Egypt: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea?

With the unexpected victory of the popular uprising in Tunisia, many were wondering "Where next?". Egypt was in the top of the list for many observers. Last few days' developments in Egypt would make us believe that they got it right.

The streets of Cairo are resonating with calls for regime change. Posters of Hosni Mubarak are being teared down. Police is shelling out loads of rubber bullets and teargas shells. One of the most famous of dissent voices, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2005, Mohamed ElBaradei has been detained by the government. Internet and Mobile phone networks have been shutdown.1 Mubarak's big boss, the US, has its feet on both boats. White House has demanded "reforms" from Mubarak and issued a threat of withdrawal of aid (1.5 billion USD) even while endorsing his right to be in power2. The sense of panic among the echelons of power in Egypt is more than evident. So is the spirit and hope among the people. The effect of people's victory in Tunisia two weeks ago has surely come rippling along.

Let us stand in solidarity with the Egyptians. They have had enough. Multiple sources including Human Rights Watch3 and recently leaked US embassy cables4 have all confirmed the alarming levels of police brutality and custodial torture in Egypt. Egyptian expertise with torture was so (in)famous that many other nations used to send suspects to Egypt for interrogation, often as part of War on Terror. Religious minorities including unorthodox Muslim sects and women consistently realize that the laws of the land, even if enacted fairly, won't serve them much. Like most of the dictatorships, Egypt too boarded the liberalisation bandwagon during nineties. It's the all so familiar story of huge foreign direct investments, booming stock market, reduction in corporate taxation, and high levels of corruption and an ensuant accolades from IMF. Just like in most of such stories, here too, the promised trickle down of the wealth to the poor never happened. As per 2005 data, about 40.5% of the Egyptian population are in the range of extreme poor to near poor.5 This extreme poverty has to be seen in the light of the fact that Egypt is the fourth largest country in terms of financial aid from the US, behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan6.

Zeinab Mohamed's Picasa Web Album, Made with Slideshow Embed Tool

But there is something which restrains my sense of jubilation. Something which sends a shudder through my veins. It is the news that Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwān), the main opposition group in Egypt, is joining the protests from today. The anxiety is not just because it is an ultra-conservative group with the stated aim of establishing Allah's law and to instill the Qur'an and Sunnah as the sole reference point for decent behavior7, 8, 9. It is more because they might be indeed powerful enough to get it done. There have been reports of Brotherhood's links with many terrorist organisations, and allegations about masterminding many terrorist attacks world wide and romanticising suicidal violence10. Even though officially banned in Egypt, Brotherhood is widely believed to have had a "secret apparatus" responsible for attacks in Egypt, including the assassination of Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha, the Egyptian Prime Minister in 194811 and an assasination attempt of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. The same Brotherhood was used tactically by Nasser's successor, Anwar El Sadat to suppress the left groups in Egypt who wanted to build a modern, liberal Egypt. Sadat did it by promising them that Shari'a would be implemented as the Egyptian law. But later Sadat got in to the bad books of the Brotherhood due to his 1979 peace agreement with Israel. Whenever the Egyptian governments have tried to repress the Brotherhood, it seems to have grown more teeth. In the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt, the Brotherhood's candidates, who can only stand as independents, won 88 seats (20% of the total) to form the largest opposition bloc, despite many violations of the electoral process, including the arrest of hundreds of Brotherhood members.12 The Brotherhood is the oldest and possibly the most influential Islamic political group in the world, with its direct presence in most countries of Western Asia, Northern and Eastern Africa and its ideological influence seen in ultra-right Islamist groups in every nook and corner of the world, including Popular Front of India and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind13.

However, Brotherhood is not the most conservative of forces in Egypt. That role is taken by Tanzim al-Jihad (presently known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad) who is alleged to be the mastermind of the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 or al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya with its alleged links with al-Qaeda14. There has been many attempts to moderate the stand of Muslim Brotherhood from within, taking up a non-violent reformist strategy instead of the violent revolutionary strategy of its once most prominent leader, Sayyid Qutb. But very recent reports, following the election of Mohammed Badie, an ultra-conservative old guard member of Qutb's 1965 paramilitary network, as its supreme leader has put its transformation to question. "We reaffirm that the Brotherhood is not an adversary to the regime," was one of the first statements by Badie to the press after his election.15

It is also important to note that the Brotherhood did not initially join the protests, even though they had hailed the Tunisian uprising16. And once they join, we have reasons to be wary of. Not just because of their might. But also because of the relative weakness of the labour movement in Egypt (as compared to Tunisia). The interview of Egyptian Blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy, by By Mark LeVine, professor of history at UC Irvine17 elaborates on this aspect.

But it's true that one major distinction between us and Tunisia is that although it was a dictatorship, Tunisia had a semi-independent trade union federation. Even if the leadership was collaborating with the regime, the rank and file were militant trade unionists. So when time came for general strikes, the unions could pull it together. But here in Egypt we have a vacuum that we hope to fill soon. Independent trade unionists have already been subjected to witch hunts since they tried to be established; there are already lawsuits filed against them by state and state-backed unions, but they are getting stronger despite the continued attempts to silence them.

All signs are indicating that the Mubarak regime is going to come down. But what will follow is still very much uncertain. Let us hope that the people of Egypt will remember the often repeated warning. "Construct alliances on the basis of what you are for, not simply on what you are against."