Egypt is one of the most important geo-strategic states in the Middle
East, with a population of nearly 72 million. Demonstrations against the
Iraq war and imperialist occupation are radicalising a new generation
and the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak is facing
Egypt was the centre of radicalisation in the Middle East in the 1950s. Gamal Abdul Nasser led a coup in 1952 with the radial Free Officers’ Movement. In 1956, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt. A ceasefire was declared in November of that year.
Egypt was involved in three wars with Israel (1948, 1967 and 1973). Following the death of Nasser in 1970 the rightward shift of the regime gained pace. Under the rule of Anwar Sadat an agreement was made with Israel in 1979 (for this, Sadat was later assassinated by an Islamic group in 1981).
Under President Hosni Mubarak democratic rights are curtailed and poverty has grown. Mubarak has been ‘elected’ three times to office but is coming under increasing pressure. Islamic opposition forces have channelled much of the mass anger at poverty, joblessness, and at the oppression of Palestinians and the imperialist occupation of Iraq. However, workers’ struggles have broken out in recent years, and the left is becoming more vocal.
In June, this year, Laila, a 19 year old Egyptian student activist of the Left, currently studying in the Netherlands, attended the national congress of ‘Offensief’, the Dutch section of the CWI. She spoke to Niall Mulholland (cwi) about conditions facing workers and youth in Egypt and the prospects for a socialist alternative to the Mubarak regime. socialistworld.net
Niall Mulholland (NM): What is the character of the regime in Egypt?
NM: What do the government’s ‘democratic reforms’ entail?
Laila: A lot of pressure has come on the government over the last two to three years for reforms. It is rumoured that Mubarak may hand over power to his son, which, of course, will not satisfy people’s needs.
NM: Is there organised opposition to Mubarak?
The ‘Islamic Brotherhood’ is strong and has a lot of support from the better off and students, in particular. The Brotherhood has built up support partially by doing a lot of social work. It provides students with books at cheap prices and also helps people’s lives in many other ways. This is done under different guises as religious parties are banned in Egypt.
The Islamics now control most universities. They represent a broader Islamic movement than in some other Middle East states. ‘Islamic Jihad’ did exist but was crushed by the state.
The aims of the Brotherhood are not clear. They call for a need to go back to religion. In the universities, they mainly campaign on the veiling of young women. Generally there is more pressure in society for women to adopt the veil.
The Brotherhood also held demonstrations against the US-led war in Iraq, last year. People were very angry over that war. But the left also held protests, which were the first public protests by the left, for some time.
NM: Is ‘Nasserism’ – the pan-Arab nationalist movement that took off in the 1950s- a force anymore?
Laila: There still are people who call themselves ‘Nasserites’ and there is a Nasserite party, which has two members of parliament. These MPs were arrested during an anti-war protest and one was so badly beaten by the police that he was put in intensive care.
The Nasserites see themselves as secular. Many Egyptians still support the idea of pan-Arab nationalism.
However, all the official opposition parties work together, and they try to preserve the position of the ruling party of Mubarak.
NM: Does al Qa’eda and other forms of political Islamic fundamentalism have much support?
Laila: There is not much concrete support. But there is a lot of sympathy to Islamic movements generally. The attacks on S11 were not supported but people saw that they let off anger throughout the Middle East. After the war in Iraq and the exposure of the torture of Iraqi prisoners, support and sympathy for Islamic ideas is stronger, though, of course, people do not want to live in a Taliban type of state.
NM: Is there industrial unrest?
Laila: Over the last three years, there were isolated industrial struggles. A bus strike occurred in Fayoum town, for instance. But news of strikes is suppressed by the pro-government media.
NM: What are social conditions like for working people in Egypt?
Laila: Around 40% live below the poverty line. It is common for families of 7-8 people to live in one room. Salaries have not gone up for a long time and five years ago goods were much cheaper.
Ever since the end of the Nasser years, poverty has grown. Whatever his limits, Nasser provided social support for many people. Older people often say things were better in those days. Neo-liberalist policies have caused big hardships.
NM: What are the main left groups in Egypt and how strong are they?
Laila: A resurgence of the profile of the Left started during the second Intifada by Palestinians. There were large demonstrations. Then the left organised protests against the Iraq war, of around 1,000 strong. The left groups that held the protests were mainly made up of Nasserites and socialists organised in secret groups.
The demos after the war started went up to 40,000. One left protest of around 1,000 people lasted 12 hours. It was in the main central square in Cairo and the police blocked off the square. The Islamic groups officially did not join the left protest.
On 21 March 2003, around 800 protesters were arrested in a very violent attack by police. People were beaten badly and some were imprisoned and tortured for months.
After the big 40,000 strong anti-war protest the government got very worried about growing and more militant opposition.
NM: How have you and your comrades been involved in the left opposition?
Laila: I was at school in 2003 and I joined protests. I was arrested once and held for four hours. A new movement developed from the police attacks on protesters – ‘The 20th March Movement’ - marking the day of some of the worst police brutality. The Movement demands democracy and is anti-imperialist and leftwing.
I think there is a good opportunity for the left to grow. But it must learn the mistakes of the past. Also, it must work towards winning over the working class and poor.
NM: Is the Left growing?
Laila: Yes, it is starting to grow, but is still not yet strong enough to have a wide effect. This will take time.
But the regime is now weaker. Unemployment is high, corruption is exposed, and poverty is growing. In general, the situation is really boiling up. Three years ago, it was unimaginable that large public protests could take place. Now there is a new spirit and people are not scared as they used to be.