Egypt: row over election date

Submitted by Matthew on 29 June, 2011 - 10:35

“There is total class warfare going on in Egypt right now,” Joshua Stacher of Kent State University told Time magazine.

“If [middle-class] people in Cairo and Alexandria get some of their demands met, they could[n’t] care less about minimum wage, or the fact that the healthcare system is complete crap. [They think] ‘You shouldn’t have a minimum wage right now, you’re being greedy.’” (“Has the Revolution left Egypt’s workers behind?” Time, 23 June).

The biggest public debate in Egypt is whether parliamentary elections, scheduled for September, should be postponed. Much liberal and leftist opinion believes they should, and a new constitution be drawn up first. A number of human rights groups, including the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services, recently put out a statement calling for Egypt to follow the example of Tunisia, and ‘put the horse before the cart’, creating a new constitution first.

Of course this raises the thorny question of how the constitution should be written – and by whom?

But there are two fears about the imminent elections. One is that without properly defined new institutions, the army – which since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February has ruled the country – will continue to play a central role; that elections will prove an illusion. The other – probably bigger – is that the new parliament will be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is by far the best organised group (and which will then dominate discussions about the constitution).

Liberal, secular, leftist – and newer – parties simply do not have time to organise.

The Brotherhood, unsurprisingly, wants elections to go ahead. A referendum in March, they say, which saw over 70% in favour of constitutional amendments, is an unquestionable mandate. The parliament, once elected, will then choose a 100 member assembly to draft a constitution.

The Brotherhood has promised to stand candidates in only half the seats. But there are now no less than five political parties which have emerged from the movement – often with very fractious and hostile relations.

The official Brotherhood face is the Freedom and Justice Party.

Perhaps the most significant splinter group is the Egyptian Current Party, formed after around 4,000 members, mainly youth, were expelled – along with the new party’s leader, Abdel Fotouh, who is standing (against the parent movement’s wishes) in presidential elections later in the year. This younger movement, whose members were closely involved in the January revolution alongside other youth movements, is much more liberal and secular: it thinks there should be a separation of religion and politics.

Whether this signals a wholescale crisis in the Muslim Brotherhood is difficult to judge.

A recent opinion poll suggested that only 15% planned to vote for them – which although it might still constitute the largest single vote would be a disaster for a movement which had always been expected to sweep the board in free and fair elections.

Since the fall of Mubarak the Muslim Brothers have worked closely with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. For its part, the army is becoming more and more openly repressive. Thousands have been arrested in recent weeks (and many of them, although they’re civilians, are tried in military courts). A law introduced in March imposes heavy penalties on protests.

And the army has moved against striking workers – for instance in the Suez Canal, where a militant strike has been taking place over wages and conditions. The strike continued despite army intervention. Other – smaller – strikes have been effectively stopped or prevented.

Despite this, the workers’ movement – which was central to the downfall of the dictatorship – has continued to grow. The new Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions now represents the major sectors of the workforce, perhaps one million workers. In April alone, there were 90 labour protests, including 26 sit-ins and 14 strikes.

Previously disorganised and docile sections of the workforce have joined the new movement – including taxi drivers, and the workers who issue marriage licences (who have threatened to strike for higher pay).

The old, discredited state unions have threatened to strike in protest at the new, democratic unions’ success!

But liberal and bourgeois forces, including some of the youth movements at the centre of the Tahrir Square protests, have demanded that workers stop making ‘excessive’ demands.

The army and the government, of course, echo this sentiment. At the same time – despite repressive measures – they are trying to appease the workers’ movement to some extent. The government secured a $3 billion loan package from the IMF earlier in June, which like most such agreements would require ‘austerity’ measures. But now the deal has been cancelled, thanks to a reformulated budget, and, for instance, a ‘gift’ of $500 million from Qatar, and other money from the Gulf. The government wants to pump money into welfare, health etc – and has announced a minimum wage (at LE 700 way below the LE 1200 demanded by the unions).

The depth of the economic crisis and the impoverishment of millions of Egyptians is such that such half-measures are unlikely to have much effect. Many workers have literally not been paid in months.

So workers continue to press their demands – which often include the call for the renationalisation of firms sold off under neo-liberal policies since the early 1990s.

A leftist ‘Socialist Front’ has been formed which includes the Revolutionary Socialists, the new Workers Democratic Party, and the Communist Party. Electoral laws make it very difficult for new, poorly funded movements to win official recognition enabling them to field candidates.

But according to some spokespeople of the new coalition, that is the plan.

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