Interview with Hossam el-Hamalawy

This interview first appeared on the Al Jazeera English

Mark LeVine, professor of History at UC Irvine, managed
to catch up with blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy via Skype
to get a first-hand account of events unfolding in

Mark LeVine: Why did it take a revolution in Tunisia to
get Egyptians onto the streets in unprecedented

Hossam el-Hamalawy: In Egypt we say that Tunis was more
or less a catalyst, not an instigator, because the
objective conditions for an uprising existed in Egypt,
and revolt has been in the air over the past few years.
Indeed, we already managed to have 2 mini-intifadas or
"mini Tunisias" in 2008. The first was the April 2008
uprising in Mahalla, followed by another one in
Borollos, in the north of the country.

Revolutions don't happen out of the blue. It's not
because of Tunisia yesterday that we have one in Egypt
mechanically the next day. You can't isolate these
protests from the last four years of labour strikes in
Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa
intifada and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The outbreak of
the al-Aqsa intifada was especially important because
in the 1980s-90s, street activism had been effectively
shut down by the government as part of the fight
against Islamist insurgents. It only continued to exist
inside university campuses or party headquarters. But
when the 2000 intifada erupted and Al Jazeera started
airing images of it, it inspired our youth to take to
the streets, in the same way we've been inspired by
Tunisia today.

Mark LeVine: How are the protests evolving?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: It's too early to say how they will
go. It's a miracle how they continued past midnight
yesterday in the face of fear and repression. But
having said that, the situation has reached a level
that everyone is fed up, seriously fed up. And even if
security forces manage to put down protests today they
will fail to put down the ones that happen next week,
or next month or later this year. There is definitely a
change in the level of courage of the people. The state
was helped by the excuse of fighting terrorism in 1990s
in order to fight all sorts of dissent in the country,
which is a trick all governments use, including the
USA. But once formal opposition to a regime turns from
guns to mass protests, it's very difficult to confront
such dissent. You can plan to take out a group of
terrorists fighting in the sugar cane fields, but what
are you going to do with thousands of protesters on the
streets? You can't kill them all. You can't even
guarantee that troops will do it, will fire on the

Mark LeVine: What is the relationship between regional
and local events here?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: You have to understand that the
regional is local here. In 2000 the protests didn't
start as anti-regime protests but rather against Israel
and in support of Palestinians. The same occurred with
the U.S. invasion of Iraq three years later. But once
you take to the streets and are confronted by regime
violence you start asking questions: Why is Mubarak
sending troops to confront protesters instead of
confronting Israel? Why is he exporting cement to be
used by Israel to build settlements instead of helping
Palestinians? Why are police so brutal with us when
we're just trying to express our solidarity with
Palestinians in a peaceful manner? And so regional
issues like Israel and Iraq were shifted to local
issues. And within moments, the same protesters who
chanted pro-Palestinian slogans started chanting
against Mubarak. The specific internal turning point in
terms of protests was 2004, when dissent turned

Mark LeVine: In Tunisia the labour unions played a
crucial role in the revolution, as their large and
disciplined membership ensured that protests could not
be easily quashed and gave an organizational edge.
What's the role of the labour movement in Egypt in the
current uprising?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: The Egyptian labour movement was
quite under attack in the 1980s and 1990s by police,
who used live ammunition against peaceful strikers in
1989 during strikes in the steel mills and in 1994 in
the textile mill strikes. But steadily since December
2006 our country has been witnessing the biggest and
most sustained waves of strike actions since 1946,
triggered by textile strikes in the Nile Delta town of
Mahalla, home of largest labour force in the Middle
East with over 28,000 workers. It started because of
labour issues but spread to every sector in society
except the police and military.

As a result of these strikes we've managed to get 2
independent unions, the first of their kind since 1957
property tax collectors, including more than 40,000
civil servants, and then health technicians, more than
30,000 of whom launched a union just last month outside
of the state controlled unions.

But it's true that one major distinction between us and
Tunisia is that although it was a dictatorship, Tunisia
had a semi-independent trade union federation. Even if
the leadership was collaborating with the regime, the
rank and file were militant trade unionists. So when
time came for general strikes, the unions could pull it
together. But here in Egypt we have a vacuum that we
hope to fill soon. Independent trade unionists have
already been subjected to witch hunts since they tried
to be established; there are already lawsuits filed
against them by state and state-backed unions, but they
are getting stronger despite the continued attempts to
silence them.

