Monday, February 28, 2011



IT is a remarkable coincidence that this issue of People’s Democracy is dated on the birth centenary of eminent poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a powerful ideological symbol of fight against oppression, defence of democratic rights and love for humanity. We commemorate this occasion as a celebration of the idea of Revolution.

A committed Marxist, one of the greatest Urdu poets, a journalist, film maker, trade unionist, broadcaster, teacher, translator, Lenin Peace Prize winner, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, had also served the British Indian Army rising to the rank of Lt Colonel. Born in Sailkot, Faiz was educated in Lahore, the city which served as his base throughout his life. He continued to live there after the unfortunate partition of the sub-continent. The trauma, torture and torment of the partition are deeply reflected in his poetry. His love for the liberation of the peoples of the sub-continent as a whole was unquestionable. When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, a London newspaper said that he was “A brave enough man to fly from Lahore to Delhi for Gandhi’s funeral at the height of the Indo-Pakistan hatred”.

His work reflects that his identification with the masses of the poor and exploited, his espousal of the cause of liberation from all forms of oppression and exploitation was complete. He was an active member of the anti-fascist movement and the struggle for freedom from colonialism led by the Communist Party of undivided India. Along with great stalwarts of his time, he was instrumental in founding the Progressive Writers Association in 1936 when the Communists also organised the students in the All India Students Federation and the peasantry in the Kisan Sabha in the same year.

The Communist Party had sent Comrade Sajjad Zaheer along with some others to organise the Communist Party in Pakistan. Sajjad Zaheer, also a noted and accomplished intellectual and writer, became the founding general secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan. However, in 1951, Sajjad Zaheer, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and other leading Communists were imprisoned in solitary confinement under sentences of death in the infamous Rawalpindi conspiracy case. Faiz remained in prison for over four years.

Far from either breaking his spirit or sapping his energy for the cause of the revolution, imprisonment stimulated Faiz’s creativity. The remarkable tribute brought out by Pakistan’s leading group of newspapers Dawn, in 2004, informs us of his impressions during imprisonment. “Like love”, he wrote, “imprisonment is a basic experience. It opens many new windows on the soul”. Some of his best works were to emerge from the confinements of the jails. Dast-e-Saba (the wind writes) and Zindan Nama (prison journal) elevated him to the status of a literary poetic genius.

In Dast-e-Saba, he reflects the basic essence of the Marxist outlook when he states that: “The understanding of the struggle of human life, and a participation in it is not only a pre-requisite of life, it is also a pre-requisite of art”.

While studying the eternal man-nature dialectic, Marx and Engels reached the conclusion that: As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are coincides with their production, both with what they produce and how they produce. Hence what individuals are depends upon material conditions of production.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his latest book How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism recollects that at the 2007 Jewish book week coinciding with Marx’s death anniversary, Jacques Attali while paying tribute to Marx had said, “Philosopher before him had thought of man in his totality, but he was the first to apprehend the world as a whole which is at once political, economic, scientific and philosophical”. This personal attribute of Marx is actually a reflection of the attribute of the Marxist world outlook. This goes beyond conventional meaning of `interdisciplinary’ approach to the world. Marxism, a creative science, is trans disciplinary which integrates all disciplines of thought and creative capacities of the human mind.

Faiz, in a sense, reflects such an integrated approach through his life and work in the times that he lived. In his preface to The Rebel’s Silhouette Agha Shahid Ali says: “Faiz was such a master of the ghazal, a form that predates Chaucer, that he transformed its every stock image and, as if by magic, brought absolutely new associations into being. For example, the Beloved – an archetypal figure in Urdu poetry – can mean friend, woman, God. (Or, for that matter, Motherland, that Bahadur Shah Zafar, lamented for his burial, when blinded in confinement by the British in Rangoon.) Faiz not only tapped into those meanings, but extended them to include the Revolution. Waiting for the Revolution can be as intoxicating as waiting for one’s lover.”

Adopting the penname, Faiz, which can be best described to mean `dedication to the service of his fellowmen’, he revolutionised Urdu poetry. He relentlessly showed that the pen is mightier than the sword in rousing the people. Just one example of his work as a poet of the Revolution is his work known as Hum Dekhengay.

