Egypt: the pressures build up

Issue: 106
Posted: 5 April 05

Egypt’s ruler, Mubarak, shocked the country at the end of February by suddenly announcing a change in the constitution to allow more than one candidate to stand in this autumn’s planned presidential election. There has never been such a multi-candidate election before and only a couple of weeks earlier Mubarak had ruled out any change.

A state of emergency has existed since 1981, when Mubarak became president after the assassination of his predecessor, Sadat. Oppositionists of all sorts are routinely harassed, imprisoned and tortured by the security police. This has applied in recent weeks even to the liberal pro-Western politicians, like Ayman Nour of the Ghad Party who was imprisoned and, he alleges, tortured a few weeks before Mubarak’s announcement. And in late January three supporters of the Socialist Research Centre were arrested at the Cairo book fair for selling a book calling for the removal of Mubarak.

The very weekend that Mubarak made his announcement, the Socialist Research Centre organised the first public conference about socialism to take place in Cairo for at least 50 years. Supporters of the centre spoke to Chris Harman, who was one of the speakers, about the political crisis.

The origins of the crisis

There has been a big change in people’s attitude to the regime in the last five or six years. Ten years ago there were still some hopes in the Mubarak regime—maybe the peace process in Palestine would work, maybe the economic reforms would improve things. There was still space for such beliefs. In the last five or six years all this has collapsed.

Wide sections of people have become openly opposed to the regime. There has been rising anger because of price increases. There has also been rising anger due to increasing repression. The latest incident was in the Sinai town Al-Arish after the bombing of the Taba Hilton hotel used by Israeli tourists. There were mass arrests. Thousands of people were arrested and tortured—I think 2,000 are still in jail in terrible conditions—and this has caused a lot of anger.

This is happening at a time of extreme economic stagnation. On top of this there has been an unprecedented level of corruption. Billions of Egyptian pounds have been siphoned off through privatisation and bank loans with all kinds of corrupt deals.

And then Mubarak made it clear that he intended to give himself— or possibly his son—a mandate for another six years. That has magnified the anger.

The new radicalisation

As in other countries, there has been an important political shift in Egypt since the year 2000. First the Palestinian intifada and then the situation in Iraq have created a new wave of politicisation.

What happened with the intifada was very significant and a surprise to many of us. Within a few days of the outbreak of the intifada in September-October 2000 students in the universities began a big wave of more or less spontaneous demonstrations, involving hundreds of thousands, which went on for three or four weeks. This was something unprecedented in Egypt. We haven’t seen anything like it in the last 20 years. And again very significant was that school students took part in the demonstrations— perhaps a million school students participated in demonstrations all over Egypt. A new generation was radicalised because of the Palestinian events.

This led to the forming of new solidarity committees involving many disillusioned leftists from the 1970s who had disappeared from the political scene wanting to be part of the movements. The committees attracted hundreds of newcomers.

Then a few months later the preparations for the war against Iraq began and there was a new wave of activity. The most significant demonstration in recent Egyptian history occurred on 20 and 21 March 2002 when the war started. A committee in solidarity with the Iraqi people and against aggression called for people to gather in Al-Tahrir Square, the biggest square in Cairo, on the first day of the war. Perhaps 50,000 people gathered in the square and occupied it for the whole day. The next day they gathered again and there were confrontations with the police. And it attracted not just students, as before, but ordinary people from the city. They were very militant. The demonstration was called against the aggression. But within a few minutes people began focusing their anger against the regime, tearing down the pictures of Mubarak which filled the square and chanting slogans against the regime itself. One of the police chiefs said that without the harsh repression it could have developed into a national riot.

The economy and the crisis of the regime

In May 1991 the regime did a deal with the IMF. In the mid-1990s there was propaganda that this programme was beginning to succeed, with the IMF and the neo-liberal institutions in the world claiming that the government was solving its economic problems, reducing the budget deficit and so on. There was something like a state of ecstasy among government people that they were succeeding in moving towards neo-liberalism.

After two or three years, in 1998, the economic situation worsened. The attempts to increase exports failed completely. The attempts to bring in serious foreign investments failed completely—investment fell significantly. The stagnation began which is still with us now, after seven years. The one thing the government claimed as a success through the 1990s is now seen by many people as a failure. People’s practical experience is of unemployment, of being sacked from jobs, of increasing prices. This feeds the political disillusionment with the regime. One significant point was that just a month or two before the US attack on Iraq the government had floated the currency, which led to the rise in prices which still continues.

