Egypt - The wear and tear of Mubarak's regime

From Lutte de Classe #92 - November 2005 (published in Class Struggle #65 - Britain)
November 2005

Following president Hosni Mubarak's uneventful re-election, on 7th September 2005, with 88.6% of the votes, Egypt entered upon another period of electioneering, this time to elect the country's People's Assembly, with a 3-round ballot on 9 and 15 November and 12 December.

Although Mubarak's ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP) dominates the new Assembly, with 316 seats (72% of the total), only 149 of its official candidates were actually elected. The rest of its majority is made of 167 politicians who stood as so-called "independents" after being refused the NDP's official endorsement and were readmitted to the party's fold following their election.

One outcome of this election which seems to have come as a surprise to many "observers", was the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as the main rival to the NDP. Although the MB is still formally banned, 150 candidates stood as "independents" promoting openly their affiliation to this current. Among them, an unprecedented 88 were elected. So now the MB holds more than 2/3 of all opposition seats in the new Assembly.

This being said, the importance of these results should not be overestimated as this Assembly has little real power compared to the powers of the president.

However, 20 years after Mubarak came to power, his regime is beginning to shows signs of wear and tear. The social and economic crisis, the impact of the region's permanent conflicts on Egypt and the prospect of having to replace an ageing president, are causing some strain in the ruling machinery as well as in society as a whole. Although the regime has not given up its repressive methods - involving arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, manhandling and torture -they are no longer as effective and fail to prevent the expression of discontent.

This situation offers opportunities to the regime's opposition. Unfortunately, it seems that within this opposition, the influence of Islamic currents carries the most weight. In particular, the MB's success in the recent Assembly elections reflects the fact that this party occupies more and more space on the political scene, after having won, a long time ago already, extensive positions in society at large.

The consequences of the economic crisis

For many years already, the majority of the Egyptian population - numbering 73m today - has experienced a degradation of its already appalling living conditions.

Nasser's era - from the mid-1950s until his death, in 1970 - had given a significant layer of this population some basic rights. A health insurance system was introduced. Working conditions were regulated by means of a labour code which provided for paid holidays and limited working hours. The nationalisations carried out by Nasser together with the extension of the public sector created jobs. Housing was built for the working class. All in all, many people experienced relatively more decent living conditions for the first time.

However, in the subsequent years, first under Sadat and then under Mubarak, the clock was turned back in this respect. Sadat's "infitah" policy (i.e."opening") paved the way for the so-called liberalisation of the economy, under the pressure of imperialist and domestic capitalist classes which were eager to grab the product of the exploitation of the Egyptian working class.

Today, the extreme poverty of the countryside and most urban areas contrasts with the arrogant wealth displayed by a class of "nouveaux riches", who live in some parts of the capital and in rich villas surrounded by lush gardens nearby the desert. It seems that this social layer feels well represented by the present regime. But the rest of the population, which is at the receiving end of the economic crisis, feels differently.

Inflation has taken its toll, especially since January 2003, when the Egyptian currency was devalued by almost 40% relative to the US dollar. But in fact, since Mubarak came to power in 1981, the Egyptian pound has lost almost 90% of its value. While this devaluation has boosted manufacturing exports, thereby reducing the impact of the Egyptian textile crisis (which affected mostly the cotton industry), it has also generated a huge increase in domestic prices. This has made it even more difficult for the 3/4 of the Egyptian population whose income is under £1.30 per day, to meet their most basic needs.

Periodically Egyptian governments have tried to put into question the system of public subsidies which keep basic products affordable for the poorest. But each time they have had to back-peddle for fear of a social explosion similar to the wave of riots which broke out in Cairo, in 1977. Since April 2004, the state has been providing the poorest with ration cards which allow them access to staples, such as bread, oil, sugar, tea and lentils. But this only provides very limited protection against the disastrous consequences of the regime's policies.

As a result of the privatisation of the big public companies created under Nasser, the massive redundancies and the slicing up of these companies by private enterprise, the section of the working population which had enjoyed a permanent job and low, but guaranteed income, is increasingly becoming casualised. These big companies - in industries like textiles, building materials or the metal industry - often employ thousands of workers and still represent a large share of total employment, but this share is shrinking rapidly.

