The revolution will be televised: A new film explains how Egypt found its voice

While world leaders are discussing Egypt's future, in Cairo protesters are demanding democracy.
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The Independent Culture

Today, many of the social movements that laid the groundwork for the Egyptian revolution are calling for a second revolution. This Twitter announcement of 22 May from journalist Reem Abdellatif encapsulates the call: "Next Friday, #May27 #Egyptians plan not to leave #Tahrir or any other square in #Egypt until ALL of the revolution's demands are met."

Egyptians have been returning to the streets regularly since Mubarak resigned on 11 February and the army assumed control. There is anger at both the pace of change and the return of repression.

"If anything was achieved, it was only because of the pressure of the revolution continuing," activist Gigi Ibrahim told me back in March. It's as if the army has had to be pulled every step of the way. "That's totally true," says Lillie Paquette, director of the forthcoming film, We Are Egypt – Voices Leading to Revolution. "The protest on 8 April was the biggest since Mubarak resigned. That was specifically about people saying to the military, 'you're not moving fast enough, we want Mubarak arrested, we want his sons arrested, we want his cronies from the former regime arrested'. And about a week later, Mubarak and his sons, several of the top officials of the previous government were arrested."

But, while senior officials are being tried in civilian courts for corruption and the deaths of hundreds of protesters, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is concerned that peaceful protesters are being tried in front of military courts on a massive scale in violation of basic rights to a fair trial. More than 5,600 have been tried and sentenced since February, creating a massive backlog of dubious convictions. Credible allegations of torture are ongoing and at the Nakba protest on 15 May at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, police fired live ammunition and tear gas at protesters before arresting them.

"We should never trust the army," Ibrahim cautioned presciently. "The top generals are the same people that have been closely related to Mubarak. They don't want the system to change but they can't publicly say it. So even though they're giving all these nice announcements about how they are the defenders of the revolution, you can see them arresting peaceful protesters, detaining and torturing them."

HRW's local researcher in Cairo, Heba Morayef offers a grim assessment of the army's record so far. "Overall I can't say there's been any change for the better. There's been some reform. But the presence and the absolute control of the military is a challenge not just for the current situation but also potentially moving forward."

The military is supposed to be overseeing the transition to democratic elections in September, but the fear is that the army, along with remnants of Mubarak's NDP Party, will retain a role after the elections and the regime will essentially remain in place. Indeed, according to Professor Noam Chomsky, this is precisely the usual strategy of Western powers. In a speech this month, he said: "There is a game plan... When there's a favoured dictator and he's getting into trouble, support him as long as possible. When it becomes impossible... send him off somewhere, issue ringing declarations about your love of democracy, and then try to restore the old regime, maybe with new names. And that's done over and over again. It doesn't always work... [but] that's what's going on in Egypt and Tunisia."

So despite President Obama's claim in his Middle East speech last week to be supporting the Egyptian people, it seems the Western powers were supporting Mubarak, right up until the last minute. Six days before Mubarak resigned, Reuters reported that at a "security conference in Munich", the US and EU "were working closely with the military... to ensure a continuation of the dominant role of the military in the society, the polity and the economy."

At the centre of Paquette's film is a moving passage where Esraa, one of the documentary's central characters, is asked if she believes the US really wants democracy in Egypt. It's revealing because Esraa is one of a number of Egyptian women who Congress – through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in grooming as friendly to the US and its corporations. At the time Esraa was working for the NED-funded Egyptian Democratic Academy, monitoring the fraudulent November 2010 elections. "I don't have any real evidence that they want democracy in Egypt," she says quietly. "You don't achieve democracy only by funding projects. We want pressure on policymakers. That's not happening."

Paquette spent time administering grants for the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative before completing a Masters in US-Middle East relations. "These programmes are intertwined with US foreign policy and seem to be used as a decoy for people not to look at what else the US is doing in these countries," she concludes. So while the US was funding token projects to win "hearts and minds", its support for Mubarak's regime remained undimmed. For the fiscal year 2012 the US administration requested $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing – the same level it has been providing for nearly 30 years. US military support for Egypt is second only to its military support for Israel.

The US-Egyptian military relationship goes beyond financing, to training for "interoperability" and the provision of CENTCOM training opportunities in the Middle East. According to a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, the FBI provided training for the Egyptian State Security – the very unit responsible for torturing protesters and activists. The tanks on the streets this year were built under a US-Egypt co-production agreement for 1,200 tanks that began in 1988. The tear gas that the army continues to fire at protesters is delivered in canisters the protesters trace back to the US. "A draftee I spoke to says that his military base is crawling with US military personnel," says Paquette. "He said it's as if they almost co-run the military."

Here in the UK there has been similar complicity. Our interests in arms and oil have been pursued regardless. BP is the largest investor in the country and its website boasts of its "strong relationship with the Egyptian government and the Ministry of Petroleum". The company has benefited from the "stability" that Mubarak provided along with a business environment that was friendly to foreign investors. Prime Minister David Cameron's response to the revolution was to arrive in Cairo 10 days later flanked by a team of defence salespeople.

In his speech, Obama linked his support for Arab uprisings to economic reforms. The IMF and World Bank, he noted, have been asked to advise this week's G8 meeting on what economic policies are appropriate for the new Egypt. But Egyptians didn't rise up because they wanted a free market economy. Rather, they rose up because the free market fundamentalism that has been imposed on them since the mid-1970s has made them either unemployed, badly paid or landless.

In fact, Egypt's crisis can be traced back to the mid-1970s when advisers from the IMF, World Bank and USAID first started arriving. Subsidies to food and fuel were cut and a ruthless privatisation plan implemented in which state-owned companies were sold off cheaply to Mubarak cronies.

Rick Rowden, who is assisting Paquette with her film, is an expert on IMF policy and has been outspoken in his opposition to the country taking on new loans. "The particular brand of monetary policy which the IMF prefers has a built in bias in favour of the financial sector and creditors," he explains. "And what gets subordinated is the interest of the larger real economy and the interests of Labour. So the IMF is really against a policy of minimum wage and wage increases. In many countries that have adopted the IMF approach, wages as a percentage of GDP are very low and often shrink. Whereas the proportion of the economy that relates to finance and insurance and real estate gets larger. That's a huge problem if they want to address the underlying political problems of youth unemployment and underemployment that helped cause the revolution."

Instead Rowden argues the country could seek financing from countries such as China, Brazil, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Recovering the ill-gotten gains of Mubarak alone could net $70bn. As Tim Jones of Jubilee Debt Campaign put it: "If Western powers really want to help Egypt's economy, rather than control it, they should offer debt cancellation and grants, not loans with strings attached."

For more information on the film 'We Are Egypt', go to