Egypt’s slide towards civil war

Massacre In EgyptIn an ideal world it would be easier to understand the horrific events that have and are taking place in Egypt as a military dictatorship, lacking popular support, acting to suppress pro-democracy protesters, representative of the will of the masses, on the way to murdering the country’s fledgling democracy.

But this is not an ideal world and it is not what’s presently unfolding. For while the massacre of hundreds of protesters in Cairo by the army this past week is undoubtedly a crime, complicit in this crime are the millions of Egyptians who called for the military to intervene to oust Mohammed Morsi from office in late June-early July. Moreover, many of those anti-Morsi voices are now either tacitly or explicitly lending their support to the army’s use of lethal force to disperse the protest camps which the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi demonstrators had set up demanding his reinstatement.

What we are seeing unfold under a hail of bullets is the consequence of a mass opposition to Morsi and the Brotherhood back in June which lacked cohesion, unity, and leadership. Relying on the generals to provide this cohesion, unity, and leadership was always a direction of travel pregnant with danger and risk. Emboldened by the support it enjoys from a large section of the Egyptian people, those dangers and risks have come to pass, ensuring that Egyptian society is now more fractured and polarised than at any other time in its history.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood bear their share of responsibility for the calamitous outcome to the nation’s first experiment with democracy. Soon after coming to power in 2012, on 51 percent of the vote, Morsi voiced his support for the drafting of a new constitution which while protecting civil rights would also enshrine Islamic law. In November 2012 he issued a decree effectively granting him immunity from judicial oversight while the new Constitution was in the process of being drafted by the nation’s newly formed Constituent Assembly. He had also moved against the military leadership, ousting the head of the armed forces, Mohamed Tantawi, and the Army Chief of Staff, Sami Hafez Anan, to resign. These were Mubarak-era appointees, close to the previous regime, as were the judges sitting on Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

Morsi’s mistake was in attempting to challenge their power and privileges by granting himself more power and privileges – this in a society in which a large educated middle class remained suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and its intentions in the wake of Morsi’s election. This suspicion was only heightened by the chaos and carnage that had visited Libya and Syria, where Islamist extremists were running rampant. The fact that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had made no secret of their support for medievalist jihadists in Syria, despite their barbaric methods, sent alarm bells ringing throughout secular Egyptian society and the country’s military leadership, which feared the prospect of home grown jihadists embroiling Egypt in the same kind of chaos.

More importantly, for an increasing number of Egyptians, the nation’s economy was in freefall with no recovery in sight – though this was largely due to circumstances beyond Morsi’s control, with the IMF playing a particularly onerous role in this regard.

It is significant that just as many if not more people came out against the first democratically-elected president than had come out against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. It is significant but by no means justification for the murderous policy deployed by the generals since Morsi was forcibly removed from office.

The army in Egypt has long been a major economic and political institution in its own right, with interests distinct from those of the nation at large. It controls anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy and has for decades run via those undeclared economic interests and investments a de facto state within a state. It is particularly reliant on an annual subvention from the US of $1.3 billion, making it questionable that it moved to suppress the Brotherhood without the prior approval of its paymasters in Washington, which at time of writing has expressed its ‘concern’ at the slaughter of hundreds of Egyptians.

What is beyond doubt is that a military junta is now firmly in place in Cairo. Any renewal of democracy in the country – increasingly unlikely given the war unleashed on the MB and its supporters – will be a sham while the power of the generals remains entrenched. The millions who called for the army’s intervention got their wish and may well be looking at paying a heavy price in the shape of civil war and/or transition back to the future in the form of government by diktat.

As the man said, ‘If you don’t have your own strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy’.

The choice in Egypt between a military junta and Sunni Islamist government that supports medieval beasts who cut off people’s heads for sport throughout the region is an awful one to contemplate. Secularism and Sunni Islamism is increasingly embraced in a struggle to the death in a part of the world in which sectarian fault lines have burst asunder in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Reverting back to that ideal world already mentioned, it would be nice to believe that, appalled at the violence unleashed, the masses would return to the streets in solidarity with their fellow Egyptians who are currently being gunned down in cold blood. The prospect of this happening, however, is near zero. The Muslim Brotherhood is viewed by a large swathe of the Egyptian people as the enemy within, with the military’s brutal methods supported by them on that basis.

They should be careful what they wish for.

The role of the IMF in Morsi’s downfall

Egypt povertyMohamed Morsi’s presidency in Egypt was brought down by his failure to turn the country’s ailing economy around after a year in office. But turning Egypt’s foreign-aid and foreign-investment dependent economy around in the context of a global economic crisis and on the back of a revolution was never going to be easy. Regardless, for him and the Muslim Brotherhood this failure was the main reason for their undoing, illustrating the extent to which weak economies throughout the Global South continue to exist at the mercy of global institutions such as the IMF.

The Egyptian economy under the Mubarak dictatorship had been heavily reliant on tourism, which as part of a services sector comprising shipping, banking, and trade accounted for around 50 percent of GDP. Agriculture accounted for 14.7 percent and industry 37.4 percent.