Of course, in the last few days the crackdown has been
directed against street protesters, who aren't
necessarily trade unionists. These protests have
gathered a wide spectrum of Egyptians, including sons
and daughters of the elite. So we have a combination of
urban poor and youth together with the middle class and
the sons and daughters of elite.

I think Mubarak has managed to alienate all sectors of
society except his close circle of cronies.

Mark LeVine: The Tunisian revolution has been described
as very much a "youth"-led revolt and dependent on
social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter for
its success. And now people are focusing on youth in
Egypt as a major catalyst event. Is this a "youth
intifada" and could it happen without Facebook and
other new media technologies?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: Yes, it's a youth intifada on the
ground. The internet plays only a role in spreading the
word and the images about what goes on the ground. We
do not use the internet to organize. We use the
internet to publicize what we are doing on the ground
hoping to inspire others into action.

Mark LeVine: As you might have heard, in the U.S., the
right wing talk show host Glenn Beck has gone after an
elderly academic, Frances Fox Piven, because of an
article she wrote calling on the unemployed to stage
mass protests for jobs. She's even gotten death
threats, some from unemployed people who seem happier
fantasizing about shooting her with one of their many
guns than actually fighting for their rights. It's
amazing to think about the crucial role of trade unions
in the Arab world today considering more than two
decades of neoliberal regimes across the region whose
primary goal has been to destroy working class
solidarity. Why have unions remained so important?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: Unions have always been proven to
be the silver bullet for any dictatorship. Look at
Poland, South Korea, Latin America and Tunisia. Unions
were always instrumental in mass mobilization. You want
a general strike to overthrow a dictatorship, and there
is nothing better than an independent union to do so.

Mark LeVine: Is there a larger ideological program
behind the protests, or just get rid of Mubarak?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: Everyone has his or her reasons to
take to the streets, but I would assume that if our
uprising became successful and he's overthrown you'll
start getting divisions. The poor will want to push the
revolution to a much more radical position, to push for
radical redistribution of wealth and to fight
corruption, whereas the so-called reformers who want to
put breaks and more or less lobby for change in top and
curb powers of state a little bit but keep some essence
of the state. But we're not there yet.

Mark LeVine: What is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood
and how will its remaining aloof from the current
protests impact the situation?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: The Brotherhood has been suffering
from divisions since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa
intifada. Its involvement in the Palestinian Solidarity
Movement when it came to confronting the regime was
abysmal. Basically, whenever their leadership makes a
compromise with the regime, especially the most recent
leadership of the current supreme guide, it has
demoralized its base cadres. I know personally many
young brothers who left the group, some of them have
joined other groups or remained independent. As the
current street movement grows and the lower leadership
gets involved, there will be more divisions because the
higher leadership can't justify why they're not part of
the new uprising.

Mark LeVine: What about the role of the U.S. in this
conflict? How do people on the street view its

Hossam el-Hamalawy: Mubarak is the second largest
recipient of U.S. foreign aid aside from Israel. He's
known to be America's thug in the region; one of the
tools of American foreign policy and implementing its
agenda of security for Israel and the smooth flow of
oil while keeping Palestinians in line. So it's no
secret that this dictatorship has enjoyed the backing
of U.S. administrations since day one, even during
Bush's phony pro-democracy rhetoric. So one should not
be surprised by [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton's
ludicrous statements that were more or less defending
the Mubarak regime, since one of the pillars of U.S.
foreign policy was to keep regimes stable at the
expense of freedom and civil liberties.

We don't expect anything from Obama, whom we regard as
a great hypocrite. But we hope and expect the American
people – trade unions, professors' associations,
student unions, activist groups, to come out in support
of us. What we want is for the U.S. government to
completely get out of the picture. We don't want any
sort of backing; just cut aid to Mubarak immediately
and withdraw backing from him, withdraw from all Middle
Eastern bases, and stop supporting the state of Israel.

Ultimately, Mubarak will do whatever he has to do to
protect himself. He will suddenly adopt the most
anti-U.S. rhetoric if he thought that would help him
save his skin. At the end of the day he's committed to
his own interests, and if he thinks the U.S. won't
support him, he'll turn somewhere else. The reality is
that any really clean government that comes to power in
the region will come into open conflict with the U.S.
because it will call for radical redistribution of
wealth and ending support for Israel or other
dictatorships. So we don't expect any help from
America, just to leave us alone. *

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and
senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle
Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most
recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and
Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed

Hossam el-Hamalawy, is an Egyptian journalist and
blogger for the website 3arabawy and 3arabawy on