A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Suez Protests and the Redline: Keeping the Canal Open

Suez was one of the vanguards of the Egyptian Revolution and there have been continuing protests by Canal workers protesting low wages, but the release on bail last week of policemen accused of killing protesters in January has sparked new fury. A good background piece here. But as the fury has risen, things have gotten dangerous: on Sunday Army troops protecting the Canal clashed with protesters tryng to breach barbed wire blocking their access to the waterway.  Now there is a big protest planned for tomorrow with demonstrators coming from Cairo and around the country, and warnings of a "surprise escalation." 

 But, as Zeinobia notes, the Canal is a redline for the military and the interim government. Canal tolls are as essential to Egypt's economy as he Canal's smooth operation is to global commerce. The Armed Forces — which have the Second Field Army based at Ismailia and the Third Field Army at Suez itself — will do what they have to do to to keep the Canal open.

And, while the frustrations of striking Canal workers are no doubt just, mutterings about shutting down Egypt's Canal strike ordinary Egyptians as almost seditious. As Zeinobia and other feet-on-the-ground  supporters of January 25 have noted, the surest way to undercut the revolution is to do something that alienates most of the Egyptian people. Jacobin Revolutionary purity could scuttle the movement before it has had a chance to prove itself.

I've said before that economic and social goals, not just political, are the unreported aspect of the revolutionary movement in Egypt. A real, enforceable minimum wage is a growing demand. But hopes of pushing for real social change could be derailed if the protesters are seen as a threat to an already fragile and struggling economy. Shutting down the Canal won't raise Canal workers' wages; it will put them out of work.

Of course only the oldest Canal workers will recall that the Canal was closed and blocked and the cities themselves became ghost towns from 1967 to 1975, when the Israeli Army was on the east bank, but I do; when I first lived in Egypt in 1972-73 the Canal was the frontline, unapproachable by civilians.

I hope cooler heads prevail on this one.

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