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«Sabah Alnasseri Revolutionaries Seldom Harvest the Fruit: On the Current Revolutionary Situation in the Arab Middle East. The 17th Bouazizi 2010 1 ...»

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From 2004 to 2008 Egypt pursued a neoliberal strategy, which resulted in the sale of large shares of Egyptian banks to the highest bidders. The consequence has been foreign takeovers of banks. Speculative capital flowed into the country. Egypt eliminated controls on foreign investment in real estate and eliminated minimum capital requirements for investments. No limits were placed on foreign investment in general or on the repatriation of profits, and no taxes were imposed on dividends, capital gains, or corporate bonds. A stock market boom resulted and market capitalization increased between 2004 and 2008 more than twelve fold. 20 The hunt for profits by banks, hedge funds or private equity funds produced more poverty. 21 With the increases in poverty and corruption the brutality of the regimes intensified. The link between economic crisis, speculation and corruption is nowhere better illustrated than with the issue of food: “corruption had increased lately because the prises of wheat and other basic foodstuffs have soared. Poverty in 2004-6 was back to almost the same level as it was in 1995-1996. […] In sum, almost 14 million individuals could not obtain their basic food and nonfood needs”. 22 Between 2005 and 2008 poverty increased by almost 20 percent. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. The new middle-classes have also been severely affected since 2004 by speculation and the rise in real estate prices, so that mortgage and rents have become almost unaffordable.

Thousands of foreign firms were active in the Arab world up until the crisis in 2008. Yet the uncertainty (due to the influence of clans and cliques close to the regimes) with regard to guarantees for private property increasingly came to be seen by international actors as a hindrance to investments. They often encounter institutional, political and economic barriers (weaknesses in the   banking sector and the bureaucracy, precarious legal situation, corruption etc.).

Above all else, due to their close relationships to the ruling parties and the administration, as well as to their easy access to credit, familial clans enjoy a privileged position. On the basis of this close connection, monopolies have formed in strategic sectors, which enormously impede access for other domestic and international capitals.

Since the economic crisis in 2008, foreign banks have radically reduced their equity investment in Arab countries. Due to the worldwide slump foreign direct investment in Egypt shrunk by almost 30 percent in one year. The value of Egyptian exports sank in 2009 by almost 12 percent. Inflation reached 11.8 percent in 2008, triggered by speculation in oil and food prices. 23 The recession in the European automobile and textile industries at the end of 2008 had considerable effects on the Tunisian export of electronic components. Exports declined markedly. Large infrastructure projects came to a standstill.

Since 2008 the financial crisis has had a fourfold effect: a sharp rise in the cost of financing and real estate, a collapse of the price of raw materials and increase in the price of energy and foodstuffs, a lack of liquidity, in particular of US dollars on the money markets, and a rapid decline in export earnings. Real incomes sank, unemployment increased, and remittances from migrants working in the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council have been declining. At the same time, minimum wages have stagnated to the level of 1984 while prices (10 percent inflation) and unemployment have risen. 24

Nepotism and moments of crises

The trickle down of neoliberalism amounts to nothing else than state corruption. Privatization under the aegis of the state’s monopoly of violence is ‘primitive’ accumulation. Public property becomes the spoils of the wealthy elite who are close to the party and its “boss” and who obtain public enterprises at bargain basement prices. Because political connections were the surest path to astronomical profits, business elites had a strong incentive to purchase political offices in the ruling party. The competition for seats in the Egyptian people’s assembly and in the consultative councils took place mainly within the NDP.

The fissures within the NDP and the antagonisms between the governing and ruling elites intensified in 2010. Ahmad Ezz announced stringent rules regarding candidatures for the parliamentary elections. These included a ban on party members running independently against the candidates who were officially endorsed by the party. The new regulations not only triggered unrest in the NDP but also contributed to the rejected candidates expressly ordering their supporters not to vote for the official NDP candidates. The new rules caused splits inside the party and among some of the wealthy members who as a result of the rules were excluded from candidacies. 25 The unstable situation was also reflected in the conflicts over the successor to Hosni Mubarak. Large fractions within the regime, above all the army and the bureaucracy, were not happy that Mubarak’s son Gamal was the designated successor. 26   The erosion of support from these critical groups made the parties vulnerable. This vulnerability became clearly evident as the protests escalated.

The crucial factor was the Army’s refusal to shoot. Its refusal signalled a lethal split in the structure of the state security apparatus. No alternative centres of power existed which could have guaranteed the survival of the governments.

The protest movements

The fall of the Tunisian president Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, strengthened the conviction in the region, that circumstances in the respective states could only be changed by means of extra-parliamentary protests and popular uprisings, and not by elections orchestrated by the various regimes.

The consolidation of the latest protests created a connection between the struggles of the working class in recent years and the new forms of protest of the other popular classes and groups (the new middle classes, peasants, the marginalized etc.). The geopolitical shift of recent years, in consequence of the so-called war on terror, contributed to the escalation of the protests since all governments participated in the American neo-conservative project. Thus, democratic movements did not develop because of the US intervention, but against the US intervention and the imperialist agenda in the region. The protests in Tahrir Square were a continuation of the movement against the Gulf war in the early 1990s and against the IMF structural adjustment program in the late 1990s as well as the solidarity movement for the second Intifada of 2000In addition, we must also mention the massive anti-war protests in 2002, 28 the movement for democracy Kifaya (Arabic “enough”) since 2004, 29 the wave of strikes of 2005 30 and 2006-2008, 31 the struggle for a minimum wage and the Gaza solidarity movement of 2008-2009, and finally, the protests against torture and electoral fraud in 2010.

