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The Revolution Has Just Begun

By Austin Mackell - posted Tuesday, 15 February 2011


“The Arabs are Alive, and they are hungry!” - Ahmed Moor

"The war is over. The revolution has just begun." - Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), after Cuban guerillas have overthrown Batista's dictatorial regime on New Year's Day, 1959, in "Che".

Mubarak may be gone, but the Egyptian people's struggle has really just begun. Apart from ensuring that promises are kept and that democracy flourishes, they will have to work very hard, and remain very vigilant if they are to triumph on an even more important front: the battle to feed their families - something decades of neoliberal policy has made increasingly difficult.

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Remember the Nineties? That halcyon period after the collapse of the soviet union. There was a sense that the whole world was one place. That however things went, we were all in this together. The political argument that dominated was the battle between the forces of "Globalisation" and "Global Justice". Essentially, it was a centuries old argument that ran along the old left-right class lines.

Then the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington occurred, and the left was split down the middle. We spent the next decade arguing about whether or not we should stand up for Muslims, who were, we kept being told, incurably backwards, misogynistic and not interested in building fair free societies like ours. We let the debate on economics go by the wayside and the cowboy capitalists, who had had the upper hand before the attacks any way, ran wild.

The revolutions in Egypt (and in Tunisia) show however, not just that our thinking on Arabs has to date been completely misguided, but that this global economic program has hit a wall in the Middle East. These uprisings show that people will not go quietly into poverty, that when they see the hopes of their children for even a basically decent life evaporate, they will fight back. It should serve to remind us that the real struggle, in the Middle East as in the wider world, is not between the West and Islam, or between radicals and moderates, or between secularists and religious parties, but between the many and the few, between the rich and the poor – or, more accurately, between the obscenely super-rich and every one else.

The last time there were uprisings of significant scale in Egypt was in 1977. Then President Sadat had decided that he wanted to be on the American side in the cold war. What that cost, apart from peace with Israel, was the adoption of economic policies proscribed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Subsidies on bread, bus tickets, cooking oil, domestic gas and other basic essentials were cut. The poor erupted in protest. Sadat cancelled his sudden and severe reforms but it was a slowdown, not a change of course.

The subsidies were slowly eased away, and for the decades since then the Egyptian economy has become friendlier and friendlier to foreign investors, and crueller an crueller to the poor. Government services were pulled back to the point that now, in the words of Dr Noah Bassil from the Macquarie Centre for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, "poor people in Cairo would never see a doctor or a nurse if it wasn't for the Muslim Brotherhood".

He notes also, that the one public sector not to be cut was the security forces, and suggests as others like Naomi Klein have also argued, that as social services are cut back, the security forces must expand to deal with the increased crime and social unrest. He cites as examples Pinochet's Chile and the United States itself, with its anaemic social spending and massive prison population.

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In the nineties, the privatisations began. There was however, only moderate support for them from inside the regime, as many of the senior figures had some lingering respect for the ideals of the 1952 “Free Officers Revolution” (it was really a military coup), and enough nationalism to dislike the idea of the people going hungry while the Egyptian economy fell into the hands of foreigners.

All that changed in 2004 and 2005, as the old guard began to make way for a new generation, educated as American universities in management and neo-classical economics, headed by Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal who, in the words of a Feb 1 report by the Unites States's Congressional Research Service, "Egyptian corporate elites vision of economic development.It is a vision shared by those who travel round the world pushing the disastrous "Consensus" around the world.

In the words of Dr Bassil's colleague at the centre, Dr Gennaro Gervasio this assumption of power by the "Gang" signalled the beginning of a period of "capitalism, profit capitalism. National capitalism was over." The money orgy of unrestrained privatisation began. Government steel, retail and other businesses including the iconic Omar Effendi stores were passed off to Gamal's mates and to foreign investors, and immediately re-structured towards profit. People were fired, wages were lowered prices were raised. This was of course, greeted with great joy in the halls of power, with the IMF praising the countries macro-economic growth and low public debt. They spent less time considering the massive inflation and increases in the cost of living, the stagnant wages, or the populations deepening despair.

As a result, according to Dr Andrea Teti of the school of social sciences at the University of Aberdeen, "nearly 40 percent of Egyptians over 32 million people now live on or under $2 per day, or less than half of the price of an average cappuccino in Cairo's upmarket Zamalek district."

Outside factors are important too, of course, with wall street's follies and the subsequent collapse cutting into the remittances sent to Egypt. This was especially felt in the rural areas, where most of Egypt's emigrants originate from and has hastened the urban drift which has left some villages completely de-populated. Then there was the spike in food prices that began in the second half of 2010, caused in part by problems with crops and increasing demand, but also in party increasing speculation in the commodities markets fuelled by cheap money from the Federal Reserve.

All this provided the background of desperation against which the egyptians saw the protesters in Tunisia, about which a similar story can be told, bring down the dictatorship that had, as well as trampling on their rights, completely ignored their needs too long.

The rest, as they say, is history – but nothing is settled yet.

In Tunisia (which had been lauded by western institutions like the IMF as an “Economic Miracle” as recently as December 2009) the original protesters, Mr Bassil says, are worried now that their “original slogans” about bread and butter issues may be forgotten in the fanfare surrounding the birth of a democratic state. The fear, says Dr Bassil, is that either (or both) of these countries could end up following the path of South Africa, where political rights were won, but economic reforms remain allusive, and poverty endemic.

However, the Egyptian people have shown themselves to be remarkably brave and politically sophisticated. There is also a labor movement in Egypt that was growing in strength (and increasingly escaping the control of the state appointed leaders) even before the revolution began. What's more they have the model of Turkey, which has maintained good relations with western backers without submitting completely to their economic demands. In such circumstances it seems that claims by people like Klein and Bassil, that “free markets” are only possible on the backs of unfree people, too terrified to object, may well hold.

Whoever ends up running Egypt may find they have to give the Egyptian people both bread and freedom, or neither. The Egyptian people have made it clear that the latter is not an option. They will no longer be terrified of anyone. Inshallah, they shall not buckle.

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About the Author

Austin G. Mackell is an Australian freelance journalist with a special interest in the Middle East and a progressive outlook. He has reported from Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli invasion, Iran during the turbulent 2009 elections and recently moved to Cairo to report on the transition to democracy. His work has been featured by outlets including New Matilda, Crikey!, The Diplomat, The Canberra Times, news.com.au, The Scotsman, The Guardian, New Humanist, CBC, CBS, Russia Today, Citizen Radio and many others. He tweets on @austingmackell and blogs at The Moon Under Water.

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