Mideast riots over video: What is still possible from Arab Spring


Mideast riots over video: What is still possible from Arab Spring

Posted by kasama on September 19, 2012

The following essay was sent to Kasama by A World to Win, a communist news service.

The protests against the anti-Islam video and what could still blossom in the Arab Spring

By Samuel Albert

17 September 2012 — The protests against a reactionary anti-Islam video have brought out, more sharply than ever, two aspects of what has been called the “Arab Spring” – the dangers it is facing, and the fact that its outcome has not yet been determined.

Like many people, my first reaction after the killing of the American ambassador to Libya and three other embassy personnel was one of dread. As we’ve seen before, when the U.S.’s position as the arbiter and enforcer of the world order is challenged, it often reacts by demonstrating that no one can match its lethal power.

We all remember the U.S.’s response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. They were an excuse for the invasion first of Afghanistan and then Iraq, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the toppling of the World Trade Center. Now, after the embassy attacks and the accompanying political chaos throughout the Middle East and North Africa, some reactionary experts who help hash out American foreign policy are already arguing that these events show the need for direct foreign military intervention in Syria, so that the U.S. can have “allies on the ground” to fight for advantage in a situation that is still basically out of anyone’s control. (The New York Times, 16 September 2012)

Without making specific predictions, we can be pretty sure that the U.S. will seek revenge, not only out of a bully’s rage but also out of cold calculation, in its continuing drive to ensure and deepen its domination of the Middle East by any means it can, no matter how much bloodshed.

At the same time, like many other people with high hopes for revolution in the Arab world, I have also felt dismay, because the protests against the video fundamentally represent an attempt to advance political Islam. This reaction, like Islamism as a political project overall, obscures and protects the economic and social relations represented by the old regimes that Arab peoples revolted against and overthrew. It goes against what was best about the Arab Spring.

While the protests in Cairo were far from the biggest and most violent, Egypt was where they began. The video that claims to be excerpted from a feature film suddenly turned up on YouTube dubbed into Egyptian Arabic. Egyptian Islamic television spurred the first protests against it, falsely reporting that this footage was crowding the American airwaves. Further, Egypt may have been the specific target of this deliberate provocation, an attempt to trip the newly-governing Muslim Brotherhood on the contradictions of its own positions, which, at any rate, were revealed. Even aside from Egypt’s central role among the Arab countries, the Brotherhood’s rise to governance is very important in analysing what has been changed and not changed by the Arab Spring.

Remnants of the Mubarak regime

The U.S. would have preferred some kind of continuation of the Mubarak regime, which it initially supported against the popular revolt. Washington continues to place great importance on its ties with the Egyptian armed forces that are the core of the state and run much of the economy. But at some point it concluded that a Muslim Brotherhood-led government was the best available option.

While pro-Mubarak political figures and the generals he once appointed are derided as “remnants” of the old regime, the Brotherhood is also, in a sense, an old-regime remnant, differing from what people call felool (the ragtag ranks of a defeated army) mainly in that they have not been politically defeated and discredited.

The relationship between Mubarak and the Islamists was complex and sometimes violent, but mutually beneficial. At times its members were imprisoned and tortured, but most of the time the Brotherhood was allowed relative freedom to run the religious/charitable/political centres through which it recruited and expanded its influence. In turn, its participation in the electoral process, even when other opposition parties boycotted blatantly rigged elections, lent the political system some legitimacy and stability. The Brotherhood were nowhere to be found during the early days of the massive protests in Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities in January 2011, because unlike those risking their lives to demand the fall of the regime, they were seeking a way to become part of it.

As evidence that the rulers of the U.S. have extended a hand to them: in the days before the uproar over the film, the U.S. announced that in addition to allocating $2 billion in “aid” to Egypt, it was considering cutting the country’s $3 billion debt to the U.S. by at least a billion dollars. The International Monetary Fund opened negotiations with the Egyptian government for a $4.8 billion loan. The Obama government backed the arrangement and IMF head Christine Lagarde personally took charge of the discussions with Egypt’s representatives. The World Bank also offered a $200 million interest-bearing loan. The American government sent Cairo one of the largest trade delegations of all time, with representatives of 49 major U.S. corporations looking to invest. American officials gushed praise for the Brotherhood. One commented, “They sound like Republicans half the time.” (The New York Times, 3 September 2012)

There was no charity on offer, and it never has been for Egypt. The country has been the number two recipient of American “aid” over the decades because that money had the same purpose as that given to the number one recipient, Israel: to ensure that the Zionists can continue to play their role as the U.S.’s trusted regional gendarme. Ever since the Camp David accords when Egypt broke ranks with the other Arab countries and agreed to recognize Israel and protect its interests, the U.S. has continued to bribe and build up the Egyptian military.

