By Ted Walker
October 30, 2011
In September, Green Left Weekly spoke to Mamdouh Habashi and Dr Muhammad Hesham, members of the Egyptian Socialist Party (ESP), about developments in Egypt since the popular uprising overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak on February 11.
The ESP is one of several new parties formed since Mubarak’s ouster. A longer version of this interview can be found at ThawraEyewitness.blogspot.com.
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What is the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF, who has been in power since Mubarak’s ousting)?
Mamdouh Habashi: After getting rid of Mubarak, this uprising was without a head. So we had to accept this new leadership of the military government ― there was no other possibility.
The revolutionary forces were not able to form a counter-leadership, so we had to accept the army regime ― although we know the army leadership is a big part of the old regime. We have no illusions about that.
Thanks to the United States’ US$1.3 billion of annual aid to the military, we have quite a big part of the economy ruled by the army leadership. Their task now is not defending the country, but operating in the building industry, agriculture, tourism industry; they are involved in every sector.
They have become a part of the ruling class. Their goal is keeping as much as possible of the old structures.
But the masses must learn this by their own experience. And positive perceptions of the military have begun to shift due to the attitudes of the SCAF in many situations since February 11.
The demands of the revolution have been formulated very clearly, but the military council just plays with them. Everything achieved since then was only achieved under pressure.
What do you think of the incident in the Sinai in which Israel killed six Egyptian soldiers, and the storming of the Israeli Embassy on September 9 in response?
Muhammad Hesham: The ESP is not in favour of violent action. But at the same time, if people cannot see some sort of change, you cannot blame them for their reactions.
It’s not about a conflict of religion between Muslims and Jews, but about Israel as a state based on discrimination. Some Islamists think in terms of a religious war, but people in general do not.
And when the incident in the Sinai occured, the people expected the government to take action and condemn Israel, withdraw the Egyptian ambassador, complain to the UN ― anything.
But the government did nothing. So people’s anger is quite justified.
What role is the ESP playing in the revolutionary process?
Habashi: We consider the uprising of January 25 not the revolution, but just the start of a new, long revolutionary tide.
We have a new revolutionary wave that could take many years.
Therefore, we don’t look to the next elections as the end of the revolution, as the SCAF and many other political forces try to convince people.
But the government created by the next elections will not be the only force with legitimacy. Our task is to create a new legitimacy, a parallel and revolutionary legitimacy.
The new parliament will be comprised of those who have money ― which is not the left, and especially not the left forces formed after the uprising! The forces with money are the Mubarakists without Mubarak, who are still in power and adapting themselves to the new situation.
They are the Egyptian capitalists, with or against the Mubarakists, and also the Islamists, with all of their shadow parties.
They all have something in common ― they are not with the revolution. They do not want a radical change in policy. They reduce the demands of the revolution to this ridiculous word, “corruption”. They pretend that, if we eliminate corruption, everything will be fine.
This is a deception, because corruption is an element in capitalism, which cannot function without it. The main issue is not corruption but the policies that lead to it and to the crisis we are living in.
Hesham: We have started building the party immediately after the revolution; now we have more than 1000 members. We expect this number to increase in the coming months; we are organising activities ― conferences, seminars, etc ― in different governorates, and we have branches now in places such as Mansoura, Aswan, Luxor and Alexandria.
Our aim is to grow to at least 3000 members by the end of the year.
Who supports these counter-revolutionary forces?
Habashi: The counter-revolutionary forces are quite organised and powerful, with very strong financial backing. They are supported by three main powers abroad ― the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The US wants to keep Egypt inside the imperialist enclosure of neoliberal policies and dependency on the global North, as it was.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are just the hands of the US in the region ― although they have their own agendas, because, if Egypt stands up, they will not have any room to move.
Independent union activity has been increasing outside the formal state-controlled unions. How has the ESP related to this?
Hesham: We have members involved in union activity. There are different left groups working to organise independent trade unions, and now more than 150 have been established.
A considerable number of our new members are working in independent unions. But still we have a lot of work to do ― many factories still have no unions, in many places workers are still deprived of this right. Left parties are working hard on this.
