Arab uprisings await their economic spring
There is no doubt that these achievements are important. However, whether dictators left or became “reformers,” such advances have not yet been accompanied by changes in economic policy. This was the case even in Egypt and Tunisia, where the revolutionary tide overthrew two symbols of authoritarian rule and liberal looting.
In Egypt, the military council acts as though Hosni Mubarak gave up power peacefully and voluntarily, not under popular pressure in which labor strikes played no small part. There is hardly any difference between the budget that the first Egyptian prime minister after the revolution, Essam Sharaf, prepared for the council in July 2011 and that which Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmad Nadif proposed in July 2010.
Even worse, after a “careful reading” by the military council of Sharaf’s proposals – and under the pretext of “protecting the revolution” from itself – the council ordered him to reduce some public expenditures on social programs, which he reluctantly tried to avoid (particularly in the fields of health, housing, wages, and unemployment benefits).
The current Prime Minister, Kamal Ganzouri, is just as bad as his predecessor. Despite the ongoing popular protests in all their forms (labor strikes, protests demanding the supply of gas, etc.), no differences can be detected between the economic policy that is to be implemented under the military’s rule and those implemented under Mubarak’s governments.
The current government’s plan appears to continue to place the economic burden on the poor. This will be done by increasing taxes on the poor and borrowing massive amounts from abroad, which ordinary people and their children will spend their lives paying back.
There is no better indication of the continuity between past and present, and between civil tyranny and military democracy, than reports today about ending subsidies on certain commodities, including fuel. Also, Egypt has accepted a US$3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. This loan, of course, comes with IMF conditions to be allowed to oversee the government’s economic policy (especially public expenditure on social programs).
One year since January 25, there appears to be no retreat from Mubarak’s economic policy (its disadvantages can be summed up in “corruption” and “illegal profits”), and from the privatization of dozens of governmental institutions. The military council has not even thought about requiring businessmen to contribute to resolving Egypt’s financial crisis.
According to Ganzouri, their contribution should not exceed the generosity of paying for the energy that their factories consume. It does not seem that the Muslim Brotherhood, who will form the next government, intends to change the direction of the country’s economic policy. On the contrary, the Brotherhood have made promises – to both the military and the US – to respect the laws of investment and encourage investors.
Despite sweeping political change in Tunisia (including heads of the state, parliament, government, and a large number of the old opposition ministers), the economic scene there does not differ much from that in Egypt. As soon as the Islamist government of Hamadi Jebali came to office, it was quick to reassure the business sector (both local and the European) by promising to respect the current investment laws and to encourage investors. Thus, it took the same course as that of Beji Caid el Sebsi’s government before it, which in turn was a mere continuation of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali’s approach.
President Moncef Marzouki will not stand in the way of the government’s promises. On December 23, he called for a “social truce,” by threatening action on the part of “law enforcement” if strikes and protests continue to disrupt production (this statement made in a speech that he delivered before Tunisian employers).
The new Tunisian authorities have done nothing to suggest that they plan to abandon the “Tunisian model,” which has been associated with Ben Ali’s name. It is a model that is based on investment in the coastal areas (near the commercial ports) at the expense of the country’s interior. This model directs production towards exports while assisting economic sectors that do not require a highly skilled workforce, such as textiles and services (which explains the high rate of unemployment among university graduates).
If it were not for the ongoing protests in the northwestern and central provinces, we would have forgotten that the Tunisian revolution, before turning into a gentle romantic “jasmine revolution,” erupted in Sidi Bouzid as a result of Ben Ali’s “economic miracles.”
Such a grim description of the current scene is not intended to blame the working class for its inability to play a role in the political developments unfolding in the region.
Revolution is not as simple as a genie that springs from a bottle to fulfill all the people’s aspirations in the blink of an eye. The intent of the above account is rather to serve as a reminder that the Arab uprisings are still awaiting their social spring, and that capitalist forces, which are terrified of the shift in class forces locally and regionally, have adapted completely to the new Arab situation. What is becoming abundantly clear in this new situation is that religious party leaders have replaced part of the old ruling elite.
The dominant forces in society have shown a considerable amount flexibility. Just as they supported Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s governments in the past, today they support the government appointed by the “spiritual guides,” including Mohammad Badie, Rachid Ghannouchi, and others, as long as they keep the radical social and political movements at bay.
For this reason, the coming period is extremely sensitive in countries that experienced revolutions. Today, working class and poor people in Tunis and Egypt find themselves for the first time confronting Muslim Brotherhood governments, draped in the cloth of revolutionary legitimacy. Yet, these governments are, to some extent, products of the dominant classes and fully represent their interests.
It may be more difficult now for workers to fight for their rights than when the “Muslim Brothers” were among the opposition. However, they will be spared the mirage of a “religious solution” as they watch the Islamists attempt to distract them with proclamations to uphold their “identity.” They will in fact be trying to divert workers’ attention from the “public interest” that Islamist claims to defend. In reality, these are the “interests of the rich” – those with or without beards.
Yassine Temlali is an Algerian writer.