Is the Egyptian Revolt Continuing?

By Geoffrey Cook, TMO

Protesters take part in a demonstration at Tahrir square in Cairo June 8, 2012. Hundreds of activists gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday to demonstrate against presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik ahead of a run-off vote, saying they did not want to be ruled by another former military man.                                                                              REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

I attended a forum on this island city of Alameda.  The meeting was a report by a local labor leader, Carl Finamore, on his U.S. labor delegation to determine the situation of their counterparts in Egypt, post-Tahrir. 

Finamore began by claiming the “climate” was different in Cairo’s environs than elsewhere in the Middle East.  That is a truism that Americans often miss – the diversity from one Islamic terrain to another.  He judges the labor movement there to be one of the best organized in the region, even though the military and the Islamists hold about 70% of the political control over the land of the pyramids. 

He believes there is a “silent” majority who desire a “true” democracy:  “This is a classic case of revolution!” What he perceives as revolution is a workers’ revolution like that which birthed the Soviet Union.  It just is not about to happen there because of the weakness and scattered nature of the manufacturing sector.  A Maoesque revolt would be possible because of the preponderance of the fellahin over Egyptian economic life except for an Islamic distaste for Maoism or peasant-based governance.  The Afghanistan internal Communist take-over of 1979 leading to the subsequent Soviet invasion that in turn led to the current conflict with Western Capitalism is an example of how Western theories of governance and economics do not necessarily fit Islamic molds.

This Western working-class vision of the Arab “Spring” (Revolts) is an attempt to make the revolt on the Nile fit into the historical suppositions of the Euro-American Old Left.  If anything, the people that have been overthrown were descendants of the true Arab socialist revolts.  Some would say the new revolts have targeted the degraded remnants of the post-colonial socio-political order.  There is a danger that this new-found voice may only bring on another crisis of confidence in the socio-political order.

Mr.  Finamore asserted that Egypt has the largest army in the Middle East in manpower.  In actuality that goes to Iran.  It would be more correct to say, the Arab Republic of Egypt, as its name indicates, has the largest military in the Arab world, with its non-Arab neighbor, Israel, having the greatest firepower.

Further, even though Egypt has the largest clothes-manufacturing factory on the African continent, its labor sector will remain unorganized until the geo-political threat is neutralized because Egyptians will see labor organization as dangerous political stability in an unsecure region.  Security stability in the Middle East is a necessary condition to labor organization there.  Further, outside of the larger cities [e.g. Alexandria and Cairo] a type of agricultural feudalism dominates the economy which discourages the affirmation of a “true Arab proletariat.”  Furthermore, Marx’s writing on British Colonialism in India applies here, also,  where he approves of the U.K. — United Kingdom’s — conduct in South Asia during the Nineteenth Century, for it was forcing the society from its traditional “feudal” state into a brutal Ricardianism which would, in  his opinion, lead to the emergence of Capitalism, and a proletariat et al. to counter it.

Mr. Finamore sees the whole political order collapsing in Egypt.  However, one of the two run-off candidates this week is a former Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarak and belongs to the same party of the ancien regime.  Further, there were several articles a fortnight ago, on a move by elements of the transitional government to declare the Parliamentary elections null and void.  This would disenfranchise the victorious Islamists, and could lead to instability or revolution. 

Overall, Washington had been unprepared for the “Spring” even though in Egypt the army is still in control.  Although there has been a regime change from Cairo, the unions did not participate in the Tahrir demonstrations.  Carl Finamore feels the army has failed the people; and, therefore has lost their dominance over civil society (which, in fact, is far from accurate.)

In verbally sparring with the presenter, I pointed out to him that the Islamic Brotherhood, of whom Finamore is most critical, is a political party slightly right of center much like the government of Turkey, who wish to put their religious morality into their politics, but have maintained a degree of secularism so as not to infringe upon the prerogatives of the religious minorities — for example in Egypt the Copts [Christians] and other religious minority groups, and to maintain the imprimatur of the Generals who are the enforcers of the Constitution in Turkey and to a lesser extent in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not homogenous anymore.  They are especially split by generations.  Sixty percent of the Arab Republic is under the age of thirty.  Finamore argues that there is ninety percent unemployment.  He declares that the Muslim Brotherhood should be in power for years to come.  In every country where the revolts have succeeded so far Islamist parties have come to power through the ballot.  The irony is that the Western voices who fervently advocated democracy have been unsettled by the results.  I talked to a Defense Department official in Richmond Virginia last year who was quite concerned about the ascendance of the Islamist Movement.  I responded that he should have no concern, for the values of Arab democracy are so similar to the Western democracies that there should be no conflict.

Finamore contends that the “Youth and trade unions have not  been defeated!”  He believes they are on their way to achieve a minimum wage.  Three independent unions have been formed with over one million dues-paying members, although they have been constantly harassed.  Independent union stewards cannot create unions on their own. 

Finamore intimates that the Army is attempting to build the economy.  The truth is the Army has been the mainstay of the financial system.  His figures of three percent of the GNP for the military are askew, for that is what is budgeted for their function for defense, but in truth they control a large swath of the national marketplace through investment in non-military sectors over a long period of time, and he is dead wrong to aver that they are not in control of the State.  They are one of two groupings which determine the governance within the Egyptian establishment.

He is correct to say that the army will keep society in tow.  As I mentioned above, modern Islam does not easily support the labor movement as is (which makes it difficult for it to thrive under Islamist ascendancy).   Further, forty percent of the population is illiterate–which presents a problem for Islamic jurisprudence to find the proper place for modern organized labor within its tradition.  (There should be an Islamic space for the contemporary worker, but the scholars have to determine how and where it fits into the tradition.)

The president before Mubarak, Sadat, declared that “I’m a Muslim President within a Muslim country.”  That succinctly describes the politics of Egypt from its conversion until its present revolt, and the building of its new commonwealth.  It has a large Muslim majority, but a significant non-Muslim minority.  Therefore, it has to be built on Islamic values while being respectful to the People of the Book.  The problem of modernization must be broached, too.  Much of that was faced by the generations of Nasser and Sadat.  Now, “bourgeois” democracy will change the landscape of the Middle East, and lead to a stronger industrial-base, and lessen the marginalization of labor with it.

The demonstrations are still going on against the old order and the recent run-off elections.  (Unfortunately, those in the streets, who were the ones that overthrew the Old Order, will have little to say in the creation of the New Order which begs the question of whether the cycle of protest and regime change might not continue into the future.)

Women played a prominent position in the fight and more prominence in a leadership capacity within the Egyptian social order.  In short, they were not only fighting for a New Order, but an Order that had more equality for them. 

On January 25th 2011, the ruthless and intimidating police force that enforced Mubarak’s decrees collapsed under the pressure of Tahrir Square.  Now, the newly elected Parliament is attempting to reform that police institution. 

As the “Spring” gave encouragement to the Occupy Movements in the First World, Occupy gave the Arab sphere hope in turn.  

Carl Finamore asked “Will labor, woman and students win out?”

Your author answers probably not, but the foundations have been laid toward a unique Islamic modernity, and we in the West whether Muslim or non-Muslim, must not assume our structures – like democracy and its  relationship to capital and unionization – will not be Islamized in a new and unique way organic to their new planting ground.


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