We shall see,

It is certain that we shall see

The day for which there is a promise,

The day recorded in the eternal tablet,

When the weighty mountains of cruelty and oppression,

Shall be blown about like cotton-wool;

When under the feet of the oppressed ones

The earth shall shake noisily,

And over the heads of despotic rulers

Thunder claps will burst …

When the crowns will be toppled,

When the palaces will be demolished….

His eternal humanism, which in the first place, led him to embrace Marxism and its world outlook, drove Faiz to espouse the cause of revolution all across the globe. He was a true internationalist.

In the book Poetry East, Carlo Coppola calls him: “A spokesperson for the world’s voiceless and suffering peoples – whether Indians oppressed by the British in the ‘40s, freedom fighters in Africa, the Rosenbergs in cold war America in the ‘50s, Vietnamese peasants fleeing American napalm in the ‘60s, or Palestinian children living in refugee camps in the 1970s”.

Faiz traveled abroad widely some times out of choice as the editor of the Afro-Asian literary magazine Lotus being published from Beirut. On some other occasions, he traveled abroad in exile.

Edward W Said described a meeting with Faiz: “To see a poet in exile – as opposed to reading the poetry of exile – is to see exile’s antimonies embodied and endured. Several years ago, I spent some time with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the greatest of contemporary Urdu poets. He had been exiled by Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime and had found a welcome of sorts in the ruins of Beirut. His closest friends were Palestinian,” further he said in his essay The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile: “The crucial thing to understand about Faiz is that like Garcia Marquez he was read and listened to both by the literary elite and by the masses…His purity and precision were astonishing, and you must imagine therefore a poet whose poetry combined the sensuousness of Yeats with the power of Neruda. He was, I think, one of the greatest poets of this century”.

Much has been written and will, indeed, be written in the future about the work of this socially committed literary genius and a dedicated Communist. A particular lesson that everyone of us who aspires for and works towards Revolution must learn is to combine the passion of commitment with creativity. Faiz did this with his poetry and mastered the use of classical forms transforming them before his audience rather than break from the old forms. He makes you hear and recite his revolutionary message in the old and the new together and at once.

People’s Democracy continues to draw inspiration from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s celebration of the idea of the Revolution.

(February 9, 2011)



IN a joint statement issued on February 10, representatives of various organisations of all over the country, representing over 12000 journalists, announced the setting up of a National Platform of Journalist Organisations to work in unison with the apex Confederation of Newspaper and News Agency Employees Organisations, the All India Newspaper Employees Federation and other press bodies. This they said was a united front to fight not only for a proper wage board but also on the questions of ethics and democratisation of the media, gender equity, media reform, and to expose the paid news syndrome and connected deals.

The organisations which met in the office of the Delhi Union of Journalists, with DUJ general secretary S K Pande presiding, resolved to have continuous joint programmes, rallies and dharnas not only to concentrate on just and fair wages but also for more social security, a new information order and a more credible media.

The meeting took stock of the current situation including delays in constituting a wage board. (Earlier, under the banner of the National Alliance of Journalists, they had submitted memoranda to the Labour Ministry, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry and the Press Council of India.) They resolved to start a phased struggle beginning this month end followed up by a direct action programme, to be announced shortly.

Members took strong note of the functioning of the Press Council and the Wage Board. The paid news syndrome and connected pressures, even in national press bodies, was discussed and the demand made for a Media Council and a Media Commission to restore a credible media free from government fetters and from the stranglehold of press barons. Drastic amendments to bring the Working Journalists Act in tune with the present day realities and constitution of a Media Council on the line of the earlier press commissions were also demanded.

A steering committee has been constituted with offices in Hyderabad, Kerala and Delhi. It was announced that the Association of Accredited News Cameramen Association (AANC) will also be fraternal ties with the National Platform.

A General Council meeting of the National Platform is expected to take place in Hyderabad in March end or early April, preceded by a meeting close to Delhi. Meetings in Goa, Kerala, Orissa and UP are being finalised.



LEFTWORD has recently republished the three volumes of Marx’s Capital, alongwith an Introductory Reader on Capital with contributions from Marxist authors like Prabhat Patnaik and others. The Capital volumes and the reader were released in a book release program held in JNU on 4 February. A panel discussion on ‘Reading Capital Today’ was jointly organized by the SFI and the Leftword on this occasion. The speakers in this discussion were Professor Jayati Ghosh (CESP, JNU), Siddharth Varadarajan (Chief-of-Bureau, The Hindu), Professor Utsa Patnaik (CESP, JNU) and Prakash Karat (CPI-M General Secretary). The discussion was chaired by Professor G P Deshpande. The discussion was preceded by JANAM’s classic play Machine. The programme attracted a large number of students and academics from JNU and outside and over 100 copies of Capital and 300 copies of the reader were sold on that day.