During this time activists learned how to develop new forms of protests and how to use the non-monopolistic technologies of the new media. The “Movement of April 6” started as a Facebook group and was founded by leftliberal activists in early 2008 to support the April 6 strike in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, an industrial city in the Nile delta. On their Facebook site they encouraged thousands to protest and to join in the strike. Within a few weeks 100 000 members joined the group. They were overwhelmingly young and educated though politically inexperienced or until then inactive.

The Bloggers “understand their role as that of providing a direct link to what they call ‘the street’, conceived primarily as a space of state repression and political violence, but also as one of political action and popular resistance”. 32 Virtual media is important here since an alternative public space and the shaping of public opinion is completely unthinkable in the context of the complete subservience of the institutionalized media under the fetish of the regime. This is the contribution of the new media to the protests.

In Tunisia the demonstrations against the government began in the dispossessed interior of the country, as did the unrest that toppled Ben Ali. The revolts in Egypt and in the other countries also started this time on the   peripheries. “The collective perception that a revolution was happening at the margins, where it was least expected, gave everyone the confidence necessary to realize that it could happen everywhere”. 33 The struggles of the workers resulted not from their marginalization but rather from their centrality to the economic development process of recent years.

Several free-trade zones and colonies for Russian companies were established.

China, Brazil, Turkey, the central Asia republics and the Gulf States diversified their investments. They are active in manufacturing industry, information technology, in the infrastructure as well as oil sectors, and in real estate. Many of the workers in the textile branch, and in general in piecework, are women. 34 Young workers and middle-class activists contributed to the surmounting of societal apathy and passivity, and to overcoming the fatality of a paternalisticcapitalist regime. Indeed, women started most of the strikes in the workers movement and the urban protests.

In 2009 alone, there were 478 protests by blue and white-collar workers (strikes, demonstrations, blockades etc.) in all sectors of the Egyptian economy.

The giant blocks of worker housing on the edges of Cairo or in the villages are workshops full of women where leather goods, toys and computer parts are manufactured for sale to Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf Region. These home-workers together with the factory workers formed the social basis for the “April 6 Movement”. 35 They are the ones who put in motion the organization and mobilization that lead to the uprising, by among other things, distributing tens of thousands of leaflets in the slums of Cairo.

Neoliberal Egypt greatly reduced welfare and social services for workers, peasants, the unemployed, and the marginalized. In place of employment programs and subsidies for foodstuffs, a system of micro-credits took shape, which was institutionalized under the IMF and World Bank slogan about fostering self-reliance. The credits were tailored especially for women and youth. Yet, since these property-less people had no means to collateralize the loans, and hence the danger existed that they couldn’t pay their debts off, the system developed into a massive field of operation for police and criminal gangs demanding bribes. Violence and the abuse of criminal law were the mechanisms for the regulation of this economic sector that was based on indebtedness. 36 It is in this context that this sector developed into an organized force opposed to the surveillance state. The actors in this sector form the basis for the large movement directed against police brutality.

The vast majority of protests arose not from the initiatives of the political parties but through the self-organized street actions of the marginalized, laid-off industrial workers, impoverished rice and cotton farmers or unemployed members of the middle class. 37 The small-scale protests represented the new face of popular politics.

For the majority of the population, who have no connection to the paternalistic networks or other sources of power, the streets became the media and political stages. The classical entities of political representation long ago lost their importance. Small workshops and businesses constitute the landscape of micro-enterprises that represent the social milieu of the new middle classes and   the new small commodity producers of Egypt. This is the actual social space and reference point of the so-called facebook communities. 38 At the same time, organized spontaneity, as the model of the protest movements, is a double-edged sword. On one hand spontaneity was necessary in the context of a situation in which certain compulsions determined the particular model of movement (with respect to organizational necessities, political demands, the particular forms taken by the popular committees and leadership, logistical requirements, forms of political representation etc.). “Spontaneity…was responsible, it seems, for the increasing ceiling of the goals of the uprising, from basic reform demands on January 25, to changing the entire regime three days later”. 39 Furthermore “Rather than view the spontaneous eruption of protests on January 25, 2011 as signalling the absence of ideological or political cohesion, we can view it instead as the product of an unprecedented historical assemblage of complex forces and contradictions”. 40 On the other hand, “while spontaneity provided the Revolution with much of its elements of success, it also meant that the transition to a new order would be engineered by existing forces within the regime and organized opposition, since the millions in the streets had no single force that could represent them”. 41

Global and regional impacts

The West with its war against so-called terror stabilized these regimes visà-vis the popular classes and gave state-terror the necessary pretext to silence all forms of criticism and opposition. This appears to have changed. Up until the March 19, 2011, intervention in Libya (this dates also marks the eighth anniversary of the war on Iraq!), the geopolitical position of NATO, and above all the USA in the region, was further weakened. The development until then suggested a new relationship between the nations of the region as a whole towards the western powers. But then, and full of fear, the governments of the Gulf states and the remainder of the regimes of the Arab League (a minority of 9 [6 of which are Gulf states] out of 21 members approved the resolution for a nofly zone), which felt their positions of power threatened by the events, committed themselves to a military intervention under the smoke screen of a no-fly zone. 42 This development created new conditions that will influence the future position of the west and its relationship to the individual countries and to the region.

The Hydra still has many heads: the dictators disappeared, but thedictatorship?

Spontaneity, until now strength of the popular classes, could lead in the coming months to their undoing. To the extent that, the movement transfers itself from the streets to the corridors of power, this strength could transform into a weakness. Rivalries among the different actors and conflicts of interest between the different social groups will emerge.

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