Harry Targ : Egypt, Popular Uprisings, and 21st Century Social Movements

Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as a powerful charismatic figure in Middle East politics. Image from The Majalla.

Egypt, popular uprisings, and complexity
of 21st century social movements

On one side are those who remember military coups supported by the United States all around the world. On the other, the case can be made that each rupture in a society must be understood in its own historical context.

By Harry Targ | The Rag Blog | July 13, 2013

Egyptian history

Egypt secured its formal independence from British colonial control in 1922. Nevertheless, the British continued to dominate Egyptian military and political life until 1952 when the “Free Officers” Movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser launched a coup that toppled King Farouk, the British man in Egypt.

Following Egypt’s real independence Nasser emerged as a powerful charismatic figure in Middle East politics, seeking to create a zone of  “Arab Socialism.” He established economic and political ties with the former Soviet Union, initiated efforts to construct a “United Arab Republic” with Syria, and militarily opposed former European colonial powers and Israel in reference to control of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the “Six Day War” against Israel in 1967.

Nasser died in 1970 and his successor Anwar El Sadat led the Arab assault on Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Before Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Egypt reversed course, ending ties with the Soviet Union; tilted toward the West; signed the Camp David Accords with Israel under the tutelage of President Jimmy Carter; and began its long-term relationship with the United States, despite anger from the Arab world.

Egypt became one of the major recipients of United States military assistance from 1980 to the present (receiving $1.3 billion per annum). By the 1980s, the Egyptian military gained control of a large portion of the economy of the country. After Sadat’s assassination Hosni Mubarak, the third leader from the military, began his 30-year rule.

Arab Spring, the massive street mobilizations in the Middle East which started in Tunisia in January 2011, quickly spread to Egypt and elsewhere in the region. These revolts had large representations from the working class, youth, and women and others demanding democratization.

As a result of the revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011, the military stepped in to replace the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to stabilize a country on the verge of fundamental social and economic change; established an interim military government; and constructed a new constitution that would mollify protestors, provide for elections, and at the same time would maintain its own institutional power.

Elections were held in 2012 and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi was elected president. In the year Morsi served as Egyptian president, he declared the presidency’s ultimate power over the courts, used his position to expand the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood over the political system, repressed the 10 percent of the population affiliated with the Coptic Christian Church, stalled efforts to expand the rights of women in Egyptian society, and most recently declared Egypt’s full support of the rebels fighting against the government of Syria.

Two weeks ago a movement of young people calling themselves the rebels (the Tamarrud) circulated a call to rally in Tahrir Square. On June 30, a massive mobilization (some say the largest in modern history) was launched demanding the ouster of Morsi from office. The military issued a statement urging the Egyptian president to achieve some sort of compromise with the protestors and, when he refused, they carried out a coup putting in place an acting president. Subsequent to the coup there have been massive mobilizations in opposition to and in support of Morsi.

Economic context

In a recent article in The Guardian (July 4, 2013), Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, scholar and reporter, discussed the state of the Egyptian economy.

Generally he characterized the Egyptian economic policy embraced at least since the 1990s as involving “structural failures rooted in an unsustainable global model of industrial civilization — addicted to fossil fuels, wedded fanatically to casino capitalism, and convinced, ostrich-like, that somehow technology alone will save us.”

Ahmed pointed out that oil production has declined by 26 percent since 1996 and a once food sustaining economy now requires the importation of 75 percent of its wheat. Inflation has increased in recent years, particularly regarding the price of food. Egyptian debt constitutes over 80 percent of GDP and the Egyptian government began to institute neoliberal structural adjustment policies in the 1990s. The population has experienced declining safety net policies and generalized programs of austerity as experienced elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, financial support of the military remains unchanged. Austerity programs and increased taxes have been designed to get approval for a new $4.8 billion IMF loan. And most critical, “with 40 percent of Egyptians already below the UN poverty line of less than 2 pounds a day, Morsi’s IMF-inspired policies amounted to a form of economic warfare on the Egyptian people.”

