Safi Shams grew up in Israel and recently completed his master’s degree research on the 19th century American industrial revolution at UML. He shares his observations on events in Egypt and Tunisia as of two days ago:
The recent events at Egypt and Tunisia echo similar themes and emanate from similar motivations: skyrocketing unemployment, starvation (especially in the case of Egypt), autocracy and dictatorship without an expiration date. However, have no illusions that protests are – in contrast to how they are often represented by mainstream media and, well, mainstream people!– eventually about material needs as well as political ones. The idea that this is a “North African or Arab-specific problem” of political corruption and ruthless, uneducated leaders is nothing but a pseudo notion. If they are really fighting about “free speech”, then they should have stopped by now – these protests were full of speech and “venting”! It is all these factors combined.
The scale of these protests is unprecedented – in Egypt, the largest protests before the current ones took place in 1977 for example, when the IMF-mandated hikes in food prices drove many to starvation; or the one resulting from the recent fires in Russia that raised the price of wheat, mobilizing protesters waving loaves of bread in the streets (Yes! A fire in Russia, not a speech by Obama!). The idea that some slaphappy service like Twitter or Facebook are behind such uprising are as obscure as claiming that Obama’s speech in Cairo moved the masses into action. So, one main point to keep in mind here: people are not robots, unquestionably absorbing catalysts and mobilizations, regardless whether the “mobilizers” are the Muslim Brotherhood, Obama, or some green-revolution-stop-war-I-love-the-world upper middle class activist! Catalysts are appropriated ideas, and just as consumption needs money, appropriation needs tools: fundamentalism needs knowledge of religion, “green” activism requires knowledge about environmental decline along with a “what to do” package and so on.
In both Tunisia and Egypt labor unions and labor activists independent from unions were at the front of the demonstration, more so in Tunisia though. A Tunisian professor, Mohsen AlGhreibi, told “Elbadil”: “attention seems to be fixed upon all parties previously unrecognized.” These include “Al Nahda”, ONE party with a declared Islamist agenda. The rest include The Nationalist Movement, The Communist Worker’s Party, AlWatad (a democratic-socialist party), AlMod (a Maoist party) and more! Although some of these parties have been in existence for decades, the fact that they were not recognized under the recent regime caused their activities to be covert; hence their performance in the open political arena is yet to be seen.
The case is similar in Egypt, although unions do not have a semi-independent federated structure as they do in Tunisia; In other words, unionists in Egypt are backed by the government to replace the independent unionists who were severely prosecuted, facing long-term imprisonments. Live ammunition used against striking workers at the steel mills in the late 80s and early 90s was not unrepeated by the Egyptian government. However, the fact remains that despite the state’s attempts to control unions in Egypt, they still manage to organize strikes –often independently from unions. The textile city of Malha is a good example here, with a large population of workers regularly protesting their work conditions. Strikes at Malha and cities like Suez, among operators of the Suez Canal, were among the mass-protests as well. read more »