Sunday, January 18, 2009

When Pharaoh embraces Goliath

Mostafa Omar shows how Egypt’s tacit support for Israel’s war on Gaza has deepened the crisis in Egyptian society.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at a June 2006 conference (Menahem Kahana | AFP)Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at a June 2006 conference (Menahem Kahana | AFP)

MILLIONS OF ordinary Arabs have poured into the streets of every Arab country in the past two weeks to protest the ongoing Israeli massacres against Palestinians in Gaza. Demonstrators not only condemned the U.S. for its typical unconditional support of Israel, but they also denounced Arab regimes that do nothing to help the Palestinians besides give empty speeches.

Protests in the Arab streets in solidarity with victims of Israel’s wars from Palestine to Lebanon are common reactions in the region. Yet the latest mobilizations have a new and volatile character compared to previous ones.

First, the demonstrations this time are much larger and angrier than anything in decades. They reflect not just the outrage that ordinary Arabs feel towards Israel’s brutality towards the Palestinians, but also the bitterness towards the arrogant attempts of the United States to conquer Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second, these demonstrations have an explosive character due to the acute economic crisis faced by Arab workers and peasants. This is especially true in Egypt and Jordan, which have implemented disastrous free market policies in the last three decades.

What else to read

Al-Ahram Weekly carries English-language news updates and commentaries on the situation in Egypt.

One of the best left-wing writers on Egypt is Joel Beinin, a contributing editor to Middle East Report and Information Project. His article “The Militancy of Mahalla al-Kubra” provides essential background on the fight of textile workers.

Last year, the International Socialist Review published a special feature on the global food crisis, including Hossam El-Hamalawy’s “Revolt at Mahalla” on the eruption of class struggle in Egypt in connection with the food crisis, and Sharon Smith’s “The revolt over rising food prices.”

Norman Finkelstein’s Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict is essential reading for picking apart the myths used to justify Israel’s apartheid. Between the Lines: Readings on Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. “War on Terror,” by Tikva Honig-Parnass and Toufic Haddad, documents the apartheid-like conditions that Palestinians live under today.

For background on Israel’s war and the Palestinian struggle for freedom, read The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays edited by Lance Selfa on the history of the occupation and Palestinian resistance.

Finally, while protesters in various Arab countries have denounced all the regimes that fail to take any meaningful action against Israel or its American sponsor, demonstrators have concentrated their wrath on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his shameful role in enforcing the Israeli blockade on Gaza for the past year and a half.

Indeed, Mubarak has publicly stated that he will not open the Rafah border crossing to Palestinians searching for food and medicine until Mahmoud Abbas, the pro-Western president of the Palestinian Authority, is back in power in Gaza.

For months, Mubarak has stopped all but very limited numbers of aid caravans with food and medicine to Gazans from crossing into the Strip. And since the Palestinians broke down the border wall between Egypt and Gaza in January 2008 to enter Egypt to buy supplies of food and medicine, Mubarak has also increased the number of Egyptian police at the border with Gaza to prevent any more prison breaks.

To add insult to injury, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni used her meeting with Mubarak in Cairo December 24 to more or less announce that Israel would start bombing Gaza.

Another source of bitterness is the fact that Israel relies for much of its electricity on cheap Egyptian natural gas. In 2005, Mubarak signed a 15-year trade deal with Israel to supply it with 20 percent of its natural gas needs at a low, fixed price. In other words, anything Israel needs for its massacre that uses electricity is operating on the cheap, thanks to Mubarak.

Therefore, the anger that erupted across the Arab streets against Mubarak–derisively known as the Pharaoh–is totally justified.

In Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Lebanon, angry demonstrators tried to storm Egyptian embassies and consulates. In Aden, Yemen, protesters managed to actually take over the consulate for a short period and vandalized its contents. Protesters called Mubarak a coward and accused him of being an agent of Israel and Zionism. They carried a poster featuring the pictures of Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mubarak smiling, with the caption calling the trio the “Axis of Dirt.”

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A FEW days after the Israeli massacre in Gaza began, Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al Quds newspaper, told Al-Jazeera:

Egypt has been boiling with anger for a long time…the people are humiliated more and more by the government’s policy to Israel. When the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, chooses Cairo as a platform to announce it was prepared to take military action against Hamas, it was a huge humiliation to Egyptian pride.

Indeed, it was one of the most insulting things Israel has done to Egyptians in a long time. But the response in Egypt to Israel’s actions–and to Mubarak’s role in strangling Gaza–has exceeded everyone’s expectation.