In these companies, the labour code provides a more or less respected standard. In July 2003, the regime introduced a new Employment Bill which reduced workers' rights. Minimum wages must be set by a tripartite Labour Consultative Committee, in which representatives from the government, the bosses and the trade unions are supposed to work together in order to ensure that wage levels follow inflation. But given the composition of this Commission, and even assuming its recommendations are respected by employers, it is clear that wages can only lag far behind inflation, which is estimated to be around 20% a year at present, according to international agencies. The 2003 bill has made existing employment contracts even more precarious, while at the same time, employers have been given a free ride regarding factory closures and making workers redundant on so-called "economic grounds". The same bill only recognises the right to join a trade union which is affiliated to the official, pro-government confederation, the General Federal of Trade Unions (GFTU). The right to take strike action is recognised, but with a host of limitations including a 10-day advance notice to the employer.

However, outside these big companies, 80% of permanent workers are employed by very small companies, where they enjoy virtually no legal protection against exploitation. After them, down the social scale, come the most deprived - the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, who have no permanent employment. The unemployment rate is much higher than the official 9%, probably between 20 and 30% of the population of working age, and even 40% in some poor areas of Cairo. In the urban centres, there is an informal pool of men seeking work for the day, whose number is constantly swelled by an inflow of migrant workers coming from the countryside.

One of the many small "trades", which allows the poorest to survive, is that of garbage collector. Tens of thousands of "zabalins", as they are called, ensure that the garbage produced by the cities is cleared away. But it should be noted that in al-Muqattam, for instance, a town located south-east of Cairo, the 30,000 local "zabalins" have been deprived of some of their income since 2002, due to a refuse disposal contract signed by the municipalities of Cairo and Alexandria with international companies, such as Spain's FCC group, Italy's Jacuzzi or France's Onyx. As a result, while these multinational companies will be able to send back to Europe some of the income they get from the Egyptian state, many workers who used to barely survive out of this work will no longer even have this possibility.

Finally, for the vast majority of the population (64% in 2000), housing is a problem which has no solution. 65% of houses are built illegally, on an unoccupied piece of land, a disused agricultural terrace, or on a roof. In Cairo, millions of people live permanently in the five cemeteries surrounding the town, which have been turned into sprawling shanties. The housing situation is all the less likely to improve as the population is growing fast and so is the number of young people looking for a place to live where they can be independent. The state's policy of creating more and more new towns (their number should triple over the next decade) seems to be more aimed at providing construction businesses, big and small, with a bounty, than resolving the housing problems of a population whose income is too low to be able to afford a "market" rent.

Cracks in the dictatorship

The 77-year-old Mubarak has been ruling Egypt for 24 years, since he took over from Sadat, following the latter's murder by an Islamic group, which accused him of betrayal for having signed the Camp David agreement with Israel. Until the last presidential election, every six years Mubarak was nominated by the People's Assembly for another term. This nomination was then confirmed by means of a simple referendum, This changed under the pressure of George W Bush, who was trying to give some credibility to his speeches on the democratisation of the Arab world. For the first time, several candidates were allowed to stand in a presidential election.

The multiplicity of candidates did not prevent Mubarak from being elected, of course, so his dictatorship should carry on for another six years. Nevertheless, his succession is now open and is creating turmoil around him, in the leading circles of the ruling NDP.

The "raïs" - as Mubarak calls himself - did thorough preparations for his succession. Following a pattern which is typical in the region, where dictators tend to consider their role as hereditary, Mubarak pushed forward his son, Gamal Mubarak, by appointing him as leader of the NDP. Gamal Mubarak is a former banker who leads a think-tank of US-trained economists and has made no bones about his intention to complete his father's privatisation programmes - and subject the Egyptian economy to the full impact of the capitalist market, regardless of the social consequences this may have. According to his statements, these consequences should be quite simply part of the remit of the Interior Ministry!

Predictably, the rise of the raïs' son is causing tensions. Within the NDP's machinery, the team put together by Mubarak's son threatens the positions of a number of entrenched heavy-weights. Many members of the party's machinery see this team as a threat to their own positions in the remaining public companies, without providing them any guarantee that their losses would be compensated by a share of the cake from the privatisation process. Some of these politicians even warn against provoking unnecessary social conflicts.