The government’s response over the last year and a half has been to shift to a more radical neo-liberal policy. The failure of its neo-liberal policies has pushed it further towards rapid privatisation, getting rid of all the state banks as fast as possible, reducing subsidies. There is a new team of radical neo-liberals around Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, who are getting into the main positions of power as regards economic policy.

This is creating tension within the ruling party. You have these younger, less experienced people who want to push very rapidly, and you have the older ones who want to keep things as they are. And you have an ailing dictator who is beginning to go senile and who is losing his grip, with the beginnings of struggles over who is going to take over.

So you have a new push on the neo-liberal economic front at the same time as a panicking state security apparatus, subject to contradictory pressures. The most recent incident was that a liberal opposition party was given the right to start activity and then the leader was shoved in jail. So the different sections of the apparatus are not as synchronised as they used to be. And people can see these discrepancies. To take an example, one day the regime put up a huge poster of Mubarak’s son shaking hands with an Egyptian Olympic medal winner; the next day they took it down. They are not sure of how to deal with things and everyone on the street talks about these things: why did they put up the poster? why did they take it down?

The popular mood

Our impression is that there is a significant change in the mood among the people. Four or five years ago when you got into discussions with people about what’s going on and what they think of the regime, you might find some who were not interested in politics; you might find others saying the regime is good, or that Mubarak is good but those surrounding him are not. Today nine out of ten people will say the reason everything is going wrong in Egypt is Mubarak himself.

For the first time, we are seeing public attacks on Mubarak. One of the opposition newspapers, the Nasserist party newspaper (Al-Arabi), focuses only on attacking Mubarak and his son. This has never happened in Egypt in the last 20 years. Sections of the liberal intellectuals are attacking Mubarak. So two months ago one of the high-ranking intellectuals attacked Mubarak at a meeting between Mubarak and some of the intellectuals, and the intellectuals are very proud that this attack happened. So the regime is under attack, not only from below, but from within the higher ranks of the middle class.

One expression of this is the Campaign for Change. It is attracting new people, including some influential people. One of the country’s most prominent ex-judges has written an article in the Nasserist newspaper calling upon people ‘to organise civil disobedience’ against the government.

What is happening may seem small and insignificant. But if you look at it in the context of how the ruling class has operated in Egypt for the last 20 years, you can see the significance of what is going on.

There are two sorts of demonstrations. The spontaneous demonstrations are basically student demonstrations. The organised demonstrations are by smallish numbers of activists. There will be a small number of leftist worker activists on them, but they are not normal working class people, but leftist activists who happen to be workers.

The regime for its own reasons feels compelled to allow demonstrations. But it dare not allow the demonstrations to reach outwards. The only demonstration to reach out beyond the activists to involve wide numbers of people in the city centre was that on the first day of the Iraq war two years ago. It was because that drew in vast numbers of people that the regime has become more intolerant, believing that if it does not contain the demonstrations with vast numbers of police, they can spread, particularly with the anger caused by the increase in prices. People are ready, if they are given the chance, to join such a movement. So the police actions against protests are much bigger than in the past.

To take one small but telling example, we had a small meeting of 15 people in the apartment that serves as the headquarters of the Socialist Research Centre a few weeks ago. Outside there were eight big vehicles, each with 70 or 80 riot police inside, besieging the centre and stopping people coming in. They surround 15 people with a thousand police because they feel if they do not things will explode.

The mood among workers

The way the regime uses repression to stop the protests reaching out to the popular areas makes what is happening on the economic front very important. For this is accelerating changes under the surface. There have been growing protests among the working class. The number of protests in the last six months alone is already equal to a third of what happened in the previous five years. Socialists who are active in working class areas can see that anger is accumulating and that things can explode at any time now.

Economic stagnation means many factories are closing or attacking the benefits of workers. This is mainly happening in the new industrial areas, in the private sector. And then there is the acceleration of privatisation in the last year. The remaining factories in the public sector are being sold and this is causing trouble in these factories. At the moment there are three or four strikes or potential strikes due to privatisation.

One of the important strikes is the asbestos workers’ strike. They have been sitting in for more than two months now. Asbestos is a dangerous material causing cancer—many of the workers have cancer. There are no safety measures taken in the factory. It is now prohibited to use asbestos in Egypt. The government allows factory owners who already have asbestos to use it, but has banned further imports, and so the factory is no longer working. Fifty workers are involved in the sit-in.

The most significant strike was by cement workers. Their three-day strike wrecked a deal to sell their factory. It shows what can happen in the near future in response to the government’s privatisation drive.

