Israel’s “Tent Protest” Movement/ Inside the Egyptian Revolution
Aug 5, 2011
August 5, 2011
Number 08/11 #02
This Update features material explaining the Tent protest movement which continues to dominant the news inside Israel. It also offers an inside view from Cairo on the precarious state of the Egyptian revolution.
We lead with a useful BICOM (Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre) backgrounder on the tent protests. It offers some detailed explanation of the make-up and goals of the movement – which began over housing but has now increased its demands to incorporate many other social issues – as well as its implications for the Netanyahu Government. It explains that the timing of the movement, which follows on from some previous public campaigns, but is also facilitated by summer vacation and pleasant weather, and relative quiet on the security front. For all the basics for understanding the protest movement, CLICK HERE. A good Israeli argument why attempts to parallel the Israeli protests with the Arab Spring are wrong is here.
Next up, veteran Israeli journalist Leslie Susser gives a more historical overview of the demands of the protesters – pointing out that they seem to be demanding a return to the comprehensive welfare state that existed in Israel up until about 30 years ago. Susser reviews the history of privatisation and free-market reforms that have taken place in Israel under various governments over that period and how these left much of the middle class feeling somewhat left behind. He says the demand is for a new social contract and the government’s efforts to meet some of their demands are unlikely to be satisfactory to many of the protestors. He says the question is whether this agenda will still be alive by the next election, scheduled for 2013, and to read all that he has to say, CLICK HERE. A number of Israeli commentators agreeing with the call for a new social contract involving a much more extensive welfare state are here, here, here and here. Other Israeli commentators arguing the opposite, that many of the problems the protesters complain of can be better resolved through free market mechanisms, are here and here.
Finally, peripatetic Middle East journalist Michael Totten writes from Cairo about the sights and sentiments on the streets around Tahrir Square as the Egyptian revolution appears to be entering a worrying phase. He speaks to socialists, free-marketers, those looking for freedom and those promoting vengeance and violence. He notes that the young “Facebook” democrats, while numerous, are in third place in influence behind the army and the Islamists, and his story ends with them cleared from the square by the latter two acting in cooperation. For this important snapshot from the streets of Egypt, where the outcome will affect the whole Arab world, CLICK HERE. More on the crisis point in the Egyptian situation comes from Dina Guirguis and Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Readers may also be interested in:
- The Jerusalem Post editorialises that the protest movement’s demands make it clear that the movement is populist and not prepared to be fiscally responsible. Also commenting on those demands is Israeli academic Ira Sharkansky.
- Veteran israeli commentator Eitan Haber argues that the protests should be resolved in a way to strengthen Israel to meet the many external challenges it faces in the near future.
- A look at Israel’s strategic situation from former Mossad head Efraim Halevy.
- Some more details on the “package” reportedly proposed by Israeli PM Netanyahu to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, (but rejected by them) which included an Israeli concession on the Palestinian demand that the 1967 lines be the basis of discussion.
- An interesting argument that the “demographic threat” to Israel from faster Palestinian birthrates may have been exaggerated.
- Law professor Peter Berkowitz on the Gaza flotillas and international law.
- A new guide to the Syrian opposition.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s new daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Two good posts on the troubling situation in Egypt, here and here.
- A post noting that claims that the Israeli “tent” protests can be explained by income inequality in Israel are often a bit simplistic.
- A post on policy options to pressure the Assad regime, as the massacres in Syria continue, and the UN responds weakly.
- Some new commentary on the dangers of the Palestinian UN bid.
- A post on Turkey and the Kurds versus the Palestinians.
August 2, 2011
- A major protest movement has taken hold in Israel, which began as a campaign for more affordable housing and has broadened into demands for social justice.
- Now in its third week, it carries the hopes of a large segment of Israeli society, led by the disillusioned middle class.
- Originally leaderless, the campaign is now supported by the Histadrut (Israel’s workers union), led by its popular leader Ofer Eini, adding to the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
- Although the government does not face immediate threat, the protests are set to continue. The lack of a clear goal could be a weakness for the movement, but the longer it maintains momentum, the potential increases for it to impact the timing and outcome of the next elections.
Who are the protestors? What do they want?
