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Egypt: The hard road to political democracy

At the time of going to press (February 28, 2011), the “revolution of anger” in Egypt seems to be entering a new phase. Tahrir Square has been reopened to traffic and commerce. Massive political demonstrations are over, at least for the time being, but strikes and protests by various groups of workers continue.

The employees of the National Bank of Egypt have forced the resignation of its chairman, a Mubarak ally. Ambulance drivers, public transport workers, and even the police are demonstrating for better wages and conditions.
 
Many Egyptians are dissatisfied with what has been achieved so far, and with good reason. Mubarak has gone. But what sort of democrat is the man who took over from him on 31 January – Omar Suleiman, assassin and torturer-in-chief of the dreaded Mukhabarat (General Intelligence Service)? The demand to suspend the emergency law that permits detention without charge has not been met, nor have political prisoners been released. The ruling military council has set no firm timetable for elections and transition to civilian rule. They have made plenty of promises, but who is naïve enough to trust them?
 
To understand what is happening in Egypt, we must first understand the nature of the ruling regime.
 
A military oligarchy
 
The regime is not a personal dictatorship. It can survive the removal of Mubarak or any other specific figure. It is a military oligarchy. The main power centre is the supreme command of the armed forces (the eleventh largest in the world). In addition, there is a ruling party – under Nasser the Arab Socialist Union, renamed by Sadat the National Democratic Party – but its role is secondary.
 
The military regime has its origins in the Free Officers’ Movement, which overthrew the British colonial puppet king Farouk in 1952. Its domestic and foreign policy has changed over time, under the successive leadership of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, but the regime itself has remained the same. It has never been in the least bit democratic.
 
Why then does the Trotskyist International Socialist Review tell us that Egypt “has been ruled by a dictatorship for 30 years, with arrests and torture a constant occurrence”? Only 30 years? Didn’t Nasser too jail thousands of political opponents? Ah, but those were “progressive” and “anti-imperialist” jails – and that makes all the difference, doesn’t it?
 
Before regaining independence, Egypt was ruled by a succession of empires. Before that it endured the despotism of the pharaohs. Mubarak too was popularly known as “the Pharaoh”. Egypt has been a dictatorship for 11,000 years.
 
From Nasser to Sadat and Mubarak
 
This is not to deny important differences between the Nasser and post-Nasser periods.
 
Nasser conducted a protectionist policy on behalf of national capital. A state-owned iron and steel industry was created. The Aswan Dam was built. In 1956 the Suez Canal was nationalised, leading to armed invasion by Britain, France and Israel. Social reforms were undertaken. Land was redistributed and rents paid by tenant farmers controlled. A minimum wage was established. There were also reforms in the areas of housing, health, education, women’s rights and family planning. In foreign policy Egypt was formally non-aligned; in reality it became a client state of the Soviet Union.
 
Nasser’s successor Sadat expelled Soviet advisers, realigned Egypt with the West (and eventually with Israel), and replaced protectionism by an “open-door” policy. Currency controls were loosened and foreign companies invited to invest in tax-free “enterprise zones”. Mubarak went further in the same direction. Cheap food imports were allowed to flood the country, ruining Egyptian farmers. The gap between rich and poor widened. The country fell deeply in debt to the international financial institutions and became financially dependent on US aid.
 
Much of state industry was privatised. As was later to occur in post-Soviet Russia, valuable state assets were acquired on the cheap by a handful of businessmen with inside connections. That is how Ahmed Ezz, a close friend of Mubarak’s son Gamal, emerged overnight as a wealthy steel tycoon.
 
Another lucrative scam was the legal requirement that a foreign investor must give (not sell) a local partner a 20 percent stake in his venture. The “local partner” always happened to be a general or high official.
 
Mubarak and his family were themselves the greatest beneficiaries of this “crony capitalism”. The family fortune has been rumoured to be as much as $70 billion (£43.5 billion). Both of Mubarak’s sons are billionaires in their own right. Most of this money is held in British and Swiss banks or invested in American real estate.
 
