Even Glenn Beck and Frances Fox Piven get a mention.
Mark LeVine: Why did it take a revolution in Tunisia to get Egyptians onto the streets in unprecedented numbers?
Hossam el-Hamalawy: In Egypt we say that Tunis was more or less a catalyst, not an instigator, because the objective conditions for an uprising existed in Egypt, and revolt has been in the air over the past few years. Indeed, we already managed to have 2 mini-intifadas or “mini Tunisias” in 2008. The first was the April 2008 uprising in Mahalla, followed by another one in Borollos, in the north of the country.
Revolutions don’t happen out of the blue. It’s not because of Tunisia yesterday that we have one in Egypt mechanically the next day. You can’t isolate these protests from the last four years of labour strikes in Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa intifada and the US invasion of Iraq. The outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada was especially important because in the 1980s-90s, street activism had been effectively shut down by the government as part of the fight against Islamist insurgents. It only continued to exist inside university campuses or party headquarters. But when the 2000 intifada erupted and Al Jazeera started airing images of it, it inspired our youth to take to the streets, in the same way we’ve been inspired by Tunisia today.
Mark LeVine: What is the relationship between regional and local events here?
Hossam el-Hamalawy: You have to understand that the regional is local here. In 2000 the protests didn’t started as anti-regime protests but rather against Israel and in support of Palestinians. The same occurred with the US invasion of Iraq three years later. But once you take to the streets and are confronted by regime violence you start asking questions: Why is Mubarak sending troops to confront protesters instead of confronting Israel? Why is he exporting cement to be used by Israel to build settlements instead of helping Palestinians? Why are police so brutal with us when we’re just trying to express our solidarity with Palestinians in a peaceful manner? And so regional issues like Israel and Iraq were shifted to local issues. And within moments, the same protesters who chanted pro-Palestinian slogans started chanting against Mubarak. The specific internal turning point in terms of protests was 2004, when dissent turned domestic.
Mark LeVine: As you might have heard, in the US, the right wing talk show host Glenn Beck has gone after an elderly academic, Frances Fox Piven, because of an article she wrote calling on the unemployed to stage mass protests for jobs. She’s even gotten death threats, some from unemployed people who seem happier fantasising about shooting her with one of their many guns than actually fighting for their rights. It’s amazing to think about the crucial role of trade unions in the Arab world today considering more than two decades of neoliberal regimes across the region whose primary goal has been to destroy working class solidarity. Why have unions remained so important?
Hossam el-Hamalawy: Unions have always been proven to be the silver bullet for any dictatorship. Look at Poland, South Korea, Latin America and Tunisia. Unions were always instrumental in mass mobilisation. You want a general strike to overthrow a dictatorship, and there is nothing better than an independent union to do so.
Mark LeVine: Is there a larger ideological program behind the protests, or just get rid of Mubarak?
Hossam el-Hamalawy: Everyone has his or her reasons to take to the streets, but I would assume that if our uprising became successful and he’s overthrown you’ll start getting divisions. The poor will want to push the revolution to a much more radical position, to push the radical redistribution of wealth and to fight corruption, whereas the so-called reformers who want to put breaks and more or less lobby for change in top and curb powers of state a little bit but keep some essence of the state. But we’re not there yet.
Mark LeVine: What is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and how will its remaining aloof from the current protests impact the situation?
Hossam el-Hamalawy: The Brotherhood has been suffering from divisions since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. Its involvement in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement when it came to confronting the regime was abysmal. Basically, whenever their leadership makes a compromise with the regime, especially the most recent leadership of the current supreme guide, it has demoralised its base cadres. I know personally many young brothers who left the group, some of them have joined other groups or remained independent. As the current street movement grows and the lower leadership gets involved, there will be more divisions because the higher leadership can’t justify why they’re not part of the new uprising.
Mark LeVine: What about the role of the US in this conflict. How do people on the street view its positions?
Hossam el-Hamalawy: We don’t expect anything from Obama, whom we regard as a great hypocrite. But we hope and expect the American people – trade unions, professors’ associations, student unions, activist groups, to come out in support of us. What we want for the US government is to completely get out of the picture. We don’t want any sort of backing; just cut aid to Mubarak immediately and withdraw backing from him, withdraw from all Middle Eastern bases, and stop supporting the state of Israel.
Ultimately, Mubarak will do whatever he has to do to protect himself. He will suddenly adopt the most anti-US rhetoric if he thought that would help him save his skin. At the end of the day he’s committed to his own interests, and if he thinks the US won’t support him, he’ll turn somewhere else. The reality is that any really clean government that comes to power in the region will come into open conflict with the US because it will call for radical redistribution of wealth and ending support for Israel or other dictatorships. So we don’t expect any help from America, just to leave us alone.