Revolution #224 online, February 11, 2011

Interview with Raymond Lotta About Events in Egypt

Geopolitics, Political Economy, and "No Permanent Necessity"

Revolution: We want to ask you about the uprising in Egypt and its larger implications regionally and internationally. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world, and the eyes of the world are focused on what is going on there. How would you assess the significance of what has been going on?

Raymond Lotta: There are important issues to get into. The events of the last few weeks mark a major and possibly historic turning point in the imperial status quo in the Middle East.

On the one hand, a new generation of Arab youth has announced that the "normal" workings of society are unacceptable. They have announced that they are ready to die to make a change in how society is governed. They have stood up to the brutal, stifling, and decrepit ruling order headed by Mubarak. This has inspired not only the people in the region but people all over the world.

Now, no one can say with any certainty where all this will go…but already the uprising in Egypt is changing the political landscape and political equation in the Middle East. It is emboldening masses in the Arab world. You hear imperialist ideologues and policy experts talking their talk about the "danger of contagion."

On the other hand, this upsurge is creating new necessity and new difficulties for imperialism, the U.S. in particular. The imperialists have to cope with the possibility that the upsurge will continue to draw support and lead to more massive confrontation with the Egyptian state, and the loss or severe weakening of this regime. There's the potential for rebellion to spread and erupt on a similar scale in other countries in the region—to places like Yemen, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia. All this is putting tremendous strain on the structures of imperial control in the Middle East, especially America's alliances with local Arab regimes.

This uprising is a big blow to Israel, America's watchdog and most trusted ally in the Middle East. The Israeli political-military leadership is openly concerned that things could rapidly go in a direction where Israel can no longer count on a pliant Egypt to advance its regional agenda. The Israeli-Egypt relationship began with the Camp David agreement engineered by the U.S. in 1979.

So there is this potential unraveling of a certain imperialist status quo in the region.

Revolution: The U.S. has over the years staked a lot on the Mubarak regime and the Egyptian military.

Lotta: Hosni Mubarak has presided over—he's been the extreme personification of—a client regime that serves U.S. interests. The centralization of Mubarak's presidential authority…the intertwining of the Egyptian armed forces with the executive arm of the Egyptian state…the close links between these armed forces and U.S. military and intelligence services…and the way that the Egyptian economy has been structured—all of this serves the needs of U.S. imperialism.

For the last 30 years, Egypt has been a keystone of U.S. imperial dominance in the Middle East. Egypt has opened its air space to U.S. warplanes. It has given Western imperialism unimpeded access to the Suez Canal for commercial and military purposes. It has worked to cajole and pressure governments and political forces in the Arab world to go along with U.S. plans for the region. The Mubarak regime has been used by the U.S. to hold in check Islamic fundamentalist forces that, coming from their own reactionary agendas, are posing obstacles to U.S. imperialism.

As a "peace partner" to Israel, Egypt has enabled the Israeli military to focus its attentions away from the Egypt-Israel border. As a "peace partner," Egypt has been an active accomplice to Israel's violent subjugation of the Palestinian people, as well as enabling Israel to pour hundreds of thousands of Israelis into settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The regime has helped enforce Israel's blockade of the Palestinian population in Gaza, preventing basic supplies from reaching people. And speaking of supplies, Egypt provides nearly half of Israel's natural gas—gas that fuels Israel's military and its apartheid-like economy.

Part of the strategic calculus of U.S. imperialism has been to solidify client states that can keep a lid on the masses. People need to understand that the U.S. has propped up and legitimized one of the world's most repressive regimes. I saw an estimate that there is 1 police officer per 35 people in Egypt. There's the Emergency Law in effect since 1981 that allows security forces to declare any congregation of four young people an illegal gathering.

You hear Obama now calling for a less repressive and more open regime. It's sickening and it's the height of hypocrisy. Mubarak has been a loyal servant of the U.S. in that part of the world, carrying out its dirty work, and kept in power by American dollars and the American guns.

Revolution: Egypt has been a society of lockdown.

