Russia, Iran and Egypt: Oppressed minorities and revolution

Mostafa Ali , Friday 15 Jun 2012

As historical record indicates, the prospects of true equality in Egypt for Copts, Nubians and Bedouins is tied to the fate of the revolution not hopes in a change of heart by the old order

All great social revolutions against entrenched systems of exploitation and oppression offer hope not only to a general population that suffered the injustices of poverty and want at the hands of a small, privileged class, but also to social groups that suffer additional oppression at the hands of the same unjust system.

Every time the ordinary and disenfranchised public entered onto the scene to attempt to rewrite history in its own image, the most oppressed segments of these masses also picked up their own pens to erase legacies of discrimination and demand national self-determination and equality.

This was true in the case of the Great Russian Revolution of 1917, which did not go down in history simply as a revolution by workers and poor peasants against a czarist tyranny, but also as a rebellion that encouraged millions of oppressed Jews and Muslims in the Old Man of Europe to rise against Great Russian chauvinism.

This was also true of the more recent Iranian Revolution of 1979, which started as a revolt by workers and the poor against the tyrannical system of the Shah then catapulted millions of oppressed minorities and nationalities – from Kurds to Arabs in Khuzestan – to free themselves from the yoke of the great Persian chauvinism.

In Egypt, like in the Russian and Iranian experiences, the January 2011 uprising against a tyrannical system, Mubarak in this case, opened the door wide open to a new movement among groups that had been historically oppressed and marginalised, from Christians to Bedouins to Nubians.

In all three cases, the weakening of the central state, which oversees the process of safeguarding both a repressive system and the systematic discrimination against special groups, empowered oppressed minorities to articulate long-denied aspirations of equality in concrete demands and to fight for these demands with an unprecedented degree of combativeness.

In the case of Egypt, Christians confronted instances of church burnings at the hands or racists through mass protests that were bolder than previous attempts to deal with similar attacks in the last years of the Mubarak era. Nubians, systematically denied rights to a historical homeland and even an official apology for the historical injustice of uprooting them as a nation wholesale under Nasser, announced that they would settle for nothing less than the addressing of grave crimes committed against them. Bedouins in Sinai, long-mistreated and denied land rights at the hands of the central state and tolerated by Cairo only to serve as exotic ornaments for wealthy European tourists, have asserted their national rights.

In other words, as the Egyptian masses by and large decided to become subjects in history, and not just objects of history, oppressed minorities began to take charge of their own destiny.

Yet, the ability of these oppressed groups to extract their emancipation is inextricably linked with the overall chances of the revolutionary masses in seeing their rebellion to a successful end.

In fact, the ultimate defeat of both the Russian Revolution, with the victory of Stalinism in the 1920s, and the Iranian Revolution, with the victory of the counter-revolutionary Khomeini movement in the early 1980s, spelled not only a defeat for the masses of workers who had championed the revolts in the first place, but a crushing of all movements for national liberation among the oppressed.

In the aftermath of the defeat of the Russian Revolution, both the systematic oppression of Jews was re-established under new forms and national self-determination to oppressed nationalities was denied by a newly constructed Stalinist ruling class after it managed to recompose a new oppressive central state by crushing all workers' resistance and reincarnating good old Russian chauvinism, now under the cover of socialist-sounding discourse.

Similarly, as a result of the defeat of the Iranian Revolution, all movements for national self-determination by the Kurds and Arabs in Khuzestan were crushed as a reconstituted oppressive ruling class under the leadership of Khomeini and the Islamists established a firm grip on the central state in Iran by crushing workers' resistance, decimating the left, and reinventing good old Persian chauvinism, sugar-coated in radical-sounding Shia mythology.

In the case of Egypt, the fate of Christians, Nubians, Bedouins, and all other nationally-oppressed groups is similarly wrapped in the fate of the revolution as a whole.

The success of the ruling class and its state machinery in relatively stabilising the current social system in Egypt, absorbing the shock of the mass upheaval of January 2011 and its aftershocks, then upholding all repressive social and political institutions to date, means that the forces of counter-revolution are closer to strangling the revolution and thus ending hopes for a new system whereby minorities can fight for equality under more favourable conditions.

Ironically, though expectedly, the forces of the old order have attempted to use the question of oppressed minorities in more than one way as a tool in the battle it has waged to regain its supremacy.

For one, in the spring of 2011, the central state, with the help of certain reactionary Islamist forces, egged the flames of sectarian strife in order to diffuse the initial revolutionary surge with a combination of concocting a religiously-charged referendum and doing very little to prevent the burning of churches, before provoking a bloody confrontation at Maspero in Cairo with peaceful Coptic protesters in October, then using the massacre to further divide the nation along religious lines.

Moreover, the forces of the old order cynically used the genuine and warranted concerns that millions of Christians have over the discourse and real intentions of the Islamists as they struggle to consolidate political power in order to push Christians into the arms of presidential candidates who publicly endorse the project of returning to the pre-25 January state.

Incredibly, candidates who had never uttered a word of objection toward the miserable conditions minorities faced in Egypt while part of the Mubarak regime for decades in no time at all reinvented themselves, and were reinvented by the entrenched forces of reaction in society as champions of the oppressed.

Unfortunately, all promises made to minorities by the forces of counter-revolution – such as the use of reinvigorated Mubarak-era institutions of repression to protect minorities from Islamists, will be broken in the most naked manner.

Moreover, the forces of the old order might even reach a power-sharing deal with the most reactionary segments of the Islamists as a way of cementing a more repressive state apparatus – all this to the detriment of the revolution in general and the interest of minorities in particular.

The loss of hope for the liberation of those who had suffered dehumanising oppression because of their national or religious background was one of the tragic consequences of the defeats of the Russian and Iranian revolutions.

This will be the case if the revolution retreats or loses in Egypt.

History has never shown us one example of an oppressed group that won its emancipation in any one society without the generalised emancipation of all the exploited and oppressed masses from the chains of tyranny in the same society.

In the case of Egypt, the road to equality for all citizens must run through the struggles of the oppressed and solidarity with that struggle among the public in general, not through illusions that one’s historic oppressor could become one’s advocate overnight.

The independent struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors is a precondition for liberation. There can never be any shortcuts.

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