Speaking on the occasion, Jayati Ghosh noted that there has been a revival of interest in Capital after the global economic crisis. Though many simplistic interpretations of Capital described the economic crisis as a prophecy of Marx, she pointed out that the book is not just about the immanent tendencies for crisis within capitalism. “The work is important for the critical insights it offers into things which are otherwise seemingly incomprehensible”, she added. Speaking about the relevance of Capital today, she cited the phenomenon that Marx termed as ‘commodity fetishism’. She noted that such a phenomenon is witnessed in the newspaper front pages on a daily basis today, as well as in the pronouncement of the policy makers. She also pointed out the increased relevance of analyzing imperialism within the Marxian framework in the contemporary world. “Capital provides a framework to understand the world, and also to change it”, she noted.

Siddharth Varadarajan recollected that his first brush with Capital was when it was taught by Professor Michio Morishima in the London School of Economics. Varadarajan noted that the first lesson of the book is that inequality and poverty are not the products of bad policies; rather it follows from the process of capital accumulation itself. Though it does not imply that one should not fight for more humane policies, but such battles do not change the fundamental relations within a capitalist system, he added. He noted that the so-called “humane policies” of the Manmohan Singh government are grossly inadequate. He argued that monopoly capital in India has greatly benefited from the ongoing phenomenon, of what Marx termed as the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’. He noted that while a revolution is required to eradicate the capitalist system, such a revolution is not inevitable and requires a revolutionary party to do so. He concluded by saying that more thought is required in devising a revolutionary strategy in a context like India’s, where the big bourgeoisie has developed considerably and is harbouring imperial ambitions.

Utsa Patnaik said that the three volumes of Capital were products of great dedication and sacrifice made by Karl Marx during his lifetime in pursuit of the objective of laying bare the anatomy of capitalism and the process of capital accumulation. Thereby, Marx showed that such a process leads to wealth at one pole and misery at the other, she added. Utsa Patnaik highlighted four aspects of Capital: first the theory of surplus value, second, Marx’s theory of money, third the theory of rent and fourth, the existence of the reserve army of labour as a necessary condition for the existence of capitalism. She noted that unlike the phenomenon of exploitation in the process of pre-capitalist accumulation, which is largely transparent and visible, the process of exploitation in the capitalist system is much more complex and subtle. The theory of surplus value analyzed such a process and showed how exploitation originates within the capitalist system, she added. In sharp contrast to the monetarist theory of money, she argued that Marx’s theory of money depended on the labour theory of value and could explain the existence of involuntary unemployment in a capitalist system.

Utsa Patnaik pointed out that Marx’s theory of rent emphasised on the property relations unlike the theory of rent in Ricardo. The concept of ‘ground rent’ in Marx was a devastating critique of the notion of Ricardian rent, she noted. Finally, she touched upon the existence of the reserve army of labour as a necessary condition for the survival of capitalism. She argued that the separation of the peasantry from their lands was required to create propertyless workers and the smooth functioning of capitalism. She noted that the reserve army of labour is swelling up under the neoliberal regime in countries like ours in the absence of ‘open frontiers’ – unlike in the earlier phase of capitalist development, which saw large-scale migration to the continents of America, Australia, etc. which helped in keeping unemployment under check and wages to rise in the countries of Western Europe. Such ‘open frontiers’ are no longer available today and therefore, no escape from increasing unemployment and misery under capitalism.

Speaking about the relevance of Marx’s Capital in the contemporary world, Prakash Karat emphasised the necessity of the Marxian framework to understand phenomena like the global economic crisis and the large-scale corruption being witnessed in India today. He pointed out that the existence of corruption cannot be seen as an aberration to the capitalist system; rather, it has to be perceived as means for accumulating capital and hence as an intrinsic part of the capitalist system itself. He argued that corruption can be effectively fought only by fighting against the neoliberal regime.

