Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate takes office

Working masses need independent policies and their own party

With just under 52% of valid votes cast, on a 51% turnout, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi was elected President of Egypt. The defeat of Ahmed Shafiq was a rejection of the old detested regime of Hosni Mubarak. Shafiq had served Mubarak as a government minister and then as prime minister in the last few days before Mubarak’s overthrow.

That only slightly over one quarter of eligible voters supported Mursi, however, shows widespread doubts that his victory will be a step forward for working and poor Egyptians. It also shows the fears of many that a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime could remove rights for women, for the Christian minority, and for the working class.

The result of the election was not announced for a week, with rumours of victory for both candidates circulating. There were probably negotiations during that time between the MB and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) about the powers of the presidency and of SCAF.

Two weeks before the election, the 19 generals of SCAF carried out a ‘soft coup’, dissolving the parliament elected a few months ago. SCAF made clear that it would not be giving up its control over the armed forces, its budget or SCAF’s massive economic interests. They have been able to get away with these counter-revolutionary measures, at this stage. After 18 months of struggles, many Egyptians are exhausted and have to spend great amounts of their energy on the daily struggle to feed their families. The failure of the revolution to achieve a clear break from the old regime has led to political disappointment among many. Such temporary moods occur in all revolutionary situations, but moods can rapidly change again as the situation changes. In particular, the ‘whip of counter-revolution’ can lead to renewed mass struggle.

Despite the prevailing mood, SCAF have still had to tread carefully. Had they declared Shafiq as the winner of the election, it would have reminded everyone of the rigged elections under Mubarak and could have sparked mass protests. Consequently, SCAF was forced to reach a deal with the MB.

Conflicting pressures on new president

Mursi made three speeches after his election. Showing the still-strong pressure from the revolution, his first was in Tahrir Square on Friday 29 June, just as Essam Sharaf spoke first there when he became prime minister in March 2011.

To large crowds of cheering supporters, Mursi said, “I salute all the revolutionaries in all Egypt’s freedom squares… I will always be the first supporter of the revolution, so it should continue everywhere in the farthest corners of the homeland… There is no power above people power.” (He was careful not to suggest that the revolution should spread beyond “the homeland”, which would have brought immediate conflict with the reactionary Saudi royal family and Gulf sheikhs.)

But the following day his speeches at Cairo University (before an invited audience) and at the Hikestep military training headquarters were different in tone. He thanked SCAF for its role in maintaining national security during the transition period and promised to honour its members in a special ceremony at the end of their tenure. He did not say that their economic interests should be investigated, nor corruption, nor the generals’ role in repressing opposition.

Mursi praised the role of the armed forces since the downfall of Mubarak. "You were up to the expectations of the people of Egypt," he said, adding that the country needs their presence until security is regained. He promised to grant the armed forces and the police all powers necessary for them to “successfully bring security back to Egypt.”

Security for whom? Thousands of protestors have been injured and dozens killed since the downfall of Mubarak, during the protests outside the Maspero broadcasting centre by Coptic Christians last October, outside the Cabinet Office on Mohammed Mahmoud Street in December, the Port Said football stadium this January and other incidents. The armed forces have been used by SCAF to repress opposition to its rule.

In return for Mursi’s praise, Field Marshal Tantawi, head of SCAF, thanked him for his speech at Cairo University and promised on behalf of SCAF "to stand by the side of the president the way we did with the revolution." That may be as much a threat as a promise!

The MB leadership includes wealthy businessmen such as Khairat El-Shater, who had been their first choice as presidential candidate. They represent a different wing of the same class as SCAF. But the MB’s large membership and its wider support reflect the views of many other layers in Egyptian society, including middle-class professionals and small businessmen, workers and the urban and rural poor.

Economy in crisis

The desperate state of the economy means there is little scope for real reforms that would improve living standards, create jobs and build homes, although this is what most Egyptians desperately need. The day after his inauguration, Mursi announced a 15% rise in social allowance for government employees and a 10% rise in civilian and military pensions, raised the next day to 15%. But the finance minister (from the SCAF-appointed regime) apparently had not been consulted and it is not clear where this extra money will come from. Foreign currency reserves have fallen by half since the revolution and revenue from tourism continues to fall.

Mursi will come under strong pressure from imperialism as the price of a $3.2 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. “Egypt faces significant immediate economic challenges, especially the need to restart growth and address the fiscal and external imbalances,” an IMF spokesperson said on 26 June. “The IMF stands ready to support Egypt in dealing with these challenges and looks forward to working closely with the authorities.”

