Beginning of the end?

June 9, 2010

This year has seen a dramatic increase in political dissent and workers' protests in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. In the final installment of a three-part series, Mostafa Ali analyzes the possibilities for real change coming from today's struggles.

Part 3

IN HIS much-anticipated speech to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation "celebrating" May Day, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak failed to address workers' mounting grievances. Instead, the nervous 82-year-old dictator threatened "lawless" strikers and opposition figures.

He promised to hold "fair" and "free" parliamentary elections later this year, while leaving the door open to running for a seventh term in next year's presidential campaign. But many analysts concluded from Mubarak's angry tone that the regime was trying to intimidate opposition forces.

Still, the picture is mixed. Because of the sharp rise in political and class struggle in recent months, Mubarak has also been forced to make some significant concessions.

For example, in late April, the government caved in to the Information Centers workers' demands and allotted $20 million in retroactive salary increases, bonuses and social and medical security benefits in the new budget.

The government has also promised to raise pensions for the poorest retirees and to study proposals for a living wage.

Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak

As for the notoriously repressive emergency laws, Mubarak is now offering concessions to the opposition. While the government plans to extend these laws for two more years, it has also promised to only use them against terrorism suspects and drug traffickers, and to lift them completely at the end of that time. As the liberal Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper pointed out, this is a small but significant retreat on Mubarak's part.

The current emergency law allows the government to ban strikes, demonstrations and public meetings, censor or close down newspapers and other media, and monitor private correspondences and telephone calls. It also grants authorities the right to arrest and detain suspects without charge. The proposed new law will lift some of the sweeping powers granted to the government under Article 3 of the older version: telephone surveillance, media censorship, shutting down publishing houses and broadcasters.

THE COMBINATION of rising strike levels, increased workers' militancy and popular enthusiasm generated by Mohamed ElBaradei's campaign for democracy has begun to change the political equation in Egypt. This is also altering a class balance that has been intact more or less for at least 35 years--since the defeat of the last round of workers' struggles in the mid 1970s.

While there are many defensive battles left to fight, in a number of cases, workers are beginning to fight offensive ones.

For example, a number of militant unionists and left-wing opposition figures have launched a campaign to demand a $220 monthly living wage--a figure agreed upon by most economists. The living wage demand has met with wide public support.

Most political opposition figures, including ElBaradei, have publicly endorsed the campaign. And on May 2, living wage campaigners held a protest at the parliament to voice their demand, where they were cheered on by striking campers from People's Assembly Street. And of course, there are the struggles being waged by workers that are calling for closed factories and businesses to be reopened under direct workers' management.

The regime's obvious political weaknesses and vulnerabilities have also given confidence to a number of oppressed minorities to articulate and press their grievances.

Egypt's 8 million Christian Copts have become outspoken in demanding full citizenship rights and an end to discrimination in jobs and education. Christians have organized and joined many demonstrations at the Supreme Court for full equality and against increased religious violence aimed at them.

Additionally, Nubians, an oppressed and uprooted minority of African descent, are now organizing and demanding reparations for government-forced relocations of their villages in the early 1960s to make room for building the Aswan High Dam in to generate electricity. In the spring, many Nubians joined campers and strikers on the People's Assembly Street, both to show their solidarity and to protest the fact that there is not one Nubian elected to parliament due to discriminatory electoral laws.

A number of international factors are also adding to the state of instability in the country and helping to fuel additional fronts for struggle against the regime.

The most important factor in this regard is Israel's continued attacks on the Palestinian people. Egyptian society in general has swung in support of the Palestinians in the last 10 years since the beginning of the second Intifada. The years 2000, 2002, 2006 and 2009 witnessed mass demonstrations to support Palestinians.

In recent months, thousands of college students and workers have protested Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to expand settlements in East Jerusalem and also denounced Egypt's complicity in the three-year-old siege of Gaza. Muslim Brotherhood students have called on the government to open the border for jihadists to go fight in Gaza.

Plus, millions continue to feel bitterness and humiliation over the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its continued occupation there and in Afghanistan.

Mubarak, who is an ally of both Israel and the U.S., is increasingly viewed by many as, at best, a helpless buffoon in the face of the forces of empire, and, at worst, a conniving and willing collaborator.

Also, the combination of international economic recession and growing labor unrest at home means that current and future foreign investors could turn away to minimize their risks and losses. This economic uncertainty is certainly one of the factors behind the growing number of investors who have fled the country. It will only lead to more unemployment, rising inflation and further radicalization among the poor.

AS EGYPTIAN society experiences rapid and deep radicalization, the opportunities for the left--and, specifically, for the socialist left--are also unprecedented.

The largest opposition group to the regime remains the 500,000-strong Muslim Brotherhood. It is seen by many as having the numbers and widespread support to mount an effective challenge to Mubarak. For that reason, it also continues to bear the brunt of political repression mass arrests of its leadership.

However, the rise of workers' struggles and a generalized movement for democracy have forced the Brotherhood to tone down its calls for an Islamic state in favor of more popular demands--at least for the time being. For example, the Brotherhood has come out against violence against Christians and for more religious equality. It has also been forced to support strikes, which is an issue it waffled on for many decades.

Finally, out of fear of isolating itself politically, the Brotherhood joined ElBaradei's secular oriented National Association for Change. While abstaining for the time being from endorsing ElBaradei's much-anticipated run for president, the Brotherhood has said it is willing to enter electoral alliances--for the first time--with non-Islamist forces in upcoming parliamentary elections.

In this situation, whether it is the cracks in the regime's supremacy or the Brotherhood's formal support for democratic reforms and workers' strikes, the left has an opportunity to grow both numerically and in terms of its influence. Indeed, a number of revolutionary socialist groups, including reviving remnants of former Stalinist organizations that were demoralized by the collapse of the former USSR, are finding growing audiences.

Unfortunately, a number of these tendencies will enter this period still trying to recover from a serious political mistake that harmed their image and stance among supporters--that is, a period of tailing the Muslim Brotherhood and indirectly providing it with a radical veneer from 2000 to 2009.

Luckily, the process of radicalization in society is still in its early stages, and there is plenty of time to correct past mistakes--if they are understood and treated as such. The opportunities to sink roots in the struggles that are underway and those to come are tremendous, and the space for joined united action with others around partial and bigger demands is just opening up.

There are two important dangers for the left to avoid. One is tailing forces to its right. Here, theoretical clarity and political independence from both liberals and Islamic fundamentalist organizations is of utmost importance for Egyptian socialists.

The second danger would be to take an ultra-left and abstentionist position toward ElBaradei's likely presidential campaign. While Egyptian socialists are correct to criticize ElBaradei's campaign as a liberal capitalist attempt to salvage a bankrupt system, it is not yet a forgone conclusion that ElBaradei would not be forced under mass pressure to take, at least formally, radical positions--for example, on the question of Israel and imperialism. This could bolster the confidence of ordinary people in struggle.

Something else remains true of the socialist left. The Muslim Brotherhood was not the only victim of repression under Mubarak. Socialists have bravely endured decades of attacks, and yet managed to keep some red flag flying. For that, they have earned tremendous respect among workers and students, which puts them on solid footing in their project of building a socialist alternative.

Further Reading

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