Egypt: ‘Democratic reforms’ unravel

Workers and youth have had enough of US-supported Mubarak regime

While Tony Blair enjoyed Egyptian sunshine during his winter break, a prominent Egyptian opposition leader was sentenced to five years hard labour. Ayman Nour, leader of the Ghad (’Tomorrow’) party, spent eight days on hunger strike protesting against trumped-up charges of forging party documents for its registration. A key witness admitted that his testimony was invented under security police "pressure".

This is the latest incident unravelling Egypt’s so-called democratic reforms. In January 2005, 77-year old Hosni Mubarak, President for 24 years, was forced to announce that multi-candidate presidential elections would be held later in the year. The rules were drawn up to favour him and his National Democratic Party (NDP). The largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, remained illegal and so unable to stand under its own name. The presidential election campaign was squeezed into a three week period. With much of the media controlled by the state, this gave Mubarak a big advantage. But less than 20% voted in the September election, spoiling his plan to hide his repressive regime behind a veil of legitimacy.

The first two rounds of Parliamentary elections, in October and November 2005, were relatively peaceful. The results were not those Mubarak anticipated. Although the NDP retained its parliamentary majority, Brotherhood candidates made big gains.

Frightened by this, Mubarak changed tack. During the third round, in December, riot police attacked crowds, at least eight people were shot dead, 1,500 Brotherhood members were arrested and independent journalists were censored. Many polling stations in opposition areas were closed by police. In a reversal of the mass stay-away during the presidential election, voters in at least one area put ladders up and climbed through windows to get into locked polling stations.

"The Government spent millions of pounds on advertising campaigns to persuade Egyptians to vote. But it spent millions more to prevent those who heeded the campaigns from voting, "said Judge Hisham el-Bastaweezy, at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Overall turnout was 25%.

The results left the NDP with 324 seats (down from 388 in 2000), the Brotherhood on 88 (up from 17). Only 150 Brotherhood candidates stood, as their leadership tried to avoid too open a confrontation with the government. The other opposition parties only won 14 seats, and independents six. 12 seats had still to be decided.

Among those who lost their seats were Ayman Nour and the leader of the ex-left party, Tagammu (‘Rally’). The poor results of the secular opposition parties, Ghad, Wafd, Tagammu and the Nasserists, show their failure to give any real alternative to the economic policies of Mubarak and to explain how they could deliver jobs, decent living standards, education and other vital needs for the working class and poor peasants. In so far as they put forward economic policies, they differ little from Mubarak’s big business agenda. No doubt, Ghad and Wafd suffered for being seen as close to the US.

Regime increasingly unpopular

The results are a further blow to Bush’s hopes of a smooth transition to a pro-US democratically elected government in Egypt. Despite their long support for Mubarak’s repressive regime, the US realises he is increasingly unpopular. They fear an anti-US Islamic regime may replace him, threatening their economic and strategic interests. Last January, the White House leant on Mubarak, cancelling a visit by Condoleezza Rice and threatened to withhold some of its $1.8billion annual aid. He responded with the announcement of multi-candidate presidential elections.

Bush has hypocritically declared, "[All] who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."

But, on December 1, after more than 10 days of police election violence and the arrest of more than a thousand Brotherhood activists, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack insisted that "we have not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian government isn’t interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections."

Far from these elections strengthening Mubarak or US-favoured politicians like Ayman Nour, it is the Muslim Brotherhood who has gained. Opposition to US and Israeli governments are a factor in this. The sentencing of Ayman Nour shows that Mubarak intends to maintain his grip on state power. He needs US backing but, in effect, is saying to Washington – ""Back me or you’ll get the Islamists."

The US regime is split over how to respond to the rigged election results. Some right-wing strategists argue that Mubarak should be leant on to release Nour, with the aim of building a safe, secular opposition that could deflect anger against the Mubarak regime away from the Muslim Brotherhood. "Standing with Ayman Nour means standing against military aid for Mr. Mubarak until this democratic reformer is free" (Washington Post editorial 23/12/05). Others, like Elizabeth Cheney, who is leading the State Department’s ’freedom and democracy’ agenda, fear that too much pressure on Mubarak would open the door to the Brotherhood, as the most organised opposition group. (Financial Times 12/11/05)

There is growing anger at poverty, unemployment and job insecurity from the Mubarak’s privatisation policies. The government has slashed income and corporate taxes, to the benefit of the wealthiest sections of society. There can be no doubt it means to continue this path.

The new Cabinet includes Rachid Mohamed Rachid, a former Unilever executive, responsible for trade and industry. Ahmed el-Maghrabi, a former executive of French hotel group Accor, has moved from the tourism to the housing ministry. The new tourism minister is another private-sector businessman, Zoheir Garrana, whose family firm is in the hotel and travel sector. The new transport minister is Mohamed Loutfy Mansour, whose family is one of the richest in Egypt, holding the General Motors and Caterpillar dealerships and the McDonalds franchise in Egypt. He is chairman of Royal & Sun Alliance insurance in Egypt. The agriculture ministry goes to Amin Abaza, chairman of Arabia Cotton Ginning and a former president of the Alexandria Cotton Exporters Association. Another businessman joining the cabinet as minister of health and population is Hatem el-Gabali, managing director of Dar Al Fouad, one of the most advanced private hospitals in the country.