Mubarak had implemented aggressive economic reforms to make the country an attractive home for foreign investment throughout the first decade of the 21st century. But along with Egypt’s tourism industry this was contingent on the maintenance of stability and security in the most important and populous Arab country in the region – a region commonly perceived to lack both. The corollary to this, of course, was that Egypt’s stability and security under Mubarak was the product of a decades-long brutal dictatorship under which dissent was mercilessly crushed and torture was commonplace. The role of the western powers and businesses in propping up this dictatorship was key to its ability to survive for so long, another example of the rank hypocrisy of our so-called champions of liberal democracy.
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Is Egypt headed for civil war?

Protesters take part in a protest demanding that Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi resign at Tahrir Square in CairoWith pro and anti Morsi mass rallies in Cairo’s Nasr City and Tahrir Square respectively currently awaiting the army’s next step as its 48 hour deadline approaches, and with President Morsi refusing to back down, the prospect of civil war breaking out in Egypt is real.

Despite being elected in the nation’s first ever democratic elections, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have never been accepted in power by Egypt’s secular and educated middle class. Suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s intentions was heightened by the controversial new constitution introduced in November last year by Morsi and his supporters, viewed as evidence of a creeping Islamisation of the nation’s institutions and society in general.

Since his election in 2012 the polyglot Egyptian opposition parties have extended themselves in withdrawing cooperation with Morsi’s presidency, leaving the president and the Muslim Brotherhood increasingly isolated  – the classic case of being in office but not in power.
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The Gaza war – initial thoughts on the outcome

Following on from his article earlier this week, leading Palestine solidarity activist Kevin Ovenden responds to the latest events in Gaza

It is far too early to provide a comprehensive account of the impact of the latest Gaza War on the prospects for the Palestinian struggle, Israel and the region as a whole.

But it is clear that the seven day war demonstrated both Israel’s continuing preparedness to seek to solve its ongoing crisis and internal political impasse through war, and at the same time the tighter constraints that exist on account of the Arab revolutionary process and continued resistance to imperialism and Israeli aggression.

In response to questions from and out of conversations with many friends, however, here are some schematic observations and opinions that may stimulate a wider discussion.

1) Friends in Gaza, from across the spectrum, report a great sense of relief. And grief. At least one close friend lost his mother when a bomb hit their apartment block. There is also defiance from withstanding the Israeli assault and from the prevention (whatever people ascribe that to) of a ground invasion. Hamas has been boosted internally. People in Gaza do have a genuine sense of “victory”. There is hope that the siege will fall – quickly and totally.

2) Hamas is also boosted externally and is in the spotlight of diplomacy in the region, despite its continuing proscription in the US, Britain and much of Europe. The political siege imposed since Hamas won the 2006 election is already ended and the West is having to adjust to that. In reality, and through back channels and intermediaries, it already has.

3) Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and his leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood are also lifted. As every correspondent reported, he received warm praise from Washington, London and even Tel Aviv for his role in the ceasefire. He was able to continue to balance deftly the groundswell of support for the Palestinians in Egypt and maintaining relations with the West and the Camp David accord with Israel. There were, however, significant demonstrations in Egypt from those who rightly feel that Morsi should go much further.
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Gaza: what means this war?

This is a guest post from leading Palestine solidarity activist Kevin Ovenden.

What means this war?

The response from Western capitals and their allies to Israel’s latest war on Gaza was as expected. 

There was no hand-wringing about a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians; no cliched demarche from Paris calling for “humanitarian corridors”; no emergency London or Doha conference to agree “non-lethal” defence supplies to the people of Gaza; no total or even token sanctions on Israel; no calls for Binyamin Netanyahu to step down; no media castigation of the “regime” in Tel Aviv; no arms or billions in largesse flowing from Western allies in the Persian Gulf and Turkey to those fighting an illegitimate, murderous aggressor. 

Instead, there was full-throated support for Israel. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague led the pack in laying “principal responsibility” for the aggression on its victims – the Hamas government in Gaza and those who elected it. His subsequent advice that Israel risked “losing international support” through a ground invasion merely indicated the West’s preferred parameters for this bout of slaughter.

All predictable, perhaps wearily so. Why then rehearse this litany of hypocrisy? Because if we become inured to it, let it stand as a harsh fact of life in a cynical world, then unwittingly we allow the West and its allies to shift the narrative in the Middle East, to frame events and to determine which questions will be asked and which buried. And not just there.

That has been a central aim in Washington, London, Tel Aviv and the rest for the last 12 months as they attempt both to grapple with a region that is in a process of long-term profound change and to manage their equally long-term decline. 

It is almost exactly a year ago that Palestine was last at the centre of official international attention, when Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen pushed at the UN Security Council for the recognition of a truncated Palestinian state. Voted down by the US and its allies, he is set to make the same bid at the wider UN General Assembly, where there is no great power veto, at the end of this month.

