A challenge to Mubarak

June 7, 2010

This year has seen a dramatic increase in political dissent and workers' protests in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. In the first installment of this three-part series, Mostafa Ali looks at the political challenger who is shaking up national politics.

Part 1

FOR THE first time since he took power 30 years ago, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt--the largest Arab country and a key U.S. ally in the region--faces a serious political challenge to his dictatorial regime on two fronts.

On the one hand, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who once butted heads with George W. Bush over the invasion of Iraq, has launched a new movement for democracy to challenge the 82-year-old dictator. ElBaradei's campaign has electrified a country ravaged by poverty and political repression for so long.

More significantly, a new wave of workers' strikes and protests unseen in decades is shaking the regime and promising to reverse neoliberal policies that have reigned more or less unchallenged for 30 years. "The current wave of protests that is erupting forms the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century," wrote Joel Beinin, a leading labor historian of Egypt, in a report for the AFL-CIO-backed Solidarity Center in Washington.

Mohammed ElBaradei
Mohammed ElBaradei

The conjuncture of these political and economic struggles could usher in a new future for Egypt and the whole region--and could signal the start of the first serious challenge to U.S. imperialist domination of the region since the days of the Arab nationalist project of the 1960s.

AFTER 30 years of oppressive emergency laws and deteriorating living conditions for the majority of people, millions of Egyptians are excited by Mohamed ElBaradei's decision to challenge the regime.

ElBaradei has lived outside the country for 40 years, working first as a diplomat in the Egyptian Foreign service and then at the United Nations' IAEA. He returned to Egypt earlier this year to launch a movement that demands constitutional democratic reforms and an end to emergency laws. On March 12, 2,000 people defied warnings by security forces, turning up at Cairo's airport to welcome ElBaradei home.

Four opposition parties, spanning the right to the left of the political spectrum, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, have joined with ElBaradei to form the National Association for Change (NAC). NAC aims to achieve democratic changes in the constitution that would guarantee free elections under the supervision of an independent judiciary.

So far, ElBaradei has refused to join any political party--a requirement to become a candidate for president under Egypt's current constitution. He has also declared that he would not run for president and called on all parties to boycott parliamentary and presidential elections if the constitution is not first amended to allow independent candidates to compete.

Tens of thousands of his supporters have already signed petitions demanding that he be allowed to run as an independent, and thousands have joined Facebook groups urging him to declare his candidacy or signed up to follow his commentary on daily events through Twitter.

Large numbers of people across the country have pledged support to the NAC, including well-known judges, independent unionists, lawyers, actors, artists, singers and writers. NAC chapters are springing up in many cities. And ElBaradei has also started to hold mass public meetings to address supporters.

What is ElBaradei's background? He was born to a middle-class family in Cairo in 1942. His father was a renowned lawyer and liberal advocate who often clashed with the late Presidents Gamel Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat over their rule.

ElBaradei left Egypt shortly after graduating college to earn law degrees in Switzerland and then at New York University in the U.S. He worked as an Egyptian diplomat from 1964 until 1984, when he joined the IAEA. He became head of the IAEA in 1997 and continued in this position until 2009.

During his tenure at the IAEA, ElBaradei maintained a generally friendly attitude toward the international interests of the various nuclear superpowers, including the U.S. He helped the U.S. prevent many countries it deemed to be "rogue" states such as Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities for military or even civilian purposes.

However, in 2002 and 2003, ElBaradei took a different, critical tone towards the U.S. allegations that Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed "weapons of mass destruction." At United Nations hearings, he attempted to expose the false nature of the "evidence" that the U.S. and its allies presented as proof of Iraq's nuclear and chemical capabilities.

For his non-supportive role in Bush's drive to war against Iraq, ElBaradei earned the wrath of the U.S. administration, but gained the admiration of the tens of millions of people around the world, including in his home country of Egypt.

In 2005, most of all for his part in opposing the war on Iraq, he and the IAEA were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. This also enhanced his personal status internationally, and in Egypt, where Mubarak is widely seen as a puppet of the U.S. government.

In 2009, ElBaradei declined to run for a fourth term at IAEA. He announced that he would return to Egypt to become "a catalyst for democratic and constitutional change."

THE EXCITEMENT that many Egyptians feel about ElBaradei's return home and his challenge to the Mubarak regime is the result of many years of disappointments and suffering.

Egyptian society has been boiling with anger for more than 10 years. Two years ago, the country witnessed one of the world's most severe cases of the international food crisis, where poor people had to battle one another as well as the government to secure a few loaves of bread.

Thirty years of neoliberal policies have left more than 40 percent of Egypt's 80 million citizens living under the poverty line. Most workers survive on $60 a month--in a country where most independent economists estimate that a minimum of $220 is needed for bare existence.

Unemployment is on the rise--it is estimated at 20-25 percent among young workers. Job opportunities in the Arab Gulf countries--once a source of income and remittances to families--have all but dried up in recent years.

The liberal daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm regularly covers heart-wrenching stories: of poor people who can't afford to buy food; of government workers who earn $30 a month, but whose rent alone is $20; of widows with two and three children who receive $15 a month pensions, but a kilogram of meat costs $12; of factory and business owners shutting plants and fleeing the country, leaving thousands of workers in limbo.

