For eighteen consecutive days I was glued to Al Jazeera English and Twitter, watching and tweeting in awe as the Egyptian revolution unfolded. As Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the Egyptian presidency handing power to the military, an email alert drew me to a story from Tunisia: People streaming into a house to congratulate the parents of Mohamed Bouazizia. On 17 December last year Mohamed, a 26-year-old Tunisian vegetable seller, set himself alight after local authorities seized his goods and scales. His death sparked the revolution in Tunisia that led to the resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in a new era in the politics of the Middle East. Suicide is not permitted under Islam but days after Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive in an act of protest against high food prices, unemployment and authoritarian rule, incidents of self-immolation spread through Egypt and Africa. 35-year-old Salah Saad Mahmoud had come to Cairo to find work, buy a home and marry but found himself stranded, living on low wages and unable to cope. He set himself alight in the street. Two textile workers did the same after a sustained campaign of strikes staged in protest against working conditions. The self-sacrifice of these low-paid workers proved to be the catalyst that led to the eruption of protests we have seen on the streets of Egypt over the past eighteen days. Along with the three hundred killed during street clashes with security forces after 25 January, these people are the martyrs of the Egyptian revolution.
What is very clear is that this was a revolution driven from below, by the urban poor, the low-paid workers and those who felt the hand of oppression under the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak and his cronies. The momentum was seized by the April 6 movement, a coalition of young activists who had formed to support a strike by workers in the industrial town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra in Spring of 2008. April 6 set up a Facebook page and used Twitter and other social media to build alliances and organise. The movement was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood but not driven by it. This was never going to be a radical Islamist revolution. The confluence of these forces – the workers who had the courage to break away from the state controlled trade unions, the youth movement that understood the political power of new media, the Brotherhood that has been the most organised underground political opposition movement in Egypt, and the symbolic sacrifices of those like Salah Saad Mahmoud who offered their bodies to a greater cause – came together in a cataclysmic explosion of non-violent protest on the streets of Cairo and its epicentre, Tahrir Square.
The discipline and organisation of the protestors was extraordinary. In the face of brutal attacks from the feared security forces and thugs sponsored by the regime the protestors stood firm in their non-violent strategy, resisting the temptation to vent their anger and frustration in destructive acts. They knew that any outbreak of street violence instigated by protestors would provide the regime with an excuse to use the police and security forces to crack down on the movement. Instead, they supported each other by sharing food, building makeshift shelters, cleaning the streets, blogging like maniacs, forming vigilante groups to keep the thugs at bay and protect property, tweeting madly, furiously, and, when the regime shut down the internet and phone networks, maintaining the momentum through word of mouth, banners and displays of jubilant, visceral determination. It is difficult to appreciate how deeply wounded by the Mubarak regime the people have Egypt have been, but the sense of sheer joy and liberation was palpable on the streets even as the people stared down the forces of the state.
Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it beautifully when he described the penultimate moments of the Mubarak regime as resembling a cartoon in what I would call a ‘Coyote moment’ (he incorrectly cited Tom and Jerry), when the Coyote steps off the precipice but doesn’t fall into the chasm until he looks down and realises his predicament. Mubarak simply failed to read the serious intent and scope of anger among a people who had lost their fear.
Now, all over the Middle East, oppressive and/or incompetent regimes are having Coyote moments. As I write, 30000 police have flooded the streets of Algiers in anticipation of mass protests. Yemen is gearing up for mass demonstrations. Gaza is rumbling. Iran is brewing. Bahrain is showing signs of discontent. Dominoes are lining up and the US and Israel are wondering how this happened and what can be done to control it.