But in those 12 months, Palestine was off the agenda – as Israeli settlements expanded, the siege on Gaza continued and the apparatus of apartheid deepened. So much so that when Netanyahu visited the US earlier this year to rally the pro-Israel AIPAC conference and nakedly boost the fundamentalist Republican election campaign against Barack Obama, he was able to get away with barely mentioning the word “Palestinian” whilst agitating for war on Iran and seeking to bend the outcome of events in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere to Israel’s and the West’s advantage. 

The return of Palestine (which didn’t go away from the minds of those genuinely driving change in the Middle East), as so often through massacre and tragedy, lays bare the true fault-lines and course of development in the wider region. It illuminates also the manoeuvres to subvert progressive change and to distract us – which have preoccupied the Empire since the fall of Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago. 

Israel and US decline

The proximate reasons for Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud are interlinked and reasonably clear. At the end of October Israel bombed the Yarmouk factory in Khartoum, Sudan, accusing it of being a staging post for the supply of Iranian missiles to Hamas and other resistance organisations in Gaza. Of course, the standard Western government and media portrayal of some kind of equivalence between Israel, a nuclear-armed state with the fourth most powerful army in the world backed by the most powerful, and the Palestinians, occupied, besieged, exiled, without an airforce or air defence and with the most minimal of arms, is risible. And we are told from reliable reports that far from escalating confrontation and triggering the war, Hamas was in fact seeking a truce with Israel when its military commander, and close ally of leader Khaled Mishaal, Ahmed al-Jaabari was assassinated, signalling the start of the war. 

Nevertheless, the arrival of rockets such as the Fajr-5 in Gaza is of considerable concern to the Israeli state. It means, as the last week has shown, that Israel’s assault on Gaza, while overwhelming, is not entirely without response. Air raid sirens have sounded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. An Israeli public, promised that the 2006 war on Lebanon and the 2008-09 war on Gaza would leave them safer, faces the reality that the security balance is shifting even as they have state of the art shelters and the Dalou family, all but wiped out in an Israeli raid on their apartment block in Gaza, had nowhere to hide in the world’s largest open air prison camp. Crushing or disciplining resistance in Gaza has a politico-military logic for Netanyahu – especially as he presses on towards military confrontation with Iran and wants to pre-empt any fighting response from the Palestinian territories and from Lebanon. He has been frustrated from forcing through the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities this year and before the US presidential election. His cartoon performance at the UN two months ago, however, signalled a determination to bring things to the boil by next spring. Unable to lash out at Iran or directly against the resistance in Lebanon after Israel’s defeat in 2006, the caged Palestinians of Gaza provide a convenient target for a barbaric “demonstration effect” of Israel’s power. 

The message is clear – despite the changes in the region, we can still do this. We are serious about a greater Israel and “solving” the “Palestinian problem” on Egyptian and Jordanian territory, with the apartheid infrastructure of occupation taking most of the West Bank into an expanded Israel. It is a message for domestic consumption. Netanyahu faces a general election in January. The fusion between his Likud party and the ultra-right Avigdor Lieberman did not produce a poll bounce. It is a message to the Palestinians, including Abu Mazen as he plans to go to the UN and is increasingly desperate in the face of settlement building, the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the bankruptcy of the Oslo process. It is aimed at Arab capitals – especially Cairo. And it is addressed to Washington, where even Obama’s craven support for Israel does not have the required zealotry of Netanyahu’s friends on the Republican right, who were rejected in the presidential and Senate elections. It’s a gambit that shows every sign of backfiring, as in 2008-09 and 2006. Ceasefire talks this week could not avoid the calls to lift the six year siege on Gaza.

This isn’t the first time an Israeli prime minister has flayed the Palestinians – pour encourager les autres. In 2001, following 9/11, George W Bush toyed with the call for Palestinian statehood and a renewed peace process. It was window dressing to garner support for the impending wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel’s Ariel Sharon responded with a massive military incursion into the West Bank and Gaza. Israel was going to make no compromise even to assist its benefactor’s war drive. 

Israel remains at the centre of the US establishment’s – both Democrat and Republican – calculus of control in the Middle East. Washington provides unique access to weapons and billions of dollars of subventions to Tel Aviv – and the EU and Britain give preferential trading agreements – because it is calculated as in its interests to do so. The pro-Israel lobby does not determine those interests or high policy. But it does exert a vice-like grip on policy discussion to sideline alternatives, and their bearers, which might loosen the relationship with Israel and its right wing for the purpose of securing a broader, more stable set of alliances in pursuit of Persian Gulf oil. Keeping its hand on that spigot remains vital to US strategic policy. Even as it tries to reduce its own dependence on foreign oil, it still wants to control the supply to others, such as China, whose economies cannot function without it. The Israeli tail does not wag the US dog. But an ageing dog can lose full command of its faculties.    

The grand gamble under George W Bush and the authors of the Project for the New American Century a decade ago did not pay off. The war on Iraq resulted in weakening the US position in the Middle East, a deep and persisting decline of militarist public opinion in the US and Europe, and the strengthening of Iran in Iraq. The Afghanistan war is lost. Western prestige is falling and the political costs mounting alongside the rising Afghan and Nato death tolls and the destabilisation in Pakistan. 

