Issue 281 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

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CAIRO CONFERENCE

Middle Eastern promise

Hundreds of delegates packed out the second Cairo conference
Hundreds of delegates packed out the second Cairo conference

The Cairo conference brought to a close a momentous year for the global anti-war movement. Over 1,000 activists from Europe, North America and around the Middle East met on 13 and 14 December at the Egyptian Journalists' Union headquarters to debate strategies for building worldwide resistance to imperialism and globalisation. Egyptian campaigners told how thousands of protesters took over central Cairo on the first day of war against Iraq. British trade unionists spoke about building the local Stop the War Coalition groups which mobilised millions on 15 February. US activists described launching a mass movement to bring the troops home.

Anti-war MP George Galloway, Tony Benn, Salma Yaqoob from Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, and former US attorney-general Ramsey Clark were among the international speakers. Prominent Egyptian campaigners taking part included Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahy, Galal Aref, head of the Egyptian Journalists' Union, and Ma'mun al-Hodeiby, leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and human rights activist Aida Seif-al-Dawla were among the conference organisers.

For many in Egypt Sonallah Ibrahim in particular has come to symbolise a new mood of defiance. In October he turned down Egypt's Novelist of the Year award live on television in front of the minister of culture, telling the audience that the repressive Egyptian government 'did not have the credibility to award it'. He attacked Arab governments for their 'collaboration' with the US's occupation of Iraq and the Israeli government's crimes against the Palestinians.

Sonallah Ibrahim's personal challenge to the authority of the state reflects the growth of a wider protest movement. The huge demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq on 20 and 21 March pulled thousands onto the streets in spontaneous protest. Most of those taking part were simply ordinary people enraged by the assault on Iraq, but the presence of organised networks of activists at the heart of the protests has meant that despite ferocious repression the anti-war movement today is broader than it has ever been.

However, as the stormy debates at the conference demonstrated, this fragile unity has not been easily won. The presence of Muslim Brotherhood leader Ma'mun al-Hodeiby brought a large number of Islamist activists into the conference. The Muslim Brotherhood, although officially banned, is by far Egypt's largest opposition organisation. The funeral of the group's previous leader last year filled the streets of Cairo with hundreds of thousands of mourners. But some delegates were critical of the Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation with the government in a series of stage-managed anti-war rallies held before the invasion of Iraq.

Salma Yaqoob from Birmingham Stop the War Coalition challenged both sides of the movement to find ways of working together more closely. Socialists, nationalists and Islamists should look for common ground against a common enemy, she argued. Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab should not be attacked by the left in the name of defending women's rights, while Islamists should recognise that women have the right to choose whether to wear the veil or not, she said.

The relationship between the movement and the state also provoked sharp debate after an electrifying call by a member of the Revolutionary Socialists group, for 'a world without Bush, Blair, Sharon and Mubarak'. The sharp intake of breath around the packed auditorium showed clearly that for some a direct challenge to the state was a step too far. But the loud cheers which followed his speech demonstrated that many others supported his call. Despite attempts by the government to crush the anti-war movement--five socialist activists are currently standing trial on charges of contacting international human rights groups and attempting to overthrow the state--many activists argue that the only way to push the boundaries of the movement further is by bringing the fight back home to the Egyptian government.

And on several levels the Egyptian ruling class is under increasing pressure from below. Egypt's rapidly worsening economic situation is driving millions of people further into debt. Prices are rising, and the Egyptian pound has halved in value in less than two years. At the same time, the ageing president Mubarak is attempting to speed up a process of reform within the ruling party which will allow his son, Gamal, to take the reins of power. This has deepened splits within the ruling class between an 'old guard' of ministers and bureaucrats, and Mubarak's closest supporters, who hope to rebuild confidence in the ruling party by presenting the president's son as a reformer. Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahy spoke for many when he told the conference that 'we must oppose the inheritance of power'. As a rallying call which links anger at corruption and economic crisis with opposition to the Egyptian government's support for US imperialism, the campaign against Gamal Mubarak has the potential to forge a powerful movement.

The final sessions showed how far the movement has come in the past year--delegates agreed a strong statement against imperialism and capitalism, despite differences which could have split the conference. During sharp debates over the capture of Saddam Hussein some activists argued that the conference should take a stand in support of the Iraqi leader, while others attacked him as a Ceausescu-like dictator. It was Sonallah Ibrahim who reminded activists, to loud applause, what the real issues were: 'The key question is--are we with the resistance in Iraq or not? Are we with the resistance in Palestine or not?'