The Association of Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group, along with different socialist and Nasserist groups, the Egyptian Movement for Democracy (Kifaya! or Enough!), writers, artists and most unions have all denounced Mubarak’s complicity with Israel.

But they’ve also been actively mobilizing an impressive number of protests in all major cities, towns and villages across the country. They are trying in many different ways to put pressure on Mubarak to stop fronting for Israel.

For example, students from the Muslim Brotherhood and left-wing organizations, along with university professors, are holding angry demonstrations and mass meetings in every major university around the country. On December 28, at one of many huge rallies that took place at Cairo University, students chanted against Israel and denounced the Egyptian president’s complicity with Israel. Ahmed Sayyid, a pharmacy major at Cairo University, told reporters:

The Israelis are lucky to have such a complacent government in Cairo. [But] there are thousands of youths, girls and boys, which, if they were allowed to fight or trained to fight, would go now to defend the Palestinians.

In the provincial northern city of Damanhour, 15,000 women supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood protested and clashed with police who tried to stop them from marching to join the Doctors Union at a mass meeting to support Palestinians. And in the capital city of Cairo, the police had to shut down all streets leading to midtown on more than one occasion to stop the thousands of people who keep turning out for daily protests.

The Popular Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian People is also trying to organize independent, grassroots aid caravans to travel to Rafah starting January 9 in an attempt to break the siege once and for all.

Egyptian artists also held a mass meeting in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance and to protest Israel’s massacres. The meeting issued a statement directed to all artists around the world. Part of it read:

To all artists of the world …

We have stood with all of your people against Nazism, fascism and the Apartheid regime of South Africa until all were transferred to the dustbin of history. Today we are all called upon to address the State of Israel, the Zionist movement and the dirty imperialist alliance which links them to the same ruling classes which are responsible for the chaotic and brutal world we live in and which is about to collapse economically, environmentally and morally together.

Bear with us this responsibility and press on your governments, which have long been unfair to us. Carry with us a common slogan which is: Save Gaza Now! Stop Israel!

Unions organizing millions of workers and professionals, such as lawyers, journalists, engineers and doctors–which have refused to recognize Israel from Day One of the 1979 peace treaty–have called on their members to rally in defense of Gaza. Thousands attended mass meetings and protests, either in their own union headquarters or on the streets all over the country. And on January 6, the General Union of Doctors held an emergency mass membership meeting to send physicians and medicine to Gaza.

Among the common demands of this opposition are that Mubarak opens the border crossing with Gaza, ends all exports of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, and severs all diplomatic and economic ties to Israel.

In the Egyptian Coptic Christian community, which makes up between 10 and 15 percent of the population, many Christians pressured their pro-government Pope Shenouda to tone down all celebrations for the Coptic New Year, which regularly falls on January 8.

The police stationed thousands of soldiers outside all major churches and cathedrals around the country to attempt to contain possible angry pro-Palestinian protests, which they feared would break out on a night when worshippers literally flood every church.

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IT’S TRUE that Egypt has fought different wars with Israel that took a huge human toll on the population for 30 years, and it’s also true that the question of Palestine played a key role in the dynamic of why and how these wars were fought.

But in fighting these wars, Egypt was motivated, first and foremost, by its desire to assert itself as the main political and military power in the Arab world, not solidarity with the Palestinians. This was the case with all the different regimes that ruled the country–from the Arab nationalist regime of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952-1970) as well as the more pro-Western ones of Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) and Mubarak.

This time, though, Mubarak didn’t even make a pretense at a military response to Israeli aggression. In the first couple of days into the Israeli bombing campaign, Mubarak and Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu Al-Gheit blamed Hamas for “provoking” Israel–glossing over the fact that they knew better than anybody else that Israel was preparing such an assault six months ago.

But since the demonstrations against him began to spread in late December, Mubarak has had to tone down his open disdain for Hamas (which, by the way, was democratically elected). As the regime began to feel the heat from mass, non-stop protests, it shifted its rhetoric somewhat and began to criticize Israel. And, perhaps for the first time since he came to power in 1981, the Egyptian dictator has had to respond to his critics.

Mubarak unleashed his paid pundits in the government media to churn out article after article defending him as a “champion of Palestinians” who has done all he can to help them under the terms of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. For example, Mubarak’s apologists argue that according to the terms of that treaty, Egypt cannot unilaterally open any border crossing with Gaza if the Israelis say no.

Simultaneously, the same pundits have been pushing an Egyptian chauvinist line of argument to dampen public solidarity with Gaza. They claim, for example, that the Palestinians want to cross into Egypt so they can take food from the mouths of hungry Egyptians (which, by the way, are the same hungry people these hacks didn’t mind impoverishing as a result of Mubarak’s free-market policies).

