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With uprising in Egypt, national liberation struggles intensify in the Middle East

Analysis by Kosta Harlan |
January 30, 2011
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Chicago protest in solidarity with people of Egypt
Chicago protest in solidarity with people of Egypt (Fight Back! News/Chapin Gray)

History is unfolding before our eyes in Egypt this week, as millions of Egyptians take to the streets to demand the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and fundamental democratic reforms. The future is unwritten, but there is no doubt that the Jan. 25 movement marks a turning point in the struggle for national liberation in the Middle East. For what the Egyptian people are proving as they march through the streets demanding justice and pushing back against police forces wielding tear gas and live ammunition, is that the people are stronger than their oppressors.

Jan. 25 - The Day of Anger

The uprising began with protests called by a number of opposition groups for Jan. 25 and followed on the heels of rigged parliamentary elections in late 2010. The core demands were for President Hosni Mubarak to step down and for democratic reforms to the political system. Egypt has been hard hit by the global economic crisis and economic concerns have been an important factor in mobilizing people to demonstrate. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, while thousands more marched in Alexandria, Mahallah and other cities across Egypt.

What followed exceeded the expectations of all forces involved. Instead of backing down in the face of intense, heavy-handed police repression, thousands more demonstrators took to the streets on Jan. 26. Police used live ammunition on protesters in Suez, where government buildings and the police station were set on fire.

Jan. 27 was more subdued, as people prepared for what was to take place on Jan. 28. As Friday prayers ended, hundreds of thousands took to the streets demanding that Mubarak leave the country.

Fierce battles took place between riot police and demonstrators, many of them youth, who hurled stones and set up barricades to defend their positions. Government buildings across the country, including the ruling National Democratic Party headquarters in Cairo, were set ablaze. Armed with stones and sticks, the protesters have time and time again succeeded in overwhelming thousands of well-armed and deadly riot police. The heroism, dedication and self-sacrifice of the Egyptian youth has inspired millions of people around the world who are watching this epic struggle for liberation and democracy play out in the streets of Cairo, Suez and other cities in Egypt.

On Jan. 29, faced with open rebellion in the streets, Mubarak responded by dismissing the government and appointed Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence, as vice president.

Conflicting reports have emerged on the role of the army. In some places, there are reports that the army has fired on protesters, while in many other places, including Tahrir Square, reports indicate that army commanders have sided with the protesters and are protecting them from the riot police.

In the course of the last five days, at least 102 people have been killed, 2000 injured and nearly 1000 people have been detained.

U.S. support for the Egyptian regime

As the first day of protests revealed that the Egyptian people would not retreat in the face of intense police repression, including rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."

In other words, the U.S. initially intended to back Mubarak against the wave of mass protests.

This is because the fall of Mubarak and the replacement of the oligarchy's dictatorship with a national democratic government would present serious problems for U.S. interests not just in Egypt, but across the Middle East.

As a worried article in the Israel paper Ha'aretz put it, the fall of Hosni Mubarak's government "leaves Israel in a state of strategic distress." The author of the article continues, "Without Mubarak, Israel is left with almost no friends in the Middle East." (In fact, the only other ‘friends’ would be the now thoroughly discredited Palestinian Authority and Jordan, which is witnessing its own mass protests calling for the ouster of the Jordanian government.)

Since the Camp David Accords of 1978, Egypt's government under Hosni Mubarak has consistently backed Israel's apartheid regime, betrayed the struggles of the Palestinian people for freedom and been an ally to the U.S. in its plans to exert control over the oil-rich countries of the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, the Israeli flag no longer flies in Cairo, as the embassy has been evacuated and the Israeli Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was left to lament, "Israel cannot do anything about what is happening there. All we can do is express our support for Mubarak and hope the riots pass quietly."

Economic interests

The United States also has substantial economic interests at stake in Egypt. Egypt's 25 million-strong workforce is one of the largest in the Middle East. The United States is Egypt's number one trading partner for both exports (9.67%) and imports (11.7%). According to the CIA World Factbook, Egypt is the U.S.'s largest market for wheat and corn sales, in exports that value $1 billion annually and which account for about half of Egypt's total wheat and corn imports. Egypt's textile and agricultural industries are important for the region.

The Suez Canal, where violence has been among the heaviest - at the time of this writing, 28 people in Suez are known to have been killed by police - is critical to the global economy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) describes it as a "chokepoint." As the EIA notes, "The international energy market is dependent upon reliable transport. The blockage of a chokepoint, even temporarily, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs." 

According to the EIA, about 1.8 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum passed through the Suez Canal each day in 2009. 35,000 ships transited through the Canal in 2009. If the Suez Canal were to be closed, tankers would have to be diverted around the southern tip of Africa, which would add 6000 miles and two to three weeks to the transit time. This would result in a major rise in oil prices.

U.S. military aid to Egypt

For these key reasons - Mubarak's support for Israel, the economic interests at stake and the Suez Canal - it is no surprise that Egypt is the number two recipient of military aid from the United States. Only Israel receives more money from the United States.

In 2004, a hearing on the future of U.S.-Egyptian Relations at the House of Representatives noted that since the Camp David Accords, Egypt received $1.3 billion per year in military aid, while between 1975 and 2002, the U.S. Agency of International Development provided over $25 billion dollars. The hearing also heard that, "Under our Foreign Military Sales programs, the U.S. has provided jet fighters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, Apache helicopters, anti-aircraft missile batteries, surveillance aircraft and other equipment."

It is no accident, then, that the thousands of tear gas canisters fired by riot police at demonstrators this week have "Made in U.S.A." stamped on them.

Class struggle in the Egyptian revolution

The course of events indicates that Mubarak will likely be forced to flee Egypt, just as Tunisia's ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled in the face of that country's national-democratic revolution.

The key question is what will come next. If Mubarak flees, what will become of the oligarchy that has ruled Egypt with him? And what will become of the western dominated economy and the organs of state repression that have held down the Egyptian people for so many years?

One thing is for certain: the U.S. will do everything in its power to ensure that events turn out to its benefit. We can be sure that U.S. diplomats are in frantic communication with leaders in the Egyptian Army and the ruling National Democratic Party to pick a suitable leader that appears to provide substantial reform, while remaining loyal to the core U.S. interests in the region.

International solidarity will be critical to ensuring that the Egyptian people can choose their own destiny and determine their own futures. Progressive people everywhere have been demonstrating in front of U.S. and Egyptian embassies, demanding that Mubarak exit Egypt.

Even more encouraging, mass demonstrations in Jordan, Palestine and Yemen echo the calls of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples, with their demands for democratic reform, independence and liberation.

At the end of the day, however, it is the Egyptian people who will determine their future. Their revolutionary struggle for democracy and liberation has redefined the limits of what is possible. The 25 million Egyptian workers will play a key role in determining the outcome of this revolution. Will this movement end with the ouster of Mubarak, or will it transition into a broader struggle to transform the economic and political structures that result in 40% of Egyptians living in poverty?

No matter what happens, the events of the last week have shown once and for all that the masses of Arab people are fed up with foreign domination, corrupt dictatorships that bow to U.S. interests and that when they dare to struggle, they can and will win.