Hosni Mubarak's government has recently conceded limited constitutional change
in the face of a growing protest movement. On 20th March - coinciding with the
international protests against the Iraq war - there will be a demonstration in
Cairo called by the Popular Movement for Change, under the slogans: "Against
the US invasion of Iraq, against despotism, against corruption in the regime and
against impoverishing millions of Egyptians."
Egypt is the most
populous Arab country, with 76 million people, and significant armed forces.
What is more, until the death in 1970 of President Abdel Gamal Nasser, Egypt
stood at the head of a secular, pan-Arab, nationalist movement, that provided a
significant challenge to the dominant model of imperial domination in the region
of parallel American alliances with Israel and the House of Saud. (Although,
paradoxically Nasser was himself pro-American). Therefore any destabilization of
Egypt, particularly if it led to a government opposed to US policy in the
region, would be a severe blow to the neo-conservatives in the White House.
Pan-Arabism has a considerable pragmatic appeal to Egypt, the largest Arab
country, but with no oil.
Over the last three
decades, American strategy has been to incorporate the Egyptian government and
military, and in 1978 President Anwar al-Sadat signed a peace treaty with
Israel. Since then the Egyptian government has been the recipient of
considerable US aid.
As Phil Marshall wrote
in Socialist Review
in 2003, President Mubarak's economic strategy has failed:
"This has been based on the market-led policies of Bush and the World Bank,
prioritising privatisation and foreign investment were meant to make Egypt a new
industrial centre for the Arab world--a 'tiger on the Nile'. As the strategy has
collapsed, Mubarak has cast around for scapegoats. He blames former ministers
and groups within his own ruling party, alleging corruption and criminality.
Many Egyptians agree, but add to that the biggest thieves are to be found at the
presidential palace. The Iraq conflict was the last thing Mubarak needed. Bush's
rhetoric about a war for democracy put the Egyptian ruler in the spotlight. For
over 20 years he has maintained control by rigging elections and referendums,
savagely repressing all opposition and running a tame national media. Hoda
Hindi, a human rights lawyer, says, 'OK, he hasn't used poison gas on us, but in
other respects Mubarak has been little different from Saddam. Until now we have
over 30,000 political prisoners who often suffer terrible torture--and some of
them have been illegally held for ten or even 15 years.' "
continues at a very high level, and at a recent opposition conference, Samah Abu
Shitta spoke about the clampdown after last October's bombing of three resorts
in Sinai, frequented by Israeli tourists. Samah's husband and four brothers,
including a young mentally disabled teenager, have been detained for four
months. She says they were tortured and that she too was arrested and abused by
police. Human rights groups say 2,400 suspects are still held incommunicado
allegedly in connection with the Sinai bombings.
Poverty in Egypt is
appalling. A recent UN report on development in Egypt states that 10.7 million
Egyptians cannot afford basic foodstuffs, 24.8 per cent of Egyptians live on $2
a day or less and Hepatitis C has proliferated to an alarming degree. But there
is also a significant intelligentsia, and for over a decade groups of political
and human rights activists, academics, intellectuals and politicians of various
shades have worked on projects for political and constitutional reform. They
mostly took the form of ineffectual "initiatives for change", and have included
national charters, democracy committees and coordination committees.
The whole situation was
changed by the Iraq war, and the initiative of socialists to organise a
demonstration on 21st march 2003 to protest against the invasion of
Iraq that occupied Cairo's Tahir Square for 12 hours; the following day 60000
marched, and were savagely attacked by the police. But the genie could not be
put back into the bottle. The Egyptian people were no longer too afraid to
In December 2004, a
coalition of socialists, Islamists and Nasserites organised a demonstration in
Cairo under the slogan, Kifaya (Enough). They then organised another and another
and another until there was a mass demonstration on 21st February 2005. Just 5
days later the President announced the scrapping of article 76 of the
constitution, which stipulates that two thirds of parliament approve a single
presidential candidate before his name is put before the public in a yes/no
Of course, the
government has not simply backed down because of demonstrations. Mubarak also
attempted repression, and three socialist activists were arrested at the Cairo
bookfair (subsequently released). Liberal MP Ayman Nour, chairman of the
opposition Al- Ghad Party was arrested and held at Tora prison for almost 40
days on fraud charges; but no-one seriously believes that his arrest was
anything other than an attempt to intimidate the opposition.