The issue of Mubarak's succession tends to sharpen existing tensions between the various factions and mafias within the ruling party, which are competing to gain positions in the party and defend the interests of their respective political clientele.

But above all, this succession is taking place against a backdrop of increasing questioning of the regime - whether it be over the consequences of its economic policies or over its foreign policy, especially its almost total alignment behind the USA on the Palestinian question and the war in Iraq. The sense that there is a certain element of wavering at the top of the regime is encouraging the discontented to express their feelings, including within the state machinery itself.

For instance, in May 2005, thousands of judges demonstrated in Cairo, with the backing of lawyers. They were protesting against the appalling level of their wages and the fact that their income was largely dependent on the way they were considered by the justice minister. They demanded a degree of real independence. They even threatened to refuse to give their required stamp of approval to the election proceedings. As one judge was quoted: "We have the feeling that it is now or never, that such an opportunity will not occur again for a long time."

Likewise, in a book published at the beginning of 2005, a former top official of the police dared to reveal the way in which this institution is used by the regime in order to secure election results which were favourable. The author also described how police officers who refused to play along were not just taking the risk of being disciplined, but of facing a trial and imprisonment.

Although the outcome of the recent ballots was predictable, the election campaigns helped to encourage people to speak out. Rival candidates criticised the regime in an attempt to attract voters' attention, at a time when it was difficult for the government to prevent them from doing so. As a result, the frustration against the regime was really able to express itself, even if it was within limits. This was especially true among certain privileged layers - like university teachers and students - but also among the workers of some factories.

The Egyptian movement for change, known as "Kefaya!" (which means "Enough!" in Arabic), tried to organise the opposition to the regime and its methods around demands for free elections and Mubarak's resignation. This movement was formed in 2004 by a number of intellectuals and left-wing groupings. However, its influence has remained confined to the intellectual milieu and the demonstrations it organised never attracted more than a thousand people. The regime did try to repress this movement and one of its protests was brutally attacked by the police in July 2005. Significantly, however, Mubarak was eventually forced to tolerate "Kefaya!", out of fear that the reaction of solidarity caused by more repressive measures might trigger the contagious tide that he wanted to avoid.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Mubarak's regime, despite these cracks appearing, still remains solid. However the question of which political forces could take over at some point, is nevertheless open.

The most influential political current among the population, including those living in the poor urban districts, is unquestionably the "Muslim Brotherhood". Although this "Brotherhood" claims that its activity is confined to preaching Islam, it has always operated as a political party and it may be about to raise its profile even more in this respect.

The Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna, in 1928. By that time, although Egypt had been formally independent for six years, it remained part of the British imperialist backyard. And the British authorities, who saw this new conservative, reactionary force as a potential counterweight to the nationalist and progressive currents thriving in Egypt, proved willing to provide their support to the Brotherhood.

The MB went on to play the same reactionary role in the years following WWII, when a wave of militancy swept the Egyptian working class, raising its demands and building its organisations. The Brotherhood was open about its anti-communism and, to some extent, its sympathies for fascism. Above all, by promoting the setting up of an "Islamic state" and focusing its activities on the defence of religious practices, the MB succeeded in crystallising around itself the most conservative currents in Egyptian society.

Up to the 1970s, the general trend in Egypt was towards a more secular society and the modernisation of social relations. However, for more than two decades, a process of re-Islamisation of society has been taking place under the pressure of various religious forces, among which the MB plays an important role.

The Brotherhood's presence in the mosques and in the local associations linked to them has allowed it to develop many links with the population. These associations often play a vital social role, by providing help to the poorest, school tuition to children or, for instance, by offering free meals at the time of the Ramadan fasting period and during other Muslim festivals. The Brotherhood also runs surgeries and clinics where a section of the population can get healthcare, often more easily than in the country's overcrowded, dilapidated state hospitals.

