WeeklyWorker

22.05.2014
Easy to predict who will win

Egypt: ‘Road map to democracy’ sham

The coup may have been aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood, writes Yassamine Mather, but now the working class is under attack too

Two presidential elections - at the end of May in Egypt and in early June in Syria - aim at consolidating the authoritarian rule of those already in power. In Egypt the presidential poll will be followed by parliamentary elections as part of the so-called ‘road map to democracy’ - a process started by the army, which it hopes will legitimise its control after the coup of July 2013. In Syria, an increasingly confident Bashar al-Assad will confront two junior allies in an election where the results are already clear to everyone.

Both elections mark the defeat of the courageous struggles of the peoples of the region, who despite all the odds rose up against dictatorship, economic hardship and political interference by the west and the oil-rich Gulf states. I will return to Syria in another article, but this one will focus on Egypt.

Former general Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, the mastermind of last year’s coup, will have one challenger in the May 26-27 presidential election, Nasserite Hamdeen Sabbahi. One of the main opposition groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not only barred from standing, but in the last few weeks 1,019 members and supporters have been sentenced to death, while most of its leadership are in prison or in exile. Other potential candidates have declared the process a sham and are calling for a boycott.

Repression

Unlike most senior Egyptian military commanders, Al-Sissi is not a war veteran. However, he has spent time in the US, where he attended military schools. He also served as military attaché in Saudi Arabia and enjoyed good relations with the Saudis. This has helped his administration, which since the ousting of MB president Mohamed Mursi has relied on Saudi financial support, as well as $16 billion in loans from the Gulf states.

Sissi was a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which controlled Egypt from president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in January 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in presidential elections in June 2012. When Mursi came to power he appointed Sissi - a devout Muslim, who was considered to be an ally of the Brotherhood - commander-in-chief and minister of defence.

Eleven months later, following demonstrations against Mursi in major cities across Egypt, it was Sissi’s ultimatum of July 3 2013 that began the downfall of the Islamic party. Sissi warned that the army would intervene if the government did not respond to “the will of the people” and end the crisis within 48 hours. The same day, army helicopters flew over Tahrir Square showering anti-Mursi protestors with thousands of Egyptian flags. The crowds cheered and some responded with the slogan, “The people and the army are one hand”. Little did they know that this was the beginning of a return to military rule.

Immediately after the military coup, Sissi announced he had no intention of taking office. However, in March he declared he would be standing as a ‘civilian’ candidate. Just a day earlier, the interim government had rearranged the ‘roadmap to democracy’, bringing forward the date of the presidential poll so that it would be held before parliamentary elections. This was seen by most as an attempt to use a projected Sissi landslide victory to get better results in the more contested parliamentary elections.

Sissi has presided over months of repression. In the true tradition of Middle Eastern dictators he labels anyone who disagrees with him a terrorist. In April 2014, for example, the Egyptian interim government banned the April 6 movement - a move which puts in danger the lives of its members and supporters. A court accused the organisation that played a crucial part in the 2011 uprising of “defaming the country and colluding with foreign parties”. The movement had opposed Mursi, but had also spoken out against the repression imposed by the interim authorities.

Last week in a televised interview Sissi promised to “finish the Muslim Brotherhood”, claiming that all Egyptians reject reconciliation with it. But the MB has not gone away. True, it is now categorised as a terrorist organisation and is facing the worst repression in its 86-year history.However, this is an organisation used to a semi-clandestine existence. Its main problem is regaining the confidence of other opponents of military rule. MB in power was as repressive as Mubarak and never managed to deliver on its promises of social and economic equality. As a result it is unlikely to win back the kind of support that paved the way for the election of Mursi. In fact by the time of the coup Mursi’s support had shrunk considerably - down to the hard-core, loyalist Islamists.

His opponents are right to point out that one of the reasons Sissi is standing for elections is the need to protect the huge economic investments made by the military in every aspect of the Egyptian economy - from the energy sector to bottled water companies, from real estate and telecommunications to shopping compounds and holiday resorts. He is campaigning for the addition of a new clause to the constitution, which would stop “inappropriate” interference in the army budget.

However, Sissi remains popular as the man who has brought some stability after years of conflict.

Nasserite

His only opponent will be the Nasserite, Hamdeen Sabbahi. According to his supporters, Sabbahi has been a long-time advocate of Arab unity and an independent foreign policy. He has promised to revoke a controversial law passed in autumn of 2013 which puts severe restrictions on any protest in Egypt.

Sabbahi’s political activities started in the student movement and in 1973 he was elected president of the Cairo University student union. During the demonstrations against food price rises proposed by Anwar Sadat in 1977, Sabbahi, who was a journalist at the time, publicly confronted the Egyptian president. He was subsequently banned from reporting or appearing in the state media and he was forced to look for another career. Between the late 1970s and 2011 Sabbahi worked as a publisher, and during Mubarak’s presidency he was elected twice to the Egyptian parliament. He participated in the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak, and was a candidate in the presidential elections of 2012, coming third with 4.8 million votes. His allies say Mursi offered him the role of vice-president and he refused.