But it would be a foolhardy mistake to read off from that either the impotence of US-organised imperialism or the prospect of pacific development in the Middle East, where those striving for progress would have the space to skirt around the rocks of occupation, military aggression and foreign interference. Changing the Middle East without confronting state power, great and local, as it were. 

First, the US remains immensely powerful – militarily more powerful than the next 19 states together, many of them its allies in any case. Its presence in the Persian Gulf is entrenching – in Bahrain and Qatar. Perversely, that is not Washington’s strategic intention, which is rather to concentrate military deployment encircling China. The doctrine is outlined in the Pentagon’s “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for a 21st Century Defense”. It’s forced to maintain direct deployment in the Middle East because the second limb of policy to manage upheaval and relative decline is unreliable. It is more dependent on proxies and allies in the region. They have their own distinct interests. So Israel and Turkey, a member of Nato, are both close allies of the US. Turkey is no longer a simple client of the US. A decade of AKP rule by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan and his foreign secretary, Ahmet Davutoglu, has meant a policy of putting the interests of Turkish capital first. But it remains a close, though more independent ally, and is pitching for the role of US suzerain in the Levant. The problem is that Israel already sees itself as the regional power. Turkey has ambitions which clash with that. Both have conflicting interests over, for example, the future of Algerian-levels of natural gas reserves discovered under the sea between Lebanon, Israel and the divided island of Cyprus. The tensions persist even as Erdogan seeks a tight fit with the US and Nato. So the story of Washington’s response to armed conflict in Libya and more so Syria is not simply of reluctance to intervene directly in conditions of circumscribed power. It is also one of relying on allies who have their own aspirations – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Gulf Cooperation Council. This is not a recipe for ending direct Western intervention – as Libya and the moves to cohere a pro-Western political leadership in Syria demonstrate. It is certainly not a prelude to less war in the Middle East. 

There is a parallel with the US response to its greatest ever imperial defeat: Vietnam. The victory of the Vietnamese people encouraged forces of liberation everywhere. It did not mean that a wounded US imperialism tiptoed from the stage, leaving others to play the principal. There followed a new doctrine of intense re-engagement though allies, state and others, overt and covert. The Contra war in Nicaragua; the strengthening of support for Israel after the US presence in Lebanon was forced to a close by the loss of 241 of its soldiers in 1983; the arming of Saddam Hussein against revolutionary Iran; the disastrous meddling in Afghanistan to back favoured sons of the mujahideen; the second Cold War, with the stationing of Cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe directed against the then main strategic competitor, the Soviet Union, upon whose collapse there followed the 1991 Gulf War and a resurgence of direct US interventions throughout the late-1990s. The cycle culminated in the full-blown occupation of Iraq in 2003.  

For sure, there are major differences between the position of the US three decades ago and today (though the sanctimonious Western baiting of Russia and China at the UN over Syria is redolent of 1980s Cold War rhetoric, as is the stationing of a missile “defence shield” in Eastern Europe and Turkey). The most obvious difference is the re-emergence of revolutionary upheavals across the Middle East/North Africa region. In 1979, the US lost a pillar of support with the fall of the Shah of Iran. Three decades later, and despite billions of dollars of support, it lost Mubarak. 

Response in the Arab region

Anger and shame in Egypt at the complicity of the Mubarak regime in the oppression of the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, was at the centre of the movement that tore him down. It was the Al Aqsa Palestinian intifada a decade ago which led to a generation of young activists breaking the stranglehold of the Egyptian security state and taking to the streets for the first time in many years. Rage intensified at Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, during which Mubarak sealed the border with Gaza while – let us never forget – pledging along with every other Arab president and prince undying love for “our Palestinian brothers”. A fresh generation faced the ugly triptych of neo-liberal dislocation, national humiliation at their country’s prostration to imperialism and a police state viciously repressive in proportion to its declining legitimacy. That powered the great upsurge of protests and strikes that went on to topple Mubarak, in the wake of Tunisia’s Ben Ali. Underlying those movements are deep shifts in Arab societies, and in the configuration of imperial power. It is not only that these transformations are processes, rather than simply events (a journalistic commonplace now). They are likely to be drawn out over many years. Many Arab historians identify the start of a new epoch in the region. That’s why it is a mistake – understandable from those who continue to experience declining living standards and repression in the Middle East – to imagine that what Western journalists called the Arab Spring has ended, to be replaced not with a glorious summer but by a seemingly permanent winter of dispossession. Equally, to imagine that the movement would simply surge forward and rapidly transform everything, or to exaggerate what has changed, is to underestimate the resources of the other side, their tenacity and the critical political junctures the movement continues to face. Operation Pillar of Cloud poses one such juncture for those fighting for democracy in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere: is this to be done alongside those bombing Gaza, or against them? The answer from the popular masses in Syria and in every Arab state is already known and is resounding. But the same people know from their own bitter history that unfortunately popular sentiment and principle are not automatically reflected in the politics of those who rise to the top – in fact, they rarely have been. 

