February 2011, Week 2


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Wed, 9 Feb 2011 22:03:08 -0500
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Autumn of the patriarchs


A GREAT wave of anger, frustration, defiance and
democratic demand is sweeping across the Arab world, from
the Atlantic shore to the Gulf of Aden and from Amman to
Khartoum. As I write these lines on Thursday, February 3,
the epicentre of this great uprising has shifted to Egypt,
Cairo in particular, and it is here, in the legendary
Tahrir Square, that the fate of it all shall be decided.
Some have died by self-immolation, hundreds more have been
killed by the police and other security forces, in half a
dozen countries. Today, a mixed crowd of well-armed
“Mubarak supporters” – in fact a mixture of hired goons
and Internal Security personnel – attacked the protesters
in the early hours of the morning, killing five people and
wounding 836. The Army, which the protesters thought would
protect them, brought in its tanks but did not intervene;
it may yet, but that is hard to predict, and it is not at
all clear which side the Army will choose.

Despite all this, the ecstasy of being part of a
rebellious multitude, across the region, remains. That
ecstasy is now mixed with anger and apprehension. February
1 witnessed some two million people marching in six
cities, from Cairo to Port Said, and another ‘March of a
Million' has been announced for Friday, February 4, which
the protesters have designated as the “Day of Departure”
for Mubarak and his close cohorts. That may well turn out
to be even more violent, perhaps forcing the Army to show
its hand. Will the Army still stand aside? Will it come
forward and join the Internal Security establishment in
violent suppression? Or, will the generals arrange a villa
for Mubarak in Saudi Arabia, where he can join his
Tunisian counterpart, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? That
decision shall be made not in Cairo but in Washington and
Tel Aviv.


This is the single biggest uprising in modern Arab
history, but no one can say for sure whether actual
structural changes for the economy and society shall arise
out of it beyond some cosmetic surgery. Centred as it is
on the specifically secular issues of democratisation,
human rights and corruption-free governance, this uprising
has already laid to rest the “Westocentric” myth that
Muslim masses can only be mobilised through religious
exhortation, and it has refuted the claim of
American-sponsored dictators that they are the great
bulwark against a rising tide of “Islamo-fascism” (a word
of American coinage) that is sweeping the Arab lands. What
are in fact sweeping across the Arab world today are the
good old values of the French Revolution.

So fundamentally secular is the whole movement that even
the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, by far the largest
Islamist bloc in the Arab world, has declared from the
beginning that the uprising is not about Islam but about
Egypt and that the Brothers seek no special place for
themselves in the new order. Indeed, they formed a
coalition with four secular groups and have collectively
authorised Mohamed ElBaradei, a perfectly secular and
Westernised technocrat, to negotiate with the Army on
their behalf.

Similarly, Rachid Ghannouchi, the veteran leader of the
Islamic Ennahda Party ( nahda is the Arabic word for
renaissance), the largest Islamist party in Tunisia, who
returned to Tunis after more than two decades of exile,
has limited his demand to his party getting legal
recognition and being allowed to participate in the
democratic processes of his country. He further told
Financial Times: “Democracy should not exclude communists…
it is not ethical for us to call on a secular government
to accept us, while once we get to power we will eradicate
them.” His party has officially called for “a
Constitutional Council which represents all political
tendencies and civil society institutions such as trade
unions, the Association of Lawyers, and representative
bodies of unemployed graduates who played an important
role in the revolution, with the aim of building a
democratic constitution for a parliamentary system that
distributes and de-centralises power on the widest scale
possible”. I might add that this demand for a new
constitution, which is broadly shared across the Tunisian
political spectrum, reminds one, irresistibly, of
Venezuela and Bolivia, even though the Tunisian agenda is
tamer and altogether confined within a liberal matrix.

Ghannouchi and his party have taken such positions because
they know that Islamism is a relatively weak current in
the Tunisian political spectrum. Much more numerous and
powerful are the forces represented by the trade union
federation, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, and the
party associated with it, namely the Democratic Forum for
Labour and Unity Party, as well as the newly constituted
14th of July Front consisting of the Tunisian Communist
Workers Party, the Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party,
the League of the Labour Left, the Movement of Nasserist
Unionists, the Movement of Democratic Nationalists, the
Baasist Current, the Democratic Nationalists (Al-Watad),
and the independent Left. Significantly, the Tunisian
Communist Workers Party took a position remarkably similar
to that of Ennahda: “All the forces that played an
effective and crucial role in toppling the dictator,
whether political, trade unionist, human rights, or
cultural, whether organised or otherwise, are alongside
the masses, to be involved in drawing Tunisia's future and
cannot be represented by any other figure or body.”

Thus, if a truly democratic order were to come to Tunisia
or any other Arab country currently in the eye of this
insurrectionary storm, and if new constitutions and
governments come into being through free and genuinely
broad-based processes, not religion but Arab nationalism
and redistributive justice would necessarily emerge as the
dominant ideologies, while a whole range of forces from
trade unionists, communists and Left nationalists to
Islamists would get their fair share of representation in
it. Which is precisely why imperialism shall not allow
that kind of popular, participatory democracy and would
want to either suppress the uprising wherever it can or
limit the gains of the uprising to merely procedural
electoralism with neoliberal structures, corporate power
and pro-Israeli alignment remaining in place.

That is why United States Assistant Secretary of State
Jeffrey Feltman was the first foreign dignitary to visit
Tunisia after the fall of the dictator, Zine El Abidine
Ben Ali.

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