poisoned, co-opted and annihilated the multi-party system. When there is no vibrant political party system, there is an increasing chance of a big mobilisation or protest getting subverted and used by vested interests and reactionary forces. When there are a significant number of people without any stake in their country or their government, there will be cumulative discontent bursting into various forms of mobilisation and violence.

2) Egypt, Syria and Iran are the most strategic countries in the region as their people carry a collective sense of history and have a shared sense of pride. These counties also have what can be termed 'civilisational depth'. So, a wind of change blowing in Egypt can have immense consequences for the region. And while many of these countries may move in different patterns to relatively more democratic regimes, the chances of them adhering to the received notions of 'western liberalism' are less. And one has to understand that this goes beyond the confines of religion to a more cultural and civilisational assertion in these countries.

3) This could create new insecurity in Israel and this means a more aggressive posturing by Israel with possibly new alliances and axis within the Arab world.

4) If the trouble continues in Egypt and spreads to other countries, the price of crude oil and petrol may sky-rocket (as happened in 1973 and 1977) and this would have clear implications for the economy of Europe and many oil importing countries across the world. Europe is going through a very vulnerable economic and political phase. Higher oil prices mean a further hike in the price of food and other commodities. This could create socio-political tensions in many countries of the world.

5) If one studies the modes of decolonisation and 'modernisation' in many parts of the Arab world, Africa and Asia, it is evident that wherever the process of decolonisation happened through the army elites or a 'movement' led by army officers, democracy did not take root. If we study the history of Egypt from the 1950s to 2010, we can see how this process unfolded: from Nasser through Sadat Husain and Hosni Mubarak. If we look at the history of Turkey and Indonesia etc, we get the same picture. And note that all of them have been countries with a majority Muslim population. The dynamics and process of decolonisation and the post-colonial regime, and the implications of such a process, need a closer look.

6) So the chances are that the USA and its allies will try to influence the army (which received annually an average of US $2 billion as military aid from the US -- one of the biggest recipients of US military aid for 30 years). In the post-Islamic revolution in Iran in 1977, the US co-opted Hosni Mubarak as an effective 'neutralising' agent in the region. Egypt and Jordan were the key blocks in the Middle East strategy of the US in relation to Israel and Iran. And now such a 'constructed' consensus of 'false stability' may give rise to new geo-political equations and consequent tensions in the region. Hence, the US and its allies will try to prop up a national government with the support of the army and a secret pact with the Muslim Brotherhood. And eventually, after an election within the next six months, they will try and co-opt a new government. However, this will not be that easy as there is a widely shared anti-American sentiment across the region. Egypt has a long history of ant-imperialist politics based on an Islamist critique of imperialism and western liberalism.

7) It was after the Iranian Islamic Revolution against the regime of the Shah (where America completely lost the plot and the people), that Egypt acquired a new strategic significance. The biggest recipient of US military aid has been Israel, then Egypt and then Pakistan. The Egyptian military received huge military aid and training from the USA. The regime of Hosni Mubarak (along with Jordan) was key in the gameplan of the Reagan era and this continued. And one of the reasons that the US has hardly any supporters in the entire region is its double-speak on democracy, cynically using authoritarian rulers and other such forces for its own ends. At the same time, the Reagan-Zia-ul-Huq dispensation funded the extremist Islamist Taliban and Mujahiddin. Those who are educated and aware could clearly see through this doublespeak, where the real interest was in oil and to create tension to ensure a geopolitical balance while supporting Israel -- and at the same time talking peace! All this led to a middle class that was educated, aware and angry with the Mubarak-US axis.

8) Most of the top brass of the army is trained by the US (as in the case of Pakistan) and hence the US plan will be to operate through the army and prop up a national unity government with possible participation of a section of the MB. The present National Democratic Party may split into two or three factions. In spite of the present enthusiasm and mobilisation, in the next election in September 2011, there could be political subversion and the chances of an ex-military man from some party taking over.

9) During the Nasser phase, Egypt was more inclined to the Soviets and it is during that phase that there was a significant wave of left thinking and trade unionism in Egypt. However, that generation began to get eclipsed in the 1990s, and many erstwhile leftists (particularly many Trotskyites) moved to a pan-Islamic framework of critiquing the western civilisation-imperialist model. So what can be termed as left in the context of Egypt are largely academics, human rights-civil society groups and NGOs. These networks played a role in consistently critiquing the Mubarak-American axis that suppressed democratic political aspirations and processes.

The present mobilisation, though, is a result of a number of factors and a whole range of actors are involved for different reasons. Hence, the next few weeks in Egypt will have serious implications not only for the region, but also for the economy and political process.

Infochange News & Features, February 2011