The last few weeks saw an upsurge of popular mass protests in Egypt against President Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood government. Georg Maier, a recent visitor to Cairo, looks at the ongoing political, social and economic crisis and asks, what is the way out for working people and the poor.
The most significant uprisings took place not in Cairo but in cities in the Nile Delta and along the Suez Canal. Those areas, which have been neglected for years, currently witness a new wave of struggles against poverty, state repression and in several cases against the new regime itself.
Unemployment rose steadily over the past months. Prices for almost all goods, especially basic commodities, have risen, as well. The regime is trying to arrange a US$4.8billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to increase its foreign currency reserves, which are currently down to $13.6billion, compared to $36billion in 2011.
The regime has produced a list of 100 “unnecessary luxury goods” (including “luxuries” like nuts!) on which there will be import restrictions. Interestingly, tear gas seems not to be a luxury, as the government just a few days ago bought tear gas for $2.5million from a US company. This triggered angry protests, even by members of the Muslim Brotherhood (especially merchants, many of whom belong to the traditional base of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are suffering from the import restrictions) and further exposed the regime in the eyes of many.
If IMF agrees to the loan there will be, of course, strings attached. These will mainly mean the reduction of subsidies. There have already been cuts in subsidies for gas and some oil products, triggering mass protests in the Nile delta, including the blockade of rail tracks and roads. The most devastating cuts are expected against the bread subsidies. Subsidised bread is currently available for 5 piasters at a number of bakeries. There are rumours and discussions that the price would rise to 25 piasters. Already people are talking about a possible “bread revolt” or, as some called it a “bread-intifada”. There have already been incidents reported in the local media of people storming supermarkets and bakeries.
The tourism industry (which used to employ about 12 % of the workforce) is under huge pressure, and those who make their living selling goods or small services to tourists face huge difficulties.
Muslim Brotherhood losing support
There is a widespread feeling that the ruling party is in no way better than the former Mubarak regime. The old system of nepotism has been – to the anger of many people – adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Called “Brotherhoodisation” by many, this means tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters got jobs in the public sector, party members are promoted earlier and public contracts are generally given to companies owned by party members. Even in rural areas, where the support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the past elections was especially high, this led to massive protests against the regional authorities, including the burning of some Brotherhood offices.
An example is the provincial town of Kafr ash-Schaich in the northern Delta. Totally neglected by central government for decades, its governor publically stated, “I support ‘Brotherhoodisation’, because this is democracy.” At the same time, high ranking officials of the Freedom and Justice Party and President Mursi deny something like this exists.
The desperate economic situation there led to self-immolation by a young unemployed worker who was told by the authorities that he should shine shoes or go to a charity. This triggered massive protests in a formerly quiet and conservative town, only known because it was the birthplace of Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers. Thousands marched to the government headquarters, demanding social rights and the fall of the regime.
President Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood are continuously losing support. They were elected promising democracy and social justice but are unable and unwilling to deliver any improvements. There is a growing outrage and the demand for the fall of the government, which is often articulated in the very same areas where candidates of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party were elected in the parliamentary elections in 2011/12. In a number of syndicate elections (state-unions) over the past months, the Muslim Brotherhood and its candidates lost heavily. In the veterinarians’ syndicate, which used to be under strong influence of the Brotherhood in the times of Mubarak, its candidates were unable to win a single seat in the leading body.
A new wave of uprisings
The most important current struggle is the mass uprising in Port Said, the port town at the northern end of the Suez Canal. For weeks now there have been daily mass demonstrations and, in effect, a general strike. The police were effectively beaten and mainly left the city. Citizens set up a “people’s police” instead. When the police returned in early March, they were only able to do so with the ‘protection’ of the military. This reflects certain shifts within the power structures of the state and might indicate a renewed and more active role of the army (see below).
The struggle in Port Said is on a high level in respect to confrontation with the capitalist state and general questioning of its role. But there are also certain ‘special’ features in the struggle, reflecting political uncertainty and the lack of a real perspective for the struggle of the workers and impoverished masses. One central demand, which mainly represents local capitalist’s and merchants’ interests, is the reopening of the free trade zone in the port. It seems that this demand has also been taken up by sections of workers and youth. The second ‘special’ local feature, especially important for the youth active in the struggle, is the demand for justice for the martyrs of the police crackdown and the release of the Al-Masry football fans who received death-sentences following the massacre of scores of Al-Ahly fans last year. This separates the movement from possible support in Cairo, where many Al-Ahly supporters have called for stronger sentences. The security forces responsible for instigating the massacre are the ones who should be on trial. A democratic independent inquiry by fans from both sides and trade unions is needed to establish what really happened. The senior officers who wanted revenge on the Al-Ahly Ultras for their heroic role during and since the revolution are the real criminals who should be brought to justice.
These two issues have been joined by the economic demands of workers (for higher wages etc,). But, facing police repression and the unwillingness of the regime to make any concessions (at least at the beginning of the movement), the most important demand developed by the movement has been the downfall of the regime and an end to the Muslim Brotherhood rule. The government is afraid that the movement might spread. There are already similar mass movements (although on a lower level) in Suez, Ismailiya, Mansoura and Mahalla (all cities along the Canal and in the Delta).
