A popular revolt, a revolt of the plebeian, the heretofore forgotten, suppressed and muzzled, is rocking North Africa. The impact of the revolt is threatening the ruling classes in the region of the Middle East and north-east Africa where the ruling classes are already shaking with fear as the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt are sending shudders down the spine of these dictators. ‘Embarih Tunis, al-yom Mesr’ (‘Yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt’) have become the beacons of this much feared popular revolt of the poor. Let the ruling classes of the region, including the EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front) clique, resort to a much stronger defence, but there is nothing that can stop the rising of a determined people. The heroic people of Tunisia just showed us the way yesterday. Today, it is the turn of Egypt. This beacon of human civilisation in the region can still become a beacon of revolution.
The Egyptian people rose to a determined struggle to end the rule of the monstrous regime that has repressed them for decades. Time and again, they have tried to voice their concerns and demands for a better life and for freedom. The answer they got from this arrogant regime was sheer repression. The demand to end poverty was met with police brutality; women’s demand for the protection of their rights was answered in a manner that was humiliating and dehumanising to them. Despite the odds, Egypt has produced great individuals; economists, social scientists, women activists, journalists, human rights activists and so on. At one time or another, they have all been silenced or beaten and thrown into jail. The Egyptian people have tried the peaceful way. It did not work. On the contrary, the response they got from Mubarak’s regime was brutal repression. They tried to vote for the candidates of their choice during the ‘elections’ that have been held for years now the last one just a few months back. Every time Egyptians were told that the ruling party, the National Democratic Party, had won the elections and their popular candidates were all ‘defeated’. As the contradiction and conflict, though latent, between the people and the ruling class got sharper, the arrogant regime even claimed that it has won more than 99 per cent of the votes in the last elections. This insult to the intelligence of the Egyptian people would not be taken any more. The people have finally said ‘enough!’ Just the other day, Tunisia, tired of such ruling-class deception, threw out its dictator. Egypt is doing precisely that now. Let’s hope that they will finally overthrow Hosni Mubarak’s regime and install a government that respects freedom and democracy.
Egypt made its first attempt towards a fundamental social change way back in 1952 when its first revolution overthrew the Farooq monarchy. But, that was quickly hijacked the Free Officers Movement, very much like the Derg of Ethiopia, and Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power. Nasser’s regime failed to take Egypt through social development and freedom, though he still addressed issues of poverty in a reformist way through what he called ‘Arab socialism’. Nasser’s ‘Arab socialism’ reverberated throughout the Arab world and Arab nationalism rose in the Middle East as a result. The Palestinian factor gave another dimension to his reign as Arabs united to fight Israel. Nasser led Egypt through the two Middle East wars of 1956 and 1967. By the late 1960s, Nasser’s Egypt started to go into crisis as a result of a stagnating economy on the one hand and the consequences of the1967 war on the other. That led to the emergence of Anwar Sadat, who introduced changes in the country’s policy and resorted to peace overtures to Israel despite the last Middle East war in 1973 that took place under his presidency. Egypt under Sadat emerged out of the Soviet orbit and became a staunch US ally in the Middle East next to Israel (for an excellent analysis of this period see Mohammed Hussein’s ‘Class Conflict in Egypt’.)
Egypt under Sadat went further down the road of poverty and a quasi-military dictatorship. Anger was built up throughout the Arab world against his regime as a result of the unilateral peace treaty that he entered with Israel in 1979. Islamic fundamentalists became more active than ever and infiltrated the Egyptian army, including the elite corps called the Presidential Guard. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by fundamentalist elements from within the army and Mubarak succeeded him. Egypt has been ruled by him ever since. With neoliberal economic policy prevalent and dictatorship, the country descended into deeper poverty as the population grew to 72 million with an unemployment rate of 9.7 per cent in 2010 (9.4 per cent in 2009) and with 20 per cent of the population living under the poverty line. It is this grinding poverty coupled with an absolute dictatorship that finally threw the people of Egypt into the streets to bring their misery to an end.
