Egypt: Fire at parliament’s upper house exposes Mubarak’s regime

Scandal and corruption of elite while masses on breadline

Two recent events in Egypt have acted like a dazzling light shining into the decaying basement of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

On 22 August, the historic Shura building, in central Cairo, home of the Egyptian parliament’s upper house, was burnt to a shell. The delayed and inadequate response of the emergency services has led to questions about the nature of the fire and shown the poor state of public services.

The fire broke out on the upper floor. Apparently, some workers in the building rushed to attack the fire with extinguishers but were prevented from doing so by security officials. Although there is a fire station only five minutes away, it took 45minutes for fire engines to arrive. Reports say they had a shortage of water, faulty and inadequate equipment and lacked training.

Roads were not blocked off and quickly becoming congested, as people stopped to watch, further delaying fire engines trying to reach the blaze. Two helicopters were brought in to drop water on the building, but at first only succeeded in drenching watching security staff and firefighters. When eventually they were on target, the weight of water smashed the roof. One firefighter was killed and 13 people were injured. The parliament was not sitting at the time.

A photographer from the daily newspaper, Al-Badil, was attacked. “We were the first journalists on the scene, and took hundreds of photographs showing how the fire developed. Security forces destroyed our photographer’s camera and confiscated its digital memory card — this happened very early on, before other journalists arrived,” the paper’s editor explained. Subsequently, the paper’s next print-run edition was reduced and its second edition not printed at all, allegedly after the Al-Ahram Printing House received orders from security bodies not to print the newspaper.

Al-Badil’s coverage of the fire led with headlines reading: “Fierce fire destroys People’s Assembly and Shura Council committee buildings in less than two hours; flames consume Ferry, contaminated blood, cancerous pesticides and Upper Egypt train files” — a reference to archives about several high profile disasters and scandals, over the last few years, which were destroyed in the fire.

Whether the fire was started deliberately or not, it would certainly be convenient for the regime to have these records unavailable to any future government. Thousands of Egyptians were killed or injured in these incidents. The resulting court cases led to acquittals for the businessmen and officials charged with negligence.

The failure to put out the fire has exposed the rundown underinvested public services Mubarak presides over. If they cannot protect a key government building from burning down, what chance do workers’ families have of safety and security?

The Shura destruction is a loss to Cairo’s architectural heritage but hardly a blow to democracy. The President appoints one third of its members. The rest were elected in elections notoriously rigged by Mubarak to prevent opposition candidates standing or campaigning freely. Many watching the flames remarked that it was a pity the Shura’s members were not inside!

Egypt’s ‘Dreyfus affair’?

One member of the Shura is Hisham Talaat Moustafa. He was also chairman of Talaat Moustafa Group (TMG), Egypt’s largest real estate company by market value. He resigned on 2 September, to be replaced by his brother. He was arrested and charged with the murder of Suzanne Tamim, a famous 30-year old Lebanese singer. It is alleged that he paid an ex-policeman $2million to kill her in her luxurious Dubai flat.

Moustafa is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party and close to Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal. In August, when rumours first linking Moustafa to the murder began to surface, he appeared on TV news shows to warn the stock market against making trading decisions based on false information. Spreading false information, he said, could shake confidence in Egypt’s financial institutions and “bring an economy to its knees.”

Since then, TMG shares have fallen 25%. Some analysts expressed concern the indictment would drag down the stock market overall, particularly given TMG’s significant debt and shaky global credit markets.

The close links between the Mubarak family and wealthy businessmen are well known. The corrupt character of Egyptian political institutions is nothing new. But this case could become like the Dreyfus affair in France at the start of the 20th century, where the courts became the battleground for wider class conflict, leading to a pre-revolutionary situation. Already there have been many pages of coverage in newspapers and on TV channels. Exposing the ruling class’s arrogant millionaire lifestyles in the glare of daylight would contrast bitterly with working class people’s daily struggle to feed their families while food prices rocket.

The French capitalist system, at the time of Dreyfus, was faced by a strong workers’ party but was saved by the weakness of its leaders. Egyptian capitalism does not face a mass united working class movement with a party and leadership committed to its revolutionary overthrow. Building such a party, with a programme of socialism and workers’ democracy, is the task that faces working class and young activists opposed to the Mubaraks and their friends. Until then, this government may be forced out, only to be replaced by another regime that will maintain the hell of Egyptian capitalism.

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