Archive for August, 2013

The coup in Egypt: First impressions

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

This is the text of a presentation made to a meeting of the Alliance for Workers Liberty in London on 11 July 2013.

Let’s start with what we probably agree on:

1. support for early, free and fair elections
2. swift withdrawal of the military to their barracks
3. no return of Morsi to power
4. any government, transitional or otherwise, must respect human rights

Now we get to the tricky bit.

Two years ago, back in May 2011, Kamal Abbas of the Egyptian Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) spoke here in London at a packed event which the AWL organized.

His organization, which laid so much of the groundwork for the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, and that formed the core of the new independent unions in Egypt, has issued a series of statements before and after the coup.

But before telling you what they say, we need to review what the trade union movement has been saying, and in this case, the TUC here has been echoing the views expressed by the International Trade Union Confederation based in Brussels.

And their views, I might add, are indistinguishable from the views of the British and other European governments, or those of the USA.

The consensus expressed by the ITUC, TUC, David Cameron, Barak Obama, etc can be summed up in this way:

1. Morsi, though elected, was a terrible ruler and was becoming increasingly authoritarian. This is no surprise because we knew all along that the Muslim Brotherhood was not committed to democracy and as the AWL has correctly noted, is a clerical fascist movement.

2. The protesters in Tahrir Square were basically right, and were continuing in the spirit of the January 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak.

3. Nevertheless, the army decision to topple Morsi was wrong, and is unacceptable.

4. But having said that, we are not demanding Morsi’s reinstatement and instead are moving on, facing the future, and so on. As the ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow put it, “Egypt now has a second chance to build a democracy that respects the rights and interests of all women and men, and guarantees social justice.”

This position, which is very widely held, is full of contradictions.

If you genuinely believe that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Morsi was legitimately elected and should be replaced only by opponents chosen by the people in free and fair elections, then you must call for Morsi’s reinstatement. But that is not what the labour movement or Western governments are calling for.

Which brings me to the extraordinary gap between what labour movements in the West are saying and what our comrades in Egypt are saying.

Let me start with a quote from an Egyptian trade unionist that appeared on the website of the MENA Solidarity Network.

“The army intervention,” he said, “stopped terrorist groups, who were prepared to use weapons against us and against our revolution from shedding citizens’ blood.”

The view that Morsi’s government was basically authoritarian and would soon be crushing the demonstrations in Tahrir square was widely held.

I have no doubt that our comrades in Egypt had studied what happened in Turkey in the last few weeks and watched a far more democratic Islamist government behave ruthlessly with brutal violence against peaceful protesters in Taksim Square and elsewhere.

They fully expected either the police or the Muslim Brotherhood itself to come down hard on the protests, and saw the army as coming to their rescue, and preventing further violence.

That violence was not hypothetical – it would have been an intensification of the violence already used by the Brotherhood against workers.

As the ITUC itself stated on the eve of the coup, “Actions by independent unions to support pay rises for workers on poverty wages have been routinely met with violence and dismissal of union supporters in recent months, women are being subjected to unprecedented levels of violence, and media are facing suppression.”

As the CTUWS put it in a statement issued before the coup, “The past year witnessed widespread human rights crimes, on a scale that rivaled [those] under the Mubarak regime. The brutal suppression of political and social protest movements did not cease; indeed, the security forces are no longer the only party to use of excessive force against demonstrators, as MB supporters have also been given free rein to use violence to punish and intimidate their opponents”.

It was this atmosphere of fear, of the clerical fascist Muslim Brotherhood growing increasingly violent, that led to the welcoming of the coup by our comrades.

And how did they welcome it? With critical support? With the kind of neither-the-brotherhood-nor-the-military third camp slogans?

Not at all – they embraced it with all their souls.

Here is how the statement issued by the CTUWS on the morning after the coup begins:

“For the second time in less than two and a half years the Egyptian people prove the wonderful and dazzling ability to create miracles, millions … rise up in all the streets and the squares of freedom responsive to the rejuvenated rebellious appeal, determined to bring down the fascist regime that had been able to, in the absence of everyone and under the conditions of a complex political grab of this great revolution .. The great Egyptian people rose up to restore to this nation its identity of moderation .. Tolerance .. Unity and not divisiveness, and to restore Egypt as a homeland for all, without exclusion, and a nation of freedom, social justice and human dignity.”

