"We want our Egypt, not Mubarak"
1 February 2011. A World to Win News Service. Whether or not Hosni Mubarak's reign will come to an end is no longer the question. How he goes, and what this transition leads to, is what is being fought out.
As men and women dressed in business suits as well as torn sandals jubilantly swelled the size of the demonstrations by a hundred-fold in a week, many people thought that the "march of a million" 1 February would end in victory. They thought Mubarak would go, the tanks would leave the streets and the country would be theirs.
What American and European governments consider most important is what they call an "orderly transition". When the Egyptian president announced that he will stay in office until his terms expires in September, he argued that the only choice was a transition under him or "chaos". Some Egyptians were swayed by Mubarak's argument. Die-hard regime supporters were emboldened by U.S. President Barack Omaba's failure to call for Mubarak to step down immediately.
But "order" is not the main priority of many of the millions who have been demanding "Mubarak out!" They took Mubarak's speech as a gesture of defiance and contempt for the people. They were infuriated by his vow to remain on Egyptian soil to the end of his days. At the massive gatherings in in Cairo and Alexandria, he had already been hung in effigy.
It might seem simple for the U.S. to just dump a hated, discredited and isolated autocrat. The fact that the U.S. has so stubbornly resisted that step so far is a sign that things are not so simple, even if the U.S. does end up taking that route.
It must have been infuriating for Egyptians to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argue on 31 January that the U.S. can't tell Mubarak to go because that is up to Egyptians to decide. It is the Egyptian army that has kept Mubarak in power, and it is the U.S., to a large degree, that tells that army what to do.
In late January, as the revolt mounted, the head of the Egyptian armed forces and his staff were conferring with the American government and military in Washington. If they had been told that Mubarak must go immediately – as happened with the Shah of Iran in 1979 and may have been the case with the Ben Ali regime in French-dominated and less strategically important Tunisia – then one way or another Mubarak would have been gone. Even if the U.S. dumps him now, events have already proved that this has not been the U.S.'s preferred outcome.
No matter what changes the U.S. ends up having to accept, it will do its best to minimize the role of the people and avoid encouraging their movement. That is one important reason why the U.S. has preferred that Mubarak be allowed a dignified exit and not be seen as driven out by "the street", with what that might mean for other U.S.-dependent Arab regimes. But above all it wants to make sure that whether or not Mubarak is able to preside over the transition, the regime he built and led remains as intact as possible.
The army: not neutral
While Obama's support for Mubarak was qualified and not necessarily permanent, he was effusive in his praise for the Egyptian army and the way it has handled the protest movement.
During the upsurge before 1 February, the police had been unable to stop the demonstrators, although they killed hundreds and badly hurt many more. In many cases people attacked the police and put them on the run. Armoured cars were pulled down and burned in Cairo and Alexandria. In several cities police stations were assaulted and destroyed. A wave of looting seems to have been largely the work of the police themselves.
People organised neighbourhood roadblocks and crudely-armed groups to protect lives and property. They also organised to protect themselves against provocateurs, clean up the streets and preserve public sanitation and pass out tea and food in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, a highly symbolic location named after the 1952 army coup that brought down the British-controlled monarchy, as well as in front of the main mosque in Alexandria. They proudly explained to reporters that the square and the country now belonged to them.
But the army remained omnipresent, demonstrating its power. It lined Cairo's avenues and bridges with armoured vehicles and massed about a hundred new U.S.-supplied tanks around the square. To prevent people from converging on the capital and Alexandria, it cut off the roads and public transportation linking Cairo and other major cities with the provincial towns. Soldiers searched people as they entered the rally and checked IDs. Helicopters filmed the crowds from above. American and French-made fighter planes buzzed Tahrir Square. The military erected a protective wall around Mubarak's residence.
Keeping order while the people want to overthrow the regime is not a neutral act. After Mubarak's non-resignation speech, many protesters suddenly feared that if he wasn't going to resign after all, they might be hunted and punished.
Whose army is it?
