Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2007
Issue No. 869
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The long march

Ammar Ali Hassan* examines the recent history of dissent and the reasons why Egypt's protest movements have so far failed to secure any of their goals

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'The textile workers of Al-Mahala Al-Kubra scored a tangible victory when they went on strike and forced the authorities to respond to most of their demands'; 'The social movements pressing for change have suffered from structural weaknesses. They have lacked clear and cohesive ideological frameworks, grassroots links and channels of communication. Many also appeared to believe the received wisdom -- belied by considerable historical evidence -- that the Egyptian masses are inherently apathetic, politically unaware and instinctively disinclined to participate in protest movements'

After a three-year flux dissent in Egypt has ebbed. The authorities have regained full control of the reins and recovered the ground ceded to those who marched for political, economic and social reform. The country is now in a state of cautious anticipation. We are passing through the silence that precedes the storm, and it is interrupted only by isolated outbursts of protest by workers, or by the inhabitants of urban slums or farmers suffering the effects of the new property law regulating the relationship between landlord and tenant. The movements pressing for change have gone into hibernation in order to catch their breath, tend their wounds and reformulate their strategies.

This fraught silence is punctuated by the debate between politicians, intellectuals and the general public over the positions of the government, which seeks "stability and continuity", and the opposition which aspires to open the doors to the types of laws and mechanisms that will permit the peaceful rotation of power and the exercise of civic liberties. The controversy centres on the pace of change, with each side seizing on specific events, concrete material evidence and existing problems to justify their respective positions in an attempt to win the support of the silent majority.

What the government proclaims to be its greatest successes the opposition routinely decries as the most dismal failure. Each side cites statistics to support its point of view, indifferent to any contradictions in the facts and figures they quote. In this respect, the opposition is at something of an advantage. The public listens to it because what it claims accords with what they see around them whereas the government's claims of economic growth seems to bear no relation to a crumbling healthcare and education system, inflation, housing shortages, soaring prices, clogged litigation channels and ongoing human rights abuses.

Egyptian politics are caught in another tug-of-war, centred on the regime's determination to introduce an arrangement for succession unknown since the 1952 Revolution. Concerned with its inability to drum up popular support for this move, and loath to adopt a confrontational approach that could be counterproductive, the government has adopted a policy of gradually paving the way, constitutionally and legally, for its preferred succession scenario while simultaneously attempting to woo the administrative and economic elites. The opposition, meanwhile, seeks to propel Egypt beyond totalitarianism, however much it is dressed in pseudo-democratic garb.

The situation has thrown a lifeline to the reform process in Egypt despite the attempts of the authorities to induce coronary arrest. The government has consistently failed to introduce sustainable alternatives, and pays little heed to the conventional wisdom that states that the more the pressure builds the more likely an explosion becomes. Instead it has placed all its intellectual and material stock at the service of a short-range vision that seeks to circumvent demands for reform through a series of constitutional amendments that take rather more than give, while engaging in rhetoric that promises the construction of thousands of factories, the creation of millions of jobs, without furnishing any details of how any of this is to be done. It promises rights voided of substance, makes commitments on which it then reneges.

The forces of reform have yet to develop to a point where they can confront such tactics as they struggle to keep the embers of change alight. Circumstances have forced them to grasp the stick in the middle, working to mobilise the public behind reform on the one hand and, on the other, appealing to authorities to effect change on the grounds that it is the only way ahead.

In this stagnant situation the textile workers of Al-Mahala Al-Kubra scored a tangible victory when they went on strike and forced the authorities to respond to most of their demands, in contrast to the political and intellectual opposition elites who are absorbed in discussing just how three years of activism, that came to include members of an important sector of the governing system -- the judiciary -- and members of an other vital sector -- the press -- could have achieved so little -- could, indeed, have resulted in a situation where, for the first time in Egypt's history, prison sentences have been passed the editors-in-chief of five opposition newspapers.

The contrast between workers directly engaged in effectively pushing for their rights and the sight of the intelligentsia wringing its hands in scattered ivory towers epitomises Egypt's current political plight. Any connection between the intelligentsia and the masses has been severed and the intelligentsia itself is in complete disarray. The government has been able to thrust its political and security weight into the breach and rout protesting opposition forces while simultaneously raising public suspicions over the motives and connections of opposition leaders and civil society activists.

The government has also succeeded in absorbing foreign pressure to democratise without yielding anything in substance. It responded half-heartedly to some demands, loosening the reins on the press, modifying the constitution, allowing a modicum of integrity in the first and second rounds of the 2005 legislative elections, lifting sentences on some senior judges and allowing Kifaya and others to organise limited demonstrations. But when foreign pressure subsided the authorities not only quickly retracted whatever offerings it had made but began to gnaw away at a quarter of a century's progress towards political reform. As a consequence, the situation is now worse than it was before the years of protest. Anti-terrorism legislation is to replace the emergency law, constitutional articles championing public and private freedoms -- among the best features of the 1971 constitution -- have been voided of any meaning, all reference to "socialism" has been removed along with constitutional safeguards of the rights of the poor and marginalised, and articles have been introduced that are tailored to promote hereditary succession and to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of government. Then the authorities brought out the cudgels to beat back protesters and prevent them from demonstrating again. Security forces have hunted down and arrested demonstrators and members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the press has been muffled.

