Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 December 2007 - 2 January 2008
Issue No. 877
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Conciliation versus conflict

Al-Ahram Weekly reviews the headline-grabbing stories of 2007 and assesses the ways in which they will impact on 2008

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President Mubarak, NDP chairman and other party leaders holding the reins of power. Their philosophy of gradual change has informed the move towards reform and democratisation with Gamal Mubarak occupying an ever more prominent position in the overall scheme; Workers, judges, professionals and MPs: protests in unprecedented numbers have reinstituted the culture of demonstrations throughout the country, with the right to protest or strike being used to back a wide range of causes

Is the domestic turmoil of the last year an inevitable harbinger of reform or does it signal regression? Certainly any overview of the past 12 months could not help but stress how the nation has become seemingly more divided as the government and the ruling National Democratic Party appeared intent on pursuing their own agenda, with or without the consent of opposition forces, introducing changes, not least an overhaul of the constitution, that will shape political life for years to come. Then there was the phenomenon of ordinary members of the public, professionals and workers alike, taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to demand that the government act to alleviate the problems they face at a time when inflation is rising while salaries remain as low as ever. Cautious against the fallout of mass protests, the regime adopted a softly-softly approach to industrial action, acceding to many of the strikers' demands.

Changes to the constitution removed all references to socialism as well as paving the way for the replacement of emergency laws by anti-terror legislation. They also eliminated full judicial supervision of elections, opening the door to opposition charges that they will facilitate vote rigging, and made it virtually impossible for opposition parties to field a presidential candidate.

The Muslim Brotherhood faced a major crackdown when the state arrested several senior figures, including businessmen accused of financing the activities of the banned group. Undeterred, the group announced its intention to establish a political party. Meanwhile, officially recognised opposition parties were increasingly mired in internecine struggles that paralysed them as an effective political force.

Bending to the storm

FOR THE LAST 12 months Egyptian foreign policy has been circumscribed by attempts to navigate a course through a series of political storms that has left the Middle East more unstable than ever. Towards the middle of the year, in June, Egypt woke to a summer squall as bloody Palestinian in-fighting escalated in Gaza and ended with the Hamas take over of the economically devastated and politically agitated strip that lies on Egypt's eastern border.

The Hamas take-over was the nail in the coffin of Egyptian -- and to a lesser extent Saudi -- attempts to mediate in the bitter dispute between Fatah and Hamas. It announced the failure of Cairo's attempts to promote the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, chaired by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as an effective, "moderate" alternative to "radical" Hamas.

Egypt's security/intelligence delegation pulled out of Gaza but the cold shoulder policy, together with measured humanitarian assistance, failed to have any impact on Hamas even as its military victory turned into stifling political isolation and the UN and other humanitarian organisations began to warn of a potentially devastating humanitarian crisis.

Then, as the year ground to a close, came the failure of the Annapolis conference, intended to offer a "moderate" bolthole -- for the region and not just Gaza -- and provide shelter from the weakened but undefeated storm of Hamas and its allies Iran, Syria and Hizbullah.

The fate of Annapolis -- where the Israelis offered nothing, and certainly not a freeze on settlement activities, to the inexplicably optimistic Arab delegations that attended under the Arab League banner -- echoed the failure of another Washington-inspired initiative to promote "moderation" at the beginning of the year, the Dialogue Mechanism 6+2+1. The coalition brought together the US, Egypt, Jordan and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain) in an attempt to counterbalance the growing regional influence of Iran which, in the face of the miserable US failure in Iraq, has been growing exponentially. Though the 6+2+1 grouping struggles on, it failed even to promote calls for moderation in Lebanon, where a year-long political crisis between the government of Fouad Al-Siniora, supposedly a hero of moderation, and the political opposition headed by one of the uncontested leaders of "radicalism" in Middle East -- Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah -- continues unabated.

Lebanon's political crisis proved too tough for the mediation not just of Egypt, which has for long played a hands-off approach towards this file, but for the efforts of French diplomacy and the shrewd political tact of Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

In the closing days of 2007, Lebanon's "radical" camp had not only withstood the collective support offered to the Al-Siniora government by Egypt, other Arab moderates, including the secretariat of the Arab League, France and the US, the Al-Siniora camp itself seemed to show signs of implosion as calls emerged from within that it should move to accommodate the influence of Hizbullah.