John Rees from the Stop the War Coalition in Britain summed up the mood of many when he told the conference that, despite the media frenzy around the capture of Saddam Hussein, 'it is our movement which is the real story'. The links which have been forged in Cairo are helping to knit the global anti-war movement closer together, and build a resistance which takes its strength from below.
Anne Ashford


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • Who better to present a balanced debate about genetically modified (GM) crops to school students than GM manufacturers? The Biotechnology Institute, whose members include Monsanto and Novartis, plans to launch a magazine on GM crops into Scottish schools with the help of Scottish Enterprise. The title of the gene giants' apologia for the hijacking of the food chain? Your World.

  • Proof that nuclear energy is insane in Madrid, where a loose screw weighing four to five grammes necessitated the closure of the entire Zorita power station. A spokesperson insisted that the missing screw was unlikely to pose a risk.

  • Bolt-on trouble
  • Those pesky advertisers are trying to get inside our minds again. 'Neuromarketing' uses functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to map brain chemicals as test subjects suffer the latest product/ad campaign. Presumably just asking their opinion wouldn't be sufficiently dehumanising.

  • CYPRUS

    Political stalemate

    Political turmoil was the outcome of elections in the Turkish northern part of Cyprus last month.

    The general election produced a stalemate, with opposition and pro-government parties each ending up with 25 seats in the 50-seat parliament. The government of Rauf Denktash hopes to form a new administration or call further elections next month.

    Denktash is a hardline nationalist who came to power after the Turkish army invaded Cyprus in 1974, resulting in the island being partitioned into a Greek-dominated south and Turkish-dominated north.

    For decades he has been able to play on the fears of Turkish Cypriots that they would suffer a second class status if the island was reunified. But in recent years he has faced growing opposition to his corrupt and authoritarian rule. There were significant anti-government strikes and protests last year.

    There is a growing feeling in both parts of Cyprus for a resolution to the conflict between the two groups, which took root when Britain used a policy of divide and rule to control Cyprus as a colony.

    There have been major protests in the south of Cyprus against the war on Iraq, and against the continuing presence of large British army bases.

    The border was partly reopened last year after pressure from Turkish and Greek Cypriots pushed their respective leaders into talks.

    Denktash has been thrown back into relying on the support of the Turkish state's army and some of the Turkish immigrants who were brought into Cyprus to provide a bedrock for pro-Turkish nationalism.

    The Turkish government is hoping to begin talks on joining the European Union next year. That means it is trying to get some kind of solution to the 'Cyprus problem'.

    EU politicians publicly supported the pro-reunification Republican Turkish Party (CTP) in last month's elections. It emerged as the largest single party with 19 seats. It supports the peace deal brokered by the UN.

    That certainly chimes with the hopes of most people on both sides of the border. But it does not answer the deep discontent at declining living standards and rule by corrupt politicians.

    And there is greater questioning over whether membership of the EU will solve those problems--something that most people took for granted two years ago.

    Whether the opposition to discredited politicians in Cyprus north and south breaks through will depend on how much it connects with discontent over economic as well as political issues, rather than simply emphasising links with European big business.
    Kevin Ovenden


    EUROPEAN CONSTITUTION

    A band of hostile brothers

    Blair does the hokey-cokey with Giscard d'Estaing--one foot in, one foot out
    Blair does the hokey-cokey with Giscard d'Estaing--one foot in, one foot out

    The European Union's expansion from ten to 25 this year did not get off to an auspicious start. The row between Poland, the biggest of the new entrants, and Germany, its neighbour and biggest trading partner, led to talks over the proposed European constitution collapsing in acrimony.

    The row was over voting procedures in the council of ministers. The Nice treaty of 2000 agreed a system of weighted voting to overcome the new entrants' fears of being swamped by the bigger states. This also suited some existing members, notably Spain, who resent France and Germany's dominance. So Poland got 27 votes (as did Spain and Portugal)--only two behind Britain, Germany and France at 29 votes each.

    Nice left open how enlargement could avoid complete paralysis in an already creaky decision-making process. Talks over a new European constitution were meant to overcome this. But any overhaul inevitably meant challenging the weighted voting system agreed at Nice.

