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THE CONTAGION SPREADS
Month in Review, February 2011 (Español)
Will the popular democratic uprisings in the Middle East result in freedom?
As I write US strategic designs for the Middle East are as close to collapsing as they’ve been in a generation. And Washington planners recognize the threat. Speaking on Fox News, US Senator John McCain said the wave of popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere are "probably the most dangerous period of history in... our entire involvement in the Middle East, at least in modern times.” Of the furious expansion of these popular movements for freedom and democracy McCain said, “the virus is spreading.” This, as the revolts that began in Tunisia have roiled some of the biggest US allies in the region: Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and others.
And the fire in the streets keeps burning. Indeed, to say that the Arab world is on fire at this point is something of an understatement. In Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran (which is not an Arab country), and elsewhere, popular uprisings have shaken dictatorships to their foundations. Typifying the mood of those in revolt, an Egyptian demonstrator explained to National Public Radio that the people in the streets are no longer afraid: “Not in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen in my lifetime . . . and there's just no going back at this stage. . . . The first victory for this revolution is that we broke the fear. We broke it. I'm not afraid anymore. I have a wife and a daughter, but I'm not afraid anymore.”
This popular spirit – courageous, self-sacrificing, hopeful – is the contagion that McCain, Obama, Clinton, and others seek to contain. Given the array of forces against them, it is yet to be seen whether people in streets will be able to convert their spirit and desire for liberation into genuinely revolutionary transformations. Kicking out a dictator is only the first step, and often the simplest one , in bringing about real democratic and just change. The true battle, in Egypt and elsewhere, will unfold in the coming months.
The Obama administration, while reluctant to utter the sort of blunt hostility to the uprisings favored by Senator McCain, is nonetheless standing in opposition to peoples’ democratic aspirations. Demonstrators in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and elsewhere retrieve tear gas canisters and bullet casings “made in America” and watch as M1A1 Abrams tanks roll on their national plazas. At the diplomatic level, US officials rarely leave behind such hard evidence; there’s just one exception in this case - US special envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner’s statement of support for the Mubarak regime just days before it collapsed. The rest of the Obama team were quick to return to message and distance themselves from the errant comments, offering instead familiar platitudes about US support for peace and democracy.
Whatever the Administration may say, it is in fact operating from a playbook that is not much different from John McCain’s. This is the familiar anti-democratic strategy: supporting torture and repression by the region’s autocrats for as long as possible, and when popular opposition makes this impossible, attempting to swap old autocrats for new, while taking other measures to limit popular power in the street. In Egypt, the US brought in the CIA’s man in Cairo, Omar Suleiman, and is working to make sure the elections set for several months from now will come out the “right” way. A familiar program that has worked elsewhere: arrange for “demonstration elections” and use them to maneuver key allies close to the centers of power.
Although the contagion spreads, Egypt has remained the focal point. What happens in Egypt is crucial for the entire region; the US simply cannot afford to loose such a vitally important strategic ally. The US is therefore acting with all its power to limit the dimensions of the revolt and restore Mubarakism without Mubarak. Meanwhile US client Israel has watched events unfolding in their southern neighbor with a leery eye. The loss of Mubarak, a long standing supporter of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, could make Israeli strategy in Gaza and elsewhere more difficult. And depending on the political outcome of the uprisings, Israel’s security on its southern border could be threatened. (The Egyptian military has promised to observe its peace treaties with Israel).
For the Palestinians, the stability of the Palestinian Authority is undermined by the threat of a good example. Thoroughly disillusioned by the release of the Palestine Papers, which demonstrate the PA leadership’s absolute acquiescence to the Israelis, the people of Palestine have now seen the power of popular revolt to oust ossified and corrupt leadership. No doubt both Palestinian and Israeli elites fear such an outcome in the Occupied Territories.
AN EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION?
For three weeks the eyes of the world were transfixed on the people of Egypt. Their accomplishments are already of world historical significance: despite his obstinate arrogance Mubarak was forced out, the parliament has been suspended, segments of the constitution are being rewritten, and promises to end the 30 year emergency rule have been made by the military commanders now in power. These are enormous victories for a people whose courage and determination have few parallels.
Why Egypt? Why now?The immediate causes of the uprising are complex, and go back several years to labor revolts against continued economic immiseration and movements of the youth to create political space for democratic participation. A lot has to do with the industrial transformation of the country and the growing workers rebellions of the 2000s. Neo-liberal reforms have been in effect for decades, leading to impressive income growth for those at the top, roughly five percent a year, while the rest of the country suffers ten percent unemployment and poverty rates that effect roughly forty percent of the population. Most recently, rising food and consumer prices along with grinding poverty have led to a sense of hopelessness. “The police cannot kill us because we, to all practical purposes, are already dead,” commented one street protester early in the revolts.
