Egypt: A sleeping giant awakens

February 5, 2011
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government won huge popularity across the Arab world for nationalising the Suez Canal.

The popular uprising which has swept Egypt over the past two weeks, inspired by the revolt which drove the Tunisian dictator from power in mid-January, is the expression of a people’s power movement in the Arab world which has been 40 years in the making.

I have been waiting for this for a long time. I lived in Cairo for six months in the first half of 1967, until the so-called Six Day War forced my family to leave Egypt for Britain.

My father was a meteorological scientist working through the United Nations with the Eqyptian agriculture department for a time.

I studied at the American University in Cairo for a semester, and was well aware of a strong progressive, including socialist, current among Egyptian students and youth generally in the mid-1960s. This youth sentiment was part of the world-wide radicalisation of young people, in opposition to the US war against Vietnam and Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.

This period was also the high point of the Arab nationalist movement. A key leader was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who sought to bring together the entire Arab world under the banner of an anti-imperialist Arab national unity.

Nasser had won huge popularity among the Arab masses for his nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 and successful defence of that landmark measure against an attack by Britain, France and Israel that same year.

Nasser led a group of young military officers who took power in a coup that overthrew the reactionary King Farouk and his aristocratic gang in July 1952, and launched a progressive, national-democratic revolution.

Nasser nationalised the bulk of the Egyptian economy. As a result, some 75% of the country’s economy was either in the hands of the state, or of small peasants and property-owners.

This process was presented as “Arab socialism”, but it was carried out bureaucratically and from the top down. It weakened the hold of imperialism over Egypt and enabled economic development in a context where Egyptian capitalists were too weak to fulfill that role.

But it was not based on self-activity of ordinary people and independent political activity faced the threat of repression.

Nonetheless, this process enabled significant social gains for the Egyptian working people. The poor majority won better living standards and social benefits.

After the military disaster of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War, the Arab nationalist project went into prolonged crisis.

Millions of Egyptian people rallied in the streets to demand that Nasser withdraw his resignation from power after Egypt lost the war, but his prestige was mortally wounded.

After Nasser’s death in September 1970, a process of counter-revolution in Egypt began under the leadership of new president Anwar Sadat. This was consolidated under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who came to power after Sadat was assassinated in October 1981.

Large-scale privatisation and other neoliberal economic policies were imposed on the Egyptian masses by these right-wing governments. The policies were pushed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Egypt also became one of the staunchest allies of the US in the Middle East. Mubarak became a key collaborator with Israel in helping to suppress the Palestinian people — in particular, maintaining the illegal blockade of Gaza since 2007.

All this is now threatened by the people’s power upsurge in Egypt. Mubarak’s days are surely numbered, and the US and Israel are terrified of a new rise in progressive Arab mass struggle, sweeping right across the Middle East.

The popular upsurge we are now seeing on our TV screens every night did not come from nowhere. An underground radical current continued to organise right through the hard years of dictatorship and police repression.

And, contrary to the fear-mongering of many Western politicians and the media, the movement is overwhelmingly secular and progressive in character — with the decades-old Muslim Brotherhood apparently playing a limited role in the leadership of the upsurge.

The democratic movement in Egypt (as in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world) is strongly based on the youth, who are demanding their rights to freedom and economic justice.

This revival of the democratic youth struggle in Egypt today builds on the achievements of the radical Arab movement of the 1960s and afterwards.

It generates hope that genuine progressive change can now come to Egypt and the whole Arab world after decades of dictatorship and repression.

[Jim McIlroy is a Socialist Alliance activist who has been active in the socialist movement since the 1960s.]

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