Revolution has entered the Arab dictionary.
Revolution is no longer a simple theory we use, in the Arab world, to explain foreign or past events. It now means something to the masses.
The word revolution is on the lips of every citizen in the region, while its echoes can be heard throughout the world. Tunisia’s revolutionary process has had huge impact on the people of the region, eradicating the wall of fear against authoritarian regimes. The Arab people have begun to refuse neoliberal policies that impoverished them and their society as a whole, while a small bourgeois minority enriched itself and serving foreign interests.
Egypt in revolt
The most obvious example is Egypt, where the people have been demonstrating continuously in the streets since last Tuesday for political, social and economic changes. More than 150 people have been killed and thousands injured since then, while thousands of protesters were arrested by security forces. The sacking of the government by the President Mubarak and the appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice-president (the first in 30 years) and Ahmad Chafic as new Prime Minister did not ease or stop the demonstrations. Nor did the formation of a new government today (Monday).
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have gathered across these past few days. The vice president and prime minister appointments did not reflect any sign of change for the protesters; they are both very close to Mubarak. Omar Suleiman is from the army; he is head of intelligence services, in charge of the most delicate issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas.
Mubarak’s cosmetic modifications to the regime were far from the demands of the people, who chanted for the fall of the regime and the resignation of the President, and for better living conditions. The mass movement of protest has partly paralyzed the country: many ATMs were empty, the banks and the stock market, which registered sharp declines Wednesday and Thursday before the weekly holiday, remained closed.
Popular committees throughout Egypt appeared and started to organize to defend their neighborhoods from looters and handing them over to the army, especially after extensive looting in Cairo and major cities such as Alexandria and Suez. We have seen the popular committee in Cairo defending the National Museum after some looting.
On Sunday night the government ordered the return of the police to the streets across Egypt, after it withdrew last Friday. For many protesters the withdrawal of the police from the streets appeared to be on purpose by the government, to create chaos and scare the people. But this was unsuccessful due to the organization of popular committees.
The headquarters of the ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was burned in Cairo on Friday night as well as other governmental buildings, while in Rafah and Ismailiya on the Suez Canal, the seats of the State Security were attacked by thousands of protesters. In Alexandria several police stations were torched.
In Mansoura, on the Nile delta, the police used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters and the army deployed in the evening. According to security services, 60% of the country’s police stations were burned, including 17 in Cairo.
On Saturday night, and despite the curfew imposed on Friday night by the army from 4pm to 8 am, thousands of people were massed in the streets of Cairo and other cities after a day marked by deadly clashes between protesters and security forces, who used tear gas and rubber bullets. Shortly after midnight, thousands of protesters were still in Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital, where graffiti “No to Mubarak!” and “Down with Mubarak!” were written on walls and tanks.
On Sunday, demonstrations continued throughout the country. In Cairo, despite extra military roadblocks set up in an attempt to divert traffic away from Tahrir Square, hundreds thousands of protesters gathered to demand the resignation of Mubarak and a complete change of the system. The protesters were later joined by hundreds of judges. There were over a million people gathering in different parts of the capital, including protests in the massive working class areas that surround the city.
Protesters spent the night on Tahrir Square and many of them promised to demonstrate until the resignation of the Egyptian President. The protesters in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria called for a general strike on Monday and announced a demonstration called “the march of the millions” on Tuesday. On Monday the army sealed off the city centre with tanks, and fighter jets flew over the capital at low altitude the whole afternoon. It is noteworthy that Al Jazeera has been forbidden to broadcast from Egypt and its offices were closed.
The turnout on Tuesday for the march of the millions surpassed all expectations with 2 millions protesters in the Tahrir square and Cairo neighborhoods, while millions of Egyptians demonstrated throughout the country. On Tuesday night, Hosni Mubarak said that he will not run for another term and step down at the next election but will stay in office till then. The next presidential election is scheduled for September.
What happens next in Egypt?
The National Coalition for Change, which groups several opposition movements including the Muslim Brotherhood, had firstly appointed the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammad El Baradei to negotiate with the Mubarak government, but with the success of Tuesday mobilization they now refuse to negotiate with the Moubarak government.
People in the streets have mixed feeling towards El Baradei, who has been out of the country for a while and the protesters do not want to see just another “pharaoh” instead of Mubarak.
The role of the army is until now unclear, although it has legitimized the demands of the movement and framed the demonstrations peacefully. The banners deployed on the Tahrir square “The army must choose between Egypt and Mubarak” convey this situation. We have seen protesters share food with soldiers deployed to restore order and scenes of sympathies between both parties, but the army did not intervene to stop the repression of the protesters by the security forces. On Tuesday the soldiers deployed at the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering.
The first and perhaps most important part of the Egyptian security apparatus is the military. The army — by far the largest and most significant branch — consists of some 300,000 to 500000 troops, though a full two-thirds are conscripts. The military has long had strong representation within the regime, with the last three heads of state (Mubarak, Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser) being officers or former officers when they took charge. And even before the protests, the military had used the succession crisis to reassert its influence.
The military is also the strongest and best equipped, though for conventional and armored warfare rather than law enforcement or riot control purposes. The army has been dispatched, ostensibly by Mubarak, to Cairo and several other cities not to reinforce internal security forces best equipped for riot control but to replace them and take the lead in securing the cities.
Though it varies by region, the general population does have a more favorable opinion of the military than the domestic security forces, which are more broadly despised due to their active and ongoing role in the management of internal dissent and day-to-day security.
Nevertheless, the issue of the army joining the protesters is still unclear.
The appointments of Omar Suleiman and Ahmad Chafic, both from the army, by Mubarak are not likely to reassure the protesters. In addition, the military establishment is the main beneficiary of the US financial assistance, more than 1.3 billions of USD per year, and this elite is definitely not in favor of a popular, independent and democratic Egypt that could drastically alter relations with Israel.