If it is true, as some reporters surmise, that the U.S. told the Egyptian military at Tahrir Square that it should refrain from a "Tienanmen" solution, when the Chinese government gunned down a square full of protesters, it is not because anyone in the Obama administration or Washington's corridors of power cares more about Egyptian lives than American interests, but because if the army does open fire on demonstrators in a sustained way – rather than firing into the air, as it has done sporadically so far – the situation may spin even further out of control politically.
The U.S. financed, armed and trained these armed forces and has paid close attention to their military and political training. It is the biggest Arab army and the tenth biggest in the world. Its intelligence service reaches into every corner of society and its prisons and torture chambers are among the world's most fearsome. It would be hard to exaggerate the ties between these armed forces and the U.S. Almost all of U.S. financial aid to Egypt, 1.3 out of 1.5 billion dollars a year, goes to the military. Over the past decades the only country anywhere to receive more American aid has been Israel.
The army is not only the ultimate protector of the state, it is also Egypt's single most powerful economic force. It owns a network of factories, hotels, real estate and other businesses. Further, retired generals run many state-owned enterprises, such as the textile mills that have historically been core components of the country's export-oriented economy, along with the state-run petroleum industry. This makes the army a partner as well as a political and military enabler of Egypt's domination by foreign capital and the imperialist world market.
There are undoubtedly real differences between the wealthy, modernized army and Egypt's petty criminal police who pick the people's pockets for bribes. The police, not the army, have been in charge of street-level repression for decades, and that has had an affect on how the army is seen. It was no accident that the first minister Mubarak threw overboard in an attempt to appease the people was his hated Minister of the Interior.
Further, the armed forces have been able to preserve something of a nationalist aura because of their role in the struggle against British domination, from overthrowing the monarchy to defending Egypt against the 1956 British-French-Israeli invasion when Egypt nationalized the formerly British-controlled Suez Canal. It is also highly regarded for defending the country against the 1967 Israeli invasion that seized Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and its military successes in the 1973 war with Israel which eventually led to Egypt's getting the Sinai back. Many people, it seems, are also confused by the fact that the army is made up of conscripts.
But the army and the police may be playing the kind of "good cop, bad cop" division of labour familiar around the world. What is probably most fundamental in the unfounded hopes that the army will "support the people" against Mubarak is that the people understand very well what it would mean if the army does not.
Mubarak and the army
Mubarak responded to the revolt against him by making the head of intelligence his vice-president – his first vice president and therefore official successor if Mubarak resigns. Omar Suleiman has been in charge of repression for decades and makes frequent trips to Washington and Tel Aviv. A U.S diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks says that he is one of the Egyptian officials most trusted by the U.S. government. Mubarak made the current air force chief Ahmad Shafiq his prime minister. He also met with his regional military commanders.
Although Mubarak, like his predecessors Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadar, is a product of the armed forces, until now there has been at least the claim of a separation between the military and the government. Top officers, for instance, were not allowed to be members of Mubarak's party, and most of his recent (and now ex-) ministers have been civilian businessmen and so-called "technocrats". This moving of the army into the centre of the government has two aims: to overrule the people's movement and keep Mubarak on top as long as possible, and to ensure that if the autocrat does go down the military will preserve regime continuity. This seems to reflect the U.S.'s dual tactics in this situation.
But even the militarisation of Mubarak's government, while meant to be a show of strength, has had negative political effects in identifying the military with U.S./Mubarak rule and widening the target of the people's anger. Chants have arisen demanding the departure of the generals as well as Mubarak himself, all of them seen as U.S. puppets by some people. They are disgusted by the fact that Suleiman, Mubarak's chief negotiator and collaborator with Israel, is now calling for opposition parties to negotiate with him.
The things they do can undo them
One of the most important lessons to be learned from the sudden new situation in Egypt and throughout the Middle East is that the very things that the U.S. has done to keep the region under its heel have created huge problems for continuing American domination.