At the same time, however, the Brotherhood's influence among the population plays a role in enforcing an increasingly strict observance of religious rules and turning the clock back from a social point of view, especially for women. In a matter of two decades or so, wearing the Islamic veil has become a rule for 90% of women - this, in a country where "western-style" clothes had become the norm, at least in the main towns. In Cairo's Underground, segregated carriages for women have been introduced. The observance of the Ramadan fast has become virtually universal, reinforced as it is by a state decree ordering all restaurants to be closed during fasting hours. No-one can escape from religion - neither from the muezzins' five daily calls to prayer nor from the preaching broadcast by powerful loudspeakers almost everywhere. The streets and other public places are often used themselves for prayers, where, at prayer time, the non-believer can only feel like an intruder. At such times, for instance, the announcement of departing trains at Cairo's central station, is drowned out by loudspeaker-relayed sermons!

In a country which includes a large Christian Coptic minority - estimated at between 6 and 10 million people - this is whipping up inter-community tensions. Some Islamic groups, as well as some provocateurs, are consciously pouring oil in the flames. For instance, last October, in Alexandria, a DVD purportedly produced by the Coptic church and described as insulting for Islam, was copied and distributed in large numbers in the hope of causing anti-Christian riots, without anyone knowing who was behind this initiative.

As a result of this situation, people tend to define themselves increasingly by their religious affiliation - Muslim or Christian - which can only strengthen the grip of the religious authorities in both communities and, in particular, of the Brotherhood on the Muslim side.

The ubiquitous presence of the Islamic groups is a powerful means of controlling the population. But it is also a factor of social conservatism and an obstacle to the expression of social demands. Islam - and the Muslim Brotherhood, which, to a large extent, is its political expression - has come to play, once again, a vital role in maintaining political stability in a country which is constantly on the verge of a social explosion due to the despair of a large part of the population.

Until relatively recently, however, the Brotherhood had refrained from intervening directly on the political scene. All the more so because the regime, which saw it as a possible rival, banned and repressed it, while jailing some of its most prominent members.

But the regime's attitude to the Brotherhood changed after the end of Nasser's era. It became more complex, combining the official banning of the Brotherhood with a policy of toleration, and even de facto co-operation with it.

From the 1980s, the Brotherhood sought to intervene more on the political scene, in particular by standing candidates in assembly elections, either as independents or as part of some coalition with other parties. At one point, this allowed the Brotherhood to get 35 of its members elected to the People's Assembly, as representatives of an "Islamic Alliance". At the same time, it was standing candidates in elections to professional associations - winning a majority in the doctors' and physicians' associations, and coming close to it in the lawyers', journalists' and engineers' associations.

The institutional role played by the Brotherhood has also changed its political language. Its advocacy of an "Islamic state" used to allow the Brotherhood to pose as advocates of social equality and justice and, therefore, as representing the aspirations of the poorest in society - what is more, representatives who did not just talk but also acted, through their activity in Islamic charities. However, the political positions which the Brotherhood adopted were those of a reactionary capitalist party.

So, for instance, the Brotherhood supported Sadat's policy of "infitah", which marked the beginning of economic "liberalisation". This policy was to result in a spectacular increase of the wealth of the capitalist class as well as a layer of nouveaux riches, together with a drastic increase of poverty in the rest of the population. But it was also an opportunity to show that the Brotherhood's apparently egalitarian language only concealed a pro-capitalist policy favourable to economic liberalism, which was in no way different from that of the other parties.

More recently, in 1997, the Brotherhood gave its support to a law aimed at rolling back the old agrarian reform, thereby forcing part of the poor peasantry off its land.

At the same time, small and big capitalists came to play an increasing role within the Brotherhood and provided it with part of its cadres. In many cases, joining the Brotherhood may have appeared as a convenient way to resolve administrative problems or improve one's trading relations. In any case, business gained increasing influence within the Brotherhood.

This did cause some crises, with young ambitious upstarts confronting the old cadres, who wanted the Brotherhood to remain the guarantor of a purist, unstained version of Islam. Some of the most militant currents within the Brotherhood seceded, giving birth, among others, to Gamaa al-Islamiya ("Islamic Society"), which embarked on an armed struggle against the regime. Apart from being responsible for the murder of Sadat, in 1981, this grouping also organised many terrorist attacks, including one against tourists, in Luxor, in 1997, which claimed 62 victims.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood appears as a party which has got rid of its most extremist elements. Within its ranks, almost no-one seems to challenge its policy of participating in official institutions and coexisting - if not collaborating - with the regime. It has effectively become the party of an "Islamic" faction of the Egyptian capitalist class, which is keen to take as much space as possible in the machinery of power and proclaims its aspirations, in its own way, through the electoral slogan of the Brotherhood - "Islam is the solution".

