Following their letter of solidarity to Occupy protesters, Egyptian activists have called for an international show of support in return for tomorrow (Saturday) in order to defend the gains of this winter’s revolution from being lost to military co-option. I’ve been helping to plan a screening of short films taken by activists and filmmakers in Egypt following the march, modeled after the cinema that was set up in Tahrir Square this summer to do the same. I also posted the flyer for tomorrow’s rally on my Facebook page; it looks like this:
In response, a friend posted the following response: “How does wall st (financial firms and banks) have anything to do with directly supplying bullets and tear gas to anyone? If Wall St shut down would that solve the Egyptian problem? These two issues seem completely separate to me.”
I think this question is more easily asked than answered, in large part because I think that the process is deliberately concealed by its own complexity. This, as in all politics. But I think it’s an important question to ask for a number of reasons and that there are ways in which the connection may not be so tenuous after all. So here are some brief thoughts.
There’s a double-edged sword to the rhetoric of international solidarity: broadly speaking, economic inequality, police brutality, and structural unfreedom are shared underlying determinants in the wave of uprisings and revolutions we’ve been seeing in even just the past year, though nations within the Global South have long understood the interdependence of their claims to postcolonial independence. The extent to which we recognize our shared struggle, then, creates it as such. And given how interlinked the world is under the grip of a centrally-controlled but globally-diffuse system of financialized capital, this is uniquely true of the present moment, and uniquely interlinked with the Global North (as that category shrinks to approximate what Occupy protesters are calling the 1%). That said, recognition through acknowledgement is not enough. People on the left give solidarity a lot of lip service, but the effect is often negligible in the realm of action, or even detrimental to the local voice of endogenous movements.
With that said, let me address why I think these particular issues — Wall Street’s corruption and military repression in Egypt — are specifically related. The Egyptian revolution was not a giant display of anti-Americanism, but a struggle to end Mubarak’s dictatorship and restore political sanity and basic economic parity to a crippled country. However, Wall Wall Street was present because Wall Street has become the center of corrosion of the American economy and the corruption of American politics, which have direct and quite massive effects on Egypt and countries like it. Some examples:
- Egypt is the second-biggest recipient of US foreign military aid (after Israel – a non-neutral entity in the story), receiving just over 25% of its domestic defense budget from America. This is on top of direct assistance like the “Made in the USA” tear gas canisters and bullets that continue to be used against protesters, and decades of training of Egyptian armed forces. Maybe the poster should read “Washington supports dictatorship in Egypt…” but implicit in the way it’s currently written is the undue influence of Wall Street on Washington and the effective interchangeability of the two today.
- Why would the US care to arm and train Egypt’s army? Complex answers could be given, but I think it’s fairly evident that America bought Egypt as a strategic regional ‘ally’ long ago (another moment when Palestine was sold out). Consequently, the US propped Mubarak up for the duration of his 30-year dictatorship, praising him endlessly and overlooking rights abuses and absolute political corruption that kept him in place. During this time, it’s uncoincidental that speculation and financialization of the Egyptian economy began to parallel the trends occurring in the US, creating the rise of a super-rich elite in a country with increasing income inequality.
- Egypt has long been employed to torture American political prisoners under the extraordinary renditions program. Those techniques and facilities have and are being used to torture Egyptian citizens, who are often detained without charge and “tried” in military tribunals, which give harsh penalties often without an actual trial – hence the air quotes.
- American-dominated global institutions like the IMF and World Bank have employed heavy-handed manipulation of Egypt’s economy via Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that extend political and economic control over the Global South through exploitative loan schemes whose attached strings end up pulling around the puppets of American/European neoliberalism, including Hosni Mubarak.
- Cronyism in the Middle East has opened up vast markets, and for more than oil. The transformational rise of wealth in the GCC nations, for example, reveals the financial and geographic spaces up for grab to the Western-controlled force of homogenizing capitalism. This is not a specific commentary on Egypt, but reveals the stakes that are at play for banks and investment firms specifically in the instruction of US policy in the Middle East, which again has been disastrous to the quality of daily living experienced by the laboring classes of the region.