PoliticsElectionsThe girl with the Egyptian flag

Sat,24Jun2017

Posted on Wednesday, 09 February 2011 16:40

The girl with the Egyptian flag

By Heinrich Böhmke

As Egypt lurches towards democracy, South Africa lurches within it, writes Heinrich Böhmke in a comparison between the two countries' very different struggles.


As a student of revolt I sat transfixed this week before television and computer screens, imbibing a riot of Egyptian coverage. In Cairo, Alexandria and Suez hundreds of thousands - first the youth, then older folk, Islamists and secularists, middle-class and poor people - poured onto the streets, into the face of beatings, bullets and tanks. They were there to reject resoundingly the rule of their dictatorial president, Hosni Mubarak.


These were unprecedented scenes in a country governed with a granite fist for 30 years by a pharaonic ruler. The Mubarak decades were an era of growth for the elite and stability for the loyal. For the rest, the costs were high. The domestic opposition was crushed, personal liberties whisked away in unmarked cars, corruption not only entrenched but flaunted, and all the while over 40% of the population descended into the kind of weary poverty that comes from surviving on less than $2 per day.


Whatever the precise outcome of the uprising and however long it still has to go, this much is clear. President Mubarak, his son and heir apparent, Gamal, the National Democratic Party which he leads, and the coterie of businessmen living off his patronage will soon be swallowed up by this sandstorm of Egyptian history.


There is much to be praised about the revolt considered as a political artefact. This includes the popular breadth and reach of it into the hearts of millions of Egyptians. It includes the speed with which its lines raged through police tear gas and the nimbleness with which it flowered between army tanks. It also showed a certain intricacy in using social networking sites to spread the word but did not shy away from more belligerent tasks like spawning street defence committees when looting and provocation broke out. Protesters also set up field hospitals and barricades, managed to convene a general strike and maintained unity in rejecting superficial concessions.


Lessons for a transition


In spite of these admirable and encouraging qualities, the ability of the revolution to produce meaningful change is a precarious thing. And although there are many historical and geopolitical differences, severe lessons from South Africa are to be kept in mind by Egyptians pressing for change in the formative few weeks and months ahead of their own transition to democracy.


The problem with revolts against a state is that, no matter how popular, sooner or later, they must register and consolidate their victories in the institutions of that state. It is here, where popular protest becomes political representation, that power narrows and deviates dangerously. While the brave Egyptian youth, poor and intellectuals continue to rally in their thousands in the open, already the search for and positioning of a political opposition is happening more or less in secret, involving only dozens.


A range of powerful and moneyed forces are scurrying about making running repairs to the breach in national, regional and international workings of power that the fall of Mubarak represents. Who is there to talk to? Who is there to fund? What policies will be maintained? What pressure may be brought to bear?


The emergence and presentation of Mohammed ElBaradei, as a credible and unifying alternative represents an opportunity and a danger. The power of the Arab street is being funnelled into back-room meetings between US envoys and a range of Egyptian ‘opinion-makers’. There are no doubt similar meetings with confidants dispatched by Moscow and Tehran, too. The point is that destiny is shaped in these end-game meetings. The young protesters must be afraid, not only of Mubarak, but of that class of person who is inherently afraid of mass movements, eager to don suits, used to having the doors of German cars opened for them and who would like to scribble their names to ‘realistic’ deals. History shows that often persons enter to finish revolutions that they had not started.


Seeing the vapid formal political opposition of Egypt dodder in and out of board rooms and hastily convene press conferences, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waiting on one line and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on another, I am reminded of how thoroughly out of their depth our own liberation leaders were when F.W. de Klerk decided to relinquish minority rule. I am reminded of how dependent on the advice of foreign experts and how eager to be thought of as gentlemen and ladies most of them were.


These qualities caused serious missteps in the first moments of democratic policy-making. For example, before the African National Congress (ANC) even took power it agreed to honour apartheid debt. The sinews of the new South African government became accustomed to this consensual posture. As some of those who fought for social change in South Africa contend, the venerable figure of Nelson Mandela and the discourse of reconciliation and statesmanship that enveloped him in 1994, came to foreclose upon opportunities for more thoroughgoing transformation. A well-ventilated complaint by activists involved in internal agitation in the 1980s is that the ANC captured, and to a great extent, disciplined the spirit of revolt fostered by unions and student and civic organizations against apartheid. Exiles and aged political prisoners descended from on high to claim a victory they only partially had made.


