Protests in Egypt

By ANDREW POLLACK

Following mass protests in November against President Mohammed Morsi’s decree granting himself new dictatorial powers, millions returned to the streets to protest his announcement of a snap referendum to be held in mid-December for a draft constitution hastily written by an assembly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood after most secular and liberal forces had walked out. The regime met the renewed protests with violence, as Brotherhood-organized gangs murdered 10 protesters on Dec. 5.

The referendum eventually yielded a majority of 64% for the proposed constitution—but with a voter turnout of only 33%. And in the meantime, mass rallies against Morsi forced him to withdraw within less than 24 hours plans he had announced for raising taxes on a range of goods that are staples of working-class consumption. The plans were designed to appease the International Monetary Fund, which has been insisting on sterner austerity measures before turning over $4.5 billion in promised loans.

Liberal opponents of the government and remnants of the Mubarak regime had united in a National Salvation Front to oppose the constitution, and called for a boycott of the referendum. More radical groups called for a “no” vote.

Opposition to the constitution included objections to the retention of privileges by the military, which, as under Mubarak, maintains a role in prosecuting civilians, has a voice in setting foreign and war-making policy, and retains its vast economic empire—an empire shrouded in secrecy. Other objections concerned limits on the rights of women, giving religious figures final say over legal rulings, and other antidemocratic clauses.

Despite a few mumbled objections by Washington and the mainstream media to some of Morsi’s measures and parts of his proposed constitution, he’s still their man. The New York Times, for instance, has run a series of articles in favor of political “stability” in order to ensure that economic “reforms” can be carried out in the face of continued mass worker and peasant discontent. In standard Times fashion, all such reforms are portrayed as inevitable—indeed, the only rational choice—and their opponents mocked as ignorant or unrealistic.

For instance, in an article profiling prominent liberal oppositionist Hamded Sabahi, the paper said: “A critical loan of more than $4 billion from the IMF … has been delayed until the political situation settles. The Egyptian pound is slipping against the dollar. And the most obvious step to improve the growth and fairness of the economy requires a government with credibility and political skill. Attempts at overhauling Egypt’s vast subsidies to energy prices have in the past set off riots.”

Sabahi, said The Times, after opposing the constitution, “is preparing for his next battle: against Islamist leaders’ plans for Western-style free-market reforms.”

“Mr. Sabahi insists the I.M.F. loan would be unnecessary if the country followed his radical prescriptions to turn away from Western economic orthodoxy. In addition to steeper annual taxes on the rich, Mr. Sabahi is calling for Egypt to meet its deficit with a one-time 20% tax on the wealth of anyone with more than about $17 million, which he says is about 1% of Egyptians…

“He is calling for a ban on all exports of raw materials, including the important commodities of natural gas and cotton, so they can be used for domestic production. He proposes to increase fees on businesses that use natural resources as well as on real estate and stock market transactions. And at the same time he wants to expand Egypt’s already bloated public sector to create more jobs for the poor” [the “already bloated” phrase, of course, being a classic example of bourgeois journalism’s “objectivity”].

Such measures are unrealistic and dangerous, claims The Times, and Egypt’s poor need more faith in their leaders: “Economic overhaul now poses a critical test of Egypt’s fragile democracy. Without enough trust in government, the changes to the systems of taxes or subsidies needed to reduce the deficit could easily stir new unrest in the streets, just as such moves have in the past.”

The New York Times joined other mainstream media in discovering in late December that the country’s economy was on the verge of imploding due to shrinking foreign exchange reserves and fears of a devalued currency. The UN’s IRIN news agency, in a story on growing poverty in Egypt, noted the rapidly growing difficulty of finding food on a daily basis, and the doubling of prices for many dietary staples. IRIN quotes a Cairo University economics professor linking the foreign currency reserves problem to malnutrition: “‘Our country imports most of its food. The problem is that our foreign currency reserves—necessary for buying this food from other countries—are hitting rock bottom.’ Economists like Abdo say these reserves will allow the government to buy food for the people for three months only. Last week the government confirmed it would be importing 180,000 tons of wheat from the USA—being one of the world’s biggest wheat importers is a big strain on reserves.”

What this and other articles on the same theme don’t mention is that Egypt imports food because of decades of imperialist-dictated restructuring of the economy, especially on behalf of Western agribusiness. This has proceeded in tandem with Western banks’ driving Egypt further and further into debt by forcing loans on the country to finance the imports that are required, thanks to this restructuring.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s workers moved into action on their own against the proposed constitution and related antilabor policies. In her Guardian article “Egyptians are being held back by neoliberalism, not religion,” Rachel Shabi noted that “the proposed constitution reveals more of the Brotherhood’s conservative economics. It has a clause that pegs wages to productivity. It stipulates that only ‘peaceful’ strikes (whatever that means) are allowed.

“Small wonder, then, that the factory-dense city of Mahalla declared itself an independent state, in protest at Morsi’s anti-union laws. Since he came to power there has been a wave of strikes; not just factory stoppages but also health worker strikes and consumer protests at eroding public services.”

The UK’s Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network reported that the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions was supporting protests against the constitution: “In the video produced by activist film-makers collective Mosireen, Fatma Ramadan from EFITU’s Strike Committee unpicks the propaganda. ‘This constitution is biased in favor of the rich against the poor’ she says, ‘it is in favor of the powerful against the powerless and the rulers against the ruled.’”

The Revolutionary Socialists in Port Said took their campaign for a “no” vote to dozens of factories employing tens of thousands. They pointed to parts of the constitution linking pay rates to production, not to prices; provisions allowing the courts to dissolve unions; and limits on the right to strike.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, a parallel process is taking place of deepening worker insurgency against a post-dictator, pro-neoliberal regime. The Islamist ruling party Ennahda has failed to address unemployment or any of the other grievances that sparked the revolution two years ago. As in Egypt, the ruling party has responded to dissatisfaction with a pro-IMF austerity program by repression, including armed attacks on offices of the UGTT (Tunisian General Labor Union).

Protests were so fierce that the government was forced to make some minor concessions, but its renewed attacks on the UGTT led to a call for a general strike for Dec. 13. In the end the strike was called off, once again after minor concessions were promised, but also because of uncertainty among union members about the chance of a strike’s success. Nevertheless, the continued willingness of workers to leave the job, and the tightening alliance with groups representing women, youth, students, and the unemployed, has sparked discussions in the labor movement about mass actions in mid-January should the government not keep its promises.

Hopefully, such actions will be part of an organized effort at regional labor unity. Further evidence of the potential for such unity can be seen in recent events in Palestine. In September there were rallies against the Paris Protocol, the pro-neoliberal economic components of the Oslo Accords. Then in mid-December, public workers struck for two days over withholding of salaries by the Palestinian Authority.

This proletarian anger comes amidst continued evictions, land theft, beatings, and murders of Palestinians by Israel—including in Gaza, where a “ceasefire” allegedly holds.

Photo: Nasser Nasser / AP