Compared with 15 years ago, the position of Israel and of its Western backers is demonstrably weaker. Then Israel could look to two treaty-allies on its frontline – Jordan and Egypt – an ongoing, though faltering, occupation of southern Lebanon, and a Syria that was contained, almost a Cold War relic which had recently joined the US-led assault on Iraq, then the strongest Arab state.  

A lot has changed, but much has not. Saudi Arabia (the oldest US Arab ally), Qatar and the regional capitalist hub represented by the Gulf Cooperation Council states have been pivotal in muting the response to Israel’s aggression on Gaza. Naturally, there have been words. It is easily forgotten, however, that strong words came from all of them, and from Egypt’s rulers at the time, in 1982 over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, over the first intifada, the second intifada, the siege of President Arafat in Ramallah, Operation Cast Lead… No Arab leader can do anything other than rhetorically boast he is with the Palestinians “until Jerusalem”. The emir of Qatar promises reconstruction aid for Gaza, while hosting the US Centcom base, a keystone of US, and by extension, Israeli military might – which is… flattening Gaza. They cannot be judged on words. At all. Ever. 

Their actions are to suppress, cajole or crush the militant heart of the movement which is best exemplified in Egypt. So they have systematically repressed the movement in Bahrain over the last 12 months, with the full support of the West. British prime minister David Cameron earlier this month toured Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. He was selling arms and grovelling his apologies to the House of Saud for a rare, critical British parliamentary report on the total absence of human rights in the kingdom. He cemented the recent military agreement with Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet. All this while Cameron and the kings posed as champions of democracy in Libya and Syria. The nauseating hypocrisy is summed up by Britain’s William Hague. Six days into the assault on Gaza, which as a great friend of Likud he backs above and beyond the call of his office, he proclaimed that the British government would now recognise the latest umbrella group of the Syrian opposition. It’s the one which the West – Britain and France above all – has with Gulf allies spent months ensuring is safely politically aligned. If they get their way, the fruit of the appalling fighting in Syria will be a government still more amenable to the West. We expect the Western media and politicians to fall silent about their double standards. The movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people and with the mass of Arabs cannot. 

Wiping Palestine off the map of public concern as thoroughly as it was wiped off the geographical map in 1948 has been key to Western and Gulf efforts to redirect and redefine the “Arab Spring” over the last 12 months. That has gone hand in hand with the direct suppression of the movement in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and with the effort to usurp and bend political forces from Libya to Syria and Egypt. The strategy has had some success. Until now. Until the renewed Israeli aggression on Gaza, which provides a moment in which the central issues are again clarified. 

The process is concentrated in Jordan. Last week tens of thousands of protesters broke a taboo and the law by calling for the fall of King Abdullah (the monarch, who rules by sole virtue of being his father’s son but who with no hint of irony said last year that Syria’s Bashar Al Assad lacked “democratic legitimacy”). The protests and strikes over fuel hikes in Jordan began on the eve of Operation Pillar of Cloud. Israel has an embassy in Jordan, where two thirds of the population are expelled Palestinians. The tripartite treaty and security arrangements between Israel, Jordan and (still) Egypt are central to Tel Aviv’s capacity to hold down the Palestinians. Fear of an Egyptian-style confluence of rising social discontent and heartfelt support for the Palestinians led Abdullah to cancel a visit to London in order to manage the crisis on Saturday as protests intensified. Part of his arsenal of response was, along with other Arab leaders, to call for a ceasefire and to issue a verbal fusillade against Netanyahu. He and they were licensed to do so. Words. Words – while the embassy of Israel and the mutual treaty stayed in place. Words while Jordan’s secret police host the CIA to train those approved by Israel to serve in the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, containing the incipient Palestinian spring in the West Bank and Jerusalem. 

Egypt and Turkey

The venue for the ceasefire negotiations was Cairo, where President Mohamed Morsi on the one hand recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv and on the other received warm praise from Washington and London for his “mediation efforts” between Israel and Hamas. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is not only closely linked to Hamas, which has moved through Cairo to normalise relations with Doha, Riyadh and other Arab capitals. The Brotherhood also stakes much of its claim for legitimacy on pan-Islamic solidarity to recover Palestine. Of course, by the standards of political leaders in Britain, where I’m writing this from, the recall of an ambassador from Israel is a huge step forward. But Morsi came to office in Egypt thanks to the revolutionary overthrow of Mubarak. The yardstick is very different. What may be lionised in Britain is lamentable in Egypt. Throughout the Israeli assault on Gaza restrictions have remained in place at the Rafah crossing with Egypt. The argument from Morsi and from the Brotherhood since his election has been that caution is necessary – a balancing act – so as not to provoke the still powerful Egyptian military or Western powers, who warily see the Brotherhood as a force they are obliged to do business with, rather than one they would have freely chosen. Egypt has just secured a loan from the International Monetary Fund, with the customary attendant neo-liberal conditions. Now, no friend of the Egyptian people would relish war or a reckless military confrontation with Israel. But we are not talking about some preemptory abrogation of the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt at a moment when Egypt would be isolated and seen to be inviting reprisals. We are talking about the moment when Israel launches its biggest aggression against Palestine since Mubarak sat idly by (while telling us he was praying for Gaza) four years ago. If not now, when? Operation Pillar of Defence has produced significant protests in Egypt, including from Muslim Brotherhood members. A gathering of parties, among them the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, called for action, rather than words, from Morsi. 

