Why a New President Will Not Stabilize Egypt
Egypt remains in a heightened state of political turmoil.
Since the mass popular revolt in Feb. 2011 that toppled the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, there have been four governments, three votes on revised constitutions, two parliamentary elections and one presidential election with another scheduled for May 26-27, 2014.
This makes seven referendum or elections since Mubarak.
These ineffectual democratic pretenses amounted to little more than reshuffling the deck of cards with the military holding all the aces. Mubarak castaways worked along with some new faces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, who were willing to accept the old ways as long as they got a piece of the action.
As a result, most of these transparently phony electoral efforts were challenged or boycotted by the best of the youth and worker activists.
This latest presidential election, with former military chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the presumed victor, represents the generals acknowledging their failure to find a civilian ally able to govern with sufficient political authority to drive through the austerity demanded by foreign investors, bankers and the property class as a whole without provoking a storm of insurrectionary protests that their previous Muslim Brotherhood partners unleashed.
Thus, the presidential elections will offer absolutely no relief for the Egyptian people. Instead, there will be more of the same with the army assuming firmer control of the government to further conduct their campaign of repression against all dissent.
This is the abysmal record of the last year since the July 3, 2013, coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government of president Mohammed Morsi who was elected in what is commonly accepted as Egypt’s first real presidential election.
The social situation has simply become too dangerous for the wealthy elite to risk any further democratic experiments. The troops have been called in to assert more direct control and al-Sisi can be relied upon to play his role with gusto.
He has already made well-publicized statements declaring that democracy is not so important and might only be achieved in 25 years. Economic prosperity is the goal and he has, of course, just the right prescription.
These fantastical proclamations should not comfort anyone because in the last year of military rule, the generals’ strategy of repression over reform has thrown the country into deeper crisis and has utterly failed to solve the any of the social and economic problems.
Reform or Repression
Two factors keep the pot boiling.
First is the unresolved conflict with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. It became by default the country’s most powerful social organization in the void created after the total collapse of Mubarak’s narrow skeletal regime of cronies and family.
With a history dating back over 80 years and with a membership of millions, the mass organization cannot be so easily silenced, even with the intense repression now directed at its leaders and members.
In fact, as committed civil libertarians understand, not only must suppression of the democratic rights of the unpopular Muslim Brotherhood be nonetheless considered an attack on the civil rights of everyone, it also must be understood to be completely unnecessary.
The organization is already vastly unpopular and politically isolated because of its crudely self-serving sectarian policies during the one-year Morsi government. This was clearly demonstrated by the millions who took to the streets during the Tamarod or Rebel anti-government demonstrations last year.
This highly effective mass action form of peaceful dissent by the majority of Egyptians was “highjacked,” a term pro-democracy activists often use, by the military who began a campaign of mass repression following their preemptive coup designed to demobilize the near-insurrectionary mobilization of millions.
With the military and their controlled domestic media outlets constantly stoking fears of violence and terrorism by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, most Egyptians still accept brutal police tactics as necessary evils.
In fact, there is credible evidence of random violence against civilians by Morsi supporters but it clearly does not rise to the level suggested by the government. Nonetheless, most Egyptians are convinced terrorist threats are real and extensive.
In any case, contrary to prevailing public opinion inside Egypt, a minority of dissident voices strongly insist repression against the Muslim Brotherhood is a pretext to unleash a campaign of abuse against those youth and workers still committed to fulfilling the goals of the revolution for “bread, freedom and social justice.”
This rings true. Attacks on striking workers, democracy activists and organizations have been documented by the world’s leading human rights organizations who have condemned numerous incidents of torture and deaths during imprisonment, unprecedented use of the death penalty in hundreds of cases and even the arrest and detainment of children.
This sordid record goes well beyond the Muslim Brotherhood. Statistics tell the story.
One of Egypt’s most reputable human rights organization points out “that the number of anti-coup detainees since the ousting of President Morsi is about 21,000 persons, stressing that arrests continue to take place on almost a daily basis.”
These staggering numbers only cover a period of less than one year of military rule yet closely rivals the estimated 30,000 political prisoners locked up during the entire 29-year reign of Mubarak himself.
Tahrir Square Graffiti. Photo by Carl Finamore, Jan. 2013.
It’s the Economy
The second and most important factor explaining the country’s instability is directly connected to the concerted campaign of repression.
“Social, economic and democratic reforms have been pushed aside in the last three years and none of the goals of the revolution have been achieved” exiled protest leader Ahmed Salah told me in an interview.
He is not alone in pointing to unresolved social and economic problems.
Whether it’s in the era of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces government immediately after the fall of Mubarak, or during the Muslim Brotherhood presidency of Muhammed Morsi or today, “there has been a war on workers’ rights” and “the overall situation for workers is now worse than before the revolution,” said veteran independent union advocate Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of the prestigious Center for Trade Union and Workers Services.
And there is plenty of evidence that the voices of Salah and Abbas are echoed all across the land.
The May 1, 2014 Cairo Post reported the labor movement witnessed an unprecedented escalation in protests and strikes across different economic sectors during the first quarter of 2013 with workers in January 2014 carrying out “55 protests in 21 different governorates [states]. February witnessed an unprecedented 1,044 protests in 27 governorates and 321 strikes occurred in March in 23 governorates.”
The economic situation remains desperate for most Egyptians and is probably the weakest link confounding the military’s strategy of stabilizing the country through mass repression.
For example, a paltry minimum wage recently enacted raised monthly salaries to $172 from $102. But it only applies to some government employees and not to any private sector workers at all. This wholly inadequate gesture has infuriated millions and actually became the focus of some demonstrations.
While repression makes it difficult for protests to occur in public spaces, we can discern from the number of worker protests that it is very difficult for the police to surveil the thousands of worksites where seething anger often boils over.
The weakness of these individual workplace actions, however, is that they are neither coordinated with other worksites nor linked to the social and democratic demands of the rest of the population.
If these challenges to broaden support are not met, workers risk exhausting themselves, becoming politically isolated and, as a result, more vulnerable to further police violence.
Uniting worker economic struggles with the overall fight for democracy and social justice can be done. After all, workers conducted the largest general strike in Egyptian history in response to police attacks on protestors during the fight against Mubarak.
In numerous interviews with me in the hours after Mubarak’s fall when I first arrived in Cairo, young democracy activists would report with big smiling faces how after the Jan. 25, 2011 revolt began “workers waited a few days until the end of the month when they were paid before swarming into Tahrir” and shutting down workplaces across the country.
This same anecdote was happily repeated to me more than once by proud and gleeful young activists in the afterglow of victory. It was openly acknowledged that the participation of workers with youth and democracy activists was a turning point in the revolution for “bread, freedom and social justice.”
Egyptian youth remember well this turning point. Now it is time for worker leaders to remember it as well.
Carl Finamore is Machinist Lodge 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Arriving in Cairo only a few hours after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, he has seen close up during his three visits the bravery of the Egyptian people. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org