Egypt - The Mubarak regime's fears

Jan/Feb 2003

From Saudi Arabia to Algeria, from Syria and Lebanon to Egypt, the prospect of an American war against Iraq is a worrying one for Arab governments, because they are likely to be among the first to pay the political price.

The policy of the United States as well as the economic degradation in most Middle Eastern countries is causing a growing dissatisfaction in the population.

The presence of imperialist powers has reduced the economies in the region to a state of impoverishment and feudalism. People are conscious of this fact, and the first expression of this is often anti- Americanism. To this is added resentment of the arrogant attitude of the American leaders, in particular their unwavering support for the policy of the Israeli leaders in occupied Palestine, which is felt as a permanent provocation, not only against the Palestinian people but against Arab people in general.

As always, the Arab leaders claim their solidarity with the Palestinians. But this is just talk. In practice, the more Israel's provocations grow, the more the Arab leaders' ties with the United States appear as complicity with the Sharon government's repression of the Palestinians.

Caught between their allegiance to the United States and the growing anti-American sentiment in their population, the Arab governments are therefore placed in an increasingly unstable situation. Understandably, they are in a state of panic over the possibility of a war against Iraq, which would make things even worse.

One of the most concerned of the Arab leaders must be the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. From the beginning of the Iraqi crisis, he has used intense diplomatic efforts, if not to prevent the war (which Egypt is obviously powerless to do), at least to demonstrate that he has done everything he can to oppose it.

Egypt in economic crisis

Mubarak is leader of the Arab country with the largest population - 70m. But this is also the country where social conditions are most unstable and where a war against Iraq, coming on top of the crisis in the Middle East, could be the catalyst for a political and social explosion.

The current context is especially difficult for Egypt which, like many other Third World countries, is suffering the consequences of a deep economic crisis. All the more so, since in this already poor country, poverty is increasing at an alarming rate, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation. In fact, the proportion of the urban population living in poverty increased from 39 % in 1990 to 48% in 1999. In rural areas poverty increased from 39% to 55% over the same period.

Liberalisation of the Egyptian economy has been under way for the last ten years, along the lines defined by the World Bank. This includes "reform" of the public sector, which mainly consists of privatising or closing down a great number of state- controlled enterprises and deregulating the economy. In particular, this has meant trying to remove many safeguards for workers, as well as removing any laws that impede the free flow of capital or the appropriation of profits.

Moreover, this drain on capital over the last two years, along with financial scandals and corruption, has caused the Egyptian pound to crash. The events of 11 September 2001 and the resulting decrease in tourism have also added to the deceleration of the economy. The low price of oil, which has caused the trade deficit to grow, has emptied the public purse. Increasing inflation has eroded still further the already low buying-power of the population. Unemployment, hich was very high anyway, has increased still further.

A tense social situation

Despite claims to the contrary, Egypt was certainly never "socialist", even during the Nasser era. But the regime did develop a certain degree of state control over the economic sphere. Even without the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which had angered French and British imperialism - and the war which this precipitated - Nasser was able to gain the reputation of one of the most "progressive" leaders of the Third World. He developed a significant public sector, which dominated the main industries, from textiles to arms manufacturing. It is this public sector which, under the policies of Mubarak and his imperialist advisors, is in the process of being privatised, if not actually liquidated. Over the past few years, it has shrunk through factory closures, sackings, and forced early retirement, from an estimated 1.2m employees to 400,000 today.

Nasser had risen to power in a country where social struggles had been a feature for many years already. As a result, the working class had acquired a certain number of militant traditions. But as a very conscious bourgeois nationalist, Nasser savagely fought against all workers' organisations that had the potential to challenge him. More specifically, he sent Egyptian communists to concentration camps even if the "official policy" of this CP was to support him. But at the same time, Nasser was cunning enough to concede a small number of economic concessions to workers.

It was during this period that a certain number of laws were passed, which limited the working day, protected workers against dismissal to a certain extent, as well as instituting health, retirement and industrial accident insurance and holiday pay. Workers were also allowed representation within the workplace. And even if this "representation" was controlled by the regime's official trade unions, all of these measures helped to limit exploitation, at least in large companies. Progress was also made in building homes, hospitals, and providing better health care. For a whole generation of workers, the memory of the Nasser years is therefore associated with relative improvement in their situation. These concessions to the working class can be compared to those made by Peron in Argentina, although they were on a much more limited scale, because of Egypt's more fragile economic situation. In a similar way, although they helped the poorest people very little, they gave the Egyptian nationalist dictator a certain degree of support amongst working people.

