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Modern pharaoh falls

Sasha Simic charts the course and origins of the momentous revolution in Egypt

As the placard of one protestor outside the Egyptian embassy in London had it: 'World are you watching? In Egypt history is being written!'

In the 18 days it took to remove Hosni Mubarak, the hopes of one day were often answered with disappointments the next. Victories have followed on the heels of defeats. Who could have predicted that Mubarak's defiant insistence that he would remain in office, broadcast on Thursday, 10th February, would be followed by his historic resignation the very next day?

Whatever the path of future developments in Egypt, nothing can mar the incredible achievement of the people in forcing the resignation of their despised dictator.

When Hillary Clinton came to Egypt in February 2009 she was handed a document by her own officials which gave the following précis of Mubarak's regime:

'Security forces used unwarranted lethal force and tortured and abused prisoners and detainees, in most cases with impunity. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals, in some cases for political purposes, and kept them in prolonged pre-trial detention. The executive branch placed limits on and pressured the judiciary. The government's respect for freedoms of press, association, and religion declined during the year, and the government continued to restrict other civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech.' 

In rising up in their millions, the people of Egypt have shaken one of the most brutal regimes in the Middle-East.

The people of Egypt have not just shaken their own rulers, and the rest of the despots of the region, they have dealt a blow to Imperialism. In the wake of Mubarak's resignation, Barak Obama was quick to insist that the United States would 'continue to be friend and partner' to the people of Egypt. While the Egyptian people were writing history, Obama was busy re-writing it, neatly avoiding references to the fact that for the last 30 years the U.S. had been the 'friend and partner of Mubarak. Indeed successive American administrations frequently praised the 'stability' of Mubarak's regime and often cited their 'special relationship' with it. Without the U.S.'s massive donations of financial and military aid, Mubarak could not have survived to torment his people for 30 years. Over that period the U.S. has subsidized the Egyptian regime to the tune of $64 billion which includes some $40 billion in military aid. Independent journalist Jason Parkinson was in Tahrir Square in early February and has returned with some harrowing videos of state repression against the uprising. Bloodied protestors turned to the camera to show that the empty cartridges and tear-gas canisters the army had used against them were all stamped 'Made in the USA.'

The U.S. have given the Egyptian state $1.5 billion annually for the last 30 years most of which was squandered on the military and the police. That couldn't save the police station in Suez from being burnt or stop Mubarak's own National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters in Cairo from being set ablaze.


Failure of neo-liberalism


Hosni Mubarak's resignation doesn't just mark the end of a brutal individual, it also signals the complete failure of neo-liberalism in the region. In 1991, shortly after the collapse of the Stalinist dictatorships in Russia and Eastern Europe, Mubarak signed up to the Washington consensus on free-market 'Reforms.'  In return for a loan of $7 billion, Mubarak began to restructure the Egyptian economy along neo-liberal lines. It meant subjecting his people to a wide-ranging privatisation programme in industry and agriculture, reducing food subsidies and dispensing with price controls on many basic necessities. It meant hammering the poor and rewarding the rich. In 2004 the rate of income tax for the top income owners was slashed from 42% to 20%. 

In 2006 Mubarak amended the constitution, purging it of the last remnant of the welfare reforms introduced by the Nasser regime. The changes were designed to 'Rid Egypt of socialist principles launched in the 1960s (to) create a favourable atmosphere for foreign investment.' In other words the changes were designed to force down worker's pay so profits would be higher. This was driven by the neo-liberal fallacy that wealth 'Trickles down' in society.

A tiny few did indeed become rich beyond imagination. Mubarak himself is reputed to have amassed a personal fortune of between $40 to $70 billion dollars. In the last week-end of January, 19 private jets owned by Egypt's richest families escaped Cairo for Dubai. One contained Hussein Salem, a former intelligence office close to Mubarak. Airport officials at Dubai found £30 million in cash on his person.

A few years ago neo-liberals were pointing to Egypt as a vindication of their doctrine. A report published by the IMF in 2008 ecstatically declared that the Egyptian economy 'continues to impress' growing at a rate of 7.1% and attracting £11 billion in foreign investment. In 2009 the Egyptian government's own Investment Authority exposed just how much of a mirage the Egyptian 'success' story truly was when it reported that 90% of its population of 81 million had been untouched by this so-called 'boom'. That was no news to the vast majority of people trying to survive in the free-market paradise built by Mubarak.  In 2008 15 people died in fights which broke out across Egypt over access to state subsidised bread. Recently food inflation was estimated to be spiralling at 17%. By 2009 20% of Egypt's population were living in absolute poverty with 44% of the population attempting to survive on less than two dollars a day. The official jobless number was reckoned at 25% but was generally accepted to be far higher.

But there was widespread resistance to Mubarak's neo-liberal onslaught. Under Nasser villages were given a state loan to buy the land they worked after it had been expropriated from the landlords. Desperately poor, it took many villages 25 to 30 years to pay off the loans. Just as they did, Mubarak announced that he favoured privatised agriculture and used the army to restore the landlords in some areas. The peasants fought back with great success. As one victorious peasant woman told the Cairo conference in 2008: 'We are so poor we have nothing but our dignity and our scrap of land. If they come for it we'll defend it. If you take our bread, we'll break your neck.'

In the massive textile factories in the Nile Delta, workers repeatedly struck against their new multi-national owners for higher pay and bonuses. In the autumn of 2007, for example, 27,000 workers at the giant Ghazl al-Mahalla textile plant north of Cairo walked out and won 130 days pay, improved transport to work, the removal of a corrupt official of the state union and the sack for a factory boss. In September 2008 55,000 property tax collectors went on national strike for better conditions. Their bitter strike lasted three months and was only won after an 11 day sit-in outside government offices in Cairo by 5,000 tax collectors and their families. They won a 325% increase in their salaries and won the right to form the first independent union in Egypt since 1957.

These seeds of resistance have come to flower in the Egyptian revolution. The Egyptian people hated Mubarak, because they hated what the neo-liberalism he championed has done to their lives.  Mubarak tried to retain power with the argument that there would be chaos were he to go. Actually Egypt under Mubarak has been in a constant state of free-market chaos. It says everything about the ubiquity of Islamophobia in British political discourse that much energy has been wasted discussing the so-called 'threat' of the Muslim Brotherhood in the risen Egypt. The odious Tony Blair wasted no time in raising the terror of political Islam whilst praising Mubarak as 'immensely courageous and a force for good'. The Muslim Brotherhood have an estimated membership of two million and are expected to be the party of government following genuinely democratic elections. The western media and its pundits tend to see the Brotherhood as a monolithic organisation.

However they are divided between a activist base that shares the general poverty of the masses who want to see genuine social progress in Egypt, and a conservative leadership that has more in common with the ruling-order than with their own base. That's why the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood was incapable of leading any effective opposition to Mubarak over the last 30 years and played a minimal role in the momentous events of the last 18 days. In any case it will now be down to the Egyptian people, for the first time ever, to choose who governs them and if the west isn't happy with their choice - tough.

Mubarak has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Other tyrants will share his fate.