Prakash Karat highlighted two aspects of Marx’s theory: first, the theory of surplus value which analysed the exploitation of the working class under capitalism and second, the concept of historical materialism which identified class struggle as a locomotive of history. The recent people’s upsurge in Egypt against the despotic regime of Hosni Mubarak, he said, has to be understood within this framework. He pointed out that recent developments in Egypt were not a sudden occurrence but a consequence of prolonged working class struggle against the onslaughts unleashed by the neoliberal regime headed by Mubarak. While the working class movements were severely repressed during 60s and the 70s, it again gained momentum in the last decade. The high point of these movements came during the general strike of the Egyptian workers, primarily the textile workers, on 6 April 2008 against low wages and rising food costs. Such protests have continued since then and have culminated in the recent uprising. “Thus it is the prolonged working class struggles which has strengthened the present movement and enabled it to withstand all odds”, he noted.

Concluding the discussion, G P Deshpande pointed out the tremendous influence of Marx’s ideas in the fields of literature, art and culture in the 20th century. He encouraged the audience, particularly youngsters to read Marx’s works, Capital in particular, in order to shape a better society in days to come.



HUNDREDS of activists of nine political parties- CPI (M), CPI, RSP, Forward Bloc, TDP, AIADMK, JD(S), RLD, BJD, participated in a dharna at Parliament street on February 9 to protest against the rising prices and unprecedented growth in corruption. The protesters demanded universal public distribution system, cheap ration to people, check on black marketing and hoarding and end to forward trade in grains. They demanded regulation of price in the petrol, diesel and other essential commodities

The agitators demanded impartial investigations into various scams and loot of the public funds and punishment to guilty. They asked the government to bring back the money from various international banks deposited stealthily. The prominent leaders among those who participated in dharna and addressed the meeting included Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M), A B Bardhan, CPI, H D Devegowda, former prime minister and president of JD(S), Chandrababu Naidu, TDP, Ajit Singh, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Debrata Biswas, AIFB, Aboni Roy, RSP and others.

The speakers reiterated their demand for JPC to probe 2G spectrum case. They wanted logical conclusion of investigations to the various scams for bringing the guilty to book and restoring the money for people’s good.

Prakash Karat while addressing the dharna said the activists of all the nine parties organised demonstrations, dharna, picketing, etc in all parts of the country in last one week against the rising prices and have demanded of the central government to take immediate steps to control the prices. However, the UPA government has not taken any steps and failed to control the prices.

The prime minister had said last year that the prices will fall by October, and then he said that it will end in December. Now he says that prices and inflation will fall in next five months. He has no taken no steps. It appears that the prime minister was consulting some astrologer to predict fall in prices.

Prices of all commodities including wheat, rice, vegetables, edible oil, petrol, etc have risen. The policies of the government are responsible for this situation. The government has increased the prices of petrol seven times since June last year. The petrol prices have risen more than Rs 10 per litre in this period. On the one hand they raise the prices of petrol; on the other they claim that they would control prices of all commodities. It is impossible. The government is now contemplating raising diesel prices. While we gave several proposals to control prices, the government has allowed the companies, big business, stock marketers, hoarders and futures traders to make profits and earn money. The Left parties had demanded ban on futures trading in food items but the government did not take steps. On the one hand, the farmers are not getting adequate prices for their crops, on the other, people of the country are facing skyrocketing prices.

The government should have strengthened the public distribution system and sold wheat, rice, sugar, edible oil and other essential commodities through PDS. But the government did not do that, rather it has weakened PDS. It is a matter of shame that the government ministers claim that the prices were rising because the income of people have increased and consumption has gone up. Montek Singh Ahluwalia says that prices were rising because people have become prosperous and have more money. Two and a half lakh farmers have committed suicide in the country. Workers of unorganised sector do not have any food security. Therefore we have to fight against the rising prices and government policies. The peasantry and working class have to be united for this purpose. Till such time, the government gives remunerative prices for agricultural produce to the peasants and provide them seed, fertiliser, electricity and water at subsidised rates, agricultural produce cannot increase. By increasing it, we can control prices.

We are warning the government against the loot of the people, huge loot by the big companies and corruption. The movement against price rise and corruption has to go on. Nine parties have come together, more like minded parties will join in this movement. We shall collectively raise the issue of price rise and corruption in the coming budget session of parliament, said Prakash Karat.