It should be noted that under Mubarak the regime did not serve the interests of the whole capitalist class. Some businessmen did very well, while others lost out. For example, Ezz used his political clout to force other businessmen to buy his steel rather than importing cheaper steel from China. Similarly, it was difficult for businessmen lacking inside connections to obtain bank loans. This helps explain why some businessmen back the opposition.
 
The clan and the regime
 
While most Egyptians want an end to the military regime, the immediate target of the “revolution of anger” was the “Mubarak clan” – Mubarak, his family and their closest allies and associates. The demonstrators wisely took care not to offend the military as an institution. According to some analysts, the Mubarak clan had powerful enemies inside the regime (resentful, perhaps, that they were not getting their fair share of the loot) who used the protests to mount a “half-coup” – meaning a coup against the clan but not the regime. Perhaps this is to overstate tensions inside the regime. It is clear, however, that there were people in the ruling group who did not belong to the Mubarak clan and who were prepared to sacrifice it in order to save the regime. (Apparently they were encouraged to take this step by the Obama administration.)
 
This was one reason why no attempt was made to use the army to suppress the protests. Another likely reason was that the generals judged that the soldiers and junior officers could not be relied upon to obey orders to shoot into the crowds. The security police – the “thugs” who mysteriously appeared “out of nowhere” riding horses and camels – could be used, because they were more isolated from ordinary people and more effectively under clan control, but there were too few of them to scare off the enormous masses of demonstrators.
 
Youth movements and trade unions
 
The key role in organising the demonstrations seems to have been played initially by the April 6 Youth Movement. This organisation began as a Facebook group set up to call on all workers to stay at home on 6 April 2008 in solidarity with striking textile workers. (There has now emerged a new umbrella organisation called the Youth Coalition for the Revolution of Anger.)
 
So the demonstration organisers appear to have been closely connected with the workers’ movement and, in particular, with the campaign to create independent trade unions to replace the old state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation. The textile workers tried to establish an independent union in 2006–2008, but large-scale arrests of activists made this impossible at that time. One of the major gains of the “revolution” was achieved on 30 January, when an independent trade union movement finally emerged in the form of the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions.
An important point that media coverage fails to convey is that the mass political demonstrations are only part of the upheaval. There are also numerous strikes and protests over “bread and butter” issues. That is not surprising when you consider the rising prices of staple foods and the fact that 40 percent of Egyptians have to survive on under $2 (£1.30) a day. While political demands are uppermost in Cairo, it seems that material demands are much more prominent in other cities. In Port Said, for instance, crowds angry over the shortage of housing set fire to the local state security headquarters, the governor’s office and the main post office.
 
The opposition parties
 
The regime selectively and intermittently allowed opposition parties to exist but restricted their activity. As a result, these parties are all very small – except for the Moslem Brothers, who despite being illegal were able (like Islamists in other countries) to take shelter in the mosques. Observers estimate that only 5 percent of Egyptians support any of the parties.
 
Almost all of the opposition parties belong to one of three categories.
 
First, there are several liberal capitalist parties that advocate civil rights and “free enterprise.” An example is the New Wafd Party. These parties are backed by a number of prominent businessmen.
 
Second, there are various Islamist parties. The Moslem Brotherhood is the largest of these, but not the only one.
 
Third, there are parties that regard themselves as leftist or socialist. What this usually means in the Egyptian context is loyalty to the legacy of Nasser, so it is more accurate to call these Nasserite parties. Thus, the National Progressive Unionist Party (known for short as Tagammu) “defends the principles of the 1952 revolution”.
 
Some parties combine Nasserite with Islamist ideas. For example, the Umma Party stands for “socialist democracy with Sharia (Islamic law) as the main source of legislation” (!). Finally, there is also an environmentalist Green Party.
 
