Egypt: Only democracy is legitimate


Abdul Ilah Albayaty, Hana Al Bayaty and Ian Douglas (10 February 2011)

Read also: The Arab Spring of democracy (16 January 2011)


The strength of the Egyptian revolution is that the movement of the people is without need of leaders who speak in the name of others, write Abdul Ilah Albayaty, Hana Al Bayaty and Ian Douglas

Beautiful are the rivers of people in the streets of Egypt. The Arab Spring of democracy has already brought to flower new practices of liberty in public space. The heroic, resolute, peaceful youth has offered more than 300 martyrs from among their ranks to secure for all Egyptians freedoms they themselves lacked. Standing firm in the face of lethal force, the martyrs de-legitimise the police state both legally and politically. In each place that they fell grows a seed of the future. The authority of the stick has been broken. It is no longer respected to give orders.


The revolt begun by the Facebook youth on 25 January became a revolt of all the youth on 26 January, and a revolt of all society three days later. An unwritten social programme is agreed upon and embraced by all: building a sovereign democratic welfare state.


When we drafted our article “The Arab Spring of democracy” (Ahram Online, 18 January 2011), sensing an imminent Arab revolt, for various reasons we had Egypt in our minds. Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, the largest Arab state and the most advanced in many domains. While Tunisia and Egypt have common traits, they also have differences; Egypt was and remains the Arab state essential to facing Israel, with which it was at war on several occasions, resulting in a popular army and institutions of an army that are respected by its people.


We heard the 25 January call for protest and we saw the success of its mobilisation. Since then we decided not to write, aware that the Egyptian movements themselves would decide the success of their revolution. As we said in our previous article, this revolution is different: it heralds a new kind of revolution in Arab and Third World countries.


Already, many articles have been written about the Egyptian revolution. The majority have employed either non-applicable criterion taken from other revolutions to understand its nature and to portray it, or have attempted to hijack it or to give lessons to the Egyptian people. This revolution has its own dynamics, but it also sheds light on the wider Arab revolution.


Its first significance is that it is a pacific revolution. Neither theoretically nor practically do the Egyptian people advocate for the use of violence to achieve political ends. There are no traces of the rhetoric of civil war, armed insurrection or appeals to use force. On the contrary, it is the counter-revolution, orchestrated by the state, which has resorted to violence and intimidation, and which failed to break the revolt. The people stand united with the army, knowing that the sons of Egypt, conscripted from every family, defend Egyptians and not a regime. Meanwhile, the pacifism of the youth doesn’t mean that it does not defend itself and its revolution and peoples rights against the violence and provocations of the state. The more the state used violence, the more the youth stood resolute and the ranks of the demonstrations grew and spread to all sections of society.


Its second significance is that contrary to the leftist literature advocating a policy of tabula rasa in order for revolution to succeed, the revolutionary Egyptian youth is proud of its history, its country and state, including its army. What we hear in their slogans, literature and discussions is a call to change the state into a democratic welfare state, rather than to destroy the state apparatus and its institutions. Many factors lead to this equation. The first resides in the extent and complication of the modern state’s role in everyday life. Second, Egyptians are aware that the intertwinement of international trade with the national economy would make the isolation of Egypt for a long period of time an economic disaster. All also know the necessity of standing ready to defend the country against potential external aggression, Israeli or any other.


The third significance of this revolution resides in the absence of a culture of avant-gardism. We do not mean that there are no groups and individuals who paved the way for this revolt by their actions on the cultural scene. But none of them advocate for a putsch to reach power and implement what they would believe is the best for the people.

One reason for this leaderless phenomenon is linked to the impossibility of constituting a singular avant-garde under the regime’s repressive policies, and the ease any attempt would offer to power in decapitating this “leadership”. This difficulty of having an avant-garde turned into an advantage as the revolution became easily adopted as their own by all sections of the population. The longer it has remained leaderless, the more exposed has been the total confrontation between the people and the regime.


We are impressed by the largeness and spontaneity of the participation, whether in numbers, classes, genders, or political sympathies, while those who called for 25 January were few. Their demands have proven to be the demands of all the people. Through practical and realistic slogans, understandable by anyone, they demand real democracy and social justice. Through this process, the Egyptian people accomplished  with neither avant-gardism nor ideology, nor a large organisation  a collective thinking and carried forward actions that equate to a whole people in revolt.


We now know that in Egypt the two pillars of what we call the Third World state in a globalised world, based on a police state and a comprador class allied to international capital, has failed or at least lost all legitimacy. What will be built in the future, we think, depends on the consciousness of the Egyptian national movement and its determinations. The past 16 days proved the high consciousness and political maturity of the people. Already the potential divisions between secular and religious, Muslims and Christians, nationalists, leftists and Islamists, the poor and the middle class have instead, in unity, become the movement’s strength in diversity. The attempt by the counter-revolution to use force and to incite violence and divisions among the people has failed totally and will fail as long as the revolution adheres to its nature. The attempt to divide and conquer by alleging that this or that group is trying to take over is faced by the insistence of the movement, in its slogans and practice, that they don’t want to jump on the back of power. On the contrary, they insist that democracy and freedom should be for all.