His election run-off against the candidate of the SCAF military council this year produced a division in the revolutionary movement in Egypt. First there was a liberal argument – echoed by sections of the historic left – that the Muslim Brotherhood, indeed Islamist forces generally, are simply reactionary, as much an enemy of the mass of the population as the military junta which hankered for continuity with the Mubarak years. At the extreme end were pro-Western liberals or social democrats who openly said they preferred the “secular”, military-backed Shafiq to the “Islamist” Morsi. A second, more difficult, argument was among those who rightly do not equate the Muslim Brotherhood with the military, but who differed over the tactics of whether to boycott the election or to vote for Morsi in order to stall the direct attempt by the military to roll back the revolution. I believe that the narrow victory of Morsi and the course of politics since is a vindication of arguing for the defeat of Shafiq in the election, which meant favouring the victory of Morsi, against the understandable feeling of overwhelmingly young, urban revolutionaries to boycott the election in the name of radical street action against all the old conservative faces. 

Be that as it may. The point for all the radical wing for the Egyptian revolution was what were the best tactics to propel it forward. It was about how to go beyond the chronically cautious, vacillating Brotherhood leadership and how to defeat the move by Western powers to limit the changes to a parliamentary/presidential facade, behind which Egypt’s role in the region would remain little changed, as would the position of working people, peasants, the poor and the oppressed at home. 

The assault on Gaza and the tepid response from the Egyptian government provide a moment when radical revolutionaries can aspire to do just that: to win broader layers to the radical goals of the revolution as workers and the poor continue to resist at home and the government’s vaunted Islamic solidarity stands diminished abroad. The divisions among the Brotherhood over Morsi’s performance mean that the genuine left can pose a militant way forward alongside those disappointed with Morsi – in common initiatives.  

This is so not only in Egypt. Turkey, under Erdogan’s AKP Islamist government, has issued strong words against Israel, calling it “a terrorist state”. Erdogan and Davutoglu have been at the centre of steering the “Arab Spring” towards an outcome in their own image, a kind of Islamic version of European Christian Democracy. 

No one can doubt the sincerity of the mass of Turkish people, religious and secular, in their support for the Palestinians. Those of us who were aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship attacked by Israel two years ago will forever attest to that. Erdogan also issued strong words against Israel in 2009, during Cast Lead. But since his “just one minute” speech at the Davos summit in Switzerland nearly four years have passed. In that time, and despite diplomatic spats, trade between Israel and Turkey has increased 60 percent to $4.4 billion. That provides a significant portion of Israel’s foreign earnings. It is exactly the vulnerability identified by the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. But there are no Turkish economic sanctions on Israel. Erdogan is on the point of requesting extra missiles from his Nato partners. They are not to protect the Palestinians or even theatrically to wave at Israel. They are for pointing at Syria, as the border tension between the two countries escalates and Turkey wishes to play kingmaker in Damascus. 

The US, Britain, Europe and the war at home

Suggestions and observations from those in the West to friends in the Middle East are cheap – in fact worthless – if they do not flow from and are subordinate to building a serious movement in the heart of the Empire. There is a long tradition of “progressives” in the West refusing to oppose or giving tacit support to their states’ war machines in the name of “liberating” people from only carefully selected “despots” in far off lands. It may indeed be inadequate for one Middle Eastern foreign minister after another ritualistically to visit Gaza under bombardment. But the US and British governments are not inadequate. They are self aware and irreplaceable backers of Israel. They are participants in this war. The EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton, with the war criminal Tony Blair as Middle East peace envoy, was despatched not to Gaza under bombs, but to the West Bank. There they sought to pressure Abu Mazen not to push recognition at the UN. 

The Western public response to Israel’s attack on Gaza has been angry. In most countries support for Israel continues to fall. But those of us active in the West must be honest: we have a very long way to go. The ease with which the British media and political class supported this aggression on Gaza shows that. Too easily and too often have we allowed Palestine to be sidelined over the last 12 months. Too readily have some of us not singlemindedly honed in on the crimes of our own governments. Failing to do that allows greater space for them to sow confusion and division; falsely to pose as liberators; to redefine the public perception of the Arab Spring as a movement directed mainly at those at odds with the West, while our allies are supposedly quietly reforming. And our core allies in the region are spewing an ethnic-religious poison against “Persians”, “Alawites” and Shia minority Muslims in a sickening reheating of Sykes-Picot divide and rule. That poison has entered the veins of even some in Britain’s Muslim communities. While the venom weakens the body, the ideological barrage softens the mind. Few may buy the brazen trickery of Israel’s venerable war criminal Shimon Peres, who claimed last year that he welcomed the “Arab Spring” as it represented, he said, an overdue, pro-Western modernisation of the Middle East, directed against the “old politics” of “Hamas, Hezbollah” and Arab nationalism. But the more we allow Palestine to be glossed over, the easier it is for all those who wish to derail the movements to rid the Middle East of all foreign domination and of corrupt rulers, and who manipulate the better part of the feelings of Western citizens, mostly prey to the media corporations.   