And it’s not just the CTUWS that’s expressed unqualified support for the coup.

The National Salvation Front, a broad coalition, had this to say on the morning after:

“We would like to confirm that what Egypt is witnessing now is not a military coup by any standards. It was a necessary decision that the Armed Forces’ leadership took to protect democracy, maintain the country’s unity and integrity, restore stability and get back on track towards achieving the goals of the January 25 Revolution.”

If you just watch the BBC, you’d think that the National Salvation Front is just Mohamed El Baradei, who was a former regime loyalist who only slowly woke up to the evils of the Mubarak dictatorship.

But if look into who actually makes up the Front, it also includes the venerable Communist Party of Egypt and several socialist parties – including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, affiliated to the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists.

So we have a situation where everyone outside of Egypt seems wary, at the least, of military rule; but inside Egypt, our comrades and basically everyone who’s not an Islamist, seems pretty happy that the generals stepped in.

Can socialists ever imagine a scenario in which they would support a military coup?

In the AWL’s recent statement, you cited the example of the May 1926 coup in Poland, which is probably not the best-known example.

In more recent times, many socialists – though not the AWL – cheered on the left-populist putschist Hugo Chavez, who did eventually come to power in a free election, but only after trying his hand at a classic military coup d’etat.

Probably the most interesting historical example is offered by the Bolsheviks, though of course this may not as familiar to you as the May 1926 Polish coup.

In October 1917, the Petrograd garrison mutinied, helping to bring to power a government headed by the Bolsheviks and their partners, the Left Social Revolutionaries.

Had the garrison remained loyal to the Kerensky government, Lenin and Trotsky would be footnotes to history. But they were not loyal and in fact were actively disloyal to their government – just as the Egyptian military was last week.

The signal for the storming of the Winter Palace in that revolution (or coup) was the firing of the guns of the cruiser Aurora, whose crew had turned on the Provisional Government and thrown in their lot with Lenin.

The parallels with what happened in Egypt don’t stop there.

To those who complain that Morsi, however bad, was a democratically elected leader and could only be removed in a free election, may I remind comrades of the arguments used by the Bolsheviks to justify their decision to close down the democratically-elected Constituent Assembly early in 1918.

The Bolsheviks would have been the very last to make a fetish of free elections and parliamentary government. They didn’t hesitate to use the military to bring down what was a far more representative government – Kerensky’s coalition – than the one they replaced it with.

And it was armed soldiers and sailors who dispersed the Constituent Assembly by force.

In other words, you as people who politically identify with Lenin and Trotsky, should be the very last to stand on ceremony in this case.

And we all, no matter what we think of the October revolution (or coup), have to take into consideration what our comrades in Egypt have been saying for the past week.

We don’t have to agree with them, but we have to hear their reasoning and try to understand them.

That having been said, I return to what I believe we can agree on:

  • support for early, free and fair elections
  • swift withdrawal of the military to their barracks
  • no return of Morsi to power
  • any government, transitional or otherwise, must respect human rights

Thank you.

Beyond the legal strategy: Taking the fight against BDS into the unions — and how to win

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

This is the text of my presentation on a panel held at the Wiener Library in London on 11 July 2013.

We should begin by facing up honestly to the disaster of this Employment Tribunal decision. I won’t go into the question of whether it was right to have gone down this route in the first place. Nor will I attempt to deal with whether the case could have been handled differently.

The reality is that we had many months to prepare, we had outstanding witnesses, we had the best lawyers in the country, and we lost the case – and we lost badly.

The Employment Tribunal found nothing of merit in our case, and denounced us for having wasted their time.

It doesn’t get worse than this.

Our opponents in groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign celebrated – rightly – our defeat.

I was not convinced before and am not convinced now that this route – going through the courts – is the best way to take on proponents of BDS.

I think we can safely say that this case actually hurt our cause and was a huge setback and we need to re-think how we continue with our fight.

I’m not saying that there is never a time to use legal measures; I know that many times – such as the court fight between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt – this can be very useful. Though it’s important to remember that Lipstadt and her publisher didn’t bring that case to court – it was the Holocaust-denying Irving who did so.

But just as a carpenter sees any problem as a nail and reaches for his hammer, so lawyers may tend to see every problem as a legal one – but I don’t.

The fight against BDS in the UCU and other unions is first of all a political fight.

