"The counter-revolution had a leader. Now he is president of the country,” said Wassim Wagdy of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists as news of the scale of General el-Sisi’s “election” victory became clear.
The forces of the Egyptian state survived the revolution against dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They are now entrenching their power. The military regime that took over from ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi last year is trying to crush all opposition and tighten its grip on Egyptian society.
But the generals’ victory is far from complete. They still need to maintain an illusion that they are protecting the advances of the revolution. They pulled out all the stops to make former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi president in a sham election last week (see box).
Egypt’s prisons are packed with people who have protested against the military regime. One new report puts the number of political prisoners at 40,000, many of them supporters of the now criminalised Muslim Brotherhood.
Even in these difficult conditions people are resisting. More than 20,000 prisoners have started a week-long hunger strike at 117 different detention centres and prisons to draw attention to their mistreatment and bad conditions.
And activists Laila Sueif and Aida Seif el Dawla are on indefinite hunger strike to highlight the case of two prisoners who may be near death. Aida told Socialist Worker that she wanted people “to advocate for the lives of Abdallah El Shamy and Muhamed Sultan”.
Abdallah is a journalist who covered Brotherhood protests after the fall of Mursi. Muhamed was arrested while looking after his mother who has cancer. Aida said his detention is “to punish his father”, who is a Brotherhood member. Abdallah and Muhamed have been on hunger strike since January protesting against their internment. They have suffered force feeding.
“Both of them have attempted every legal tool, in a country where there is no rule of law,” said Aida. “The first defending his right to practice his profession, the second defending his right to be next to his mother during her illness.
“We are demanding their immediate release and in the meantime transfer them to a hospital in order to save their lives.”
A solidarity campaign has also been launched to demand the release of leading Revolutionary Socialist Mahienour el-Massry from Alexandra. She has started a two year sentence and faces more charges. The metro workers’ union in São Paolo, Brazil, has launched a solidarity campaign with demonstrations demanding Mahienour’s release and the release of detainees in Egypt.
The high profile of Mahienour’s case worries the authorities, who are increasingly targeting socialists and trade unionists. They know that the workers’ movement may not be on the offensive at the moment but it is not broken. They want to isolate the revolutionary left.
The police attacked the press conference held in Alexandria to launch a solidarity campaign in support of Mahienour on Thursday of last week. Afterwards activists formed a human chain of protesters holding banners along the coast road.
“Within minutes we were attacked by the police led by Nasser al-Abd, head of the secret police in Alexandria,” Revolutionary Socialist Taher Muktar told Socialist Worker.
“He is well-known as being the police chief who led attacks on demonstrations and protests under Mubarak. They arrested me and 14 other protesters and sexually harassed some of the women.
“They assaulted us in the street, beating us with the back of guns and sticks and fists. They stole money, mobiles and other belongings, and held us for six hours.”
When Taher went to visit Mahienour with her sister Maysoon and her lawyer Mohammad Ramadan Wednesday of last week, prison officers would only allow her lawyer to see her. “They stopped us at the gate of the prison” Taher said, “Her family has been prevented from seeing her since her detention. The prison security also refused to give her messages from her friends and family.
But Mahienour is far from broken. “The lawyer said she is strong,” said Taher. “She is concerned about other women detained with her. They are mostly poor women who have been imprisoned for many years because they couldn’t repay small loans to pay for basic needs, in one case to buy treatment for cancer.”
She sent a message to supporters through her lawyer, “I’m not afraid of prison, even if my appeal is rejected. The class system exists here in prison too and we will break it down. We will win freedom for all poor detained people even before political prisoners.”
Importantly, a meeting to launch the solidarity campaign in Cairo included leading trade unionists. There were workers’ representatives from the Ministry of Labour, Petrotrade, Misr Spinning in Mahalla, Nasr Cars, Steam Boilers Company, teachers, electricity workers and public transport workers’ unions. Many of these workers have led important strikes under Mubarak, during the revolution, or this year over attacks on the minimum wage.
