Egypt: ongoing mass struggles force concessions from military

By Sam King

More than a million people filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 8 in the biggest show of strength from the Egyptian mass movement since February 18, when a similar number celebrated the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak. With people frustrated by the slow pace of change under the post-Mubarak government led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the immense protest, called “Day of Cleansing”, demanded that Tantawi resign and Mubarak be arrested and tried for corruption and involvement in killing 800 people in the lead-up to his overthrow on February 11. The crowd also called for other human rights abusers and corrupters to be prosecuted. Threats were made that a crowd would march over 500 kilometres to Mubarak’s luxurious residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to have him arrested.

Tantawi was Mubarak’s defence minister from 1991 until being appointed deputy prime minister in the wake of the mass uprising in January this year. He heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power after Mubarak was ousted on February 11, and now acts as defence minister and de facto head of state.

A mock trial of Mubarak took place during the protest, and many participants vowed to continue protesting until Tantawi resigns. Around 25 uniformed army officers, calling themselves the Free Officers Movement, joined the protest, according to Associated Press. Some officers addressed the crowd. Preceding the action, the SCAF threatened to court-martial any military personnel who protested in uniform. AP reported the Free Officers denounced the military leadership, saying Mubarak was continuing to rule through Tantawi and the other generals.

The SCAF government responded to the escalation of mass political action by increasing repression of protesters and moving to appease the popular expectation that action would be taken against the Mubarak family and its cronies.

The army moved into Tahrir Square before dawn on April 9, firing live ammunition, rubber-coated bullets and tear gas at a smaller group of demonstrators staying the night. The army killed at least one person and injured around 70 but failed to arrest the rebel officers, who had already left.

Detention of capitalists and collaborators
On April 13, Hosni Mubarak’s two sons Jamal and Alaa were remanded in custody for 15 days pending further investigations. Hosni Mubarak himself claimed to be having a heart attack after just half an hour of questioning by prosecutors. He was hospitalised in Sharm el-Sheikh, reportedly in police custody. According to the Middle East News Agency (MENA), prosecutor-general Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud was to summon Hosni Mubarak on April 28 to resume questioning over charges of financial corruption and ordering the killing of peaceful protesters on January 28. His detention has now been extended for a second 15-day period, ending May 13, according to MENA.

Jamal and Alaa Mubarak were to be detained for questioning until April 28. They were jailed together with former prime minister Ahmed Nazif, former minister of information Safwat Al Sharif, speaker of the lower house of parliament Fathi Sorour, former minister of housing Mohammad Sulaiman, former tourism minister Zuheir Garana, former interior minister Habib Al Adli and Ahmad Ezz, one of Egypt’s biggest capitalists. All are accused of corruption, human rights abuses or both. The April 21 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly Online reported that the political prisoners wing of Tora prison, 20 kilometres south of Cairo, now contains 20 former officials, public figures, influential businessmen and the security apparatus’s entire leadership.

Authorities have issued travel bans for Ahmed Heikal, chairman of Citadel Capital, and former prime minister Atef Obeid, according to MENA. On March 21, the European Union froze the Mubarak family’s assets and those of 18 others in response to a request from Egypt’s foreign ministry. Those targeted included Habib El-Adly and other former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) members.

On April 19 the final report was released by a fact-finding committee headed by Judge Adel Qoura which formed after the “Battle of the Camels” attacks on protesters in Tahrir Square. The report argued that Mubarak was implicated in the killing of protesters. “The shooting lasted for several days. There were people killed in Suez on 25 January. Neither the president nor the interior minister ordered any kind of investigation. Then killings happened in other cities. No investigation was conducted”, Marwan said during a press conference on April 19, according to Al-Ahram Weekly.

Al-Ahram’s article “Blood on their hands” summarised the findings of the 500-page report, including the following accusations: “846 civilians were killed and at least 6,400 injured by the former regime’s thugs, snipers and Central Security personnel in many cities across the country. The report revealed that former interior minister El-Adli gave orders to use live ammunition on protesters in more than 16 governorates, including Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

“In Cairo, investigators found that the police fired rubber bullets, shotgun shells and live ammunition at protesters from 25-28 January. Also collected was evidence that indicated that the State Security Counter-Terrorism Unit used snipers to shoot protesters from building rooftops overlooking Tahrir Square, including the Ministry of Interior building, the Nile Hilton Hotel and the American University campus.

“The committee also verified that protesters were frequently killed by one shot aimed at the forehead and that injured protesters were often shot in the eye, indicating that the harm was intentional rather than just to scare off protesters. ‘Most of the death cases were due to fatal shots at the head and the chest,’ the report said, which is based on 800 video clips and interviews with more than 17,000 officials and witnesses.”

Mass pressure
On March 5 and 6 protesters raided State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) buildings across Egypt, seizing secret files detailing surveillance of regime opponents. SSIS is accused of widespread torture and human rights abuses. In Cairo, people demonstrating outside an SSIS building sighted a truck leaving the compound loaded with shredded paper. Fearing important evidence was being destroyed, the group then broke through military guards and took over the building - allowing thousands to enter the compound and obtain their individual SSIS files.

By March 7, a WikiLeaks-style online clearing house was set up to publish many captured documents. On March 17 the BBC reported: “The head of the SSIS has been arrested and is facing investigation for ordering the killing of anti-government demonstrators. Another 47 of its personnel have been detained on suspicion of destroying evidence.” On March 15 Al Jazeera reported that the new interior minister, Major General Mansour el-Essawy, a former Cairo security chief, announced dissolution of the hated SSIS - fulfilling one major demand of the February uprising.

