By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
President El-Sisi’s authoritarian measures of silencing the opposition and pushing through IMF-dictated reforms alienate the militant textile workers and cotton growers of Mahalla, who were relatively untouched by Tahrir. By VIJAY PRASHAD
LARGE, CORRUGATED IRON FENCES BLOCK the road to Tahrir Square in Cairo. The fences are painted with the Egyptian flag. There are, of course, ways to get into the square, but these are few. On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, the mood in Egypt was mixed. Many wanted to take to the streets, if not to protest against the current government then at least to celebrate their feat of four years ago. It required an act of supreme bravery to scale the fences. Nearby, black-clad security forces stood ready, their guns quick to fire.
On Saturday, January 24, a small group of socialists decided to walk quietly into Tahrir Square and lay a large wreath of flowers. It was their desire to commemorate the stillborn revolution by honouring more than a thousand people who died in the revolutionary protests of 2011. One of the martyrs was a 32-year-old poet, Shaimaa el-Shabbag, who had become involved in socialist politics in the crucible of 2011. A masked security man fired on her from not more than 15 metres away. He hit her in the back. She died almost instantaneously. The killing of Shaimaa el-Shabbag shocked the country. She came from a socialist group (the Socialist Popular Alliance Party) that had, as it turned out, supported the overthrow of the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in June 2013. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi spoke of her later as the “daughter of Egypt, as my daughter”. The words rang hollow as President El-Sisi then exculpated the security forces from her death. The apparatus of fear could not be blamed for her virtual execution.
The day before, on Friday, January 23, in the port city of Alexandria, members of the Muslim Brotherhood came out in demonstrations against the El-Sisi government and the coup that overthrew their leader (Morsi). Demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood have been muted over the course of the past few months. Since June 2013, the government has arrested at least 29,000 Muslim Brotherhood members on charges of violence and violation of the anti-protest law (the total number jailed on these charges, according to the Justice Ministry, is over 40,000). Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members have been sentenced to death in mass trials. The courts continue to sentence to death large numbers of people, 529 here, 183 there, in mass trials. All the signs of rebellion have been erased. Graffiti near Tahrir have been scrubbed. On that Friday, the Muslim Brotherhood members took to the streets of Alexandria and faced police gunfire. One young protester, Sondos Reda Abu Bakr, 17, died in the barrage.
To inoculate itself against criticism, the El-Sisi government has banned protests. Law No. 107 gives the government extraordinary powers to curtail demonstrations and to imprison demonstrators. Many of the main leaders of the 2011 protests have been victims of this law. The leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement and Kefaya, Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel, are serving three-year prison sentences for political protest. Alongside them, the courts sentenced, to various terms, the rights activist Yara Sallam, the student activist Sanaa Seif, her brother and the prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abd el-Fattah, and the photojournalists Abdel-Rahman Mohammed and Rania el-Sheikh. Their comrade, Ahmed Douma of the Egyptian Popular Current, has now been sentenced to life imprisonment along with 230 others. The charge was illegal protests and incitement to violence.
The judge in the case, Nagy Shehata, has, according to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, offered his “personal hostility to the revolution and everyone that took part in it”. He was one of the judges who passed down the mass death sentences, and now has delivered life imprisonment to demonstrators. A casual statement by Interior Minister General Mohammed Ibrahim offers a sense of the smugness of the ruling elite: “We are living a golden age of unity between the judges, police and the army.”
El-Sisi claims that protests are not banned, only those that harm the economy. He has tried to cover himself with the flag—a patriotic military leader who is the bulwark against terrorism and stands for economic stability. This hearkens back to the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, but with less credibility. There are no great ambitions for Arab nationalism, no great plans for the region, no ability to lift the hopes of the Egyptian people. Money from Saudi Arabia and the United States curtails the horizon. International pressure for real change in Egypt is not likely. What change will come must come from within.
Amongst the Workers
An International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission travelled to Cairo in November 2014 to report on the progress of the El-Sisi government. It gave the new regime full marks for its economic reforms: “The authorities have already begun to take the action needed to achieve their objectives. They have begun bold subsidy and tax reforms.”
The government cut back on subsidies across the board, including in the cotton sector. Low global prices for commodities such as cotton and the removal of the subsidy will ring the death knell for this sector. Twenty years ago, Egyptian cotton growers produced 400,000 tonnes of cotton lint. When they allowed cotton prices to be dictated by the world market, the farmers gave up growing cotton. Last year, the farmers produced only 127,000 tonnes. With the end to the, that number is likely to decline. Cotton, the fourth pyramid of Egypt, is likely to go to ruin as a result of IMF advice.
Not far from the cotton fields are the massive textile factories at Mahalla el-Kubra. Mahalla’s strikes are crucial to Egypt’s labour politics. In 2006, workers in Mahalla’s factories won—through strikes—their right to bonuses; their victory set off the Winter of Labour Discontent across the country as workers wanted what the Mahalla workers had won. This wave lasted until April 8, 2008. Despite the crackdown against protests, the El-Sisi government could not stop the strike wave at Mahalla that opened up in early January of this year. The issue was on profit sharing. In December, workers met Minister of Industry Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour and sought his guarantee to turn cotton textiles into a “national project” and to reinstate the subsidies. He refused.
Egyptian workers retain militancy. It was their struggles that ejected El-Sisi’s previous Prime Minister, Hazem el-Beblawy. He was followed by Ibrahim Mehleb, who said on his ascension to his post: “We’re betting on the patriotism of the Egyptian workers.” There is no question that these workers are patriotic, but not blindly so. A walk through the massive Ghazl al-Mahalla plants gives one a sense not only of their history of militancy but also of their role in Egyptian politics. These factories have not been economically self-sufficient for many years, but nonetheless they have been able to insist on their continuation. No attempt to close down these plants has worked.
There is something of Egyptian nationalism wrapped up in the workers of Mahalla, a pride that Prime Minister Mehleb must have recognised when he tried to reverse the burden—it is not the workers who should feel patriotic, but that Mahalla evokes patriotism in the heart of every Egyptian. The El-Sisi regime, by following an IMF diktat against the cotton and textile subsidy, has struck at the heart of Egyptian patriotism. But will it be able to carry forward an agenda of revolt? Not likely in the present.
At the two ends of Egypt arrive the great danger of instability. In the Sinai Peninsula appears Ansar Bayt al-Maqdisi and its bayah to the Islamic State. On the other end, Libya implodes. El-Sisi sits in Cairo and points in both directions—he offers himself again as the defender against that madness. Would the Egyptians like to see their country go the way of Libya or Iraq or Syria? It is a poor choice to offer people who live in very dangerous times. No wonder that Mona al-Beheri expressed her admiration for El-Sisi on a famous video: “Listen your Obama. We are Egyptian women. You are listen Obama. Shut up your mouse Obama. Shut up your mouse Obama. Sisi, yes Sisi, yes. Morsi, no, Morsi, no.” This was authentic theatre—her broken English, her thick Egyptian accent, her unwavering commitment to El-Sisi’s order over any perceived disorder. There are many Mona al-Beheris across Egypt. They are not as keen on El-Sisi, but they do fear the unknown. This is what has given the current regime its power.
The spirit of Tahrir had not infected Upper Egypt, the recruiting ground of the troops. Tahrir remained the province of the cities and towns. Rural Egypt, now battered with the reduction of the cotton subsidy, had been relatively immune to Tahrir. Now things might change. These are cotton farmers. They taste distress as the salt in their evening meal decreases. Could a movement grow amongst these peasants, the natural allies of the workers of Mahalla? Will the embers of Tahrir arouse them?