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Egyptian people are ‘desperate and furious’ at repressive regime

Will the slaughter in Gaza, and economic crisis at home, see Egypt rise against the al-Sisi regime? Phil Marfleet writes from the capital, Cairo
Protesting for Palestine in Egypt

Protesting for Palestine in Egypt (Picture: RevSoc.me)

Egyptian ruler Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has never been more unpopular. His survival depends upon savage repression of the masses by the army, police and intelligence services. For years al-Sisi has begged allies to save his state from bankruptcy. Now they have showered him with aid and investment. These are ­high-risk investments and loans.

It’s a sign of anxiety that the Gaza crisis could affect his dictatorship and prompt an uprising like the ­revolution that brought down his predecessor in 2011. Egyptians ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule after weeks of massive demonstrations and strikes. Mubarak depended upon the same regime of arrest, torture and imprisonment as al-Sisi does today.

The uprising became a revolution that extended across the country, with an impact throughout the Arab world and beyond. Only an army coup led by al-Sisi in 2013 and followed by intense repression suppressed the mass movement. Could the movement return?

Al-Sisi’s allies fear that it might, and that Egypt’s economic crisis and Israel’s war on Gaza will prompt further protests and strikes. The regime’s policies have been a disaster for most Egyptians. Inflation is at almost 40 percent annually but food prices are rising much more steeply.

Price rises hit especially hard at Eid, the festival that ends the month of Ramadan. Most people couldn’t afford special foods or presents. This year many couldn’t. And parks that traditionally offer rides and amusements for children have been closed for the festival.

In 2015 the poorest Egyptians spent a quarter of their income on food. Now they spend a half of all income on basic foods.

Al-Sisi has infuriated Egyptians by telling them that in order to achieve his policies people must accept poverty and the prospect of famine. Last year he said that Egyptians must be patient—criticism and protests, he said, could “destroy the country”.

His policies include absurd vanity projects, including the construction of a new capital city in the desert ­south-east of Cairo at a cost of over £40 billion. It already includes a huge presidential palace and dozens of new ministry buildings. 

Al-Sisi has also ordered a new leg of the Suez Canal, the ­waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Government income goes overwhelmingly to his friends among Egypt’s predatory businessmen and senior officials of the military.

Al-Sisi came to power with the aim of destroying the revolutionary movement that deposed Mubarak, and which organised for “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”. 

In countless demonstrations, most famously in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, millions of people sought an end to policies that had enriched a minority of Egyptians. Mubarak had been a “poster boy” for the neoliberal IMF bank.

He willingly accepted its demands to cut food subsidies, sell off ­nationalised industries and revoke reforms that in the 1950s and 1960s gave peasants rights to cultivate land.

Millions of peasant families were forced from their fields when they returned to private owners. Many now live in impoverished areas of Cairo and Alexandria—or make dangerous journeys across the Sea to Europe as migrants.

European Union leaders are keen that al-Sisi stays in power and holds back migrants from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. However, due to a mass of ­pressure from below, the government has been forced to make superficial concessions on pay. This month it agreed to increase the ­minimum wage by 71 percent to 6,000 Egyptian pounds a month—around £100.

But most workers will never get it. Exemptions are granted to businesses employing less than ten ­workers—97 percent of all ­enterprises, accounting for ­two-thirds of Egypt’s workforce. In February a wave of strikes showed that Egyptian workers are running out of patience. A ­partial victory at the country’s largest workplace, the Mahalla al-Kubra textile mill, resulted from walk-outs led by women workers.

Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists reported, “Around 7,000 Workers occupied the factory square on 24 February and declared they would fight until bosses met their demands for a pay rise.” Within a week, workers forced the company to pay the new minimum wage. That was in addition to an annual 7 percent pay raise as of March and an 8 percent increase in monthly salary also paid out in March.

Workers at the Mahalla mill have always been a leading force in Egypt’s labour movement. The latest dispute gives hope to other workplaces that concerted action can bring change.  

Aid and investment ­supplied to Egypt by the UAE, the IMF and the EU mark serious worries among states and ­capitalists that al‑Sisi might not survive renewed mass struggle.

Like Israel, the Egyptian regime maintains an armed border at Gaza, preventing the movement of goods and people. For most Egyptians, Gaza is “Egypt’s shame”. An activist in Cairo described widespread feelings of anger and humiliation at the government’s stance.

“People are not only ­desperate about wages and prices but also furious that al-Sisi acts as if Binyamin Netanyahu was his best friend,” they said. “We are watching tens of ­thousands of Palestinians die and our regime behaves as if this was taking place on another planet.

“Millions of people want to show their solidarity with the Palestinians through public protests but right now those who do so face instant arrest.” Despite the regime’s clampdown, solidarity events have been held at union headquarters in Cairo. Recently a protest by women on International Women’s Day accused Arab states of betrayal, chanting, “O cowardly Arab ­governments, Gaza’s children are hungry.”

The regime’s strategy for survival, based upon relentless repression, is fraught with danger for al-Sisi. In 2013 he attacked and destroyed Egypt’s main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime does not have a ­political party of its own, preferring to win elections by outright fraud and vote-rigging.

Without a “buffer” between the state and the people—a role ­performed for many decades by the Muslim Brotherhood—the regime is particularly vulnerable to ­movements from below.

Al-Sisi’s international friends lost a pharaoh in 2011 and wish to avoid another calamity. Israel will also be looking carefully at events on Egypt’s side of the Gaza border. The last thing Netanyahu and his genocidal government want to see is an insurgent Egyptian working class seeking, “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”.

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