Egypt’s activists entered the third year of their revolution in a mood of anger and determination last week. Furious at a new round of killings by police and state gangs, they have confronted the government and its attempt to reverse the gains of the mass movement.
Huge demonstrations have again thronged Egyptian cities, targeting president Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mursi—long an opponent of former dictator Hosni Mubarak—now wants to reinstate Mubarak’s economic policies. He is eager to strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In exchange for Mursi’s promise to raise taxes and cut subsidies on food and fuel, the IMF is to provide a £3.2 billion loan.
Mursi needs the money urgently, not least for grain to feed the poor families among Egypt’s 90 million people.
Thirty years ago Egypt was an exporter of food grains. Now it is the world’s largest importer.
Mubarak encouraged the privatisation of state land and production of cash crops for European supermarkets. Egged on by the IMF, he used police and troops to force peasants from the land. Millions migrated to the cities where they have struggled to find work and housing.
Now Mursi wants to repeat the IMF formula—backing private capital, raising the price of basic foods and fuel, and landing Egypt in ever-increasing debt. Protesters greeted IMF chief Christine Lagarde when she visited Cairo last year.
Their slogans were, “Reject the loans”, “No to crony capitalism”, and “Down with capitalism”.
The Muslim Brotherhood once dominated opposition to the regime. Many Egyptians now see it as a champion of international capital and of local business. It is also viewed as anti-democratic and hostile to the aims of the revolution.
When Mursi declared a state of emergency this week in the northern cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, thousands took to the streets in order to defy a 9pm to 6am curfew.
The army stood aside—a mark of Mursi’s weakness and the deepening political crisis faced by the Brotherhood.
Western media routinely describe Egypt as moving from “Arab Spring” to “Islamist Winter”, with revolutionary energies suffocated by the Brotherhood and its religious agendas. In fact the mass movement is increasingly secular.
Non-religious parties and activist networks dominate street protests, insisting that Egyptians—Muslim and Christian—have a common interest in further change.
Religious slogans, sometimes prominent in the early stages of the revolution, are heard less often. The key demand is for “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”.
The Brotherhood will not address rising poverty, set an effective minimum wage or guarantee supplies of staple foods and fuel.
Rather than assure basic freedoms, it wants to clamp down on the movement that removed Mubarak and freed thousands of political prisoners—including many Islamist leaders—from jail.
Mohamed el-Beltagy is general secretary of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. This week he called on Mursi “to step in with full powers”, described protesters as “thugs” and demanded “an emergency state”.
This is a call to re-impose policies of the Mubarak era. The dictator maintained a state of emergency for 30 years.
In Alexandria this week demonstrators seized the main railway station and occupied the track. Others marched on the city centre chanting, “Down, down with the rule of the Brotherhood” and, to Mursi, “The poor say—leave”.
Mursi is trapped between the pressures of international finance and the demands of the people. With new parliamentary elections approaching, the challenge for revolutionary activists is to organise an effective electoral alternative to the Islamists.
At the same time, organisations of the left are challenged to strengthen workers’ organisation.
Further attacks on the revolution will require responses in the streets but also in the places where workers have collective power. In 2011 mass strikes played the key role in removing Mubarak. They will be needed again and again to maintain the struggle for bread, freedom and social justice.