Winds of change in Egypt

George W. Bush wants to see democracy in the Muslim world. He would not have relished the pro-democracy demonstration that gathered on the steps of the journalists’ syndicate in central Cairo. As the crowd chanted, demonstrators raised the symbols of their dissent: the Holy Qur’an, portraits of Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt’s first independent president), and the red flag—signifying the three strands of a growing movement that unites Islamists, nationalists and socialists.

When Bush talks of democracy, he talks of its power ‘to secure justice and liberty, and the inclusion of men and women of all races and religions in the courses that free nations chart for themselves’. But the growing democracy movement in Egypt has bigger ambitions—ambitions that may run contrary to those of the  White House.

As Hany Tarek, an activist with El Karama (a Nasserite party) put it: ‘We’re saying “no” to our government because it’s with Israel and the US. We want the Palestinians to be able to return to their homes, both from the 1967 and 1948 invasions.’ Amr Fahmy, a member of Islamic Trend (the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) at Cairo University, added: ‘No change is possible without unity against imperialism, Zionism and dictatorship.’

Democracy has emerged as the leitmotif of the US’s adventures in the Middle East. Weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s supposed dalliance with al Qaeda are exhausted as justifications. Now invasion, occupation and pressure on recalcitrants like Iran are proffered in the name of elections. As Bush says: ‘Freedom is on the march, and the world is better for it. Widespread hatred and radicalism cannot survive the advent of freedom and self-government.’

This line may play well on domestic television, but it is at odds with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s praise for Pakistan, a military dictatorship that backed the US’s invasion of Afghanistan; and White House silence on the massacres in Uzbekistan, a dictatorship that buys US acquiescence by hosting a military base in the strategic corner between Afghanistan, Russia and China. For most in the Middle East, the idea of Western intervention leading to freedom is laughable: the occupation of Iraq is salt in a very deep and old wound called Palestine.

The regime in Egypt, headed by Mubarak since 1981, and buttressed by emergency laws which ban demonstrations and political parties, is facing rising domestic pressure. Al Ahram, a liberal Egyptian paper, reported: ‘As the number of street demonstrations in Egypt increases, 2005 may well turn into a year of major political upheavals.’ Pro-government journalists complain about protests disrupting the already chaotic Cairene traffic system. More significantly, even the conservative and cautious Muslim Brotherhood has felt pressure to act, bringing its supporters on to the streets. This is confirmation that the opposition rallies, albeit small, reflect a deep displeasure within the Egyptian masses.

This movement predates the US’s newfound love of democracy. The first (and dangerous) street protests began in 2000, in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada. Activists expanded into small rallies against neo-liberalism, and then against the war in Iraq. Against all expectations, the floodgates broke on the day the Coalition of the Willing invaded, in March 2003. Some 60,000 people packed Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo, in a protest that lasted 12 hours. The confidence of the opposition, much of it now under the umbrella of the Egyptian Movement and Popular Campaign for Change—known as Kefaya (Enough)—skyrocketed. As Hany Tarek put it: ‘We are going on to the streets. We have demonstrations planned in three places. If they are a success then we’ll do them in ten.’

The change was evident at the third Cairo Conference, held to build solidarity with Palestine and Iraq and to strengthen opposition to the Egyptian regime. At the second conference in December 2003, only one voice was raised against Mubarak. This time, dozens spoke against him, debating not just the method of his political passing but options for a new Egypt. Professor Hossein Esaa, a Nasserite, surmised:

There can be no free elections while the National Democratic Party [Mubarak’s party] is in power. The media should be opened up to all parties. If the fear goes, the NDP will fall. Nobody believes Mubarak any more. In true free elections it would be reduced to five per cent. Having more than one candidate isn’t democracy—not while being a member of a political party is [a] crime and political activity is treated like a vice.

