Egypt's longest summer
There are many harsh political battles ahead, writes Dina Ezzat
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Protesters in front of parliament demand higher wages and improved living conditions
With pieces of stone or wood and with spoons and knifes, the angry -- and clearly impoverished -- men hammer harder and harder on the barricades that surround them. They were not shouting through loudspeakers like other striking groups on the now crowded pavement before the People's Assembly. Nor were they paying any attention to the anti-riot police surrounding them, or to passers by. They were just hammering, on and on.
The workers of the once public, now privatised, company were exorcising their anger at having been made redundant, or else for being unpaid, for the last two years. The cause might be different, but the anger was the same, shared by the relatively better off accountants who were also making a niche for themselves on the same pavement to protest the humiliating pension granted by the state to members of the Commercial Workers Syndicate. There was room on the pavement, too, for Ahmed Raafat and his three children. The civil servant had brought his family to the same spot daily to demonstrate against the expulsion of his eight-year-old daughter from school over his failure to provide LE4,000 in donations to the school, an impossible sum given his salary is LE400 a month.
"What role is there for the People's Assembly if it fails to attend to the demands, the legitimate demands, of the people?" asks Sherif Qassem, a member of the Commercial Workers Syndicate. Members of parliament, he says, have paid no attention to the demands of his group.
"This syndicate has over a million members. The family of each of these members averages four people, which means that parliament, and the government, are ignoring the demands of five million people."
Qassem has no doubt who is to blame for the paltry pension allocated to members of the syndicate. He points the finger squarely at Ahmed Ezz, steel tycoon, NDP secretary for organisational affairs and head of the parliamentary Budget Committee, and at Youssef Ghali, NDP member and minister of finance.
"Ezz and Ghali wanted the syndicate to agree to foreign commercial workers being employed in the Egyptian market. We refused because there is already serious unemployment among graduates from the schools of commerce. How can we give away jobs that we don't have in the first place? And why should this have bothered Ezz and Ghali?" asks Qassem.
The message coming from the government, says Qassem, and from the ruling party and the parliament it controls, is clear. "They don't care about us."
Mounir Abbas, a leading member of the syndicate, predicts that the reaction to this show of disinterest will soon become apparent.
"There are several upcoming elections, Shura, legislative and presidential. Our voices, and those of our families, are not going to be raised for the National Democratic Party," Abbas says.
Qassem, Abbas and Raafat hope that the larger the strikes become the more aware the public will be about the urgent need for change.
"We need to get rid of all this humiliation. This is what we need to do," says Raafat. "If we are denied clean food and water; if we are denied decent public transport and if our children are denied education because we are poor then why should we want this government any more? And is it not this government that subjects us to this poverty in the first place?"
But the demonstrations on the pavement before the People's Assembly are unlikely to grow in size, says one State Security officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. What could grow, says the officer, are other manifestations of social and economic frustration. A special division of State Security daily monitors new signs of anger and "increasing" calls for its expression on the Internet. In many governorates, especially in Lower Egypt, says the same officer, security forces keep a close eye on the unlicensed but widely active Muslim Brotherhood as they seek to mobilise the anger of rural communities against the government over lack of clean drinking water, shortages in irrigation water and unfair prices offered for crops.
"There is no doubt we are facing a lot of work. We are not expecting a major crisis but there is much to be done if we are to make sure things do not get out of hand ahead of the elections," the officer says.
According to the state security apparatus and National Democratic Party sources, the road to the legislative elections due in October must be clearly paved. What they mean is that the Muslim Brotherhood -- qualified by both the party and in security quarters as the major political adversary -- should be denied any chance to mobilise the masses or to garner the kind of support that will see them win large numbers of seats.
It is an open secret that the NDP will leave no stone unturned to minimise the seats to be won by the Muslim Brotherhood to less than the 88 seats they amassed in the 2005 legislative elections. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone with a good grasp of the domestic political scene who predicts that the Muslim Brotherhood will manage to secure more than 30 out of the 518 seats that will be contested.
"We know that this is the word that is being spread around but we are not giving up. We are ready to run the political race, not just for the legislative elections but also for the Shura elections next month," says Saad El-Katatni, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who joined the 2005 People's Assembly as an independent.
For the mid-term elections of the Shura Council the Muslim Brotherhood are fielding 14 candidates. Since it was set up in 1980 the Shura Council has had no Muslim Brotherhood members. This time, El-Katatni says, he is "confident this will change".
And he is confident for one, simple reason -- the growing public awareness that participation is crucial and that support should be withheld from symbols of a regime that has failed to attend to the basic social and economic, let alone political, rights of the people. "Nobody can deny," says El-Katatni, "that people are looking for change."
El-Katatni would probably be surprised to find himself agreeing with some members of the so- called "Modern Guard" of the ruling National Democratic Party. They, too, argue that the battle ahead, starting with the Shura elections next month and leading to the presidential elections in less than 18 months, is between those who call for change -- some want it under the umbrella of the NDP and others argue it needs to be away from the ruling party -- and those who want to keep the status quo, albeit with minor adjustments.