More than 150,000 Israelis joined protests calling for social justice last Saturday evening, in cities across Israel. This followed two weeks of protests calling on the government to address economic and social challenges facing the population. The headline issue is the cost of housing, but the list of grievances is much broader and relates to the high cost of living in general. The director general of the Finance Ministry announced his resignation on Sunday over the government’s handling of the issues. Municipal workers held a one-day strike on Monday in support of the protestors’ demands, and teachers are now set to join the protests. This has presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his biggest domestic political crisis since the start of his term.
The public walkway and cycling path running the spine of Tel Aviv’s affluent Rothschild Boulevard was the starting point for the housing protest. What began on 14 July with a few tents in Tel Aviv spread quickly to almost all of Israel’s major cities and towns. The protests were not initiated by a recognised leader or political party; in fact, one of the founders is a 25-year-old lawyer who began her campaign on Facebook. However, the National Students Association backed the campaign early on and continues to be a significant and vocal element. As a result, many students have come out and joined the protests. The protests have also attracted many young professionals and have encouraged a parallel protest from parents with young families, campaigning for longer maternity leave, free preschool education and control over the price of baby food.
The protestors are predominantly from the mainstream middle class. Despite comprising the main productive force in Israeli society, they feel they have not reaped the rewards of Israel’s economic growth. They complain of shouldering an excessive burden, paying significant taxes and serving in the military reserves whilst struggling to cope with high prices and rising bills. Largely absent from the protests are ultra-orthodox Jews, who participate less in the workforce and yet receive significant financial support from the state. Though there have been some minor tent protests in Israel’s Arab population, their demands are more specific to their sector.
As well as feeling that theirs is an unfair hardship, many in the Israeli mainstream rue the fact that the more egalitarian principles dominant in the country’s founding have given way to economic liberalisation in recent years.
Though these issues span the political spectrum, and the protests have broad support, there is clearly a left-wing atmosphere in the protests. Among the crowds on Saturday night was strong representation from the ‘National Left’, a left-wing political movement founded by Eldad Yaniv, a former advisor to Ehud Barak. Among the flags and posters were many identified with a variety of left-wing organisations.
Two weeks into the protest, Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histadrut workers union, announced that he was joining the campaign and was ready to represent it in negotiations with the government. Eini brings leadership, but it remains to be seen whether he can secure concessions from the government that will satisfy the protestors. There is also some ambivalence among the protestors over Eini’s role, due to his long-standing cordial relations with the prime minister and the government. Nonetheless, he has been trying to forge a coherent negotiating position between the students, the tent protestors and other groups involved in the protests.
Simultaneously, a long-running doctors’ strike is adding to the sense of dissatisfaction in the country. Over the last week, Dr Leonid Eidelman, chairman of the Israel Medical Association, has marched whilst on hunger strike from Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Increasingly, the protests are aimed at the government and PM Netanyahu in particular. Many of the leaders associate Netanyahu personally with pure capitalist economic policies which have led to a concentration of wealth and the neglect of social welfare. The protests also have a generally anti-political flavour. Politicians from various parties have been heckled and asked to leave when they visited the protest tents. Kadima, the main opposition party, is reported to have given support to the protestors behind the scenes. But opposition leader Tzipi Livni has refrained from meeting the protestors in public to avoid overtly politicising the movement.
Leading business tycoons are also a key target. They are being blamed for exploitation, driving up prices and for holding too much wealth and power. According to a recent report by Reuters, 50% of Israel’s economy is reportedly controlled by just 16 families.
Why is this happening now?
The current protests are a culmination of various other campaigns. They follow shortly after a successful campaign to lower the price of cottage cheese, a staple food in Israel. The high price of cottage cheese was the result of oligarchic control of the dairy industry. The campaign, mobilised via Facebook, led to the lowering of prices and to legislation which will open up the market to foreign competition. Other consumer products have also been scrutinised for their pricing, including water, petrol and electricity. There have been numerous other campaigns in the last year by teachers, social workers and doctors, striking over pay and conditions.
The Arab Spring has also given the Israeli public a jolt. The scenes of Arab protestors broadcast on television have helped to embolden the Israeli public to coordinate via social media and take to the streets. The relatively quiet security situation and lack of diplomatic activity is also allowing social and economic issues to rise up on the public agenda.
It is also worth noting the social element to the tent protests. The summer’s school holidays and warm weather make an environment conducive to camping in the streets. High-profile media coverage, impromptu musical performances and a communal atmosphere have helped attract people to the demonstrations.
