Revolution in Egypt – Power is on the street

Revolution in Egypt – Power is on the street. Photo: Philip RizkDay five of the revolution and the movement continues to grow in size and intensity. Last night’s curfew was ignored, and today there are more people on the streets than yesterday. A new curfew was called for four o’clock Egyptian time, but this is no more effective than the previous one. Even before the curfew came into effect, larger numbers of protestors were gathering on the streets.

“The street is not being organized by the parties, it is not being organized by the state. It is not controlled by anybody.” (Al Jazeera)

January 29, protesters fraternising with soldiers. Photo: Philip Rizk.January 29, protesters fraternising with soldiers. Photo: Philip Rizk. Following the events hour by hour I recalled the following incident from the French Revolution. On the 14th of July 1789, shortly after the fall of the Bastille, the French king Louis XVI asked the Duke of Rochefoucauld-Liancourt: “Is this a revolt?” To which the Duke delivered the immortal reply: "Non Sire, c'est une révolution !" - No, sir, it's a revolution.

In Egypt we are witnessing a revolution in full swing. After five days of colossal struggles, this fact has penetrated even the most obtuse skulls. The popular revolt is spreading by the hour. It is like a mighty river that overflows its banks and sweeps away all barriers that were erected to contain it.

Overnight all police have disappeared from the streets of the capital. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers are on the streets of Cairo, where fires from the previous day's violence are still smouldering. Mobile phone services have been restored in the city, but the internet remains down.

Meanwhile, the death toll has reportedly risen to 53 since the January 28 protest. In Suez, where at least twenty people have been killed, the bodies of the martyrs were carried through the streets as the people shouted revolutionary slogans. In Cairo the political prisoners have taken control of a jail. In Giza the people have burnt the police station and are attacking the police. Burning police vehicles have become a common sight on Egyptian streets. In one case, a group of protesters tried to push an armoured vehicle into the River Nile.

After the withdrawal of the police there have been many reports of looting. The people suspect that this has been deliberately organized by the regime in order to create the impression of anarchy and chaos. It is clear that the prisons have been opened to let out the criminal elements who have been armed for this purpose. Egyptian television has shown scenes of destruction of precious artefacts in the historic Cairo museum.

It is an open secret that this is a manoeuvre to destroy the revolution. The large numbers of armed police who yesterday were shooting at unarmed demonstrators are now nowhere to be seen as armed lumpenproletarians go on the rampage.  Several of the looters who were caught by protestors turned out to be undercover policemen.

In response neighbourhood committees have been set up in Suez and Alexandria to keep order and prevent looting. In some places the committees are even directing the traffic. There is an urgent need to generalise the committees and to arm the people. We must remember the slogan of the French Revolution: “Mort aux voleurs!” (Death to thieves!)

Mubarak’s speech

“Power tends to corrupt,” the saying goes; “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  The President is suffering from the same delusions of grandeur that affected the mental capacities of every Roman emperor and Russian tsar in the past. Last night’s speech of President Mubarak, far from calming the situation, has thrown petrol on the flames.

January 29. Photo: Philip RizkJanuary 29. Photo: Philip Rizk The people’s message is loud and clear. But the President does not hear it. He is blind and deaf and has lost the use of reason.  A man who has got used to being surrounded by a camarilla of servile courtiers hanging on his every word loses all contact with reality. He begins to believe in his own omnipotence. The border line between reality and fantasy is blurred. Such a state of mind is akin to madness.

Watching Mubarak speak, one had the impression of a man who has lost all contact with reality and is playing out his own fantasies. He promises that everything will be better from now on, if only the people will trust him. He will dismiss his government and he will graciously appoint another one. He will make the necessary changes. But he will not tolerate chaos and disorder. Anyone who disobeys can expect no mercy.

This is the voice of the Father of the People, the harsh but benevolent Pharaoh who decides every question for the benefit of his children. But the people of Egypt are not little children and have no need of a Pharaoh who has to send his army onto the streets to keep them obedient.

The government has duly resigned and a “new” government has been appointed (by Mubarak). The prime minister will be Racheed Mohamad Rasheed - a millionaire and the former minister of investment, commerce, and industry. Rasheed is identified with the so-called “neoliberal” reforms that have contributed to the hardship of the masses: high and rising prices, unemployment and poverty.

