By: FRANCO GALDINI
11 October 2013
Egypt is divided between the army’s supporters, including many a figure of the Mubarak regime, liberals and leftists, and the deposed President’s supporters. But a new movement rejects both these ways forward. Franco Galdini interviews founder member, Wael Gamal.
However much my liberal mind hates to admit it, the Egyptian army clearly enjoys enormous popularity among the Egyptian populace nowadays. It is disturbing to see liberals and leftists wholeheartedly embracing the military’s discourse of the fight against terrorism, whipped up by cheap displays of nationalism and embodied in images of the army as the country’s saviour and protector. This often translates into blank justification for the military’s handling of all those who question its discourse; starting with the Muslim Brothers. To paraphrase US diplomat Patrick Syring’s infamous quip, it now seems that ‘the only good Brother is a dead Brother.’
But if El Sisi and his allies among the felool (‘remnants’) of the Mubarak regime think that this is a blank cheque for a future return to the status quo ante of January 2011, they are in for a big disappointment. Any new government will be judged on its performance at providing answers to Egypt’s enormous economic and social challenges, from grinding poverty to youth unemployment. The people may be enthralled with their General for now, but the honeymoon may prove short-lived.
From their side, the Muslim Brothers should stop deluding themselves with Morsi’s return. Their stubbornness in pursuing a zero-sum game is further alienating even those (admittedly few) people who were appalled by the violence the army unleashed against Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins and protests. Trying to enter Tahrir Square on the day of the 6 October celebrations deserves a ‘PhD in stupidity,’ as someone wrote. But even if the Brotherhood decided to pursue the path of reconciliation, a remote possibility for now, according to many an observer the majority of the people would reject the overture, so the army can continue basking in its glory for the moment.
Mainstream commentators tend to overlook those cross-sectional liberal and leftist forces who, after recovering from the political earthquake of the last three months, recently started reorganising. These representatives of a new movement – the Way of the Revolution Front (Revolutionaries) – programmatically reject Morsi’s divisive presidency as much as the army’s intrusion into political life. They may have little following so far, but they represent the ideals that guided the first incomplete 2011 revolution, and have vowed to concentrate on those objectives, in primis social justice.
One of the founders of the new movement, Wael Gamal is a prominent political economist and a journalist for the Egyptian al-Shorouk newspaper. He offers his analysis of recent events…
FG: Could you explain, in brief, the events of June 30? How would you characterise the new power arrangements that have come into place after the removal of President Morsi?
WG: For almost 3 years, we have witnessed the main demands of the January 2011 revolution being ignored: social justice, human rights, and independent national policies were first forgotten by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and then by President Morsi. Actually, both pursued policies that were the antithesis of the revolution’s spirit: continuing negotiations to secure a loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), trying secretly to achieve reconciliation with Mubarak-era cronies such as Hussein Salem, etc.
June 30 saw a further wave of the revolution, propelled by people’s genuine refusal of the reproduction – actually, the deepening of Mubarak regime policies in the social, political and economic spheres. Something ignored by the mainstream media is that, by former President Morsi’s own admission, more than 7,000 sit-ins and demonstrations occurred during his year in power.
Thus, June 30 was the peak of people’s mobilisation to oppose the President and, by implication, the ‘deep state’ left over from 30 years of dictatorship. We now know that elements of this deep state had foreseen the possibility of a new revolutionary wave that could not be controlled if left to itself, so they strove to lead it from the beginning. This is the reason behind the support for the Tamarod/Rebel campaign by elements of the military in close coordination with the Nasserites, especially Hamdeen Sabbahi. That is how the June 30 revolution was hijacked and turned into a coup d’état.
What is the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Can they now be considered a spent political force in the country?
As mentioned, the army and the deep state – commonly known as ‘felool’, remnants of the Mubarak regime – rode the June 30 wave of protests and upped the ante, leading to the immediate removal of Morsi. Although it is true that the former President had refused early elections, the army could have forced him into accepting this very popular demand, instead of removing him from power. This way, the Muslim Brotherhood would have suffered the most crushing electoral defeat in Egypt’s short democratic history: there is no overstating the popular anger against the Brotherhood after one year of Morsi’s rule.
Instead, by overthrowing Morsi and embarking on a policy of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters, the army has cemented a sense of belonging among their membership around their sense of injustice, something that has nowadays become known as al-mathloumiya in Arabic. This finds strong echoes in the Brotherhood’s history of persecution at the hands of the state, as epitomised by their leaders Hassan al-Banna and Mohammed Abdou, turning it into a powerful narrative. It is fair to say that at least one million people still support Morsi and the Brothers and are ready to fight for what they see as the cause of legitimacy.
One should have defeated the Brotherhood politically, and it would have been easy after June 30. Instead, the army and their allies seem hell-bent to eliminate them physically, which is unacceptable. I am afraid the country will witness constant confrontations between the two camps, at least up until new elections. Alternatively, the economic crisis may push people out into the streets for socio-economic reasons connected to the current government’s poor management of the country’s affairs.
Is this the end of political Islam in Egypt and, perhaps, even the region as a whole?
It is enough to look at Tunisia to understand that political Islam has suffered a severe setback due to events in Egypt. As I mentioned, had the army pursued the political track to the finishing post, it would have exposed the Brotherhood’s total failure in running the country, with momentous reverberations across the region. Yemeni and Jordanian activists told me that they were closely watching what was happening in Egypt to inform their choices in their own countries.
The problem is that some Islamists may turn to secrecy and armed struggle, as the political road has come to a dead end and they are being killed and arrested everywhere. The renewed ban on the Muslim Brotherhood is certainly not a step in the direction of political reconciliation. And in turn, the Brothers themselves are not helping, by organising protests in the same locations where army supporters are celebrating. I expect the time ahead will be difficult and marred by low-intensity conflict with peaks of confrontation, as was the case yesterday for the October 6 celebrations.