Meanwhile Egyptian workers were taking strike and independent militant labor action. Historian Joel Beinin writes, “since 1998 there has been a rising wave of strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other actions by workers, with a big spike after the acceleration of the implementation of neo-liberal policies by the 'government of businessmen' installed in July 2004. Over two million workers have participated in more than 3,000 collective actions in this period.” This rising tide has created some of the extant organizations that have fed the current wave of uprisings, the Egyptian Movement for Change, or Kefeya (Enough), and the April 6th Youth Movement, named for a planned national general strike in 2008 that never transpired.
A commune in the square: When Egypt finally reached the tipping point this January, people began constructing their own free and democratic society in Tahrir, the main square in Cairo that became the focal point for the demonstrators. To support the continuous, round-the-clock demonstrations, protestors made a free Egypt, a Cairo commune in the square. Demonstrators organized food distribution and sanitation. Once internet and phone services were suspended by the government, regular leaflets kept the crowd abreast of national developments. And when the Tahrir demonstrators were attacked by police thugs, medical clinics were established to treat the wounded.
Meanwhile the square’s subway station was blockaded with car frames, and the station platform turned into a holding cell for the scores of thugs captured by the democracy activists, many of whom had their police identification cards seized. The minority Coptic Christians, long a persecuted group, and victims of a devastating New Years church bombing, showed their solidarity with Muslim demonstrators by forming human barricades to protect Muslims during daily prayers. Women took a prominent role, organizing and leading the demonstrations. “It felt like it had become a different society - there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside,” organizer Mona Seif told Al Jazeera. After weeks of protest, in tents and makeshift structures, as well as the public services assembled by the people, Tahrir demonstrated a budding popular power and dedication that would prove difficult to break. When the government switched to frontal assaults on the activists, it was these structures that enabled the Egyptian people to fight on.
Apparently, the military was unable or unwilling to attack the demonstrators. Robert Fisk reports that in fact tank commanders refused orders to open fire. Fisk tells of low ranking officers and soldiers dropping their radio communications and calling their fathers, former armed forces members, on cell phones to see what they should do. While direct military assault was becoming impossible because of rank and file resistance, the military was simultaneously acting to limit the protests in other ways. On the same day US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates praised the Egyptian military for their restraint, human rights organizations and the British Guardian reported that the military was torturing hundreds, perhaps thousands of pro-democracy activists in secret prisons in Cairo and elsewhere. In the frenzied days before the fall of Mubarak, even New York Times reporters were kidnapped and taken to the torture chambers, as part of a broader attack on foreign media and journalists covering the revolts.
With the role of the military limited by ground troops' mutinies to kidnapping and torture by select units, Mubarak had to find other ways to go after the demonstrators. He unleashed the now notorious attacks by thugs armed with bottles, rocks, petrol bombs, horses and camels and live fire. But this tactic just provoked more resistance. As demonstrators battled to hold Tahrir Square, a national wave of strikes and labor unrest involving tens of thousands of workers paralyzed the country. Workers “in textiles, military production, transportation, petroleum, cement, iron and steel, hospitals, universities, telecommunications and on the Suez Canal” participated in the strikes. Others resorted to sabotage, notably the bombing of a natural gas pipeline feeding Israel through the Sinai. In this uproar demonstrators called for a “day of departure” on Friday February 11. The night before, Mubarak made a televised appearance in which it was widely expected that he would announce his resignation. Apparently ignoring orders from those around him, the octogenarian dictator instead insisted he would remain as President until September. The popular rage at his obstinance and arrogance could be felt half a world away. Tahrir erupted in an all night demonstration.
Finally, the combined assault of popular insurrection and an organized workers movement proved too much for the regime. Mubarak himself couldn’t make the announcement; his handlers whisked him to his residence in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, and his recently appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman told the nation and the world that the era of Mubarak was over.
The US Role: Throughout the upheaval, the US has been working to control and limit the dimensions of the uprising. It seems likely the US was behind Mubarak's choice of Omar Suleiman as vice president. Suleiman has run the US torture and rendition program in Egypt since the Bill Clinton era, often taking a direct role in torturing detainees like alleged al Qaeda commander Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi and Shia cleric Abu Omar, abducted from the streets of Milan by the CIA. (Al-Libi's tortured testimony was used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And according to ABC News, Suleiman once offered to deliver Omar’s arm to US officials when they asked for a DNA sample.) Suleiman’s brutality and his loyalty to the US made him a perfect candidate for transitional figure in Egypt. In a Wikileaks-released State Department document from 2006 an unnamed official wrote “Our intelligence collaboration with Omar Soliman [sic], is now probably the most successful element of the [U.S.-Egypt] relationship.” The extent of Suleiman's power – and of US influence – in the new Egypt remains to be seen.