The gradual disappearance of the public sector and the deregulation of the economy amounts to a reversal of this past process and aggravates the situation of the working class. Mubarak's policies have allowed private firms to be created in many sectors, often using Western investment. A newly rich middle-class has developed, flaunting its luxury cars and villas and displaying a particularly arrogant attitude to workers. In firms owned by this new class of boss, workers are treated like cattle. In many instances, they work up to 15 or 16 hours a day and are told on a day-to-day basis what time to show up the following day, or even not to bother to return. Often the owner will avoid paying social contributions by not declaring these workers as his employees. In other cases, workers are made to sign a resignation letter with the date left blank at the same time as they sign their contract of employment.

Owners thereby ensure that they can get rid of workers whenever it suits them, with no obligations. Indeed, frequently they will just close up shop at a moment's notice, locking the doors and failing to pay any wages.

Under the pressure of local employers, but also Egypt's imperialist partners and the international institutions, who are always ready to fight what they call "rigidities" in the economy and in the labour market, new "labour legislation" is in preparation. This legislation has been designed to challenge a whole number of workers' rights which had been officially recognised since Nasser's time. In particular, rights concerning recruitment and the protection of jobs are under threat. But in fact employers have already anticipated this law by denying in practice the rights that the workers still have on paper.

Since this "liberalisation" of the economy under Mubarak means denying the workers the few rights which had been granted under Nasser, it is hardly surprising that many older workers openly express nostalgia for the Nasser era. And the section of the new working class which finds itself without any rights, nor with the means to defend itself against employers who think they can get away with anything, links the worsening of the situation to the American presence and to Mubarak's policy of alliance with the United States.

The regime's fears

Dissatisfaction is therefore growing against the regime and against its imperialist allies, at the time when Egypt's financial difficulties make it even more dependent on the goodwill of Western banks, starting with World Bank and the IMF, and behind them, the United States.

Of course, Mubarak's regime depends far too heavily on the international financial institutions and on the direct aid provided by the United States, to be able to refuse to side with a Western war against Iraq. But at the same time, this situation could well cause discontent to flare up.

Mubarak, who has been in power for 21 years, is regularly re- elected with more than 95% of the vote. His party holds 90 % of the seats in the National Assembly. But even so, he apparently has no illusions about the population's real feelings towards him. The Egyptian regime is quite simply a police dictatorship. A state of siege has been in place for more than twenty years; the police force and the army are omnipresent, even in the workplaces.

This means that at the first sign of a demonstration, a huge number of police are deployed, who usually intervene violently. This was especially the case in the Spring of 2002, when demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians during the Israeli army siege of Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah started to grow. It led to confrontations with the police, who fired real bullets, killing at least one person in Alexandria and injuring many others.

Raids and arrests, often followed by torture, are also frequent. The regime fears Islamic organisations above all - and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is, after all, this organisation's country of origin. It was in 1928 that Hassan El Banna created the Muslim Brotherhood near Alexandria, thus initiating "political Islamism". At the time he also had the support of the old Egyptian "royalty" and its British protectors, who saw him as a means of containing the rise of the communist and nationalist movements.

Today things are very different, because it is this organisation that is causing the regime its greatest anxiety. After largely tolerating the Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s and allowing its influence to grow in a number of professional organisations, the regime turned against the Muslim Brotherhood in 1994, placing its leaders under arrest. Many of these leaders have been held for years without trial.

In fact, it is organisations linked to the Islamic movement especially the Muslim Brotherhood who are visible at street level. Indeed they are much more visible than left organisations, who do not have a militant presence. However, the influence of the Islamic organisations is felt mainly in the lower middle class, where religious prejudice is evident, rather than in the working class.

It should be said that the Islamic fundamentalists are clearly far from being in a position to provide a political alternative to the Mubarak regime. But what Mubarak undoubtedly fears the most is an explosion of social dissatisfaction which would ultimately benefit these groups.

The possible explosion

Today, the Mubarak regime is well aware that the worsening situation in the Middle East will not only cause Egypt's economic situation to deteriorate further, but may well be the catalyst for an explosion of discontent. And obviously, war with Iraq could be the spark to light it. Dissatisfaction arising from social crisis, a hatred of the regime and its imperialist supporters and the feeling of solidarity with Palestinian victims of a seeming anti-Arabic frenzy by Israel and the United States, could all contribute to an explosion similar to those that have occurred in the past. It is the fear of such an explosion that explains the nervousness of the Egyptian regime and its police force.

This is why we have seen Mubarak making every possible diplomatic effort in the past months. He has approached other Arab States, the Arab League, European states, the UN and the American leaders, arguing for a solution to the Israeli - Palestinian conflict, and against a war with Iraq. However, it is obvious that like all the other governments, Arabic or not, the Egyptian government has no say in Bush's political decisions.

The policy of the imperialist leaders, their lack of concern for the consequences of their actions, their arrogance and the spinelessness of the governments that are allied to them (in particular in the Middle East), may indeed lead to social and political explosions - in Egypt or another Arab country and perhaps further afield. We must hope that those fighting in the name of the interests of the working class will prove able to offer a way out, before reactionary religious organisations seize the opportunity, to their own advantage.