A third way
What are the main reasons behind the creation of this new political movement, The Way of the Revolution Front (Revolutionaries)?
Ever since General El Sisi, the Minister of Defence, asked the people for their mandate to implement a road map to exit the current crisis, the country has been split into two camps: the army and its supporters on the one side, the Muslim Brothers on the other. We saw the necessity to create a third pole, an umbrella group that would unite all those people who want the principles of the revolution to be upheld.
The principle of social justice is the most important of all. It is usually only associated with the economy, but in reality it is highly political. For instance, under Mubarak, every time workers went on strike, the state would intervene siding with factory owners. This sent a clear signal that the state considered strikes as political gestures of defiance.
Along with social justice, what are the movement’s main programmatic points and what are its concrete policy proposals to challenge the status quo?
The Front relies on five main pillars:
1. Social justice.
We want to restructure Egypt’s taxation system, which is severely skewed in favour of the rich, in order to achieve a fairer redistribution of wealth. Again, this may sound like a pure economic policy, but the political stakes are very high. For instance, every government since the 2011 revolution invariably promised to impose taxes on the stock exchange and, with no exception, was forced to abandon this idea under political pressure from business lobbies.
2. Human rights.
Since June 30, citizens’ rights have been under attack. People have been killed and detained. The ‘liberal’ government now in power has extended the period of detention for interrogation, with no referral to a court of law, to 45 days. This is unprecedented: even under Mubaraks’ emergency law, one had to be taken to court once every 15 days. There is a clear intent to curb people’s freedom to demonstrate and the freedom of the press: journalists and photographers have been attacked and arrested, TV stations and newspapers have been shut down.
The Front has produced an Egyptian citizens’ rights document and has launched a campaign to gather one million signatures to be delivered to the constitutional amendment committee for inclusion in the new constitution.
3. Transitional justice.
We ask those who are suspected of committing crimes against the Egyptian people, during the Mubarak era, the SCAF era, the Morsi era and the El Sisi era to be tried in a court of law and, if found guilty, to be held accountable.
4. Independence of national political-economic policies.
Egypt needs to reassess its political-economic policies, in particular those concerning foreign loans from the US, the Gulf countries and the IMF that carry obvious political strings. Many alternatives exist. Ecuador’s policy of a debt audit provides a concrete example of how to restructure foreign debt, for instance. The basic idea is simple: people should not be asked to pay the hefty price of 30 years of dictatorship, during which the IMF lent money to a dictator who is, by definition, accountable to no-one.
Economic policies to address problems of liquidity and budgets should be revised. For example, national reserves are under severe strain due to Egypt’s totally liberalised capital account, which legally sanctions capital flights and speculation without any taxation. This is how 15 billion USD fled the country in the 5 or 6 months that followed the 2011 revolution, i.e. 50% of Egypt’s total foreign currency reserves. Trade is also almost completely liberalised, so that no taxes are levied on luxury goods, which could in turn narrow the gap between imports and exports, thus reducing national debt. The restructuring of the taxation system, which I mentioned above, would afford the state more financial resources that could be reinvested in infrastructure and public services, along with increasing wages. This makes sense from a perspective of social justice, of course, but also from an economic point of view, as it would stimulate growth.
All citizens are equal in front of the law regardless of religion, gender and geographical origin. Polarisation has soared under Morsi’s rule, especially regarding women’s and minorities’ rights (Copts, Shiites, Baha’is) and personal freedoms.
Who are the main social and political forces behind the Way of the Revolution Front (Revolutionaries)?
The Front, commonly known as ‘revolutionaries’ (thuwwar), has an individual-based membership. However, we are supported by many leftist political forces, such as the Revolutionary Socialists and the April 6th movement (both Ahmed Maher’s and the Democratic Front). Even some members of the Masr al-Qawiya party are part of the Front.
In general, support comes from the youth of the revolution who cannot identify with either of the two camps currently fighting it out. We are also building bridges with independent trade unions and some of the most important activists in this field, like Fatma Ramadan, Heytham Muhammadein, Khaled Abdul Hamid etc.
Crucially, we are focusing on building our grassroots groups outside of Cairo, as youth movements in the rest of the country are strong but have lacked coordination so far. We are trying to learn from past mistakes; when disparate movements with the same aims diluted their impact for failing to coordinate. We want to capitalise on past successes, by creating a lasting political forum that caters to all the social forces willing to pursue the goals of the revolution. We are a minority for now, but in my opinion, the potential support-base is enormous.
What is the movement’s position regarding the current re-drafting of the constitution by the so-called ‘Committee of 50’? What are your future plans regarding the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections?
Laws reflect the balance of forces on the ground. We thus understand that it is next-to-impossible to get the constitution we hope for, but we will nonetheless put pressure on the Committee to mitigate the damage, so to speak. We hear, for example, that the draft will include a paragraph constitutionally entrenching a ‘controlled free market’ in the country, which is scandalous coming in the wake of a revolution like ours.
It is too early to tell whether we will run for elections, as there are too many unknowns for now. When will the elections take place? Will it be presidential elections followed by parliamentary, or vice-versa? What will be the electoral law? Will guarantees for a free and fair campaign and voting be set in place? The Front will have to consider all these questions and make a decision. In my opinion, one of the Front’s main objectives is to field a revolutionary presidential candidate and several others for parliamentary elections. But the Front will decide when the time comes. However, it is paramount for us to start our work now, in order to organise and offer people, who do not identify with the current polarisation, a real alternative: a third way for Egypt.