In addition to the U.S.'s dilemma concerning Mubarak's personal future, the other clearest case of this contradiction is the role of Israel as a factor for regional instability. As a settler state and the only society in the region the U.S. can count on, American domination of the region would be much more difficult without this highly militarized outpost. The current situation in the Arab world highlights Israel's centrality to the U.S., even while it also highlights the problems Israel creates for the U.S.-led empire.
In addition to burning down the 15-storey headquarters of Mubarak's political party and attacking the Ministry of the Interior, crowds have besieged and assaulted the Foreign Ministry building. People throughout the Middle East hate what Israel does to the Palestinians, and solidarity with Palestine has been a feature of the upsurges in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan (half of whose population is Palestinian). Such openly "police state" regimes and monarchies are not only U.S client states in a general sense, they are bulwarks against the Palestinians and pro-Palestinian sentiments among their own people. For example, the Mubarak regime has worked with Israel in the lock-down of the people of Gaza and attempts to control Palestinian politics.
Obama's Secretary of State says she is worried that what follows Mubark may be "not democratic". This is generally taken to express a fear that Mubarak's downfall might favour the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, historically the father of modern Sunni Islamic fundamentalism and "political Islam" in general. That is one possibility. Even though Islamic fundamentalism does not seek to break with the imperialist world market and the economic and social relations that market imposes, still the Islamicist movement threatens to disrupt the status quo, the present configuration of the Middle East on which U.S. domination depends. But as we've seen in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, as bad as the rise of Islamism can be for the interests of the American empire, it is also a disaster for the people.
In the past the U.S. and Israel helped build up the Brotherhood in order to undermine more radical secular movements. To this day the relations between the Mubarak government and the Brotherhood are complicated and sometimes ambiguous. The Brotherhood has been allowed to hold seats in parliament until recently and stills operates semi-openly, even while officially illegal and often repressed. Suleiman has been both Mubarak's chief of anti-fundamentalist operations and a man said to enjoy the respect of Islamic forces. The regime cracked down at least as hard, if not harder, on shoots of the leftist secular opposition, such as appeared in opposition to the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Brotherhood, for its part, stayed out of the current revolt until it seemed on the verge of victory, and even now insists that it wants to play a subordinate role and not seek power – for now. Yet the U.S.'s stubbornness in clinging to Mubarak and its determination to continue humiliating the Egyptian people even after Mubarak, the vacillating role of some secular forces and the identification of the regime with Israel are all factors that could prove favourable to expanding the influence of the Islamic movement, especially (but not only) in the absence of a revolutionary alternative.
Can the U.S. be a force for democracy?
It would be funny if it weren't so criminal to hear the U.S. talk about the need for "free, fair and credible elections" in Egypt now, since only a few months ago, in November 2010, when Mubarak held parliamentary elections that were anything but what these words describe, the whole Western political establishment went along with them. And when Obama talks about "shared values" between the U.S. and Egypt, it should be remembered that what the U.S. has long shared with Mubarak are not only the tear gas canisters, bullets and tanks used to repress the Egyptian people but also the regime's torture chambers. Since 1995, on orders from Secretary of State Clinton's husband, President Bill Clinton, the U.S. has been turning over its captives to the Mubarak regime for torture in a CIA "rendition" programme.
How could it be otherwise, when the interests of the U.S. and its European allies require dominating countries like Egypt by any means possible? The monopoly capitalist countries cannot act otherwise because their position in the world (including major sources of their wealth and their success in rivalry with each other) is based on the financial and political subjugation of the vast majority of the world's people. Within this division of the world, the U.S. has its own particular national interests and neocolonies.
Therefore the basic interests of the imperialist ruling classes, including that of the U.S. (and not just the government under any particular president or prime minister) are in opposition to the democratic demands of the people in the countries they dominate, for political rights and especially the equality of nations and the right of self-determination for oppressed nations. In general imperialism tends to deny or limit the kind of bourgeois-democratic forms of rule (equal rights for all, especially as manifested in elections) that have generally marked monopoly capitalist rule in the imperialist home countries, where the whole purpose of such structures is to preserve the system and smooth functioning of what is, in essence, the dictatorship of the monopoly capitalist class. For instance, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair now admits that his government took part in the invasion of Iraq against the will of the British people. As we have seen in the U.S., UK and other rich countries lately, even there these rights and basic structures can be modified or abandoned when the rule and interests of monopoly capitalism require that.