PEOPLE around the world have watched with exhilaration the uprising of the Egyptian people. Since January 25, for fifteen days (up to February 9), millions of Egyptians have joined the mass revolt. All sections of the people particularly the young, the workers, middle classes, ordinary men and women have come out against the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. They are all united in the resolve to end the Mubarak regime and usher in a new democratic set-up. The energy, determination and courage shown by the people assembled in Tahrir Square in Cairo shows history is in the making. Around 300 people have laid down their lives in this struggle.

Egypt is the biggest Arab nation with 82 million people. Historically it has been the political and cultural centre of the Arab nations. What happens in Egypt will have a crucial impact on the entire region.

In 1952, the officers’ revolution overthrew the old and decadent monarchy. Under the leadership of Nasser and the army, a secular Arab republic was founded which became a beacon for Arab nationalism. It drew the ire of the Western imperialist powers who sought to grab the Suez Canal and vainly tried to keep it under its occupation. Egypt, under Nasser, became a leading member of the non-alignment movement. But in the seventies came a dramatic turnaround.


Under Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, Egypt opened up its economy to the West. Sadat signed the infamous treaty with Israel in 1979 under US auspices. The Egypt-Israel alliance became the key for the US to control the Middle East. The US poured in billions of dollars to shore up Sadat and later the Mubarak regime. Underpinning this regime is the army which receives 1.3 billion dollars annually as aid from America. Egypt has been coordinating with Israel to contain the Palestinian movement. The Rafah crossing into Gaza from the Egyptian side is tightly regulated to facilitate the blockade of Gaza by Israel.

Egypt has been a key link in the US “war against terror”. The Mubarak regime has been receiving prisoners kidnapped by the CIA from around the world to be tortured in the prisons run up by the secret service. These “renditions” have exposed how deeply the Mubarak regime colludes with the United States.


The mass uprising which began on January 25 with mass demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities is being attributed to the impact of the developments in Tunisia. It has been widely purveyed by the global media that the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia sparked off the Egyptian revolt. While it is true that the Tunisian revolt acted as a catalyst for the Egyptian movement, it will be incorrect to see it as a sudden and spontaneous event.

The neo-liberal policies adopted by the Mubarak regime for the last three decades have resulted in large-scale deprivation and suffering for the people. It is estimated that 44 per cent of the population live on less than two dollars per day. The unemployment especially among the youth has reached high levels. The agrarian crisis has impoverished the peasantry. The Mubarak regime with its crony capitalism and the patronisation of a group of capitalists who are grabbing all the resources, including land, has led to a strata of super-rich and a sharp divide in society.

Despite severe repression of political parties and groups opposed to the regime, there have been mounting struggles of the common people. The working class movement had always been severely repressed. No trade unions outside the officially sponsored trade union federation were allowed. In the 1980s and 90s, this severe repression led to a weakening of the workers struggles. But in the last one decade, there was an upswing in the struggles of the workers.


The global economic crisis hit the working class in Egypt badly. Hundreds of factories were closed down. The struggles of the working class rose sharply from 2008. The historic April 6, 2008 strike by the workers in the town Mahallah Al Kubra marked a watershed. In this town of 28,000 workers, the strike was met with brutal repression. But the Mahallah struggle saw similar struggles developing in the industrial areas of the delta region. The intensity of the workers’ struggles can be gauged by the fact that in 2009, there were 478 industrial actions. They included 184 sit-ins in closed factories, 123 strikes, 79 demonstrations and 27 rallies.

Alongwith rising unemployment, the last two years have seen the rising prices of bread and other basic food items such as rice and cooking oil. It is this severe economic crisis which set the background to the political crisis which faced the Mubarak regime.


The Mubarak regime blames Islamic radicals for the unrest. For the Western media, Tahrir Square symbolise the spontaneous movement for democracy. Neither are correct. There are many streams which have converged to make this a genuine mass uprising. The April 6 committee consisting of young men and women sprung up in 2008 in solidarity with the struggle of the Mahallah workers. It is this group which has played a leading role in mobilising people for this movement. The link with the working class struggle and general democratic movement is exemplified by this committee. The other influential committee called the “We are all Khalid Said” is named after a young man who died due to police torture. This represents the fight against dictatorship and the movement for civil liberties. So also, the movement has drawn its strength from various strata of the middle class, including professionals, intellectuals and white collar employees. The slogans and demands of the movement are decidedly secular. For the call on January 25 termed the “Day of Rage” the first demand was the increase of the minimum wage to 1200 Egyptian pounds per month and subsidies for the unemployed. The other demands were the end of the stage of emergency, release of prisoners and the dissolution of parliament and changes in the constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest opposition party, did not initiate the movement but joined it subsequently. It is one of the constituents of the platform formed, the National Association for Change, which includes other secular and democratic parties. It is all these groups together that decided to put Mohamed El Baradei at the head of the committee to negotiate for a political change.

