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Egypt - on the road to democracy?

Andy Newman

Although recent events in Lebanon have captured the imagination of the world's press, events of perhaps greater significance are unfolding in Egypt, where President
Mohamed 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.' "

Repression still 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 protest.

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 referendum.

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 presidential office.

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 establishment."

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 with Al-Ahram 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.

Workers' organisation 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 coincide.


March 2005

Also see:
Popular social movements and the future of Egyptian politics
From Al-Ahram:
Survival at stake
Industrial action rising

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