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Egypt, Back to Square One

Alina Mogilyanskaya Aug 17

In an outpouring sparked off by the Tamarrod, or “Rebellion,” campaign, unprecedented numbers of Egyptians took to the streets calling for an end to the presidency of Mohamed Morsi on June 30. The campaign, begun by five revolutionary youth, managed to garner 15 million signatures on a petition calling for Morsi to step down. Those youth found an unlikely partner in the military, which followed up on the massive protests by ousting Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. How did Egypt come to this point, and where is it going? Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East history at Stanford University and author of numerous books and publications, including the report Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, shared his thoughts with The Indypendent.

Alina Mogilyanskaya: There were an enormous variety of people who came out onto the streets on June 30 to protest Mohamed Morsi’s presidency. What’s the connection between that and the thousands of protests that we’ve seen in the last year since his election?

Joel Beinin: I think there are two main issues. The first is socio-economic. There had been a very large number of strikes and protests by workers before Mubarak was ousted, and that continued and even escalated during the last two and a half years. We’re talking something like 1,169 worker protests in 2012 alone. The underlying reason is that the economic conditions of life in Egypt have become much more difficult: the price of food went up, there were fuel shortages, and so on. It seems that the army was actually responsible for the fuel shortages because as soon as Morsi was gone — presto! — there was enough gasoline and crude oil on the market.

The other force driving this is that there were very high hopes that Morsi’s government would implement some kind of democratic reforms, in the Ministry of the Interior, in the security forces, in the judiciary. But after the revolutionary thrust of democratizing public life in Egypt, it just didn’t happen. There was great disappointment with the Brothers over that.

AM: After being elected with only 51.7 percent of the vote, Morsi failed to gather potential allies, including leftists and liberals, into a coalition. What does the landscape of the Left look like in Egypt?

JB: To be fair, the Left in Egypt is small, depending on how you define it. And most importantly, it doesn’t have any kind of a broad-based network among Egyptians of the popular classes — only the Muslim Brothers had that. Then there’s a whole range of liberals. Many of them are quite young and have only entered politics in the last several years. It’s important to remember that Egypt is coming off of 60 years of authoritarian rule in which no party, other than the party of the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been persecuted for most of that time and only became legal after Mubarak was ousted, was able to nourish a national presence.

AM: We’ve heard much about growth in independent trade unions since the January 25 revolution, as well as the Morsi government’s less-than-kind disposition toward them. What are your thoughts about the prospect of a real independent labor movement going forward?

JB: There is a contradiction. On the one hand, there is tremendous energy at the base and among the rank-and-file, and it’s fueled by increasingly poor economic conditions and by a sense of liberation, that things are possible now that weren’t possible under the old regime. And that is still very much there and it is one of the important gains of the January 25 uprising, not only for workers but for Egyptians in general. On the other hand, the fact that the overwhelming majority of all worker actions are locally organized means that the workers don’t have a national political vehicle. So there’s not going to be a real workers’ party, there will be several parties that claim to speak for workers but they won’t, in fact, have broad worker support.

AM: Before Morsi’s removal on July 3, Egypt was negotiating with the International Money Fund for a controversial $4.8 billion loan to help stabilize its ailing economy. There’s also a World Bank program in the works. What will be the cost of these loans to the average Egyptian?

JB: When the IMF and the World Bank talk about economic stability, they hardly say anything at all about the ability of the great majority of the people to live at a reasonable standard. The IMF money will mean reduction in government subsidies on fuel and bread, even as most other subsidies have already been reduced. It will mean further reductions in the already pitiful level of social services. It would mean that the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to grow, and that will fuel social unrest. So it’s not, even from the view of enlightened capitalism, a great policy.

AM: You mention the growing gap between the rich and the poor. What does that say about the neoliberal project in Egypt? And what has happened to it since the January 25 Revolution?

JB: Since 1991, the neoliberal project in Egypt was being implemented in a radical and rapid way, because there was no democratic restraint. Since the revolution, it’s been put into suspension. A lot of factories have been closed. New foreign capital has not come. Some previously nationalized companies that were privatized have been ordered by the courts to re-nationalize, but the Muslim Brothers are as committed to the neoliberal free market as Mubarak and his group were. There’s much more public consciousness that these things are a problem, but I’m not sure anybody has a clear political program for an alternative.

AM: There’s been a reincarnation of a sort of Nasserite populist outlook. What concrete effects has it had on the lives of Egyptians? Or has it?

JB: It hasn’t had much of a concrete effect, but there has been a cultural and political revival of Nasser. Culturally, there’s a sense that ’Oh, we’re going back to the good old nationalist age.’ Nasser’s rise to power in 1952 was a military coup like that of July 3, and it became a revolution even though it wasn’t a popularly driven one. But people’s standards of living did improve, the British were expelled, the Suez Canal was nationalized, Egypt became an important player in international politics. The Egyptians are, rightly, proud of these things. But they also, incorrectly I think, associate the army with them. And the army is more than happy to take credit because it gives them cover for what they’re doing now.

AM: After all the abuses we’ve seen the military carry out, why do you think so many Egyptians are still willing to embrace it as an ally?

JB: Frankly, this is a little by mystifying to me. After the military’s shooting at demonstrators, performing virginity tests, and the whole host of abuses that they’ve committed over the last two and a half years, there’s been no retraining, and no military officer has been brought to court and held responsible for the abuses that happened. Nothing! So how could they possibly have learned their lesson if they haven’t even been told that they did something wrong? Maybe one explanation is that it’s the only alternative. Since there isn’t a viable civilian political force other than the Muslim Brothers, this is all we’ve got.