In attempting to face up to the storm of radicalisation -- as perceived in Cairo -- Egyptian diplomacy was attempting to promote the nation's basic interests by preventing the Islamisation of politics in the Arab world, the fear being that this would compound Iranian political expansion.

Cairo is not alone among Arab capitals in being apprehensive over the change in Washington's tone towards Tehran, especially as manifested in the recent Gulf security conference that convened earlier this month in Bahrain. Egypt has also been cautious over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls earlier in the year, and repeated this month, to normalise diplomatic relations between Iran and Egypt severed three-decades ago.

The shadow of Iran has also fallen across Egyptian-Syrian relations, which reached a particularly low ebb in 2007 following the pact that Damascus struck with Tehran.

Egypt's battle against "radicalism" is likely to continue into next year, though tactics and fronts may change. Cairo's support of moderate allies will continue, complemented by efforts to win new friends, particularly to the east. Syria, the expected chair of the next regular Arab summit in March 2008, is likely to be the subject of intense diplomatic engagement.

Dina Ezzat

Grassroots action pays off

"This year the hajj was different because the Egyptian people are different," wrote Ibrahim Eissa, outspoken editor of the independent Al-Dostour daily, on the paper's front page Sunday. "The people are fed up," he added.

Eissa was alluding to the unprecedented sit-in by Egyptian hajj pilgrims in Mina, Saudi Arabia. Their hajj had turned into a nightmare. Stuffed in overcrowded tents surrounded by piles of garbage and raw sewage many of the pilgrims missed hajj rituals and place the blame for their miserable experience squarely on the shoulders of the official Egyptian delegation responsible for overseeing the logistics of the pilgrimage.

By Friday, the last day of hajj, hundreds of Egyptian pilgrims had done the unthinkable. They surrounded Egyptian diplomats in their cars and wouldn't let them out in protest against the "inhuman" conditions they were suffering. Others filed group complaints with the Saudi Hajj Ministry.

Egyptian protests in this most unlikely of places provided a perfect final act for 2007, 12 months that the pundits have variously dubbed the year of civil disobedience, of intifadas or popular awakening.

In a rare consensus columnists in the state-run and opposition press alike agree that the year has been one of grassroots action, with strikes, sit-ins and protests announcing the arrival of street power as people take fate into their own hands.

In 2006 there were 220 protest actions across Egypt. According to the Land Centre for Human Rights (LCHR), a non-governmental organisation, there had been 283 mass actions in the first six months of 2007.

"The hajj protests," wrote Eissa, "are an extension of the strikes and protests that have spread across Egypt. They are a sign that the threshold of tolerance of Egyptians was passed long ago."

In the daily Al-Masry Al-Yom, sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim published a column on how "2007 brought a new spirit of spontaneous readiness for peaceful confrontation with the authorities". In Al-Ahram daily Hazem Abdel-Rahman found in the year's protests "cause for optimism", arguing that they could well mark the beginning of a new era in which dissatisfied citizens demand their rights and the authorities, which in the past turned a blind eye to abuses, are forced to respond positively.

According to LCHR, the majority of industrial action took place in the public sector as workers demanded financial rights.

The year began with the 27,000 strong strikes that broke out in December 2006 at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company complex in Al-Mahala Al-Kubra. During the Mahala strikes workers occupied not only the factory but adjacent streets. Thousands of riot police were deployed but remained unwilling to confront the workers who called off the sit-in only when their demands were met. It was a success that inspired textile workers elsewhere to adopt similar tactics. By February 4,200 employees at the Misr Shebin Al-Kom Spinning and Weaving Company (SSWC) in the Delta had stopped work to protest against the company's seven month delay in the payment of bonuses.

In the capital, workers at the Cairo Poultry Company staged a two-day strike over long delayed bonus payments while at the Mansoura-Spain Company employees embarked on an open-ended hunger strike after salaries were not paid.

In almost every confrontation between workers and the state the government has backed down and acceded to the workers' demands.

The impact of the Mahala strikes extended beyond the textile sector. Train drivers on the Alexandria-Cairo route began their own action to demand better wages and conditions, and were soon joined by Metro drivers in Cairo who started a go-slow in solidarity. In April, workers at flourmills struck forcing the government to abandon plans to cut daily wheat quotas that would have reduced the workers' bonuses by 35 per cent.

