I have been in Egypt since February 6, 2011, where I have been witnessing events, talking to friends, activists and non-activists, and to the public in Cairo’s streets—and it is not an exaggeration to say that every corner in Egypt talks politics today. What gets covered in these discussions ranges from the role of the army in the transition to a democratically elected civilian government to what kind of new constitution Egypt needs after the revolution, and from counter-revolutions and the role of residual forces from Mubarak’s ruling party and security apparatus in Egypt today to the extent to which Egyptians have successfully freed themselves from a culture of fear.
I have been particularly interested in how the U.S. has been discussed in relation to the revolution. From my observations of events and numerous discussions with others, Egypt’s relationship with the U.S appears, in some ways, to be absent from most of the heated discussions going on today. But upon closer examination, this relationship has been present in the revolution, not only during and after the peak of events—from January 25 to February 11—but also, I would suggest, in the very anti-imperialist underpinnings of the revolution, a revolution that the mainstream American media has miscast as one generated purely internally.
The making of the Egyptian revolution
There is a joke among Egyptian bloggers, that “we Egyptians are the ones who have decided upon a time to make a revolution.” In most media circles, the Egyptian revolution is portrayed as the eighteen days that changed Egypt. The joke, like this portrayal, expresses, of course, a caricatural and ahistorical image of the revolution. Against this perspective, both Hossam El-Hamalway and Rabab ElMahdi argue that the Egyptian revolution has, in fact, been in the making for the past ten years. Many activists have suggested that we cannot explain this revolution unless we look closely at the different waves of protests that have occurred over the last decade. There have been three such waves. The first, which can be characterized as anti-Israeli and anti-imperialist, took place in 2000 and 2003, beginning with mass demonstrations in September 2000, in solidarity with Palestinians during the second intifada, and continuing in 2003, with mass protests against the Anglo-American war. These two major protests were the first in decades and, indeed, the first ever to be staged under Mubarak. (The previous instance was in 1977, with the “bread uprising,” protesting Sadat’s decision to raise the prices of basic food.) A famous slogan that began to circulate during the 2000 demonstration said: “Mubarak is like Sharon: both have many faces.” Young protestors in the streets questioned why the police were attacking them for demonstrating solidarity with Palestinians; they asked, “Are you with us or with the Israeli occupation?” In 2003, protestors were even bolder, chanting: “O’ Mubarak, you coward, you are an agent of America,” in criticism of his complicit role in the Anglo-American war of 2003. Of course, anti-imperialist sentiment in Egypt dates back to the era of Nasser’s era and did not suddenly emerge out of nowhere in 2000 and 2003. In these protests, protesters chanted, “Nasser said before, America is about colonialism.” Also, an activist friend told me that the slogan, “O’ Mubarak, you coward, you are an agent of America” appeared first aimed at Sadat, in opposition to his signing of the Peace Accord with Israel, and then was only modified for Mubarak.
These anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli-occupation sentiments provided a foundation, so to speak, for later rounds of pro-democratic protest. When these early mass protests were met by the repressive police apparatus, many activists from different political forces realized that the issue of empire could not be discussed and dealt with separately from the issue of democracy.
The second wave of protests took place unevenly between 2005 and the outbreak of revolution in 2011. During that time an Egyptian movement for change, Kefayya (Enough), a coalition of different political groups, ranging from Islamists to Marxists, took shape and began to call and protest for democratic reforms. In 2005, pro-democracy activists protested in solidarity with Egyptian judges who were organizing sit-ins calling for democracy and independence of the judiciary. Over the next five years, pro-democracy activists organized numerous sit-ins and protests throughout Egypt and suffered police attacks, harassment, arrest, and prosecution. Then, in 2010, Mohamed Elbaradie, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other activists formed the National Association for Change, which called for radical democratic reform and an end to the state of emergency that had been in effect since 1981.
But from 2006 to 2011, there was also another simultaneous wave of mobilization, which has generally been underrepresented in the Egyptian media, but which has had major significance for human rights and labor activists. This wave consisted of a series of labor strikes and sit-ins described by many unionists and leftists in Egypt as the longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II. For example, in December 2006, around 27,000 workers at Egypt’s largest state-owned factory, Al-Mahala Al-Kobra Misr Spinning and Weaving, went on strike after learning that their annual bonus had been cut. Not only was the strike successful in reinstating the bonuses, but it also inspired approximately 104,000 other textile workers across the country to strike for the same demands. In 2008, despite repressive laws banning independent unions, property tax collectors formed an independent union, outside the state-backed and security apparatus-connected Egyptian Federation of Labor Unions, after staging an eleven-day sit-in at the Egyptian Cabinet in December 2007. In April 2008, Al-Mahala city witnessed a mass protest over bread prices. The protest was described by El-Hamalawy as a mini-revolt, because the protesters included not only workers but members of the general public as well, and it ended with protesters tearing down a billboard of Mubarak’s image. Unionists and experts on labor affairs in Egypt estimate that there have been an average of 500 yearly labor protests between 2007 and 2010. The demands of these protests have always centered on social justice and the critique of neo-liberal economic policies. For this reason, I refer to this third wave of protest as the “social justice” wave.
