Islamists courted by imperialists
The Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself to be the biggest political force. Meanwhile the left is under attack. Yassamine Mather gives her impressions following a recent visit to Egypt
After months of elections, incorporating three rounds of voting, Egypt has elected a new lower house of parliament dominated by Akhavan Al Moslemin, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafites.
The Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm summarised the results as ‘‘Islamist-Islamist”. After a year of upheavals, Mubarak’s departure has not led to the kind of regime change the progressive demonstrators in Tahrir Square had envisaged. The political and economic elite remain very much in control and the last two months of 2011 will be remembered as the time when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) brutally attempted to crush the revolutionary forces. In this they had the full support of their new allies in the Islamic parties. Despite the post-Mubarak parliamentary line-up the US and its allies (with the exception of Israel) do not seem to be too concerned.
Interviewed by Akhbar al-Youm, the British ambassador in Cairo confirmed that the UK was not worried by the Muslim Brotherhood, while William Burns, deputy to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, met with the MB’s head. Throughout 2011 the party has tried to project a moderate image and has worked closely with SCAF and then the military council’s government led by Kamal al-Ganzouri. And, of course, the US has a history of cosying up to Muslim Brotherhood.
MB’s election campaign was probably boosted by Saudi/Gulf money and the party used its existing organisations through mosques and long-established grassroots networks. It and other Islamist parties were able to exploit the political vacuum that emerged after the February 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising. They have now secured 232 seats, or 46%, in the lower house, while Al Noor, another Islamist party, came second with 23% of the vote. The Freedom and Justice Party is trying to portray itself as a moderate force, although the ultra-conservative Al Noor Islamic block aims to implement strict Sharia law.
As we approach the January 25 anniversary of the uprising, then, all the heroism and sacrifices of the Egyptian people in their struggle against president Hosni Mubarak have resulted in the victory of reactionary Islamic forces - and the US is ready to work with them, provided they cooperate with the army. The Turkey scenario - a military state fronted by Islamist ‘moderates’ - seems to be what they have in mind. However, it is far too early to write off the protestors of Tahrir Square and the Egyptian working class. The protests and demonstrations of November and December 2011 clearly challenged what has been called the “fateful triangle”2 - the unholy alliance of Islamists, SCAF and Mubarak’s National Democratic Front.
Even before the MPs take their seats, many Egyptians are expressing concern about the future of democracy. This weekend the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, withdrew from the presidential elections, saying, “The military rulers who took over from Mubarak have governed as if no revolution took place and no regime has fallen.” The slogan, ‘The revolution is dead, long living the revolution’, seems appropriate.
After years of Mubarak’s party winning 99% of the vote, the recent elections were a novelty and Egyptians were clearly enthusiastic, participating in large numbers in the electoral process. However, no-one but the Islamists had the organisation necessary for serious campaigning. On my recent visit to Cairo election posters still covered walls, lampposts and shop windows, and were still displayed in cars, buses, taxis …
The official policy of the electoral commission was that religious propaganda was not allowed. But two of the main parties and many smaller ones carried a clear religious message in their names, while the Muslim Brotherhood stood on a clear enough slogan: “Islam is the solution”. MB was taking nothing for granted and did everything in its power to make sure of victory. It organised a cycle race in Alexandria to show its ‘concern for youth sport’. It also distributed meat (a rare commodity in Egypt) in the poorer districts of Cairo. A leftwing activist told me that when she was canvassing in the same area the crowd asked: “Why don’t you give us meat?” She told them that they were fighting the elections “to make sure you get your own meat”, but, of course, this message was not as powerful as the Muslim Brotherhood’s.
The security forces have, it seems, been doing their best to support the Islamists. A young activist who set up an anti-Islamist Facebook page was arrested and given a three-year prison sentence. Many of the bloggers who have recently been arrested are accused of “insulting religious beliefs”.
A number of parties were described by their supporters as liberal, although terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ are open to many interpretations. One contemporary Egyptian joke sums up the feeling. A voter asks his friends, “What does liberalism mean?” His friend replies: “It means your mother removing her veil and wearing a bikini.” Another joke summarises liberalism as a situation allowing the marriage of two men. Two ‘liberal’ groupings, the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc, came third and fourth.
The Islamic vote is not purely reactionary. It expresses a resentment of Mubarak’s subservience to the US and the Sadat/Mubarak peace deals with Israel. The army is clearly ready to continue rapprochement with Israel, so how the Muslim Brotherhood reconciles its alliance with the army with its supporters’ opposition to any peace deals with Israel remains a crucial question. One demonstrator I saw in Tahrir Square carried a placard addressed to the army: “For 30 years you did nothing about Israel. Now you open fire on unarmed Egyptians in this square - shame on you.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is already softening its approach to Israel. Islamist MPs have been quoted as saying that the new government cannot renege on existing deals. It will be interesting to see how the Islamist parties react once SCAF and the US push the MB to make concessions on the peace treaty with the Zionist state.
