Friday, December 23, 2011

Women and the Egyptian revolution

2011 is ending as it began: with images of thousands of Egyptian women and men standing up against a Western-backed military regime--from a 10,000-strong march of women two days ago, to another mass Friday march today. These make it clear that the Egyptian revolution is ongoing, and that women continue to play a central role.
The Western media are used to depicting Arab and Muslim women as passive victims in need of forced liberation (justifying the war in Afghanistan). While the Egyptian revolution busted this and other myths, the New York Times was still puzzled by the active participation of women against the regime--and claimed they have been otherwise peripheral to the political process. While official political structures have excluded women, they have been at the heart of the revolutionary process--from the movements leading up to the January uprising, to the strikes and protests that have kept it going.

As prominent Egyptian socialist Gigi Ibrahim explained in a talk last March, the Egyptian revolution began after a decade of struggles for Palestine solidarity, civil liberties, and economic justice. In December 2006 women textile workers began a strike in Mahalla:
"Some 3,000 women garment workers stormed into the main spinning and weaving sheds and demanded that their male colleagues stop work. "Where are the men? Here are the women!" they chanted. Then 10,000 workers gathered in the factory courtyard and once again women were at the forefront."  
This built the unity and confidence of women and men to challenge the regime, and triggered a wave of strikes over the next few years leading up to the revolution. It also produced a solidarity movements like the April 6 Youth Movement co-founded by Asmaa Mahfouz.

On January 25, Asmaa Mahfouz released a video that went viral, calling on people to go to Tahrir against the regime. Women were central to the uprising, leading chants and confronting riot police
Through the process of women and men uniting to change the world, they also changed themselves. Longtime feminist activist Nawal el-Saadawi described the mood inside Tahrir Square during the 18 days that toppled Mubarak:
“All the differences between Egyptians evaporated because of the revolution. Muslims and Christians were together, women and men were together. There was equality between all. The revolution washed away all the discriminations that was forced on us by the regime.”  
The January uprising not only toppled Mubarak but unearthed an accumulation of grievances, including women's rights, and the people of Egypt have continued the revolution for socioeconomic change. On International Women’s Day there was a mass rally in Tahrir Square demanding women’s rights:
“Women workers are demanding an end to discrimination in hiring and promotions, and want government-funded child care…On March 8, International Women’s Day, some 1,000 women and their male supporters rallied in Cairo to demand, among other things, that women be allowed to run for president and become judges.”
Women are also playing an important role in the workers movement, whose mass strikes were key to toppling Mubarak and remain central to challenging the military dictatorship. Dr. Mona Mina, a longtime activist and member of Doctors Without Rights, helped organize a national doctor’s strike in May—demanding higher wages for all workers and increased funding for health care—and was recently elected to the leadership of the union, in an election that challenged the Muslim Brotherhood.
As socialist Hossam El-Hamalawy explained, the Brotherhood are not a homogeneous reactionary block as portrayed in the media. Their leadership support neo-liberalism and have tried to call off strikes and demonstrations, but much of the youth of their membership have been part of the revolution and can be won to more progressive politics. When the regime and its allies attacked the Revolutionary Socialists, numerous groups came to their defence.

Just six months ago when I had to chance to visit Egypt, there was widespread support for the military and a belief that "the people and the army are one", though some of the radical street art challenged this notion. But faced with ongoing strikes and demonstrations pushing the revolution forward, the military has lashed out at the strengths of the revolution—banning strikes, burning a Coptic Church in an attempt to provoke sectarian divisions, and attacking women—including forced virginity tests under threats of electrocution earlier in the year. As this video from The Real News show, there has been brutal crackdowns by the military regime every month since the toppling of Mubarak. The regime is a key pillar of US control of the region, so the US has continued to supply it with weapons, and it's only because of the recent international outcry and mass mobilization of women that Hilary Clinton claimed to have been "shocked" by the recent brutal beatings.
But the march of women and the demonstration today show these attacks have only increased the determination of ordinary Egyptian women and men to unite and fight for a better world--of democracy, economic justice, and women's liberation. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bad medicine: Harper's prescription for privatizing Medicare

The Harper government has announced a new funding arrangement for Medicare, which after 2016 will be tied to economic growth in the nominal GDP. According to one estimate, this will translate into $21 billion in cuts to health care funding over 10 years. 
          By unilaterally imposing health care funding cuts on the provinces, the Harper government is putting its own brand on a familiar prescription for privatization: scapegoat Medicare, ignore private health costs, pretend you don’t have any money, and then cut public health care to encourage privatization. 

