Egypt: Mass protests over Gaza massacre

Mubarak regime employs repression to prevent broad anti-Mubarak movement

The horrific events in Gaza have caused anger around the world, especially in the Middle East. Adding to the anger of workers and youth in these countries is the collaboration of their ruling classes with US and Israeli big business. Nowhere is this clearer than Egypt. Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, visited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak just two days before the attack began. Mubarak must have been told what was about to happen. He has been opposed to Hamas, which is linked to the largest Egyptian opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt is a country without democratic rights, where protestors risk beatings, imprisonment and torture. But since the Gaza massacre began, demonstrations have grown in number. The government has not felt able or confident to try and completely stop them. But it is increasingly turning to violent police and security forces repression to prevent protests broadening into an anti-Mubarak movement.

On 28 December 2008, around 8-900 protesters marched in Cairo, led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whose MPs were the speakers. The police allowed them to march a 10-minute route, but in silence. The MB agreed to this, their stewards preventing anti-Mubarak chanting. The marchers joined a further 1,500 protestors called by the doctors’ association. Protestors held up copies of the Quran, as well as copies of independent newspapers showing images of the destruction in Gaza alongside pictures of Mubarak shaking hands with Livni.

The next day 4,000–5,000 demonstrators, carrying Hamas flags, chanted, “We are all Hamas,” “Mohamed’s army is coming” and “Don’t put down your gun, Haniyeh.” As before, protestors who chanted “Down with Hosni Mubarak” were silenced by MB stewards.

Leading the chants were individuals standing outside the security barriers, who were allowed free movement by the security forces, while some journalists and photographers were denied access. It looks as though the police and MB came to an agreement about the type of demonstration that the government would tolerate.

As the bloodshed in Gaza increased, the issue of the closed Rafah border with Egypt has stoked up anger. Mubarak refuses to open the crossing and allow through desperately needed food, fuel and medical supplies. He claims this can only be done if Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah government, based in the West Bank, regains control of Gaza and, along with European Union observers, supervise the crossings, as agreed in 2005.

Spontaneous protests

Spontaneous student protests broke out on 30 December in the Sinai towns of al-Arish, Sheikh Zowayed and Rafah. Forty five MB members were arrested on their way to a Cairo protest. The next day, a protest was organized by the ‘popular committee for the rights of Sinai citizens’, which is led by the Tagammu organisation, a usually toothless ex-workers’ party. It called for the re-opening of the crossing, halting the export of Egyptian gas to Israel and for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador.

Mass action is needed to break down the Rafah border to allow in urgently needed supplies and allow out the wounded for treatment. A year ago, the crossing was forced open for a short time by such a movement from within Gaza. A similar movement could develop in Egypt, but it would involve confronting the armed forces and police. This would not be easy in the Sinai desert, but even Mubarak’s state machine could crumble if faced with a massive and determined movement.

Many other demonstrations broke out on the 31 December, all over Egypt. It is not clear how many were involved, but reports suggest perhaps as many as 500,000 took part. The police responded with baton attacks, tear gas and arrests. Larger demonstrations occurred after Friday prayers on 2 January, including another large protest in el-Arish, where anti-Mubarak chants were heard. 3000 demonstrated on 3 January in the city of Dalangat. Tear gas was thrown inside a girls’ school, leading to breathing problems for 32 female demonstrators.

Mubarak’s involvement with President Sarkozy in announcing a ceasefire plan added to the protesters’ anger, as Mubarak was seen to be breaking a united Arab response. A few days later, on 9 January, the largest demonstration, so far, reportedly took place in Alexandria, when 50,000 took part after Friday prayers. MB members of parliament led the protest. In a sign that the MB is coming under increasing pressure to openly oppose the regime, protesters chanted: “Down with Israel, and with it every collaborator,” and “Gaza excuse us: opening Rafah is not in our hands” – clearly aimed at Mubarak. Demonstrations of 1,500 occurred in Tanta and in el-Arish, where baton-wielding police were pelted with stones.

Egypt-Israel gas deal

Egyptians showing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza are outraged that Egypt is supplying natural gas to Israel at below market prices. A 15-year deal was struck in 2005 between the two countries. Gas started flowing to Israel in February 2008.

The company responsible for the deal is the Egyptian Israeli consortium Eastern Mediterranean Gas (EMG), with a $2.5billion contract for 15 years. EMG is a private energy consortium co-owned by Egyptian businessman Hussein Salem and the Israeli Merhav Group. Salem is a long-standing close friend of Mubarak and one of Egypt’s wealthiest capitalists.

At the moment, Mubarak fears upsetting his American backers and his rich friends more than he fears Egyptian workers and youth. But protests are growing and becoming more militant, and could lead to a crisis for the government.

Gaza has given the MB a boost for now, as Hamas has historical links with it. Last year, there was speculation about emerging divisions within the MB over how it should respond to the Mubarak regime and how to work with other opposition groups. The Brotherhood tried to separate the issue of Gaza from what is happening in Egypt. But Egyptian workers felt deep anger at their indignities and struggle to survive before the Gaza onslaught. Earlier in 2008, there were strikes over pay, and a massive demonstration in defiance of the police in the textile city of Mahalla.

New independent union

A very important development, last December, was the formation of the first trade union, independent from the state-backed unions, for over fifty years. Prior to this, 55,000 property tax collectors struck in autumn 2007 for three months, eventually winning a 325% pay rise. Their democratically elected strike committee did not disband but instead organized a highly successful conference to found the new union. They see this as the first step in building an independent trade union movement.

Socialists welcome this move. The working class needs to organize itself independently. Trade unions are vital in the struggle for decent pay, jobs and working conditions. But workers also need an independent party that links different sections of workers and youth together. A workers’ party would need a socialist programme – to end the rule of Mubarak and his cronies, nationalise the large companies, banks and land, and plan the wealth and resources of the country for the benefit of all.

The most effective way Egyptian workers and youth could support those suffering in Gaza would be a struggle to bring down the corrupt Mubarak regime and replace it with a democratic socialist state. That would inspire workers throughout the Middle East to follow their example and rid the region of every rotten government that builds their own power, wealth and prestige at the expense of workers, poor farmers and their families.

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January 2009