The state apparatus
The current uprisings and protests represent a serious threat to the ruling elite – old and new. There is a possibility, widely discussed within the population, that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) might take power, as it did after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. There are an increasing number of people, supporters of the old regime, as well as merchants, entrepreneurs etc. who would like to see a ‘strong hand’ rule the country. There were demonstrations of thousands in the better-off areas of Cairo demanding the SCAF return to power.
The army’s intervention in Port Said, where it claimed to play a ‘neutral’ role, not directly attacking protesters, but also protecting public institutions, is supposed to be a reminder of the role the SCAF played in February 2011. Faced by the growing determination and confidence of mass demonstrations at that time, SCAF did not feel confident the army ranks would obey orders to shoot, so the orders were not given. The army did not attack the protesters but at the same time made sure that the movement would not get out of control and overthrow the principle foundations of Egyptian capitalism and its state.
There also seem to be certain splits within the police force. Thousands of police are currently on an indefinite strike, demanding “not to be involved in the political conflict between the government and the opposition,” one police colonel told the media, and demanding the resignation of Interior minister Mohammed Ibrahim. This goes along with the government’s efforts to strengthen the police and its ability to suppress protests. Since mid-February, rank and file policemen are allowed to carry guns and ammunition (previously this was only allowed for officers and some special forces). The state apparatus is generally stepping up its efforts to be able to effectively suppress protests and revolts. The far-right Salafist Gamaa al-Islamiyya party is also setting up “citizens’ committees”, de-facto political Islamist militias, to suppress protests.
These developments are dangerous for the workers’ movement and the left. Being faced with repression by police, government thugs and right-wing political Islamist groups, the workers’ movement needs to develop a clear strategy to defend itself. The ‘Black Block’, a loosely connected group of mainly youth, wearing black masks and fighting off police and thugs, have appeared on recent protests. Though this development is understandable, their existence was also used by the government as an excuse to attack protesters and, in the end, the Block proved unable to effectively defend the demonstrations.
What is necessary is the establishment of democratically organised self-defence committees, based in the workers’ districts and factories. There needs to be democratic structures to effectively defend the workers’ movement against any attacks. These struggles need to be linked to a clear revolutionary programme, tackling not only the capitalist state but the capitalist system as a whole.
Independent working class organisation and programme needed
There are currently two major independent trade union federations, with a combined membership of about 2.5 million. Some of the unions within these federations have organized massive and effective strikes and occupations. But when workers participate in demonstrations against the regime or in general mass uprisings like in Port Said, where workers make up the vast majority of the people involved, they do so not as workers or as a class, but in an individual way, as protesters. It is only the working class that can show a way forward to the struggle. What is missing is a political voice for workers that can develop the struggle and combine their legitimate economic demands with demands for the nationalisation of factories etc. under workers’ control and management and develop a genuine socialist, revolutionary programme for the struggle.
What is needed is a revolutionary socialist party for workers and youth. Such a party can develop out of the daily struggles of workers in their workplaces and the mass uprisings. Socialists, trade union and community activists should unite on the basis of common struggle against the attacks by the Mursi government, the capitalists whom he serves and the rotten capitalist system as a whole and develop a clear socialist programme that meets the needs of the impoverished masses and develop the struggle towards a socialist Egypt.
As the Muslim Brotherhood is losing support and new waves of massive struggles are shaking the country, a number of left wing and socialist organisations still support liberal, secular opposition forces like the National Salvation Front (NSF), led by Mohammed El-Baradei, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabbahi. This position is, especially in the prospect of major uprisings because of the economic situation, disastrous, to put it mildly.
The NSF, as well as the Freedom and Justice Party, the Salafists and the SCAF all, in the end, represent different factions of the ruling capitalist class. The support for any capitalist faction by the left makes it just harder to develop an independent organisation of the working class and the youth. When socialists stick with a capitalist faction, it is a sign of lack of confidence in the strength of the working class, which are portrayed as ‘progressive’, and by doing so outsource a struggle that can only be fought and won by the organised working class. Just as some self-proclaimed socialists used to support the Muslim Brotherhood up until recently, the support for El-Baradei and the NSF will only hinder the development of a genuine socialist, workers’ organisation, so desperately needed in Egypt (and, of course, in all countries).
To win over the vast majority of the workers, youth and impoverished masses it is necessary to break with any faction of the capitalist class and develop and discuss common demands of struggle around which trade union and community activists, young people and workers can organise and fight.
- No to the IMF dictates! No to any cuts in subsidies for basic commodities!
- Full democratic rights; the right to protest and full trade union rights
- No to ‘Brotherhoodisation’! Democratic election and control over managements, administrations etc.
- A LE1200 minimum wage and a sliding pay scale, linked to the cost of living
- A massive public investment programme to improve infrastructure, health care, education, and to provide affordable good-quality public housing, and provide reasonable jobs
- Nationalisation of all banks, privatized companies and major corporations under democratic workers’ control and management, linking them together to allow democratic planning of the economy
- An appeal to workers throughout the Middle East and North Africa for solidarity and joint struggle
- For a democratic, socialist government in Egypt and a socialist federation of North Africa and the Middle East