What does this mean for the prime minister and his coalition?
So far, the protestors have enjoyed the overwhelming support of the public. The electorate is critical of the prime minister and members of his government. According to a recent poll in Haaretz, both Likud and Kadima have lost ground, whilst Labour has improved in the polls from six to 12 seats.
However, whilst Labour has tried in the past to position itself as the party of social issues, it is unable to capitalise fully on the protests because it is in the middle of a protracted internal leadership election.
This situation may create an opportunity for new figures to enter the political arena. Yair Lapid, a popular newspaper columnist and anchor of a weekend news show, has long been planning to enter politics. He could seize the opportunity to do so under the banner of a social-welfare protest movement. Similarly, Aryeh Deri, a popular figure who led the religious Sephardi Shas party before serving a prison term for corruption, could use the opportunity to re-enter politics with a new party.
As well as drawing political support away from the prime minister, the protests also threaten to undermine the stability of the coalition. Shas has traditionally concentrated on social issues and feels under particular pressure to identify with the protestors. They have tried to position themselves on the side of the public by threatening to withdraw from the government if a solution is not found. They have also suggested that the Knesset cancel its summer recess.
In the face of these threats, PM Netanyahu has made efforts to meet the protestors’ demands. Last week, he announced an affordable housing plan that met almost every demand the students had been campaigning for. In response, however, the students committed to continue protesting alongside the other groups to address the broader array of economic problems.
On Sunday, the prime minister further demonstrated his desire to appear responsive to the demonstrations. Speaking before the weekly cabinet meeting, he hinted at further concessions on his economic policies, stating that his government will ‘change priorities.’ He announced the appointment of a ministerial committee to find ways to alleviate Israelis’ economic burden.
However, the structural problems which are the underlying cause of the high cost of living can only be addressed in the long term. It is not clear what immediate steps the government could take that would satisfy the protestors, or how long the momentum behind the protests will continue. Eini has clearly stated that he does not want to bring down the government. Given that, it is hard to define exactly what victory looks like for the campaigners.
The lack of a clear, defined goal could be a weakness for the movement. There are various other factors that could also undermine them. Public support could be diluted if PM Netanyahu’s proposals appear to be addressing public concerns. The public could also become divided if they feel the protests are being politically manipulated by an overtly left-wing agenda, whose aim is purely to bring down the government. Furthermore, in Israel, unexpected security or diplomatic developments always have the potential to push social issues back down the agenda.
At the same time, the constructive ambiguity could be an asset to the protestors. If they can build momentum behind the demand for change, without providing specific demands the government can meet, they could build pressure on the government itself. By appointing a committee to examine the protestors’ concerns, PM Netanyahu is trying to relieve this pressure.
Conclusion: the government under pressure
What began as an unfocused protest in tents in Tel Aviv has empowered Israel’s middle class and united them around a range of social and economic grievances. The protests have taken Israeli politics into a new, socially-oriented direction that transcends the traditional political divide over security issues. As a result, it is very difficult to know where this will go. PM Netanyahu is working hard to show that he is responding to the protestors, in order to contain the political challenge posed to his government. The outcome will depend on several factors. These include the unity of the protestors and their determination to continue, the political calculations of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, the ability of the government to produce proposals which satisfy the public and whether the calm security situation will continue, allowing the public to maintain focus on social issues.
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By Leslie Susser
JTA, August 2, 2011
JERUSALEM (JTA) — The wave of protests sweeping Israel is about much more than the lack of affordable housing: It’s a grass-roots demand for the major redistribution of the nation’s wealth.
In social terms, protesters are calling for a more caring government attuned to the needs of young, middle-class citizens who serve in the army, pay heavy taxes and provide the engine driving the country’s burgeoning economy.
In economic terms, it is a call for the reversal of nearly three decades of fiscal conservativism at the expense of social services such as education, health and welfare, as well as an appeal against eroding salaries and rising prices.
In other words, the protesters are demanding that today’s thriving free-market Israel use its wealth to create conditions for a restoration of at least some elements of the long-defunct Israeli welfare state.
As an estimated 150,000 people demonstrated Saturday night in 12 locations across the country, the central theme was a demand for “social justice.” To some, it was reminiscent of the students’ revolt in Paris in the late 1960s: an alliance of students, workers and, in the Israeli case, a large, financially strapped middle class of people mostly in their 20s and 30s demanding a new economic order.
