Friday, May 23, 2008

The (un)known Egypt of today

Due to the peculiarities of our national holidays legislation Lithuanians enjoyed a particularly long weekend at the beginning of May this year. Many of them used it as an opportunity to have a proper getaway holiday for which the Egyptian beaches are a popular destination. While enjoying the sunshine and gasping at their guides’ stories of the pharaohs, the pyramids and the temples they had built, they probably did not even hear that a general strike was to take place in the country on that same day, May 4th.

It was the day when the veteran Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak whose huge posters follow tourists on the city streets and by the roadsides celebrated his 80th birthday. The local media did not miss this occasion to sing glories to his 27 year rule – ah yes, they might have been aware of the fact that expression of a different opinion, that is libelling the president, state institutions, country‘s dignity (for example, reporting torture used by the state security) or foreign heads of state may earn a journalist a prison sentence. Along with Belarus, Burma, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and several other countries, Egypt has been listed among the “Internet enemies” by the NGO Reporters Without Borders: bloggers calling for democratic reforms risk imprisonment.

Before I forget – the country is actually on its way to democracy, alternative candidates were allowed to stand in the 2005 election which brought Mr Mubarak to his fifth consecutive term in office (yet Ayman Nour who came second and was sentenced later to five years in jail after he claimed the vote was rigged, just as the previous ones). However, elections used to be referendums before 2005 when one could only vote “for” or “against” the single candidate endorsed by the Parliament. Can you think of the person it could propose if some of its members are appointed by the President himself and formation of new parties has to be approved by the government, while “Muslim Brotherhood”, the strongest force opposing Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party and enjoying popular support, is banned from political activity?

In the recent few years, Egypt has seen a lot of various demonstrations and protests – these were organized by workers, university students, judges and other employees calling for reform. Strikes were impelled by the political, social and economic conditions that had become unbearable throughout the last decade and that were especially exacerbated by the recent rise of food prices. 16.4% inflation was recorded this April. With 44% of Egyptians living on or below the official poverty line ($2 a day), the price hikes of foodstuffs and other necessities have dire social consequences.

Among the biggest workers’ strikes organized to demand a higher pay and better working conditions took place in the city of Mahalla el-Kobra that houses the biggest textile factory in Egypt (110 km north from the capital Cairo) already last year and in 2006. Having occupied the factory and stopped the production, several tens of thousand workers won significant victories, but prices continued to rise steadily. Hence a new mass strike was planned for April 6th this year.

Their plans were supported by the opposition party “El Ghad” (meaning “Tomorrow” in Arabic) founded by Ayman Nour. Esraa Abdel Fattah together with other members of the party youth founded a group on the social networking site “Facebook” to publicize this action of protest in which they called Egyptian youth to support the workers of Mahalla el-Kobra on April 6 by joining the general strike and demanding the government set the minimal wage, take up antitrust measures, fight corruption and release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. By the day of the strike, around 65,000 people coming from across the political spectre had joined the group (today it has about 74,000 members); its aims were also supported by “Muslim Brotherhood”.

Yet the regime was also gearing up for that date: everyone was ordered to go to work and abstain from any demonstrations, while the presence of security forces in the cities was strengthened. In Mahalla el-Kobra the police used tear gas and rubber bullets against 7,000 protesters. Three people were killed, around 300 arrested, with cyber dissident Esraa Abdel Fattah gone missing as well (she was later released but her mother had to beg the government in the press to do so). Even the English weekly “Al-Ahram” that is considered to be pro-government admitted that “Facebook” had become a platform for the political mobilisation of Egypt's disaffected young that lacked other venues for expressing their socio-political views. The April 8th local elections from which many of the opposition candidates had been banned took place right after the strike, but few actually bothered to vote.

These events failed to attract a lot of attention from the Western media, although they made the virtual community that had emerged so spontaneously in just 10 days’ time to discover their power: it claimed that more than 40% of the Egyptian population were involved in the action. Internet activists condemned the use of violence against the protesters and called for a new general strike on May 4th, the president’s birthday.

This time the media was following the developments more closely, even more security forces were deployed, while no reporters were allowed into the hotbed of strikes, the city of Mahalla el-Kobra. Threats of fierce punishments for those taking part and the announcement by the government a few days before the strike that all civil servants would have their salaries raised by 30% helped to ensure few took part in the action this time. However, given that, for instance, meat costs $10 per kilo a raise of $6-50 for some 6 million state employees can hardly save a country of 75.5 million from poverty. Even less so, when the salaries are raised at the expense of severe increases in (previously subsidized) prices of gas and fuel which took place on May 5th.

And yet these outbursts of anger at the police state and the deplorable social situation must have left its mark on Egypt. Rabab Al Mahdi, professor of political science at the American university in Cairo told “Al Jazeera” she believed that the protests would have a long-lasting effect on the mobilisation of people and that the aim of this mobilisation was now a regime change. The same aspirations are shared by most of the “Facebook” group members. My Egyptian friend currently studying in the United Kingdom confessed that the April 6th move made him to believe for the first time that “something could be changed” in Egypt. However, he noted that a serious opposition that could bring about change was now lacking leadership as those who could take up that role were being removed from the political arena as soon as they emerged.

That means president Mubarak stays in power beleaguered by too many citizens frustrated with his rule. Will he still be able hand over his “anniversary present” to his younger son Gamal Mubarak who is seemingly being groomed for succession? We are yet to see it.

This article was first published in Lithuanian on the portal on May 10th 2008.