ISRAEL, PALESTINE AND THE PAPERS
Israel and other US allies are watching events in Egypt closely. Public Israeli pronouncements have been designed to raise fears that "Islamist" movements are gathering strength, and even intend to use popular revolts to impose theocratic regimes on their nations. Such fears have little basis in reality, however. Many of the countries in revolt have strong secular traditions, and only marginal Islamic parties or movements. (It’s complicated in Egypt, where the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood does have popular support. But the Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda; they have issued public calls for the establishment of a civil [non-religious] state in Egypt.)
The real Israeli fear is that democratic societies in Arab countries will not blindly support Israel’s policies of annexation, expansion and erasure of Palestinian lands and culture. Egypt's sophisticated arsenal, built on $1.3 billion in annual US military aid, also makes Israel nervous. As Israel becomes increasingly isolated and reviled in the region, the potential loss of their strongest ally (and cooperator in the siege of Gaza) clearly alarms Israeli state planners.
Palestine and the Papers. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority also worry about the demonstration effect of the protests, in light of the release of the “Palestine Papers” by Al Jazeera and the Guardian. The Papers, a decade-long collection of emails and internal memos from the Palestinian negotiating office, reveal Israel’s rejectionism of any peace settlement, along with the Palestinian leadership’s utter acquiescence and willingness to make concessions to the Israelis in the hope of gaining only the most miserable of states. The Papers make clear how the negotiating teams of Arafat and Abbas rolled over for the Israelis, offering concessions it is difficult to believe the Palestinian population would tolerate: acceptance of nearly all of existing Israeli settlements, dropping the Palestinian right of return and allowing Israel to claim most of Jerusalem.
Even more damning, the Papers reveal the Palestinian Authority's foreknowledge of Israeli military actions, including the inhuman devastation of Gaza in 2008, and other security collaborations with the Israelis. Such revelations suggest that the Palestinian people have just as much interest in deposing their collaborationist authorities as the rest of the Arab world, and they now have several rather dramatic examples of how to do it.
Indeed, it wasn’t until after the Egyptian uprisings that Palestinian officials began offering concessions to their own population. Mahmoud Abbas dismissed his cabinet, and Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator for two decades, resigned. As the so-called peace process has been revealed to be a total sham, the real hope for peace remains in streets of Ramalleh, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv.
THE WORLD ON FIRE
Meanwhile, the rest of the Arab world is erupting in popular flames, and the rolling revolts presage serious difficulties for US state planners. A quick look at each country tells of the scale of the crisis.
In Bahrain, a major US strategic asset and home to the vital 5th Fleet, weeks of demonstrations have shaken the regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Libya has seen the bloodiest of the reprisals, in what scholar Juan Cole has called “the gates of hell” opening on Tripoli. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets have strafed protestors, leading to deaths estimated in the thousands.
In Sana, the Yemeni people continue their demands for the end of the regime, even as pro-government thugs attack and intimate the demonstrators. The Algerian government has lifted a 19 year emergency rule decree, in an effort to quell ongoing demonstrations. In Jordan, Iran, Iraq, and Morocco people refuse to leave the streets. Glimers of uprisings are also appearing Saudi Arabia now too.
And finally, the United States is seeing a similar wave of protests, although for slightly different reasons. Here, lawmakers of both parties increase their attack on working people and their organizations – and people in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa are starting to fight back.
Tens of thousands have marched on state buildings, and a general strike, the first in the US since the 1946 Oakland general strike, is threatened if Wisconsin Governor and ruling class warrior Scott Walker doesn’t back down.
Walker is attempting to deliver a death blow to organized labor, disallowing collective bargaining for public sector workers under the ruse of balancing the state budget. So much depends on the outcome in Wisconsin, as dozens of states with Republican governors are queuing up to pass similar legislation if Walker and his billionaire backers are successful.
NEW WORLD IN THE MAKING
The US imperial fabric is unraveling, how far that process continues will be decided in the coming months. The uprisings have thrown the conflict between US interests and the desire of people for freedom and democracy into stark relief. Washington and New York apologists are scrambling to explain the discrepancy between US rhetoric and its reaction to events in the Arab world. For American state planners this is indeed the “most dangerous period” in the history of US regional involvement. For those on the bottom asserting their voices, yes this is a dangerous moment, but also one of transcendent hope and possibility. People in Cairo, Tripoli and Madison have lost their fear - the contagion spreads, and there is indeed “no going back at this stage.”