Egypt on the verge


The influx of social protest is rising, but the question remains if the oppositional movement is able to gather their forces

The recent events in Mahalla al-Kubra, an industrial center in northern Egypt, where thousands of workers went to the streets in protests against rising prices, show the deep level of unrest and dissatisfaction existing in the country. Several factors have led to the explosion of social protest as is witnessed today, most prominently the price inflation on basic commodities, the recently felt effects of the privatization policies of the Egyptian state companies and the widely felt marginalizing among large sectors of the Egyptian society.

The Egyptian toiler has often been accused of being accustomed to bow his neck and obey orders. This is maybe an orientalist myth, but the ruling classes have certainly been able to hold a hard grip on Egyptian workers through most parts of Egyptian history. Although marked by strong resistance movements, especially in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, the Middle Eastern regimes have one basic feature in common, a remarkable stability. The country of the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt should serve as an excellent example. Not many places on earth could boast, or ,maybe more aptly, lament an unchanged status quo since 1981. Mohammed Hosni Mubarak remains president and is currently trying to transfer the helmet to his son.

Nonetheless, it looks like change might be forthcoming, albeit in a slow pace. "The Egyptian society is changing slowly" said Abd-el-halim Qandil, the former editor of the weekly oppositional newspaper Karama, who was forced to retreat from his position after pressure from the Egyptian state in august 2007. "The workers movement is developing a new dynamic. When they see that the road to change is blocked, they will develop into a political movement for change.

The bells of Mahalla

6th and 7th of April the workers of Mahalla al-Kubra took to the streets after the Egyptian state police and their associated thugs took effective control of the workplace belonging to the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, which has for two years been the center a strike movement demanding an increase in the minimum payment for the workers and similar social demands. These were the initiators of the strike on 6th of April, which was later embraced by the Egyptian oppositional movement and attempted transformed into a general strike. With two days of rioting, subsequent protests and government arrests, people are asking if the bread riots which roamed Cairo in 1977 are coming back.

It was clearly the strategy of the Egyptian regime to impose security measures so strict that anyone attempting to hold protests or utter their critical views would be scared away. This old tactic seems to be failing. Despite of a huge capacity of security forces deployed in Mahalla al-Kubra during the days of the strike, demonstrators eventually rallied in the streets in a spontaneous fashion to raise their demands. Their action was directed against the inflation and looming bread crisis, but also directly against the regime. Posters of president Mubarak was teared down in the streets in a fashion similar to the way the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled when the Americans marched into Baghdad 9th of April 2002.

"Now we have entered a new phase", said Abd el-Halim Qandil optimistically. But he's not only looking bright on the future, "Either we get a political uprise which forces the regime to step down and establishes a transitory government, but more likely, the situation could also turn into a totally chaotical one".

What the new phase constitutes exactly, is less clear. Some are calling for new protests, the theory being that the social protests have the potential to spread like wild fire in the grass. "The internet has proved to be an effective tool in reaching out to the people", said Magdi Ahmed Hussein from the Islamic Workers Party. The party have given their official support to an initiative taken by a Facebook network to recall for a new strike the 4th of April, also the birthday of President Mubarak.

Obviously, such a strike would work under very different conditions. While it might be argued that the general strike was constructing an artificial link between the workers movement and the left, it was at least a link (a political activist described the connection as "exploiting a chance"), there's certainly no such link this time. This poses the question of whether the workers actually do feel a link with the political opposition, and if the struggle in Mahalla al-Kubra could be developing a force strong enough to topple Mubarak.

Lacking political leadership

The Egyptian workers movement is deeply economist in its nature. "The connection between the strikes carried out by the organized labor movement, which has specific bread-and-butter goals and whose political aims have for now focused on better representation in the local and national unions, and the broader political opposition is thus still hazy", claims the arabist.

In general the situation reminds us of atoms and electrons. We could compare the masses to the atom, the stable element is the people, who are nurturing deep feelings of discontent. The scale of social depression is so immense that it's felt in almost all sectors. Around are the spinning circles of electrons, relatively marginal movements like the dissident in the formal industrial sector, the islamists and the intellectual oppositionals. The problem is of course that just as electrons, the circle of the social protest movement is more or less disorganized. Hence, the direction in which the atom, or the masses flows, is also relatively random (nothing is , of course, totally random, neither in politics or physics). It is, simply put, very difficult to predict where Egypt goes next and if the regime will be able to pull of the storm or not.

Let's not forget that the Egyptian regime has survived worse storms. The bread riots of 1977 was much more violent and widespread in it's nature. The militant uprising of islamists in the early 90s was maybe less popular among the masses, but more organized, militant and numerally also stronger than what the workers movement has demonstrated its capasity to mobilize.

Marginalized middle classes

The Egyptian state is leading an all-out attack on all sectors of Egyptian society, wrote al-jazeera journalist Ahmed Mansour in the Moroccan newspaper Al-Masaa, 6th of February. He was referring to how social classes like doctors and judges, who usually hold respected positions in most modern societies, are feeling increasingly under attack by Egyptian authorities. The politics of the Egyptian state does not only keep the poor remaining at the bottom ladder of society, but also deals with the intellectual classes in a way that has led them into a direct confrontation with the state.

