Egypt shaped at the grass roots

While headlines in global media focus upon candidates for the presidency and new parties jostling for electoral advantage, the dynamics of change in Egypt are being shaped at the grassroots
Philip Marfleet
25 June 2011

After six months of political tumult familiar problems dominate the lives of most Egyptians. What is the price of bread? Are jobs available – and what do they pay? Will we be evicted from the land? Can we feed our children? There is huge popular interest in headline political issues – corruption trials, electoral reform, and the defence of rights and freedoms gained since the overthrow of President Mubarak. But matters of survival remain key questions which receive little attention in most analysis of the revolution.

According to Egyptian government figures, over twelve months to May the price of bread and grains soared by almost 33 per cent. Food prices overall rose by almost 20 per cent: the cost of some basic foods has risen so fast they are now beyond the means of most families – as in the case of tomatoes, which are more than twice as costly as a year ago. Meanwhile there have been acute shortages of fuel oil and of butane gas, used for cooking in many homes. In May, 2,000 people in villages near the southern city of Assiut blocked the main road to Cairo in protest at shortages of gas cylinders. In the Delta town of Kafr al-Sheikh people fought gas distributors in front of the main supply store.

Economic pressures that help to explain mass involvement in the events of January and February have intensified and are driving all manner of popular protests and demands upon the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military government which has succeeded Mubarak. In the past most Egyptians suffered largely in silence. The freedoms gained since February allow public expression of their woes - and everywhere there is evidence of both extreme distress and of determination to address it.

Officially the unemployment rate has risen to 12 per cent. Egyptian economists believe the real rate is much higher, perhaps closer to 30 per cent and rising - in part an outcome of the return to Egypt of migrant workers who had been employed in the Gulf states and in recent months of over 200,000 Egyptians who had been working in Libya. Ahmed el-Sayyed el-Naggar of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies says that for decades the Mubarak regime concealed real levels of unemployment and especially of joblessness among youth. On May 27, a second “Day of Rage” in Tahrir Square, a million demonstrators raised employment as a pressing issue for the revolutionary movement; days later there was a further protest outside parliament.

The determination of those protesting in a climate of open expression is captured in events outside Cairo’s Maspero television centre. Here hundreds of homeless people are camped out, their tents and blankets spread along the pavements of one of Cairo’s busiest streets. They lost their homes in 2008, when a rockfall in the neighbourhood of Duweiqah destroyed scores of buildings, causing over 100 deaths: the disaster was widely attributed to illicit activity by unscrupulous property developers favoured by the Mubarak regime. Some 1,300 families were at first placed in a temporary camp in which, they say, conditions became intolerable. Destitute and increasingly desperate they have demanded different treatment from the post-Mubarak government and are calling to be re-housed.


Among the banners at Maspero one reads: “Six months have elapsed [since Prime Minister Essam] Sharaf took office, we have the right to stage a sit-in.” The senior policeman at Maspero says he dare not challenge the demonstrators to leave: “The police have learned their lesson,” he told the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. “Any kind of confrontation between the police and the people would have catastrophic consequences.” Maspero is within sight of the ruined headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party – stormed and then set aflame on the first “Day of Rage”, 28 January.

This episode contains many features of the wider national drama. People under acute pressure have been empowered by the revolutionary movement to undertake public protests which bring them into confrontation with local and national officials: there is a nervy stand-off with security forces which, damaged by the uprising, hesitate to discipline them in the old ways.

In March Prime Minister Sharaf issued a decree that criminalised demonstrations and strikes, prescribing severe punishment for those involved - imprisonment or heavy fines (up to 100,000 Egyptian pounds [£10,500]) - for those who “during the current state of emergency call for demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, or gatherings, or participate in any of the above, leading to the impediment or the obstruction of any of the state institutions or public authorities from performing their role”.

SCAF would like to make demonstrative statements about its authority by implementing the decree. Troops intervened twice in events in Central Cairo during April and May, producing outrage among activists and protests from a host of opposition groups. The army subsequently kept a lower profile until in June the prime minister announced that the decree would be applied forthwith. Most street protests and major industrial disputes nevertheless continue without interference.

Workers in the important Nag Hammadi aluminium works - the largest industrial complex in the south of the country - recently occupied the plant for several days, demanding an increase in bonus payments and allowances, jobs for members of employees’ families and the resignation of the managing director. The army was present but did not intervene. Workers’ leader Effat Bahig said: “The army is securing the sit-in but there’s nothing more they can do.” The dispute ended when management promised immediate action on the workers’ demands.

Of special concern to the senior military men of SCAF are three national networks of activists which have grown rapidly in recent months. Independent trade union groups have been established in workplaces across the country, organising strikes and sit-ins which demand increased wages, improved conditions and better pensions, and – a key feature of the movement – the purging of corrupt and bullying managers who prospered under the Mubarak regime. For decades Mubarak was able to rely on the support of union leaders who were part of his state bureaucracy – a highly paid and privileged elite which in effect policed the workforce. Mubarak’s fall was followed by furious demonstrations of workers against the leadership of the official Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (ETUF), including an attack on its offices in central Cairo. ETUF chairman Hussein Megawer is currently under investigation for corruption.

