Egypt: Hundreds of thousands protest President Mursi’s power grab

Democratic, trade union and women’s rights under attack

Large number of demonstrators clashed with state forces outside the presidential palace in Cairo on 4 December over attempts by President Mursi to grab new powers. Marchers chanted that "the people want the downfall of the regime", and held placards bearing slogans of "no to the constitution". It was reported that during the clashes Morsi fled the palace from a side gate in a convoy.

This follows days of large protests. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians showed their objection earlier to President Mursi’s power grab, packing into Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday 27 November. Textile workers at Egypt’s largest factory, Misr Spinning, were joined by other workers and families in a 5,000-strong protest march in Mahalla. The Muslim Brotherhood called off their demonstration planned for the same day.

But two days later a new draft constitution was rushed through the Constituent Assembly after a 15-hour sitting. Secular liberal members, women and Christians in the Assembly had walked out in protest at the draft earlier in November.

Protest in front of presidential palace

Last Friday, another huge anti-Mursi protest gathered in Tahrir Square, along with other big demonstrations in other cities. An estimated 5,000 continued to occupy Tahrir. But the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have also mobilised their supporters, holding a very large demonstration in another part of the city on Saturday 1 December.

Mursi has hastily called a referendum on 15 December to approve the new constitution. His rush may be a reaction to the massive opposition to his power grab, which he conceded would only last until a new constitution was in place.

Undemocratic draft constitution

The draft constitution contains many clauses that could be used to restrict opposition to the government in the future. It states that, “The individual person may not be insulted.” Mubarak used similar methods to gag opponents to his rule. Criminal prosecutions on charges of “insulting the president” have actually increased since Mursi took office.

It leaves open the possibility of journalists’ imprisonment in cases related to freedom of expression. Journalists at twelve newspapers and five privately-owned TV stations are taking 24-hour strike action in protest this week.

A chat show host on the state-owned TV has protested at the “Brotherhoodisation of the media” after her show was withdrawn. She speculated that this could have been because a retired State Security Investigation Services officer was a guest on the show and would have revealed the good relationship some Muslim Brotherhood members had with the security forces under Mubarak.

The draft allows civilians to be tried in military courts “for crimes that harm the armed forces.” As the draft also leaves intact the military’s economic interests, this could open up workers in military-owned companies to face military trial for strikes or occupations. Again, the Mubarak regime had a similar law.

Women’s rights are left vague and open to different interpretations. Already women and girls have been assaulted and had their hair forcibly cut for not wearing the veil in public. The police are given powers to “preserve public morality”, opening the prospect of restrictions on civil liberties, including rights to assembly, freedom of speech and expression, as seen in Iran or Saudi Arabia. The eight million Christians feel particularly threatened by such powers.

Protest against the Muslim Brotherhood

Trade union rights under attack

Prime Minister Hisham Qandeel has said the government was committed to enhancing “the business environment…making Egypt an ideal destination for foreign direct investments.”

On the same day that Mursi announced his temporary unchallengeable powers, Decree No.97 on trade unions was published. It aims to strangle the growing independent trade unions and strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s position in the trade union movement. Only one union would be allowed in each company, preventing new independent unions from challenging the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

This goes hand in hand with an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to seize control of the ETUF. All members of the ETUF executive over 60 years old (most of them) will be replaced. The Minister of Manpower (a Muslim Brotherhood member) will appoint the new members. Before the January 25th 2011 revolution, 22 of 24 members of the ETUF executive were members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The last elections were held in 2006 and new ones should have taken place in October-November 2011. They were postponed because of parliamentary elections taking place at that time. The Brotherhood aim to replace Mubarak’s appointees with their own people.

Class divisions among Islamist supporters

Support for Mursi in opinion polls has fallen from 78% to 57% in the past seven weeks. Many demonstrating against Mursi told reporters that they had voted for him five months ago. But the size of the pro-Mursi demonstrations shows that there is still a large layer prepared to turn out in his support. Polls indicate that he has more support in the countryside and among those who have not been to university.

While protesting alongside liberals against Mursi’s power grab and the undemocratic draft constitution, socialists need to make clear their separate identity. A socialist constitution would include genuine democratic rights for all, as well as the right to freedom from poverty, homelessness and illiteracy. Free education and healthcare, pensions for the elderly and disabled, a decent minimum wage – these are all fundamental rights that will not be conceded by capitalist politicians, whether from right wing Islamist or liberal secular parties. Workers need their own party. Appealing to workers, the poor and the youth with a socialist programme of revolutionary change can split away support from the right wing political Islamist parties.

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