Saturday, January 3, 2009

Government contortions, public anger

Egyptian complicity in Israel's Gaza bloodbath is giving fresh impetus to struggles against the Mubarak regime

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Ramallah and Cairo - January 2009

Doublespeak absurdity is plentiful at the moment; I thought I'd had more than my fair share of it in the West Bank this week, watching Israel's brazen PR zealots deliver soundbite after soundbite into television cameras, each of them notable only for their heart-stopping audacity. But that was before I returned to Cairo to hear the Mubarak government's breathtaking contortions as it tried to justify its complicity in Israel's Gazan bloodbath.

The pages of Egypt's state-owned newspapers are an inky testament to George Orwell's claim that "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." A few brief examples:

• Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni visits President Mubarak on the eve of the military offensive to secure his approval; her Egyptian counterpart claims that Mubarak had got wind of what was about to happen and had summoned "that woman" to Cairo to persuade her to stop the attack.

• Egypt leaves the Rafah border largely sealed as bombs fall on Gazans, citing in its defence an expired treaty to which it is not even a signatory; government spokesmen insist that Egypt is acting in the Palestinian national interest by thwarting Israel's plan to annex Gaza to its Arab neighbour.

• Protecting his own fast-melting political skin, Mubarak spends months helping to isolate Hamas and maintains a brutal crackdown on its Egyptian colleagues, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood; as Israeli missiles seek out Hamas targets, he keeps a straight face while telling the Egyptian people that Zionist leaders have blood on their hands and that the Palestinians must stand united.

Orwell also said that "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." When deceit is so pervasive though, it's hard to know where to begin the revolution. One good place to start is the prism through which Egypt's role in the Gazan mess is viewed by the domestic and international media. It's a prism that distorts and misdirects, both masking and deepening the most important dividing line in the Middle East today - the one between neoliberal regimes and their people.

Egypt's beleaguered politicians have come under sustained fire since the Gazan assault began, and are smarting from the verbal volleys. Hassan Nasrallah's call on the Egyptian masses to rise up in their millions to force open the Rafah border gate received short shrift from Mubarak minister Aboul Gheit, who told the Hizbullah leader that his country's armed forces were ready, if necessary, "to protect Egypt from people like you".

And resentment at Egypt's growing pariah status in the eyes of the Arab world is not limited to regime acolytes. Demonstrations outside Egypt's international embassies, the shooting of an Egyptian border guard by Hamas gunmen, and finally a widely-circulated article by the Independent's Robert Fisk which attacked Egypt's national "disgrace" and "malaise" have provoked a backlash even among trenchant government critics. "I'm sick of the sudden 'let's blame Egypt' mentality," wrote "Fattractive woman", a female Muslim blogger. The blogger known as Sandmonkey went further in a post about Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian responses to Egypt's position, laying into "all of you f*****s who are badmouthing my country, which – by the way – fought four f*****g wars for the Palestinian cause and lost more people than all of you."

The international press has largely sought to explain and frame these clashes between Egypt and its critics in one of two ways. The first is geopolitical, lining up the pro-western governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia against the counter-alignment of Libya, Syria, Iran and its proxies, Hizbullah and Hamas. The second is domestic, ranging the forces of moderation and reason (personified by Mubarak and his party, the NDP) against the darker recesses of political Islam in Egypt (embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters). Either way, the critical distinction is drawn between the calm and sensible mindset of a US and Israeli-allied Egyptian government and its irrational and hate-filled detractors, be they terrorist mouthpieces in the Arab League or Egypt's own Islamists marching in their thousands in support of Hamas.

The emphasis on this distinction is deliberate and wrong. Certainly there are two regional political blocs in the Middle East and this has helped fuel the diplomatic war of words over Egypt's stance on Gaza. And yes, the Muslim Brotherhood has been out in force in the streets here, using Palestinian deaths in Gaza to energise its support base. But the key to unlocking the complex Egyptian response to Gaza is the battle between the Egyptian people and its crony-capitalist regime. It's a battle that largely goes unreported in the western press, not least because it doesn't fit comfortably with pre-existing stereotypes about the political dynamics of the region. These focus on religious and sectarian division or high-level spats between autocratic leaders; there is no space for supposedly banal news about the impact Washington-imposed economic orthodoxy is having on citizens, or the popular fightbacks that break out daily against it.

As many Egyptian activists have shown me, the Palestinian cause has always been inextricably linked in Egyptian eyes to Egypt's own home-grown struggle against corruption, repression and the naked looting of state assets by a western-propped business and political glitterati. Early demonstrations against Mubarak's dictatorship in the 1990s rallied around the slogan "The road to Jerusalem lies through Cairo"; those attending understood that the status quo in Palestine was reinforced by the financial interests of their own regime and the security apparatus that supported it. The aggressive new privatisation programme pursued by the Mubarak regime since 2004, and the corruption scandals and spiralling unemployment and inflation accompanying it (even as the country delivers IMF "poster-boy" figures on economic growth) is seen as part and parcel of the global interests that keep Gaza under siege and consign Palestinian self-determination to a pipe dream.