At another factory the owner was a businessman who fled because he could not pay his debts to the banks. The workers organised a sit-in and strike and they kept the factory going under their own management, using the material left in the factory. They had done this for more than two years and then they failed to continue.

The weak point in the struggles is that they do not usually manage to go beyond the individual factory. We are attempting to overcome this through participating in a co-ordinating committee for the defence of workers. It has started to be really active in the past year, drawing together worker leaders from several factories in the industrial areas, and trying to build small committees in these industrial areas so as to become a focal point for the strikes. But it has only had limited successes so far. Generally the movement is still localised and defensive and it is very difficult to build a network of activists or a solidarity movement as long as the dictatorship is intact. There needs to be a change in the political atmosphere to make this possible.

The peasant protests

The peasants tended to be a conservative force after the land reforms of the 1950s not only reduced the maximum size of land holdings, but the government also subsidised the seeds and other inputs necessary for cultivation. These things have been taken from them over the last ten years. Land rents have been liberalised, the rights to inherit tenancies have been taken away, so owners can get rid of tenant peasants completely or increase the rents, and this has recreated a rebellious peasantry that wants the land.

One of us was involved in the 1997 movement and was arrested, and has been active in several peasant struggles in recent months, involving 300 or 400 peasants in various villages.

The process of rent liberalisation was split into stages. The first stage in 1997 involved only tenants on land that was not part of the land reform redistribution. Around 7,000 peasants were arrested and about 100 were killed in clashes with the police. But the movement as a whole was not successful and rents increased dramatically.

What is happening now is the second stage. The old owners are being allowed to take back the land redistributed in the land reform. The issue can potentially be much bigger than in 1997. That involved only one sector of the peasants. Now the issues affect all different kinds of peasants— small landowners, tenants, agricultural labourers and so on. It is part of the wider liberalisation process that involves the state giving up its control over the provision of inputs and buying crops at fixed prices. At the same time, whole villages are in debt, with many peasants running away to avoid having to pay. The new wave of struggle is just beginning to take off. In two villages, the peasants succeeded last month in keeping the land, using arms against the landowners.

The opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is still the largest opposition. It is estimated to have hundreds of thousand of members, with a very strong presence in all parts of the country. They have played a significant role in the movement for solidarity with Palestine and Iraq. But all the time they are involved in a balancing act with the state. So if the part of the opposition we are connected with organises a demonstration they will say they will take part but will not mobilise for it. They will only mobilise in agreement with the state. For example, during the Gulf War, they organised a joint demonstration with the ruling National Democratic Party. But they were able to bring 100,000 people to that demonstration. So they have an agreement with the state that there are certain lines they will not cross. Despite that the state continues to jail their members, especially the middle and higher ranking cadres. They are in and out of jail. Their student activists are arrested on a regular basis all over the country.

There are signs of tension within the organisation, not only between the older generation—the entourage of the founder, Hassan Bana (who died in 1949) continued to run the organisation until now—and the younger generation, but there are also tensions due to their attempts to hold the movement back. You can see this whenever there is a big potentiality for mobilisation and they refuse to move. This is apparent in their newspaper. There have been lots of articles talking about these tensions—‘Why didn’t we mobilise for this?’—from younger members; the leadership replying we have to do this in stages, there are external threats on the nation, we should not divide the nation now, and so on.

The higher ranks of the Muslim Brothers are getting more bourgeois, in the sense of accepting totally reformist methods, refusing any mass mobilisation against the state. In our magazine at the time of the Iraq war we asked a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood to write an article for us. One of the things he wrote clearly that they totally would not accept was revolution or mass public protests, and further that they were in agreement with the state so long as there was an external threat. The higher ranks of the Muslim Brothers have over the last three decades got more and more into mainstream politics.

They see themselves as competing to run the state, something like the Turkish scenario, where the Islamic Party runs a mainstream capitalist government. They think that, if they are respectable enough, they can win things at the end of the day.

In the peasant struggle in 1997 they sided with the state to break up the land reform rules, because of the idea of private property. The strata that are related to them in the countryside are the middle owning peasants. They ignored the solidarity movement with the intifada for a while. There were general elections and they wanted the state to leave them alone. They even criticised the demonstrations led by socialists and Nasserists.

But at the same time, although they are not active and are not against the state, they attract hundreds of thousands of people. We see this as a potential tension that can explode if the class struggle rises, because many of their younger members think that they are an alternative, that they can deliver.