Nevertheless, the fact that the Brotherhood adopts more and more openly a pro-capitalist policy does not prevent it, so far, from retaining its influence over the poorest layers, among whom it has virtually no rivals. And this is precisely what could make the Brotherhood an indispensable partner for the regime - something that the party leaders certainly know very well.

The issue is not only electoral. The fact that only a small fraction of the people entitled to vote are registered and an even smaller fraction actually turn up on election day, provides the basis for the systematic buying of votes by candidates. And even if the ruling NDP fails to prevent "independent" candidates from being elected, it still has the possibility of co-opting them into its parliamentary group, thereby securing the majority it needs - which was what happened in the last election.

Beyond the electoral sphere, however, despite being a dictatorship, Mubarak's regime needs to be able to rely on people to act as "relays" within the population. So far, in addition to the state's functionaries, these were the politicians of the NDP and their political clientele. But the in-fighting within the NDP and its political wear-and-tear are making these "relays" less effective. Besides, being unsure about the possible reaction of the population, the regime is becoming more hesitant in resorting to repression.

The regime is conscious, therefore, of the advantages of some form of co-operation with the Brotherhood, due to its links with the population. This is why, for a number of years, Mubarak has been very careful in his attitude towards the Brotherhood. When the MB seemed to display too much arrogance, the regime resorted to massive arrests among its cadres - before releasing some of them. The regime also chooses to allow de facto the MB to stand easily identifiable candidates in elections under the cover of the "independent" label. And while keeping in jail a large number of MB activists, the regime establishes diverse forms of semi-open collaboration with the Brotherhood, at various levels, which help to vindicate its current legalistic line.

How far can this collaboration go? This will depend, of course, on how worn down the regime becomes in the coming months and years and how serious the social crisis gets. But, already, the Brotherhood appears as a possible alternative to, or backup for Mubarak's regime, which is all the more credible as, on the ground, it has already taken power in a large section of Egypt's society.

Working class reactions

Fortunately the degradation of working class living conditions has been met with some reaction. In particular, in a number of factories, the new Labour Code and the new wave of privatisation implemented from the end of 2004 triggered workers' resistance - whether it was because their jobs were threatened, or because their wages were cut (due for instance, to the ending of a previously existing bonus). What contributed to workers' anger was the fact that, at the same time, the bosses were awarded tax rebates.

Within one year, 172 companies and one bank were privatised and sold off on the cheap, causing tens of thousands of job cuts. The managements of these firms, some of which were quite large, were now in a position to decide overnight to close down part of their operations in order to transfer their capital somewhere else, thereby depriving workers of their livelihood. In other cases, they simply stopped paying workers their wages under some spurious financial pretext.

Workers were certainly encouraged to express their discontent by the proximity of the 2005 election campaign, as the regime had to face other forms of discontent, from different social layers. Many of these working class struggles have gone unnoticed, but a number of protests, strikes and plant occupations did become known in Egypt and even abroad.

Thus, starting in Spring 2005, in Qalyoubia, an industrial area in the north-west of Cairo, a 3-month protest took place at the textile factory Esco, against privatisation. In September 2004, the factory had been sold, without the workforce even being informed, despite owning collectively 10% of the company's shares. The new employer refused to pay the workers' bonuses, which made up a significant part of their wages, and was threatening both their jobs and their pensions.

After groups of Esco workers decided to go on strike, they were declared in breach of the law by the official union, an affiliate of the pro-government GFTU confederation, while the strikers were staging a 2-day sit-in outside the union's offices in central Cairo. Subsequently the employers followed suit, by declaring the strikers demands "unacceptable".

For seven weeks, the strikers remained permanently in front of the factory, surrounded by the police which, on some occasions, went so far as to stop them from going to get food - prompting some of the strikers to retaliate immediately by going on hunger strike. Eventually, the employer was forced to give in to a number of their demands. Some seasonal workers were made permanent and some of the redundant workers received 10,000 Egyptian pounds (£1,020) as an early retirement payment and 3 months of back pay which they were owed.

