Thursday, February 10, 2011

The complexities of the Egyptian revolution

A long piece that can be taken as an argument that this is a revolution with strong roots in a changing Egyptian society.  Paul Amar on Aljazeera English.

Some interesting excerpts:

The Brothers now fully support political pluralism, women’s participation in politics and the role of Christians and communists as full citizens. However, with the rise of other competing labour, liberal and human-rights movements in Egypt in the 2000s, what one can call the "new old guard" of the Brotherhood - those that emerged in the 1980s - have retained a primary focus on cultural, moral and identity politics. Moral-cultural conservatism is still seen by this group as what distinguishes the Brotherhood from other parties - a fact they confirmed by appointing a rigid social conservative, Muhammad Badeea, as leader in 2010.

This turn was rejected by women and youth in the movement. This socially conservative leaning thus brings the "new old guard" more in line with the moralistic paternalism of Mubarak's government - and set them against the trajectory of new youth, women's and labour movements. This leads to new possibilities of splits in this organisation or for exciting revitalisation and reinvention of the Brotherhood - as Youth and Women’s wings feel drawn toward the April 6 coalition.

The moral-cultural traditionalist wing of the "new old guard", is composed of professional syndicate leaders and wealthy businessmen. In the 1950s-80s, the movement regrouped and represented frustrated elements of the national bourgeoisie. But this class of people has largely been swept up into new opportunities and left the organisation. The "new old guard" of the Brotherhood’s business wing has started to look like a group of retired Shriners, except that in the Middle East, Shriners have stopped wearing fez.

In the past ten years, this political force of this particular wing has been partially co-opted by Mubarak's government from two angles. First, Brothers were allowed to enter parliament as independent candidates and have been allowed to participate in the recent economic boom. The senior Brothers now own major cell phone companies and real estate developments - and have been absorbed into the NDP machine and upper-middle class establishment for years. Second, the government wholly appropriated the Brotherhood's moral discourse.

For the past ten or fifteen years Mubarak’s police-state has stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, devil-worshipping internet users, trash-recycling pig farmers, rent-control squatters - as well as Bahai, Christian and Shia minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women, and excommunicated college professors. Thus, we can say that Egypt has already experienced rule by an extremely narrow Islamist state – Mubarak's. Egyptians tried out that kind of regime. And they hated it.
In recent years, as described in the work of Saba Mahmood and Asef Bayat, people have grown disgusted by Mubarak's politicisation of Islam. Egyptians began to reclaim Islam as a project of personal self-governance, ethical piety, and social solidarity. This trend explicitly rejects the political orientation of Islam and explicitly separates itself both from Brotherhood activities and Mubarak's morality crusades.

Suleiman’s General Intelligence Services are nominally part of the military - but are institutionally quite separate. Intelligence is dependent on foreign patrons, primarily Israel and the US, and are looked on skeptically by Egyptians. But the Air Force and Army are quite grounded in the economic and social interests of national territory. The army’s role in countering Suleiman’s lust for repression was crucial to saving the momentum of this uprising.

On February 4, the day of the most terrifying police/thug brutality in Tahrir Square, many commentators noted that the military were trying to stop the thug attacks but were not being very forceful or aggressive. Was this a sign that the military really wanted the protesters to be crushed? Since then, we have learned that the military in the square were not provisioned with bullets. The military were trying as best they could to battle the police/thugs - but Suleiman had taken away their bullets for fear the military would side with the protesters and use the ammunition to overthrow him.

Bullets or no, the military displaced the police, who had stripped off their uniforms and regressed into bands of thugs. Security in Cairo's public spaces has been taken over by the military - and in residential quarters we witnessed the return of a 21st century version of futuwwa groups. As Wilson Jacob has described, in the 19th century futuwwa were icons of working-class national identity and community solidarity in Egypt.

Futuwwa were organised groups of young men who defended craft guilds and the working-class neighbourhoods of Cairo. But the futuwwa reborn on February 1, 2011 are called Peoples’ Committees and include men of all classes and ages - and a few women with butcher's knives, too. They stake out every street corner, vigilant for police and state-funded thugs who would try to arrest, intimidate or loot residents. Given the threat of sexualised physical violence from Mubarak's police/thugs, there is a gender dimension to this re-imagining and redeployment of security and military power during this uprising. In the first days of the uprising we saw huge numbers of women participating in the revolt.

