What’s left for Egypt’s socialists?

Egypt's socialists are reading the political tea leaves


Originally published at almasryalyoum.com

Gehan Shaaban has come a long way since her youthful days as a radical Trotskyite student.

In the early 1990s she joined forces with a small group of far left political activists in Egypt and founded an organization called the Revolutionary Socialists.

They were inspired by radical Palestinian-British politician Tony Cliff, who was born in 1917 to a Jewish family living in the Holy Land and became a fervent anti-Zionist after emigrating to the UK.

In those days, said Shaaban, things were very bad for the left. “There was no movement at all,” she said. “In the 1990s it was a time when you could not say the word “socialism” because it was the era of the new liberalism and the end of the USSR.”

But now things are beginning to change: With the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak a new political left is emerging in Egypt.

The writing was very much on the wall during the leftist Tagammu Party conference last Saturday, when 73 members resigned due to their exasperation with leader Refaat al-Saeed. They feel his closeness to the Mubarak regime and failure to endorse the recent uprising fatally dented his credibility.

Many have joined the Popular Alliance, a recently-created confederation of different movements which is seeking to bring the notoriously fractious elements of Egypt’s left under one umbrella.

Shaaban joined the alliance with a Trotskyite party she helped form last year, the Socialist Renewal Current.

She said: “This is not the first time people have tried to have a party made up of different leftist groups. But in the past people have only been thinking about their own organizations and how to demand their own ideas. But now we have a different approach. Working together has made people closer. In the past we never had this chance.

“Now if there are differences it will be between real political issues and not just ideology.”

The Popular Alliance is comprised of an assortment of ex-communists, socialists and disaffected Tagammu members.

According to Rabab al-Mahdi, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, the Popular Alliance has a “lot of potential” for becoming a credible umbrella party for the left.

She said: “It is not like a workers’ party which does not appeal to the intelligentsia. The Popular Alliance has a niche because it can appeal to both.”

Yet in many ways it all sounds too good to be true. Is it realistic to think that such divergent points on the leftist spectrum can ever work together? Shaaban admits that although people are working together now, it might be different once the afterglow of Mubarak’s ouster begins to fade.

“Who can we say what will happen in two year’s time? Two years ago we didn’t see a revolution coming in Egypt. We know we are different, but we know we need each other. That’s why this party is built on freedom and difference.”

They will be helped along their way by Akram Youssef, a 30-year-old former Tagammu member who helped found the Progressive Youth, an organization devoted to promoting the causes of the left around Egypt.

Although not a political party, Akram said his organization is campaigning to raise awareness about activism in communities around Egypt, and then transferring the political know-how into votes for members of the Popular Alliance and other leftist parties.

He said: “There are a lot of militant young people in Egypt now. They want to see Egypt run in a different way and don’t want to accept the Muslim Brotherhood.”

But not everyone is convinced. One man who doesn’t think that a “big tent” for the left is possible is Farid Zahran, who last Friday established his own leftist organization, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

“The Popular Alliance cannot succeed,” he said. “They say one thing and do another thing. What they want to do is get all the groups together with one identity, not for each group to have their own identity.

“It’s not practical and it’s not democratic to think they can stay together. I believe diversity is a good thing. Unity is something imaginary and cannot always be true. We can be together sometimes but not all the time.”

As the name of his party would suggest, Zahran believes the time has come to fuse together socialist principles with market values.

He said that the defining cause of the revolution — freedom, dignity and injustice — could be addressed by acknowledging the importance of the private sector and utilizing its potential value to drive social reforms.

He said: “We want political and economic freedom with social justice. That’s what social democracy is.”

Yet Egypt has never had a strong social democratic movement — the kind of “third way” politics between the unreconstructed left and free-market right which has become the norm in Western leftist thinking — and it is unclear whether the electorate will buy into it.

But Zahran believes people are ready.

“Under Mubarak there was no space for social democracy, because without democratic systems all the movements take radical stances. But I think the space now for social democracy is huge, and I hope that our party can be the one to fill it.”

One party which perhaps isn’t feeling quite so optimistic right now is Tagammu, especially after Saturday’s string of resignations. Those who resigned took the drastic step after failing to pass a motion of no confidence in al-Saeed.

Many among the Tagammu rank and file accuse al-Saeed of not doing enough to endorse the revolution — and perhaps more seriously, of being tucked-up too snugly with the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Speaking to Al-Masry Al-Youm, al-Saeed rejected the accusation.

He said: “Nobody can dare to say they were more critical of Mubarak than we were. We’re the only party who has demanded from 1981 that the president should only be elected twice.”