Lotta: Yes, and part of what has made this uprising so electrifying is that this was "not supposed to happen in Egypt." You know The Economist did this special survey last year on Egypt. They made the point that this was the place that Western leaders could go to give a speech and push new policy initiatives when developments in the region dictated…and Mubarak would convene some regional summit. The operating assumption was that Egypt was a stable platform from which the U.S. could project its power and influence, and that Mubarak had effectively fortified the political and social order against any serious resistance.

Now it's not as though there was no opposition and resistance. Over the last decade there have been major strikes and sit-ins by workers, and scattered social protest. But the fact is…an oppressive pall had gripped Egyptian society. Then suddenly, and the rebellion of youth in Tunisia was the spark and inspiration, pent-up anger and frustration burst forth.

It's interesting, I heard this neoconservative pundit on Fox TV. He was saying, Okay, there are a million or two million taking part in this protest, but Egypt, after all, is a country of 80 million. Well, here we have an unintended exposition that "there are masses…and there are masses."

At the very early stages of this uprising, before it was actually an uprising, those determined youth and students who called for and organized for a day and act of protest… they were the advanced masses. And then this took on a whole new dimension and momentum. Then tens and hundreds of thousands were involved—they were the masses stepping forward. They were setting new terms in society…that the status quo as concentrated by and enforced by the Mubarak regime is completely unacceptable…that society as it has functioned has to change…and can change.

The youth in Egypt galvanized the population. And the "unthinkable" happened: the legitimacy of the regime's ruling authority was challenged and the security apparatus defied. One scholar said that the "barrier of fear had been breached"…he meant this on a societal level. It cut across a wide swath of Egyptian society. Lawyers, doctors, and other professionals have joined the youth in the streets. People from the arts and intellectual life are speaking out. One of the things I've heard about—and I've been reading about this on blogs from Cairo—was that during lulls in the showdowns with police and vigilantes in Tahrir Square, the central plaza in Cairo, there have been organized poetry readings. And some of those reciting their verses were wearing head bandages.

Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, has emphasized how the belief that there is "permanent necessity to existing conditions" is a tremendous ideological weight on the masses. It is a belief that keeps people within the confines of what is. The uprising in Egypt is a powerful demonstration that "things do not have to be this way"…this is part of its profound significance.

Revolution: People want to know why this broke out in Egypt with the fury that it did. You've talked about the repressiveness of the regime and the awakening of the youth. But how do you see the role of economic and social factors in what has happened?

Lotta: It's important to understand that this rebellion is also an expression of a deep structural crisis in Egyptian society. You see, there have been vast economic, social, and demographic changes over the last three decades.

Egypt's population grew from 42 million in 1980 to 80 million today…and close to two-thirds of the population is under 30 years of age.

In terms of the economy: Beginning in the late 1970s and taking a big leap in the mid-1990s, the Egyptian ruling class has carried out the "neoliberal" growth model pushed by the U.S. and the IMF and World Bank. This set of policies and priorities revolves around opening the door wider to foreign investment…privatizing and selling off government assets to rich investors…and greatly cutting back government support for housing and social services and education relative to the growth of the population.

Revolution: So what have been the consequences of this?

Lotta: Much of the globalized foreign capital entering Egypt, and Great Britain and the U.S. are the largest foreign investors…much of this capital has gone into finance and natural gas, sectors that generate few jobs. The work force is growing rapidly, but the majority of workers now have to rely on low-paying and irregular jobs with no protections or benefits. This growth model has also given rise to rampant and rapacious land speculation and to bloated investment in tourism. In the last few years, Russian and Chinese investment capital has opened sweatshop factory production.

The Egyptian military is up to its eyeballs in this. I'm talking about retired army and security officials holding lucrative posts in state-owned textile companies and the petroleum industry, the military being heavily invested in hotels and construction.

This whole trajectory of development has diverted resources from agriculture. The peasantry has been pressed harder and is losing land to government-favored developers and landholding elites. Egypt depends on the world market to supply half of its food needs. People probably don't know that Egypt is the world's largest importer of wheat. Meanwhile, globalization has made Egypt more vulnerable to jolts in the world economy, like the unprecedented rise in world food prices.

