Cairo, in Egypt, is at the heart of the Arab world. The talk in the city is of coming change. For nearly 25 years Washington’s ally, Hosni Mubarak, has ruled the country. In each of those years emergency laws have been in force.
Last week delegates from across the Middle East, Europe and North America gathered in Cairo at an international conference on globalisation, imperialism and Zionism.
The gathering mood for change meant there was a fascinating mixture of Islamic, nationalist, socialist, peasant and trade union activists from across Egypt. On the first evening over 1,000 people crammed into the opening rally, which was followed by three days of discussion.
The dominant theme of the conference was the urgent need to oppose the occupation of Iraq and how real reform could be achieved in Egypt.
The democracy hailed by George Bush and the Washington neo-cons is not the democracy people in the Arab world are fighting for. In Egypt a new campaign called Kifaya — “Enough” in Arabic — has been launched, calling for real democracy.
The campaign is demanding the end of Hosni Mubarak’s reign as president and opposes plans to nominate his son as the next president.
Marwana, a young lawyer, was arrested while handing out Kifaya leaflets at the Cairo Book Fair. “George Bush talks about spreading democracy in the Middle East,” she says.
“But we know the type of democracy Bush is talking about — it is the democracy that answers only to Washington. The democracy we want is one that serves the people.”
Marwana was held for ten days in a police station. “The cells were full of poor women, many of them seized in the regular police sweeps. The women often had no idea why they were there, and had no lawyers to represent them and often not enough money to pay fines.”
Dina is a member of the anti-globalisation movement in Egypt. “There is rising struggle in Egypt,” she says.
“The vast majority of Egyptians want an end to corruption that allows billions of dollars to be salted away by officials and their hangers on. We want an end to the emergency laws that have been used to keep people down. We want an end to laws that outlaw independent political organisations and trade unions, and ban public gatherings. In the last 24 years over 20,000 people have been killed by the state.
“Every day in Cairo the police sweep through the underground Metro or stop minibuses heading to the slums that ring Egypt’s capital. They seize young men on the pretext that they are cracking down on Islamic militants, or looking for drugs. They seize you if they find a piece of hashish on you, or if you have forgotten your ID papers.
“Every night they pack off hundreds of young men to police stations and state security centres. If you are lucky they might hold you for a couple of hours, or a couple of days. If your luck is rotten they will beat you, or torture you with electric shocks—a facility available in all of Egypt’s police stations.
“The police have to fill a daily quota of arrests, so they seize people at random. Torture under Mubarak’s regime is routine.”
The most severe repression under the present regime is often meted out to those who dare to oppose the government’s links with the US and Israel.
Ali Abdul Fattah, from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, is the director of the Egyptian Media Centre for Culture and Development and general secretary of the Popular Committee for Supporting the Iraqi and Palestinian People. He says, “I make a link between the liberation of the land and the liberation of the people.
“The Arabs are under occupation, the degree of freedom in Arab countries is very restricted. Demonstrations are banned, going out in the streets to protest is banned, raising political slogans is forbidden. All this affects support for the cause of Iraq and Palestine across the whole of the Arab world. If the people were free, that would be the end of the matter.
“We have previously had rulers who expressed our aspirations. But now all the regimes try to keep the people down. I was imprisoned 12 times because of my support for the Iraqi and Palestinian cause. I was accused of ‘opposing a friendly country’, in other words, opposing Israel.”
Ali says people in Egypt find strength in the anti-war demonstrations across the world — “I respect the British people who came out and demonstrated and who are sympathetic to the cause of humanity in Iraq and Palestine. We need a humanitarian project, not linked to any particular religious creed, to promote truth, justice and equality for all the peoples of the world.”
The democracy movement has been boosted by a rise in struggle among Egyptian workers and peasants. Anti-globalisation activist Dina says, “Workers at the Ora Misr factory have occupied the factory after the asbestos they use to manufacture drainage pipes has claimed the lives of four workers. Their workmates asked for protective clothing, and occupied the factory when their demands were ignored.”
Strike leader Sayid Abd al-Latif Ibrahim tells Socialist Worker that the strike has highlighted the plight of workers in the new privately financed industries.
The factory occupation has won widespread support across the country and the strikers have survived attempts by the security forces to break their strike. “This occupation is important because it is taking place in a factory that is considered vital for the Egyptian economy where workers are banned from taking industrial action,” says Sayid.
“The second important strike over the last six months took place at the ESCO company in the historic industrial centre at Mahala al-Kubra,” he adds. “This strike was against the privatisation of the plant.”
Dina says, “The most important development is the re-emergence of the peasant movement, around the village of Sarando in Egypt’s agricultural heartland, the Nile Delta.”
“The landowner, Salah Mandar, owned the14,000 hectares of fertile lands prior to the land distribution in the wake of the 1952 revolution. Fifty years later that same landowner’s family has unleashed a wave of repression on the villagers to drive them off the land.
We seized our land
“But the peasants have stood up and said they will not give up their lands, despite the killings and state repression. The peasant resistance has begun to spread to other districts where the old landowners are trying to seize back land and has relaunched the militant peasant organisations that were crushed in the 1970s.”
Last week the Sarando peasants seized and killed one of the landlord’s goons. The goons have been spreading terror in the countryside. Movements in solidarity with the peasants have spread to other rural areas and to the cities.
Abdul Maguid al-Khoury, from the village of Tamshish, is one of the most vocal leaders of the militant peasant movement. He opened the session on the struggles of Egyptian workers and peasants at the conference.
“The Tamshish peasants drove out the landowner in 1952 and forced the government headed by Gamal Abdul Nasser to instigate a countrywide redistribution of land,” he tells Socialist Worker. “In the days before the revolution 35 rich families owned over 50 percent of the land, while 25 million peasants eked out a living on the rest. Tamshish has a special place in our history because we seized our land ourselves, we did not wait for the government.
“We grow wheat, maize and cotton, although with globalisation we are finding it difficult to sell cotton because of cheap American imports. The ugly face of new technology means they are also trying to force us to grow genetically modified crops.
“They say we have to abandon the seeds that we have sown for thousands of years. Now with the privatisation laws the old landowner’s family are claiming that they are the rightful owners and are saying we must hand the land back to them. Even though they came with their thugs and are backed by the state security forces they have been met with determined opposition.”
Political and economic issues are fusing in Egypt. Dina says, “People have had enough, and the rising struggle is opening up space for ordinary people to voice their opposition. The Kifaya campaign is finding an echo on the street. For the first time in 24 years we can organise demonstrations calling for Mubarak to resign.
“The future of the movement in Egypt is to rebuild the rank and file unions and peasant organisations. For too many years we have been hampered by the suffocating hold of the yellow unions and state-sponsored peasant organisations. This is now beginning to change, and we are begining to see how the struggle in the countryside and the factory is fuelling and giving confidence to general discontent.”
On the last day of the conference, news came of the arrest of over 200 Islamic opponents of the regime. Some 400 delegates took to the streets in solidarity with them and with peasants facing attack in the Nile Delta.
For an hour delegates faced riot police. The chant “Down, Down Bush, Blair, Mubarak” was heard on the streets of Cairo. British delegates agreed to organise an international campaign in solidarity with all facing repression in Egypt. Rush protests at the arrests to the Egyptian ambassador.
John Rees, national secretary, Respect
Egyptian Embassy, 26 South Street, London W1Y 6DD. Phone 020 7499 2401 or fax 020 7355 3568.