Opposition figures criticise Sabbahi’s participation in the 2014 election, accusing him of legitimising a sham process. However, Sabbahi is no revolutionary - since July 3 he has supported the country’s new military-backed government together with its transitional ‘road map’ and ban on all Muslim Brotherhood activities. He presents himself as the man most capable of protecting the new regime in Egypt.

The difference between the two contenders is more pronounced when it comes to international issues, where Sabbahi is critical of Egypt’s relations with the United States and Israel. He has spoken in support of the Palestinian resistance and the Palestinians’ “legitimate rights against occupation”. However, Sabbahi and Al-Sissi share an admiration of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for helping Egypt in its hour of need.

When the election campaign started, Sabbahi was supposed to be the token opposition candidate, Robert Fisk predicting an 80% victory for Sissi. While the gap might be narrowing, most Egyptians expect Sissi to win by a large margin. The man who calls himself “a new-era Nasserite” is unlikely to emerge victorious, but even if he did he would soon realise that in a world where the US remains the hegemon power, where survival of the Egyptian economy will depend on loans from the International Monetary Fund and the Gulf states, pursuing an independent foreign policy is an illusion. On Arab unity, on Palestine and on social justice he would be as ineffective as Mursi.

Economy

For the last few months Egypt’s economy has survived courtesy of loans and grants from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - in particular Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait who between them pledged $12 billion in economic assistance. Many Egyptians are concerned at the loss of autonomy and the political costs associated with it. The aid appears to be conditional on further repression of the Brotherhood - a rather bizarre demand, as the Brotherhood’s own finances were allegedly linked to Saudi and Gulf support.

There is no doubt that the Egyptian economy has been more stable than in the previous two years. The Egyptian pound remains weak, but it has not depreciated further. Although unemployment remains high, the official rate of inflation has not risen above 11%, which is considered manageable.

According to the Lebanon Daily Star, “From the standpoint of investors and financial markets, all of this has instilled confidence in Egypt. Stocks rallied by over 40% in the second half of 2013 and the country’s foreign reserves reached $17.4 billion by the end of last month. This approached an all-time high level of foreign reserves in the three years since the uprisings of 2011, nearing the $18.9 billion reached in August 2013” (May 12).

No doubt GCC support for Egypt will not last for ever - the price of oil is not rising and some of the Arab emirates are concerned about their own future. Saudi Arabia’s main worry has been to avoid the spreading of the Arab spring to the Gulf region. If the fiscal position of GCC countries is further reduced, aid to Egypt will be the first casualty.

But in the meantime, in exchange for funds from Saudi Arabia, Egypt is expected to fall in line with its regional policy. Cairo’s changing position on Syria gives a good indication of what is in store. Mursi and the MB supported the Syrian opposition, including the Jihadists. However, immediately after his overthrow, Egypt took a more neutral position regarding Syria, in line with Saudi and western concerns about sections of the Syrian opposition.

The interim government hopes that after the election Egypt will be in a good position to re-engage with other international creditors - including the IMF, which is not concerned about ‘human rights’ abuses, of course. The delay in approaching the IMF was mainly caused by the interim government’s fears that the austerity conditions it would impose would make its presidential hopeful unpopular.

Sissi has come up with some gems about the economy during the election campaign: “Has anyone considered giving a month’s salary to help the poor survive? Has anyone thought about going to the university on foot every day to save money for the country?” On the other hand, he has encouraged expectations of an imminent rise in living standards through his own exaggerated comments: “Egypt will be as important as the world.”In fact he is preparing the country for an austerity policy that would involve higher taxation (“giving a month’s salary”?) and less spending on public services.

If elected Sissi has plans to roll out a $143.3 million stimulus package over 18 months to subsidise a restructuring of the telecommunications, manufacturing and tourism industries. There seem to be no plans to cut subsidies to the industrial sector - officials are keen to encourage exile capital to return.

The question is, how long can the new president survive the inevitable explosion that will follow after expectations of better living standards fail to materialise and Egyptians face further economic hardship?

Workers’ struggles

The strikes of spring 2013 played an important role in weakening the Mursi government and in recent months workers’ actions seem to signal further confrontation with the newly elected president. Strikes and sit-ins have been held in the postal services, in public hospitals and in the textile industries. According to Ahmed Mahmoud, president of the Cairo branch of the Independent Union for Public Transport Workers, “Businessmen in this country have sucked the blood of the people - and the one who is responsible is Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.” Workers have been demanding better pay, more job security and, in the case of the public sector, implementation of the agreed national minimum wage.

More than 25% of Egyptians live below the official poverty line of $570 per year, according to government statistics. Average salaries are around $100 a month. Over the past three years of political turmoil, the price of basic goods has skyrocketed because of inflation, a sinking Egyptian currency and the depletion of the country’s foreign currency reserves.

In response to the protests the interim administration has arrested many labour activists, forcing others to go underground. Soon after the coup, police attacked workers who had occupied a private steel company in protest at low pay and dangerous conditions. And on March 3, major-general Mohamed Shams summoned 23 union activists to the regional military headquarters and threatened them with possible investigation by the country’s secret police regarding their alleged “collaboration with terrorism”. One activist said: “The arrests scare the workers, but they also make them more defiant.”

All over the country, workers are being told that unless they sign agreements accepting current pay and conditions they will be accused of “cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood”- and, of course, such an association could now mean arrest and imprisonment.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk