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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The protests against the anti-Islam video and what could still blossom in the Arab Spring



By Samuel Albert

17 September 2012
 The protests against a reactionary anti-Islam video have brought out, more sharply than ever, two aspects of what has been called the "Arab Spring" – the dangers it is facing, and the fact that its outcome has not yet been determined.
Like many people, my first reaction after the killing of the American ambassador to Libya and three other embassy personnel was one of dread. As we've seen before, when the U.S.'s position as the arbiter and enforcer of the world order is challenged, it often reacts by demonstrating that no one can match its lethal power.
We all remember the U.S.'s response to the 11 September 2001 attacks. They were an excuse for the invasion first of Afghanistan and then Iraq, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the toppling of the World Trade Center. Now, after the embassy attacks and the accompanying political chaos throughout the Middle East and North Africa, some reactionary experts who help hash out American foreign policy are already arguing that these events show the need for direct foreign military intervention in Syria, so that the U.S. can have "allies on the ground" to fight for advantage in a situation that is still basically out of anyone's control. (The New York Times, 16 September 2012)
Without making specific predictions, we can be pretty sure that the U.S. will seek revenge, not only out of a bully's rage but also out of cold calculation, in its continuing drive to ensure and deepen its domination of the Middle East by any means it can, no matter how much bloodshed.
At the same time, like many other people with high hopes for revolution in the Arab world, I have also felt dismay, because the protests against the video fundamentally represent an attempt to advance political Islam. This reaction, like Islamism as a political project overall, obscures and protects the economic and social relations represented by the old regimes that Arab peoples revolted against and overthrew. It goes against what was best about the Arab Spring.
While the protests in Cairo were far from the biggest and most violent, Egypt was where they began. The video that claims to be excerpted from a feature film suddenly turned up on YouTube dubbed into Egyptian Arabic. Egyptian Islamic television spurred the first protests against it, falsely reporting that this footage was crowding the American airwaves. Further, Egypt may have been the specific target of this deliberate provocation, an attempt to trip the newly-governing Muslim Brotherhood on the contradictions of its own positions, which, at any rate, were revealed. Even aside from Egypt's central role among the Arab countries, the Brotherhood's rise to governance is very important in analysing what has been changed and not changed by the Arab Spring.
Remnants of the Mubarak regime
The U.S. would have preferred some kind of continuation of the Mubarak regime, which it initially supported against the popular revolt. Washington continues to place great importance on its ties with the Egyptian armed forces that are the core of the state and run much of the economy. But at some point it concluded that a Muslim Brotherhood-led government was the best available option.
While pro-Mubarak political figures and the generals he once appointed are derided as "remnants" of the old regime, the Brotherhood is also, in a sense, an old-regime remnant, differing from what people call felool (the ragtag ranks of a defeated army) mainly in that they have not been politically defeated and discredited.
The relationship between Mubarak and the Islamists was complex and sometimes violent, but mutually beneficial. At times its members were imprisoned and tortured, but most of the time the Brotherhood was allowed relative freedom to run the religious/charitable/political centres through which it recruited and expanded its influence. In turn, its participation in the electoral process, even when other opposition parties boycotted blatantly rigged elections, lent the political system some legitimacy and stability. The Brotherhood were nowhere to be found during the early days of the massive protests in Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities in January 2011, because unlike those risking their lives to demand the fall of the regime, they were seeking a way to become part of it.
As evidence that the rulers of the U.S. have extended a hand to them: in the days before the uproar over the film, the U.S. announced that in addition to allocating $2 billion in "aid" to Egypt, it was considering cutting the country's $3 billion debt to the U.S. by at least a billion dollars. The International Monetary Fund opened negotiations with the Egyptian government for a $4.8 billion loan. The Obama government backed the arrangement and IMF head Christine Lagarde personally took charge of the discussions with Egypt's representatives. The World Bank also offered a $200 million interest-bearing loan. The American government sent Cairo one of the largest trade delegations of all time, with representatives of 49 major U.S. corporations looking to invest. American officials gushed praise for the Brotherhood. One commented, "They sound like Republicans half the time." (The New York Times, 3 September 2012)
There was no charity on offer, and it never has been for Egypt. The country has been the number two recipient of American "aid" over the decades because that money had the same purpose as that given to the number one recipient, Israel: to ensure that the Zionists can continue to play their role as the U.S.'s trusted regional gendarme. Ever since the Camp David accords when Egypt broke ranks with the other Arab countries and agreed to recognize Israel and protect its interests, the U.S. has continued to bribe and build up the Egyptian military.
Politically, what this new "aid" package bought is this: Just before these financial proposals were announced, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral wing) made two critical announcements. One was to call for Syria's Bashar al-Assad to step down. While the Brotherhood has its own reasons to hate the secular Assad dynasty, it's striking that Morsi’s only major foreign policy pronouncement was in line with American priorities. The other was a promise that his government, like Mubarak's, would abide by an agreement giving the U.S. and Israel veto power over Egyptian military operations in the Sinai Peninsula. This is even more shameful not only because the Sinai is supposedly part of Egypt's sovereign territory, but also because the government has sent its troops there to battle tribal-based, allegedly Salafist forces that Israel considers a threat to its borders.  
Economically, the purpose of this "aid" is to keep Egyptian life subordinated to capital based in the imperialist countries to which it pays tribute.
What's wrong with Egypt?  
As Egypt became more fully integrated into global financial and commodity markets over the last several decades, some sections of the economy boomed, but life became more painful for the majority. In the rural areas, where about half the population still lives, an agricultural "counter-reform" designed to promote modern capitalist agriculture in a countryside characterized by very small landowners (and fantastically fertile irrigated land, some of it yielding three crops a year) turned many fellahin into landless labourers and deliberately drove many more off the land completely. Consequently, cheap labour is so plentiful for the textile mills, clothing plants and other factories located in the Nile Delta that China has found it advantageous to set up export manufacture here. No wonder U.S. corporations are lining up.
A large part of the population, in the cities and countryside, has been displaced from their traditional lives but not fully integrated into the formal economy. Enormous numbers of people work as replacements for machines (in construction, for instance, where a back is cheaper than a crane), or as doormen, guards, helpers and so on.
Cairo is one of the world's most sophisticated cities, but the lack of stable jobs, dependence on feudalistic and other personal relationships of obligation for survival, the often-improvised and precarious living conditions of many of its inhabitants and even its unsustainable size are very related to the way that the country's all-sided economic and social development has been thwarted by its subordination to foreign capital.
At the same time, thanks to television and the Net, American and European living standards and life styles are very familiar to millions of youth who have little plumbing, limited access to schools and no hope of being admitted into that kind of modernity.
This is the situation that sets the stage for social life and thinking. Egypt's economic, political and ideological crises after more than half a century demonstrates that the problem is not development, but what kind of development.
The Muslim Brotherhood, with its deep support from private-sector capital and better-off independent professionals, has no programme to transform these basic conditions, nor any intention of doing so. It claims that it has to follow the IMF's strictures in order to encourage foreign capital to revive a stagnant economy. Even if this were possible at this particular moment, there is no reason to believe that it would bring any better results for the people in the future than it has in the past.
To cover up their administration of a subordinated country and make the people accept lives that many have found unacceptable, what they plan to change can only make the situation worse, not only appealing to the mystification of religion, but officially encouraging and/or legally enshrining the most backward and oppressive aspects of traditional relations, especially the domination of men over women.
For instance, Omayma Kamel, a female doctor who is the presidential advisor on "women's affairs" and a Freedom and Justice Party MP, recently encouraged more women to have what's euphemistically called excision or "female circumcision", which means cutting off the clitoris and sometimes much more of a woman's genitals – female castration. This practice is extremely widespread in Egypt, but Mubarak's government tried to minimize its existence, not officially promote it. Now the person in charge of women's welfare is proclaiming that wearing hijab is not enough – that women who don't submit to this mutilation are to be condemned as "impious" – and implying, in this way, as other Islamists openly claim, that women's "impiety" is to blame for the public sexual harassment and outright physical abuse that most Egyptian women have experienced.
It is bad enough that the debate in the Brotherhood-controlled constituent assembly is focusing on how the new constitution should be further Islamicized. To stress the need for women to act more "piously" – and not treat the rise in predatory attacks on women as a national emergency – gives a glimpse of the Islamists' vision of the future.
This is the context in which to understand the protests against the film in Egypt, and the role of political Islam more widely.


Pix from cnbc.com.

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