In the meantime, the talks initiated by the newly-appointed vice president, Suleiman, with the opposition parties and groups have not made progress, given the regime’s refusal to accept the demand for the removal of Mubarak. The regime has announced concessions such as increase in the wages of employees and lowering the price of bread to try and neutralise the political demands of the movement.


The Obama administration was taken completely by surprise by the popular revolt in Egypt. Though the WikiLeaks cables of US diplomats in Egypt show that there was an increasing apprehension about the credibility of the regime and the accumulation of wealth by the coterie around Mubarak, the US strategic agencies had no inkling of what was to come. After a week of mass protests, the United States decided that Mubarak has to make way for a transitional regime. The United States wanted an “orderly transition” by which a new set-up could be ushered in where its interests are protected and Egypt’s relations with Israel maintained. It is with this in view that the United States is scrambling to get the notorious intelligence chief and now vice president Suleiman to head the transitional government. But so far, Mubarak has refused to step down till his term is over in September.

Unlike in Tunisia, the stakes in Egypt are high for the United States and Israel. They will do everything to see that Egypt remains on the strategic course set out for it by US imperialism. The United States will bank upon the Egyptian ruling classes and the army to ensure this.


There have been some egregious responses to the events in Egypt among sections of the Urdu media and some of the Muslim religious figures in India. Some columnists of the Urdu newspapers have viewed the Egyptian uprising as primarily an American sponsored one to get rid of Mubarak. For this, they point to president Obama’s call for an immediate transition as proof. They ignore the fact that the US administration, after a full week of the popular upsurge, was forced to initiate damage limitation measures by wanting their loyal agent, Mubarak, to step down. It saw no other way to retain its influence but by ushering in a new regime with the help of the army that would pursue essentially the same goals and foreign policy as Mubarak, but with democratic elections. To dub the January 25 upsurge of the Egyptian people, as an American ploy is thus perverse. Another reason for some of the clerics coming out in defence of the Mubarak regime is the influence of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal regime is petrified of the revolt of the Arab masses. Their authoritarian regime which is characterised by a mix of Islamic fundamentalism and subservience to US imperialism is being challenged. The events in Egypt should be heartening as it portends the emergence of strong democratic and secular forces that can harmoniously coexist with Islam.


Marx had written that, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” The people of Egypt are making history but that history is conditioned by the historical events and circumstances of the past. Egypt has a history of anti-colonial struggles, of anti-imperialist nationalism and secularism. It also has a history of brutal repression of the working class movement, of severe restrictions on the democratic rights of the people to assemble and organise. It has the history of the past four decades of becoming the subordinate agent of US strategy in the Middle-East. The people of Egypt have also experienced the assault on their livelihood through the neo-liberal policies. The January 25 movement bears all the hallmarks of these circumstances. The struggle of the Egyptian people to change their future has begun in right earnest but the popular movement has to be prepared for the long haul. Though no revolutionary change is possible, there can be no going back to the old system. How much change can be wrested will depend on the strength and the resilience of the united struggle.



THE New Year has not started propitiously for the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world. Tunisia started the wildfire now raging across West Asia. For almost a month, the Tunisians united as never before, faced bullets and brutal police tactics. Eventually they succeeded in getting rid of their long ruling president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The events in Tunisia have had an immediate impact in the region. But it is in Egypt that the impact has been the most profound so far. The government of Hosni Mubarak is on its last legs as people all over Egypt have risen in unison against the government in last week of January. According to the UN more than 300 people have been killed within the first eight days of the protests that have paralysed Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and other cities. President Mubarak, for the first time in more than 20 years had to call in the army to patrol the streets of the major cities as he desperately tries to hold on to the vestiges of power. The army was deployed on the streets in 1977 when there were widespread food riots and later in 1986 when police recruits went on a rampage.