This poverty is not due to a lack of natural resources or economic infrastructure. Egypt has a number of sources of income, including natural gas reserves, mining, agriculture, industry and a booming tourism trade.

Poverty in Egypt is 100 percent socially manufactured. The elites have pillaged workers and the poor through paying low wages, and strictly limiting pensions and other social benefits.

Meanwhile, the rich continuously and unabashedly display their exorbitant wealth and lavish Western lifestyles. They, for example, send their children to the elite American University in Cairo, where tuition costs $12,000 a year--if not to colleges in the West proper. Wedding parties thrown by the upper middle class--not even the super-rich--cost tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands.

Increasingly, Egypt's rulers live in secluded and gated communities, protected from the wrath of the masses by Mubarak's emergency laws and repression.

The regime protects the rich by jailing, torturing and intimidating opposition activists and unionists of every stripe, including members of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, Arab nationalists and revolutionary socialists. Security forces regularly brutalize peaceful protesters, and they are known for singling out women demonstrators for sexual assaults. Even opposition members of parliament who dare to speak out have been attacked.

International TV cameras captured one of these police rampages in May when the so-called Police Karate Team beat 200 peaceful protesters who attempted a march to demand democracy in downtown Cairo.

Nevertheless, Mubarak has been forced to open up some political space for the opposition in recent years, starting in 2005 when he allowed the first multi-candidate elections. then, Mubarak still used the vote to weaken his opponents. His ruling National Democratic Party and government security forces managed to rig the election to give Mubarak 87 percent of the final result. Then they punished the man who dared to run against him, Ayman Nour, who was sent to jail for four years on trumped-up charges of...election fraud!

This time, however, the bitterness is that much greater. For one thing, Mubarak angered people by openly grooming his own son, Gamal, a millionaire venture capitalist-turned-politician, to succeed him as president. Combined with the acute economic crisis and political repression, this has left a majority of the population thirsty for any semblance of social and economic justice and political freedoms.

ELBARADEI seems to grasp these political and economic realities.

In television interviews given after his return to Egypt, he advocated a system of social democracy similar to Scandinavian political systems as the best way to develop the country and achieve social justice. He repeatedly asserts that he does not see himself as a savior and looks to grassroots participation by ordinary people as the key to bringing about reform.

At a public mass meeting where he spoke, in the working class provincial city of Mansoura in the Central Delta region, ElBaradei told 2,000 supporters: "If 80 million Egyptians decide to demand change, then no power on earth can stop them. If the people are the rulers, then we will fix education, we will drink clean water, and we will have quality health care!"

ElBaradei has been reaching out to poor peasants and workers. He meets with independent unionists to listen to their grievances. He publicly backs the right to strike. He supports a new campaign by workers to force the government to establish a living minimum wage of $220 a month. On May Day, he called on Egyptian workers to join the NAC.

ElBaradei has also courageously taken on controversial social issues. For example, he champions the cause of Coptic Christians, who make up 15 percent of the population and suffer widespread and systematic discrimination in jobs and education. Mubarak portrays his dictatorship and emergency laws as a last line of defense against Islamic fundamentalists, who often stir up hatred and violence against Copts, especially in the South of the country. Yet the government itself maintains a system of institutional discrimination against Copts.

ElBaradei has vowed to fight for full citizenship equality for Copts and regularly raises the old slogan of Egypt's popular anti-British revolution of 1919: Religion for God and Country for All. He insists that the first article of the constitution, which states that Islamic Sharia law is the basis of all legislation, must be removed to ensure equality between Muslims and Christians.

While ElBaradei criticizes the regime over a number of issues, many of his most ardent supporters exaggerate the actual differences between his positions and Mubarak's on a number of key political and economic questions. They portray him as a radical when he actually denies being one himself.

On the question of Palestine, for instance--a hot political topic in Egypt since Mubarak supplies Israel with cheap natural gas and has, until recently, helped enforce the blockade of Gaza--ElBaradei's position is not very different from that of the regime. He, like Mubarak, supports a peace deal with Israel. He is critical of what he considers Israeli excesses and arrogance. "This is not really sustainable that you have Israel sitting with nuclear weapons capability there while everyone else is part of the non-proliferation regime," Al Baradei told the Sydney Morning Herald.

But this is little different from Mubarak's stated positions. The similarities between ElBaradei and the regime on Palestine put him at odds with the vast majority of his supporters, who oppose normalization with Israel.

On broader questions of U.S. domination over Egypt and the Middle East or neoliberal economic policies backed by the U.S., ElBaradei supports a special relationship with Washington and is on friendly terms with many U.S. politicians.

In essence, ElBaradei is attempting to put together a moderate, populist and reformist coalition that could tap into mass anger and channel it safely toward a more democratic system, while avoiding any violent confrontation with the regime.

For example, while he formally supports the right to assemble and protest, ElBaradei has not yet personally joined any street protests yet. And the NAC, the organization which he heads, doesn't call for an immediate lifting of all emergency laws. Instead, its program advocates a two- or three-year transitional period to convene a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution.

Nevertheless, despite these quite moderate positions, the fact is that ElBaradei's decision to return to Egypt has stirred up the country's political debate--and given confidence to democracy activists and a rejuvenated working class movement to push for their own demands in a more militant way.

Further Reading

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