By Phil Marfleet
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Under pressure

This article is over 9 years, 6 months old
After Mohamed Morsi's victory in Egypt Phil Marfleet looks at the fractures in the Muslim Brotherhood's base and the challenges that face the left
Issue 371

Egypt has a new civilian president, but one shackled by the army and the Mubarak state. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood takes office without a parliament and with the country’s generals breathing down his neck. He is also under intense pressure from the revolutionary movement, which expects results promptly from an elected leader.

The elections were of critical importance. A victory for Morsi’s opponent, the army’s man Ahmed Shafiq, would have been a sign to the generals to intensify counter-revolutionary measures. Now they must at least pause to see how far they can discipline Morsi and use him to contain the movement of the streets and the workplaces.

Celebrations across Egypt express the vital importance of Morsi’s win. While millions of Egyptians have good reason not to trust the Muslim Brotherhood there is widespread understanding that it can be pressured to respond to popular demands. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), on the other hand, is now seen as an enemy of the revolution – a far cry from the demonstrations of January and February 2011, when the army and the people were said to be “one hand”.

The election revealed pressing problems for those who want further radical change. SCAF was successful in mobilising the apparatus of the old Mubarak state to support Shafiq, especially the shadowy networks of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which was officially dissolved last year. They also used the state-controlled media, issuing lurid warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood and portraying Shafiq as a man of the people. In effect, Egypt’s old rulers used the electoral process to rally their forces against the movement from below.

Parties and political groups associated with the revolution could find no such unity. They failed to agree a common candidate and responded slowly and ineffectually to the challenges presented by SCAF. Even after the first round of elections, which left Morsi and Shafiq to contest a run-off, they could not find common ground. Many activists argued to boycott the whole process – an immensely dangerous approach which almost delivered the generals their desired result.

The success of left nationalist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi of the Karama Party in the first round made this stance even more perverse. Sabbahi came third overall, but topped the poll in most of Egypt’s major urban centres, including Cairo and Alexandria – a vote of confidence by workers and the urban poor in his programme of an increased minimum wage, a maximum wage, unemployment benefits for youth, grants to poor families and full trade union rights. But Sabbahi too failed to draw the conclusions, declining to unify with liberal Islamists such as Abdel-Monein Aboul Fotouh – a declared opponent of SCAF who came fourth in the first round – in backing Morsi against the generals’ man.

A soft coup?

As things stand there is to be a new parliamentary election – a senior court having dismissed the parliament elected late last year. This ploy, accompanied by a declaration from SCAF that it would retain the key military powers constitutionally associated with the president and the parliament, has been described as a “soft coup”. If elections go ahead it is of critical importance that Egyptians have an opportunity to vote for a coalition or bloc publicly committed to the revolution. Another attempt at a boycott or abstention would be fatal.

Less intensive struggle in the workplaces and the streets over recent weeks gave the election added importance. Strikes continue, with no major area of industry unaffected, but with an increasing sense of frustration that earlier gains have not materialised – employers and the state have repeatedly violated commitments to increase wages, bonuses and pensions, and to improve job security. Meanwhile mobilisations in city squares have been on a smaller scale. The exception was the huge protests which took place early in June, when judges declared the Mubarak family innocent of charges of corruption, and released senior policemen charged with the murder of demonstrators in 2011.

Mistrust of the generals

These events showed how deeply the mass of people now mistrust the generals. Huge marches converged on Tahrir Square from across Cairo, declaring “Down with the armed forces”, “The people demand the trial of the Field Marshal [Tantawi, the head of SCAF]” and “Revolution in all the streets of Egypt”.

These are not slogans with which the new president will be comfortable. The Muslim Brotherhood is led by businessmen committed to neoliberalism and with a conservative political agenda. They have already attempted to come to terms with SCAF and hope they can strike a deal which for the first time gives them a real share in power. Millions of Egyptians who identify with the Brotherhood, however, are part of the revolution and wish for further change. They have expectations of Morsi which he cannot possibly fulfil. The organisation has already suffered several major splits and numerous defections; more are likely.

The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Egypt’s businessmen and its generals want Morsi to introduce austerity measures which are certain to infuriate the mass of Egyptians, including followers of the Brotherhood. It is essential for the left to be positioned alongside these disillusioned Islamists – in the streets, in the workplaces and in the electoral arena.

SCAF has so far lacked the confidence to launch a full counter-revolution. Unwilling to confront the millions who protested after the Mubarak trial it also hesitated to fix the election and declare Shafiq president. As the revolution continues there is everything to play for – but under new and testing pressures.

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