SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 161 - September 2012

Egypt's president strengthens his powers

THREE WEEKS after being sworn in as president, Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood announced his new cabinet. Staying on as defence minister was Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that had ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s ousting 18 months ago. Tantawi was appointed by Mubarak in 1992 and symbolised the attempt of the old regime to cling to power after his fall. But twelve days later Mursi replaced Tantawi and seven other generals. He also cancelled SCAF’s declaration in June that took legislative and executive powers from an elected president.

Mursi was not striking a blow for democracy against remnants of the old regime. Instead, he appears to have reached a deal with these senior officers. Tantawi was awarded Egypt’s highest decoration and appointed a presidential adviser. It seems that senior officers have been assured they will not be prosecuted for bloody attacks on protestors during 2011 or for corruption, and that the armed forces’ business empire will remain intact. Tantawi’s replacement is head of military intelligence, Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi, who is also a member of SCAF.

It is reported that younger officers were unhappy with how the defence ministry was being run and looked forward to the end of the military’s political role. This disquiet was brought to a head following the killing of 16 Egyptian guards near the Gaza border on 5 August. Although still unidentified, the gunmen were widely reported to be jihadists, possibly linked to Al-Qaida.

At the guards’ funeral shoes were thrown at prime minister Hisham Qandil by mourners blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for allowing an Islamists attack. However, it seems the generals have been more widely blamed for their failure to prevent the attack because they were concentrating too much on their political role.

Mursi has moved swiftly and taken advantage of this incident to strengthen the powers of the presidency. He is now in charge of drafting a new constitution and holds legislative power until a new parliament is elected. This should be within 60 days of the new constitution being approved in a referendum.

For the majority of Egyptians, however, there are more pressing issues than the struggle for power between different wings of the ruling elite. In the unbearable summer heat and during Ramadan, when electricity demand peaks, there has been a spate of power cuts and water supply failures. In mid-August a three-hour power cut brought the Cairo metro, used by over one million people during rush hour, to a standstill. Much of the country has been hit by rolling 90-minute cuts, with some areas having no power overnight. Whole neighbourhoods have had their water supply turned off.

Electricity and water shortages have led to a wave of protests across the country. On 1 August, 17 strikes and sit-ins took place. Main roads and railway lines have been blocked. In the Saft-el-Laban area of Giza the popular neighbourhood committee – formed at the time of Mubarak’s overthrow – occupied the local government building.

In Beni Suef and Alexandria people have refused to pay electricity bills. The Socialist Popular Alliance Party has launched a ‘we will not pay’ campaign, also linked to the massive heaps of uncollected rubbish in the streets. Such campaigns could grow quickly, but should be linked to a clear programme calling for democratic workers’ control of electricity and water distribution, and massive investment in Egypt’s creaking infrastructure, including recycling water and sustainable sources of power such as sun and wind.

Mursi said: "We are aware of all the problems occurring in the country, and everything that the people are going through". However, he warned that the security forces would not tolerate protestors who "adversely impacted national productivity". (Ahram Online, 13 August) He is under pressure from his big-business backers to crack down on strikes and this will lead to increasing confrontation with workers and the poor.

After a fall in strikes during April and May, Mursi’s election in June was a trigger for workers to move into action, without waiting for him to deliver much-needed improvements. Four days after he was installed as president, 1,500 Ceramica Cleopatra workers demonstrated outside his palace; 24,000 textile workers at Mahalla struck only two weeks after the election. Hundreds of Torah Cement workers occupied the plant in July demanding that their temporary contracts be made permanent. Many have been on temporary contracts as long as 17 years. Workers took solidarity action in support of all these disputes, either at other plants in the same company or permanent workers supporting those on temporary contracts.

Fifteen hundred Sukari gold mine workers went on strike for nine days demanding reinstatement of 34 sacked colleagues, including leaders of the independent trade union. There are now 800-900 independent trade unions, formed since the January 2011 uprising. Combined with an increasing class consciousness around issues to do with high living costs and power cuts, etc, this could well translate into mass solidarity strikes if one big workforce takes the lead.

Mursi was careful to appoint a government in which the Muslim Brotherhood did not appear to have a majority. Of the 35 ministers, 25 are so-called ‘technocrats’ or from the old regime. Mursi hopes they will share the blame for his government’s inevitable failure to meet the aspirations of its supporters, let alone the three-quarters of Egyptians who did not vote for him. There has already been a fall in support for the Brotherhood since the election and this will accelerate as it becomes clearer to workers and the poor that their needs are not being addressed.

The last government awarded public-sector workers a pay rise and Mursi has raised armed forces’ pay. But there is no money in the state budget to cover these rises. The bread subsidy accounts for 6% of all government spending and is projected at $2.63 billion in the 2012/13 state budget, compared to $1.78 billion in 2011/2012. With sharply rising global prices, Egypt will be hit hard as it imports more wheat than any other country.

Foreign currency reserves are around $15.5 billion, enough to cover only three months of imports. The last government was discussing a $3.2 billion IMF loan, which the new finance minister now says could rise to $4.8 billion. The IMF will demand massive cuts and the government has already made plans to slash fuel subsidies by 27%.

The most important task facing revolutionary workers and youth in Egypt is to further build the confidence of the working class in its own strength. Organising, strengthening and building independent trade unions, and also going on to create a mass workers’ party, can unite workers together to fight for their interests. A programme that meets the needs of the masses on the pressing issues of jobs, low pay, lack of good quality affordable housing, free healthcare and education, could rapidly gain support. Hamdeen Sabbahi’s Nasserist campaign in the presidential election, where he came third, showed the potential for this.

This programme should be linked to the need for a democratic socialist planned economy with nationalisation and workers’ control of all the big corporations and banks. The wealth produced by the majority could then be used for the benefit of all, instead of it being stolen by the capitalists and their military and political defenders.

The popular neighbourhood committees that started to develop after 25 January, together with workplace committees, could redevelop and expand on the basis of new revolutionary upsurges and be the basis for genuine democracy, linking these together at local, regional and national level. A democratically elected, genuinely revolutionary constituent assembly could draw up a constitution that would defend the rights of all, including religious and national minorities. A majority government of workers and poor would act in the interests of the majority in society, and be a powerful example for workers and the poor throughout the Middle East, North Africa and across the world.

David Johnson


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