Temporary blog of the CWI

Egypt. Can the current protests lead to regime change?

After several years of relative calm, a wave of protests beginning at the end of September has once again shaken Egypt (see https://worldsocialist.net/?p=383). Although for now, particularly against the background of explosive events in other parts of the Middle East, the protests have lost some momentum, the problems facing the Egyptian masses have still not been resolved.

Igor Yasin from the CWI in Russia, who participated in the Tahrir Square events in 2011, looks at the way forward.

September’s explosion of protests took place against the background of worsening living standards and cuts in social benefits. This marks the start of a new stage in the process of revolution and counter-revolution that has been unfolding in Egypt over the past decade.

After the multi-million strong demonstrations of June 2013 against the government of the former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, Field-Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, leaning on the mass dissatisfaction led the military in a coup d’etat to himself become President. El-Sisi. He demonized the Islamists and used the ‘war against terror’ so as to restore the shaky position of the former regime of Hosni Mubarak. Hundreds of people died as the army moved to break-up of the protests, hundreds more were thrown into prison either with lengthy sentences or condemned to death. But el-Sisi turned out to be a very poor President.

Those who had been ousted from power during the Tahrir Square revolution of 2011, President Mubarak and his inner circle of sons and ministers, were released from prison. The very serious charges of corruption and the murder of protesters were dropped, whilst blame for the murder of the protesters was placed at the feet of ‘criminal groups’ supposedly organised by the Islamic Brotherhood.

With society divided about the results of the Morsi government, which had been moving to establish a more exclusive Islamic state, el-Sisi was even able to enlist the support of part of the left, who saw him as an uncompromising opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood. A Presidential election to legitimise el-Sisi’s rule as President  was held in 2014. His opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi, a left-wing Nasserist and former leader of the 1970’s student movement was an active opponent of the neo-liberal policies of the then Sadat and Mubarak governments. On this basis he enlisted considerable support. But in 2018, el-Sisi was elected unopposed for a second term – his opponents were simply not allowed to run. The only ‘opposition’ candidate who was tolerated immediately declared that he supported el-Sisi’s candidacy.

The el-Sisi government has been leaning on mass fatigue and disappointment after the failure of the Tahrir square revolution to strengthen its position. It has become one of the most authoritarian regimes in terms of the persecution of political activists and journalists. During the September 20th protests, more than 3200 were arrested. Some reports suggest there are up to 60,000 people in Egyptian prisons who should be considered as political prisoners.

The el-Sisi government paints a picture in which it has popular support pointing to the April 2019 referendum, in which 90% supported a constitutional reform to allow el-Sisi to remain in power until 2030. However, even the official figures demonstrate that this “popular support” is built on sand: turnout was barely 44%. The regime’s opponents have boycotted recent elections and this referendum.

Immediately after the de-facto military coup d’etat of 2013, relations with the USA cooled off. However, since Trump has entered the White House, there has been a significant improvement. El-Sisi has also found a common language with Putin and gained the support of Saudi Arabia.

In this context, the 20th September protests were unexpected for the regime, because, as they say, the economy is beginning to emerge from a drawn out crisis. According to the Ministry of the Economy, the economy is expected to grow by 6% this year and the level of unemployment, they claim, is expected to drop to its lowest level of 7,5% in the second quarter of 2019, having reached a record high of 13.4% at the end of 2013.

However, these dry statistics say little about the real suffering of the poor and working class in recent years. Even official statistics talk about a 5% increase in poverty levels in June 2019 compared to 2015, whilst at the same time the World Bank say that about 60% of the population are either poor or are suffering from poverty.

The tourist sector, one of the major sectors in the economy, in which a significant part of the population is employed has not yet recovered from the effects of the terrorist acts and the conflict between the authorities and extremists on the Sinai peninsular. The sector has not yet restored its pre-revolutionary level of income from 2010 and the number of tourists visiting the country has not even been restored to the post-revolutionary level of 2012.

President el-Sisi, who prides himself on his image as a “strongman” and uncompromising opponent of terrorism has proved to be very pliable in negotiating with the international financial institutions and foreign sponsors of his regime. The $12 billion credit received from the IMF three years ago should formally help to improve economic growth, reduce unemployment and inflation. Yet the lion’s share of public resources is spent on servicing the national debt.  The Egyptian people pay a high price for this – the poorest layers of society have even been deprived of the subsidies for basic goods, fuel and foodstuffs, they have suffered rising prices, new taxes and the privatization of state companies.

El-Sisi is known for his absurd and often, revealing, declarations. Maybe one of the best known was when he responded to workers’ protests in 2014 when he said “I cannot give you anything”. He challenged them saying “Don’t keep saying ‘give me!’ If I could, I would give you but I can’t… otherwise you will consume all the country has, you will bury her. I will not even tell you, what I will do with you if you are not patient”.

