Saturday, November 02, 2013

Q&A on Egypt with Noam Chomsky - Oct 2013

With Courtesy to MIT Egyptian Student Association(ESA)

October 4th, 2013 in Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Cambridge MA USA

7:00 Chomsky: The fact that I’m standing here in front of a large audience in a big auditorium may be misleading. So let me quickly allay any misimpressions. I’m here basically to open a discussion. I don’t pretend to have any deep understanding of the remarkable events that have been taking place in Egypt in recent years. I’ve followed them as closely as I can but haven’t researched them deeply. And many of the sources, the most important ones, ones that are in Arabic, I haven’t had access to.

Another reason for my own hesitation is that I find myself in kind of surprising disagreement with some of my old friends, good friends in Egypt, the people whose judgment I’ve always respected and whose actions I’ve regarded with much admiration. I’ll try to explain why as I proceed.

I’ll first give a quick review of some of the most important events which I’m sure you’re familiar with. So, beginning in January, 2011, the uprising or some called it revolution took place at the Tahrir Square. It was occupied, set in motion in a chain of spectacular events that led very quickly to the fall of the dictator, US-backed dictator. And many other achievements are [that] lively political atmosphere opened up, much opportunity and… which was made good use of for freedom of the association, interchange and speech. Some of the most important achievements were scarcely reported here except in the specialist literature.

That had to do with labor rights. Egypt had had quite a militant and active labor movement for many years outside the official framework. There was an official state union which, as usual, was more committed to controlling the workforce than working for their interests. But outside of the institutional structure, there was a militant labor activism taking place. It accelerated roughly ten years ago as the neoliberal programs were instituted more severely. As just about everywhere in the world, including here, as these programs were instituted, they had pretty standard consequences. One was that they were highly praised by the international financial institutions: World Bank, the IMF, US Treasury, many economists. And they had numbers that looked good. But underneath the numbers, they had usual consequences; we’re familiar with them here. Sharply rising inequality, very high concentration of wealth, elimination of social support systems, atomization of the population, extensive repression, unbounded corruption, usual effects around the world which have led to uprisings almost everywhere.

In Latin America, they’ve led to actually remarkable liberation of South America from 500 years of Western dominance. And what began in the Arab Spring, in Tunisia and Egypt, was in part an uprising against the imposition of the harsh neoliberal regime combined with opposition to a brutal dictatorship that of course, the US was strongly supporting. And there were major achievements in labor rights very quickly. Labor movement was not initially directly involved in the uprising in the Tahrir Square occupation but began to join very soon and provided substantial mass basis for it. The general strike was one of the main factors that impelled the military command, SCAF to decide to shelve the dictator, Mubarak. An independent union was formed for the first time outside of the framework of the legal structure. That’s broken the monopoly of the state labor union. The involvement of labor movement in uprising added social and economic demands to the narrower political goals. And they also made constructive and substantive achievements: a raise of the minimum wage, new unions, much else.

The scholar who does most of the work on this, Joel Beinin at Stanford, reviews it extensively and points out that one of the main achievements was perhaps more subtle. It was just simply providing human dignity and a voice to people who had been so suppressed and marginalized that they had none.

All of that was of great concern to the United States and its allies. They don’t like such developments. And that was particularly kind of accelerated by the studies of public opinion in Egypt at that time—in Egypt and much of the Arab world. And these were conducted by major US polling agencies and certainly well known to planners and elite elements. They were not reported and barely mentioned in the United States in the media, barely mentioned. But they’re interesting and revealing for us and helpful for understanding the US attitude toward the developments that were taking place. US official attitudes.

In what Egypt at the time of the Tahrir Square occupation, a major poll taken by one of the main US polling agencies found that a very high percentage of the population, roughly 80%, regarded the greatest threat that they face as being the United States and Israel. They dislike Iran. All through the Arab world, there’s a sharp dislike of Iran, but as elsewhere they didn’t regard Iran as much of threat. Maybe 10% regarded Iran as a threat. In fact, opposition to US policies were so strong among the population that a majority in Egypt actually thought that the region might be more secure if Iran developed nuclear weapons to offset US and Israeli power.

Well, if you have a really functioning democracy, the popular opinion is going to influence policy. And it’s pretty obvious that the United States doesn’t want these policies implemented. And, as usual, the fear of democracy guided much of US policy; both suppression of information for the public here but also the policy actions. That’s actually quite normal.

