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‘The Egyptian people are back on the stage of history’

Published Feb 10, 2011 9:39 PM

This article is based on a talk given by Joyce Chediac at a Feb. 4 Workers World Forum in New York City.

The Egyptian people have stepped back on the stage of history.

In one of the most epic of moments, virtually the entire population of Egypt, except those closely tied to the corrupt Mubarak regime, have risen up in a national democratic revolution to demand the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and his clique.

Egypt, the very heart of the Arab nation, has shaken the world, causing the imperialists and their clients across the globe to feel their vulnerability, and the workers and oppressed people worldwide to feel a new sense of strength and power.

Such is the power of the people in motion in this strategic nation. With 80 million people, Egypt is the largest Arab country with the largest working class and the largest military. It is strategically located between three continents. It is often said, “As Egypt goes, so goes the Arab world.”

In the Middle East the relationship of forces has been irrevocably changed. The oppressed people in the direct line of Israeli confrontation, the Lebanese and the Palestinians, now have a stronger hand against their oppressors.

Battle for Tahrir Square marks new stage in struggle

February 3 marked a new and deeper stage in the rapidly developing Egyptian revolution. For two days unarmed protesters in Tahrir Square fought thousands of plainclothes police and government-hired thugs and won on Feb.3.

Even the New York Times was forced to admit the significance of this struggle in a Feb. 3 article: “The future of the Arab world, perched between revolt and the contempt of a crumbling order, was fought for in the streets of downtown Cairo. Tens of thousands of protesters who have re-imagined the very notion of citizenship in a tumultuous week of defiance proclaimed with sticks, homemade bombs and a shower of rocks that they would not surrender their revolution to the full brunt of an authoritarian government that answered their calls for change with violence.

“The Arab world watched a moment that suggested it would never be the same again — and waited to see whether protest or crackdown would win the day. Words like ‘uprising’ and ‘revolution’ only hint at the scale of events in Egypt, which have already reverberated across Yemen, Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia, offering a new template for change in a region that long has reeled from its own sense of stagnation.”

In a show of victory, the next day huge numbers poured into Tahrir Square. Among them were Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and other senior army officials in a sign that, at least for now, the military will not be used against the protesters. That the military commanders felt they had to visit the square shows the sheer strength of the people’s movement, that and no more.

U.S. & Israel could not stop uprising

The Pentagon has more than 700 military bases around the world, a huge naval fleet in the Mediterranean, and enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, but it could not stop the rising of the Egyptian people.

Israel, the blockader of Gaza, the torturer of the Palestinian people, and the destroyer of the civilian infrastructures of Gaza and Lebanon, could not stop the mass outpouring of Egyptians either.

With the vulnerability of both U.S. imperialism and Israel exposed, Washington fears that its domination of this strategic, oil-rich area of the world might come completely undone by the struggle in Egypt.

“In a matter of days, every assumption about the United States relationship with Egypt was upended,” said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. (NY Times, Feb. 2)

The protests in Egypt have thrown the Israeli government into turmoil, with military officials holding lengthy strategy sessions and Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, consulting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Israel fears the undoing of its 1979 treaty with Egypt, which took Egypt out of the progressive camp and placed it on the side of Israel and the U.S. This freed Israel for further aggression against Lebanon and the Palestinian people.

Israel and the U.S. also fear Egypt’s opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has fraternal ties with Hamas in Gaza.

U.S. aims

U.S. imperialism would like to crush the Egyptian revolution, but it cannot. Instead it is scrambling to do damage control.

The U.S. has very close ties to the top military brass. In fact, the whole Egyptian general staff was meeting in the Pentagon when the rebellion began. They rushed home. The U.S. wants to eventually ease out Mubarak and negotiate with the pro-imperialist Egyptian military that the Pentagon has trained and armed for a transition, which would eventually set up elections but leave the same old policies in place.

A key figure in this plan is the newly appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman. He is known in Egypt as the hated chief of intelligence and a torturer. But Suleiman is also the CIA’s point man for renditions, the covert military program in which U.S. forces kidnap alleged “terror” suspects around the world and send them to Egypt, where they are held in secret jails and tortured. Suleiman is in constant contact with Washington.

However, there are great risks for Washington in any change in the status quo, and this is why it has pulled back from its demand that Mubarak leave office soon. The Egyptian military is not monolithic, and many in the midlevel officer corps resent the corruption and privilege of the top officers, according to the Feb. 5 New York Times.

Class character of the Egyptian military

On the one hand, the Egyptian military is not fundamentally different from the police, in and out of uniform, who are attacking the people. It is the armed wing of the state, the armed bodies of men whose existence and implied threat of deployment make the day-to-day violence of a capitalist state possible.

Egypt’s armed forces comprise a huge military designed for imperialist intervention. Per capita, they have twice as many personnel as the U.S. military. And the Mubarak government, the same government that gives orders to the police, also gives orders to the military.

On the other hand, this is the military of an oppressed nation and it has a progressive past. In 1952 Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Free Officers Movement to seize power and depose King Farouk, a British puppet.

The Egyptian army fought four wars against Israel, which gives it prestige. And when President Anwar al Sadat was assassinated in 1981, it was by forces within the military and it was because Sadat signed the 1979 accord with Israel, which many Egyptians considered treachery.

This is a conscripted army. Rank-and-file soldiers provide the only consistent source of income for many Egyptian families.

When the tanks rolled into Tahrir Square, the army was hailed by the demonstrators. As soon as the military was deployed, fraternizing began between the demonstrators and soldiers. Captains as well as rank-and-file soldiers have been reported greeting the demonstrators and cheering them on.

If the army were ordered to move against the people, that could drive many of the ranks actively over to the side of the people and into combat against the police and the regime.

Bruce Riedel, a former Egypt analyst for the CIA, gave a blunt assessment: “They could shoot the crowd, they win tomorrow, and then there will be a revolt that will sweep them away.” (New York Times, Jan. 30)

So the lower ranks of the army have a foot in each camp. This is a highly unstable and temporary situation.

What are the options?

The army could split, with a sector of the officer corps moving in a more nationalist and anti-imperialist direction. Rank-and-file soldiers could desert and melt into the protesting crowds. But if the military remains intact, as it is now, it takes its orders from the most reactionary and pro-imperialist forces in Egypt, who want to use its force against the uprising as soon as an opportunity presents itself.

Demonstrators have noted that when police thugs attacked them on Feb. 2 and 3, the army stood by and did nothing. Protesters at Tahrir Square are constantly talking to the military, chiding and cajoling them, educating them and trying to win them over.