The revolutionary process is a major heightening of long years of struggle among Egyptian – workers and students especially – against an authoritarian regime with destructive neoliberal policies. We have observed these past few years a series of strikes, factory occupations, demonstrations and other forms of collective action. This labour movement has inspired other social groups to resort to strikes or the threat of a strike, in groups such as doctors, academics and dentists. This was the largest social movement in Egypt since the campaign against the British occupation after the Second World War.
This social phenomenon is largely a reaction against the neoliberal agenda of the government, against the vision of a new Egypt that would greatly privilege only 10% of the population, excluding the workers, employees, and especially the officials of the public sector. Following agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in 1991 to reform the economy, 314 public companies became candidates for privatisation.
Ten years later, 190 of them were sold to the private sector and this this process of privatisation continues. The result of this policy is clear: real wages declined sharply, social inequalities deepened, and this is why 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 per day.
Tunisia: the revolution continues
Other countries in the region also continue to witness movements of revolt. People in Tunisia, where the revolutionary fire was lit, are still demonstrating in favour of the revolution despite the appointment of a new unity government. Following a few days of negotiations and pressure from the movement, Ghannouchi, who remains Prime Minister, dismissed five of the seven former ministers of the last government of Ben Ali who who occupied key positions like defence, interior, foreign affairs and finance.
They were replaced by technocrats or independents unfamiliar to the public. This new unity government has received the prior approval of the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which played an important role in the fall of Ben Ali. The decision to keep Ghannouchi as Prime Minister, a member of the former ruling regime, is strongly disputed by a strong portion of the protesters, including many UGTT members, who criticized the decision of the Union to accept this government.
On Friday the police evacuated demonstrators who were occupying the Kasbah square for days in front of the office of the Prime Minister. They were demanding Ghannouchi’s resignation. This occupation had led to an extensive momentum of solidarity and enthusiasm among the popular classes and youth who every day came to this occupation zone.
The anti-riot units fired tear gas against the protesters. At least five people were injured in the clashes. The army force on the site did not intervene. Following the clashes, the police immediately dismantled the tents used by the demonstrators.
The revolutionary process in Tunisia needs to continue and make the revolution permanent. Ben Ali will not come back, but the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) has not been dissolved yet, while Ghannouchi (who has been Prime Minister for eleven years under the former regime) remains. On socio economic issues no decisions to put an end to neo liberal policies or fights against its consequences have been announced.
Three new ministers were actually at the Davos summit to promote their country, and telling their partners that tourism will back on track very soon, nothing changed.
The workers and students must definitely continue the revolutionary process in Tunisia in order to achieve and secure their democratic and social rights; otherwise the hope generated by this movement could be followed by disenchantment.
Note as well the return of the leader of the Islamic movement Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, who came back to Tunisia this weekend after more than 20 years in exile. A few thousand people welcome him at his arrival at the airport. He declared on the eve of his return that the role of his party will be to participate in the achievement of the revolution: to anchor a democratic system, pursue social justice and reduce discrimination against the banned organisations.
Jordan, Algeria, Yemen
In Jordan the protest movement is still demanding social and political reforms. More than 3,000 people demonstrated on Friday January 28 in Amman, to protest against high prices and government economic policy, while slogans were chanted for Egypt and Tunisia. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, left-wing political parties and trade unions participated in the demonstrations. Protests were also held in Irbid, a town north of the Jordanian capital, Al-Karak, Maan and Diban in the south, with an estimated 2000 people. These protests against high prices are the third in the kingdom since the beginning of the year. The government has announced the release of nearly 500 million USD to increase the salaries of civil servants and retired civil and military servants, to promote job creation and to lower prices. King Abdullah II of Jordan finally sacked on Tuesday 1st of February his government in the wake of street protests and has asked an ex-army general to form a new cabinet.
Protests have been witnessed as well in Algeria, where a march to demand the “departure of the system” was set for February 12 in Algiers by the new National Coordination for Change and Democracy, which includes opposition movements and civil society organizations. This co-ordination, born in the wake of the riots in early January that killed five people and injured over 800, had announced its intention to organise a march around 9 February, the anniversary of the proclamation of the state emergency in Algeria.
In Yemen, the protests have multiplied in recent days. In addition to social problems, the demonstrators are opposing a draft amendment to the Constitution, under discussion in Parliament, which could pave the way for a life presidency for the current head of state Ali Abdallah Saleh, in power for 32 years. The government announced this week an increase in wages, to placate the protesters.
Shaping the future of the Arab world
The message of the people of the region is clear: Enough! Enough of the IMF and World Bank policies that have impoverished their society. Enough of authoritarian and corrupted regimes serving foreign political and economic interests.
And, finally, enough of American imperialism. This has been shaken across the region. In addition to these revolts, the US-backed government in Lebanon has fallen. The recent leaked information on the high concessions to the Israelis made by the Palestinian Authority, which is strongly supported by the US administration, weakened and discredited it even more.
A revolution in Egypt could change completely the face of the region and the balance of power. It was Nasser’s ascent to power in 1952 that paved the way to a new Middle East. The impact of the revolts in Egypt resonate very strongly in the region, due to the political importance of the country, especially in relation to the Arab Israeli conflict.
A successful revolution in Egypt could be the beginning of the true and new Middle East decided by the people and not USA imperialism. This will require the successful overthrow of the Mubarak regime, a deepening of the revolts in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen, and further spread of popular rebellions elsewhere in the region. It also requires the Arab working classes challenging the economic structures and inequalities, as well as pursuing political demands. The meaning of ‘Tahrir Square’ (Liberation Square) has perhaps never been as appropriate as in the days ahead.