The government intends to sell major portions of nationalised industries this year. It has announced the selling of Engineering Company for Automotive Manufacturing, as well as floating a share in the Canal Maritime. Plans to privatise the communications sector will continue. Directing this privatisation drive is Mubarak’s son, Gamal, an investment banker.

All the signs are that Hosni Mubarak intends to pass the mantle to Gamal at the next election (if the old man’s health holds out until 2011). The failure of other parties to win more than 5% of parliamentary seats and the continued illegality of the Brotherhood means that, under the current rigged rules, Gamal Mubarak could be the only candidate. However, pressures building in Egyptian society could lead to big changes before then.

The Brotherhood is divided over which way to move. Some of the older generation of its leaders sees their main priority as being to build an Islamic movement rather than engage in political opposition to the Mubarak regime. Although they have experienced years of repression, many of their members are drawn from middle class and small business layers. There have been strikes where workers have come up against Brotherhood factory owners. This layer of the Brotherhood is cautious about taking a struggle too far, in case it jeopardises the current situation where Mubarak has tolerated their existence.

Others in the Brotherhood leadership want to build on the recent political successes and form a legal party. In a statement to Islamonline (26/12/05), Dr. el-Arian said "We are considering a number of options so as to separate in a practical way our Islamic promotion action from its political counterpart, particularly through the establishment of a civil political party for the Brotherhood that has an Islamic frame of reference or another party with a moral frame of reference that would bring together conservatives, i.e. people of conservative thought of different tendencies and would call for the spread of values and morality in Egyptian society."


Student and youth members have come under pressure from other protesting activists to participate in joint demonstrations. Seeing police attacks on these demonstrators, it has been hard to remain on the sidelines. But participation remains limited and the Brotherhood have not mobilised large numbers. "[They] don’t like our slogans like ‘Down, Down Mubarak’…They think it will escalate their problems with the authorities," said Ahmed Salah, a Kifaya youth coordinator. ( 12/12/05)

Kifaya (‘Enough!’) is a loose grouping of pro-democracy activists, including some socialists (see interview with Wael Khalil, a Kifaya spokesperson, below). They have bravely organised demonstrations of up to 5,000, despite vicious attacks from riot police and NDP thugs. But they have not yet sunk working class roots. Salah went on to say, "We respect [the Brotherhood] and their victory is a victory for the opposition."

Kifaya attempted to organise an election bloc of the secular parties and the Brotherhood. "I would like to see Kifaya work to create a broadly-based opposition platform to the Mubarak regime, based on a clear program for radical social and economic change," said Wael Khalil, a socialist in Kifaya, last September. "By that I mean the communists, the socialists, the Nasserists AND the Islamists fielding a single candidate in each [constituency]." Only a couple of small parties participated.

Rather than turning towards the Brotherhood and the discredited politicians in the existing secular parties, those who want to fight the corrupt Mubarak regime should turn to the working class. 75% of registered voters abstained in the recent elections, showing a widespread rejection of all existing parties, including the Brotherhood. A new party based on the working class, with a fighting programme for jobs, against privatisation and poverty, and for democratic rights and rights for women, could gain support from those who now feel they have no voice. But if no working class voice emerges, then the opposition is likely to take on an increasingly Islamic character.

These issues must be linked to the need for fundamental change in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. While imperialism continues to dominate there will be nothing but poverty and insecurity for workers and poor peasants. The future for young people will remain bleak. A socialist future is the only way the region’s wealth and resources can meet the needs of all.

Kefaya—Enough! Building a Movement to Challenge the President of Egypt

Wael Khalil interviewed by Jack Hicks – Cairo, September 2005

I would like to see Kefaya work to create a broadly-based opposition platform to the Mubarak regime, based on a clear programme for radical social and economic change. By that I mean the communists, the socialists, the Nasserists AND the Islamists fielding a single candidate in each riding.

In a statement to Islamonline, on Monday, 26 December 2005, Dr. el-Arian pointed out that following the Brotherhood’s success in obtaining an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the latest legislative elections, "We are considering a number of options so as to separate in a practical way our Islamic promotion action from its political counterpart, particularly through the establishment of a civil political party for the Brotherhood that has an Islamic frame of reference or another party with a moral frame of reference that would bring together conservatives, i.e. people of conservative thought of different tendencies and would call for the spread of values and morality in the Egyptian society."

Dr. el-Arian said, "We want to reassure all parties concerned and let them share the responsibility with us, particularly the people who has been absent from effective political participation."

He went on to say, "We call on all components of the society, including the intelligentsia and business people at home and abroad to enter into open and continued dialogues about all issues relating to re-charting a better future for Egypt." He stressed that "the responsibility of the Brotherhood toward the society has increased following the achievement it has made in the latest legislative elections", by obtaining 88 seats.

Dr. el-Shobki emphasized, however, his conviction that the "Egyptian regime doesn’t have an open political mind that allows it to accept the establishment of such a party as a solution to the Brotherhood’s legality problem." He added that the "governing regime will not allow the Brotherhood to set up a civil party due to its inability to enter into a serious political competition with an opposition group having the Brotherhood’s weight."

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January 2006