The Mubarak government on those two occasions had managed to subdue the opposition but now the political pendulum has decisively swung against the ancient regime. Mubarak has been forced by circumstances to address the Egyptian people twice in succession within a matter of days. On January 28, the Egyptian president announced in a televised speech that he was dissolving his cabinet but refused to step down. Instead, he vaguely talked of instituting some reforms while at the same time threatening to use stronger force to quell the popular upheaval. The next day, he appointed Omar Suleiman, his right hand man and long serving chief of the intelligence services, as his vice president.

This in itself was a significant development, as this is the first time that Mubarak has appointed a second in command after being thirty years at the helm of affairs. The 76 year old Suleiman, who is known to be close to the US and Israel, will take over if circumstances force Mubarak to make a hasty exit. Suleiman has been playing a key behind the scenes role since the nineties. He was instrumental in convincing a reluctant Yasser Arafat to appoint Mahmoud Abbas, at the insistence of the Americans, as the Palestinian prime minister. Mubarak also appointed Ahmad Shafiq, a former air force commander, as the new prime minister. The thousands of protestors who had mounted vigil for days at Cairo’s Tahrir (victory) square made their anger at the decision known by displaying banners saying – ‘No to Suleiman, No to Shafiq’.


On February 2, Mubarak again made a televised address. This time he announced that he would not be seeking re-election but emphasised that he would remain in office till his current term expires in October this year. He also reiterated that he would not go into exile. The opposition, united as never before, has been steadfastly calling on the old dictator to leave immediately so that a unity government could be formed as the country transits towards democracy. The president’s offer meant that his government and his party, which had monopolised power for more than three decades would be around to supervise the conduct of the next presidential elections. The protestors were livid at Mubarak’s attempts to brazen it out. They had demanded that he leave the presidency in the first week of February. But indications are that the ruling establishment is not giving up without a fight even if it means the spilling of the blood of its own people. The events in Tahrir Square on February 2 when the regime unleashed its thugs on the peaceful demonstrators were a strong signal. Even the international media covering the uprising were not spared. More than a dozen people participating in the protests were killed and hundreds more seriously injured. The Egyptian army patrolling the square had refused to intervene as the peaceful protestors were besieged from all sides.

The newly appointed prime minister appeared on television the next day to claim that the government was unaware of the orchestrated pro-Mubarak mobs rampaging on Tahrir square. Shafir decribed the incident as a “fatal error”. But the new vice president, speaking soon after, did not sound all that apologetic. While describing Mubarak as “the father and leader” he blamed the violence on the pro-democracy protestors. Suleiman blamed protestors with “foreign agendas” for the violence. He also stressed that Mubarak will quit before the October deadline he has set. Neither Mubarak nor his son would be running in the elections, Suleiman averred while demanding that the protestors end their sit in at Tahrir square with immediate effect. Suleiman invited the opposition parties, including the Muslim Brothers (MB) for talks but only after they ended their occupation of Tahrir square. A spokesman for the opposition reiterated that they were ready for talks but only after the departure of Mubarak.

Suleiman glossed over the fact that snipers were allowed to shoot on demonstrators from neighbouring building. The Egyptian security forces seem to have taken a leaf out of the Thai army’s manual. Many protesting “Red Shirt” demonstrators in Bangkok were shot dead by army and police snipers. The democracy movement there has been temporarily crushed. A video released on You Tube shows an Egyptian police van ploughing into demonstrators at Tahrir square. A report in the Egyptian paper Al Mesryoon claimed that senior Egyptian officials secretly met in Alexandria to plan the confrontation in Tahrir square on February 2.

The West, after initial flip-flops, seems to have given up on the 82 year old Mubarak, an ally of long standing. President Barack Obama said in late January that Mubarak has to respond to the demands of the people. At the same time, he advised the Egyptian president against using force against the people demonstrating on the streets. After the bloody events in Tahrir Square, in which prominent American media personalities were not spared, Obama took a tougher stance demanding that the political transition start “now”. A joint statement issued by the leaders of US, Germany, France, Italy and Spain also called for the political transition in Egypt to “start now” while condemning “all those who use or encourage violence”. The statement seems to be apportioning blame between the government and the pro-democracy activists.

