Sunday, April 6, 2008

Protests in the Smog

-Cairo - April 2008
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'

The khamsin - a dry, hot wind blown in from the desert - has arrived in Cairo, filling the air with sand and bathing the city in a gritty yellow smog. Egyptians are well accustomed to the annual sandstorm, which usually heralds the onset of summer, but a less familiar sight loomed out from the haze: lines of armed riot police occupying the central square and surrounding streets. Chillingly, each platoon was accompanied by a gang of plainclothes men - thugs from the security services who, unimpeded by a uniform, have a long record of attacking civilian demonstrators crossing their path.

This show of strength from the beleaguered Mubarak regime comes in response to calls for a national day of protest against the government. Rumours have been circulating for weeks about strikes, acts of civil disobedience, product boycotts and large-scale demonstrations in provinces across the country, passed from person to person through Facebook, text messages and word-of-mouth. The catalyst was a planned walkout by workers at Mahalla al-Kubra, a huge textile mill in the Nile Delta which has emerged as an important centre of industrial militancy in recent years.

The factory floor at Mahalla has taken on the state twice in the past, and won. Hence it's no surprise that actions there have become a focus for opposition forces throughout the country, particularly as the Kefaya ("Enough") movement, which drew thousands on to the streets back in 2005, has recently faded away - just as the potential for mass mobilisation in defiance of the regime appears stronger than ever.

Poverty levels in Egypt have been exacerbated by an unprecedented food crisis that has led to riots and bloodshed at the bread queues, caused in part by the worldwide hike in grain prices but contributed to by gross government mismanagement. At the same time the regime itself, long-reliant on US aid for its survival, is being stretched in contradictory directions, on the one hand desperately trying to shut down all legitimate avenues of political opposition (hundred of members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested in the run-up to council elections) while on the other moving to appease its American bankrollers, who are becoming increasingly vocal in their calls for democratisation. To make matters worse, Mubarak is at the centre of an even bigger dust-storm concerning Arab unity; a recent summit in Damascus was effectively snubbed by Egypt, highlighting a deepening rift between Middle Eastern countries who want to maintain their close links to the west and those more amenable to the idea of Iranian and Syrian regional hegemony.

So in this febrile atmosphere, are we about to witness another large-scale call of "kefaya" by the Egyptian people? On the evidence of the latest activities, it seems not. Reports coming out of Mahalla suggest that the strike has been successfully aborted by the security services, while the streets of Downtown Cairo remain quiet. The reason is partly a lack of co-ordination on the part of the organisers; it was unclear whether demonstrations and walkouts planned beyond Mahalla were simply solidarity actions with the textile workers, or whether they were part of a general strike that would cripple the nation's infrastructure. Although such confusion is inevitable in a country where media opposition is kept on a tight leash, it also reflects deeper problems among those lined up against Mubarak - particularly internal division and the absence of a popular support base.

As Khalil al-Anani, an analyst affiliated with al-Ahram Foundation, has observed, political dissidents in Egypt have adopted a number of models in an effort to bring about institutional change. Kefaya sought to build a large social movement that would force the political elite to enter into a dialogue with the masses. Yet despite some noteworthy achievements, it has remained, in Anani's words, a "visionary elitist movement" seemingly incapable of rallying significant support on the ground. And the alternatives - a political party working for change within the current framework, or attempts to influence the ruling clique from within - have both met with limited success as well. The Democratic Front Party was inaugurated last year to channel support from those disillusioned with the Islamist strand of political opposition, but has since been plagued by partisan disunity. Meanwhile the regime itself seems intent on entrenching itself when confronted with external pressures; despite the work of those seeking to steer it on to a more democratic path, Mubarak remains set on appointing his son as his successor.

That leaves the one opposition force in Egyptian society that can draw on a large bank of popular support - the Muslim Brotherhood. Fighting its own battles on a number of fronts - including incessant harassment from the security services - the Brotherhood has an ambiguous relationship with the political left in Egypt, at times standing shoulder to shoulder with them in opposition to Mubarak, and other points attempting to put as much distance between the two as possible. This inconclusive approach can be seen in their response to the Mahalla strike - a long, confusing ramble supporting the right to strike in principle, ending with a warning against the "chaos" that industrial action can cause and an eventual decision not to sponsor this particular action.

The situation in Egypt mirrors a wider crisis among the secular left in the Middle East, which is increasingly struggling to mobilise popular support in the face of well-organised Islamist movements that have proved themselves far more adept at successfully articulating local concerns. The sand is yet to settle on today's events in Cairo, but it is already clear that Mubarak will live through this particular storm. Opposition forces of every hue are being forced to ask themselves why that is so, and which way they should turn next in the struggle to effect meaningful political change in Egypt.

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