He added that Tagammu would continue to criticise the ruling military council for “Islamising the voting process” during the recent referendum.

But according to Talat Sahmy, former Tagammu secretary general of the Giza Governate who quit the party on Saturday, al-Saeed’s continued leadership is destroying the movement’s credibility with the public.

He said that Tagammu has “become a bad name in the street,” citing a number of reasons including al-Saeed’s perceived closeness to Mubarak, his supposed reluctance to demand real reform of the Egyptian political system and his refusal to withdraw Tagammu parliamentarians after the revolution started.

He added: “I know many people who wanted to join the party, but didn’t because it was Tagammu.”

Despite this, al-Saeed said he believes Tagammu is still a credible force. “We have the students, we have the workers. We’re the largest leftist and liberal organisation in Egypt. Nobody can deny this, and we are trying to increase our activities.”

As Libya is bombed, Egypt votes

Egyptian women cast their ballot papers

Paola Raymond had been waiting patiently in line under the hot Cairo sun for two hours.

“I’m 45-years-old,” she said cheerily, “and this is my first time voting. I feel absolutely great.”

Across Egypt millions of others were doing the same in a referendum which will shape the course of the Egyptian Revolution.

Towns and cities across the country were unusually quiet as voters headed to polling stations, with many saying it was the first time in their lives they had bothered to vote.

“Take my word for it,” said Nadia Farid, a 43-year-old assistant manager for Lufthansa who was queuing up to vote at a school on the upmarket island of Zamalek in Cairo. “Most of the people here are voting for the first time.”

The referendum, which is asking Egyptians to approve a series of amendments to the country’s 1971 constitution, is the first genuinely democratic poll in decades.

Previous elections have been marred by rigging, intimidation and violence, and yesterday’s vote marks a serious test for the ruling military government.

Bassem Samir, who works for election-monitoring group the Egyptian Democratic Academy, said the poll seemed to have passed off without major incident.

“This is the first time we have had a vote under the control of the army and police where there have been no clashes.”

The army wants voters to approve the constitutional amendments before presidential and parliamentary elections which have been slated for the summer.

There are nine proposed changes, which include lifting restrictions on who can be nominated for president, modifying the hated Emergency Law and imposing limits on presidential terms.

Supported by the Muslim Brotherhood – which along with the formerly-ruling National Democratic Party is the only main opposition group which has campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum – the military argues that the changes are the best way to ensure fair elections this summer.

Yet aligned against them are an array of figures from across the political spectrum,

They include two of the main possible presidential candidates – Mohamed El-Baradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, and Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League – along with leading pro-democracy youth group, the January 25 coalition, and the leftist Al-Tagamma party.

They argue that an entirely new constitution is required to make a clean break with the Mubarak regime, and have raised fears that a summer election is too soon and will only benefit the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood.

Back at the polling station Paola Raymond, a dentist, said that she was voting no because she was worried about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.

“The day that I will not be able to speak freely and dress as I want to dress will be the day I leave the country,” she said.

Yet in the poor west Cairo district of Boolaq, where voters were casting their ballots at the run-down Mustafa Kamal school next to a grubby motorway overpass, there was widespread support for the changes and a quick handover to civilian rule.

Hamad El-Sayed, 45, said: “I have three children and I want their lives to change for the better. I want the country to start walking again and I want the police back on the streets.”

According to Tahany El-Gabali, Egypt’s first female judge and vice president of the supreme constitutional court, there were reports of Muslim Brotherhood scare-mongering in Egypt’s rural areas before the poll.

“I was told that some Muslim Brotherhood people are saying to their followers they should vote yes or their religion could be under threat.”

Yet initial indications would seem to suggest that Egypt’s first election in the post-Mubarak has passed without too many glitches.

Pre-referendum opinion polls had indicated the outcome of the vote was too close to call – something which in itself is a novelty for a country used to little more than rubber-stamp election farces.

With results expected either today or tomorrow, the country will be holding its breath to see where the revolution goes next.

The price of freedom

Gameel Hussein

Originally published at  almasryalyoum.com, March 7, 2011

Naeema Abdel Mageed Sharaf sat cross-legged on the bed cradling her seven-week-old grand-daughter.

“My son was so happy when Fatima was born,” she said, her eyes swelling with grief. “He hoped to make everything for her.”

But tragically he never got the chance. Just 17 days after Fatima was born, Gameel Hussein was stabbed to death by pro-Mubarak thugs on his way to work last month.

Gameel and his 28-year-old wife, Walaa, had been trying for a child since they got married a decade ago. Their first, a baby girl, died just a week after she was born two years ago.