Ahmed Mansour narrates the telling picture of how a small group of doctors from the Doctors' Syndicate was surrounded by the state police inside the yearly International Book Fair in Heliopolis, Cairo. The Doctors' Syndicate, The Lawyers Bar Association, the Journalist Syndicate and simiar unions have for a long time been the hotbeds of the Egyptian opposition.

"It's highly unlikely that these advocates can do much to alter the orientation of Egypt's authoritarian regime. Yet a new element has been added into the mix of activism. In recent months, petty bureaucrats from various government ministries have staged sit-ins and other job actions. This is a more powerful group than some might suspect. After all, they do the government's bidding and have historically been a bastion of support for the National Democratic Party, such as it is. The very fact that Mubarak can't buy off the government's legion of bureaucrats suggests that something is afoot inCairo", writes Steven A. Cook on the pro-US foreign policy blog MESH, April 9th)

Islamist deals?

The Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally dominated the social movements of the intellectual classes and in fact, the syndicates and the brotherhood itself are sometimes woven together to such a degree that drawing a clear line between them might be difficult. This is especially true for the technical professions, while in the intellectual professions, the competition with leftists and nasserists is more fierce. But nobody can deny the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are by large the strongest political force in Egypt and probably much stronger than the rest of the oppositional groups together, especially if you discount the non-active membership of the state-recognized Tagammu and Nasserist party.

As such, nobody can ignore the role of the brothers. In fact, the strategy favored by parts of the oppositional movement in recent years has been to try to co-ordinate with and build alliances with the islamists. This has been the clear-spoken strategy of the Revolutionary Socialists, a relatively small, but very active and militant trotskyist group, mainly existing in Cairo. But similar ideas, although often more hushed and combined with critical perspectives towards the islamists, certainly exists. In fact, it could be plausible to analyze the formation and emergence of Kifaya from such a perspective. Although different ideas certainly have co-existed, activists also often explain that they want to try pressuring the Brotherhood to side with them, rather than the regime.

Many accuse the Brotherhood of making deals under the table with the regime. This was an accusation levied against the islamist group during the parliamentary elections in 2005 which yielded 88 elected representatives, although fierce repression was levied against the brotherhood representatives during the elections, often faced by popular resistance. Also, once in parliament, the islamist representatives of the peopel often challenged the consenus-style of doing politics in the Egyptian parliament. Before the local elections 8th of April, 900 brotherhood members were arrested and by far and large the majority of the independent candidates were hindered to run for elections, often in very obvious ways. This led the brotherhood to boycott the elections, together with the Kifaya movement.

Muslim Brotherhood turns away

Hence, the brothers wave off accusations of them making compromises with the Egyptian regime. How can we make compromises with a regime which goes so far in repressing us, they ask. The question is good, but other activists answer that exactly the repression and threat of a complete breakdown of the Brotherhood might be the reason for why the group chose non-participation in the strike 6th of April, although at the same time giving it a certain level of symbolic support.

"The Muslim Brotherhood is a rightwing force in the economical sector, but it's possible to co-ordinate with them in the struggle for democracy and against US and Israeli occupation", said Abd el-Halim Qandil. The quote maybe goes a certain way to explain why the netwok, which has ties to rich investors and businessmen, and reportedly also funds all around the world, chose to turn their back to the oppositional movement when things get hot among the Egyptian workers.

Finally, it's important to remember that the brothers are in the process of trying to transform themselves into a political party. Although it might seem impossible at present, the group is well accustomed to plan in a long-term perspective. But with establishing yourself as a party, you also run certain risk. Young members and bloggers of the brotherhood recently protested on the internet against what they saw as deviations from Islamic principles when the guidance council issued statements indicatidng that women could run for president. With political parties comes the need for clarity, which could maybe render splits that are today easily contained within the social and religious network of the organisation, which remains just as much missionary as political in its current form.

US stability means no democracy

In 2005 we heard the beels of the US strategy for a "Greater Middle East". As a result of the pressure from the White House, Mubarak and his cronies were forced to accept multi-candidate elections for the first time in Egyptian history since the revolution in 1952. Ayman Nour from the liberal party al-ghad quickly ascended as the main challenger, with noticable support from elements in the White House and US State Department who wanted to transform Egypt into a Western-style democracy.

Later, the Muslim Brotherhood was also able to exploit the pressure for multi-party elections to run their independent candidates for the Maglis al-Shaab. This experience, although not unexpected, clearly chilled the blood of the democratizers on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. With the problems the US occupation forces are facing in Iraq, the Hizbollah victory in the war against Lebanon, the elections and subsequent siege of Hamas and the Palestinian resistance and the looming threat of a confrontation with Iran, there's no more sweet words about democratic reforms in this region. The US might be somewhat uneasy about the Mubarak regime, but they certainly learned that democracy in this region means the election of anti-US candidates.

by Lars Akerhaug