Why, though, has the movement for reform failed so miserably in its aims?

Firstly, there is an enormous gap between the agenda of the activist intelligentsia and that of the masses. The latter are concerned with their immediate needs as they face daily the results of economic policies that long since eroded the middle-income sector of society. The intelligentsia, on the other hand, focus on questions of political reform, most notably constitutional change and a broadening of civil liberties. Egyptian history testifies to the fact that the Egyptian people are sometimes prepared to withdraw from involvement in the affairs of government in favour of attention to their immediate social and economic concerns. Indeed, in tending to the latter they have evolved a unique genius for managing their lives independent of government. Only when the latter encroaches on their livelihood or fails to protect them from foreign aggression do they leap to their own defence. The bread riots of 18- 19 January 1977 and, before that, the wave of student protests demanding Anwar El-Sadat recapture the Sinai, are evidence enough of this phenomenon.

Secondly, the general public has lost faith in a political and intellectual vanguard that has long been co-opted by the regime and that presented a blank cheque to the authorities during the period of violent Islamist activity between 1988 and 1997. When the regime recovered its equilibrium it turned against the intelligentsia, taking advantage of their earlier concessions to distort their image and to corner them into a position from which they had no alternative but to toe the government line or remain silent.

Thirdly, there are no effective political intermediaries between the people and the authorities. Opposition parties have become part of the regime, their sole purpose to serve as pluralistic window-dressing. Professional syndicates were thoroughly depoliticised and prominent social and political rivals routinely eliminated; whenever a figure that stood for certain values and principles acquired any kind of standing in the eyes of the people he was kicked upstairs and kept out of the public sight until his influence vanished. As a result, the people have had no alternative political leaders in whom they could place their trust.

Fourthly, the regime is backed by an enormous security apparatus, consisting of more than 1.25 million central security soldiers, a huge civil police force and a vast network of informers and undercover agents. The security forces can easily put down organised protests. It has the resources to employ various divide-and-conquer and infiltration tactics to pre-empt or throw into disarray any drive towards mass protest.

The regime also retains a tight grip on all public policy, the national budget and the nation's material resources above all. This cosy intertwining between the regime and the powers of the state has enabled the authorities to convert the nation's economic resources into political capital. It can purchase loyalty, finance the electoral campaigns of friends and supporters, and tie the average citizen to the regime through his stomach by means of grants and restraints, promises and threats. In spite of privatisation, the regime's control over public money is as secure as ever and its power to steer the course of all legislative, financial and social processes connected with economic deregulation has not dwindled in the slightest.

The social movements pressing for change have suffered from structural weaknesses. They have lacked clear and cohesive ideological frameworks, grassroots links and channels of communication. Many also appeared to believe the received wisdom -- belied by considerable historical evidence -- that the Egyptian masses are inherently apathetic, politically unaware and instinctively disinclined to participate in protest movements.

Foreign powers, too, have been opportunistic in their handling of the momentum that had built up for reform. Initially, the Egyptian national movement benefited from the pressures Washington exerted on Arab regimes to democratise. As much as they realised that Washington was acting out of self-interest, the Egyptian government's need not to anger the US brought some positive developments, notably a broader margin for freedom of assembly, some freedom to organise protests and relative fair parliamentary elections. In this climate the movement acquired considerable impetus and was able to raise the level of its demands and even break a number of taboos, the latter perhaps best exemplified by the slogan "No to an extension of the presidential term and no to hereditary succession." Sadly the glimmer was short-lived. Once the US realised that reform could pave the Islamists' way to power it stood aside. The Egyptian regime then pounced in order to push everything back to square one.

The foregoing have given rise to a situation in which the regime holds almost total power to tailor policy to its own purposes and call it reform. The fragmented opposition is too weak to offer a solid alternative and the future remains open to conjecture and fraught with fear. The current situation is one in which those who seek to retain their grip on power are doing so in the most illogical manner, and with nothing but the shortest-term vision, while those who seek change lack the means to turn the rudder in a direction that will steer Egypt away from chaos or from total capitulation to the status quo. Meanwhile, it appears highly that some fluke of fate will see power passing to an elite possessed of a sincere and unshakable faith in true democracy.

Yet the circumstances cited above are not fated to last forever. They can be overcome. Indeed, the recent protests by workers, farmers and marginalised urban dwellers have offered some hope. As long as the reasons to protest continue, the Egyptian people must inevitably return to the march.

* The writer is director of the Middle East Studies and Research Centre, Cairo.

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