Fatima was their dream-come-true.

“He wanted to make his family happy,” said 56-year-old Naeema, speaking in the cramped, lime-green living room of the family house in Ayrout Basous, a village in Qanatir al-Khayriyah, northern Cairo. “But his dreams weren’t achieved. He didn’t realize them.”

On the morning of 4 February at around 10AM, Gameel, 36, was confronted by a gang of tens of thugs as he made his way into work along with his cousin, Sameh.

Gameel worked as a security guard for a branch of the Commercial International Bank. Unfortunately for him, the bank was located in downtown Cairo, where tens of thousands of demonstrators were at that time camped-out in Tahrir Square calling for the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak.

According to his family, Gameel supported the protests. “He was happy with what was happening. It was a revolution against the system and people were fed up with the oppression,” said his cousin Saeed Mohamed Abu Sabeh.

He also visited Tahrir Square during the demonstrations – but only once, according to his 28-year-old brother Amr. “I don’t remember the date,” he said. “Maybe it was 27 January.”

So, like millions of others, Gameel was excited about the change that was coming. Yet he was hardly one of the hardened shock-troops of the anti-Mubarak movement.

It did not matter. As he reached the main road which took him to work in downtown Cairo every day, his path was blocked by scores of knife and club-wielding Mubarak supporters standing beneath an overpass.

“They said to him and Sameh, ‘You’re not leaving this place.’ They didn’t give him a chance to think,” said Amr.

After running back a few yards onto a rubbish-strewn sidetrack alongside a murky river, Gameel’s attackers set upon him with knives and clubs just meters away from a neglected, shabby-looking mosque. According to his family, he was knifed five times. His cousin Sameh was lucky enough to escape with just a beating.

“He was taken to hospital by a stranger,” said Amr, who works in a coffee shop near the family home. “But they turned him back from there because they were so busy. He died here in our house.”

Gameel was the main bread-winner in the family. His elderly father, 62-year-old Mousad, is a bowab (apartment doorman), but is sick and does not work regularly.

According to Naeema, Gameel was responsible for the whole family, including his brother and five sisters.

“He was caring for his ill father and was the only one working properly in the family. He was the one responsible for marrying his sisters and for the education of the family,” she added.

“He was a very, very good and caring person. He was responsible for the whole family. When his father had a heart attack Gameel was the one who looked after him.”

Gameel was a keen body-builder. Amr said his favorite weight-lifting star was Ronnie Coleman, a professional body-builder from America. Before becoming a security guard he graduated from an institute for industrial workers. “He succeeded in all of the years,” said Naeema. “He didn’t drop down.”

According to Amr, Gameel used to drop in to the café near his house after work to play dominoes with his friends. Usually he would stay awake until 1AM.

“Even when he went to the coffee shop he was the one talking about the demonstrations,” said Amr.

“Everyone was working here in the village, but he was working in the place with all the protests. He was the one who was seeing it for real. We hope that God has given him mercy and that he is in heaven now. I hope the story of my brother reaches the Egyptian people just like all the other martyrs in the Egyptian revolution.”

Cairo Spring brings bright buds…and a few duds

The Egypt uprising has led to a surge of political activity

Originally published at majalla.com, March 2, 2011

It reads like a roll-call of Marxist guerrilla groups.

The Egyptian Rebels; The Coalition of Egyptian Revolutionaries; The Council of the Trustees of the Revolution.

If it wasn’t for another group calling itself the Independent Academics and Development Workers Coalition, there would be the faintest whiff of Farc-style pistol politics in the air.

But the dizzying rush by activists to get a toehold in post-Mubarak Egypt is not as alarming as some of these names would suggest. On the contrary, sometimes it all seems rather farcical.

From one coalition to the next, various factions have been stepping forward under different banners in a bid to get a slice of the media limelight.

There is less of that now Colonel Gaddafi is using warplanes to bomb his own people in neighboring Libya. Yet the political space which has been created since the 25 January uprising has nevertheless provided a spur to myriad have-a-go politicos.

Bassem Samir is the director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, an election monitoring group with ties to the youth activist movement.

He said: “We can say that it is a citizens’ revolution. There is no specific kind of person.

“My brother and his wife are working in a bank. They have problems and things they want to change, so they are trying to start a revolution inside their bank.”

With coalitions being comprised of factions within factions, it is difficult to keep track of the mutating political smorgasbord. But in reality, there is not a huge amount of difference between many of the groups.

Just ask Amar Al-Wakeel, a journalist who heads the murky-sounding Egyptian Rebels.