Politically, what this new “aid” package bought is this: Just before these financial proposals were announced, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral wing) made two critical announcements. One was to call for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to step down. While the Brotherhood has its own reasons to hate the secular Assad dynasty, it’s striking that Morsi’s only major foreign policy pronouncement was in line with American priorities. The other was a promise that his government, like Mubarak’s, would abide by an agreement giving the U.S. and Israel veto power over Egyptian military operations in the Sinai Peninsula. This is even more shameful not only because the Sinai is supposedly part of Egypt’s sovereign territory, but also because the government has sent its troops there to battle tribal-based, allegedly Salafist forces that Israel considers a threat to its borders.

Economically, the purpose of this “aid” is to keep Egyptian life subordinated to capital based in the imperialist countries to which it pays tribute.

What’s wrong with Egypt?

As Egypt became more fully integrated into global financial and commodity markets over the last several decades, some sections of the economy boomed, but life became more painful for the majority. In the rural areas, where about half the population still lives, an agricultural “counter-reform” designed to promote modern capitalist agriculture in a countryside characterized by very small landowners (and fantastically fertile irrigated land, some of it yielding three crops a year) turned many fellahin into landless labourers and deliberately drove many more off the land completely. Consequently, cheap labour is so plentiful for the textile mills, clothing plants and other factories located in the Nile Delta that China has found it advantageous to set up export manufacture here. No wonder U.S. corporations are lining up.

A large part of the population, in the cities and countryside, has been displaced from their traditional lives but not fully integrated into the formal economy. Enormous numbers of people work as replacements for machines (in construction, for instance, where a back is cheaper than a crane), or as doormen, guards, helpers and so on.

Cairo is one of the world’s most sophisticated cities, but the lack of stable jobs, dependence on feudalistic and other personal relationships of obligation for survival, the often-improvised and precarious living conditions of many of its inhabitants and even its unsustainable size are very related to the way that the country’s all-sided economic and social development has been thwarted by its subordination to foreign capital.

At the same time, thanks to television and the Net, American and European living standards and life styles are very familiar to millions of youth who have little plumbing, limited access to schools and no hope of being admitted into that kind of modernity.

This is the situation that sets the stage for social life and thinking. Egypt’s economic, political and ideological crises after more than half a century demonstrates that the problem is not development, but what kind of development.

The Muslim Brotherhood, with its deep support from private-sector capital and better-off independent professionals, has no programme to transform these basic conditions, nor any intention of doing so. It claims that it has to follow the IMF’s strictures in order to encourage foreign capital to revive a stagnant economy. Even if this were possible at this particular moment, there is no reason to believe that it would bring any better results for the people in the future than it has in the past.

To cover up their administration of a subordinated country and make the people accept lives that many have found unacceptable, what they plan to change can only make the situation worse, not only appealing to the mystification of religion, but officially encouraging and/or legally enshrining the most backward and oppressive aspects of traditional relations, especially the domination of men over women.

For instance, Omayma Kamel, a female doctor who is the presidential advisor on “women’s affairs” and a Freedom and Justice Party MP, recently encouraged more women to have what’s euphemistically called excision or “female circumcision”, which means cutting off the clitoris and sometimes much more of a woman’s genitals – female castration. This practice is extremely widespread in Egypt, but Mubarak’s government tried to minimize its existence, not officially promote it. Now the person in charge of women’s welfare is proclaiming that wearing hijab is not enough – that women who don’t submit to this mutilation are to be condemned as “impious” – and implying, in this way, as other Islamists openly claim, that women’s “impiety” is to blame for the public sexual harassment and outright physical abuse that most Egyptian women have experienced.

It is bad enough that the debate in the Brotherhood-controlled constituent assembly is focusing on how the new constitution should be further Islamicized. To stress the need for women to act more “piously” – and not treat the rise in predatory attacks on women as a national emergency – gives a glimpse of the Islamists’ vision of the future.

This is the context in which to understand the protests against the film in Egypt, and the role of political Islam more widely.

The Christian fascist video Islamists love to hate

Without knowing any more about The Innocence of Muslims than the YouTube video and the media accounts about its origins, it seems that this film was intended to have exactly the effect it did.

It was a deliberate provocation, inflaming a violent Islamist reaction abroad, further polarizing the political situation in the U.S. and rallying those who want to wage what can only be considered a religious crusade abroad and promote a Christian fascist agenda in the U.S.