What Now?

Debate about the legitimacy of the ouster of Morsi from office has begun to occur within the peace movement. On one side are those who remember, with good reason, military coups supported by the United States all around the world.

The brutality of the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile on September 11, 1973, comes to mind. The Chilean people suffered from a brutal dictatorship leading to thousands of assassinations and people “disappeared,” the end to formal democracy, the crushing of trade unions, and the imposition of a brutal program of neoliberal economic policies that increased economic inequality, reduced the quality of life of most Chileans, and conformed to the dictates of the transnational capitalist class.

On the other hand, the case can be made that each rupture in a society must be understood in its own historical context.

  • First, the mobilizations of June 30 can be seen as continuation of a “revolutionary” process that began in 2011 (if not earlier). Many activists at that time argued that the ouster of Mubarak is just the beginning of what will be a long process of societal transformation. They articulated the view that there were no “quick fixes;” that Mubarak, the military, and the rest of the capitalist class were the product of a larger global political economy.
  • Second, even though powerful military forces should not in the main be relied on for social transformation, contexts and militaries vary. For example, Hugo Chavez came out of the Venezuelan military and he was saved from a U.S.-engineered coup by his military comrades. Most important in the Egyptian case, the military has dominated Egyptian political life since the Nasser-led ouster of British/American Egyptian puppet, King Farouk. Nasser remained enormously popular with his people until his death. On the other hand, as Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous points out, the political instability brought on by Morsi’s policies threatened not only his regime but the special status of the military.
  • Third, Egyptian history, conveniently forgotten by the media and political pundits, suggests that Nasser led a campaign to create a coalition of secular states, even using the word “socialism” to describe his vision. Even though his vision and practice were flawed, Nasser was one of those first generation of post-colonial leaders supporting what Vijay Prashad called “the third world project.” In other words, he was a secular, radical nationalist. From the 1950s on, ironically, United States policy has often tilted toward supporting “Political Islam,” that is regimes and movements which embrace religious fundamentalism and represent little or no threat to the global political economy. United States funding of Osama Bin Laden in his war against the secular regime in Afghanistan is a glaring example.
  • Fourth, political analysts, from academia and the Left, have a fetishized conception of democracy. Democracy as it is conventionally understood is about process. While important, periodically going to a voting booth and choosing between a selection of candidates for public office is only part of a more holistic conception of democracy. Democracy is procedural and it is substantive. In other words, democracy is about choosing candidates and policies and it is also about providing for the fulfillment of human needs. If 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, democracy in the substantive sense is woefully inadequate.
  • Finally, what we may call 21st century social movements are spreading all across the globe. Tunisia, Tahrir Square in Egypt, Greece, Spain, Chile, Quebec, the industrial heartland of the United States, and occupiers everywhere constitute a new politics that only partially conform to traditional models of mobilizing for social change. Indeed we celebrate the mass movements for the eight-hour day, the right of industrial workers to form unions, poor people’s campaigns, anti-war mobilizations, and public campaigns to save the environment.

The historic role of socialist organizations and visions remains critical to 21st century social transformations. But the programmatic character of contemporary mobilizations; the inspirational connectivity of movements across borders, classes, genders, and races; and the recognition by participants that each is part of a historic process may be somewhat new.

Social movements today often see the need to “compromise” with institutions such as the military to advance the condition of the people. At the same time, as the movement in Egypt suggests, they remain mindful of the limitations of alliances of convenience.

Therefore, there are lessons from Egypt for the peace movement in the United States. Peace activists should analyze moments of instability and change in their historical, economic, cultural, and political complexity. They need to assess specific situations to understand which social forces are more likely to represent the values that they support.

Then in each concrete case they should ask how activism in the United States can best support the just struggles of 21st century social movements.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. Read more of Harry Targ’s articles on The Rag Blog.]

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