Some people have given up on the unions. We know that a significant number of academics resigned from the UCU when it was no longer possible for them to stomache the rampant anti-semitism in their union.

I respect their decision, but it would be dishonest to say that it was the right decision. It was not.

For Jews in the labour movement, it is completely unacceptable to be told by anyone that we have no right to be there, that people like us should not feel at home in our unions. Jews, and that includes Zionists like myself, have every right to be union members, activists and leaders.

We must stand our ground and defend our right to be members of a movement that Jewish people played such an important role in founding.

While some have quit unions such as the UCU, others have stood their ground.

Every day of the year, Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI), Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP), Engage and others continue to make the case for a two-state solution, against BDS and against demonization of Israel.

It is a difficult fight – but in some countries, our side is winning. The obvious examples are Germany, the USA and Australia.

Some would say that it’s obviously going to be easier in those countries.

After all, Germany feels all this guilt about the Holocaust. Of course trade unionists there are not going to be particularly anti-Israel.

And the USA, well we all know the power of the Israel lobby. (This is not me speaking – this is what people will say.)

But Australia? Why are some of the most vocal and effective advocates of Israel’s right to exist to be found in places like Melbourne and Sydney?

The answer is that those people have fought a political fight which they have won, convincing others of the correctness of our cause.

It’s important to remember that even in the British trade union movement, those who openly support Hamas and Hizbollah represent a fringe. Among trade union leaders, moderate voices still prevail.

Many of you will not be aware of this, but when the International Trade Union Confederation held its most recent congress in Vancouver, it was Brendan Barber of the British TUC who played a key role in preventing a viciously anti-Israel resolution proposed by the South Africans (COSATU) from reaching the floor.

The TUC in general has been far better on this issue than the leadership of UCU.

And at international level, the International Trade Union Confederation and the global union federations including the Education International – to which the UCU belongs – continue to welcome Israeli members, have elevated Israelis to top positions, and advocate for a two-state solution and generally against BDS.

It is premature at least to say that the fight is unwinnable.

Before I continue with how we can win, I want to say a word about our opponents, the people who support BDS.

To say that someone supports BDS actually tells us very little about them.

There are at the very least soft supporters as opposed to hard supporters.

There are people who speak of Israel with unveiled disgust and hatred and others who merely want to label West Bank settlement goods as such.

Anyone who has spent any time in British unions trying to argue the case against BDS will soon discover that our main enemy is not so much hatred of Israel, but ignorance.

Some years ago, the Jewish Chronicle reported on its front page that Unison had decided not to make a donation to the website I founded, LabourStart, because I was a “Zionist”, which I am. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Months later, I met a member of the Unison national executive who asked me if I was from that organization, LabourStart, which they’d decided not to fund.

I am, I said.

He admitted that he didn’t much remember the debate they had, but then was reminded of something and he said, “Wasn’t it something like – you were accused of being anti-Semitic?”

Anti-semitic, Zionist, whatever.

One imagines that these are issues and terms that are of little interest to the average trade union member in Britain and our opponents take advantage of this ignorance to spread lies and half-truths about Israel every day.

Our job is to counter that with the truth.

Can anti-semitism be defeated politically and if so, how?

I think it can and I want to conclude by talking about how we can do this.

We should focus on our strengths and the most important thing to remember in this fight is that we are right.

We are right in two senses:

First, the facts are on our side.

For example, Israel is not an apartheid state – this is one of those things that is incredibly easy to disprove.

Hamas and Hizbollah are fascist movements, as is the Muslim Brotherhood, and by exposing them we make it harder for people in the labour movement and on the left to identify with them.

And second, we are morally right – and this carries some weight.

We are morally right because we continue a very noble tradition on the left that rejects all forms of prejudice, bigotry, racism and anti-semitism.

We, and not our pro-BDS opponents, are the genuine heirs of the great internationalist tradition of the left and labour movements.

We must always remember that our opponents are not mindless proto-Nazis scheming to create the next Holocaust.

Many of them are ordinary trade union members who have only heard one side of an argument.

There are some among them who don’t grasp the difference between being a Zionist and being an anti-semite. And why should they know this? No one is teaching them, no one is explaining anything.

There are course anti-semites among them, particuarly in the hard core around the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, but they are a minority.

They should be exposed, isolated and defeated politically.

We have many allies, not only in the Jewish community, and working together with them we have nothing to fear.

We can win this fight.