We have lots of legal problems. We are struggling for a new law to recognise the freedom of unions.
Some independent unions have formal registration and are working legally, but others have yet to gain legal status. The situation of these unions is fragile ― we can face sanctions or harassment for working in these unions.
What other issues has the ESP been campaigning around?
Hesham: One campaign is for economic rights, especially for people in informal settlements.
Cairo is surrounded by at least 26 regions defined by the authorities as very dangerous areas to live. This problem affects between 12 million and 15 million people across Egypt.
In 2008 there was a landslide in the settlement of Al-Duwayqa, which left more than 100 people dead, as well as thousands made homeless. Many of these people have still not been offered any housing or any sort of compensation.
A group of young people are raising awareness among inhabitants of their rights to housing, health and other human rights. We are also encouraging these people to form their own organisations to defend their rights.
There was a series of demonstrations and the strikes by the people of these settlements in August, which we took part in.
We are also working for women’s rights. The ESP is in favour of complete equality between men and women in all areas. We cannot think of a socialist society without the elimination of all forms of discrimination.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists say they support women’s rights, but they are against women owning posessions, for example, and think of women as inferior and subordinate to men.
The Law of Nationality and the Law of Personal Issues discriminate against women, and we want to see radical changes to these. But again, the Muslim Brotherhood are against any kind of change to these.
One of the good sides of the revolution has been the active participation of women ― young people, housewives, all different ages and backgrounds.
We also have a special section of our platform dedicated to serious environmental problems. This is a global issue that requires co-ordinated action, but we also face specific problems here in Egypt.
In a city like Cairo, it’s not confined to air pollution, but one that impacts on every citizen’s wellbeing through issues such as garbage collection and access to clean water.
Such problems are felt most in the informal settlements. The ESP also has members working on specific issues such as clean, safe energy.
In September, students and staff went on strike at the American University of Cairo. What is the state of political activism on campuses in Egypt?
Hesham: Since 2005, there has been a strong movement growing for university independence from both government and the security forces. Since January 25, three or four main groups have been co-operating on different universities. On September 11, there was a protest called by these groups and 5000 people marched to cabinet headquarters and met with the prime minister and the SCAF.
The demands were to get rid of all officials appointed under Mubarak ― directors and deans, etc ― and improve the situations of academics and of general staff. But they refuse to make any radical changes ― in the universities or other fields.
SCAF do not respond unless they are under pressure. So a general strike in all universities was organised for October 1. There was also a call for a general strike in schools.
We expect other sectors of society to join too. There have been recent strikes by doctors in some hospitals, for example, and they are prepared for more activities.
The SCAF wants to limit reforms to the minimum, which, in return, leads to much anger. We expect more confrontations in the future.
The ESP and other left forces recently formed the Coalition of Socialist Forces. Is this just for the elections or for broader joint work?
Habashi: Election coalitions must be differentiated from social fronts, which are long-acting, deeper in the society and have clear demands and legitimacy.
The elections are a battle, but not the most decisive one. The next parliament and government will not be able to solve any of the country’s problems.
There are some theoretical differences between the left forces, but these are not the main issue. You cannot expect that, after 60 years of dictatorship, the left will just at once unite!
Unification will also be a process that comes from working together. The ideological differences show up in the means of approaching political questions ― for example, how to face the elections.
There will be a process of creating a parallel legitimacy besides that of the parliament and it will take years.
Hesham: When it comes to battles, such as the parliament elections or opposing the Islamists, we have tried to find common ground for work. We have issued many joint statements on events with other leftist groups, in Alexandria especially.
And we are now looking to carry out joint work around the reimposing of the emergency law, which was lifted for a very short time. The military council is seeking to impose it more broadly.
There is another law, too, introduced after February 11, against demonstrations and strikes ― that we are struggling to change.
No single force can face all these challenges alone.
We have helped each other through joint work. For instance, we have problems finding offices ― all of the leftists groups are very poor ― so we solve this problem by finding offices for several groups. This is happening in Alexandria, Mansoura and many other places.
It is the dream to create one unified left party, but unity developed too quickly, without a proper base, might not be sustainable.