Moving Omar Mukhtar back to Benghazi

This one’s for you, dad. (This was written in April or so, I think, which explains why Qadhafi is still alive and I’m still calling Jan25 a revolution. )

In a now-notorious New York Times op-ed of the 1st March, the columnist Thomas Friedman attempted to explain the Egyptian revolution as the result of several factors that included the Beijing Olympics, Google Maps, and the rape trial (now conviction) of former Israeli president Moshe Katsav. While Friedman’s article was a particularly egregious example of wild explanations for this year’s uprisings – and he was duly mocked far and wide on the internet, including one writer who suggested Friedman might like to include his own moustache as a potential revolutionary catalyst – it was symptomatic of a wider issue. This all came as something of a surprise, and we are still casting around for answers. Yet if we look at the history of the region, we can trace patterns of dissent and revolution stretching back past the creation of the modern Middle East.

Many metro stations in Cairo are named after famous Egyptian leaders, and a metro ride is a trip through the past century or more of the country’s history. Saad Zaghloul station, a ten-minute walk from Tahrir Square, is named for the man who came to power through a mass revolution in Egypt almost exactly 100 years ago, which ultimately led to the independence of Egypt from British rule. Looking at the TV images from Egypt of veiled women flashing the V-sign from atop tanks, or of demonstrators waving signs showing both the crescent and the cross, there are striking parallels in imagery between the 25th January revolution and the 1919 revolution.

Unlike Nasser’s coup in 1952 or the earlier coup by Ahmed ‘Urabi in 1881 (both with their own metro stations, of course) the 1919 revolution was a mass popular uprising that involved a broad demographic. A New York Times article from 1919 reports ‘800 natives dead in Egypt’s rising’ and tells us that they attacked British Government property as well as telegraph wires and train lines. Zaghloul became the first prime minister of Egypt, and while the 1919 constitutional experiment failed – the British still held huge influence over Zaghloul and the Egyptian King Farouq – the parallels with today are a vivid reminder of the history of revolution in Egypt. (Mubarak metro station, incidentally, was at one stage in February renamed ’25th January Martyrs’ station by some enterprising young Egyptians armed with large stickers.)

Today’s Arab autocrats are aware of and have an uneasy relationship with their country’s revolutionary pasts. When Muammar Qadhafi became leader of Libya in 1969, he paid a visit to the tomb of Omar Mukhtar, which used to be situated in Benghazi, now the centre of the Libyan uprising. Mukhtar was a Libyan nationalist hero who led an eight year rebellion against the brutal Italian occupation of Libya in the early 20th century until he was captured and executed in 1931. In putting down this rebellion, the Italian air force bombed civilians from the air, the first time this had been done in history, setting a precedent that today Qadhafi is following with with horrific results.

No sooner had Qadhafi visited Mukhtar’s tomb than he had it moved out into the depths of the Libyan desert where it is much harder to get to; yet he continued to exploit Mukhtar’s memory, attending a conference in Italy with his picture pinned to his chest and even bringing Mukhtar’s ageing son along. Mukhtar’s son, Muhammad Omar, has recently made statements in support of the Libyan rebels, who in turn have been observed chanting the slogan ‘We will win or die’, the chant of Mukhtar’s rebels in the 1920s.

This uneasy consciousness of the region’s revolutionary past shows the importance of the history of places like Libya and Egypt when considering today’s uprisings. Syria, for instance, has taken the world particularly by surprise, rising against one of the region’s most repressive regimes; yet less than a century ago a mass rebellion broke out against French rule which drove the French from Damascus. A Time magazine article from 1926 reads: ‘The French are policing and mopping up Syria but at a cost in gold and blood which France can ill afford.’ Souq Hamidiyah is a covered market in the old city of Damascus; if you go there today you can still see the bullet holes in the roof where the French strafed the city with gunfire from the air.

Some have argued that the key difference between today’s uprisings and those of the early 20th century is that the latter were primarily directed against external imperial powers. It is true that the demand heard on Al Jazeera again and again is ‘isqaat an-nidhaam’, the downfall of the regime, and that those regimes are modern-day independent Arab rulers. Yet to claim that they are purely internal affairs is a convenient distortion that ignores the extent of modern-day imperialism in the Middle East.

Today’s imperialism is more insidious; it involves, for instance, $300 million of aid to the Yemeni autocrat Ali Abdullah Salih in 2010 so that he can fight Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on behalf of the US. It involves Barack Obama’s glaring silence over the Saudi-assisted suppression of protests in Bahrain. It is clear in the arms trade between Britain and Muammar Qadhafi, and in the billions of dollars of aid to former president Hosny Mubarak each year in exchange for, amongst other things, his cooperation in the blockade of Gaza, or former French foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie’s visit to Tunisia and her offer to help Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to ‘quell’ the rebellion, or the recent statement by Hilary Clinton in which she described Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as a ‘reformer’.