This is not to pick on ElBaradei. Protests that began with a set of domestic social demands have contracted into a singular front demanding that Mubarak step down. Such a struggle will naturally concern itself with determining a replacement. But with this being the case, we must see the strategic objective of Egypt's protests for what they really are. Protesters are angling for the same occurrence that caused Tunisia’s president to flee. This is not a successful social revolution but rather a quiet coup d'état and installation of an interim government. For it was only when the chief of the Tunisian army withdrew his support and refused further repression, that the Trabelsi family’s game was over. There was, in truth, only a Jasmine coup, no revolution as yet.


Violent divisions 


As we discovered in South Africa in the months leading up to the scheduling of elections, with the old guard’s hands still essentially on the levers of power, an unofficial, low-intensity warfare was pursued against national liberation movements and ordinary citizens alike. Headed by remnants of our own al-shurta secret police, the Civilian Co-operation Bureau, and the five elite Reconnaissance Regiments, over 3,000 civilians were killed in ‘Black-on Black’ violence between 1990 and 1994.


Informal repression will not be enough for Egypt’s reactionaries though. They are going to need a social base, with the army and government posing as the necessary buffer between two camps. Owing to its racial dynamics, the outgoing National Party did not need to invent a right-wing threat. Reaction had genuine support among a large part of the population. On the cusp of democracy in 1993, groups such as the Afikaner nationalist, Conservative Party and the neo-Nazi AWB had roughly one million people to call upon for support. It was from within the ranks of these social forces that assassins surfaced to murder key leaders within the pro-democracy movement, such as Communist Party supremo, Chris Hani.


Even within the black poor there were those prepared to kill their compatriots and thwart the momentum of change. Members of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a pro-capitalist, ethnically-chauvinist group with a base in rural Zululand, were involved in some of the biggest massacres of their fellow South Africans. The language coming from the pro-Mubarak side now is the same as Inkatha’s then. Both emphasized stability, order and the country’s reputation. But for the right to vote, they stood for the continuation of existing social relations much as they were before.


Like political Islam is the bogey-man for many supporting Mubarak, so was communism for those in South Africa’s multi-racial rightwing during its own transition. Clean-shaven protestors who stand shoulder to shoulder with their bearded allies in battles against the police are going to have to weather a wave of divisive propaganda in the weeks to come.


To overcome physical attacks, the liberation movements in South Africa formed armed, semi-legal, self-defence units (SDUs) in black communities throughout the country. While they could not ward all danger off, they were effective. It is something Egyptians might need to consider themselves in the months ahead and, in this regard, one trusts they will have full and principled 2nd Amendment support from the Republican controlled Congress in the US.


Moulding a democracy


It is a depressing list of pitfalls to contemplate with running battles to oust Mubarak still raging in Tahrir Square. Egyptian democrats are, to some extent, a victim of their own swift success. On the brink of bringing down their dictator, they have but two weeks of non-clandestine organizational experience on which to draw. Barely born as a social force, protestors will soon be called upon to entrust the fate of their insurrection to a political process and to political institutions that, South Africa’s history has shown, are terribly susceptible to elite-pacting, unauthorized compromise and co-optation.


This is only on the domestic front. The danger for all popular revolts is that powerful external forces will also seek to limit the decisions a new democracy may take. The limit being set by the West is that the Egyptian transition must be ‘orderly’. This is essentially a request for the transition to be spread over sufficient time and to be inclusive of a sufficient chunk of the old order so that Western governments have an opportunity to reconstitute with the democratic crowd, the client relationship they cultivated with personnel in Mubarak’s Egypt.


These limits, although substantive in nature (such as to honour the Camp David Accord, or not redistribute wealth) are almost always set by the form in which a transition to democracy occurs. In South Africa, it was the manner of the transition as much as the values that informed a new Constitution that effectively froze pre-existing property relations in place. Bluntly, the national ‘revolution’ was unable to bring about fundamental change not because the principles that informed it were too mild but because the manner in which liberation was achieved did not shake up society enough. The ‘revolution’ never nationalized and it left too much for liberal democracy to still achieve through law and economic growth.


The same happened in Zimbabwe in 1980 and existing inequalities in land ownership were only reversed (if not simply reproduced) with much violence and unpleasantness 25 years later. Sadly, the sacrifice, nobility and militancy of a struggle that brings about parley with an authoritarian regime is irrelevant to the shape the new society will take. Rather, it is the efficiency of the broom that sweeps the old order out that counts. In general, ‘peaceful’ transitions are those in which many compromises with - and guarantees to - the old order are given, whether or not these lay the basis for a just and sustainable society in the future. However, before “peace” is blithely chosen in the manner Mubarak and his government is unseated, the long-term effects of the ensuing compromises must be squarely considered.


