The Future We the People Need, Voices from New Social Movements

The outcome document from the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20—entitled (The Future We Want)—does not go nearly far enough to articulate what the vast majority of people around the world need, facing a future constrained by income and wealth inequalities, volatile and fragile financial and economic systems, resource depletion, global warming, and other planetary boundaries.

The collection begins with a contribution from a young Egyptian policy analyst in international development, Ahmed Abou Hussein, who is also an activist in the revolution. His involvement with ThawraStats (»thawra« means »revolution« in Arabic), an initiative to create a people’s think tank for the revolution, is based upon a collective of professional researchers linked to citizens’ groups in cities throughout Egypt. Their model of work utilized networked activists in local communities to poll their own residents on issues of concern to the revolution. In the summer of 2011 they were even able to publish the results of their polling in the US news outlets Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
Unfortunately such independent research—banned under President Mubarak—remains unauthorized and underground under President Morsi as well. Critics of Egypt’s new Constitution, which was approved by a December 2012 national referendum in which less than 35% of citizens voted, worry that it does not embody reforms   essential to decentralize the government, thereby breaking the power of the executive to appoint (corrupt) local authorities by making those authorities electable and accountable. This political climate of ongoing struggle for power, coupled with an ongoing failure of local authorities to provide basic services such as garbage pickup and disposal, has created anxiety in the general population, according to Abou Hussein, and a worry among youth that the direction the revolution will ultimately take is still unknown.
In discussions during the editing process, Abou Hussein also spoke about a changing dynamic of leadership in Egypt from the perspective of youth. »The older generation thinks youth are wasting their time on social networks,« he says. »The older generations want their hierarchies. They have been quietly in the opposition for years, and now that Mubarak is gone they see their time to lead. The only problem is: those they want to lead—the youth—don’t want to be led by them. We have our own issues. We want to lead ourselves. And our way is more horizontal.
This introduction lingers on the first article in the publication because it heralded themes—a frustration with local government for failing to deliver basic services, an alienation from or lack of faith in official political processes and actors, a belief that youth movements are sowing seeds of a more direct kind of democracy—that would emerge from other authors as well.
Laila Iskandar, an Egyptian development consultant who has worked for many years with Cairo’s informal sector of slum-dwelling garbage collectors and recyclers known as the Zabbaleen, offers a sharp indictment of ineffective authorities and an equally biting critique of the idea that globalization and its multinationals can be counted on help economies deliver services more efficiently. In the transcript of her interview with editor Sara Burke, which is Iskandar’s contribution to this publication, she tells how the Zabbaleen went into Tahrir Square to collect the mountain of garbage that had accumulated.
After Mubarak stepped down, they said; Ok, now you can send your trucks in. They had already tried to get the municipality and foreign companies to come in and pick up the black bags, but nobody would go in. We used money from the Gates foundation to hire trucks, and we went in and picked up 35 tons.
Iskandar also praised the new climate created by the revolution for making what seemed like a years-long, impossible effort to create a garbage collectors syndicate a reality, although she acknowledged that not all independent labour organisations in Egypt have been recognized, particularly the large and militant unions such as that of the textile workers.
In Tunisia the role played by trade unions in the revolution, particularly the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (General Tunisian Labour Union; UGTT), was central and decisive, according to Hèla Yousfi, a sociologist at Paris Dauphine University. Yousfi’s article explores the complex relationship between UGTT and the state, a close bond in place since the country’s independence movement—not the case for other Arab unions. This is in part because the UGTT is »more than a trade union«, more like a cornerstone of Tunisian political life. UGTT’s exceptionalism comes from what Yousfi argues is a bifurcated structure, with one section always submitting to the ruling power and likely to support almost a full integration into the state machinery, and the other section strongly resisting that power, especially in times of crisis, and therefore giving the union its decisive political direction. In the revolution against Ben Ali’s regime, the second section, which sided with the broad social movement against the government, won out.
UGTT Executive Research Director, Mohamed Mongi Amami, writes about UGTT’s primary challenge with the Islamist Ennahdha party now in the new government’s leadership: How to determine partners in struggle?
The political experience of many democratic states has demonstrated that compromise is difficult among secular parties. The task is even harder when one is a religious party, with Islamist reference, and the others are secular or modernist. The case is no longer a matter of opposite political tendencies, but rather of opposite spheres or civilization frameworks… The question nowadays in Tunisia is to determine whether an Islamist party… could successfully compromise with the other secular parties, social groups, and civil society.
He concludes with a call for an open political process, urging all stakeholders in Tunisia to »reconcile the irreconcilable«.
An irreconcilable issue in Israel since the wave of citizen protests ended in the summer of 2011 is whether the protest movement was a success or a failure. The contributions from Israel are from a regular series, the Israel Debates, organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Tel Aviv office, and present the analyses of two leading participants in the inner-Israeli debate: Joseph Zeira—who headed the economic team of the social protest movement’s »commission of experts« set up in opposition to the commission designated by Prime Minister Netanyahu—and Haaretz’ senior economics editor, Nehemia Shtrasler, who is known in Israel as a vehement advocate of a liberal economic system.

By Alula Berhe Kidani, 15/06/2013