Any hint of a non-Western power trying to assert regional influence (apart from key allies of the West, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel) is deeply disquieting to today’s imperialists, who have ditched their pith helmets for Predator drones and military aid. When Turkey threatened to cut off relations with Israel following the attack on the Gaza flotilla in May 2010, there was condemnation from the West for what they claimed was Turkey ‘turning east’, ‘creating an Islamist bloc’, or even ‘trying to recreate the Ottoman Empire’. Though Western powers are only currently directly occupying one Middle Eastern country (two, if you count Afghanistan), their influence in the region is far-reaching and deeply entrenched, and any hint of a change to the status quo is enough to send Western diplomats and politicians scrambling for their vaguely-worded statements on the need for ‘restraint’. The West’s support for autocratic Arab regimes means that this year’s uprisings are as anti-imperialist as Omar Mukhtar’s.

The Middle East has become intimately tied to the West through economic reform and restructuring, which itself cannot be discounted as a cause behind this year’s uprisings. Many countries have undergone structural adjustment programmes, following a neo-liberal economic model laid out by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In places like Egypt and Tunisia, this has led to a widening gap between rich and poor, a concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite, and a disintegration of mechanisms of support which helped the poorest in hard times. In Egypt, for example, which has been heralded as a success story of structural adjustment, GDP grew 4.6% in 2009 even as most of the world experienced a downturn in growth; yet poverty also increased from 20% to 23.4%. As industry was privatised in the 1990s, a handful of huge companies grew to dominate most sectors in Egypt, while working conditions and living standards deteriorated for the majority of Egyptians.

The global financial crisis worsened the impact of these reforms – Egypt is dependent on exports to Europe, demand for which fell during the downturn, and also depends on remittances from migrant workers in the Gulf, which shrank greatly during the financial crisis. Protests against rising commodity prices and for an increase in wages and workers’ rights have been common over the last decade, and this economic protest has played a role in the most recent unrest. Yet this year has not just been about the price of bread – it also came out of a long tradition of political activism and dissent.

Egypt, for instance, has been frequently portrayed as politically stagnant – the land of the Pharaohs, its ancient history invoked to characterise the dictatorships of today, the country ruled by Hosny Mubarak’s paternal, guiding hand or rod of iron, depending on which way you looked at it. Yet a few instances from the last decade of Egyptian political life give the lie to this. There’s the last time Tahrir Square was occupied, when protesters held it for ten hours in March 2003 in protest at the US invasion of Iraq. Or the thousands of protesters who took to the streets during the 2005 elections, protesting at the fraudulent election process and intimidation of voters. Or the massive uprising in Mahalla el-Kubra, an industrial town outside of Cairo, on April 6th 2008, when police violently suppressed a planned strike and street protest (the April 6th movement, who were prominent in organising the January 25th revolution, were named after the date of the Mahalla rising).

In fact, the (very) modern history of protest in Egypt can be traced back to 2000 at least, when mass protests involving tens of thousands of people broke out in Cairo in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada. (Israel still remains a concern of Tahrir Square; during the revolution, demonstrators chanted ‘Leave, leave, you traitor [Mubarak], you sold your country to Israel’ and ‘Hosny Mubarak, you agent, you sold the gas and only the Nile is left’, referring to a gas deal between Egypt and Israel which has played a major part in the grievances of the Egyptian people.)

There is, in fact, and has been for some time a vibrant public political sphere in Egypt which has seen workers, opposition newspapers, human rights organisations, women, political parties, youth, Sinai bedu, bloggers, Islamists, secularists, Nobel-Prize winning former IAEA chiefs, university students, and even riot police (in a 1986 mutiny) challenge the prevailing political system for a long time and in a multitude of ways. A lot of these challenges have been small on the scale of world politics; some even had the audacity to take place before the advent of Facebook. (There was a strike in Mahalla el-Kubra in 1948, too; by the next day, newspapers were reporting on solidarity strikes in other industrial towns in Egypt. The Egyptian government, when cutting off the internet and mobile networks in January, should have known better.)

Perhaps surprisingly, some of these challenges have even been successful. For example: in 2001, workers at a hospital in Suez held a sit-in, protesting the suspension of their entitlement pay. After the intervention of state security and local officials, the pay was reinstated and the director of the hospital fired. Suez, too, was where workers in 1947 boycotted Dutch ships passing through the canal in solidarity with Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism. These are relatively small incidents in a long catalogue of similar small incidents; but put together, such things make up the society which on the 25th January marched on Tahrir Square. When you look at this this way, the Beijing Olympics suddenly don’t seem as important. If we want to begin to understand the revolutions of today, we could start by looking at the revolutions of the past.

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