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, fresh off his attack on Muslim women, was the first Tory to open the campaign against Medicare--scapegoating it for cuts to social services. Suddenly a public education advocate, he claimed that public health care costs are soaring and devouring provincial budgets, Kenney stated that "For some of the provinces, if they continue in that trajectory, there will be nothing left for education, for universities, for anything else." 
            This is a common myth, repeated by the corporate media, that manipulates statistics created by decades of Tory and Liberal cuts at both federal and provincial levels. The relative rise in provincial health care budgets is a statistical effect from greater cutbacks elsewhere. According to the 2011 report, “Neat, plausible and wrong: the myth of health care unsustainability” by Canadian Doctors for Medicare (CDM): 
“The change in share of provincial budgets is not primarily due to increased health care spending. It is the result of decreases in other provincial spending to accommodate political decisions to cut taxes…Deep cuts in federal transfers to the provinces in the mid-1990s were compounded by provincial tax cutting policies in the latter part of the decade, causing significant reductions in total provincial budgets. Provincial revenues have fallen almost $30 billion since 1997, causing decreases in other government program spending through cuts to education, social services, and municipalities…It is tax cuts that have ‘crowded out’ these priorities, not Medicare”
          Overall health costs have increased, but it’s crucial to differentiate between public and private. While Medicare costs have been constant and sustainable over 30 years, overall health costs have increased—from those sources not covered by Medicare. As the CDM report explains: “The real cost driver is precisely the thing that critics of Medicare tout as the solution: private health care. Currently 30% of all health spending is in the private sector, up from 24% in 1975…the overall cost of care has been driven most significantly by the rising cost of pharmaceuticals.”
          If we want to control rising health care costs, we need to control the profit-driven private sector, federally and provincially. It’s estimated that developing a universal public pharmacare program could save $10 billion annually. But federal governments have refused to make this “efficiency”. Meanwhile a year ago the BC government slashed funding for the Therapeutics Initiative—an independent evidence-based review board that helped promote safe and affordable pharmaceuticals. 
          While ignoring the heightened costs of private medicine, the Tories are using the economic crisis to justify cutting public health care, claiming there’s no money to cover it. According to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, "We all realize that public finances relate to revenues and we can't pretend that we can spend money that we don't have." This ignores massive tax cuts, bank bailouts and military spending sprees. While the new health plan could cut $21 billion from health, the Tories gave a $69 billion bank bailout, are wasting $220 billion on tax cuts, and have been going on a military spending spree—from $30 billion fighter jets, to $25 billion warships--as part of a $490 billion military plan.  

          But the Tories don’t want to debate the spending priorities of the 1%, so they’ve chosen to unilaterally impose cuts to the provinces, to encourage privatization. According to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, “This investment also provides the opportunity to put the divisive issues funding behind us to allow us all to focus on the real issue--how to improve the system so you can ensure timely access to health care when needed.” In other words, the government is trying to bury the question of federal funding—which initially comprised 50% of Medicare’s funding—in order to starve the provinces and encourage “timely access” through privatization, a strategy many provincial governments are happy to oblige. 

          This passive aggressive approach is similar to Harper's campaign against abortion: claim to "not open the debate" while imposing cuts anyways. But this is based on a position of weakness: an overwhelming majority of people support public health care, the legacy of a grassroots movement that won Medicare and continues to defend it. Public health care is not a divisive issue, it unites us, as do other issues.  
          The funding is there, not only for public health care but for all the social determinants of health: income and social equality, housing and food security, education and a clean environment. But to occupy health and health care, we need to move beyond the 1% world of tax cuts, bank bailouts, military spending and profit-driven medicine.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Attawapiskat, Katrina and imperialism

In September 2005, hundreds of thousands of people surrounded the White House under the banner "make levees, not war"--connecting the anti-war and climate justice movements in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Of all the people I saw, one captured the moment best and let me take her photo: an African-American woman holding up a hand-made sign saying "No Iraqis left me on a roof to die"-- contemporizing Mohammed Ali's famous quote against the Vietnam War. While the US government demonizes Arabs and Muslims, and spends billions on war and occupation, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina showed that the major threat was at home--in the form of poverty, racism, environmental destruction, and cut-backs.