It is hard to see what can come out of the negotiations that Suleiman is conducting on behalf of the regime with leaders of various opposition parties. None of the parties played any part in organising the “revolution” and few demonstrators regarded the parties as representing them. In fact, due to popular suspicion the negotiations may further weaken the parties’ base of support. A report from Suez mentions mass resignations from the parties participating in the negotiations, including Wafd and Tagammu, and connects this development with the creation of a Council to Protect the Revolution in Al-Arish (near the border with Gaza).
 
Who would win free elections?
 
The weakness of the parties makes it very difficult to predict who would win free elections if they were held today. As the theme of social justice has been prominent in the upheaval, the popular appeal of the liberal opposition may be limited. Social protest can work to the advantage of either Islamists or the left. Given the secular nature of the protests (not only were Islamic slogans conspicuous by their absence: there were also slogans in support of Moslem-Christian unity), the left may do quite well. The Moslem Brothers obviously have considerable support, but they themselves apparently do not think they are strong enough to gain power at this stage.
 
The existing left-wing opposition parties, however, are handicapped by their Nasserite orientation. To the extent that the demonstrators are against the military regime and committed to democracy, they might hesitate to vote for parties that hark back to an earlier form of the same anti-democratic regime. And, of course, only the older generation has direct memories of the Nasser period. So conditions may be favourable for the emergence of a new democratic left, possibly linked to the independent trade unions. There may even be potential for the spread of genuine socialist ideas.
 
Dragging out the transition
 
The uncertain outcome of elections is one reason why the generals aim to delay the transition to democracy as long as they can. They may also seek to retain a power of veto and other prerogatives even after a civilian government takes office, as well as an ability to reassert control whenever they consider it necessary – as in the “Turkish model”.
 
The wish to delay democratisation is clearly shared by the American and European governments on whom the Egyptian generals depend. These governments are great champions of elections, but only provided that the outcome is predictable and acceptable to them. They need time to prepare the ground for such an acceptable outcome – in particular, to select parties and politicians who can be trusted to respect Western interests and then give them financial, PR and other aid to help them win. Candidates for this role – El-Baradei, for instance – are well aware that pleasing Egypt’s Western patrons is at least as vital to their prospects as pleasing their fellow citizens.
 
How much time is needed? Statements from the ruling military council hint that six months may not be enough. German chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn a parallel between the transition in Egypt and the process of German reunification, suggesting that a whole year may be needed. And just in case the results of political engineering are disappointing, the generals and their patrons probably want to keep open the option of dragging out the transition indefinitely, perhaps co-opting a few handpicked opposition figures into what remains basically a military regime.
 
In the meantime, it is the job of the regime to restore and maintain “order” and “normality”. Ordinary people must stop making trouble and get back to work! To achieve that, the regime can be expected to combine – or perhaps alternate between – sweet talk and arrests, appeasement and repression. Neither approach will easily succeed.
 
As socialists, we do not regard political democracy in itself as sufficient to emancipate humanity. But we do recognise that it provides by far the best conditions for the development of the socialist movement. That is why we wish those well struggling for political democracy in Egypt – and, indeed, throughout the world.
 
 
Update, May 2012

In February 2011, when I wrote this article, it was still unclear whether the popular movement, having overthrown the Mubarak clan, would be able to remove the military regime itself and complete the transition to political democracy and civilian government.

It is now clear that behind a parliamentary façade the military regime has succeeded in consolidating its position. A major factor was the deal that the generals reached with the Moslem Brotherhood, which mobilized its supporters, especially in the countryside, to block further change. Impressive as the popular movement appeared, it was always confined to the cities.

Parliamentary elections were held in Egypt from November 2011 to January 2012. The various Islamist forces did very well, winning a clear majority of votes (65%) and seats (70%). The liberal groupings – i.e., the parties united in the Egyptian Bloc plus the Reform and Development Party – obtained 11% of votes and 8.5% of seats, while the “socialist” groups brought together in the Revolution Continues Alliance gathered merely 3% of votes and 1.5% of seats.

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