But there were key differences: In the Israeli case, there was no violence. Instead, there was a veiled, largely unspoken threat: that if the government fails to act and middle-class people continue to struggle to make ends meet, many more of the best and brightest would leave for countries where there is no defense burden and it’s easier to make a living.
As the protests entered their third week, the great Israeli paradox loomed large: Never has the country been economically stronger, yet never have so many of its young people felt so frustrated at their own personal financial status.
The current situation is partly a result of a constitutional lacuna.
In the mid-1990s, a number of basic laws were passed — together they are eventually meant to form the basis of a constitution for Israel. One of the laws, on the dignity and freedom of man, enshrined property rights, but a balancing companion act on social rights continues to be held up. It would deal with issues like the right to housing, education, health and welfare, and set parameters of state responsibility for their provision.
The bill again is on the agenda, promoted by Meretz Knesset member Zahava Gal-On.
But the country’s current socioeconomic predicament goes much deeper than any law. It is the result of more than two decades of a virtually consistent small government economic policy.
The turning point came in 1985, with inflation running at over 450 percent per annum. It became clear that Israel could no longer afford to maintain the old-style, government-subsidized welfare state.
The economic stability plan introduced by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres and then Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai entailed stringent cuts in government spending. With its dramatic success in saving the economy, the small government approach quickly became economic orthodoxy.
The economic buzzword in the 1990s was privatization, started by the Likud, taken on board by Labor and then accelerated by Benjamin Netanyahu. When he first became prime minister in 1996, Netanyahu spoke of a thin man, the private sector, tottering under the weight of a fat man, the public sector, and vowed to turn things around. Netanyahu had a strong ideological commitment to free market forces, privatizing government companies and outsourcing social services.
This meant the accelerated handover of services to the private sector that once were the sole preserve of government. It was accompanied by a weakening of trade unions and an overall erosion of working conditions and salaries.
The result? Owners and a select few mega-salaried executives became richer and the middle class relatively poorer. It also led to the rise of the Israeli tycoons, who controlled a great deal of the country’s wealth and power. Banks, energy companies, supermarket chains and media properties all were concentrated in the hands of a dozen or so billionaire families.
Netanyahu’s economic philosophy also entailed a reduction of corporate taxes. Big companies paid 5 percent to 20 percent income tax, while the middle class saw the prices of everything from food to cars to apartments rise considerably. The system produced impressive economic growth but left wealth in the hands of the few. The trickle-down effect, middle-class Israelis said, had failed to materialize.
The upshot was that by May 2010, Israel’s economy was robust enough for Israel to be admitted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — the exclusive club of the world’s strongest economies known as the OECD. But Israel also was the OECD member with the biggest gaps between rich and poor.
Some blame preferential spending on settlements in the West Bank for the lack of funds for social services in Israel. Others focus on welfare for the growing haredi Orthodox population in Israel. Still others point to the limited taxation of the tycoons — tax concessions nationwide are estimated at approximately $11 billion per year, about 11 percent of the national budget.
For years, middle-class discontent simmered under the surface, always eclipsed by security concerns or peacemaking moves. For embattled Israel, peace and security inevitably took top priority.
Until now. With terrorism virtually nonexistent and the peace process deadlocked, young Israelis have turned their attention toward generating a mass movement against the socioeconomic system.
Their anti-establishment energy took the form of street protests because there is a strong sense that none of the traditional parties represents their interests, and Israel has a long history of street protests, encompassing everything from Ethiopian immigration to the campaign to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
For the most part, the protests have not been focused. But now the leaders of the protest movement are formulating a list of concrete demands and general principles for change. These are expected to include demands for public housing on a large scale; major tax reforms that would increase taxation of the super-rich and lower indirect taxes on the general public; a shift in budgetary priorities, transferring part of the defense budget and the increased tax money from the rich to fund social services; and demands for Israel to comply with OECD averages when it comes to the numbers of doctors, policemen and firemen per thousand citizens, and the number of children in classrooms.
Netanyahu has set up committees to examine all the relevant economic issues and to negotiate with the protesters, who are likely to be backed by trade union boss Ofer Eini. The prime minister almost certainly will produce a new economic plan, but it may not be enough. What the people are demanding is a new social contract.
The political question is whether this could have an impact on the next election, scheduled for 2013, and the agenda over which it will be fought. That depends on how pressing security issues are around that time and whether these protesters can sustain enough momentum to translate their street movement into real political power.
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Michael J. Totten
Pajamas Media, August 4, 2011
Egypt’s revolution is nowhere near finished. Hosni Mubarak may have been overthrown, but the military regime founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his cadre of Arab nationalist officers in 1952 is still firmly in place.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, rules Egypt as a military junta, though you’d hardly know it as a casual visitor. The men with guns who were everywhere on the streets of Cairo when I visited a couple of years ago were somewhere else throughout most of July, in their barracks, I suppose. Egypt is bereft of any portraits of a strong man in charge. It’s not even clear who the head of state even is, which is a highly unusual state of affairs for an Arab country. If you pressed me I’d say the head of state is Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the current head of SCAF, but many Egyptians think he’s just a front man, that someone else on the junta is the real man in charge. No one I asked is sure one way or the other, not even my official American sources.
The junta promised free and fair elections in September, but that is most unlikely to happen. And tens of thousands of citizens snatched from the street during the revolution in January and February still languish in jail under snap collective sentences. The millions who took to the streets and forced the army to oust Mubarak feel their work is incomplete, and on the second Friday of July they staged another mass demonstration in Tahrir Square downtown.
The police and the army retreated from the capital’s center around Tahrir. It was anarchy down there, though it was civilized and controlled. Activists from every group in the country—from the liberals and the socialists on the left to the Muslim Brotherhood—teamed up and provided their own security in case anyone from the plainclothes police or the Baltageya—thugs from the fellah class who will beat people up for a few bucks or a pack of smokes—decided to stir up trouble.
Yasmin El-Rifae, an Egyptian journalist I was working with, said the men from internal security are identified as such on their ID cards, so everyone who wanted entrance to the square had to show identification. When I flashed my American passport and said I was journalist got a very warm welcome, sometimes including high-fives and solidarity handshakes, every time.
I can’t accurately count the number of people in crowds, but tens of thousands of people, and perhaps even more, filled that square. And I couldn’t help but compare Egypt’s revolutionaries with Lebanon’s. The massive demonstrations in Beirut in 2005 against Syria’s occupying military dictatorship looked and felt strikingly different. Far more women joined the Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and fewer of them wore Islamic headscarves, partly because almost half of Beirut’s demonstrators were Christians, but also because Lebanon is a much more secular place.
Egypt’s revolution is significantly more masculine.
And most of the women at the square wore the headscarf. My Egyptian colleague Yasmin dressed like a Western woman, and I saw other uncovered women there, too, but most dressed conservatively, even those affiliated with the liberal and socialist parties. One of the iconic images of Egypt’s revolution shows a victorious young woman wearing the hijab flashing the v-for-victory sign.
Don’t assume the headscarf means she’s with the Muslim Brotherhood or was demonstrating for an Islamic state. She probably isn’t and wasn’t. The headscarf is the standard dress code for women in Egypt regardless of politics.
The crowd at Tahrir was also a lot poorer than its Lebanese counterpart. No one would describe this movement as a “Gucci Revolution,” as a handful of Occidentalist Westerners rudely dubbed Lebanon’s.
Almost all the slogans I heard and saw painted on signs and walls were about freedom from state oppression, but there was a darker current there, too. Some in that crowd were merely reacting, and they wanted vengeance. I saw a number of nooses on banners, and even found one bearded man—who was probably with the Brotherhood—carrying an actual noose.
Anti-Americanism and its anti-Zionist twin were not a strong theme, but those sentiments were bubbling just under the surface. A random man in an orange hat saw my camera, figured that I was a journalist, and decided that was the time to yell about Israel. “We will go to Israel next!” he said. “Israel is next!”
He ranted a bit incoherently. I didn’t catch everything he said, but his tone wasn’t good.
Yasmin grimaced as she listened to him banging on. She was clearly embarrassed and wished he hadn’t barged his way into our day. She’s Egyptian and not exactly a fan of Israel either, but she’s able to discuss it in a rational manner without getting hysterical or wallowing in paranoia and hatred. This guy, though, was clearly one of the crazies.
“Okay, okay,” Yasmin said to him and brushed him away. “That’s enough.”
An Egyptian man standing next to me also cringed when he heard his less ruffled fellow yelling about the Jewish state to the north.