A tiny stratum of Egypt's wealthy has benefited, while poverty and squalor have spread. 40 percent of Egypt's population lives near or below the poverty level…I'm talking about families subsisting on $2 a day. The unemployment rate for young people is 75 percent. With wealth becoming more concentrated…with foreign capital becoming more dominant…and with the economy more skewed to financial services—you have a situation where traditional opportunities for advance have been closed off. Much of the middle class has been disintegrating. And it says a lot that 30 percent of Egypt's university graduates are unemployed.

Revolution: So that's the economic side of Egypt's dependent and client state relationship to imperialism.

Lotta: Well, it's a major part of the story. And the social impacts have been enormous.

There's chaotic urbanization. There's unsustainable geographic concentration of population…unsustainable economically and ecologically. Greater Cairo is now a city of some 18 million people. Half of Cairo's population lives in shantytowns and self-built neighborhoods, and lacks basic social services. Diseases that had basically been wiped out, like smallpox and tuberculosis, have become epidemic again.

The region's ecosystems are severely stressed. The water level of the Nile River is declining. The cities are thick with air pollution. Soil fertility has declined and agricultural land has been lost to urbanization and desert winds. Infrastructure is lacking and there is a sewage crisis…

You know, an Arab literary critic wrote an essay last year in New Left Review that starts with an account of the transformations of urban space in Egypt. He then talks about how a new wave of Egyptian fiction has been narrating the fragmentation and desperation of social life…the widening chasm between popular sentiment and the collusion of the Egyptian ruling class with the crimes of the U.S. and Israel…and how everything seems to conspire against change. The essay ends with this incredibly suggestive phrase that the "the novel of the closed horizon is the genre of an intolerable condition."

This brings me back to the upsurge. You see, these convulsive economic, social, and demographic changes have been straining against the existing institutional framework of social order and governance. And now this uprising has seriously ruptured that framework—punctured its ideological legitimacy and undercut its political efficacy. This is part of the political and social combustibility of things. It's another expression of the fact there is "no permanent necessity to existing conditions."

Revolution: So here we are, more than two weeks out from the initial protests, and the crisis continues. It would be helpful to get some of your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the upheaval.

Lotta: This uprising has shaken the foundations of Egyptian society, throwing it into a profound legitimacy crisis. Almost overnight, diverse sections of the population have come into political life. You see these new energies and new mixes…highly educated youth rubbing shoulders with the urban poor along the barricades.

As communists, we support this rebellion. It is of great moment in the Arab world and for the world as a whole. At the same time we have the responsibility to examine and analyze this upheaval in a deepgoing way.

A complex array of social and political forces is in motion. The youth at the heart of the uprising are setting an example for others, and changing the whole discourse in Egyptian society and the Middle East. But there are also real limitations of understanding and outlook. And as this struggle takes new turns and faces new challenges, these limitations stand out the more.

There is great confusion about the Egyptian military. Many people in the mass movement have been influenced by the official mythology that the military is an independent force standing above society and would not turn on the people. But the military is the institution that enforces the dominant economic and social relations of exploitation and subordination to imperialism. In its organization and training and hierarchy, the military reflects these relations. The paramount mission of the military is to maintain the existing social order—at the point of the gun.

The U.S. plays a major role in the Egyptian military. It equips it with advanced weaponry, like F-16 fighters and Abrams tanks. It also helps train Egypt's military leadership. For three decades, high-ranking members in the Egyptian officer corps have studied at U.S. military schools.

The article in last week's issue of Revolution ["The 'Grand'—and Deadly—Illusion"] is very important. It talks about the lessons of history, when people have not understood or wished away the class nature of the military and its role as the pillar of existing state power. Lessons paid in blood in Chile, Indonesia, and other places.

Right now, the Egyptian military is U.S. imperialism's most vital asset in its plans to engineer and push through some kind of transition that keeps the client state and its regional role intact—whether Mubarak stays or goes.

Revolution: The U.S. is extolling the Egyptian military, and also calling for elections.

Lotta: Yeah, the bullet and the ballot. With the old systems of control in Egypt being challenged, Obama and other representatives of imperialism peddle this notion of "free and fair elections."