     "This is the Native people's Katrina moment", said an Attawapiskat resident in reaction to the current crisis. Both juxtaposed oppression and opulence--from the black community of New Orlean's 9th Ward who were left to die on rooftops in the shadow of the wealthy French Quarter, to the indigenous community of Attawapiskat who were left to die in tents in the shadow of the richest diamond mine in the Western world. Both were symptomatic of a much broader problem stemming from slavery and colonialism. As NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus described, in a series of articles that helped highlight the crisis:

"Attawapiskat is the tip of the iceberg for the numerous Bantustan-style homelands of the far north. Years of chronic under funding and bureaucratic indifference has created a Haiti north where dying in slow motion on ice-filled shantytown is considered the norm."

     Both government responses seemed incompetent, but were ideologically-driven: first ignoring a tragedy that affected poor and racialized communities, then scapegoating them as criminals (for accessing food or allegedly mismanaging funds), then cramming them into a sports complex, and then trying to forcibly relocate them. Both emergencies became opportunities for disaster capitalism. As Robert Lovelace explained

"The tragedy at Attawapiskat was not only predictable it was planned. The current government has promoted an ideological solution to the "Indian problem" ever since the Conservative's incubation as the Reform Party. Their strategy needs a tipping point to convince the Canadian public that it is the only, and more importantly the final, solution. If it not Kashechewan or Attawapiskat, it will be some other community taken to the depth of despair. The plan is to dissolve Reserve communities through offering them up as private property to individual band members and turning Bands into municipalities. One more step away from the legal titles and rights protected under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution and one more step toward complete economic and social chaos in Indian country."
     To push its austerity agenda the Harper government claims to have no money and demands ordinary people pay for the economic crisis. The accusation that the people of Attawapiskat mismanaged funds is part of this broader narrative, with a specific racist focus on First Nations. The specific accusation of mismanaging $90 million was demolished by this article, and it's worth putting the $90 million into the broader context of government spending. 
     While the Harper government claims that $0.09 billion was generous for all the needs of Attawapiskat, it spends $1.4 billion on subsidizing the tar sands--which destroys indigenous lands. It plans on spending $10 billion on prison expansion--and will incarcerate a greater number of indigenous people if its draconian Bill C-10 is passed. And the Harper government plans on wasting billions on oil wars abroad--from $15 billion on fighters jets (the potential real cost of $30 billion is too big to fit on the graph), to $25 billion on naval warships. 
     Harper justifies the massive military spending on the claim that "the major threat is Islamicism", and that we need to continue the occupation of Afghanistan into its second decade. But to paraphrase--no Afghans left the people of Attawapiskat in tents to die.

     Another justification for militarism is that it can impose democracy, women's rights or development on communities who supposedly lack the ability to do so on their own. The inherent paternalism in this motive has accompanied Canadian military interventions from Afghanistan, to Haiti, to Libya, and builds on the colonialism on which Canada is based. Because the poverty and oppression that produce humanitarian crises are themselves products of colonialism and imperialism, sending more troops does not solve the problem and instead reinforces the denial of self-determination, whether in Haiti or Haiti north. So if the NDP does convince Harper to send the military to Attawaspiskat, it will become a photo-op to justify military spending and wars abroad, while doing nothing to decolonize at home. Instead we need to support the people of Attawapiskat to meet their own needs, as we collectively challenge the tar sands economy, the war and austerity of the Harper government, and colonialism. As Lovelace explained:

"The antidote for poverty is self-determination and no one can give you that. You have to stand up and take action yourself to make it happen. Colonialism does not give way on its own; it must be defeated through vigorous and enlightened opposition...Only through a convergence of our own self-determination and a willingness of Canada to decolonize can real change take place."