On 1 April, employees at the state-owned Egyptian Company for Dairy Products in Mansoura staged a sit-in to protest at plans to merge the company with two others. The plan, they said, was part of a strategy to reduce benefits and lay off more workers. In Tibeen 200 workers at the Arab Sand-Brick Company extended their 12-day strike in protest against plans to liquidate the company. They were joined by 284 Mansoura-Espa--a Company workers, who began a sit-in on 21 April within the factory grounds. Among their demands was the payment of bonuses owed since 1999.

Textiles comprise Egypt's largest industrial sector and its employees are among the world's worst paid. In addition to rock bottom salaries employees across the industrial sector face appallingly dangerous working conditions.

By the end of May, discontent had spread beyond the Nile Valley to the Sinai Peninsula as hundreds of Bedouins staged a sit-in near Arish following the killing of two Bedouins by police. After four days a deal was struck between tribal sheikhs and the Egyptian authorities involving the release of Bedouin prisoners jailed without charge, many of whom had been incarcerated since the Taba bombings.

Industrial action was hitting the headlines once again when, in May, workers in factory after factory escalated their actions to back demands relating to pay, unpaid bonuses and profit-sharing schemes their managements wanted to ignore.

In September, workers at the textile and weaving company Ghazl Al-Mahala began one of the largest industrial protests of the last two decades. Some 27,000 workers again downed tools, continuing the action they had started in December of the previous year. Police forces surrounded the factory only to withdraw, fearing any direct confrontation with the workers.

The workers' demands included the payment of overdue bonuses, an increase in basic pay and basic medical services and transport facilities. They also insisted that board chairman Mahmoud El-Gibali be suspended pending investigation into the alleged misuse of funds, and that union officials attached to the state-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions be impeached.

As the protest continued, demands turned from worker-related grievances to denunciations of the government and calls were made for President Hosni Mubarak to intervene. The strikers carried coffins bearing the names of senior managers as well as Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin. A week later the government finally backed down and agreed to the Mahala workers' demands.

In addition to bread and butter issues the workers have formulated other, more political demands, the most important of which is the call for independent labour unions.

September witnessed more tensions between Sinai residents and the police with protests turning into a fully fledged riot as government offices and infrastructure were targeted. While calm was soon restored the underlying problems between the Bedouin and the authorities -- now clearly visible if unresolved -- are set to spill over into 2008.

Encouraged by the success of workers, university teachers began their own action in November to protest against poor salaries and the security forces' intervention on campuses. On 5 November, 150 university professors stood for an hour in a symbolic gesture mourning the lost dignity of their profession.

Meanwhile, property tax workers, who began industrial action in September, upped the ante. An estimated 9,000 tax workers from across the country gathered in Cairo early December as part of their campaign to secure parity with employees doing similar jobs on the Ministry of Finance's payroll who earn up to 10 times more. When officials continued to ignore them the strikers decided to "sit-in" in front of the cabinet building in downtown Cairo, refusing to go home unless their demands were met. Ten days later the workers brokered a deal with Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali who agreed to begin implementing the strikers' demands beginning next month. If they don't receive their bonuses, the workers say they'll be back in the same place with even more determination on 9 January 2008.

Constitutional change

IN A SPEECH before the People's Assembly on 19 November 2006, President Hosni Mubarak made it clear that 2007 would see "the widest range of constitutional amendments since 1980".

Slightly more than a month later, on 26 December 2006, Mubarak called for 34 articles of the constitution to be amended. On 19 March 2007, after just two days of debate in the People's Assembly the amendments were approved, leading to opposition charges that the National Democratic Party (NDP) had used its parliamentary majority to steamroll and rubberstamp changes. One week later, on 26 March, the amendments were approved by public referendum. According to the Supreme Election Committee, 75.9 per cent of registered voters approved the amendments, a figure disputed by independent observers.

The amendments dominated public debate through most of the year, polarising the political scene into proponents and opponents of the changes. The NDP and its Policies Committee, led by President Mubarak's son Gamal, hailed the amendments -- which rid the constitution of all mention of socialism and asserted that Egypt's political system would henceforth be based on democratic principles of citizenship -- as a milestone in the process of political reform. Parties based on religion were banned, and the process of nominating presidential candidates was made much easier, at least in theory. They presented the amendments as curtailing presidential powers in favour of the cabinet and parliament, and paved the way for the abrogation of the 26-year-old emergency laws and their replacement by anti-terror legislation.

