Egypt: Ground shaking beneath Mubarak’s feet

“The fish starts rotting from the head. Don’t you smell the rot of our fish?” An Egyptian human rights lawyer, speaking out at a press conference on February 22nd, expressed the growing confidence of opponents to the Egyptian government. (1)

After 24 years as president, allowing no opponent to stand against him, Hozni Mubarak announced four days later that other candidates could stand in September’s presidential election. Is this a vindication for the US government’s Middle East policy, including the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent elections in Iraq? Apologists for Bush, and even some former critics, seem to think so.

But 76-years old Mubarak’s decision reflects increasing tensions in Egypt. Protests and strikes have grown in the past year. The regime cannot continue ruling in the same way that it has.

Workers pay for problems

Over 100 factories were privatised between 1993-99, strongly encouraged by Washington, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. For a few years, Egypt claimed to be an emerging “tiger on the Nile”, like the Asian tigers. Annual growth rates exceeded 6%, (2) although this rate is needed each year to create 600,000 jobs for the growing population. (3)

The privatised industries laid off many workers and social unrest grew. Fearing this, the government shelved further privatisation by the end of the 1990s. Since 1999 there has been a severe downturn of the economy. The textile industry has been hard hit by competition from China and East Asia. Tourism revenues have dropped since attacks on western tourists and ‘September 11th’.

In January 2003 the currency was devalued from 4.2 to 6.15 Egyptian pounds (£E) to the dollar, pushing up prices, especially food, by over 30% between 1999 and 2004. (4) By the government’s own count, 6.8 million government and public sector employees lost half the value of their salaries. More than half of household budgets go to cover the cost of food and drink. (5) Foreign investment fell from $1.5billion to $450million in 2003/4. (6)

Recently a new wave of privatisation has begun, with shares in state oil firms and banks up for sale. (7) Mubarak’s son, Gamal (a former investment banker with the Bank of America in Cairo and London) is pushing forward these policies, with a group of businessmen and US-educated economists around him. Several of them entered the Cabinet last July. (8)

Strikes developing

Privatisation is opposed by workers, whose jobs are threatened and who have seen cuts in wages and benefits after earlier sales. On 13th February 400 textile workers started a sit-in strike protesting against the sale of the Qalyub Spinning Company. This is part of the state-owned ESCO Company, which employed 24,000 in 1980 but has shrunk to 3,500. The strikers have had no support from the state-run Federation of Spinning and Weaving Unions.

The mill was valued at £E60million in 1999. After £E7million pounds government investment in 2003, it was sold in 2004 to a businessman – for £E4million pounds! One striking worker asked, “With what right was the sale [of this mill conducted? The Chief Executive Officer of ESCO] agreed to the sale. Was this company his property or the property of the people?” (9)

Another long-running strike started last November, of 287 workers at the Egyptian-Spanish Asbestos Products Company (Ora Misr). It began after the owner sacked 52 workers in a dispute over health and safety and paid no wages since September. The owner is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a history of breaking strikes and opposing militant trade union activity since the 1940s. The Ora Misr factory trade union committee is supporting the strike but, again, their trade union federation is not. (10)

Demonstrations against regime

As well as strikes, political opposition to Mubarak’s regime is developing. After years of brutal state repression (never criticised by US governments) there is growing determination and confidence to stand up and protest.

40,000 demonstrated in Cairo when the invasion of Iraq took place in March 2003. On the first anniversary 2,000 demonstrators assembled, despite the presence of 5,000 security personnel. The demonstration quickly turned into a protest at the government’s economic policies. “Atef [Ebeid, the prime minister], a kilo of beans costs six pounds! Atef, a kilo of meat is over thirty pounds! Atef, the people of Egypt [are forced to] eat bricks!” Protest leaders called out, “They wear the latest fashions!” The crowd responded, “And we live ten to a room!” (11)

The growth of satellite television has made it harder for the state to maintain its monopoly of information. Scenes of US troops in Falluja and Israeli army attacks on Palestinians have caused widespread anger and regular demonstrations. Two pop songs in 2004, “Striking Iraq” and “Road Map”, criticising incompetent Arab leaders, blared out from shops and taxis. (12)

In the past, Mubarak would have increased repression, jailing and beating opponents, confident of his position as the recipient of the highest US aid in the Middle East after Israel. Only in January he said demands for presidential elections were “futile” and would invite chaos. (13) Now he is making concessions, in the hope of defusing the opposition, while simultaneously continuing repression. (14)

US fears

The US government previously supported his dictatorial methods but, with growing opposition to its occupation of Iraq, it fears mass movements overthrowing its client regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. These remain crucial to US oil supplies. Bush and Condoleezza Rice have leant on Mubarak to make concessions to head off this threat. $1billion in economic aid was withheld in January. Rice cancelled a visit to Cairo after the arrest of Ayman Nour. (15) (see below)

A presidential election superficially appears a sharp change of direction for Mubarak. Until now, he was the sole candidate in a six-yearly referendum. But the only candidates permitted to oppose him in September or October will be from legal parties approved by ‘elected councils’ and parliament. Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party dominates all elected bodies, through “forgery”, according to the Wafd party, who described his plans as a “referendum in disguise”. (16) In effect, Mubarak can choose his opponents.

