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Achcar: Military rule at core of social and economic inequality in Egypt

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. February 11, 2011, will be remembered as a day that helped shape, I think, the rest of this decade. And as most of the world knows, this is the day the Egyptian people brought down President Mubarak. Now joining us to talk about this moment in time and what may come next is Gilbert Achcar. Gilbert is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His many books include The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Thanks for joining us Gilbert.


JAY: Before we get into analytical mode, how do you feel about all this?

ACHCAR: Oh, that it’s an absolutely wonderful day, from the point of view of the downfall of a dictatorship, a major one in the Arab world, a major one worldwide, actually, and the second dictator in the Arab world to fall in less than one month. So that’s absolutely unprecedented. That’s absolutely great. And indeed the comparisons with the kind of shock wave and domino effect that we have seen in Eastern Europe are now abounding.

JAY: The people in the streets are wildly enthusiastic. The military high command seems to have played this very well, in the sense that they’ve come out of this (so far, at least) looking mostly like the heroes of this, or at least the heroes after the Egyptian people in the streets. But what really comes next?

ACHCAR: Yeah, this is the big question, because, I mean, on the face of it there is something like a paradox in this jubilation. And I can perfectly understand the joy and this feeling of deliverance of people who have been now for the last several days going through this very intensive movement. Very demanding–they were all exhausted. And yet they managed not only to resist but to amplify the movement in an absolutely remarkable way. So I understand the joy. But at the same time, this is Mubarak deciding to leave power, and transmitting power to the higher command of the military–not exactly the traditional image one might have of a democratic transition or a democratic revolution. So, indeed, I mean, this shows the key problem of this uprising, of this revolution, is the lack of an alternative. And they were not really able to promote an alternative that would be issued from the movement. And, finally, they had to implore, ask the army to do what it just did, get rid of Mubarak and hold power. Now, they all hope that this is transitory, and I guess that would be transitory anyway. But the key point is that Mubarak was just the tip of an iceberg, the key base of which was the army, and the army is still in command.

JAY: In the previous interviews we’ve done, we’ve talked about how the army really is at the core of a whole class of crony capitalism in Egypt, one that rents–you can sort of say rents its army out to the United States for, you know, $1.5 billion a year in terms of playing a strategic role for the US in the area. So you’d have to say the US more or less so far has gotten what it wanted out of this situation. Perhaps they would’ve liked to have kept Mubarak, but it looks like they are going to get the military regime without Mubarak.

ACHCAR: No, I don’t think they wanted to keep Mubarak. I think the Obama administration, maybe they had some differences among them anyway, but there was a clear indication that at least many of them were not happy with Mubarak holding to power as he did. And that was obvious, I mean, for the rest of the world. You know, when everybody was expecting that he resigns and he just announced that he would stay, everybody was just completely astonished, and for those who in Washington expected him to resign at that point, I think the disappointment was great.

JAY: But I’m talking a couple of weeks ago, at the very beginnings of this process. Hillary Clinton was pretty clear that they were–in her language, at least, they thought Mubarak would see through this with some reforms. You don’t think that was their first choice?

ACHCAR: They wouldn’t have been able anyway to say openly that he should resign. I mean, these kind of things they would say, probably, maybe in private conversation, and maybe with his environment more than with himself directly. But I think the key formula that kept coming from Washington was orderly transition, orderly transition. The orderly transition could have been with Mubarak, but obviously it has become quite obvious for several days already that it couldn’t be achieved with Mubarak holding to power as he did. And therefore he had to leave. Now, in a sense, the fact that it’s the army that is presiding over the whole thing is reassuring for Washington. It is in the same way probably reassuring for Israel that the key structure, the key backbone of the power in Egypt, and the institution with which both Washington and Israel have been doing business over the decades now is still in command.

JAY: So the next steps are really critical. I guess there’s–I mean, there’s many things that could happen, but I guess two big things that could happen is you have straightforward military rule for several months and then some kind of election, or some kind of–what [Mohamed] ElBaradei’s been calling for, some form of national unity government, government of national salvation, which brings in opposition people right away. Is that where the critical fight is now? And then the question is: does this movement keep going? Or are they satisfied with the military rule?

ACHCAR: Yeah, that’s a big question. I mean, it’s quite probable that they will form some kind of government including opposition figures–I mean figures of opposition to Mubarak, and more or less like the Tunisian scenario. And that might lead to a continuation of protest about the composition of this government. That would be excellent if this happens in this way, I mean, if the protest carries on and this whole movement that we have seen doesn’t just vanish, believing that they achieved what they wanted and that was it. So, of course–and what I’m saying is certainly something that those who are in the movement or those who are leading the movement, especially the young people, the radical wing of this whole protest, is very much aware of, I think: of the necessity of being extremely vigilant, that what is happening now is actually, as Obama himself said, the beginning of the transition, it’s not the end, it’s just–we’re still at the beginning. And what will be decisive, it–what is coming ahead. Now, this said, I believe that the military, given this [inaudible] the huge movement and all that, will have to concede a certain democratic, let’s say, reform of the whole regime. And again I get back to the scenario that I think that in Washington they have in mind as the best possible scenario, which is a Turkish kind of evolution, through which the army–but in a controlled and progressive manner, you know, under firm control–manages to let the political reform happen, let democratic elections take place, and bring, you know, to power figures that wouldn’t be a real threat to the real centers of power in Egypt. That, I think, is what they will be trying to do.

JAY: If you had a chance, or perhaps you do, to talk to some of the young leadership, from your point of view what do you think are the kind of demands they should be articulating now in this next few weeks?

ACHCAR: I don’t think they need much advice on that. They are perfectly, as I said, aware of–well, they have their demands, which are, well, they want a civilian government. And the most democratically radical wing of the movement wanted a transition that would be presided over by civilians, not by the military. Now, you got the military, but they will be watching, as I said, the kind of government that will be formed, assuming that the military will form a government. And then the changes in the Constitution that those military are promising after Mubarak is something that has been already contested by the movement, the radical part of the movement, which is asking for much more than that, which is asking for a constituent assembly, for elections, but elections for a constituent assembly that would draw a new constitution for Egypt. So these are far-reaching democratic demand, but these are the demands without which a real democratic change in Egypt will not be completed.

JAY: In the short term the critical issue will be how quickly is there some form of civilian national unity government, rather than just straight military rule. Is that the most immediate question?

ACHCAR: The key question is for the movement now to keep organized, to keep this momentum in some way, to hold, periodically, big rallies, and putting pressure–but putting pressure for these democratic demands, which are a thorough change in everything, and at the same time, of course, to fight for the social demands. In the last few days we have seen this unfolding of a strike wave, a new strike wave, and even moves towards the constitution of independent unions. And that, I think, would be one of the great changes that need to happen in Egypt. People have been focused on the political institutions, and that’s normal, but one key problem in Egypt is the lack of an autonomous organization of the working class because of decades of dictatorship and state-controlled unionism. And that’s also–I mean, you know, a real democracy needs a civil society where the working class is organized and able to exert pressure and fight for their demands.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Gilbert.

ACHCAR: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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