The reaction to this video can’t be understood without understanding how the U.S. has dominated and humiliated the peoples of the Arab countries and beyond, supporting murderous country-selling tyrants and the Zionist efforts to eradicate Palestine, invading and wreaking social havoc in Iraq (and Libya and Afghanistan), and murdering people on a mass scale or supporting others who do so.

But these protests against what’s taken as an insult to the Prophet could only be to the advantage of reactionary forces throughout the region. They have been embraced by regimes – Tunisia, Yemen and Pakistan come to mind – that need to hide the fact that they have surrendered their country’s future and often even its physical sovereignty to the U.S., as well as by other reactionary regimes currently in the U.S.’s disfavour, like Iran and Sudan.

For instance, in Lebanon, Hezbollah organized one of the biggest demonstrations against the video so far. Its leader Hassan Nasrallah, who rarely appears in public because of the threat of Israeli assassination, personally addressed the crowd, calling the film “the worst attack ever on Islam”. While the video’s maliciousness and anti-Arab racist content is undeniable, surely it is not worse than what the peoples of the Arab countries have suffered at the hands of the U.S. and the West and their proxies – such as Israel’s invasions of Lebanon, or the 1982 massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Not only was Nasrallah seeking to substitute religion for genuine resistance to imperialism, as might be expected from an organization that now leads a Lebanese government embedded in the imperialists’ international financial market and political web, he was also trying to change the subject away from Hezbollah’s support for the reactionary Assad regime, a much worse thing to do to the people of Syria and the region than insulting Mohammed.

The Egyptian government’s initial stance was to encourage the protests at the U.S. embassy, from “the bottom up” through their political influence among the people, and through official statements. While the Egyptian police have been quick to violently break up demonstrations at the Syrian embassy even recently and the police and army opened fire on Tahrir Square many times before, when protesters first attacked the nearby U.S. embassy on 12 September, this time the police were much less determined. Yet protesters numbered only in the thousands, not like the millionia, the crowds of a million or hundreds of thousands that occupied Tahrir Square on other occasions.

Even as the Morsi government violently cleared the crowd that moved to Tahrir Square itself a few days later, it has continued to “have its cake and eat it too.” On the one hand, it tried to appease the U.S. by protecting the U.S. embassy. Khairet al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s main leader, wrote a letter to The New York Times saying that the U.S. government and its “citizens” could not be held responsible for the film. On the other hand, the Brotherhood is still working to keep the issue aflame.

In fact, while conciliatory with the U.S., Shater’s letter was particularly inflammatory and reactionary in domestic terms. Egyptians could easily read the subtext: the enemy is not Uncle Sam but “the Jews” – never mind that the U.S. has made it possible for Israel to become what it is – and even more, the Coptic Christians, who have always been a handy target in Egypt whenever some people’s anger has to be given a reactionary outlet.

By inferring that “the Copts did it”, no matter who turns out to have been involved in making and promoting the film, what could be a better solution to the Islamists’ dilemma: how to inflame religious sentiments and claim the authority of Islam while selling out Egypt’s national interests and its people?

Some observers have made much of the distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in this situation, but this distinction is often blurry. Because the Brotherhood draws its legitimacy from religion, it’s hard to draw a line between what it calls a “civil” government based on “Islamic principles” and the Salafist goal of a form of state power with no law but the Koran. Moreover, while the Al Nour Party planted its Salafist black banner on the U.S. embassy wall, scoring points against the rival Brotherhood, Egyptian media reported that after the first day or two they called their supporters to stay away, anxious to show the U.S. that they, too, can be trusted.

While there are different currents within political Islam, they are all the products and partners in the same phenomenon. They are all the result of the same dynamic that has given rise to Islamism in general – exploiter classes in dominated countries coming up against and sometimes confronting the imperialists without seeking or being able to challenge the confines of imperialism as a world economic system and framework for relationships between people and countries. In Egypt, like Tunisia and elsewhere, the Salafists have not been weakened as people like the Muslim Brotherhood come into government; rather they are emboldened and fattened by the overall legitimization and encouragement of political Islam even as they supply the “moderates” with shock troops.

If some Salafists in Egypt, like many in other countries, are in a confrontational posture with the U.S., that does not make them “anti-imperialist” or in any way less enemies of the real national and internationalist interests of the peoples of the region. The Saudi monarchy, often the paradigm pointed to by Egyptian Salafists, and Al Qaeda, whose roots lie in the Brotherhood, may differ in their current relationship to the U.S., but they share an ideology and a model of society that can only be described as hell on earth in the name of heaven. That can also be seen, with a somewhat different religious twist, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. None of them represent a threat to the global domination of imperialist capital, or to the indigenous forms of class rule, exploitation and oppression without which the imperialist-dominated world capitalist market would have little entry or foothold.