The new unions, organised together in the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EITUF), have received enthusiastic support from the international labour movement. They aim to recruit across the public and private sectors, offering solidarity to those in conflict with employers, including the state itself. A key demand supported by many union groups is a national monthly minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (£125). Finance Minister Samir  Radwan has announced a figure of 700 Egyptian pounds for the next financial year, and an aspiration to achieve 1,200 Egyptian pounds within five years. His announcement has infuriated labour activists, who argue that rising prices mean that millions of Egyptians face a crisis of survival and need a significant rise immediately. Employers have opposed even Radwan’s modest 700 pounds: Gamal Bayoumi, head of the Arab Investors Union, told a recent economic forum that wage rises were “a joke” which threatened economic growth. Minister of Manpower Ahmed El-Boraei warned him: “If we say no [to the minimum wage] the Egyptians will hit Tahrir again.”

A second area of popular mobilisation is in the countryside. Here peasants have been reclaiming land gained as a result of reforms initiated in the 1950s under the government of Gamal Abdel-Nasser but which had been “de-sequestered” under Mubarak and returned to landowning families which held title during the colonial era. Since February there have been numerous “encroachments” by peasant groups onto land they cultivated until in the 1990s former landowners invoked a law which allowed them to impose huge increases in rents and offered the option to evict tenant farmers. In May peasant activists established a new national organisation with aims which include the retrieval of land from private owners. The Independent Federation of Egyptian Farmers says it has recruited thousands of fallaheen (cultivators) in 16 provinces across the country.

A third form of mass activity which directly challenges SCAF is local community organising – the emergence nationwide of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. Most towns have several groups: in large cities such as Cairo and Alexandria there are scores of committees and thousands of activists. A national co-ordinating meeting in April agreed an agenda “for immediate goals of the revolution” including: public trials of the deposed president, his family and their collaborators; formation of a civilian presidential council; free parliamentary elections; direct election of governors, city mayors and village chiefs; ending emergency laws; seizure of lands sold illicitly under the old regime for state housing projects; and confiscation from private owners of state enterprises sold as part of privatisation plans.

The influence of these grassroots organisations was evident in May during the second “Day of Rage”. Senior military men, government ministers, media people and established political parties called for a boycott of the protest. The main opposition organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, insisted that its supporters should ignore demonstrations which, it said, were part of “a revolution against the majority of the Egyptian people”. In the event, over a million people rallied to Tahrir Square in Cairo, with 500,000 in Martyrs’ Square, Alexandria. Protestors called for accelerated trials of politicians associated with the Mubarak regime, replacement of corrupt officials and university heads, reform of the security apparatus, establishment of an independent judiciary, an end to the emergency laws, job creation and a fair minimum wage.

SCAF was left with much to consider; so too the Muslim Brotherhood: having publicly opposed the events, its leaders were left to listen to angry protests at their absence, the crowds in Cairo chanting “Tahrir is here! Where is the Brotherhood?” There have been furious debates within the Brotherhood, including allegations by members of its youth section that the organisation is out of touch with popular sentiment; one of the youth leaders, Mohamed Affan, described continuing disputes as a “feud”. In June a significant group of young activists, including Affan, broke away from the Brotherhood to form Hizb Al-Tayyar Al-Masry (the Egyptian Current Party).

Announcement of the new party followed a decision by the Brotherhood’s ruling Shura Council to expel one of its historic leaders, Abdel Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, for announcing that he would run independently for president. Al Fotouh has been associated with the liberal wing of the Brotherhood, and has recently gathered enthusiastic support for his views on democracy, women, civil liberties and Egypt’s Coptic minority, on all of which he has adopted policies close to those of secular reformers.

The Brotherhood remains Egypt’s largest opposition movement, enjoying prestige accumulated over years of opposition to the Mubarak regime. But it has been damaged by defections and expulsions – and by perceptions that it does not represent popular aspirations and is too close to SCAF. Contrary to views often expressed in journalist assessments in Europe and North America, the organisation is not having a free run at elections planned for September; indeed, as the elections approach, it is facing increased difficulties.

Egypt’s revolution continues, driven by intense pressures from below. There is every sign that unresolved problems of daily life are proving more and more important – that “economic” matters are being combined with demands for political change in increasingly complex ways. Can the generals feed the people? Who will employ jobless youth? Will employers pay the minimum wage? Can the fallaheen retrieve their land? Who has power in the new Egypt? While headlines in global media focus upon candidates for the presidency and new parties jostling for electoral advantage, the dynamics of change are being shaped at the grassroots – in workplaces, villages and in the city streets where the revolution began.

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