The return of revolutionary events to the Middle East did not mean that the struggle against imperialist interference ended. It meant that that struggle could be refounded on mass, revolutionary movements. There is every reason to stand with mainly young people in the Middle East facing over a century of dismemberment, disfigurement and disillusion with those who have promised to solve it. There can be no excuse in the imperialist states for mature movements not to confront systematically and in all fields our governments. The century-long foreign domination of the Middle East is weakening, thanks in no small measure to the continued resistance of the Palestinian people. Tensions and conflicts in the US-organised hierarchy of control are mounting. But there is still a hierarchy of control. It is that which defines the problems it faces, not the other way around.  

Britain, post-Suez, has been wedded as a junior partner, an adjutant to the US. When Cameron’s government backs Israel in deed and not just word, helping to arm it, covering for it at the UN, when it props up the Gulf dictators and seeks to usurp the future of the Syrian and Arab people more generally, then these are not simply Middle Eastern questions, the subjects of theoretical debate or ideological elucidation. They are British political questions. 

Three generations ago several leaders of what would become successful anti-colonial liberation movements spent time in London: it was the capital of the biggest empire. Gandhi, Kenyatta and others, discussed with Labour Party people, the Independent Labour Party, Communists, Fabians and more besides. They did not look to progressives in Britain primarily for an organised discussion about politics in the Indian subcontinent or East Africa. Principally, they sought out people here who would construct a movement that could help lift the Union Jack-boot off the necks of people in the two thirds of the globe then run from London. 

Britain’s despicable support for the latest war on Gaza shows why a movement and political principles opposed to contemporary imperialism remain vital. Keeping Palestine as “the issue” is central to that movement. It embraces the welcome reality that globally for tens of millions of people, especially young people thirsting for change, Palestine has become the symbol of the world struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter – as Malcolm X used to put it. Palestine is also a loadstone. Real progress in the Middle East, in deeds not empty words, brings the liberation of Palestine closer, not more distant. 

The change from Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 or the war on Lebanon two years earlier is not only in the Middle East. It is in Europe and north America. Here, now, we are in the throes of a long economic crisis. Austerity grips the US, Britain and Europe in a way that was only dimly discernible on the horizon when Israel killed 1,417 Palestinians four years ago. The stakes for the old imperial powers are very high. So too for their people. 

In addition to the considerable minority who were already moved to side with the Palestinians, there are many others in Britain who ask or who can be encouraged to ask – why should we stand with Cameron behind Israel’s shooting war on the Palestinians, when it is Cameron and his Etonian millionaires who are at economic and social war with us? As austerity bites deeper and domestic support for the government withers, then foreign imperial adventures are all the more risky. Ensuring that the risk is realised requires an unswerving focus on the duplicity and crimes of our rulers, intensifying every argument against them through whatever actions we can muster with broad support. With a British government in occupation of Afghanistan, a belligerent in Gaza and at war against us at home this is not a distraction. It is the most meaningful thing we can do in solidarity with those resisting in Palestine and across the Middle East. 

Greece is the European country hardest hit thus far by the economic war of the rich against the rest. There have been many demonstrations, strikes and electoral battles by the left over the last four years. On the annual commemoration of the Polytechnic Uprising against the military junta in 1973, a massive demonstration unsurprisingly took to the streets of Athens on Saturday, 17 November. There were many excellent candidates for where the march should go to, given the manifold domestic and international tormentors of the Greek people today. The demonstration, three days into the assault on Gaza, chose to go the Israeli embassy in Athens. To its credit, on that evening at least, the Communist Party contingent argued with the police that its permit for that route should also include everyone else who wished to protest against the outpost of the Zionist entity in solidarity with the Palestinians. The anti-capitalist left and the bulk of the demonstration did wish to; they marched there together. 

It was more than a gesture of solidarity, splendid alone as that would have been. The governments of austerity Greece, a member of Nato, have drawn increasingly close to Israel over the last two years. In striking at that pact and for the people in Gaza, the Polytechnic demonstration revealed a political intent for a radical break with all the filth of Western capitalism and imperialism. 

Internationalism is not simply support for those elsewhere; it is the beating heart of a truly radical politics at home. And the meaning of this latest Israeli war? More war and imperialist meddling are to come. Alongside them, further upsurges and resistance. And for those of us who resist – Palestine is still the issue. 