But let's look beneath the surface. The U.S. imperialists, Israel, and the Egyptian ruling class are maneuvering to defuse and crush the rebellion. You have reactionary social forces, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and various liberal-bourgeois forces, like those grouped around Mohamed El-Baradei, associating with the upsurge…but seeking to ride it to their advantage. In the name of this upsurge, they want to negotiate new arrangements and accommodations with the dominant fractions of the Egyptian ruling class. The U.S. imperialists have encouraged their participation in a "transition process" that suits U.S. interests. Without a real revolution, without a real transformation of the underlying economic and social relations in society, any elections—if they should happen—would be for the purpose of legitimizing a new arrangement of social forces which would be as beholden to imperialism as Mubarak.

Revolution: This interplay of different social and class forces is part of the dynamic of a crisis situation, where a critical mass of the population has rebelled and stood up to the regime.

Lotta: Absolutely. The youth don't want a return to the old order. Both El-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood are advocates of the capitalist market system. Neither has a program or the intention of breaking with dependency on the world market.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, well, its medieval view of social relations, its stand towards women…that says a lot in itself. And, though it is not now openly calling for an Islamic Republic, regressive Sharia law is foundational to its view of how society should be organized. Politically, the Muslim Brotherhood has had on-again-off-again relations with the ruling regimes. In the 1970s, it was used by then president Anwar Sadat as a battering ram in the universities against left and socialist forces.

These bourgeois liberal and Islamic forces cannot speak to the depth of people's outrage or the loftiest sentiments people have for change. This is the reality of the situation. But another part of reality is this: without a communist movement and pole in society, people will not be able, in their thinking or in their actions, to get beyond the economic, political, and ideological horizons of the bourgeois world.

We communists stand for a revolution that can put an end to the horrors of the world. A revolution that empowers people to construct a society where human beings are no longer exploited, no longer competing with each other, no longer brutally oppressed. A revolution that can put a stop to the plunder and destruction of the planet and that can unleash the creativity, the critical thinking, and highest aspirations of masses everywhere. A revolution that makes it possible for people to join together to transform the world and themselves in the most liberating ways.

The first decisive step is to defeat and dismantle the oppressive structures and military force of the old order—and on that basis to establish a radically new and different state power and socialist economy that serve the struggle to achieve a communist world without classes and social divisions.

Bob Avakian has developed a vision of socialist society that speaks to people's desire for truly fundamental change. He has built on but gone beyond the experience of socialist revolution in the 20th century. He has developed the path for humanity to get to a whole other place. This is a factor of enormous potential in today's world, especially in relation to the kind of awakening taking place in the Arab world and the need to "bring forward another way" that can enable people to break out of the ideological vice-grip of Western imperialist ideology, on the one hand, and Islamic fundamentalism, on the other.

Revolution: This is a very dynamic and fluid situation in Egypt, with the Egyptian state and its U.S. backers moving to take control of things…and with the masses of people showing continuing determination.

Lotta: I've stressed how the upsurge and crisis of rule in Egypt reveal that there is "no permanent necessity to existing conditions." But this situation also brings into acute relief the importance of political and ideological and organizational preparation by revolutionary communists, influencing the thinking of people in a revolutionary direction. This is the strategic work of hastening while awaiting a revolutionary situation, work that has to be going on all along and before the emergence of a crisis like this.

Now in the absence of genuine communist forces, even in a crisis this severe, there won't, at least in the short run, be fundamental and radical change. But that's not the whole, or the end, of the story. Where communist forces do not exist, there is a special responsibility to spread analysis and understanding that can help nurture the development of such forces in this part of the world. It is very exciting to hear that efforts are underway to translate into Arabic Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

Look, the upheaval in Egypt has brought forward all kinds of positive elements: in people's courage and determination…in the ways that diverse sections of the population have joined together in common action…in how people have taken collective responsibility to solve problems of security and provisioning of supplies. Coming on the heels of the uprising in Tunisia, a certain quiescence in the Arab world has been shattered.

The ground is shaking in Egypt. This upsurge and showdown with the government is posing incredible challenges. The masses need communist leadership to maximize advances towards revolution at all times, and especially in a situation like this where the right and ability of the ruling powers is being called into question. But this is also ground on which a new generation of communists can be forged. It is ground on which people can make great leaps in understanding and organization, as they confront the government and in the swirl of contending currents and programs. This can be a major impetus towards catalyzing revolutionary sentiments and revolutionary organization.