The day after the one million-strong demonstration on December 23, a protestor in Tahrir Square told me that in the coming months the people of Egypt face two demons: the army and the Islamic fundamentalists (he meant the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Salafites). “They will both fight the protestors and once they succeed they will fight each other.” The first part of this statement is certainly true. The army and Islamic fundamentalists are united in wanting to defeat the protests. However, the second part is doubtful. As I have noted, at the moment all the signs point to an alliance between the military and the Brotherhood.
Some people I met in Tahrir Square have their own conspiracy theories about why people are targeted by the army. A man describing himself as a moderate Islamist tried to convince me that the five victims of shootings and beatings in the square were selected by SCAF to frighten the different constituencies of the protest movement. The December victims included a prominent moderate cleric, who was fired on while he trying to mediate between protestors, a young engineering student shot from a high-rise building overlooking the square and the “girl with the blue bra” - a volunteer doctor at the Tahrir Square field hospital, who was beaten up by soldiers and disrobed as she was being dragged to the ground. Some Egyptians clearly believe each death was supposed to signal a warning to a particular section of the protest movement: moderate clerics, young students, professional women ... Given SCAF’s many blunders in recent months, the reality might be more straightforward: the military junta is trying to impose enough fear through terror to prevent large protests. It is certainly true that SCAF is not alone in trying to defeat the continuing uprising, even before the declaration of election results the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafites were discouraging demonstrations and strikes ...
Not far from Tahrir Square on Christmas Eve, a group of well-to-do Egyptian ladies were entering the Intercontinental Hotel for a Christmas ball. With their blond hair and décolleté evening gowns they had little in common with the women you see in the protests or those on the streets of Cairo in general. Appearances can be deceptive, but it did not look as if for them much has changed in Egypt since Mubarak’s departure. Parallels with Iran in February 1979 are everywhere. However, there are also stark differences. Egypt’s mainly Sunni Islamists are different from their Shia counterparts in Iran and, of course, 33 years is a long time even for religious groups that aspire to return to the ‘safety’ of the caliphate era of the 6th century.
The anti-army protests of late December were boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Noor. A leading female figure in the Freedom and Justice Party went so far as to accuse the one million-strong women’s march against military brutality of being funded from abroad.3 However, the moderate Al-Wasat party joined the protestors in Tahrir Square. In Iran in 1979 Hezbollah did not just boycott women’s protests: they actively attacked them with chains.
There are similarities, however. For example, in the way crowds gather in groups of 10 or 20 to argue politics - street democracy in Cairo is as lively as it was outside Tehran university in early 1979. It may be better humoured and less aggressive, but it is as interesting as it was back then. The crowds are united in their opposition to the army. As far as the topics of debate are concerned, they are different from what was argued outside Tehran University, where Marxist issues dominated. In and around Tahrir Square crowds seem to be obsessed by questions of nationalism vs religion and one slogan summarises the nationalist/religious discourse: Is “religion above society”?
Nationalist slogans about Misr (the Arab name for Egypt) dominate placards. Islam here has a very Egyptian character and unlike in Iran, where 33 years of Islamic rule has eroded any religious belief amongst the majority of the country’s young population, in Egypt 30 years of Mubarak - especially the last few on the side of the US and its ‘war on terror’ - have produced a situation where the overwhelming majority of the population, even amongst the educated, urbanised youth, consider themselves believers. Many of the women protestors, even those supporting the April 6 Youth Movement, wear headscarves. In fact unlike Iran (both before and after the revolution) it is not possible to detect a woman’s politics or class from the state of her hijab.
The most militant protestors are those staging sit-ins in tents in and around Tahrir Square. The 200 or so who stayed after the November 28 anti-military demonstration bore the brunt of the military’s anger the next day, when army and security forces attacked them. Yet there are still dozens of tents in and around Tahrir Square. As I tried to take a picture of one such tent, making sure that no-one’s face was in the frame, an Islamic man shouted at me to stop - only to be confronted by crowds telling him to shut up. Amongst those who defended me, to my surprise, was a fully veiled, middle-aged woman wearing a niqab, who was among the crowd telling the Islamist to leave me alone.