The democratic change in Egypt frightens all in the West, and especially Israel. This alarm does not come from a threat of direct economic or military confrontation, but rather from the waking of the Arab world and the results implied by Arabs having a democratic state that defends the interests of the people. If Egypt becomes democratic, Israel loses the dream of dividing the Arabs in order to control them. It would also break the myth that Israel is the only state in the region capable of democracy. No wonder Israel regrets the collapse of the old structure, though it can do nothing about it. The Egyptians opened their mouths. This will be an ever-evolving phenomenon of expression and quest for their rights.

Apart from defending Egypt’s security, rights, and the culture of Arab solidarity, no current from within the revolutionary movement expresses a tendency to wage war against anyone. The Egyptians do not pretend that they will change the world order. They express the necessity of having relations according to mutual benefits. They do not lay claims to lead the Arab world either, though they know the importance of Egypt in the Arab world. No one thinks that terrorism will produce change or that without the state (as defended by leftist revolutionaries) and its institutions Egypt can defend its own people and land, or even this revolution.


Many different rumours are being spread in various quarters, alternatively saying that Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, or even the Americans are behind this revolution. Their purpose is to make the Arabs lose confidence in their own capacity and unity in change. Some, including Khamenei, tried to say it is Iran’s influence and example that touched the Egyptians, including exaggerating the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the revolution. It is true that the Iranian revolution was popular, but it resulted in a religious oppressive state, in spite of being anti-imperialist. The Egyptian revolt is for a democratic state not a religious oppressive state. Many Egyptians consider the appeal to use violence and religion propaganda in speaking of their revolution as serving the counter-revolution.


While the Egyptians in their literature consider the Muslim Brothers as one of the national groups, the majority in Egypt  as is made clear from the people participating in this uprising, their slogans and their expressions  are opposed to the concept of a religious state and to the use of violence. The reasons that the Egyptian revolution does not herald a religious state are multiple, including the specificity of Egyptian Islam, which in general is not directly political, the largeness of the secular middle class, the aspirations of the youth for increased individual liberties, the animosity of the army towards a religious state, coming from past confrontations, cultural competition in matters of democracy due to Egypt’s geographic belonging to the Mediterranean basin, and its economic reliance on being an attractive tourist venue. Even the Muslim Brothers themselves declared that they participate with others and do not encompass this uprising of the people.


Whatever is the immediate outcome on political power and its structures, the Egyptian revolution has already imposed the liberty of expression in society, imposed the necessity that change for all should go in the direction of defending sovereignty, public property and riches, and to use the state to realise social justice and solidarity. This is an expression of a deep culture in Arab countries and its principle of solidarity. Solidarity expressed in the terms “We love Egypt and we protect it” is in modern political thinking called the welfare state.


No one can know the immediate pace and the extent of change, for there are many trends in the state apparatus and many trends in the revolutionary movement. But all know there will be no viable power if they don’t work towards a welfare state. The ignorance of Western think tanks hoping that a police state with a comprador class can repress the will of the people indefinitely is well portrayed by their surprise when this state model could only resist three days in the face of a popular uprising.


In their analysis of the situation, some Western sympathisers with Egyptians share the same ignorance of the Egyptian situation and the conditions for 21st century revolutions as they apply a culture dating back to the 19th century. Although they accept the May 1968 principles of ecology, human rights, freedom of expression and individual liberties as normal in the West, they apply to Arab revolutions a kind of putschist conception of the revolution, and worry from the beginning of the Egyptian revolt about the lack of identified avant-garde leaders.


Egypt is a developing country but it is a modern country whose youth, which constitutes 60 per cent of the population, is as educated as their counterparts in Western countries. It is certain that there is large poverty and class differences in Egypt, but the middle class is as large as in Europe and suffers in the current neoliberal globalisation-driven financial crisis from the same deteriorating conditions while aspiring to the same opportunities and freedoms.


The difficulty for the Egyptian movement resides in how to navigate the change from a failed comprador state to a welfare state, while refraining from destroying the economy and state institutions. All are conscious that if they destroy the economy there will be no opportunity for building a welfare state. They defend change accepted by all walks of life and sections of society, through conviction and consensus. Time and balance of forces work for the revolution. The Arab Spring of democracy was born when all public affairs began being discussed in public.