    Germany asked why Poland and Spain should get nearly twice as many votes in the council of ministers when their combined population is roughly the same as Germany's. It wanted 'double majority' voting, as proposed in the draft constitution, to replace weighted voting. A simple majority in the council of ministers, with each member state having one vote, would decide issues--provided the votes of the majority accounted for 60 percent of the EU's population.

    Germany's stance infuriated both Poland and Spain. Poland was already smarting at the way in which President Chirac of France had bluntly told the new east European entrants that they shouldn't have vocalised their support for the US over Iraq (Poland has been the keenest of the ex Warsaw Pact countries to send troops to Iraq at the behest of its new imperialist master).

    The German assumption that Poland would automatically fall in behind its neighbour led Poland's foreign minister to complain, 'Unfortunately, there are still too many people in the European Union who think of enlargement as a kind of grace offered to the poorer brothers in Europe.'

    The talks might well have reached agreement if Spain's compromise had been followed. But Poland, soon to be the sixth biggest member, was intransigent.

    The Franco-German axis is the driving force behind the new constitution. They are happy to see an EU divided between an inner core, based on greater financial, economic and political integration, and an outer periphery. An indication of the degree to which they are prepared to bend EU rules to serve their interests can be seen in the way in which they happily flouted the stability pact governing the euro while insisting that the new entrants observe very strict currency regulations.

    But Poland is not an independent player. Behind Poland stands Britain (and the US). Britain was quietly relieved to see the constitutional talks collapse--not just for domestic reasons over perceived loss of national sovereignty, but because it is prepared to use the smaller countries as a counterweight to France and Germany's ambitions.

    This opposition, which has been so starkly revealed over the war in Iraq and the question of a European defence force, goes to the heart of the problem which dogs the EU project--what is its global role?

    Economically its weight is on a level with the US. This may allow it to face down the US in a tariff war over steel. But politically it punches well below its weight. It lacks a coherent foreign policy and the ability to intervene decisively in the rest of the world. As events in former Yugoslavia showed, it could not play an important military role even in its own back yard--except with the say-so of the US.

    Sections of European capital, notably French and German, would like to enhance their global competitiveness. Developments in the Middle East have painfully reminded them of their weakness in relation to the US. A streamlined, militarised EU could not, of course, displace the US--but it couldn't be pushed around in the same way.

    Other sections of European capital see the EU differently. They see the advantages of a single market and some pooling of sovereignty--but not in a way that jeopardises their interests elsewhere in the world (Britain is the obvious example here). The newer entrants (particularly the former Stalinist satellites) are eager to be part of the EU--but not in ways that tie them exclusively to Germany, the most powerful state economically, despite stagnation, or to France's political ambitions.

    They fear that they will never share the prosperity promised by membership. As it is, the prediction is that it will take 50 to 90 years (depending on assumed annual growth rates of 4 or 3 percent) for the eastern European countries joining in 2004 and 2007 to catch up with the 15, themselves assumed to be growing at 2 percent per year.

    The hero of Christopher Isherwood's 1935 novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains, complained that 'the countries of Europe are nothing more or less than a collection of mousetraps. In some of them, the cheese is of a superior quality, that is the only difference.'

    The postwar construction of a Europe without borders was meant to overcome that. Instead it has turned Europe into a giant mousetrap in which competing imperialist interests continue to strive for advantage as they did in the past.
    Gareth Jenkins


    MARTIN'S WEB

    ANTI-FASCISM

    Uniting to beat the bigots

    Protesters march on the BNP in Welling in 1993
    Protesters march on the BNP in Welling in 1993

    Unite Against Fascism (UAF) represents the biggest mobilisation of anti-Nazi forces in this country since the 1970s. It brings together the Anti Nazi League, the National Assembly Against Racism, Labour MPs, the TUC, and the general secretaries of Unison, the TGWU, the GMB, the PCS and the CWU. Billy Hayes is the treasurer of the organisation and Ken Livingstone the chair. Every day more names come flooding in. There is tremendous relief throughout the labour movement that the organisation has been set up, because there is serious concern about the threat posed by the Nazi BNP in the forthcoming June elections.