Mohammed Reza Shalgouni has rightly pointed out in a series of articles the process of intensification of economic and social crises, the increase in the cost of living and particularly of food products to explain the major factors behind the Arab awakening and its timing. Of course, this issue is a result of the food crisis on a global level. Discussing the situation across the whole of the Arab world, he writes:
“The price of all food products, including rice, wheat and corn, increased sharply in international markets from 2006 to 2008. In particular, the price of rice rose threefold in a five-year period, meaning it went from around $600 per ton in 2003 to more than $1,800 per ton in May 2008. In 2009, the prices for major grains decreased to a degree, but it never went back to its previous years’ level, and in the second half of 2010, based on the general index of food products issued by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the price of major grains/cereals increased by 23%, and this organisation’s combined index for December 2010 surpassed that of the June 2008 record, and reached the highest level in its history (which started in 1990).” 
The Nile valley has fed the Egyptian people for 6,000 years. However, today Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat, relying on other countries for nearly half of what it needs. Why? The answer should be sought in the neoliberal policies of the country’s rulers over the last four decades. As Alex Callinicos has pointed out, “Egypt can claim to have pioneered neoliberalism in the global south.” This started in 1974 with infitah, the ‘open-door’ economic policy of Anwar Sadat. This was supposed to open up the country to trade and investment. In 1991, Mubarak took Sadat’s plan to its logical conclusion by accepting the ‘structural adjustment programme’ demanded by international financial institutions.
The plan included the abolition of the Nasser-era land reforms, paving the way for leaseholders and landowners to get rid of peasants and small farmers from agricultural lands. This policy was carried out through a violent crackdown on peasants, a majority of whom lost their livelihoods, and the production of grains and food products in particular was severely hampered.
Thanks to these policies, today nearly half of Egypt’s population live on less than $2 per day and “Food comprises almost half the country’s consumer price index, and much more than half of spending for the poorer half of the country.” These policies have meant Egypt is hostage to price fluctuations in the world markets, and is one of the first countries adversely affected by sharp increases in the price of food products globally. It is worth remembering that the steep rise in the price of bread, and its scarcity, caused the workers’ strikes of 2007 and 2008 - the strikes that played a very important role in creating the conditions for the ongoing revolution.
Cairo is a huge, overpopulated city of eight million, with another half a million entering the city during the day to work. The traffic is unbelievable. On a weekday it seems like there are eight million cars - many of them 30-40 years old, in pretty bad shape, but still running on cheap petrol. Egypt is not an oil exporter, but it has enough oil in the Sinai desert to provide cheap fuel for internal consumption and the population takes advantage of this. The main roads are full of cars zig-zagging in and out of the four or five lanes, their drivers seeming to keep their hands permanently on their horns.
As in most ‘developing’ cities, the contrast between the affluent few and the poor millions is obvious everywhere. First there is the ‘City of the Dead’, where the poor live in a vast cemetery dating back to the Ottoman era, which covers over six square kilometres. Then there is Garbage City, where vendors recycle whatever they can salvage. Most of those who live in such areas have been forced out of other shanty towns or from central Cairo at various stages of the ‘urban renewal’ demolitions dating back to the 1950s. Others have migrated from the countryside, but have been unable to find work in a city where signs of mass unemployment and underemployment are everywhere you go. Underemployment is obvious even in the bustling bazaars, where every stall, every small shop has four or five sellers, often with few if any customers.
The tourist industry is dead in Cairo, Luxor and Alexandria - the historical sites have lost 95% of their custom. The recession in Europe and the US, as well as the political uncertainty, has kept the tourists away and thousands have lost their jobs, while others struggle to find work one or two days a month. Visitors to Cairo’s national museum overlooking Tahrir Square can expect to be approached by several expert Egyptologists offering to act as a guide.
The booming industry is ‘security’. The entrance of every hotel, every government office, every museum has the kind of facilities we see at European airports. Bags have to pass through a scanner, as do people. Presumably these strange security measures started in 2001, when Mubarak signed up to the ‘war on terror’ of George Bush and Tony Blair. However, this has clearly created tens of thousands of jobs around the city, although it is difficult to understand which ‘terrorists’ they are looking for. But the demonisation of the left and the April 6 movement in sections of the Islamic press is ominous and this overwhelming security apparatus can become another weapon to be used against the revolutionary movement.
Those activists who reject formal politics or wish to work independently often find themselves the target of the security services - a state media machine that has painted them as troublemakers and, increasingly, traitors; and of the SCAF-led project to promote “stability” over “chaos” and “sectoral demands” - code for supposedly parochial concerns, whose expression is deemed to be detrimental to national progress. With so many living in abject poverty, it is inevitable that calls for ‘stability’ will have their appeal (for the majority destitution is rather chaotic). But it is clear whose stability SCAF wants to defend.