“That’s just his opinion,” he said. “There are many opinions in Egypt. Why must Israel always be our enemy? Why? Why must the U.S. be our enemy?”
Yasmin called a famous socialist activist she knew named Hossam El-Hamalawi, and he agreed to meet us for a few minutes in front of the local KFC franchise. Beneath the KFC sign was a banner showing a Muslim crescent and a Christian cross fused together, a symbol of tolerant anti-sectarianism that I first saw at liberal rallies in Lebanon, one that was notably absent from any of Hezbollah’s rallies.
“This won’t just be a one-day event,” El-Hamalawi said when we found him. “It will turn into a sit-in.” He was certainly right about that, and that sit-in dragged on for weeks. “I have no idea how long it will last, but at the end of the day, the battle is not necessarily going to be settled here in Tahrir. What brought down Mubarak was not Tahrir, and it was not the army. It was the mass strikes that broke out all over the country that forced the military junta to ask Mubarak to step down or else the system would collapse. The main battle for us, the people on the left, is to take the battle to the factories, to take Tahrir to the universities, to take Tahrir to the workplaces. In every single institution in Egypt we have a mini Mubarak waiting to be overthrown.”
The working class labor strikes, he said, have been ongoing ever since Mubarak stepped down. “The middle class activists were happy to suspend protests here in Tahrir,” he said, “and go back to their well-paying jobs. They were happy to establish a dialogue with the ruling military junta. But the working class in general has been continuing with its mass strikes.”
There have been strikes all over the country, it’s true, but at the same time most Egyptians are tiring of all this revolutionary activity. They yearn for normalcy more than anything else at the moment, and an end to the upheaval that has brought the economy—which was an emergency-room case to begin with—to its knees.
“I used to work as an editor before the revolution,” he said. “I could go back to my job at any time and still get paid thousands of Egyptian pounds, but the public transport worker—whose strike brought this country to a halt—cannot go back to his starving family and say it’s okay for him to get 189 Egyptian pounds after 20 years of service and just wait for the military to solve his problems. So the strikes are ongoing.”
Not everyone down at the square was a socialist. Many preferred a free market economy, and my American colleague Armin Rosen asked El-Hamalawi if he thought the revolutionary consensus, such as it was, might eventually be torn apart by economics.
“There’s hardly any consensus to start with,” El-Hamalawi said. “There have been divisions at every twist and turn of the Egyptian revolution, and that’s normal. Even before Mubarak stepped down, after he gave his first speech, some people said we should give him a chance, that we should wait until September, but there were also people like me who said we can’t trust him, that we should continue with the protests. And after he stepped down, some said we should suspend the protests and give the provisional government a chance and have a dialogue. But people like me were pushing for the continuation of the labor strikes. We see this as phase two of the Egyptian revolution. There are always class polarizations and political polarizations during revolutions. I don’t necessarily regard that as a bad thing. It’s inevitable.”
Activists are by their nature optimists, especially in police states. Few are willing to risk a beating or worse if they know they’re going to lose. So El-Hamalawi, like every other activist I spoke to, thought he would win.
“People said we were crazy when we were chanting against Mubarak in 1998,” he said. “As student activists, people thought we were crazy when we started advocating general strikes before the outbreak of the strike wave. People thought toppling Mubarak, an American-backed dictatorship, could never happen.”
And yet it did happen.
“We’ve had 7,000 years of civilization,” he said, “and 7,000 years of oppression. And I’m optimistic that for the first time in our lives, for the first time in 7,000 years, we will be able to achieve a real democracy.”
If Egyptians do manage to forge a real democracy for themselves, El-Hamalawi won’t only have to contend with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood. His movement will also have to beat the country’s powerful free market capitalists.
The Free Egypt Party is the socialists’ biggest competitor after the Brotherhood and the army. It’s one of the most popular of the new liberal parties, one that’s taken seriously as a contender down at the square. I was able to meet Ramy Yacoub, one of its highest-ranking officials, in a conference room at his office building in one of Cairo’s high-rises. Several young women from the party joined us—public relations employees in training, I presume—and took their own notes. Some wore Islamic headscarves, an important visual reminder that not everyone who dresses like a conservative Muslim supports the Islamists.
“We’re a secular party,” Yacoub said, “and we’re inclusive of all ethnicities, religions, and demographics in Egypt. This is the defining line for the party. Economically we’re for free markets, but we’re socially responsible, as well. We also favor better health care and education. In Western terms you might say we’re socially responsible capitalists.”