Kevin Ovenden
20 November 2012

Egypt: shock waves from the revolution

“VICTORY HAS a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

Those words of Italian diplomat Count Galeazzo Ciano sprang to mind at the nauseating spectacle of Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and the rest claiming if not parenthood, then a least favorite-uncle status to the newborn revolution in Egypt and its older Tunisian twin.

But from the Atlantic coast of North Africa to the Persian Gulf, everyone knows that these leaders would have strangled both babes at birth if they could. Having failed in infanticide, they will now seek every means to stunt the child’s growth. The dizzying momentum of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, however, is now ricocheting around the Arab and Middle East region, while at the same time profoundly radicalizing struggles and politics within those two countries.

The revolutionary overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is already world-historic, to deploy an oft-overused term. Together with Tunisia, it has, not yet two months in, marked 2011 as one of those years of revolutionary turmoil we find in the history books.

A revolution, successful in its first phase, has erupted in a critically important country, and onto the world’s television screens every night for two weeks at a time–at a time when global capitalism is in its most profound crisis for three generations and the U.S.-led imperialist state order is losing its coherence. It is a real, popular revolution, not some color-coded counterfeit with its imagery dreamed up by a Wall Street ad agency. Click to continue reading

What the elections reveal about the far left in Palestine and Egypt

One of the interesting aspects of the recent elections in Palestine was the failure of the left to unite to form a “third force” that could challenge the polarised battle between Fatah and Hamas.

The total vote for the two socialist lists was 7.17%, a total of 71000 votes, and they won 4 seats.

Socialists of the PFLP stood under the banner “list no. 3, the list of the martyr Abu Ali Mustafa!” (Abu Ali Mustafa is general secretary of the PFLP and is imprisoned in Jericho.) This list won 42000 votes, (4.25%).

Another coalition of socialists stood as “List 4 the Alternative” also won 29000 votes (2.92%) and seem to have stood on a more explicitly Marxist programme.

The election was undoubtedly polarised between Fatah and “Change and Reform” (The Hamas list), so getting over 7% is a reasonable vote for the hard left, and is a basis to build upon.

It compares favourably with the Egyptian elections where socialists and secular opposition parties were marginalised.

Bizarrely there was an article in Socialist Worker about Kamal Khalil – a Revolutionary Socialist – who SW claimed was “set to win” his seat in Cairo if it had not been for deliberate election fraud – govt closing the polling stations, etc,

Now this is of course possible, but it doesn’t match the account of the elections in Al Ahram.

electoral fraud: :

The first of these articles talks about only a 10% turnout in urban constituencies, and the vote polarised between the (banned) Moslem Brotherhood and the govt party. The secular opposition have been wiped out and even former Free Officer (Nasser’s close circle) Khaled Mohieddin has lost his seat. It quotes a leading oppositionist saying that people didn’t vote for Khalil because his name was not explicitly Islamic. What is more the other secular politicians are admitting that they were marginalised by a polarisation between the Islamists and the govt.

With regard to electoral interference, the govt party would be more opposed to the Moslem Brotherhood (MB) than to a socialist, however revolutionary, and exactly the same electoral irregularities were practised across the country with the aim of keeping out the MB candidates, but they nevertheless won 100 seats, trebling their standing in parliament.

So the picture in Egypt is interesting, that there is an active secular left, who were able to hegemonise street demonstrations for democracy, but when it came to the actual elections, it was exposed that they stood on a relatively narrow base. Where opposition to the govt was expressed at the polls it overwhelmingly went to the Islamists. The following interesting article in al Ahram discusses the left in Egyptian society:
“There is still hope, Veteran left-wing lawyer, El-Hilali suggests, if leftists find a way to work together, though “not in the form of yet another political party”. What is needed, he says, is a broad non-ideological coalition, “including as many factions as possible and able to steer away from the typical ghettoising of Trotskyites, Nasserists and the like”.

“Because leftists cannot hope to achieve political change alone, El-Hilali echoed the calls made by less radical leftist factions on the importance of working with Islamists, urging “hysterical and frantic critics” of such a move to “stop”. “There are fundamental differences but we are agreed on our opposition to the regime and to imperialism… There is no justification in refraining from engaging in joint work.”

“Tamer Wageeh, of the Socialist Studies Centre, pointed to the “ill-defined” masses of activists who have taken to the streets in the last six years, citing Intifada solidarity demonstrations, anti-war protests and the more recent demonstrations demanding change in Egypt. But instead of swelling the ranks of left-wing factions these young and politicised activists are rejecting the left label.

“They don’t define themselves as yassar (left) though they subscribe to its principles — anti-privatisation, anti- imperialism, women’s rights, Coptic rights and so on — because the reputation of the Egyptian left has put them off. The challenge is to integrate these people into the movement.”

“It is equally important, he added, for the left-leaning anti- Mubarak group Kifaya to not just maintain its activities but expand them to include socio-economic issues.
“If the left doesn’t work on enhancing its appeal, he said, the results are easy to foresee. “There will be a great void and people will simply turn to the right.” ”