Despite internal disunity, opposition movements often understood that forces of money and power – governments in America, Europe, Israel and their Arab-regime cheerleaders, plus the local and international corporate entities profiting from economic liberalisation in the region – acted as a coherent and effective cabal, and resistance to it in Egypt could not be isolated from resistance in Palestine.

Mubarak and the ruling NDP party understood this too, which is why it has been so quick to shut down any popular expressions of support for the Palestinian people within its own borders and why it is so nervous about the latest wave of protests. The Gazan crisis has emerged just as popular actions to subvert the systems of social repression that keep Egyptians alienated from their own economic and political processes are snowballing. The previous two years have seen more strikes and sit-ins than at any time since the second world war; a second major industrial sector has managed to break free of the five-decade state monopoly on trade unions; over 2,000 police officers have just resigned en masse over the use of torture as a security tactic and woeful working conditions.

As ever, developments across the border help to give fresh impetus to these anti-regime struggles and provide a wide range of opposition political interests – from socialists to liberals, secularists to Islamists – with an opportunity to unite around a potent and effective political symbol which advances their cause. And as ever, the regime reacts brutally, putting Cairo University under siege even as its figurehead publicly bemoans the fate of the besieged Palestinians of Gaza. The students struggling to make themselves heard on campus behind the batons and riot shields of Mubarak's law enforcers are not pawns in the geopolitical fissures that the media obsess over, nor are they blind footsoldiers of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They are, for the most part, simply fired by the Gazan catastrophe into giving voice to the simmering anger felt by much of the population at the twisted and tragic policies of an Egyptian government which, as the author Alaa al-Aswani recently wrote, has created its own generation of martyrs killed by "corruption and abuse of power" – through accidents and negligence and the poisonous grip of poverty – a government also colluding in the subjugation and destruction of Palestinians on Egypt's border. Unable and unwilling to break free of its well-worn preconceptions, most of the media prefers to ignore this crucial fault-line in the Arab world's largest state when "explaining" the Gazan assault. By throwing attention elsewhere instead, they are carrying out a dangerous conjuring trick which insults and undermines Egyptians and Palestinians alike.


Tom Gara said...

interesting, and I agree with a lot of this. but one area where I think you have got it pretty seriously wrong is privatisation.

first off, there is no good reason why the egyptian government should be making biscuits or soap. privatisation of non-essential state enterprises is a good idea anywhere, and just because it is happening in tandem with a nasty dictatorship doesn't change the good logic of getting it done.

second, i'm pretty sure you have it wrong on employment. unemployment numbers have not "spiralled" - they have remained fairly steady, trending downward, and are well down from the 80s and 90s when they were more than double today's level (and when egypt's economy was a socialist basketcase).

Finally, the idea that a cabal of powerful western businesses wants to keep gaza repressed is a little bit on the fantastical side.

Corporate interests value stability in a developing country, hence the poster boy status of the Egyptian dictatorship as opposed to somewhere unpredictable like Sudan or Algeria.

Whether that stability ends up harming Palestinian interests (Egypt) or supporting them (Saudi Arabia) is not the part of the equation that informs business decisions.

kennarah said...

I disagree, Tom. Privatisation of non-essential state enterprises is, in theory, a good idea—but selling public assets for 1/5th their worth to cronies is a terrible idea. Of course the fact that it's happening in tandem with a nasty dictatorship does change everything—why should I trust a kleptocratic government that is incapable of good governance on any level with economic matters? Why are economic issues any different from issues of civil rights and human rights? The problem with privatisation when handled by a corrupt government is that there is always a lot of waste in public money (selling assets for lower than their economic value, kickbacks to government officials, etc.)

The Russian model of privatisation in the 1990s and Russia's transition in general into a modern economy proves that. Regardless of actual theoretical economic debates (between neo-liberals and socialists): it has been proven time and again that nothing is more detrimental than a kleptocratic, totalitarian regime with a neo-liberal economic agenda.

Unemployment levels might have remained fairly steady, but I think that whatever economic gains the Egyptian government boasts about are largely irrelevant. We've had a 7% growth rate, and a few rich people have become richer—but the inflation rate is running at 25% and the socio-economic gap has become so wide it's almost like there are two independent nations within one country. In the 80s we did not have people being trampled to death in a stampede for subsidised bread or pension payments in social security offices.

I'm not saying that it was better in the 80s—Egypt definitely was a socialist basket case then—but it's not any better today either. Good governance cannot be divided, and I can't hope for a general change for the better unless there's a fundamental regime change.

The idea of a cabal of powerful Western businesses wanting to keep Gaza repressed is certainly a bit fantastical, but neo-liberal regimes and those who are financially invested in them are, in general, wary of nationalist movements in the global south and of political Islam—the general idea is that political Islam identifies more with Neo-Keynesian economics and is largely popular due to its anti-imperialist, anti-Western agendas. So it's not entirely far-fetched that there will be some kind of meddling in Gaza similar to what has happened before in Algeria and Somalia, to name two examples. Though I don't think that it's the case here. I'm not sure about Saudi Arabia's contribution to the 'Palestinian cause' but I rather find to be largely negative and not much different from the Egyptian government's contribution?