My point is that a non-revolutionary and reactionary resolution of this crisis is not the only possible outcome.

Revolution: Earlier you touched on some of the geopolitical implications of this crisis. Maybe we can get into this some more.

Lotta: We have to pull the lens back. The Middle East is a region of immense geostrategic importance for imperialism. I mean this in terms of energy supplies and trade routes crucial to the functioning of the world capitalist economy. I mean this in the historical sense…the Middle East has been a fulcrum of rivalry among the imperial powers. Since the end of World War 2, U.S. dominance in the region has been critical to its global dominance.

U.S. imperialism has launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's built a network of alliances with client states, it has forged tighter economic linkages and tried to build up new social bases of support among the middle classes. It's done these things to maintain and tighten its grip on the region. As I've emphasized, Egypt has been critical to U.S. dominance in the region. It has allowed for the continuous flow of oil. It has had a de facto alliance with Israel. It has served as a counterweight to Iran or any other country that the U.S. sees as gaining too much power and influence in the region.

Events are unfolding rapidly in this crisis, and in unexpected ways. The U.S. is seeking to salvage the Egyptian client state…seeking to limit the spillover effects of this uprising in other parts of the Middle East…seeking to shore up its flanks in other countries while not appearing to "meddle."

But this is a tall order. The crisis in Egypt could go towards civil war, and introduce a whole new level of instability in the region. In Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, pro-U.S. regimes are sitting atop populations that are angry with government repression, corruption, and collusion with the U.S. If the masses in Egypt push Mubarak out, this could set off firestorms elsewhere. Some of these lackey regimes are also worried that the U.S. might decide to carry out its own preemptive regime shifts.

How the Israeli settler-colonial state reads these developments will also be a major factor in the developing situation. If events get more out of hand in Egypt, if a new regime appears to jeopardize Israel's access to the Suez Canal…Israel may decide to redeploy military forces to its southern border with Egypt. If regional developments tilt things towards Iran's regional advantage, whether or not Iran acts to press any such advantage directly...Israel might decide to assert its regional military dominance and launch a strike against Iran.

There are other elements in the larger picture. For instance, Western Europe has significant Arab populations and the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East could light a spark there.

Revolution: Avakian analyzed what he called a "cauldron of contradictions." This was at the time of 9/11 and as the U.S. was making its war moves. These things seem to be an expression of that cauldron.

Lotta: Yes, and there are significant developments, regionally and globally, that are interpenetrating with this political crisis in Egypt. To begin with, the U.S. has encountered major difficulties in waging its wars for greater empire in Iraq and Afghanistan. The weakening of the Mubarak regime in these circumstances adds to its mounting difficulties in the region. And then there is the global economic crisis that broke out in 2008-09. The crisis has introduced new instabilities into the world imperialist system. It has accentuated economic rivalry among the great powers. It has heightened the suffering of the masses of the world.

In the Middle East, country growth rates have declined. The earnings of migrant workers, and these earnings are important sources of family incomes, have fallen greatly. Investment capital has been flowing into and out of countries of the region with greater volatility. The employment crisis I mentioned earlier with regard to Egypt has grown more dire throughout the region with the onset of the global crisis. The problem of food—the run-up in food prices, the growing inability of governments to subsidize food purchases, and food shortages—is very defining of social-economic distress in the region.

Revolution: You are arguing that these are politically volatile elements of the current situation.

Lotta: Yes, and they are part of why I believe that what is happening in Egypt right now, and possible convergences of contradictions, can have enormous effects on regional and international relations.

The upheaval in Egypt is bringing the masses onto the stage in a geostrategic part of the world. It is a fresh wind for all who yearn for liberation, for radical change, it is a summoning to all who are dissatisfied with the way things are. At the same time, this is a highly fraught situation. Already, 300 people have been murdered by the security forces, and thousands have been detained throughout the country. A vicious military crackdown is clearly part of the Mubarak-Suleiman regime's immediate contingency planning.

The recent article in Revolution puts it well. A challenge has been issued by the courageous youth of Egypt, and everyone who wants to see another way brought forward in this world of oppression is called upon to support them politically.

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