It's true that the U.S. has been worried about the narrow social base of its client regimes in the Middle East, and now that a crisis has broken out it will put some reforms into motion. It is telling that such wishes did not become a priority for the U.S. in Egypt until the people pushed the Mubarak regime to the edge of a cliff. As the leading American imperialist political counsellor Robert D. Kaplan wrote about Tunisia, "In terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy. It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat [Mubarak's predecessor] of Egypt and [former] King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than a weak, elected leader... In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East." (The New York Times, 22 January 2011)
Washington may sometimes desire that its client regimes could enjoy more stability by being less openly autocratic, but it is the maintenance of client or otherwise pliable regimes that is the U.S.'s basic aim. All talk about elections and "democracy" is subordinate to those interests. Lebanon is the only Arab country that can be reasonably described as having an elected government. Yet this month when Hezbollah was able to play the decisive role in naming a new prime minister by entirely legal and constitutional means, the U.S. became enraged and determined to punish the country. When Hamas (closely tied to the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt) won elections in Gaza, the U.S. and its allies cried "terrorism" and have supported Israel's collective punishment of the Gaza people for their impudence. In a different kind of example, Turkey, whose governing Justice and Development party (AKP) is a close ally of Washington, has not gone along with Israeli massacres to the degree required by Obama and U.S. interests.
Denial of democracy and democratic illusions
Yet the fact that people's democratic demands are thwarted in the countries oppressed by imperialism is both a source of instability and rebellion, and of illusions among the people. The U.S. and its allies will do their best to limit the achievements of popular movements to reforms, especially some sorts of elections and rights, however limited they must be to preserve imperialist domination. In Egypt, we can be sure that whatever such reforms do occur will be meant to rob the people of their greatest achievement so far, their leap from enforced political passivity to single-minded determination to bring about real change.
The problem for Egypt as for the whole third world is not just the political structures imposed by imperialism, but the whole economic and social structure of society on which the political institutions are based. The Egyptian people's humiliation and misery has deepened as the country has become more fully integrated into the world market over the past decade. Even the country's relatively high economic growth rate, while winning the praise of the IMF and other imperialist institutions, has brought more hardship for the majority.
No regime can oppose imperialism in any long-term and consistent way unless it breaks free of dependency on the imperialist world market in the organization of its economy as well as in the political sphere. This means a revolution that is not bourgeois-democratic, or in other words not aimed at achieving equal rights within the overall imperialist world order, which is generally impossible for structurally oppressed and dependent countries, but what Mao Tsetung called a New Democratic Revolution, a revolution to break the chains of feudalism and imperialist-dependent capitalism that make a country susceptible to foreign political subjugation.
Instead of more becoming more and more entangled in imperialist globalization, which relies on local reactionary classes to impose a political rule that favours the country's subordination to global capital and lopsided development, New Democracy is a transition to a whole new system, socialism, that can break with world capitalism, a revolution in alliance with the world's peoples whose ultimate goal is the defeat of the world capitalist system and its replacement by a world without imperialism or classes, a world of freely associating human beings, communism.
As Egyptians tell anyone who will listen, the demands now uniting the people against Mubarak are an expression of a burning determination to have their own country back. That is what the U.S. cannot agree to, no matter how much it might have to adjust its actions to further its interests in the complex context of what is possible and not just what Washington might want.
The idea of an Egypt without Mubarak is as exhilarating to the Egyptian people as it is frightening for those who run the U.S. and all the regimes through which the U.S. dominates the region. The result has been a fierce tug of war between the Egyptian people and the U.S. that is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the Egyptian people, the region and the U.S.