What is at stake with this video is not Muslims’ right to practice their religion, which is not under threat in these countries, unlike the situation for Muslims in Europe and the U.S. It is indisputable that this film is a reactionary provocation, but other films have also sparked violent attacks, such as the delightful Persepolis, which conveys the bitter experience of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran and tries to deal with religious rule and religion itself through a progressive lens. People everywhere need to see this film, but its showing has been criminalized in Tunisia, where the Ennahda-led government and the Salafists have a relationship somewhat similar to Egypt, and effectively banned in Egypt. In both countries, entertainers and artists are being attacked and endangered as part of the Islamization of society.

Religious sentiments among the people will persist for a long time to come and only reactionaries and not revolutionaries would want it to be a basic dividing line in society, but how can the masses of people come to know and change reality and transform themselves, and how can their minds and talents and sources of pleasure flourish, if religion is the supreme arbitrator of what is permitted?

Islamism and the “Arab Spring”

While there has always been resistance in the Arab countries, starting on 17 December 2010 in Tunisia a new situation swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Millions of ordinary people began to believe that they could bring about basic change and were willing to offer their lives for that possibility. The streets and squares filled with people discussing and debating basic political, social, cultural and moral issues and determined to have their say. They provided fresh air that blew around a world where political and social suffocation predominated.

The “Arab Spring” has represented a crisis of the structures, political legitimacy and moral authority of the old order in a key imperialist-dominated region. At the same time, there have been contradictory currents since the beginning. Without a truly revolutionary leadership with a scientific understanding of the problems and possible radical solutions, the masses of people have been prey to those peddling reactionary solutions. These solutions might appear attractive because they are based on tradition and mentalities engrained by exploitative and oppressive social relationships as well as the power of various kinds of exploiters and oppressors. The walls of the prison have been mightily shaken, but nowhere have the people broken free.

Islamism seeks to resolve this situation by painting that prison green and slamming shut the doors and windows that people have pried open through sacrifice. These demonstrations against the video are, in their overall inspiration and effect, part of efforts to resolve this crisis through one variety or another of Islamic rule. There is nothing emancipatory in them.

The combination of religious authority and state power is hardly unique to the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, either historically or today. In their memorial ceremony for their four men killed in Libya, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invoked their god and their country’s supposedly god-given “special role” in the world again and again. Russia has seen a similarly ugly line-up of god and state – after all, the women performance artists who call themselves Pussy Riot were imprisoned for “blasphemy”, not for denouncing President Vladimir Putin but insulting his god.

But it is a particularity of the the Arab countries today, not only for historical reasons but also because of the entry of broad masses into political life and their contestation of their circumstances, that now more than ever, no reactionary regime – no representative, old or new, of the world order and its local components – is possible without the authority and legitimacy of religion.

Even if reactionaries have re-seized the initiative in the region right now, that should not blind us to the fact that the old order cannot be so easily patched up again, in an old or new form. These protests dramatically brought out that the rise of Islamism has contradictory consequences, providing both potential advantages for imperialist domination and problems for the present imperialist configuration of the world. They have also highlighted the continuing explosive dissatisfaction and unrest among the poor and broad sections of the people that Islamists have capitalized on and misdirected. The question is not whether the downtrodden can be mobilized, but under what banner, for what interests and outlook.

It seems unlikely that the region is about to fall back into long-term reactionary stability. The wheel is still in spin. That is both a fruit of the “Arab Spring” and an extremely important favourable factor for those who burn with a desire to see the uprisings of 2010-11 lead to thoroughgoing revolutions.

But as long as most people in these countries feel compelled to choose between “their Obama and our Osama”, or any other version of the clash between imperialist domination and its hypocritical and self-serving values on the one hand and imperialist domination plus religious tyranny and obscurantism on the other, the masses of people will not be able to resolve the crisis of reactionary rule in their favour and in favour of humanity.

The people will not be able to break out of this impasse unless another path begins to take shape in theory, programme and practice, based on an understanding of the real underlying sources of their oppression and humiliation, and the only real way this situation could be thoroughly overcome – by a revolutionary state power that aims to break the grip of imperialism and all forms of oppression and backwardness through the transformation of people’s situation and thinking, ultimately as part of thoroughly remaking the world through proletarian revolution and ushering in communism. It is an orientation that is almost not present in the mix of these storms, but it very badly needs to be.

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