There’s a lot more to the party than this. The written platform is 38 pages in Arabic—which means it’s even longer in English—but neither he nor I wanted to get bogged down in every detail.
There were quite a few socialists demonstrating downtown, but Nasser’s Free Officer’s regime was what brought socialism to Egypt. It did so in the Russian-style and brought an extraordinary amount of destruction and pain down on the country. My hotel was on the island of Zamalek, supposedly one of the nicest places in Cairo, but even that area looks like the dreariest parts of outer Bucharest.
I felt as though I was in an asteroid belt of hideous communist tower blocks that ring every post-Soviet city in Europe. I didn’t realize just how crushingly communist Cairo appears when I first visited, but now I do because in the meantime I’ve visited cities in more than a dozen post-communist countries.
Downtown is in even worse shape. Architecturally it’s a marvel under the decades of accumulated decay and pollution. The buildings were erected during Egypt’s relatively liberal belle epoch when the country was oriented toward the West, before Nasser’s Arab Nationalist “revolution” and Egypt’s temporary alignment with the Soviet bloc, but they’re in awful condition today. Turn-of-the-century Cairo looks much like the centers of Budapest and Prague must have looked before the 1989 revolutions put an end to communist rule.
Egyptian socialism was emphatically not like Sweden’s. It was a devastating wrecking ball, and huge numbers of Egyptians across the political spectrum rightly blame Nasser for the catastrophe of the last fifty years.
“Is socialism still a popular idea here,” I asked Yacoub, “or has that been discredited?” Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat partially dismantled the socialist state during his term in power, but the state-capitalist system that followed is rife with grotesque corruption. It resembles the Chinese system more than anything in the free market West.
“I can’t speak for the entire Egyptian population,” Yacoub said, “but we believe that free markets are the best way to grow the economy. We don’t believe we need to selectively redistribute the wealth. We need to increase the amount of wealth collectively.”
That message all by itself is unlikely to resonate with Egypt’s peasants and vast urban underclass, and the Free Egyptians know it.
“We’re for free markets,” he said, “but 40 percent of the population lives on under two dollars a day. These people need services to survive, and they need education, and that has to be provided by the government. There’s no way around it at the moment. The same goes for health care. If you’re making less than two dollars a day, you can’t afford health care, period, whether it’s quality health care or not.”
There’s another powerful force in Tahrir that seems to exist somewhere in between the socialists and the free market capitalists, and that’s the April 6 movement, a group of labor activists independent of any political party that comes off as a bit less ideological than the socialists. These guys represent the working class, but they don’t sound like they’ve wandered out of the 1930s the way the socialists do.
When I met Mohammad Adel the following Monday he had been living in a tent in the middle of Tahrir Square for three days, ever since the mass demonstration on Friday. Several young men sat with him on the ground eating tuna and cheese in pita bread.
They offered me something to eat, but the cheese smelled like ripe feet in the North African heat and there were flies buzzing around in it, so I didn’t want any. Egyptian food is hazardous enough even in five-star restaurants, as I discovered when something I ate knocked me out of commission for a week and sent me to the hospital. Someone offered me a miniature and perfectly safe-looking banana, though, and it was delicious.
The April 6 tent provided a bit of relief from the blazing sunshine, but it was only a tiny bit cooler inside than outside. Blankets and sleeping bags covered the floor. Somebody delivered a thunderous speech outside the tent over a loudspeaker.
“We are planning an open-ended sit-in,” Adel said. “We want the prime minister to remove the seven ministers who are still in power that are former NDP members, but the prime minister doesn’t have the power to do that. The constitution is sort of null at this point. There’s no parliament in place, so he needs the army to give him that power.”
The army arrested Mubarak, but Adel said some of the old ministers have always been close to the military so there was no need to be rid of them.
Two young men brought large blocks of ice inside the tent. Adel abruptly stood up and helped them carry it to a cooler, then took out a hammer and started breaking it into pieces. They had no electricity in the tent, and the ice kept food and liquids cool.