Tamer Faiz, a member of the free union in Mahalla said “the regime is targeting activists who are standing with the workers’ movement, particularly in recent times when the regime has brutally attacked the poor.”
El-Sisi has the support of the US, which continues to pour in military aid. Secretary of state John Kerry said last year’s coup had “restored democracy”. The Saudi rulers have also been generous to the regime they hope will stem the tide of revolt in the region.
Meanwhile liberal politicians and some of the left have completely capitulated into backing the military. Activists describe many workers, peasants and the poor as drained and disillusioned. But the situation is not stable, and new social struggles can break out when el-Sisi drives through his plans for more attacks on the poor.
Buried by news of the election was the new budget passed by the interim government last week. It cut subsidies, including those on housing, fuel and health care. Such plans will have a dramatic impact on millions already struggling to get by. Power cuts are now a regular occurrence and prices are set to rise. Pushing them through just before the election will allow el-Sisi to try to disown the cuts.
The counter-revolution may be on the offensive. But while the election has confirmed el-Sisi’s place at the top, he isn’t necessarily as dominant as he would like to be.
Sham vote for presidency gives no legitimacy
el-Sisi’s election was supposed to make his position untouchable. He initially talked of wanting an 80 percent turnout. But turnout was so poor that, in an unprecedented move, polling stations stayed open an extra day last Wednesday.
Public sector workers were given the day off to vote. In a panic the state went to extraordinary lengths to save el-Sisi from humiliation. The authorities finally claimed 46 percent turnout.
But multiple reports of empty polling stations in which some officials fell asleep on desks make even that look unlikely. “Public sector workers were told they would have 500 Egyptian pounds taken from their wages if they didn’t vote,” said Revolutionary Socialist Wassim Wagdy. For many, this would amount to a month’s pay.
“Some bosses shut factories early for workers to vote, and threatened punishment to any who went into work the next day without dye on their finger proving they had voted.”
One textile boss, Mohamed al-Morshedi, declared, “We gave this leave to the workers who want to participate in building the nation.
“Those who did not participate do not want to build the nation.”
El Sisi’s only opponent on the ballot paper was Hamdeen Sabahi, a left nationalist with a reformist programme. Sabahi came third in the 2012 presidential elections, and won the mass support of working class areas. But his standing was damaged when he backed the clampdown against the Muslim Brotherhood last year.
The Brotherhood called for a boycott of the election. But the Revolutionary Socialists called for a vote for Sabahi, “seizing the chance to campaign against the candidate of the counter-revolution, in order to expose him and Mubarak’s cronies who stand behind him.”
Wassim said, “We were right to ague for a vote for Sabahi. We tried to reach those who want something different to what el-Sisi is offering.”
The much-publicised result of 93.3 percent for el-Sisi and a mere 2.9 percent for Sabahi does not tell the whole story. Many Egyptians point to examples of blatant vote rigging. Official figures showed several polling stations registering zero votes for Sabahi. This led to an outpouring of complaints from people saying they had voted for him there and asking, “What happened to our votes?”
There were also reports of votes for Sabahi being found in the street and in public toilets. When Sabahi conceded defeat, he called the official turnout figures an “insult to Egyptians’ intelligence”.
El-Sisi does have some support, rooted in the desire by many Egyptians for stability after the turmoil of the last three years. But a recent large poll shows much smaller approval ratings that the recent vote would indicate. Some 45 percent view el-Sisi unfavourably, compared to 54 percent who approve of him.
And a year of intense military repression has seen the proportion of people who view the army unfavourably rise to 45 percent—up from 24 percent last year and just 11 percent in 2011.
There are still millions of people who are not happy with the prospect of el-Sisi in power and are not taken in by the propaganda. Four in ten people still have a positive view of the Brotherhood even though the regime branded them as terrorists.
Also a clear majority of those polled—63 percent –said that the government “does not respect personal liberties”. This is up from 44 percent a year ago. This doesn’t mean that they feel confident to fight for an alternative at the moment.
But it does mean that despite all the regime’s efforts, the new government under el-Sisi will have little legitimacy for a large section of the Egyptian population.