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Egypt: Mursi power grab provokes mass protests
Build a united front of workers and poor for 'second revolution'
The declaration of sweeping new political powers by Egypt's president Mursi has provoked a violent backlash, leaving two dead and hundreds injured, and further polarised society along pro- and anti-Mursi lines. To many Egyptians who struggled to overthrow the dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the need for a 'second revolution' is growing as David Johnson reports.
There are renewed demonstrations and clashes with security forces on the streets of Cairo and other cities. This time the spark has been the constitutional announcement by President Mohamed Mursi on Thursday 23 November.
Hours after mediating the Gaza ceasefire between Hamas and the Israeli government, glowing with praise from world leaders, he declared he was "authorised to take any measures he sees fit in order to preserve the revolution, to preserve national unity or to safeguard national security."
No presidential decision taken since 30 June (when he took office) could be overturned by the courts. Neither the constituent assembly drawing up a new constitution nor parliament's upper house (the Shura Council) could face legal challenge.
Both bodies are dominated by right-wing political Islamists, from Mursi's Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood) and the even more conservative Nour Party (the Salafists). In previous weeks liberal and Christian members of the constituent assembly had walked out, claiming the majority's constitutional proposals were undemocratic.
Mursi sugared the pill by announcing retrials for Mubarak and those of his henchmen recently acquitted of organising killings of protesters during the 25 January 2011 uprising. The Attorney General, also a remnant of the previous regime, was dismissed.
Within hours of Mursi's announcement thousands demonstrated in Tahrir Square, including many football fans, chanting "Down with Mohamed Mursi Mubarak" and, "The people want to topple the regime." Tear gas, birdshot and rocks were used by security forces and field hospitals set up by demonstrators, in scenes reminiscent of 2011's street battles. On the stock exchange, shares fell 10% on Sunday 25th.
On 24 November hundreds of judges protested with the same chants. Some courts have gone on strike and more may follow. The head of the lawyers' association told the judges: "The country's fate is in your hands now. If you decided to strike, we will strike. If you decided to stage a sit-in, we will join you."
During Mubarak's last years, many judges criticised his rigging of elections. Many reflect the views of liberal middle class opponents to the Muslim Brotherhood, although others hope to see a return of the former regime under which they prospered. Another group of judges support Mursi. Splits in the judiciary are a sign of wider divisions in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not immune to these divisions. The chairman of the Shura Council criticised Mursi's announcement, despite being a leading Brotherhood member himself, while the Justice Minister said he had reservations about the announcement.
It seems that the strength of opposition could make Mursi partially back down rather than risk growing confrontation on the streets. A Muslim Brotherhood statement on Friday 23 November called for marches on Sunday 25th and a "million-man march" on Tuesday 27th in support of Mursi.
But on Sunday, the Freedom and Justice Party issued a more conciliatory statement that made no mention of the marches and said "it is looking forward to a dialogue with all political parties and forces and social groups and movements with regard to the current situation or the draft constitution... an opportunity to achieve the desired consensus, so as to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of all the Egyptian people." And on Monday they called off the "million-man march."
Crackdowns on the media are also growing. Earlier this month privately-owned Dream TV was ordered off air (apart from its sports and entertainment shows). It has a long record of criticising the previous and current regimes. A court has now temporarily overturned the original ban. Another TV channel supporting the previous regime has also been closed down. A newspaper editor is awaiting trial, charged with insulting the new president.
Mursi's attempt to strengthen his powers shows anxiety over bigger challenges to come. His 'honeymoon' is running out, although many still support him, probably temporarily boosted by his mediating role in Gaza.
Three million workers are now organised in 800 independent trade unions (compared to four independent unions before the 2011 uprising). 2,000 Ain al-Sokhna dockworkers employed by DP World (owned by the Dubai government) struck in October, with 800 occupying the port in shifts, bringing it to a standstill. They were protesting against the sacking of eight trade union activists and successfully forced the company to back down. Cadbury, Suzuki Motors, Pirelli Tyres and other multinational corporations have all sacked trade union activists.
On 14 November Cairo metro workers went on strike, returning four hours later after the company chair agreed to resign and pay talks were agreed. The leaders were summoned by security forces and charged with hindering work, but they warned the workers would be back on strike if they were harmed.
After many strikes and protests in recent months, Mursi has threatened: "In the new law there is no room for blockading roads or [obstructing] production." The government is making organisation of independent unions harder. It wants to strengthen the state-backed Egyptian Trade Union Federation, replacing its Mubarak-era leaders with Muslim Brotherhood members.
The International Monetary Fund has just approved a $4.8 billion loan to help Egypt's growing budget deficit. Fearing further revolutionary movements, "there is a strong international desire to help stabilise the rule of Mohamed Mursi and avert economic shocks which could provoke unrest in the Arab world's most populous nation" (Financial Times 24/11/12).
The price of the loan is a 22-month 'reform' programme, aimed particularly at cutting energy subsidies that account for 20% of the budget. Millions depend on subsidised fuel for cooking, heating and transport.
An IMF spokesperson said: "Given the magnitude [of the subsidies], it will take several years to wind them down. To get buy in [from the population] and protect those in need, savings cannot be used exclusively to reduce the deficit but must also shore up necessary social spending."
Food costs continue to rise, causing great hardship. All the problems under Mubarak remain - including jobs and housing shortages, inadequate healthcare, sexual harassment of women, electricity and water cuts, overcrowded and poorly maintained roads and public transport.
Over 50 young children going to school were killed when their bus was struck by a train on 17 November - the latest of many tragedies in Egypt where terrible safety claimed innocent lives. Egypt's infrastructure continues to crumble, unchanged by revolutionary upheavals over the past two years. The prime minister was chased away from Assiut Hospital by angry family members of the deceased children when he visited.
Workers need to continue building their own independent trade unions. A mass workers' party is also needed to draw together workers, youth and community activists involved in struggle.
While it is correct to march together with liberal forces in opposition to Mursi's undemocratic measures, workers' organisations need an independent identity and programme.
Less than six months ago the Revolutionary Socialists (allied to the SWP in their International Socialist Tendency) called for support for Mursi in the second round of the presidential election to defeat the old regime candidate, Ahmed Shafiq.
They wrote of "the error in failure to discriminate between the reformism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the 'fascism' of Shafiq" (28 May statement). What sort of 'reformism' is Mursi showing now, as he negotiates with the IMF and tries to put himself above legal challenge?
The Revolutionary Socialists now say the Muslim Brotherhood regime and the remnants of the old regime "are two sides of the same coin... We say to Mursi: you and your organisation are the real threat to the revolution, as you embrace Mubarak's businessmen, run panting after loans from the IMF, trade in religion, threaten national unity and sell the revolution" (23 November 2012).
Such twists and turns, without analysing their earlier mistaken positions, confuse instead of clarify. Who do the RS include in their "national unity"? Is it the same "national unity" Mursi spoke of in his announcement?
What is needed is unity between workers, poor people and youth around a programme of democratic socialist change - a second revolution to win real, lasting democratic rights and to take into public ownership under genuine democratic control all the major companies and banks.
Egypt's wealth could then be planned for the benefit of all, ending disasters such as the 17 November rail crash. A socialist Egypt would inspire a new wave of democratic socialist revolutions across the region.
In The Socialist 28 November 2012: