Saturday, February 12, 2011

February Days, Wonderful Days in Egypt

Things have been quiet here of late because, well, life's not been so quiet for me. After I put up my last post two weeks ago I went away for a bit over a week down the Gold Coast to have a break and catch up with friends. It was a very social time, which also continued a theme that had been running in my life over the Christmas period of reconnections with people from the past - there were more such reconnections at the Gold Coast too. The Gold Coast is an interesting place in the way it can juxtapose great beauty, quaint charm and the most extraordinary ugliness all at once. I don't think anyone there ever gave a thought to building a beautiful city on the South Pacific and thus no one ever did. Apart from its natural beauty, any beauty there is completely unintentional, often dependent on accidents like time of day or unexpected vantage point. My friends live at Palm Beach which is not as built up as other parts, indeed it's very suburban often in ways recalling that old song 'Little Boxes'. But at night because it's a narrow sliver of suburbia with the ocean on one side, the sky can be quite stunning. I was down on the week of the new moon which made for a beautifully deep dark sky glistening with stars. You have to go a long way to see a sky like that in Brisbane. I went walking one night and looking up felt like I had a clear view to the end of the universe, peering into the dark depths.

All the while the drama was unfolding in Egypt, a drama which reached the denouement of its first act last night my time. The events in Egypt are stunning and amazing and inspiring. They're on a par with the end of apartheid 20 years ago and following the Tunisian revolution they're on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union's control of Eastern Europe. Tom Engelhardt writing in Asia Times Online two days ago makes this comparison of the two events:

Today, after almost two decades of exuberant imperial impunity,Washington finds itself in an uncomfortably unraveling situation. Think of it as a kind of slo-mo Gorbachev moment - without a Gorbachev in sight.

What we're dealing with here is, in a sense, the story of two "abroads". In 1990, in the wake of a disastrous war in Afghanistan, in the midst of a people's revolt, the Russians lost what they came to call their "near abroad", the lands from Eastern Europe to Central Asia that had made up the Soviet Empire.

The US, being the wealthier and stronger of the two Cold War superpowers, had something the Soviets never possessed. Call it a "far abroad". Now, in the midst of another draining, disastrous Afghan war, in the face of another people's revolt, a critical part of its far abroad is being shaken to its roots.

In the Middle East, the two pillars of American imperial power and control have long been Egypt and Saudi Arabia - along with obdurate Israel and little Jordan. In previous eras, the chosen bulwarks of "stability" and "moderation", terms much favored in Washington, had been the Shah of Iran in the 1960s and 1970s (and you remember his fate), and Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (and you remember his fate, too).

Egypt is a crucial part of the Arab world. It's the most populous country and a major cultural and religious centre. Cairo's Al Azhar University, founded in the 10th century is the chief centre of Arabic literature and and Sunni Islamic learning in the world. What happens in Egypt has the potential to flow on to the rest of the Arab world in a major way. The Mubarak regime was a US satrapy in the heart of the Arab world, a world which, with some exceptions, is comprised almost entirely of US satrapies based on borders drawn by the British and French in the aftermath of the two World Wars and designed to serve their own colonial interests and not the interests of the locals. US policy was to break the old European Empires and replace them with US commercial and political hegemony.

The Mubarak satrapy was perhaps the most important because of the peace treaty with Israel, the only such Arab treaty with the Zionist state. Egypt also directly borders the Palestinian territory of Gaza and assists the Israelis in their blockade regime. Presumably a democratic Egyptian government will not be prepared to play auxiliary gaoler of the Palestinians, which will be good news for the people in Gaza but not for the Netanyahu government. The Mubarak satrapy unsurprisingly received copious amounts of US aid, mostly for military and police. Unsurprisingly most of that money ends up in US corporate pockets. Writing in Crikey earlier this week Bernard Keane observed:

The US government provides about $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Egypt.

Like much western aid, though, US military aid to Egypt is really about US aid to its own industries. Prior to the 1978 Sadat-Begin peace deal, Egypt had principally relied on the Soviet Union for its arms. One of the conditions Jimmy Carter agreed to as part of the peace deal was extensive military aid for Egypt -- Israel, naturally, already being a recipient of generous US assistance.

But US military companies have always been the big winners from this.The Guardian reported last week that General Dynamics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky Aircraft are currently the biggest beneficiaries of the United States' military assistance to Egypt.That’s why there was never a serious chance of the Obama administration threatening to halt its military aid...

On a more real-world level, Combined Systems Inc provided the teargas that Egyptian police used by the truckload in a futile effort to suppress the demonstrations. CSI, which also provides teargas to the Israeli military, makes a wide variety of "tactical munitions", "impact munitions", "crowd control devices" and "irritant munitions". CSI is owned by Point Lookout Capital Partners, which specialises in military manufacturers, and the Carlyle Group.

The Mubarak satrapy rested on an extensive police regime of torture and murder. The police had developed a culture of impunity. I had signed on to the Facebook page We are all Khaled Said which was named for a young man murdered by police in Alexandria and his was not an isolated case. Mubarak therefore had added insult to injury by installing Omar Suleiman as his VP early in the revolution. Suleiman was the head of the torture network and had even tortured the Australian Mamdouh Habib who had been sent to Egypt by the US as part of its rendition programme. Under Mubarak Egypt had become a key torture subcontractor to a US gov't trying to avoid its legal obligations. Pepe Escobar dubs Suleiman Sheik al-Torture (follow the link to his article, it's superb; and yo can find more of his articles here).

I confess I was not all that happy when I woke this morning to see that the army had taken power. However at the Amnesty-organised Solidarity rally this morning in Brisbane, we were addressed by members of the local Egyptian community here, including a Coptic Orthodox priest, and also by phone by someone from Cairo and it was clear that they all felt that a major change had happened. After all about a quarter of the population of Egypt had taken to the streets in the last few days. The ongoing updates from We are all Khaled Said on Facebook listed details of strikes and all manner of anti-government actions happening all over Egypt. It's clear that the people of Egypt have experienced their power in a way that we on the outside can barely imagine. I don't think the people are prepared to go back to what was there before.

Here is Al Jazeera footage of the response of the people in Tahrir Square to the news Mubarak had gone

And I have to say Thank God for Al Jazeera during this time. I also want to share a song inspired by the resilience of the Egyptian people in their struggle. It contains incredible footage of that struggle

And here are more photos of the people celebrating in Tahrir Square. Roland Boer over at Stalin's Moustache shared this delightful joke yesterday: 'The Interior Minister asks Hosni Mubarak to write a farewell letter to the Egyptian people. Mubarak replies, "Why? Where are they going?"' It's Mubarak who's going instead and Suleiman with him, thanks be to God.

I hope this revolution spreads throughout the Middle East bringing down all the satrapies that the people have been saddled with for so long. Which country will be next?


Tariq Ali is always worth reading and he has a great piece on the Egyptian revolution in the Guardian here

The age of political reason is returning to the Arab world. The people are fed up of being colonised and bullied. Meanwhile, the political temperature is rising in Jordan, Algeria and Yemen.

And Al Jazeera has an excellent piece by Lamis Andoni The Resurrection of pan-Arabism

Events in Egypt and Tunisia have revealed that Arab unity against internal repression is stronger than that against a foreign threat - neither the American occupation of Iraq nor the Israeli occupation galvanised the Arab people in the way that a single act by a young Tunisian who chose to set himself alight rather than live in humiliation and poverty has.

This does not mean that Arabs do not care about the occupied people of Iraq or Palestine - tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands have taken to the streets across Arab countries at various times to show solidarity with Iraqis and Palestinians - but it does reflect the realisation that the absence of democratic freedoms has contributed to the continued occupation of those countries.

The Arab failure to defend Iraq or liberate Palestine has come to symbolise an Arab impotence that has been perpetuated by the state of fear and paralysis in which the ordinary Arab citizen, marginalised by social injustice and crushed by security apparatus oppression, has existed.

When they were allowed to rally in support of Iraqis or Palestinians it was mainly so that their anger might be deflected from their own governments and towards a foreign threat. For so long, they put their own socio-economic grievances aside to voice their support for the occupied, only to wake up the next day shackled by the same chains of repression.

All the while, both pro-Western and anti-Western governments continued with business as usual - the first camp relying on US support to consolidate their authoritarian rule and the second on anti-Israel slogans to give legitimacy to their repression of their people.

But now people across the region - not only in Egypt and Tunisia - have lost faith in their governments. For make no mistake, when protesters have gathered in Amman or Damascus to express their solidarity with the Egyptian revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, they are actually objecting to their own rulers.

Ironically, the Arabic word for resurrection is 'ba'ath' - Washington might have destroyed the Ba'ath party of Iraq but here is, I hope, a new ba'athist trajetory that Washington and other foreign powers and their client rulers cannot withstand, God willing.

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