The US state department spokesman said on January 29 that president Mubarak’s promise of reform should be followed by action. The Obama administration made it clear that it was not enough “just to reshuffle the deck”. The leaders of Britain, France and Germany issued a statement on the same day calling on president Mubarak “to begin a transformation process that should be reflected in a broadly based government along with free and fair elections”. But the Obama administration is still scrambling to come out with a coherent policy. The confusion was evident when Hillary Clinton said on January 30 that the US “does not favour transition to a new government – where oppression could take root”. The US secretary of state, said that Egypt should not be allowed to become a “faux democracy” like Iran. Signs are that the Obama administration is orchestrating a backstage military takeover with a pseudo democratic façade. At stake is the future of America’s biggest military and political ally in the region. Egypt along with Israel is the largest recipient of American aid.

Egypt gets a $2 billion largesse annually from Washington for its role as a key strategic ally of West in the region. Most of the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired on the peaceful demonstrators originated from the US. Recently released Wikileaks documents have also shown that Washington was quite supportive of Mubarak’s domestic policies, including his plan to groom his son Gamal for the presidency. The Obama administration still continues to insist that the Mubarak regime is not a dictatorship. The US vice president, Joseph Biden, said in the last week of January days before the protests gained nationwide momentum, that Mubarak has been “very responsible – relative to American geopolitical interests in the region”.


Meanwhile the Egyptian people as illustrated by the recent historic events are determined to effect regime change. Many commentators are in fact comparing the Egyptian president’s dilemma to the Shah of Iran, America’s strongest ally till his overthrow in 1979. The US was taken by surprise at the scale of the popular upsurge in Iran. Similarly, no government predicted the scale of the Egyptian popular uprising in which online activism, like in Tunisia, played a major role. A Wikileaks March 30, 2009 US state department cable reveals the deep fears of the Mubarak government about the dangers posed by the Internet. According to the cables, the government has jailed bloggers who have either insulted Mubarak or Islam. There were an estimated 160,000 bloggers in Egypt in 2009, the US state department cable said. The Egyptian authorities in a desperate last ditch effort had tried to completely block off internet access. Many of the restrictions have since been lifted after there was an international outcry.

Egypt has been ruled under “emergency law” since 1967. The emergency laws have been used by the government to curtail basic constitutional freedoms and ban many political parties, including the MB. The Communists were ruthlessly dealt with during the time of president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The MB for a short period collaborated with Nasser and Anwar Sadat when he cracked down on the Left. The newly appointed vice president is a strong supporter of the emergency laws that have so effectively silenced the opposition till recently. Suleiman was among the elite officers sent for training to the Soviet Union in the sixties. Nasser reportedly told Suleiman before his departure, that he wanted him to return as “a staunch anti-communist”. Suleiman did not let his president down and eventually went on to become one of Washington’s trusted allies in the region. When Gamal Mubarak publicly supported the abolition of state security courts in early 2000, Suleiman argued for the continuation of the emergency laws. The lament on the streets this correspondent heard when he was in Cairo last year was that Egypt was one country that did not experience real freedom since the days of the Pharaohs. For the first time, the Egyptians seem to be on the cusp of a new dawn.

Egyptians on the street have freely acknowledged that it was the “jasmine revolution” in Tunisia that gave them the courage to confront the state machinery which since the seventies has specialised in browbeating the people into submission.

The events in Tunisia seem to have acted as a catalyst that ignited the dormant pride and nationalism among young Egyptians. 30 per cent of the Egyptian population of more than 80 million is under 20 years of age. Unlike the older generations, they are no longer in a mood to be cowed down by the apparatus of a security state.

The Egyptian army it seems has been advised against using force against civilians and at the same time also ensure that there is no radical shake-up of the status-quo. In Tunisia, despite the popular revolt, the right hand man of Ben Ali, Mohammed Ghannouchi, has taken over the presidency. US army generals had communicated directly with their Tunisian counterparts when the political crisis was unfolding. The Tunisian army was told to withdraw their support for Ben Ali and also instructed not to fire upon the demonstrators.

The popular upsurge in the region against pro-American despots in the region has taken the West by surprise. The slogan of the Tunisian revolution – Bread, Freedom and Dignity, is reverberating all over West Asia. As a young Arab blogger recently wrote – “Either we live in dignity or die in dignity”. An Egyptian journalist observed recently that in the Arab world “there are 22 Ben Ali’s and they all need to go”. Interesting times are ahead as the Arab street seems to at long last woken up from its torpor.