The activists with whom I have spoken in the last three weeks continue to debate which of these waves can be described as the true rehearsal for the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Regardless, they agree that all three waves were significant exercises in preparing and inspiring the youth, activists and non-activists alike, to begin their historic protest on January 25, 2011. In fact, the three waves are not separate. In January 2010, demonstrations took place against Mubarak’s plan to build an underground iron wall between Egypt and Gaza, which activists and political forces saw as further enforcing the siege on Gazans. These demonstrations included banners with slogans such as “Down with the Wall, Down with Mubarak.” The collective impact of the three waves of protest is that Mubarak had become a symbol, not only of dictatorship and attacks on workers and the poor, but also of complicity with imperial interests in the region. Despite some liberal tendencies in Egypt—and within Western media—to portray the protests of the last decade as having been motivated solely by pro-democracy and anti-corruption activism, a more accurate understanding of Egyptians’ protests during this period needs both to recognize the impact of each of these three waves and to understand their connection.
Anti-imperialism in the protest
Though the Egyptian revolution’s most visible mottos focused mainly on democracy, human dignity, and social justice, anti-imperial sentiment was also present in Tahrir Square and as an underlying pillar of the revolution. During the eighteen days of protest, Egyptian analysts emphasized the American administration’s efforts to walk a fine balance between protecting its ally (Mubarak) and claiming its commitment to and respect for the aspirations of the protesting Egyptians. Such efforts at balance were critiqued as another example of America’s imperial pragmatism. Many activists mocked the Egyptian media and the Arabic media in general for their overblown interest in analyzing the U.S. stance. Protesters saw the conflict as one between them and Mubarak, and as about the power of the people, not the stance of the U.S. Indeed, for many protestors, focusing on the U.S. position was only a distraction. Many protesters pointed out that the U.S. administration not only failed to recognize Mubarak’s rule as a dictatorial regime but had also supported the regime’s rigged election and repressive apparatus. American calls for restraint and reform once the revolution began were seen as disrespectful of protestors’ demands; some told me that reform meant nothing and would only give the dictator more room to maneuver and to attack them. “Unarmed protestors,” they said, “and a repressive regime are not equal sides; there is not an equal need for restraint! Pictures of American-made tear gas canisters used in attacks on protesters were circulated online, as were two sentences, particularly amongst Egyptian activists on Twitter and Facebook: “America, we do not hate you because of your freedom, but we hate you because you hate our freedom,” and, “America, you cannot be imperial and claim [to be] promoting democracy at the same time.”
On the ground, protesters’ signs also included anti-imperialist mottos. I saw many banners in which Mubarak was described as a traitor or an agent of America or of imperialism. Sometimes, banners included epithets such as “Gaza’s jailer,” in reference to Mubarak’s role in blocking aid to the Gaza Strip. When Mubarak, in his second speech, proposed to delegate part of his authority to Egyptian chief spy, Omar Suleiman, protesters waved banners denouncing Suleiman’s role in the Gaza siege and in pressuring Palestinians to participate in the so-called peace process. One of the slogans used by many protesters said, “Like Mubarak, we do not accept Suleiman; both are agents of the U.S.” Anti-torture activists in Egypt widely circulated reports about Suleiman’s role in U.S. extraordinary renditions in the context of the War on Terror. Sometimes protestors were very creative in linking economic issues with Mubarak’s role as a protector of U.S. interests in the region—a street vender selling tissues came to protest carrying a sign that read, “Leave, you agent! Under your rule, I survive by selling tissues.”
The irony is that during the revolution, the government-backed media used an accusatory discourse to describe the demonstrators, portraying them as infiltrators and agents of foreign countries, including the U.S. The government-owned television network aired stories—later identified as fabrications—that claimed that demonstrators were trained outside Egypt, and that each was paid $100 (the equivalent of 590 Egyptian pounds) by European and American agents to create chaos and damage the stability of the country. Protesters and independent media responded that the claim lacked any foundation and pointed out that the U.S. actually had no interest of getting rid of Mubarak, who served as one of the main watchdogs of U.S. imperialism in the region. (The government-owned media continued these stories in the last ten days of the protest, but expanded the campaign to suggest that protesters were connected with Hezbollah, Hamas and the Qatari government and Al-Jazeera!) It is important to note that such sensationalist anti-demonstrator stories were spread “deliberately” in the context of the Internet blackout in Egypt, which lasted five days, during which time cell-phone communications were also cut off.
And now . . .
The future of Egyptian-U.S. relations is not at the forefront of the public political agenda today. But many activists and writers have started to talk about changing Egyptian diplomacy and the role of Egypt in the region, moving towards greater autonomy. Activists, in particular, have emphasized Egypt’s need to end its role as a U.S. client state. The Coalition of the Youth for the Revolution declined an invitation to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton when she was in Egypt on March 15, 2011. The main reason for their decision was the U.S.’s support for Mubarak over the last thirty years, and its support of repressive regimes in the region generally. One of the leaders of the Coalition told me, “Only now is the U.S. acting as supportive of our revolution; before, it stood against our demands through its support for Mubarak.”
Some activists have told me that they have concerns about a potential deal between the leaders of the Egyptian army—most of them U.S.-trained—and the U.S. The core of the deal, they say, provides that the U.S. continue its aid to Egypt, and to the Egyptian army in particular, as long as army leaders ensure that the transition of power in Egypt is done in such a way that the Egypt-U.S. partnership is not affected. Not only activists, but also several Egyptian analysts, have suggested that Egypt should revisit the question of U.S. aid. Some representatives from the youth of the revolution, in their meeting with Senator John Kerry, criticized Kerry’s suggestion that Egypt needs U.S. aid in the transitional period to improve its economy. Representatives of the youth told Kerry, we do not want aid that deters Egypt’s independence. Of course, one cannot speculate about the future of the U.S.-Egypt relationship based on anti-imperialist sentiments on the streets alone, and perhaps we should wait to see how the transitional period unfolds. This period will last until the Supreme Council of the Army, which as a collective body holds the authorities of the President and the Parliament, ends with the election of a new Parliament and President.