This appointment is sufficient to reveal the precise physiognomy of the “new” government. It is a provocation to the people on the streets. Since then Omar Suleiman, the 74-year old head of the state intelligence services has been named vice-president. Since Suleiman is one of Mubarak’s main stooges, this is an even more blatant provocation to the masses. It shows how far out of touch with reality Mubarak is.

If the President’s speech was intended to calm things down, it had the opposite effect. Last night BBC television spoke on the telephone to a man who had been on the streets all day: “I intended to go to bed for a few hours and then continue demonstrating tomorrow, but after I heard Mubarak’s speech I immediately phoned all my relations to come out and demonstrate, and I went back on the streets.”

The “Islamist menace”

The western media is constantly repeating the idea that the Moslem Brotherhood is behind the protests, and that they are the only alternative to Mubarak. This is false. The fact is that, just like all the other political parties, the Moslem Brotherhood has been completely caught unawares by this movement. Initially they did not even support it, and their role in organizing the protests has been minimal.

The Muslim Brotherhood recently subtly changed its message ahead of the latest protests. The deputy leader Mahmoud Izzat spoke encouragingly of the protests: "People are demanding freedom, the dissolution of this invalid parliament. From the beginning this is what the young people have been shouting and we are with them," Mr Izzat told the al-Jazeera news channel. And he went on to criticise "the excessive force" of the security services.

However, the Brotherhood did not organize the protests and on the demonstrations one sees very few bearded fundamentalists.  The majority of the activists are young, many of them students, but there are also many unemployed youth from the slums of Cairo and Alexandria. They are not fighting for the introduction of Sharia law but for freedom and jobs.

The fact of the matter is that these reactionaries did not want this revolutionary movement and are mortally afraid of it. The people who streamed out of the mosques to demonstrate on the streets of Suez after Friday prayers did so in spite of the fact that the imam told them not to participate in the protests. The reactionary role of the fundamentalists is shown by the influential Islamist al-Qaradawi who, according to AlJazeera, “urges people not to attack state institutions."

The Brotherhood itself is split and has declined. Hossam el-Hamalawy told Al Jazeera:

“The Brotherhood has been suffering from divisions since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. Its involvement in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement when it came to confronting the regime was abysmal. Basically, whenever their leadership makes a compromise with the regime, especially the most recent leadership of the current supreme guide, it has demoralised its base cadres. I know personally many young brothers who left the group. Some of them have joined other groups or remained independent. As the current street movement grows and the lower leadership gets involved, there will be more divisions because the higher leadership can't justify why they're not part of the new uprising.”

International repercussions

If the government and all the political parties have been taken by surprise, this is still more the case with western governments. Having denied any possibility of an upheaval in Egypt only one week ago, the leaders of the western world in Washington now stand with their mouths open.

Obama and Hilary Clinton seem to be having difficulty keeping up with the situation. Their public declarations show that they have not yet grasped the realities on the ground. They express sympathy with the protestors but are still in favour of maintaining a friendly dialogue with the government that is shooting and gassing them. This desire to ride both horses at the same time may be understandable, but it is a little difficult to do when both horses are running in opposite directions.

President Obama, as everybody knows, specializes in facing all directions at once. But his chief speciality is in saying nothing but saying it very nicely. He advises Egypt to introduce democracy and provide its citizens with work and a decent living standard. But neither he nor any of his predecessors had any problem about collaborating with Hosni Mubarak, although they knew he was a tyrant and a dictator. Only now, when the masses are on the point of overthrowing him, do they suddenly begin to sing the praises of democracy.

Obama’s request for more jobs and improved living standards in Egypt sounds particularly hollow. It was the United States that was behind the economic “reforms” of 1991. That pushed Egypt into the kind of “liberalism” that resulted in huge inequality, obscene wealth for a few and poverty and unemployment for the vast majority. More than anything else that is what has created the present explosive situation in Egypt. In this context, Obama’s advice is the worst kind of cynicism.

Washington’s concern is not motivated by humanitarian or democratic considerations. It is motivated by self-interest. Egypt is the most important Arab country in the Middle East. By comparison, Tunisia is a small and relatively marginal country. But historically whatever happens in Egypt tends to communicate itself to the entire region. That is why all the Arab ruling cliques are worried and that is why Washington is worried.

They are right to worry. But the Israeli ruling circles are even more worried. Mubarak was a useful tool of Israeli foreign policy. As a “moderate” (that is, a western stooge) he helped to keep up the illusion of a fraudulent “peace process” which kept the Palestinian masses in check while the Israelis consolidated their positions. He propped up the equally “moderate” Abbas and the other leaders of the PLO, who have betrayed the aspirations of the Palestinian people. He supported the so-called war on terror.