The persistent insistence on the departure or non-departure of President Hosni Mubarak by Western media is staged to judge if the revolution has succeeded or not. This is a way to drain the revolution of its real content, wherein they gained what they wanted and their demands are already accepted by all, including the collapse of the concept of inheritance of power and the de-legitimisation of the continuity of the same structure and policies of the state. If protesters continue to speak of Hosni Mubarak’s departure it is not his person that is important, but rather the symbolic guarantee that things change.

Only Egyptians can decide what they accept or not. This is one of the grandeurs of the Egyptian revolution, because it follows its own dynamics without influence from obsolete examples. If the French produced the French Revolution of 1789 and the Commune of 1870, and became the example for revolutionary literature, and the Russians produced the October 1917 Revolution, the Arabs will give to the world and the Third World the example of the first half of the 21st century, by its pacifism, anti-avant-gardism, anti-neoliberal globalisation, and defence of the welfare state, national dignity and sovereignty.


Abdul Ilah Albayaty is an Iraqi political analyst. Hana Al Bayaty is an author and political activist. Ian Douglas is coordinator of the International Initiative to Prosecute US Genocide in Iraq. All are members of the BRussells Tribunal Executive Committee.

The Arab Spring of democracy


The Tunisian phenomenon is not about the ousting of a president; it is about the collapse of the Western-colonial model of globalisation, write Abdul Ilah Albayaty, Hana Al Bayaty and Ian Douglas (16 January 2011)


The Tunisian uprising is nothing but the natural result of the failure of the globalisation model and the impasse affecting the entire world. Indeed, as soon as an economy opens up to foreign capital and one gives the local economy and services over to market forces, the state’s role is automatically undermined and remains only to protect the model itself. By consequence, whether in Tunisia or elsewhere in the developing world, it resulted in a contradiction between the people’s interests and the class created to protect foreign capital.


In the Arab countries, the model of globalisation consisted of abandoning the Arab-Muslim character of the state, responsible for providing wellbeing to its society. It entailed the cancellation of the notion of the national state that emerged following World War II and the independence movement, and whose legitimacy is based on the notion of progress and of the wellbeing of its citizens. It also entailed the cancellation of the socialist aspirations of the people based on their desire for a welfare state and the provision of public services.


The model of globalisation implemented in the Third World, at times by force, like in Iraq, or by economic pressure, like in Egypt or Indonesia, or by its adoption in rich countries, like the oil producing states, led everywhere to the emergence of a comprador class, submitting to or wilfully participating in the integration of national economies into the global economy, leading to a state whose sole role is policing and protecting comprador regimes and the status quo for the sole interests of foreign and local capitalism. In parallel, everywhere, including in developed economies, this model serves to enrich the rich, impoverish the middle class and marginalise and alienate the poor.


In Tunisia itself, the illusion that this model seemed to be working very well was based on the authoritarian character of the regimes ruling the country since its independence. However, the result, like elsewhere, was an impoverished and marginalised people, both economically and politically, and a governing police state class getting richer, careless of the wellbeing of the local population and severely repressing any dissent in the name of market forces. But in our modern era, society is not an organisation that one can indefinitely repress nor an ideology that one can ban, but rather a living creature. No one can control it but itself.


If in the past the educated classes had the choice to migrate to other countries and participate in their development, the global economic crisis and the stagnation of Western economies and their allies have limited this possibility. The result of this situation is an army of educated and technically skilled unemployed youth in developing countries. Normally, they are the builders of the national economy, the guardians of the wellbeing of their communities, and aspire to their own fulfilment. The current political and economic situation in all Arab countries pushes this youth, which thinks profoundly that it has the right to live like anyone in a similar situation in the world, to revolt and at times despair.


After 1973, building on their victory, Arab governments thought they could open up to the West and that this process would bring peace and prosperity. Sadat’s economic liberalisation and the welcoming of US and Western corporations for investment signalled the end of the welfare state in the Arab world. Since then, the dream of self-development was abandoned and replaced by opening all Arab countries’ markets to foreign interests, although to varying degrees. This policy of liberalisation became a condition for receiving American blessings, first with Reaganism and Thatcherism, followed by world trade negotiations, and World Bank structural adjustment policies.


As Iraq refused, to some extent, to be integrated into this global neoliberal economy, it was obliged by conquest and force, and through the Bremer Laws, to privatise its oil industry and hand Iraq’s future over to foreign corporations. In order to open Iraq’s economy and free it of any obstacle to outside forces, whether economic, political, cultural or military, the occupation resorted to the physical destruction of Iraq’s capacity of self-development, both of its infrastructure and human resources. As proven by the Iraqi experience, foreign capital does not aim at real development of the economy but rather to destroy all existing capacities for self-determined development processes. Under the phase of imperialism’s finance capitalism led by the United States, the Third World is the last to profit from world progress and the first to pay for capitalist crises. Even Dubai’s financial institutions, which were portrayed as an example of what these policies could achieve, faced with the financial crisis were threatened with bankruptcy if other Emiratis didn’t come to their rescue.