“There is no difference,” he admits. “We’re all trying to have one aim.”

As Samir points out, a lot of the coalitions are just keen for a bit of publicity. Yet he said the blossoming political activity is just a natural consequence of living for 30 years under authoritarian rule.

“In the past the state did not work, and now it’s the job of the people to make a strong civil society. The people trying to make coalitions are the people trying to make society.”

Some of the groups do have real clout. The January 25 coalition—which includes young Muslim Brotherhood members, Mohamed El-Baradei supporters and a number of other groups—is comprised of members who pre-date the recent uprising and have deep roots in the opposition movement.

On Sunday night they met with military figures in a bid to iron out differences between the Higher Military Council now ruling Egypt and disgruntled activists impatient for change.

Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for the summer; too early in the minds of the January 25 coalition, who want more time to develop a body politic.

As one representative from the group told me with a grin, “none of the other coalitions really matter.”

And now that they are playing with the generals in the big league, it seems hard to disagree.

Egypt’s “Indiana Jones” bows out

Dr Zahi Hawass has won many admirers over the years....but also some enemies

Originally published in the Independent, March 5, 2011

The archaeologist who styles himself as Egypt’s Indiana Jones, battling to save the nation’s rich heritage, has said he will resign as antiquities minister, complaining that treasures are being looted and ravaged with little protection from the authorities.

Dr Zahi Hawass, who has come under fire for his links to the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, said the country’s antiquities were in “grave danger” from criminals, with the new military regime that took power last month failing to preserve law and order.

“Since Mubarak’s resignation, looting has increased all over the country, and our antiquities are in grave danger from criminals trying to take advantage of the situation,” he wrote on his website, going on to list dozens of archaeological sites across the country raided since Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February.

Egyptian newspapers yesterday widely quoted the fedora-wearing TV personality saying he was not willing to participate in the government of Essam Sharaf, named as the new Prime Minister by the military on Thursday, after the Mubarak-appointed Ahmed Shafiq resigned.

Dr Hawass told the Al-Masry-Al-Youm newspaper: “I will not return to the ministry again. During my life, I have never felt weak until the period which I assumed my position in the Ministry of Antiquities.”

His statements appear to contradict an interview with The Independent last month, when he insisted Egypt was fully able to look after its treasures, which include the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the pyramids of Giza and the Pharaonic treasures at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Sitting in his government office on the plush residential island of Zamalek in the Nile two weeks ago, he insisted: “The world should salute what these people did and come to Tahrir Square to thank them for saving the museum.”

He said the government had coped admirably in protecting its museums and ancient sites during the 18-day uprising, when tens of thousands of people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to call for an end to Mr Mubarak’s long autocratic rule. Dr Hawass even touted the idea of a museum to honour the uprising. He also took aim at suggestions that the upheaval may have dealt a blow to his campaign to repatriate Egyptian artefacts being kept in Britain. He said that if there had been a revolution in the UK, “not one single thing would have been left in the British Museum”.

The uprising brought widespread looting and vandalism. At the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, 18 artefacts were reported missing, including two statues of the boy king Tutankhamun. Four have been found. Thieves also targeted the ancient burial ground of Sakkara. Egypt’s tourist sites reopened last month, but holidaymakers are staying away.

A crime wave has also hit some parts of the country, with the police, widely reviled as tools of Mubarak, disappearing from the streets after the revolution. Some returned after the army stepped in to maintain law and order, but security remains fragile.

“The antiquities guards and security forces at sites are unarmed and this makes them easy targets for armed looters,” Dr Hawass wrote on his website this week. “In addition, the Egyptian police force does not have the capacity to protect every single site, monument and museum in Egypt.”

Dr Hawass had come under fire for his links to Mubarak. He was named Minister of Antiquities during the deposed president’s desperate cabinet reshuffle on 31 January, a last futile effort to cling on to power. He was also the target of a protest last month by about 200 archaeologists who gathered outside his office to demand employment.

With his fedora hat and desert fatigues, Dr Hawass has cast himself in the mould of an Indiana Jones-style figure, but his brusque, steamroller style has not always won him admirers. The one thing his staff members agree on is that he is a seven-day-week workaholic; others have said his countless magazine, book and documentary appearances are calculated to promote himself as much as his science.

Such is the profile of the headline-hogging archaeologist, some in the blogosphere had even touted Dr Hawass as a future leader. But they look set to be disappointed. “I’m not a politician,” he said gruffly when asked last month about his leadership ambitions. “I’m a technician. Don’t ask me about politics. I rule it out completely.”