YEARENDER: In Egypt, unrest will spill over into 2008 – corrected

YEARENDER: In Egypt, unrest will spill over into 2008 – corrected

In the last few months of 2007, Egypt has experienced a series of massive workers strikes, motivated by none other than poor standards of living and lack of privileges, foreboding the beginning of a possible “uprising” by Egypt”s poor. But an angry struggle against deteriorating economic conditions is not the only source of concern for many Egyptian analysts. “Political oppression” is another and as the year ends, pro-democracy activists say that they are as worried as ever about Egypt”s political future.

“Inevitably the country”s political struggles will spill over into the coming year,” says legal expert and human rights activist Hafez Abu Saada.

Against the backdrop of economic problems and amid tensions created by a political war between banned Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling powers, observers are predicting that the coming year will be equally dominated by both pro-democracy activity and workforce riots.

Egypt should expect more signs of the coming of “a revolution of the hungry” not unlike the bread riots that occurred during the rule of former president Anwar al-Sadat, one newspaper columnist wrote.

The expression “revolution of the hungry” was coined by opposition columnists to describe an aggressive resistance to stringent pro- capitalist economic policies, privatization being a common example, that stomp on the rights of underprivileged Egyptians in favour of the well-to-do.

For these columnists, the “resistance” was clear in September”s week-long strike of 27,000 Egyptian workers over low wages and overdue benefits in northern Gharbiya province. In the eyes of observers, the protests signaled the birth of a new front of opposition to the government.

At one point, the workers took control of one of the state”s biggest mills and threatened to overthrow its administration. The state had to bow to their demands when attempts to quell the workers” protests by force had promised to be disastrous.

The workers protests were coupled with the controversy over the food subsidy policy with government cancelling food ration coupons for “undeserving” citizens and increasing prices of some subsidized goods.

The policy was enacted in the 1960s and has encompassed basic food items like flour, oil, rice, and sugar. Wheat is also subsidized, and in turn bread whose quality is less than mediocre but relatively affordable for many Egyptians.

A very common sight in the streets is the morning bread queues, so the notion of making bread more expensive has already driven many otherwise passive Egyptians to speak out in a struggle for the last remnant of government assistance.

“In addition, privatization continues to throw more people to the streets, while early retirement (policies) lay off workers and leave them with a monthly allowance that barely makes ends meet,” said Abu Saada.

This kind of proletariat opposition is not political, says Malek Moustafa, one of Egypt”s prominent political bloggers: “Hunger is what has driven these people to the streets.”

Moustafa also believes that protests for civil liberties and political freedom will continue unabated but will not be as influential, “especially in the absence of the US as a supporter.”

In late 2006 and more so in 2007, the United States support for political reform in Egypt has faltered. Egypt remains the second- biggest recipient of US aid in the world. And although cutting down the aid was a demand of many “angry” activists inside Egypt, most analysts believe that the possibility is far-fetched.

The Hamas experience in the nearby Gaza Strip made the likelihood of Islamists coming to power in Egypt if free elections were to be held a scary prospect for both the US and the international community, observers feel. Thus, the US has found itself compelled to support authoritarian regimes like Mubarak”s, says Abu Saada.

Once the country”s most outspoken movement, the Kifaya (Enough) group has withdrew from the political scene as well, amid reports of rifts among its own ranks. And despite trying to initiate a “civil disobedience” campaign last July in order to protest the government”s domestic policies, the group”s activity has become feeble in 2007.

Adding to the tension-filled atmosphere is the flurry regarding human rights violations. Reports of torture in prisons and abrupt, unjustified detentions are flying around while a crackdown on dissident members of the press continued fiercely.

“No one expects 2008 to be a better year,” says Abu Saada. “We expect more chains (on freedoms), more (political) oppression and more repression of the country”s poor.”