Remarkably, the professor was challenged from the floor by a young NDP member; remarkable that a member of the government party would attend an opposition conference; remarkable that the others present, many of them jailed or beaten for their activities, dealt with his points with such cool contempt.
Opening up a dictatorial regime, in order to build a new and stable base, is a risky affair. When Mikhail Gorbachev tried it he didn’t just lose his job but an entire empire. A regime like Mubarak’s runs the risk that weakness becomes licence. The liberal intelligentsia can seize on minor political reform as the chance to renovate official structures. The poor can see a loosening of the political straitjacket as an opportunity for revenge after 30 years of neo-liberal experimentation.  If Mubarak does nothing, anger could boil over; if he loosens the reins, the population might bolt.

This conundrum explains the current contradictory flavour of Egyptian politics. In late May, Mubarak won a referendum for constitutional change to allow contested presidential elections—until now, one candidate has been selected by the parliament for popular approval. On the day of the vote, security forces terrorised opposition protesters. As one account reported, the riot police stood by as minibuses of young men arrived. ‘The demonstrators had already been encircled by the police. The rest of the street was cleared for the hooligans, who started moving towards the encircled demonstrators, after the police had opened a small path for them to enter.’

What followed was a series of systematic assaults, focusing particularly on women protesters. Dr Magda Adly, a doctor at the El Nadim Centre, said: ‘The men hit us, pushed us around and tried to strip us of our clothes. This took place in the presence of police officers, some of high rank.’ Adel Wassily, an engineer, said: ‘I saw a woman journalist. They beat her and tried to open her trousers to strip her. Another pregnant women was kicked in her abdomen.’ And Rabea Fahmy added: ‘Those men attacked me and beat me brutally and tore my clothes and underclothes until I was naked. The police were standing there, watching. The streets became an Abu Ghraib prison.’

As student Amr Fahmy concludes: ‘We are not very optimistic about Mubarak’s statement on allowing many candidates in the next presidential election—it’s the security forces who really rule us.’

While the Muslim Brotherhood would  settle for the legalisation of its party, which already has parliamentary representation under the guise of ‘independents’, and free elections, which it would be favoured to win, the Egyptian Left wants to go much further. Many activists are painfully aware that victories over dictatorships—in Eastern Europe in 1989, in Indonesia in 1998, in the Ukraine this year—can turn to social defeat, as the new democrats rush to fulfil World Bank requirements.

The nexus between political and social democracy in Egypt is revealed in the fight by its poor. At the Ura Misr asbestos manufacturing plant, 55km north of Cairo in the industrial city of 10th of Ramadan, 79 union members are on the sparse grass, sacked for demanding, among other things, access to workers’ compensation. Said Abdel Latif, the workplace delegate, said the workers had been handling blue and white asbestos without safety equipment.

By 2002, eight workers had died from cancer, without realising it was connected to their work. Now more workers have asbestosis, as have at least two of their wives. To receive compensation, without which the workers’ families will be cast into absolute poverty, means securing the  signature of a senior government health official. Yet the government works hand in glove with employers. Despite the most compelling evidence, no signature has been forthcoming. It is a sharp reminder that the absence of political democracy means an absence of social justice, and that the fight for one must be linked to the other.

Bush’s talk of democracy is a double-edged sword. Given a free vote, Egyptian workers and peasants would reject pro-US and pro-Israel politicians. Saudi voters have done so, backing Islamist municipal candidates earlier this year. A generation of unhampered pro-market policies has sharpened popular frustration. The Arab mood is for freedom from US intervention, both military and economic. As Reem, a woman active in the Egyptian socialist movement, said: ‘Imperialism is a manifestation of the capitalist system, so fighting it isn’t separated from fighting the regime that is opposing people in Egypt.’ In other words, democracy means nothing without land for the huge peasantry, workplace democracy, and an end to subservience to the US.

The battle between Mubarak and the opposition, and the jostling for influence within the opposition, has a broader significance. Egypt is the pivotal Arab nation, with a population of 72 million, a large working class, and a history of leading the region, politically and culturally. If popular anger explodes and sweeps away Mubarak, it could sweep away a loyal ally of the US and Israel, throw open the Palestinian question and tilt the balance within Iraq more heavily towards the resistance. That is why Egyptian progressives refuse to cede the question of democracy to White House speechifying. They are hoping that the times are changing in Egypt, and not in the way George W. Bush intends. 

David Glanz is a Melbourne writer. Image by Rusty Stewart.



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