On April 16 Al Jazeera reported that the Egyptian Higher Administrative Court “dissolved the former ruling National Democratic Party and ordered its funds and property to be handed over to the government”. This was also a legal recognition of facts on the ground. The NDP’s burned-out Cairo headquarters are still surrounded by burned party vehicles - a reminder of the power of the mass action that defeated police violence on January 28. The party’s provincial headquarters have also been torched.

However, a party calling itself the “New National Party” led by ex-NDP cadre Talaat El-Sadat, the nephew of late president Anwar El-Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor, who presided over the first neoliberal policies introduced into Egypt, is being set up ahead of elections scheduled for September. “The party has decamped to a new headquarters in the [elite] Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. On April 17 party workers busied themselves changing signs throughout the mid-rise building from ‘National Democratic Party’ to ‘New National Party’”, reported the
Wall Street Journal.

Repression of struggle
On March 28, military intelligence showed up at the house of Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 25-year-old blogger. They arrested and charged him with “insulting the military establishment” and “spreading false information”, according to the
Huffington Post. The paper reported: “On April 6, a military judge announced that he’d make his ruling after Nabil’s lawyers pleaded their case on April 10. On April 10, the lawyers were told the session had been cancelled. But when they arrived at court the next morning and looked at the records, they saw Nabil had in fact been tried the day before, without them present. Nabil was sentenced to three years in prison.”

Sanad’s blog, before being silenced, was openly critical of the military. Al Jazeera online reported he was arrested for a March 7 blog that stated: “The revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but the dictatorship still exists. The army supplied the police with live ammunition for the killing of demonstrators on January 28th.

During the revolution the army was directly involved in manufacturing sectarian strife.” Al Jazeera reported that Egyptian activists claim as many as 5000 activists have been arrested, and some convicted, since the fall of Mubarak.

In a March 27 press release, Human Rights Watch reported: “On February 25, March 6 and March 9, army and military police officers arrested peaceful demonstrators, detained them, in some cases tortured them, and brought them to trial before military courts that do not meet minimal due process standards”.

Legal reforms
Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved a March 19 referendum to reform the constitution, paving the way for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.  More than 14 million voters, or 77.2%, approved the amendments. However, only 41% of eligible voters turned out.

The constitutional amendments limit the president to two four-year terms while leaving the powers of the president largely untouched. Unlimited power of the president to rule by emergency decree was scrapped, but was replaced with a clause that permits the head of state to impose a state of emergency for up to six months before putting this decision to a public vote.

The referendum had the full backing of Mubarak’s NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both parties participated in discussions on the proposed changes, alongside military and judicial experts. The purely nominal nature of the popular vote was underlined by a declaration from the SCAF that, in the event of a rejection of the amendments, it would impose its own constitution.

Having won a yes vote for their changes, the generals then abruptly issued a decree imposing a temporary constitution comprising 52 additional articles not included in the vote. The temporary constitution gives presidential power to the SCAF until a new constitution is drafted, following a parliamentary election later in the year.

New unions
Several new unions and the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions have been formed this year as part of the mass organising for social and political rights.

The minister of labour, Ahmed Hassan El-Borai, declared on March 12 that the right to create unions will be granted to everybody, according to the state-owned
Al-Ahram newspaper’s English language website. “We don’t need a national law for this, we ratified an international labor convention that grants this right, but if people will feel more assured by promulgating a new law, it’s not a problem, real independent syndical laws are very simple and are formed just by 14 to 16 articles”, the minister was quoted as saying.

However a decree adopted by the cabinet on March 23 criminalises strikes, protests, public congregations and street assemblies. “Such actions are to be criminalized as long as the Emergency Law is in effect; this law has been in force for the past 30 years, and is expected to remain in effect for another six months until parliamentary elections are held”, the
Al Masry Al Youm newspaper reported on March 24. The paper’s English language website also quoted Karam Saber, the director of the Land Center for Human Rights, as saying: “On 13 March the Ministry of Manpower announced that workers’ and unions’ freedoms would not be infringed upon by the state or its administrative/executive apparatuses.

Yet less than 10 days later they announce that workers will be arrested and put on trial for exercising their basic rights?”

Continuing social crisis
Rising food prices in Egypt were one of the issues that sparked mass popular revolt in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. Since Mubarak stepped down, food prices have continued to increase, rising 20.5% in the year to March, up from 18.2% in February, according to Reuters Africa.

The spike in world food prices in 2007-08 that caused widespread protests in many underdeveloped countries was only temporarily relieved by the international economic downturn in 2008. Now, global food prices have returned to their 2008 peak. In March the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Food Price Index reported an increase of 37% since March 2010.

Speaking in Washington in April, the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, said that the world is “one shock away from a full-blown crisis”. Around 1 billion people already suffer from hunger, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Official statistics put Egypt’s unemployment rate around 10%, with youth unemployment closer to 30%. In February
Al-Ahram reported that almost 14.2 million people, or 20% of the population, live on less than US$1 a day. Tens of millions of others live below $2 per day.

During its two months of rule, the SCAF record of rather frenetic and contradictory political reform includes some important concessions to demands raised by the mass movements of Egyptian working people. The international financial institutions and capitalist press have already expressed concern that economic concessions could also be given to working people.

Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal reported comments about the Arab uprising by Uri Dadush and Marwan Muasher, former senior officials at the World Bank: “There is a significant possibility that the governments that ultimately emerge out of this crisis will renounce previous economic reforms as misguided and argue that they contributed to the region’s plight”. Certainly if the government that emerges out of Egypt’s present upheaval reflects the views of the tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed youth, working poor, displaced farmers and working people in general, “there is a significant possibility” it will replace economic policies that impoverished the majority while enriching a tiny elite with policies that begin to develop the country’s resources for the benefit of the poor majority. H