Egypt: Big demonstrations oppose President’s attempt to seize new powers

Socialist revolutionary change needed!

Big demonstrations have opposed Egyptian President Mursi’s attempt to seize new powers and railroad through an Islamic constitution. Marchers chanted, "The people want the downfall of the regime".

There have also been large demonstrations supporting Mursi. In a brutal reminder of the methods of former President Mubarak, Mursi-supporting thugs have attacked peaceful demonstrators, aided by the security forces.

The draft constitution was rushed through the Constituent Assembly after a 15-hour sitting. Liberals, women and Christians in the Assembly walked out in protest at the draft earlier in November.

Mursi called a referendum for 15 December to approve the new constitution. His haste is a reaction to the massive opposition to his attempted power-grab. He has now backed down from his attempt to stop any legal challenge to his authority, but only until the new constitution is in place.

After the ‘judges club’ announced that it will not supervise the referendum, the High Elections Commission said the referendum will now be held in two stages, on 15 December and 22 December.

Protest in front of presidential palace in Cairo

The draft constitution contains many clauses that threaten any opposition in the future. It states, “The individual person may not be insulted.” Mubarak used similar methods to gag opponents to his rule. Criminal prosecutions for “insulting the president” have increased since Mursi took office. Journalists could be imprisoned.

The draft allows civilians to be tried in military courts “for crimes that harm the armed forces.” The military’s economic interests and power to set its own budget are left intact and exempt from any democratic control. Workers in military-owned companies could face military trial for strikes or occupations. Again, the Mubarak regime had a similar law. On 9 December Mursi granted army officers authority to make arrests, further restricting limited rights won since the January 25th 2011 uprising.

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.

Attacks on workers and poor

The constitution dispute is taking attention from other attacks on workers and the poor. The government has also been negotiating with the International Monetary Fund over a $4.8 billion loan. Subsidies on butane gas and electricity have been cut as part of the linked austerity programme.

Mursi also announced tax rises on many consumer goods and services – only to postpone the plans hours later, until after a "social dialogue". Such indecision suggests sharp disagreements within the government and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The FJP attacked the President’s tax rises and demanded they be put on hold. They fear a backlash could lose them the constitution referendum. In a sign of deepening political crisis, the Finance Minister, Mumtaz al-Said said on 11 December that the IMF loan was delayed until January 2013.

Prime Minister Hisham Qandeel has said the government was committed to enhancing “the business environment…making Egypt an ideal destination for foreign direct investments.” The rich elite in the leadership of the Brotherhood aim to profit from the privatisation of large sections of state-owned industries.

Attempt to strangle independent unions

Decree No.97 aims to strangle the growing independent trade unions. Only one union would be allowed in each company, preventing new independent unions from challenging the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

ETUF executive members over 60 years old (most of them) will be replaced by new members appointed by the Minister of Manpower (a Muslim Brotherhood member). Before January 25th 2011, 22 of 24 members of the ETUF executive were members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The Brotherhood aims to replace Mubarak’s appointees with their own.

Anti-Mursi protest

Several opposition parties have formed the National Salvation Front. It is led by former chief of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission Mohamed El-Baradei and former presidential candidates, Amr Moussa (an ex-Mubarak minister) and Hamdeen Sabbahi (a left Nasserist).

While protesting alongside the NSF rank and file supporters against Mursi’s power grab and the undemocratic draft constitution, socialists need to keep their separate identity. The programme and previous record of El-Baradei, Moussa and similar capitalist politicians cannot inspire those who support right wing political Islamist parties to split away. A split along class lines in the support for political Islamism is possible.

Socialists must clearly differentiate themselves politically from bourgeois opposition liberals and nationalists. Mursi is playing on the fears of MB supporters that the opposition is attempting to stage a return to power by pro-Mubarak era forces. The Left also needs to answer the Morsi regime’s accusation that the revolutionary youth groups are part of the felool, or remnants of the Mubrak regime, which includes military, security and judicial figures, personnel from Mubarak’s disbanded Nation Democratic party and business people who became very rich under Mubarak.

Workers need their own party, based on the independent trade unions. A socialist programme of revolutionary change can appeal to workers, the poor and the youth.

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.

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December 2012