A longer-term question from South Africa for Egyptian patriots is what kind of change parliamentary democracy typically brings to societies who have sought to transform themselves this way? Answering this question in South Africa along the political axis will give encouraging answers but along the socio-economic axis, not so much. It will seem churlish to say anything to deprive the faces of ordinary Egyptians, oppressed under a monarchy until the 1950’s and then again under successive military regimes, of the fervent smiles of achievement they carry after their recent democratic successes. However, democracy has not solved the most pressing of our own social contradictions, they have become worse.


How to maintain the integrity of a revolution


So what then are those pushing for radical change to do? How does one maintain the integrity of a revolution? This question mocks all those sincere revolutionaries who tried to advance the cause of social justice through decisive rupture with the past, from 1848 through to the present date. Some may say that the democratic space to protest and freely express opinions opened up by the Egyptian uprising will ensure accountability and responsiveness by a subsequent regime. This is true and those gains are real. However, as we have learned in South Africa, those first generation rights are somehow hollowed and drowned out in a bourgeois democracy. Never again is a people’s rage quite so righteous, unifying and potent as when it confronts a dictator. Indeed, the notion of ‘the people’ itself disappears in a democracy into fractured interest groups and parties. As much as the space to protest is available, it is very hard to keep high levels of popular mobilization and unity going.


With near on 17 years under the most progressive Constitution in the world, South Africans have as high an unemployment rate as Egypt, far greater income inequalities (we are most unequal, Egypt is 90th), a lower life-expectancy and, on the face of these statistics, just as powerful a reason to be blockading Sandton Square. But for a democratic surplus, that is, and the procedural rights and freedoms South Africans enjoy, such as assembly and to vote for whom we choose among contesting elites. It is the absence of an out-and-out dictator, it seems, that keeps South Africa’s poor and discontented in their place.


Best-case scenario


The loveliest image for me so far of the protests was the girl on the skateboard, seven or eight years old, in Liberation Square, wending her way through stones, waving the Egyptian flag. What is the best-case scenario for her? It is the job of counter-revolutionaries to ensure that things get so ugly in Egypt, that its people feel so paranoid and insecure that the answer to this question is an orderly, if highly compromised and scarcely progressive transition. This would be a transition in which the army high-command, Mubarak’s chums, are those to whom the people turn. The only way to convince anyone who cares for that young girl to choose hope and change over these dark and paralysing fears is with the decisive defeat of the counter-revolution.


Egyptian democrats would need to make clinical assessments of their chances of defeating the goons in the streets and thus stripping the status quo of its ability to attack them via proxy in the weeks ahead. This may mean a temporary turn from the peaceful orientation the pro-democracy camp has fostered so far and isolating and targeting those who attack in the name of Mubarak. This is because incipient fascism yields neither to reason nor pathos. The choice is between confronting them or compromising the future.


In South Africa in 1994, a group of white right-wingers formed a convoy and tried to invade a space in the west of the country effectively liberated by democrats from its local governor and apartheid puppet, Lucas Mangope. And so we come back to the question of force and the army. For it was a group of junior officers and soldiers, together with self-defense units, who met this convoy head-on and without authorization or much mercy, stopped it. In many ways, that was the symbolic end of the right-wing. Revolutions need their Hector Petersons and Mohamed Bouazizis. But they also need their Boputhatswanas, their little mutinies and, something still to occur in Egypt; an actual, not merely branded by a well-meaning Al Jazeera, ‘day of rage’.


Cairo back down to Cape


The flow of lessons is not only from the Limpopo to the Nile but also the other way. On 25 January, a group of protestors, numbering about ten thousand, attempted to cross the April 6 bridge in Cairo. Up until then, Egypt’s police enjoyed a reputation for brutal omnipotence. Teargas and rubber bullets flew. Armoured vehicles rammed into people and finally live shots were fired. People died. But still, ribbons of youth pressed forward, until, suddenly, the police line broke. After the bridge was crossed, there were further battles but the fear was gone. By nightfall, many other psychological bridges were crossed and many other police-lines broken. The army took to the streets and the riot police slunk away. The brittleness of the apparatus of power was amazing to see. This brittleness, exposed in riot, is something Africans south of the Sahara can easily relearn. They knew it once.


Social movement and union marches post-apartheid seldom expose this brittleness because they take place as lawful events in South Africa, staged and marshaled as set-piece moaning sessions. A riot releases a qualitatively different element of political alchemy. It makes no demand. It constitutes itself as power rather than asking for stuff from the state. People in this mode have a burst to them that ranks and ranks of police cannot hold. Cairo, city of victory, showed again what is necessary to attain it.