The Shabaab youth movement that played such a crucial role in the overthrow of Mubarak has lost some of its appeal, mainly because of the way the unofficial alliance between the armed forces, Islamists and supporters of the ancien régime have managed to portray it as the source of instability. However the April 6 movement has not given up and is trying to organise mass protests on the forthcoming anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising.
The group’s leaders say their ranks have swollen in the last 12 months from 3,000 in January 2010 to 20,000 in November. But they do accept that the organisation’s reputation is tarnished in the eyes of many Egyptians and they rightly blame the SCAF, Islamist and NDF triangle. According to Ahmed Maher, a youth movement leader, “They destroyed our reputations. This is more dangerous than detention or arrest. They have the most powerful weapon of all: the media.” One could add the ever-present mosques to the list of their foes.
Preparing for the demonstrations of January 25, leaders of the April 6 movement have launched a nationwide tour “to issue specific unified revolutionary demands and coordinate popular action on the first anniversary of the revolution”.
Little is heard in the official media about workers in Egypt and it is true that, given the lack of political freedom and the severity of the economic crisis engulfing the country, until recently the Egyptian working class has not been a major player on the political scene. However, immediately after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, a number of major strikes showed the potential power of Egyptian workers. Most important amongst them was the mass strike of September 2011, which paralysed the government and the military council and, some argue, “opened up the road to the crisis of November”.
According to Kamal Abbas, head of the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services NGO, “The question today isn’t ‘Who’s striking?’ The question is ‘Who’s not striking?’” April 2011 saw a wave of strikes, including at the Shebin El-Kom Textile Company, north of Cairo, where the management called in the army, who fired bullets in the air and threatened to arrest striking workers. The workers had organised a 35-day sit-in to protest against the threat of redundancy. The same month the Suez Canal Authority was affected by the strike wave.
Other sections that have seen walkouts in the last 12 months include butane gas cylinder workers in the Delta governorate of Daqahlia, employees of the ministry of social solidarity in the city of Talkha, tax authority employees, clerks in the offices of the justice ministry, teachers, spinning and weaving workers in Assiut, train drivers ... the list goes on. Most of these strikes were over pay or other economic issues. It is unlikely that any new Islamic-led government will be able to alleviate the country’s economic problems and no doubt 2012 will see a continuation of these strikes.
There can be no doubt, however, that the working class movement is in its infancy, especially compared to Islam. There is a mosque around every corner in Cairo and yet new ones are still being built. The majority of apartment blocks where workers live appear to be unfinished, presumably because of shortage of funds, yet I did not see one mosque in operation that had not been completed. No doubt Saudi money is paying for some.
From speaking to both hard-line and moderate Islamists, it was clear that Sunni clerics clearly depict the Shia religion as the main enemy. Although Sunnis accept Ali as a legitimate successor to Mohammed, some Sunnis are told from the pulpit that Shias worship Ali as god (Ali Allah) and are therefore heretics. One might assume that the younger generation with access to the internet would know better, but that does not seem to be the case.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is, of course, the Shia pariah and even after Mubarak Egyptians do not seem to be keen on Iran’s version of Islam. In fact the only thing I found supporters of secular and religious parties have in common when they realise they are talking to an Iranian is to emphasise that Egypt is not going to be like Iran.
1. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Cairo and its anti-communist conservatism has been a useful tool for western powers over the last few decades. As early as 1928, the party’s paper The Lighthouse gained British approval for denouncing Egyptian nationalists as “atheists and infidels”. In his book Unholy wars: Afghanistan, America and international terrorism, John K Cooley describes how the US worked with the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia and others in developing an “anti-Nasser, anti-Soviet Islamic pact”. According to Kooley, president Anwar Sadat “relied upon Islamists to fight communist influence in Egypt”. That was where the connections with Al Qa’eda were forged. But nowadays no-one in the US wants to talk about the influence of the Brotherhood on the formation of al Qa’eda.
2. See Issandr El Amrani, ‘Sightings of the Egyptian deep state’: www.merip.org/mero/mero010112.
3. ‘Leading female figure in Muslim Brotherhood slams December’s women march’: http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/01/15/188404.html.
5. ‘The return of the Arab revolution’ International Socialism spring 2011
6. Spengler, ‘Food and failed Arab states’: www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MB02Ak01.html.
7. Washington Post January 13.
8. Al-Masry Al-Youm January 15: www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/600621.
9. A Alexander, ‘The Egyptian workers’ movement and the January 25 revolution’ International Socialism spring 2011.