All the illusions of progress that animated older generations since 1973 — like socialism, Arab unity and renaissance, Pax Americana in Palestine and integration of Western models, or Islam as the solution — have now proven unfruitful and unachievable, in spite of the determined struggle of Arab political currents for these ideals. The socialist model collapsed and was put on the shelf; Arab unity is no more on the agenda of governments; Islam as the solution brought only division and sectarianism, as in Iraq; the Pax Americana in Palestine did not stop Israel, while the integration and opening of local markets to the capitalist economy didn’t bring investment or solutions for the unemployed and the poor. It didn’t make the people, as they have the legitimate right to, participate freely in the public affairs of their country, nor benefit from the richness of their land and national economy.


Although the Arab youth might not be opposed to the grand dreams of older generations, still defended by various local political currents, and although these currents continue to have their influence, the Arab youth wants immediate change. The new generation is disillusioned. In Tunisia, it took its destiny in its hands and wants change now, and real change. As an Arab country, and living in a state in permanent exchange with its Mediterranean environment, the people of Tunisia realised that the model of globalisation is simple usurpation. No promise of wellbeing and development, liberty or democracy was fulfilled, and the system can be resumed to a generalised oppression, corruption and theft: a comprador governing class, a police state, and submission of the country to imperialist policies and interests.


The collapse of Ben Ali and his government is not only the collapse of an authoritarian regime, but rather of the globalisation model of finance capitalism and imperialism for Third World countries. The situation in other Arab countries, including oil-producing states, does not differ in last analysis. Maybe the situation is influenced by local economic, geographic and demographic composition of this or that country, but all know that integration into neoliberal globalisation did not and will not result in progress and development, but rather the enriching of some and the impoverishment of the majority, and the abandoning of the national interest to the interest of global capitalism.


We are certain that all Arab regimes, which share the same situation although with different ingredients, are now shaking because the same situation will produce the same results. We are also certain that all Arab regimes, all imperialists, all revolutionaries are now studying the causes of the success of the Tunisian experience. They all ask themselves, why did the Tunisians succeed in evicting their government while other similar uprisings failed? It is our point of view that everywhere in the Arab world there is the same situation and the same desire to change and to get rid of this model; the only difference is that the Tunisian revolt was spontaneous and non-ideological. It was not a conflict between one political organisation and another, but rather inspired by the consciousness and spontaneity of its youth realising that the conflict is between a dominant class against the people and the people against this dominant class. It is a revolt for dignity, freedom, democracy and wellbeing against a failed model of development. By experience other countries will arrive to the same situation.


Indeed, the success of the Tunisian phenomenon lies in its unity. Similar revolts, like the uprising for electricity in Iraq in the summer of 2010, did not succeed because of ideological divisions at the political level, mostly encouraged by foreign powers to divert Arabs from their real common interests. Everywhere, the Arab youth aspires to a life in dignity, freedom, democracy and development. The ideological conflicts, like in Iraq, mask the real interests of the people. These ideological and confessional conflicts are used by the governing classes to justify their policies and to hide their real practices. But sooner or later, the reality of the conflicts between the impoverished masses and the enriched governing classes will prevail.


While all Arab governments are shaking, and think tanks are giving advice to their governments on how to suffocate similar movements in their own societies, the Arab people has already declared that the Tunisian revolt represents hope, and saluted it as an example for them. Considering the shared model and influence European countries exercise on one another, it is no wonder that there were successive uprisings throughout Europe in 1848, or in 1968. Likewise, what can one expect in the Arab world when all think they belong to the same nation and live in the same conditions? How can Tunisia not influence other Arab countries, while all these countries belong to one Arab nation, which was originally divided by colonial forces into separated states?


We know that the West tells the Arabs that they are separated and independent countries when this suits its policies best, but it treats the Arabs as a bloc when this accommodates its own interests. Maybe the adverse forces of the Tunisian people, so as to save their interests, will try to contain the movement by changing faces, but the situation will continue to be explosive until there is a reconciliation between the interest of the people and the state in which they live. This is called democracy and independence, where the people and the state are masters of their present and future.


Is this a new era of renewal for the Arab world? Will this uprising succeed in bringing real change? Will, at last, Arabs exercise real democracy and sovereignty? Will other regimes, which share the same reality, foresee their fate and opt to change their structure peacefully, or will they unite to strangle the Tunisian phenomenon and deviate it from its goals? The future will tell us, but changing persons will not change the roots of the revolt. The Arab renewal may have begun in Tunisia.


Abdul Ilah Albayaty is an Iraqi political analyst. Hana Al Bayaty is an author and political activist. Ian Douglas is a lecturer in politics. All are members of the BRussells Tribunal Executive Committee.