Significantly, the Egyptian people claimed ownership of the army and they were able to do so because of the system of conscription that operates in Egypt. The army is comprised of sons, brothers and cousins of those who occupied Tahrir Square and went out on strike across the country, and the people claimed this army as their own, had faith that it would not move against them. While it is important not to romanticise the apparent benevolence of the Egyptian armed forces, it is obvious that the army’s decision not to intervene in the protests signified a rift within the Mubarak regime, a rift which has now ruptured. In Communiqué #3, issued by the military following Mubarak’s resignation, the military saluted the martyrs and indicated that it would respect the will of the people in the interregnum leading to the establishment of democracy. Time will tell how faithful the armed forces are to their word. It is likely that the upper echelons of the army, who have been longstanding loyalists of Mubarak, may seek to take control over the democratic process in order to maintain power for the vestiges of the regime but, on the other hand, the lower ranks may align with the genuine democratic aspirations of the people.
For the moment the Egyptian people will celebrate their historic victory and prepare themselves for the defence of their revolution. It is to be expected that the more extreme remnants of the regime will seek to destabilise the country by instigating violence in an attempt to thwart the efforts of representational democracy. It would be standard operating procedure for the US and its interests to be covertly engaged in this kind of action despite the encouraging words of support for the people from the administration. One wonders how much US tactics have changed since Chile 1973.
What is the relevance of the Egyptian revolution to Australia?
Well, let’s start with the response of our politicians. As the protest in Tahrir Square gained momentum the Australian government struggled to make sense of what was happening. Gillard and Rudd made weak statements on the situation that echoed the clueless commentary coming our of the US administration, both keen to protect the interests of the Israeli lobby. As with her ham-fisted poor judgement of the Assange case (when she seems to have forgotten she is a lawyer and ignored the presumption of innocence by publicly declaring Assange, an Australian citizen, guilty despite no charges having been brought against him in any jurisdiction), Gillard appears to have been convinced that Mubarak was still a ‘friend’ because Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton said so. As it became clear that the protests were not going to stop until Mubarak stepped down, Rudd issued a brief media release (2 Feb) calling for an end to violence and a ‘negotiated and peaceful solution to this political crisis’. He did not call for Mubarak to step down. As with the Howard government’s response to the Lebanon Summer War in 2006, the Gillard government’s response and media coverage of it focused on the evacuation of Australian citizens from Egypt. Successive Australian governments have abjectly failed to respond with any kind of moral compass to the events in Lebanon, Gaza and now Egypt. Their response has been to align their rhetoric with their US and Israeli masters. (Reminder: whatever happened to Australian action against Israel over the use of falsified Australian passports used in the Mossad assassination of a Hamas official? Answer: Pretty much nothing.)
The Greens were slow off the mark. Brandt and Brown issued lukewarm statements and failed to take a firm stance on the aspirations of the Egyptian people. The ACTU was tardy, too. Support came too late and appeared as opportunistic face-saving when it did. Ged Kearney tweeted on the day after the revolution that she was attending a solidarity rally. Awesome, Ged. Where were you when they were building the barricades in Tahrir? The Australian labour movement is a shadow of its own history. Sold its soul to Hawke in 1983.
I can’t bring myself to watch local TV but if trending on Twitter is any indication, Australians had very little interest in the Egyptian protests. On the day of the overthrow of Mubarak, #egypt trended well below the Shane Warne/Liz Hurley PR beat up and Eddie McGuire’s unsurprisingly stupid ‘falafel’ remark. Sadly, Australians remain largely ignorant of the direct and serious consequences of events in the Middle East for our comfortable lives here at the bottom of the world, living out a consumerist dream fuelled by a mining boom that feeds the engines of authoritarian state capitalism in China.
Well, as the Egyptian revolution spreads throughout the Middle East, as it is clearly threatening to do, the game of global geopolitics will change irrevocably and the consequences will be as great as or greater than the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But make no mistake. The Egyptian revolution was an uprising driven by the deep discontent and anger of the under classes, the under-paid workers and the urban poor, supported by the socialist youth movement and committed elements of the trade unions. It will inspire people all over the world to act against authoritarian regimes and to claim the rhetorical space occupied by soporific liberal politics in countries like Australia.
This absurd dance between the political elite and the media commentariat must end, making way for relevance, plain speaking and a widening of political debate.