He was thus very useful to both the Americans and the Israelis. His services were well rewarded. The USA subsidized his regime to the tune of around $2 billion a year. Egypt is the fourth largest recipient of American aid, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel. Most of this money went on arms expenditure, a fact that will have been painfully brought home to the protestors when they read the labels on tear gas canisters with the words “Made in the USA” written on them. These messages from Washington speak to the protestors with far greater eloquence than the speeches of Mr. Obama.

The removal of Mubarak will therefore remove one of the most important elements on US foreign policy in the Middle East. It will further undermine the “moderate” (pro-American) Arab regimes. Already the mass protests are growing in Jordan and Yemen. Others will follow. Saudi Arabia itself is not safe.

The imperialists look on aghast. Overnight all their schemes are coming undone. Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative British Foreign Secretary, when asked for his view of the situation on BBC television, said: “Well, this has been prepared for a long time. Whatever government comes to power in Egypt will not be pro-western. But there is not a lot we can do about it.”

The army

January 29, people on tanks. Photo: Philip RizkJanuary 29, people on tanks. Photo: Philip Rizk The army is now all that separates Mubarak from the abysm. How will the army react? The army has now replaced the police on the streets. The relationship between the soldiers and the protestors is uneasy and contradictory. In some cases there is fraternization. In other cases, there have been clashes with protestors.

In order to put an end to the revolt, it would be necessary to kill thousands of protesters. But it is impossible to kill them all. And there is no guarantee that troops would be prepared to obey the order to fire on unarmed demonstrators. The army officers know that one bloody incident would be sufficient to break the army in pieces. It seems very unlikely that they would be prepared to take the risk. Today the BBC website speculated about the army’s role:

“Broadly speaking, Egyptians respect their army, which is still seen as a patriotic bulwark against their neighbour Israel, with whom they went to war in 1967 and 1973.

“But the black-clad riot police, the Central Security Force (Amn al-Markazi), belongs to the interior ministry, and has been in the forefront of much of the violent confrontations with protesters.

“Poorly paid and mostly illiterate, they number around 330,000 when combined with the Border Force. They themselves rioted over low pay in the early years of President Mubarak's rule and had to be brought under control by the army.

“The army has a similar strength - around 340,000 - and is under the command of Gen Mohammad Tantawi, who has close ties with the US (he has just been visiting the Pentagon).

“When Mr Mubarak ordered the army onto the streets of Cairo and other cities late on Friday, his aim was to back up the riot police who have been heavily outnumbered by the protesters.

“But many of them are hoping the army will take their side or, at the very least, act as a restraining force on the police who have been acting with excessive brutality throughout this protest.

“Hence the cheers that greeted the columns of army vehicles as they drove through Cairo on Friday night.

“Up until now, President Mubarak has enjoyed the support of the armed forces.

“He was, after all, a career air force officer suddenly catapulted to the presidency when Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

“But if these protests continue and intensify there are bound to be senior voices within the military tempted to urge him to stand down.”

The days of the Mubarak regime are numbered, and this must be clear to the army chiefs who must think of their own future. Even if security forces manage to put down protests today, how will they put down the ones that happen next week, or next month or next year? Power is in effect lying in the street, waiting for somebody to pick it up. But who will do so? If a party like the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky were present, the conquest of power by the working class would be on the order of the day. The problem is that such a party does not yet exist

In the absence of a revolutionary party and leadership, the present situation can end in deadlock. In such situations the state itself, in the shape of the army, tends to raise itself above society and become the arbiter between the classes. In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries there is a long history of such things, beginning with Abdel Nasser. It is possible that a section of the army leaders will decide to dump Mubarak.

The mass movement is strong enough to overthrow the old regime. But as yet it lacks the necessary level of organization and leadership to constitute itself as a new power. Consequently, the revolution will be a protracted affair, which must go through a series of stages before the workers are in a position to take power into their hands. There will be a series of transitional governments, each more unstable than the last. But on a capitalist basis none of the fundamental problems can be solved.

However, the fall of Mubarak will open the floodgates. The working class has been awakened to struggle. For the last four years there has been a wave of labour strikes in Egypt. The workers will take advantage of democracy to press their class demands. The struggle for democracy will open the way for the fight for socialism.

London 29th January