Heroic Egyptians went to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in the four largest urban centres, namely Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Port Said. On Friday, they torched the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building and the headquarters of the ruling party that were still burning as these lines are written. They fought with police tooth and nail in the streets of these cities. They paid in lives and blood. They are determined to overthrow the regime; there is no turning back. They openly and loudly said: ‘Al-yom ya Mesr, yela yela Mesr!’ (roughly ‘Egypt, it is today [or never]! Forward!’) In a historic gesture, probably the most significant, the demonstrators formed a human shield to protect the national museum from being looted. Perhaps this could be the most unique act of a people in revolt, destroying the symbols of the dictatorship but protecting the treasures of the nation, its history!
The ruling class did all what it could to defeat the insurrectionists. Like all ruling classes threatened by revolution, Mubarak’s regime responded with the usual police force brutality. It cut off telephone and internet connections in a vain attempt to quell the rebellion. But it was too late: the insurrectionists were already in the battlefield. Meles Zenawi did the same during the 2005 elections in Ethiopia. He abolished the SMS system from mobile telephony in a vain attempt to curb communication among the masses. But the Ethiopian people were determined to vote to Kinijit at the time. Then the option left to Meles was to resort to outright election stealing and violence. One thing that no ruling class, overthrown by revolutions from the days of Louis IX to today’s dictators such as Ben Ali, Mubarak, Meles and so on has ever understood is the fact that once the masses are determined to see change in their lives by changing the main obstacle to progress, the dictatorship, nothing will stop them. It might not happen in Ethiopia or elsewhere yet, but it is only a matter of time.
What is going to happen in Egypt in the coming days will be very interesting indeed. It is interesting to note the reactions of the ruling class to the ongoing revolution in Egypt. Indeed, Mubarak clearly showed that he still does not understand that the Egyptian people have said ‘enough!’ In the speech he just made, he announced that he has sacked his cabinet and will announce a new government tomorrow. It is amazing indeed that ruling classes never learn, even from the latest experience. Ben Ali’s last attempt to quell the people’s revolt was the announcement of the sacking of the old cabinet and appointment of a new one. This happened just last month in Tunisia and Mubarak has not learnt a bit. Like their Tunisian sisters and brothers, the Egyptian insurrectionists quickly responded with ‘Down with Mubarak!’ This is a clear indication that the events of Tunisia are being repeated in this historic country once again.
In reorganising itself and quelling the rebellion, the classical step that the ruling class will take is to remove the president and his government and replace it by people that are seemingly ‘popular’. We have learnt that the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces is in Washington. A coincidence? We don’t think so. In as much as the Tunisian military, with the consent and advice of Washington, hinted for Ben Ali to flee, the Egyptian army may also remove Mubarak with the support of Washington. At the moment, that is the only way to save the ruling class. Then the question will be: Will the insurrectionists go home with such military coup? There again, they need to learn from Tunisians who continued their fight till all members of the old regime completely leave the government. Will the heroic people of Egypt continue their struggle as the Tunisians did? The events in the coming days will tell.
What makes Egypt different from Tunisia is the fact that political Islam has quite a substantial following there. Political Islam has gone a long way since its guru, Hassan El Banna (a Palestinian who lived in Egypt), first constructed it in the late 1920s. It entered alliance with similar movements in the Middle East, particularly with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Sudan led by Hassan El Turabi. It is not very clear as to what the role of the Muslim Brotherhood was in the current uprising, but it has denied involvement. Its top leader was nevertheless arrested, despite the denial. That might make the movement more popular and might influence the outcome of the current uprising. What Egypt needs is a negation of what has prevailed there so far: poverty and un-freedom. Freedom and democracy are the way out, after which undoing poverty is manageable.
The events in Egypt interest us Ethiopians a great deal indeed. Egypt has always supported any opposition in Ethiopia with its primitive ‘strategy’ of ‘containing Ethiopia in under-development’ so that it won’t develop the capacity to utilise the Blue Nile for its own purposes. Without pre-empting a discussion on the question of the equitable use of the Nile waters by the 10 riparian countries of the Nile basin, I would nevertheless state that the Egyptian strategy of ‘containing Ethiopia in poverty’ constitutes a parochial (vis-à-vis the reality of interdependence), harmful and primitive approach. Our thesis in objecting to Egypt’s strategy must be different from that of Meles Zenawi, who just accused Egypt of supporting the armed opposition in Ethiopia. We are not sure what his reaction to the ongoing Egyptian revolution might be, but one thing for sure is that the impact of the insurrection is too scary for him.
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