Opponents of the changes slammed them as a major setback, arguing that Mubarak's reforms were little more than an attempt at window dressing. Opposition and independent groups were most concerned with changes to articles 88 and 179. Amendments to Article 88 eliminated judicial supervision of elections, opening the door to the possibility of increased electoral fraud -- while changes to Article 179, it was alleged, threatened to turn Egypt into a police state under the pretext of fighting terrorism. As far as making it easier for presidential candidates to run, the opposition pointed out that the stipulations placed on qualifying candidates made it all but impossible for the opposition parties, let alone the Muslim Brotherhood, to field nominees. The changes, they charged, appeared to have been tailored to bring Gamal Mubarak closer to inheriting power from his father and establishing a new political dynasty.

Local and international civil society organisations joined political groups in criticising amendments that they characterised as an attempt to further consolidate the NDP's monopoly of political life and underwrite the autocratic rule of President Mubarak. The 26 March referendum approving the amendments was, they said, marred by massive vote rigging, a signal of the regime's disdain for due democratic reforms.

Mid-term elections for the consultative Shura Council on 11 June were, claimed the opposition, equally marred by interventions in favour of the NDP. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition candidates won a single seat between them.

Following the constitutional amendments, the People's Assembly is now preparing a raft of highly contentious laws. Moufid Shehab, minister of state for parliamentary affairs, has announced that a host of political and economic laws must now be revised to conform with the amended constitution.

The most contentious piece of new legislation is likely to be the anti-terror bill. The opposition now fears that the bill will be even more draconian than the emergency laws, allowing the police unprecedented powers to detain citizens on suspicion of involvement in terrorist crimes and then refer them to a court of their own choosing, including military tribunals.

The assembly is also scheduled to discuss legislation that will further restrict the holding of public demonstrations inside or around places of worship, and laws that alter judicial supervision, placing all branches of the judiciary under a single council headed by the president of the republic.

Economic legislations will also be reviewed, and the 36-year-old on office of the prosecutor-general eliminated. According to Shehab, this is a necessary extension of moves to rid Egypt of its socialist heritage.

Municipal elections are due in April 2008. The NDP, say political commentators, will win a vast majority of seats thanks in no small part to the constitutional changes of 2007.

Gamal Essam El-Din

A truce within the NDP

THE NINTH congress of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) held in November received massive press coverage. Held under the slogan "With us, Egypt moves forward", the congress saw the continued rise of Gamal Mubarak, the 44-year-old son of President Hosni Mubarak, who was once again thrust into the limelight following his appointment to the NDP's Supreme Council from which the party's candidates for 2011 presidential election will be selected. Although the appointment did not represent a promotion it did, opposition forces argued, make him the most eligible candidate for the NDP presidential nomination. Unlike previous years, Gamal Mubarak did nothing to quash speculation about his ambitions, avoiding what had long been his standard response, that he has "neither the intention nor the desire" to ascend to the presidency.

In the five years since the eighth NDP congress was held under the slogan "a new way of thinking" Gamal Mubarak has accrued enormous influence, and is now regularly viewed as the NDP's number two figure. His support of economic liberalisation and cosy relationships with business tycoons have provided fuel to the opposition who have regularly portrayed him not only as chomping at the bit to inherit power from his father but as someone whose privileged background means he is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Egyptians. A hostile press campaign took him to task for pushing Egypt too fast down the liberal economic path, a position that seemed to be reinforced by the spate of industrial unrest that was a feature of the summer.

Following what was quickly dubbed the summer of discontent, President Mubarak gave orders that social issues should top the agenda of the NDP's ninth congress. Ahmed El-Sayed El-Naggar, an economist with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), told Al-Ahram Weekly that Mubarak's orders reflected concern that the simmering discontent of workers and of those on limited income would play into the hands of the opposition and dissent movements. El-Naggar argues that Mubarak remains unconvinced by his son's liberal thinking. "Hosni Mubarak has always been sensitive towards the social aspects of policy while his son and the liberal economic circle around him seem eager to promote market economy reforms regardless of the consequences."

Recent discrepancies in public announcements on social subsidies made by President Mubarak and the Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif reflect, says El-Naggar, a widening of differences between camps in the NDP. El-Naggar points out that no sooner had Mubarak suggested that a public dialogue over social subsidies was necessary than Gamal, Nazif, the cabinet economic team and businessmen began to backtrack on their insistence of the urgency to phase out the subsidy programme.