When he sat down again he said around 1,000 people from the April 6 movement slept in the square every night, and around 3,000 from all the parties combined were camped out there. The square’s numbers mushroomed during the day. Every political party in the country—and there are dozens—had at least some permanent representation there, except one. The Muslim Brothers were nowhere to be seen. They showed up for a few token hours the previous Friday, but they had nothing whatsoever to do with the ongoing sit-in.t
Another party, the Wafd Party, was there only in spirit. The Wafd is a creaky old party from the pre-Nasser days that was co-opted by the regime and has since become so hollowed out that it may as well no longer even exist. The party set up a banner and table near the KFC, but didn’t bother sending a human down there to staff it. A small stereo and speaker system played a taped speech, but nobody gathered around to listen to it. The Wafd appeared no more relevant than the Reform Party is now in the States. It’s probably just as well. Ahmed Ezz el-Arab, the party’s vice chairman, utterly disgraced himself recently, at least internationally, with idiotic comments denying the Holocaust.
“Are there any groups other than the Brothers who are notably absent?” Armin asked Adel.
“The Brothers are the only ones who are absent,” Adel said.
Rather than participating in the sit-in, the Islamists chose to have a dialogue with the army. Many activists said they felt like the Brothers are therefore against the revolution even though they pay it lip service. I couldn’t help but remember the rallies in downtown Beirut in 2005 against Syria’s military occupation when Hezbollah was absent and outside the country’s mainstream while almost every other party gathered downtown. There aren’t many parallels between the Egyptian and Lebanese revolutions, and I wouldn’t read too much into it, but the absence of radical Islamists from demonstrations against the regimes in both countries was hard to ignore, even if they were aloof for different reasons.
“Do you think you were successful in bringing down the regime?” Armin asked Adel.
“To an extent,” Adel said. “We removed the head and some of those below, but the government’s approach is still the same.”
“Do you expect to win?” I said. I knew he would say yes or he wouldn’t be there, but I wanted to hear what he had to say anyway.
“The entire world thought it was impossible to remove Mubarak,” he said, “but we did it in less than 18 days. To replace rule by violence will take a long time, though, because the mentality behind it has penetrated every corner of the state.”
His phone rang once every minute or so. Most of the time he didn’t answer, but once in a while he had to. He talked for a few minutes in Arabic, then returned to the interview.
“There seems to be a lot of differences between all you guys down here on the square,” Armin said. “Some are socialists and others are more free market-oriented. Are you worried about that?”
“There’s no conflict between us here,” he said. “We all work together.”
“But the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t camping out with you guys,” Armin said.
“Anyone who leaves the square,” Adel said, “won’t be in the picture later on.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has been well-organized for the better part of a century, but April 6 is ramping up fast. They have 12,000 active members and another 10,000 who work closely with them.
“When we go into villages or even slum neighborhoods,” Adel said, “the response is often, ‘where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’”
Dr. Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan is an establishment reformist liberal and the director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He’s an intellectual, not an activist, and he does not go down to the square. He doesn’t have the temperament required of political activism and would rather sit in his office and read books and write articles.
He told me he feels guardedly optimistic about where the country is heading, as did most people I talked to, but at the same time he says he’s wise enough to know better. He knows most revolutions end in tears, and the Middle East is a great teacher of pessimism. I’ve already seen one revolution in the Arab world hit the rocks, and that was in Lebanon, a country that’s far more liberal and culturally democratic than Egypt. Tahrir Square was an intoxicating place in July, but it’s a bubble. It isn’t the country.
Egypt’s liberals are out in large numbers, but they aren’t the strong horse. They’re third after the army and the Islamists. Events over the last week all but proved it.
Last Friday hundreds of thousands of activists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more radical totalitarian Salafist movement seized control of the square. They didn’t go down there just to yell at the army. They were there to intimidate liberals, and it worked. The Islamists “told their supporters to join in the demonstrations to fight against the liberal infidels,” a caller on the State TV show said. Thirty four different revolutionary groups—and that would be almost all of them—packed up and left for a while.
Then the army went in and cleared out those who remained. No one is at the square now. The soldiers tore down the tents and stepped aside as thugs from the Baltageya beat people up. Shop owners near the square cheered and applauded.
The liberals, the leftists, the Islamists, and even the army were unified, sort of, when Mubarak was the target of all. Egypt is now experiencing competing revolutions, competing demonstrations, and a popular government crackdown. If the junta is overthrown or beaten back into the shadows, the real battle for the heart and soul of Egypt will be on. The victor, if there is one, will determine the Arab world’s direction for decades.