They adopted a tactic in the late 1980s and 1990s of taking over the professional associations and the student unions. They succeeded tremendously in this. They have been losing some ground recently to other forces because of their attitude to the movement of the last two or three years— although they remain much bigger than the others. People see that they are not mobilising, that they are aligned with the state. So the signs are that they are going to lose some of their seats in the election for the Bar Association.

They have a group in parliament which is obsessed with religious issues, like video clips being shown on television, advertisements for alcoholic drinks, books which are too secular or critical of Islam. There were big demonstrations recently by the Coptic Christians. The position of the Muslim Brotherhood paper was terrible, reactionary. One of the articles said, ‘We wish we had as many rights as the Christians who were able to have this demonstration without it being smashed.’

At the same time, their group in parliament will put forward demands for legislation of workers’ rights and in some cases against privatisation. They are very strong in attacking corruption, and on Palestine and Iraq. They are also very active in running Islamic charity provision for poor people.

On women, on alcohol, on the Copts, they have very hard attitudes. But they mix that with relatively good positions on Palestine, on Iraq, on corruption, against price rises. Their central issue now is ending the emergency laws, the democratic demands, against the press laws. So you get these contradictions.

The Muslim Brotherhood have adapted their position on women to new conditions. They could never talk to the petty bourgeois now and say women should not work—this would make life hard for thousands of people. So they say they are for women going to university, for women working and for women being politically active. They are the organisation with the highest number of women in it. On their demonstrations there are rows of men in the front, then rows of thousands of politically active women in the back. They go round houses during elections talking with women about how to vote. But over the issue of women wearing the veil and of women on television, the issue of morality, they are extremely hard.

They are no longer openly hostile to the left. We do not hide our positions at all on the issues where we disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood, whether it’s Copts or whatever. But we cannot refuse to work with them over issues like Palestine or Iraq or the Cairo conference against imperialism, which is due to take place in late March. Other sections of the left hate us for this, saying we are making a mistake. We say we have to work with the Muslim Brotherhood over specific issues.

The more radical Islamist groups have been obliterated physically. The regime has killed off most of their leadership between 1992 and the present. It has jailed 20,000 or 30,000 of them. Most of these are still in jail and the remaining leaders in jail have given up the struggle and have published books explaining how wrong they were to take up arms against the state. The only sections that are still active are the ones that are outside Egypt, that are connected to Osama Bin Laden.

The Nasserists

The other important oppositional force is the Nasserists, who look back to the time in the 1950s and 1960s when Abdel Nasser as president followed an Arab nationalist policy abroad and state capitalism at home, nationalising 85 percent of industry. They argue centrally against the neo-liberal policies and for a harder line against imperialism and Israel. But if they are against privatisation it is because it opens the economy to foreigners. They are for the national capitalists—and a few capitalists back them.

The main opposition newspaper campaigning against Mubarak is the Nasserist paper. And there are several Nasserist figures—writers and so on—who are becoming prominent in the movement against Mubarak. They are not that significant in terms of numbers. They are not much bigger than the left. But because of the history, they have a wider pull—and they have members of parliament and a legal weekly newspaper. In the last two or three months it has sold out within two or three hours of being published.

Their support comes from the middle class, intellectuals, and students. Until now they have not had real roots as an organisational force. But wider sections of people, everyone who wants change in Egypt, who hates the status quo, more and more look to the Nasserists and their newspaper, because they are the most direct and courageous in their attacks on Mubarak. We think that, if the class struggle rises and the political situation changes, they can build influence quickly, because Nasserist ideology has influence. You can hear people say that the situation under Nasser was much better. People put pictures of Nasser up in their houses and shops and so on.

The way ahead

There are two sorts of movements in Egypt at the moment and they move parallel to each other—the political struggles by the activists, and the economic struggles. One of our aims is to find ways to unite the two movements. This means winning the activists to try to organise among the workers and peasants. It also means trying to convince sections of the workers, especially their leaders, that their struggles are totally connected with the political struggle.

As socialists we have been able to participate in many strikes and sit- ins and to involve ourselves in many things. So at the Socialist Research Centre conference this weekend there are workers from two or three factories who we have worked with in the last few months, who are prepared to come and talk about their own grievances and their own struggles.

At the time of the intifada protests there was an attempt to organise a demonstration in a workers’ district. Some 30 people began the demonstration and it succeeded in attracting hundreds. This showed the connection between the political aspect and the class anger among workers. Due to our limited numbers and influence we were not able to build on this. But now things are changing. We are more able to intervene politically because of the new developments on the economic front.