In other workplaces, strikes were organised in order to win bonuses designed to make up for low wages. Thus, in another textile factory, Misr al-Menoufiya, which employs nearly a thousand workers of whom one-third are women, a 3-day strike took place in August 2005 over wages. Understandably, as, since 1979, the workforce had received no wage increase and no bonus of any kind had been paid for the previous 6 years. As a result, the average monthly wage was around £20, with one third of the workforce earning only £13/m.

Other industries have also been affected - public transport in Alexandria, where workers won the payment of unpaid wages, the Egyptian Fisheries, where privatisation plans were stopped, as well as an electricity company, where, according to the al-Ahram daily, the workforce occupied their plant and kept it operating for six months.

Likewise, the workers of the Torah Cement company, which was about to be bought by a French multinational, occupied their plants to obtain guaranteed wages for the future, forcing the government to turn down the buyer's offer. Another offer was presented some time later, including a commitment not to cut any jobs for 3 years and the promise of bonuses.

There were other strikes mentioned, for instance in an industrial company, in Nasr City, where a thousand workers demanded the resignation of the plant manager, who had failed to pay their wages for 2 months while pocketing their social contributions. In another case, at the Arab Aluminium Company, in Ismailia, workers took action to get their employer to pay a social benefit they were owed.

Besides privatisation, the bosses have used many other pretexts to cut jobs. Ora Misr, a factory which produced construction materials containing asbestos, was closed down by a belated government decree in September 2004, which banned the use of this dangerous substance. The very wealthy owner of this plant just sacked his entire workforce without the slightest concern for how they were going to survive - and without compensating workers for the irreversible lung damage they had been exposed to during their working lives in this plant. Nevertheless, these workers fought for months in order to get some compensation.

The relative loosening of the regime's stranglehold seems to be bringing forward a section of workers who dare to formulate their demands and fight for them. This is obviously something positive, even if the general context is, on the contrary, one of general social and political regression.

The other oppositions

Against the rising influence of the Brotherhood and other Islamic currents, there is virtually no opposition to the regime from the left. The illegal Communist Party only appears within the framework of the Unionist Progressive National Party, better known under the label "Tagammu" ("regrouping"), which claims to be "Marxist". In reality, there is little difference between "Tagammu" - or the CP - and all the parties of the capitalist class which oppose Mubarak's continuing rule in the name of "democracy". Indeed, on the eve of the last elections, a number of these parties formed a "National Front for Change", around Aziz Sidqi, a former prime minister, which included "Tagammu", but also a party coming from the Nasserite tradition, the "Neo-Wafd" (an offshoot of the old traditional party of the Egyptian elite) or the Party of Labour (an Islamic party). It must be noted that the coalition partners did not choose to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out, it was the Brotherhood which refused any connection with the "Marxist" Tagammu.

At best this coalition was a pro-capitalist democratic regrouping, whose only basis was the partners' common opposition to Mubarak. Neither this coalition, nor Tagammu or the CP, has any real meaning for the masses, who cannot see any solution to their drastic problems being offered by them.

It should be added that various activists tried to fill the vacuum during the last elections, at least within the limits of what they could do. Such was the case of the Trade-Union Resource Centre, an organisation of trade-union oppositionists, which stood four workers as independent candidates, including its leader Kamal Abbas, in the Helouan constituency, a working class suburb, south of Cairo. In addition, the Revolutionary Socialists group, which is close to the British SWP, stood one candidate in Imbaba, another district of Cairo.

But apart from this initiative, the most dramatic aspect of the situation is the almost total absence, both in working class areas and in workplaces, of activists who represent a class-based opposition to the regime and the capitalist class. It is this vacuum which explains, to a large extent, the stranglehold of the Muslim Brotherhood. Being the only force to have a presence among the masses, the MB can claim to represent the interests of the poor and use the influence it gets out of it, to rule in the interest of the capitalist class, or of the fraction of this class which will be prepared to entrust it with the reins of power.

At a time when working class reactions are emerging, when the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be closer to political power, while already effectively in power on a social level, the problem which is raised is the emergence of a working class opposition, represented by activists who are determined to stand up uncompromisingly for the political and social interests of their class.