But recently, the President’s declarations have become the subject of jokes, irony and memes, and el-Sisi himself is called a ‘date” (as in fruit), which in Egyptian slang means a person who considers himself clever, strong and very important, but in public acts stupidly. Laughing in this way at the dictator is just one other sign of political change, an indicator that apathy and fear of the people have been overcome.

And el-Sisi has not even managed to ensure security in the country. Notwithstanding all his tough measures and actual war against extremists, terrorist acts continue in Egypt. 2017 became the bloodiest year ever – about 400 people died in a series of terrorist actions around the country, including as the result of the blowing-up of churches.

It was a big mistake of those lefts, who in 2013-14, against the background of the multi-million protests against the ‘Muslim Brothers’ government, gave critical support to the military, when it moved to remove the Islamic president from power. Of course, it opened the way for repression against anyone who spoke out against the army while it restored the former regime, simply with a new face. In June of this year, ex-President Morsi, without even waiting for the final court decision against him, died during the court proceedings. But today, thanks to the efforts of the military, the Islamists are rebuilding their reputation as the most determined opposition to the repressive and anti-social regime, which opens up for them the possibility of returning to power given the current crisis faced by the regime.

However, in September 2019 the Egyptian protests began with a large degree of spontaneity. The spark for the explosion of discontent was provided by the speeches of the ‘breakaway’ business and former actor Mohamed Ali, who had earlier been fulfilling contracts for the Egyptian army. After falling out with the regime, Ali fled into exile in Spain and began to release a series of videos revealing the corruption and rottenness of the el-Sisi regime with a direct appeal to Egyptians to protest against the current President.

Although the appeal was made by a businessman, who until recently was living the perfectly typical life of a rich Egyptian, the protests caught the imagination of the poor layers of society. Importantly, unlike 2011, the protests were dispersed across the country from Marsa Matruh in the North-West to Luxor in the South. At the same time, because the authorities were afraid of a repeat of 2011 and so blocked the Central squares in Cairo, the protests spread to the poorer regions of the city.

Almost 9 years has passed since the revolution of 2011, which shook the largest country in the Middle East and led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime, which had ruled the country for 30 years. Even then, the internet and social networks were widely used by the protesters. Now the use of modern communication technology has become even easier, notwithstanding all of the efforts of the regime to restrict the spreading of ‘dangerous’ information. At the same time, over those years in the country where the proportion of youth is already high, a new generation has grown up which did not witness the disappointments and crushing of hopes experienced in the aftermath of 2011. They are hungry for change. They are helped by an older layer of the population which remembers the positive side of the 2011 revolution, that fundamental changes are possible if the masses mobilise.

Undoubtedly the struggles in the other Arab countries, Algeria and neighboring Sudan, where mass protests during the course of this year have led to the resignation or removal of the authoritarian leaders have also influenced events in Egypt.

Speaking to us, the Egyptian left activist and trade union leader Vail Tavfik explained that the opposition in the country is divided: some think that it is not possible to shake el-Sisi’s hardline regime; others see in recent events the start of a new revolutionary process such as that that led to the 2011 events, which will inevitably lead to the fall of the regime. Tavfik believes that although it is too early for optimism or pessimism, the protests which broke out on 20th September 2019 represent a qualitative new turn in the development of the political situation in Egypt.

These protests and the appearance of the figure Mohamed Ali, in his opinion, demonstrate that the Egyptian ruling class is split, although they are not yet ready to ditch the el-Sisi regime. They would only be prepared to do that if there is a real development and deepening of the current movement to involve wide layers of workers and poor.

Just as the events of 2011 were not the result of a single spark, but resulted from the culmination of long processes which began even with the protests against the Iraq war in 2003, and then the strikes of tens of thousands of textile workers a few years later, these latest protests are based on accumulated grievances, that remain unresolved.

Today organisations of the working class are weak, repressed and dispersed. After the burning growth of trade unions and workers organisations during the wave of revolutionary upturn, Sisi succeeded in suppressing the activities of the student organisations, trade unions and political organisations by combining harsh repressions with “domestication” methods, to bring them into line. However, the latest protests will only lay the basis for a new start to restore and re-organise the structures of workers organisations, civic, political and the left organisations. They will be able to do this by taking up those issues that face workers and youth today – living standards and jobs, housing, democratic and social rights.

The lessons of 2011 also need to be drawn. The revolutionary movement then succeeded in getting rid of the Mubarak regime but it didn’t have a viable alternative to put in its place. As a result, first the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, and then part of the movement sided with el-Sisi against the Brotherhood. The victory of el-Sisi set the revolutionary movement back. The working class and youth need a political alternative, that can take society forward, by taking the wealth of the country out of the hands of the elite to be used by a democratically planned economy in the interests of the majority; to organize a revolutionary constituent assembly to establish a new society, taking political power out of the hands of the military and their civilian counterparts by replacing it a by a democratically managed society from top to bottom; and establishing a democratic socialist society run and controlled by the working class as part of a voluntary socialist federation of the region.