Robert Fisk: 'The real fight for democracy in Egypt has yet to begin'

A Cairo newspaper editor on why the elections will not prevent protesters from returning to Tahrir Square

Robert Fisk
Thursday 01 December 2011 01:00 GMT
Egyptians protest against military rule in Tahrir Square yesterday
Egyptians protest against military rule in Tahrir Square yesterday (AP)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When it comes to economics, you don't mess with Wael Gamal. Before becoming a managing editor of Shrouq – Sunrise, to you and me – he was economics editor of the Egyptian daily, and he casts a cold eye on soldiers who don't understand money. "Not a single one of the 20 generals on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces understands the economy," he says, with a certain laugh infecting his voice, "and at their press conference the other day, all their numbers and conclusions were wrong. They wanted to scare the people off the streets by saying that Egypt will go bankrupt. The ministers were all trying to correct the statistics afterwards."

Gamal had just voted for the secular "Revolution" list, and it was the first time he had entered a polling booth in his 40 years. "I never voted in elections before because they were all fraudulent. Before the revolution, our editor-in-chief was about to be jailed because of a report we carried on the rigged 2010 elections. I was chased by the police twice in 2003 because I was involved in the movement against the American war in Iraq."

These are happier times, then. No police agents hover outside Shrouq's front door. Not right now, anyway.

"The choice of [the new Prime Minister, Kamal] Ganzouri was very nasty," Gamal says. "He intends to keep a third of the members of the old government and two of them – Hassan Younis, the Electricity Minister, and Faisal Naga, the Planning Minister – were Mubarak ministers. I think the people will return to Tahrir Square after the first voting results are announced.

"But what has happened is huge progress. Sure, people saw violations at the voting, but compared to what happened before, it was a great improvement. I am optimistic."

This isn't a widespread sentiment in Egypt right now. And if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the largest number of seats in the election, which they assuredly will, Gamal believes it will be under enormous pressure: from workers, from trade unions, from the US. Strikes, he says, will start again after the elections. "The Brotherhood [says it] will not change the tax policies, so they are against the poor. This will not balance the budget. I think they will fail. The economy is going to be crucial. Egypt makes lots of money through tourism. Will the Brotherhood support tourism?"

Already, new trade unions have been created, but a new workers' rights law has been refused by the army leadership. The labour ministry has told new unions they have to merge into the old syndicates. As for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Gamal says he is ill, that he has no intention of becoming President although this might not apply to all members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the SCAF, which Egyptians call the Maglis el-Askleri (Military Council). The name of General Sami Amman floats around these days, although Gamal says, with a sense of relief, that "if there had been an ambitious, efficient member of the SCAF, we would have been in trouble."

Gamal sees a divided Muslim Brotherhood, the movement having already spawned two rival parties, its youth cut off from older members, its leadership already out of agreement with the army. "They are saying that parliament should be able to form a government" – which the military does not want – "but the Brotherhood make compromises with their principals."

He added: "This exaggeration of the power of the Brotherhood is an obsession. There are internal differences and they lost the youth from the first day [of the revolution]. As for the Salafists, they are not accepted by Egyptians, even in the countryside. They will maybe get 10 per cent of the votes."

Oddly, Gamal suspects that the Arab revolutions may have been inspired by the overthrow of dictatorships in Latin America, "where opponents of the regimes occupied squares and fought with the police; we had the same kind of developments in social and economic life". But when I ask about the army's latest warning of "foreign hands" provoking violence in Tahrir Square this month, Gamal snorts with cynicism.

"This is hypocritical. They moan about foreign money going to NGOs. But they let the US donate $150m to promote the 'transition to democracy'. The army gets $1.3bn from America. Then that's a different matter. But the future will depend on the next confrontation. The SCAF is very, very weak. Every time 100,000 people go to Tahrir, the government falls. They are on the defensive. The problem is that people in Tahrir don't have the power to put more pressure on, to confront the real web of interests behind the SCAF and to confront the old regime in the work places. There will be a real fight for democracy and social change."

The old optimism is coming back to Gamal. "In just nine months, the strength of the army is collapsing. Who would have imagined that people would be shouting 'Down with the Military Council'? This is good for political progress in Egypt." The army, as "protectors" of a new constitution, intend to keep their privileges out of parliament's hands, Muslim Brothers or not, which is what the Tahrir demonstrators will be complaining about again in tomorrow's rally.

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