There were elections. The elections were won by Islamists mostly the Muslim Brotherhood. They had been the best organized group for many years. They were illegal most of the time under the dictatorship but they functioned. And the organization enabled them. That was one of the factors that enabled them to win the elections. 
The other was that there were many splits in the secular, left liberal quasi-coalition, which actually got a majority of the votes. More than half of the Egyptians voted for what was called “the revolutionary candidate,” candidates from those sectors in the last summer’s presidential elections. But there were six accredited candidates from those groups and that was split so the Brotherhood easily won, Salafists took a big roll.

They imposed a regime which was pretty harsh. The SCAF, the military command, maintained its very powerful role in dominating the society. The government made only limited efforts to share governance, became quite unpopular. By this year, there was a major uprising June 30th, a huge outpouring of the people into the streets; petitions calling for the government to resign. A couple of days later came the military takeover on July 3rd. Well, that’s part of the background.

My own personal aspirations and sympathies… and in fact friends, are mostly with the mass popular June 30th uprising movement. But I think they’re making a serious error in their support for the military coup--or for many of them, even the outright denial that the coup took place--and in their faith in the commitment of the military to defend what they called “the people” against the Brotherhood. That’s a term that should be avoided. The people are badly split. Maybe you may not like them, the Brotherhood, you may not like their actions but they’re there. They’re substantial part of the population. And they can’t be written off. So, the reference to the people already tells you something is misleading and the commentary severely so.

Also mistaken, in my view, is their faith that the military is going to move to establish a democratic secular regime. And that’s highly unlikely. Much more likely is that the military will act the way the military acts everywhere. And historically in Egypt as well, it’ll impose, as they’ve already imposed, a harsh brutal regime. Its aim will be to reinforce their own power of the political system and also to sustain their control over quite substantial economic empire. It’ll crash dissidents and undermine civil and human rights. That’s already happening. My unpleasant expectation is that my friends, the secular liberal left opposition that has welcomed the military, are likely to be its victims pretty soon as it has happened in the past and as it’s beginning to happen now. 

One of the best informed international correspondents in the region, Patrick Cockburn, wrote recently after returning from Egypt that “Egypt is on the brink of a new dark age as the generals close in for the kill.” “With 10 retired generals and two police commanders from the Mubarak era being appointed provincial governors, Egypt is effectively under military rule.” And there’s of course huge support from Saudi Arabia and other elements of the most reactionary parts of the Islamic world. The West prefers them to the Brotherhood. The United States, like Britain before, it tended overwhelmingly to support the most extreme radical Islamists in opposition to secular nationalism for understandable reasons. They don’t like to have the Brotherhood particularly but that’s a different matter. Saudi Arabia and Salafis are way to their extreme side.

It’s possible Cockburn predicts that this may lead to a bloody civil war. Joel Beinin, a specialist on Egyptian labor, writes that the security forces, after the military takeover, quickly crashed “a militant strike at the Suez Steel Company, located in the Canal Zone city that, not coincidentally, was in the vanguard of the revolutionary forces that compelled Mubarak to step down.No matter how popular the army may be at the moment, workers now face an emboldened authoritarian state that is openly hostile to their rights and aspirations.”

I suspect he’s correct. As I said, there have been real gains maybe lasting ones but they are in danger and I think the danger is quite serious. Right now there are two major power centers. One is Islamists and the other is the military. And the latter is very much in the ascendant and with substantial left liberal support, as I said I think is a mistake.

Two weeks ago, a new initiative was launched. It’s called, it calls itself “Revolution Path Front.” The main state newspaper al-Ahram describes it as a “new, anti-Brotherhood, anti-military front launched to achieve revolution goals.”

It contains well-known political figures, activists, labor leaders and others. The spokesperson at the press conference where they announced themselves was Wael Gamal. He is a quite impressive young left economist, I met him a couple of months ago in Egypt. He said at the press conference that "It has been two-and-a-half years since the revolution began and Egyptians have not yet achieved their dream of building a new republic that will provide them with democracy, justice and equality," "Millions have taken to the streets twice; once in January 2011 to topple Mubarak's regime, which was based on corruption and oppression… and a second time in June 2013, forcing Mohamed Morsi to step down after losing legitimacy as a result of the Brotherhood's attempts to monopolize political life and rebuild an oppressive system."

According to Al-Ahram, the aim is “to work for the redistribution of wealth, achieve social justice, combat the formation of an oppressive regime, achieve equality between citizens, set the path for transitional justice and adopt foreign policies that guarantee national independence.” Now if it does, that also guarantees US opposition to it. Is this possible? I don’t know. I hope it is. I think it’s…it looks like the best hope right now to save Egypt from what might become one of the darkest periods of its history under military rule. Thank you.