The regime also tried to deflect popular anger towards Shiite Muslims, by denouncing Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah–the Lebanese Shia organization that gained popularity in Egypt and the Arab world in 2006 by militarily defeating Israel. Mubarak’s officials claimed that Nasrallah insulted all Egyptians when he argued that the Egyptian army generals aren’t worth a penny and called on Egyptians soldiers to defy their officers and open the border crossings to Gaza.

In reaction to Iranian demonstrations against the closing of the Rafah border crossing, the Egyptian foreign minister publicly accused Iran of wanting to spread its Shia ideology and control the Middle East in an another attempt to flare up anti-Shia sentiment.

The government’s propaganda campaign has been partly effective, at least among some conservative layers in the middle classes. But, the campaign has so far failed to make huge inroads among the vast majority of the population, and therefore has failed to slow down the protest movement.

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ONE REASON for the ineffectiveness of this pro-Mubarak campaign is that the regime had little credibility to begin with. The 80-year-old dictator has been running the country with an iron fist for 28 years and even plans to get his son appointed as the next president. So far, he has refused to cede to any of the protesters’ demands, including the mildest one of expelling the Israeli ambassador.

The other reason this campaign isn’t working is that Egyptian public opinion on the need to maintain any diplomatic or economic relations with Israel has shifted in the last 20 years.

Many people were in favor of the 1979 peace treaty and cooperation with the U.S., in the hope that it would usher into a period of prosperity. They now realize that it actually brought about more poverty and misery. These shifting sentiments are only compounded by the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and American mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims.

But while Mubarak is a close ally of Washington, his regime is anything but a helpless pawn. He runs the largest Arab country, with 75 million people, and heads the largest and most advanced army in the region–other than Israel, of course.

In reality, the Egyptian ruling class represented by Mubarak (and Anwar Sadat before him) willingly and consciously cooperates with both the United States and Israel. This class made that strategic decision in the mid-1970s because it concluded that its political and economic interests lay in joining the Pax Americana camp.

Thus on the domestic front, Egypt has followed the American neoliberal economic policies of privatization, deregulation, a rollback of land reform and attacks on workers’ living standards. On a regional level, Egypt has more or less supported the main outlines of American interests in the region, and even took part in the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991.

When it comes to the current Israeli offensive in Gaza, Mubarak’s regime actually has a material interest in some sort of an Israeli victory in Gaza, despite his more recent public statements to the contrary.

Mubarak, like Israel, would like to see a weakened Hamas. He has always feared that the existence of a strong and defiant Hamas (as well as a strong Hezbollah in Lebanon) could strengthen his own main foes at home, the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the regime is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Mubarak worries that a strong Hamas in Gaza which continues to fight Israel could strengthen the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has historic ties to Hamas.

More importantly, Mubarak fears that a Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, serves as a model to emulate for oppressed workers and peasants in Egypt suffering under his dictatorship. Mubarak is right about that. There is no question that the rise in class and social struggles in Egypt in recent years was inspired by the example of the Second Palestinian Intifada of 2000-2003.

This possibility of radical or revolutionary change in Egypt drives Mubarak more and more into the arms of the U.S. and Israel when it comes to practical considerations such as their common goal of isolating Hamas. But, on the other hand, the erupting volcano of public anger around him leaves him losing sleep and issuing angry, yet hollow, statements against Israel.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Mubarak regime is seriously shaken by the breadth and depth of the anger in the streets in a way that has never happened before.

But while the regime’s days are not by any means numbered, the earth it is standing on is beginning to crack, and could give way in the near future. The country has the largest working class in the region–one that began to flex its muscles in mass strikes and display its latent social powers in recent months with strikes and protests. As the Arab writer Atwan pointed out to Al-Jazeera: “Egypt is on the edge of transforming, and the regime there could be toppled as a result of this.”

The potential is definitely there to achieve such a much-needed democratic change in the region. Democracy in Egypt will be the New Year’s gift that Egyptians could finally deliver to every child in Palestine who grew up in poverty and terror, and to every Palestinian man and woman in and out of Palestine who taught us how to fight when they fought Israel and Zionism in the past 60 years.

The days and months to come will provide Egyptian pro-democracy activists and opponents of American and Israeli imperialism an exciting chance to (a) force the regime to lift the siege on Gaza, (b) grow deeper roots among workers, students and peasants, and (c) build organizations with a vision of an Arab world built on justice, equality and the use of its human and natural resources for a better life.

It’s our duty in the U.S. to do what we can to support that struggle.

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