Then the police/thugs started targeting women in particularly horrifying ways - molesting, detaining, raping. And when the police were driven back, the military and the futuwwa groups took over and insisted that "protecting" the people from thugs involved filtering women and children out of Tahrir and excluding them from public space. But women in this revolt have insisted that they are not victims who need protection, they are the leading core of this movement. On February 7, women’s groups - including the leftist April 6 national labour movement, as well as anti-harassment, civil rights groups and the Women’s Wing of the Brotherhood reemerged in force in downtown Cairo - by the hundreds of thousands.
It is crucial to remember that this uprising did not begin with the Muslim Brotherhood or with nationalist businessmen. This revolt began gradually at the convergence of two parallel forces: the movement for workers' rights in the newly revived factory towns and micro-sweatshops of Egypt - especially during the past two years - and the movement against police brutality and torture that mobilised every community in the country for the past three years. Both movements feature the leadership and mass participation of women of all ages and youth of both genders. There are structural reasons for this.

First, the passion of workers that began this uprising does not stem from their marginalisation and poverty; rather, it stems from their centrality to new development processes and dynamics. In the very recent past, Egypt has reemerged as a manufacturing country, although under the most stressful and dynamic of conditions. Egypt's workers are mobilised because new factories are being built in the context of a flurry of contentious global investment. Several Russian free-trade zones and manufacturing settlements have opened up, and China has invested in all parts of the Egyptian economy.

Brazil, Turkey, the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf Emirates are diversifying their investments. They are moving out of the oil sector and real estate and into manufacturing, piece-goods, informatics, infrastructure etc. Factories all over Egypt have been dusted off and reopened, or new ones built. And all those shopping malls, gated cities, highways and resorts have to be built and staffed by someone. In the Gulf, developers use Bangladeshi, Philippine and other expatriate labour. But Egypt usually uses its own workers. And many of the workers in Egypt's revived textile industries and piece-work shops are women.

If you stroll up the staircases into the large working-class apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo or the cement-block constructions of the villages, you’ll see workshops full of women, making purses and shoes - and putting together toys and computer circuitboards for sale in Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf. These shop workers joined with factory workers to found the April 6 movement in 2008. They were the ones who began the organisation and mobilisation process that led to this uprising in 2011, whose eruption was triggered by Asmaa Mahfouz circulating a passionate YouTube video and tens of thousands of leaflets by hand in slum areas of Cairo on January 24, 2011. Ms Mahfouz, a political organiser with an MBA from Cairo University, called people to protest the next day. And the rest is history.

The economic gender and class landscape of Egypt’s micro-businesses has been politicised and mobilised in very dynamic ways, again with important gender and sexual dimensions. Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower-middle-class Egyptians. In place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered debt. Micro-credit loans were given, with the IMF and World Bank's enthusiastic blessing, to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These loans were often specifically targeted toward women and youth.

Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. This means that your body is your collateral. The police extract pain and humiliation if you do not pay your bill. Thus the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and "loan shark" operations. Police sexualised brutalisation of youth and women became central to the "regulation" of the massive small-business economy.

In this context, the micro-business economy is a tough place to operate - but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organised force opposed to the police state. No one waxes on about the blessings of the market's invisible hand. Thus the economic interests of this mass class of micro-entrepreneurs are the basis for the huge and passionate anti-police brutality movement. It is no coincidence that the movement became a national force two years ago with the brutal police murder of a youth, Khalid Said, who was typing away in a small internet cafe that he partially owned. Police demanded ID and a bribe from him; he refused - and the police beat him to death, crushing his skull to pieces while the whole community watched in horror.

Police demanding bribes, harassing micro-businesses - and beating those who refuse to submit - became standard practise in Egypt. Internet cafes, small workshops, call-centres, video-game cafes, microbuses, washing/ironing shops and small gyms constitute the landscape of micro-enterprises that are the jobs base and social world of Egypt's lower middle classes. The so-called "Facebook revolution" is not about people mobilising in virtual space; it is about Egyptian internet cafes and the youth and women they represent, in real social spaces and communities, utilising the cyberspace bases they have built and developed to serve their revolt.

All of this almost invisible to outsiders; but crucial.

1 comment:

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