But Mubarak was caught
in a vice. On the one hand, the internal opposition has the strength of uniting
- on a very limited program - all the opposition forces in Egypt, including the
Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brothers are a pragmatic organisation, and work
both inside and outside the system. Despite being denounced by Mubarak as linked
to terrorism, they are also the largest opposition party in parliament; and in
the last two years have downplayed their conservative social agenda in favour of
allying themselves with the Nasserites and the left on the questions of
democracy, political reform and opposition to the war in Iraq.
The other side of the
vice is that the Bush government has not wholeheartedly supported Mubarak. The
arrest of Ayman Nour has been opposed by the Whitehouse, and Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rica cancelled a visit to Cairo in protest. To a certain degree, the
neo-conservatives in the Whitehouse may be prisoners of their own rhetoric about
supporting democratic reform in the Middle East. Of course, there may be a more
Machiavellian explanation, and if Hosni Mubarak (or his son Gamal Mubarak)
contest the election and win then their authority will be enhanced. Two weeks
ago the US offered a $1 million grant to six NGOs to monitor the elections, and
there is some concern that this will be used to influence the result.
Egyptian electoral law
also has strict limits on election expenditure, that dramatically favours
candidates who can rely upon other social networks to spread their message, and
political repression means that the political parties have relatively primitive
organisation. So victory for Mubarak cannot be ruled out. The army and the
ruling party know that there are no political parties in Egypt with the
popularity, autonomous capacities and finances to take them within reach of the
However there is
another force that may have sufficient organisation. As conservative Egyptian
commentator, Osama El-Ghazali Harb, has written:
"In recent years we have seen the rise
of a religious establishment of a completely different order to the one that has
existed for the past two centuries. This establishment consists not only of an
official arm, as represented by the clergy on the government payroll, but also
of all the Islamist trends, moderate or otherwise, visible or clandestine. It is
as impossible now to continue to ignore this formidable religious establishment
as it is to ignore or deny the influence of the role of the military
Up until now the Muslim
Brotherhood has been cooperating with forces considerably to their left in order
to force the pace of constitutional change, but there is no doubt that they have
big ambitions of their own: "We have
candidates who are capable of ruling the world and not just Egypt,"
Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef told
Al-Ahram recently. Akef has pointed out
that The Muslim Brotherhood may not run their own candidate: In his interview
he said: "We might name a candidate from
our rank and file, or we might endorse the nomination of a candidate who gets a
national consensus from one of the other political groups".
Akef confirmed they may even endorse the nomination of President Mubarak himself
for a fifth term on the condition that the president pledges to engage in a
meaningful dialogue with them. The Brotherhood may trade their electoral
influence in exchange for concessions by the ruling party towards the Islamist's
own reactionary social demands.
and particularly socialist political organisation is very weak in Egypt, The
Egyptian Communist Party brought its banners onto the Tahir Square demonstration
in March 2003, but they had not been seen openly on the streets of Cairo for
decades before that. There is therefore no foreseeable prospect of the left
making any impact on events during the election campaign.
The nature of the
left's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood has so far been tactically
acute. It is of course correct to recognize that where the Muslim Brothers have
placed themselves in the campaign for democracy, they are playing a progressive
role, as explained in a different context by Lebanese Marxist and LCR member,
Gilbert Achcar: "Islamic
fundamentalism [can play] the role of a politico-ideological channel for a cause
that is objectively progressive, a deforming channel, certainly, but filling the
void left by the failure or absence of movements of the left. This is the case
in situations where Islamic fundamentalists are fighting a foreign occupation
(Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, etc.) or ... ... where they incarnate a
popular hatred of a politically reactionary and repressive regime."
As Achcar says: "While
never renouncing the ideological combat against the fatal influence of Islamic
fundamentalism, it can be necessary or inevitable to converge with Islamic
fundamentalists in common battles - from simple street demonstrations to armed
resistance, depending on the case."
However, events in
Egypt show that the Muslim Brotherhood have their own agenda, and any alliance
between Muslim organisations and the left can only be temporary and contingent.
As Achcar points out it would be a grave error if the left started "treating
these temporary allies as if they were strategic allies, in renaming
'anti-imperialists' those whose vision of the world corresponds much more to the
clash of civilisations than to the class struggle".
It is the responsibility of the left to ideologically oppose and
organizationally limit the influence of conservative Islamic forces, while at
the same time being open to joint collaborative work where immediate interests