Following a meeting last week between Gamal and Nazif statements were issued saying that not only was the subsidy on bread not to be ended, but an additional LE7 billion was to be made available.

Some observers believe that internecine power struggles within the NDP have come to a temporary truce.

"Mubarak has engineered a kind of balance between his son's camp and the old guard, including the new Supreme Council," says ACPSS political analyst Amr Rabie. But he also notes that Gamal Mubarak's "men" have started "Take, for example, the case of business tycoon Ahmed Ezz who now wields a lot of influence in the NDP and parliament," says Rabie, who also points to the powers exercised by the cabinet's trio of economic team, Minister of Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid, Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali and Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin. "This trio appears to be immune to cabinet reshuffles and one of them is expected to be the next prime minister."

Rabie expects that 2008 will see the NDP slow down its economic liberalisation policies while consolidating its grip on power by passing more autocratic laws, and possibly rigging the municipal elections due in April.

Gamal Essam El-Din

Stagnant parties

THE PARALYSIS that has afflicted a majority of opposition parties will continue in 2008: the seemingly endless splits within their ranks, encouraged by the government, are unlikely to end anytime soon.

The liberal Wafd Party's most recent woes began when party chairman Mahmoud Abaza attempted to dismiss Anwar El-Hawari as editor-in-chief of the Al-Wafd newspaper. Differences between El-Hawari and Abaza are reportedly due to the latter's interference in the editorial policy of the newspaper. El-Hawari has publicly called on Abaza to end such interference and stop fomenting discord among the newspaper's staff.

The Hawari-Abaza dispute came just as the party appeared to be improving its performance and regaining credibility following the year-long power struggle between Abaza and former party chairman Noaman Gomaa.

The leftist Tagammu Party continues to suffer from disputes between reformists and the supporters of Rifaat El-Said, Tagammu's chairman since 2004. Reformists have repeatedly threatened to oust the current leadership if it continued to refuse to distance itself from the regime. According to Abul-Ezz El-Hariri, one of El-Said's most outspoken critics in the party, El-Said's policy of rapprochement with the government has undermined the Tagammu's credibility and caused membership to haemorrhage.

Several deadlines have been given to El-Said to implement reforms, including a major revision of the Tagammu's relationship with the regime, to no avail. The reformists are now pinning their hopes on the party's general conference due in March when, says Tagammu politburo member, the public will be "surprised by the emergence of a completely new Tagammu".

Beside electing the party chairman and other senior officials, the conference is empowered to make binding recommendations to improve party performance.

Demands for reform are, if anything, being voiced even more forcefully within the Nasserist Party where ageing leader Diaaeddin Dawoud has been severely criticised for offering what his detractors say is blind support to the party's secretary-general Ahmed Hassan. The dispute hit the courts following internal party elections in April when the results, which saw Hassan retain his post, were questioned in several lawsuits.

"Nothing is going to change for the better though it could well change for the worse," says Farouk El-Ashri, Hassan's rival for the post of the secretary-general.

At the Ghad Party, whose former leader and presidential candidate Ayman Nour is serving a five-year prison term on charges of faking the signatures necessary to have the party licensed, the situation is even worse. Many commentators believe that a ruling, issued by the Shura Council's Political Parties Committee last August, effectively spells the death of the party. The Shura Council judged that the Ghad's former deputy chairman Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who in 2005 challenged Nour as party leader, is the legitimate chairman of the party. The ruling was subsequently upheld by the Cairo Southern Court.

In naming Moussa as the sole legitimate leader of the Ghad Party, the Political Parties Committee pulled the carpet from beneath the current leadership, leaving the Ghad rudderless and divided, with one camp led by Moussa and a second by Ihab El-Kholi, Nour's successor.

Nor has the launch of the Democratic Front Party, officially licensed last May, lived up to expectations. The party, which was greeted optimistically by political analysts, has done little to advance the cause of political reform. The party has been criticised for the absence of any organised structure or working agenda and for its inability to connect with the public. Its activities have been restricted to holding seminars and issuing statements, and its founder members have already been embroiled in acrimonious disputes which culminated with the departure of Ali El-Salmi, who submitted his resignation in October.

Mona El-Nahhas

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