The British newspaper Financial Times advised Mursi to use “what powers remain to him to implement the reforms that Egypt badly needs. This means taking decisions that will be politically difficult, such as eliminating costly subsidies that cripple the country’s budget” (30/06/12). By ‘reforms’, FT also means other neo-liberal measures including privatisation of the large state-owned sector. The Economist magazine hoped that Mursi had been elected, and pointed to the example of Turkey’s Islamic government as one he should follow (23/06/12).

Showing the outlook of leading MB members, Gehad el-Haddad, a senior member of the executive committee of the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party, said, "We are warding off the immediate devaluation of the pound and working to regain the trust of investors in the market, to assure them that stability will come under this presidency" (CNN 29/06/12).

If Mursi goes down the road of removing subsidies on the price of bread and fuel, or of privatisation, his government will come up against massive opposition, especially from workers and the poor. The MB leaders have already shown their opposition to genuine trade unions. In May they proposed draft legislation in parliament that would have made recognition of trade unions dependent on court rulings.

Another issue producing conflicting pressure on Mursi is the peace treaty with Israel. The US government, supported by SCAF, who receive over a billion dollars a year of US military aid, are strongly opposed to any renegotiation of the treaty. MB businessman Khairat El-Shater also said, “We have announced clearly that we as Egyptians will abide by the commitments made by the Egyptian government, regardless of our reservations regarding anything else. There is an obligation attached to all things relating to conventions in general, not only Egypt’s Accords with Israel, including oil and gas agreements and so on” (Ikhwan Web 29/01/12).

But millions of Egyptians want an immediate re-opening of the Rafah crossing into Gaza and the lifting of its blockade. There is enormous anger at the export of cheap gas to Israel while Palestinians continue to be evicted from their homes and land by illegal settlements, and the Israeli government continues to prevent the free movement of Palestinians as they lay siege to Gaza.

Opposition to Mursi will grow

After decades of Mubarak’s corrupt dictatorship, Mursi’s election will raise expectations that there will be real change. But he also has strong opposition from the start. In the first round, the radical Nasserist, Hamdeen Sabbahi, came a close third. On top of the almost half of the electorate that did not vote in the second round, 800,000 voted but invalidated their ballot by writing “down with military rule” while refusing to vote for Mursi.

Disappointment with Mursi will quickly start to surface. Blocked on the political front, the opposition is likely to show itself in increasing numbers of strikes and occupations, as workers fight to improve their living standards through trade union action. The independent trade unions, nearly all of which have been formed since the revolution, now have an estimated 2.5 million members. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation, whose leaders were compromised under the Mubarak regime, still has four million members.

Nevertheless, it is also possible that there will be a prolonged trial of strength between the MB president and SCAF, with the MB opportunistically leaning on the masses during this process. Socialists will fight alongside the masses, including working-class and poor MB supporters, in the struggle for basic democratic rights. But socialists will also fight for independent policies and a workers’ party, putting no faith in the new MB presidency, and exposing the class bias of MB leaders.

The responsibility of socialists in this situation is to warn workers that they cannot rely on Mursi to deliver the democratic rights and higher living standards desperately needed and that they can only rely on their own organisations and struggles to fight for their interests.

It was a serious mistake of the Revolutionary Socialists, part of the International Socialist Tendency, to call for votes for Mursi. There is a danger that they, and the April 6 Youth Movement, who also issued this call, will be blamed as workers and youth turn away from the new government. Although both organisations protest that they did not support Mursi’s programme and are already criticising him, their position in the election is unlikely to be forgotten quickly. The online edition of the Egyptian paper, Ahram, wrote, “Notably, both the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists – which include many leftists and even far-left Trotskyites – stood firmly behind Morsi” (28/06/12).

For an independent workers’ movement!

Winning those who supported the MB to the banner of socialism will require an independent workers’ movement, including trade unions and a workers’ party that struggles alongside workers and the poor and puts forward a clear programme addressing their daily needs. This must be linked to a programme of socialist and democratic change, raising the need for a second – socialist – revolution to complete the tasks started on 25 January 2011.

The MB could split along class lines if this programme was fought for, just as young members of the MB ignored the instructions of their leaders by joining the first protests in Tahrir Square. Radical and even socialist trends could emerge from within the MB under pressure from the organised working class. But if such a lead is not given, there is a danger that disappointed MB supporters will turn to the more conservatively religious right-wing political Islamic party, Nour.

In the last few weeks, SCAF have attempted to control the presidential elections, including ruling out several candidates, scrapping parliament and carrying out a ’coup’. This all shows the need for the working class to fight independently for real, lasting democratic rights, including genuine elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly and for a workers’ government to carry out socialist policies.

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July 2012