"We lost some early battles but we have not lost the war, not yet anyway," says a New Guard affiliate of the ruling party. According to this high level member, the wing calling for "considerable reforms" within the ruling party failed to push as many "new faces" on the list of candidates for the Shura Council elections as they would have liked. They also failed, he said, to win the argument over ending the emergency laws. The state of emergency was renewed, with some constraints, for two years last week.
Stephanie David, Middle East and North Africa Desk director of the International Federation for Human Rights, is concerned over what she qualifies as "a direct link" between the renewal of the emergency laws, enforced since the assassination of president Anwar El-Sadat in October 1981, and the upcoming political process in Egypt that will kick off next month with the Shura Council elections.
David fears that, with no clear definition of the term "terrorism", which the government insists, along with drug trafficking, the emergency laws are there to fight, "in the end the emergency laws will simply be used to keep the street under control".
David is not only worried about the political activists that have already been subject to human rights violations under the emergency laws, as detailed in a national report put out earlier this year by the International Federation for Human Rights. She is also worried about other groups. "Bloggers, for example," she says, "could be targeted by the easy-to-throw allegation of attempting to disturb public order."
David points out that in June the government of Egypt will be asked by the UN Human Rights Council to make clear commitments that its emergency laws are not used to harass political opponents.
"We have already seen the problems encountered by some sympathisers of [Mohamed] El-Baradei in Fayoum and in Kuwait and we are concerned that we might see a multiplication of these cases," she says.
Some national and international human rights organisations are coordinating efforts to get the government of Egypt to pledge before the international community that it will not exert excessive pressure on the opposition in the months ahead.
The problem, says El-Katatni, is that the regime's record contains little to suggest that the political process of the next 18 months will be conducted in an atmosphere of freedom. "If the regime decides to free political detainees now that the application of the emergency laws have been subjected to theoretical constraints then that may be a good sign," he said.
NDP and government sources suggest that a blend of firm but careful security measures and a more aggressive public presence on the part of NDP and government figures will be enough to deter the "un-tolerated" opposition. The kind of scenes recorded by the cameras of foreign journalists -- of security officers in uniform or in civilian clothes physically attacking and harassing the opposition -- which have marred previous elections will not, says one source, feature in the forthcoming polls.
Mamdouh Qenawi, leader of the Constitutional Social Liberal Party, is sceptical. The regime, he argues, will not voluntarily opt to grant greater freedoms in the absence of any truly effective political momentum. "Unfortunately this momentum is lacking, especially on the side of the masses who still refrain from political participation," he said.
A group of students at Ain Shams University who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about their political views -- or rather the lack thereof -- showed no interest in, much less awareness of, the upcoming elections. Some said that they did not care while others suggested that while they were generally aware of political developments they were also too busy preparing for their exams to pay much attention.
NDP sources say they would be able to impress those who insist that the next elections are doomed to be marred by violations. They insist that there is an ongoing debate within the ruling party and indeed within the government, to allow the monitoring of civil society -- national and international.
They also say that the government has been instructed by the president himself to show more sensitivity towards the concerns and demands expressed by demonstrators and other frustrated groups. It has even been suggested by some that the president might induce an untypical cabinet reshuffle before the legislative elections to send a clear message to public opinion that he will not tolerate a government that is resented by the public.
"A crucial part of securing political transformation is to pave the way for such a transformation. This could be the outcome of the political process of the next months," argues Gamal Abdel-Gawad, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the NDP.
Abdel-Gawad suggests there is growing awareness that the government needs to work to restore public confidence if it is to be in a position to introduce the kind of changes that promote the social, economic and political rights of citizens.
"In the absence of an alternative political elite to take over from the current ruling political elite any change will have to be worked from within," he says.
According to Abdel-Gawad, there is an attempt from within the NDP to help induce such change by fielding candidates, especially in the legislative elections, who are better qualified to represent both the party and the interests of the people -- "candidates that not only enjoy public support within their constituencies but who also represent national interests".
Amr Elshobaki, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, is less sanguine about the possibilities. "Change requires willingness on the part of the regime to accept new and clearly expanding political forces. So far there have been few signs that it will."
Elshobaki argues that the regime cannot indefinitely defer its response to the kinds of political questions posed by El-Baradei and by new groups, of predominantly young men and women, like 6 April, on democraticisation.
"It might be more convenient for the regime to deal with opposition parties that have not been able to amass enough political weight to garner public support for their call for change. Sooner or later, though, the regime will need to change its attitude."
Elshobaki is not very confident about how far these new political forces, El-Baradei included, can go. He is sure, however, that "Egypt is getting ready for change and it will come sooner or later. "
The signs of this readiness for change are many, he says. They include divisions reported from within the ruling party, the failure of the traditional parties to attract public opinion and the growing signs of frustration manifested in the increasing number of strikes and sit- ins.
One crucial element of change relates to the plans of 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. Will he stand in the presidential elections scheduled for October 2011? Today, the consensus is that Mubarak is planning to be the NDP's candidate, and will run under the current constitution which does not allow for independents, like El-Baradei, to stand. The consensus is also that Mubarak is not the type of leader to introduce sudden or surprising changes, not after 29 years in office.
If Mubarak does not run then it will be a totally different game, even if Mubarak's younger son, Gamal, succeeds his father. There are those who argue such a scenario will inevitably bring the kind of changes they prescribe. Others argue the result would be disturbing.