The government has refused to lift emergency laws, introduced in 1981 after the assassination of President Sadat. These prohibit political parties holding meetings, except inside their headquarters (with riot police stationed outside, of course). (17) Many commentators expect Mubarak to be re-elected because of the lack of time to build opposition parties, which have been banned for years. (18) They also expect him to continue grooming his son, Gamal, as his successor.

Political opposition

The banned Muslim Brotherhood is seen as the main opposition party. Their leaders have welcomed Mubarak’s announcement, in the hope that they will be legalised. They have gained support in recent years from students, particularly those from better-off backgrounds. (19)

The Ghad (Tomorrow) party supports pro-US, pro-‘free’ market policies and was legalised last November. Its leader, Ayman Nour, a wealthy lawyer, was jailed in January on trumped up charges and reputedly beaten. But a protest outside a Cairo university of several hundred students against his arrest was allowed to take place. Nour has announced he will be a candidate for president. (20)

On December 12th 2004 a protest of 500-1000 was organised by the Egyptian Movement for Change – a loose umbrella group of different political trends. “A gallery of intellectuals and activists” demanded the resignation of Mubarak, with the slogan, “Kifaya” (Enough). (21)

Various left groups and supporters of the radical nationalist, Gamal Nasser, formed the National Progressive Unionist Party, known as al-Tagammu (Rally) in 1976. Its slogan was “Freedom, socialism and unity.” It had 150,000 members and three MPs in the late 1970s. (22)

Like ex-workers’ parties the world over, it moved to the right after the collapse of Stalinism in 1990. In the 1995 election campaign ‘socialism’ was replaced by, "Change in response to the people’s will – against oppression, corruption and terrorism; for justice, progress and democracy."

"We have to be practical and realistic," said the party’s secretary-general Rifaat El-Said. "We cannot call for socialism at this stage because we do not have a clear definition of the term or how it could be applied."

“There is definitely a trend towards a more practical approach," said Central Committee member Hussein Abdel-Razek in 1995. "We can no longer call for nationalisation or oppose privatisation." (23) Its support has fallen since.

A new workers’ party is needed that brings together the struggles against privatisation, poverty, war and repression. A programme of democratic rights and socialism could gain mass support. It would give an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, that currently fills the vacuum as the main opponent of the corrupt Mubarak regime.

It would also be an alternative to pro-capitalist politicians, who support democracy only so far as it creates a more stable climate for continued exploitation of workers and poor people.

An appeal to workers and poor people throughout the Middle East and North Africa, to overthrow their own rulers and build a socialist federation, could gain even more widespread support than Nasser’s radical Arab nationalist programme in the 1950s.

  1. Beinin, J. ‘Popular Social Movements and the Future of Egyptian Politics’ 10.3.05 Middle East Report Online
  2. Moustafa, T. ‘A free government, a new country, a happy life’ 9.4.04 Middle East Report Online
  3. ‘Egypt to sell shares in state oil firms’ The Daily Star (Lebanon) 3.3.05
  4. Moustafa, T. ibid.
  5. El-Ghobashy, M. ‘Egypt’s summer of discontent’ 18.9.03 Middle East Report Online
  6. The Daily Star (Lebanon) ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. El-Ghobashy, M. ‘Egypt looks ahead to portentous year’ 2.2.05 Middle East Report Online
  9. Beinin, J. ibid.
  10. Beinin, J. ibid.
  11. Moustafa, T. ibid.
  12. Moustafa, T. ibid.
  13. Financial Times 28.2.05
  14. Voice of America 26.2.05
  15. Guardian 1.3.05
  16. Reuters News 5.3.05
  17. Al-Ahram Weekly 5.3.05
  18. Voice of America 27.2.05
  19. ‘Mubarak regime faces “boiling opposition”’ 23.7.04
  20. Beinin, J. ibid
  21. El-Ghobashy, M. ‘Egypt looks ahead to portentous year’ ibid.
  22. ‘Hizb Al-Tagammu’ Institute of Social History Archives 8.10.01
  23. ‘Realism on the left’ Al-Ahram Weekly Issue 245 2-8.11.95

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March 2005