A self-proclaimed Supreme Military Council is in charge of Egypt today. After taking power out of the hands of President Hosni Mubarak, it suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament. Key figures in the dreaded Egyptian secret police responsible for oppression and violence including the deaths of some 300 democrat protesters against the Mubarak regime have fled quietly to Abu Dhabi.
Generals are talking (and listening, apparently) to representatives of the democracy movement including Google executive, Wael Ghoneim, a prominent figure in the protests that began January 25, and saw Mubarak ousted 18 days later.
According to news reports the military are now pledging to oversee a transition to democracy, with a referendum on constitutional reforms to be submitted to popular vote in two months' time. However emergency powers given to the police and army by the Mubarak regime are still intact.
When major protests erupted in Cairo in late January, senior Egyptian military commanders returned immediately from Washington, where they were in meetings, as part of periodic "consultations" with their American counterparts. The exact role played by the American authorities in the ousting of Mubarak, their once favoured client, and the now disgraced former president, is not known. Few can doubt military control of any democratic transition was the U.S. preferred outcome.
The military took control of Egypt in the "free officers" revolt of 1952, and have been in charge ever since. The Egyptian military are a major force in the domestic economy, operating businesses directly.
Mubarak, a prominent hero of the 1973 war with Israel, was named Egyptian Vice-President by then President Anwar Sadat in 1975. He became president in 1981, after Sadat, who negotiated a controversial peace agreement with Israel, brokered by the Americans, was assassinated by military officers.
Under the Camp David Accords of 1978, Egypt agreed not to invade Israel. In return it received American military support that now totals US$1.3 billion per year, while Israel gets $3 billion per year. This aspect of the peace agreement has been the central feature of U.S. Middle Eastern security policy. Other friendly (non-democratic) regimes in Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States, also received U.S. military assistance. Military forces -- aided by U.S. money -- prop up the autocrats who reign in the Middle East.
The overall policy of the U.S. in the region is to ensure that its vast oil resources do not fall into the hands of a U.S. rival, whoever that might be: Russia (or the ex-USSR), China, Iraq, or Iran. The Americans are happy to buy petroleum resources, but unwilling to see them under the control of a hostile power.
The current Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) democratic protests began in Tunisia, moved quickly to Egypt, and spread to Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Iran. Protests are feared elsewhere, notably by Saudi Arabia. According to the International Labour Organization, youth unemployment in the MENA region is the highest in the world. People under the age of 25 make up 50 per cent of the population (250 million) of the Arab countries.
The origins of the democratic protests in Egypt are a wave of strikes and jobs actions by workers dating back to 2006. The world economic crisis has affected Egyptian foreign earnings considerably with the lucrative tourist trade down, and overseas remittances from Egyptian nationals working abroad diminished. Domestic jobs prospects are bleak, and rising inflation, particularly a sharp increase in the price of food, created widespread discontent among underpaid workers, as well as the unemployed, and the about-to-be unemployed youth. Rising social inequalities inflamed further hostility in the population.
The discovery through social media of atrocities committed by the secret police was what brought protesters to Tahrir (Liberation) Square. Shared discontent created calls that would not be silenced to overthrow corruption and install democracy. Common soldiers let it be known they would not attack the protesters. International attention focused on the excesses of the Mubarak family, including the rumours of great fortunes in the billions hidden abroad, and plans to name the president's son, Gamal, as the next president.
The popular revolts of 2011 are reminiscent of 1968: the Prague Spring; and the Paris student and workers uprising. In France, the Gaullists were forced to make concessions on minimum wages, salaries, and working conditions. The tanks rolled in to bolster the Czech regime, and tighten repression. In Egypt, regardless of the next steps -- which could be about immediate gains, or the maintaining of authoritarian measures -- the agitation of democratic protestors has succeeded in capturing the attention of world public opinion. As the world will be watching Egypt, it will be more difficult for the puppet masters who have been pulling the strings to keep themselves hidden.
A democratic Egyptian revolution must adopt an economic and social program backed by youth, the unemployed, workers, and low income families. Democratic reforms leading to an open political process are a necessary step in that direction.
The emergence of political parties prepared to work to bring economic and social change to the people of Egypt requires the adoption of a new constitution, the election of a new parliament, and the suppression of emergency powers wielded by the army and the police. The Egyptian democracy movement is not going away.
Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of rabble.ca.
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