    The BNP plans to launch a campaign to emulate its European Nazi counterparts Le Pen, Haider and Fini. At the moment the BNP has 17 council seats, from Burnley in the north west, to Thurrock in Essex and Broxbourne on the borders of north London. But its big aim is to break through in the Euro and GLA elections, where proportional representation means that it can gain an MEP with around 10 percent of the vote in some areas. For example, in the north west BNP leader Nick Griffin would need only 9 percent, or 140,000 votes, to become an MEP. To give a sense of proportion about this, all the BNP votes across the country in the last election added up to 131,000. However, a low turnout would require less than 140,000 for him to be elected.

    The BNP also hopes to gain many more council seats across the country. Where they have won seats, the Nazis are creeping in by presenting themselves as the protest party against New Labour, building on general dissatisfaction with the government and the hysteria that has been generated against asylum seekers. So while it is true that the overwhelming majority of people who turn out to vote BNP are not Nazis, neither do they accept that it is a fascist organisation. We can rip the mask of respectability away from the BNP by mass mobilisation. This was done successfully by the Anti Nazi League in the 1970s.

    In east London's Isle of Dogs in 1994, when BNP councillor Derek Beackon was defeated, his vote actually went up. But the numbers turning out to vote against him went up far more. This was due to a mass campaign led by the Anti Nazi League, and the TUC march of 150,000 through east London.

    But while we can learn from our past victories, we need also to acknowledge what has changed. In 1928 Hitler's Nazis only got 2.6 percent of the vote, but he had 100,000 storm troopers marching on the streets. He used marches, demonstrations and rallies to build votes, and became a large enough force to be handed power by the right winger Hindenburg. In France today Le Pen has concentrated on presenting a respectable face in order to build electorally, biding his time before mobilising on the streets.

    In Germany Hitler used the storm troopers to smash working class organisation. We have an advantage--the bulwark against fascism exists in the trade union and labour movement. Last year the TUC and Labour conferences were dominated by the mood for a mass anti-Nazi fight. Seventeen major unions have signed up to UAF. It is our task to ensure that every trade union member and every local union branch signs up as well. In every area we can approach trade unionists, Labour Party members and community leaders to sign up to a local UAF list to be published in the press before the election. The essence of this united front is that, while we may have differences on many issues, this is one issue we agree on--mobilising activity against the Nazis. Such a strategy could have defeated Hitler.

    Unite Against Fascism will have hundreds of thousands of members. It will also provide the atmosphere to go on the offensive against Nazi and racist lies about asylum seekers. This is a race against time, but in the current atmosphere of mass mobilisations against war we can forge a movement to smash the Nazis.
    Weyman Bennett
    Joint secretary Unite Against Fascism

    Martin

    Speak like a blog

    The phenomenon of internet web diaries (blogs) recently hit the news through the activities of the 'Baghdad Blogger'. Blogs are personal websites which allow a user to put regular comments, news items or stories online--rather like a public diary.

    It's predicted that there will be over 5 million such sites by the time you read this.

    A quick internet search puts you at the centre of the blogging community. Blogs attract readers through search engines and links from other blogs. So each blog sits at the heart of a spider's web of links to others of similar tastes or interests--forming an 'online community'.

    For Socialist Review readers, the mass of blogs describing the writers' lives and loves might not be of particular interest, but web communities such as the 'No War Blog'[1] are worth viewing. This site brings together anti-war blogs, divided into left and right wing opposition to the war (there are many more left wing sites). Unfortunately the politics often don't live up to the names--Lean Left, Counterspin Central and Political DiaBlog to pick a random few.

    Politically blogs tend to either be liberal left or anarchistic, with a smattering of libertarians. I've not been able to find many from an explicitly socialist point of view.

    Many people will already have seen some of the postings by the 'Baghdad Blogger' [2] in the Guardian, but it's worth looking at his site again--the writer visited London at the time of last September's stop the war protest.

    There is a debate to be had about democracy and blogs--the ability to debate and network with people across the globe is something that can only be welcomed but, as with everything on the internet, sooner or later more mainstream interests take note. For instance, Democratic contender Howard Dean has hundreds of blogs giving him their support, and he even has his own[3]

    Finally, of real interest is the blog run by the general secretary of the CWU, Billy Hayes[4]. Certainly the post workers who commentated online about his activities during the course of their recent strike would argue that the blog makes their union leader more accountable. Gimmick or real attempt at democracy? Read it and decide.
    Martin Empson
    martinempson@hushmail.com


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