Another lesson flowing Southwards is that demands to end corruption mobilize as much intensity as the more traditional demands triggering and informing popular uprisings. The top two of these historically are bread prices and repression. It seems that Arab politics has added a third distinct motive to revolt, one flowing from the form of state that has arisen in a privatized, globalised, late capitalist and kleptocractic era. It is discontent along three lines - poverty, corruption and freedom (both personal and the ability to affect government) that have fuelled anger in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, Syria and the U.S/Israeli protectorate of Jordan.


South Africa is chronically affected by two of the three causes of Arab uproar and, at times in 2009 during ‘service delivery’ protests, has stood but a Mohammed Bouazizi away from all three. And while Zuma is no Ben Ali, the hatred of the latter’s family also started with shares in companies being handed out to his extended family.


The demographics of Egypt and Tunisia reveal a bulge of young people under the age of 30 who, more than any other section of society, are jobless (90%), poor in the midst of steady growth for a conspicuous elite, and increasingly politically restive. As Oliver Meth points out, the desperation of youth in a society with no real place for them sounds very South African.


Egypt is also an example of a country that decolonized very early and whose nationalist leaders enjoyed much prestige for their role in winning independence and keeping sovereignty. These struggle credentials and symbologies, such as they are, do not last. A second wave of post-nationalist, Arab liberation struggles are patently taking place now with a coherent and infectious set of ideas informing them. It is ironic that the space most being fought over is Tahrir or 'Liberation' Square, so named to celebrate independence over colonialism but now the epicenter of the opposition to what became of the original liberators. It is not hard to imagine, ten or twenty years from now, when ANC Youth League tenderpreneurs are in power, that they will be as crass in resorting to the state apparatus as they currently are in their ordinary discourse, confronting a generation who owe them no emotional or political allegiance at all. The same potential exists for a second wave of struggles throughout the rest of southern Africa, and the example from the Arabic north may just hasten things a bit in the Bantu-speaking south.


Space for ideology


What South Africa lacks but Egypt has in abundance is a broad, sometimes lurid, but strong ideological content to its politics. I speak here of political Islam whose certainties, tenets and sacred duties far exceeds, in its ability to move people, anything that communism or Africanism provides in South Africa. Freely conceding that it played no role in starting the protests, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a part of Egyptian society, and one that has drawn terrible repression from the Mubarak regime, joined the democracy movement in numbers. The Muslim Brotherhood is a popular, non-violent, trans-national movement. Its brand of politics aspires to a caliphate - but does so, perplexingly for liberals, by pursuing democratic reforms so that its views may be voted upon and not theologically imposed. It is going to be a force to be reckoned with in a new Egypt because its ideology (they would they faith) has such a driving cultural, psychological and political affect.


It is easy to be cynical about Islamist movements involved in democratic uprisings after the experiences in Iran in the late 1970s. Certain Islamist factions have a one-person, one-vote, one-time orientation towards democracy. However, there is little to suggest that the Brotherhood, despite the mildly sinister cadences of its name to my own secular ears, has anti-democratic designs on the course of the current revolt.


The existence of such a lived vein of ideology, indeed faith, within the Egyptian body will give it the ability to play a decisive, principled leadership role on important international questions. South Africa has failed dismally on this score. It is difficult to discern what the content of the Muslim Brotherhood’s domestic economic and legislative agenda will be. Preoccupied with the weightier matter of the political unity of the Ummah, they are underdeveloped in this area. But where the Brotherhood has very definite ideas and where its inclusion in government will have dramatic effects is on Egypt’s relations with Israel. It will almost certainly press for a thorough renegotiation of Sadat’s peace. Indeed, Hamas, which controls Gaza just across the Sinai Desert and which is considered a terrorist organisation by most Western governments is an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. One cannot see a future Egyptian government with significant Brotherhood participation, enforcing the blockade on Gaza any longer.


To many whose focus is regional, this is a big reason why changes in Egypt that would strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s hand are to be welcomed. It is not for what it will do for Egyptians per se, but for Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. One can only imagine the migraines in Washington that will be caused should Saudis take to the streets against their sheikhs. If democratic clamouring, fuelled in part by political Islam, mean Mubrak must go, how much more so among other propped-up US allies in the region?


As Egyptians lurch towards democracy and South Africans lurch within it, one can only hope that lessons in overcoming reaction and social exclusion flow from Cape to Cairo and the other way around.


Heinrich Böhmke is a writer, researcher and labour-trained based in South Africa.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 February 2011 17:48

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