Egyptian Opposition Ignores the Poor at Their Peril

A national mobilization against Morsi has already began in preparation for the large confrontations expected on June 30th.  Protestors are setting up tents to occupy Tahrir Square and arranging security checkpoints outside the entrances to Tahrir Square.  Protests also began nationwide in various locations including Assiyut, Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, and Giza.

The protestors attacked Obama’s support for Muslim Brotherhood (MB), with some posters crossing out the face of U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and others accusing Obama of supporting terrorism.  Unfortunately, some protestors expressed support for Arab nationalism and the military.  One speaker won applause by calling for “another Abdel Nasser”, and many protestors carried signs that read “the army and the people are one hand.”  The protestors’ anger at the Obama Administration for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood is justified, but their support for Arab nationalism and the military is highly troubling and suggests their undemocratic leanings.  The behavior of these protestors indicates that my Egyptian friends were right to be skeptical of this movement.  

The regime is already responding with force to the protests.  The MB burned the Cairo headquarters of the Tamarod (rebellion) movement in an attempt to destroy the signatures on the petition calling for Morsi’s removal. Once again the MB is resorting to physical force rather than debate and discussion to achieve its objectives and thus revealing its anti-democratic colors.   

The central problem with the protests, and with political mobilization in general in Egypt, is that all the competing factions are ignoring the needs of the Egyptian poor.  Taher el Moataz Bella, Student Union President of American University of Cairo, recounted how all the political groups failed to address the concerns of the poor. After the fall of the Mubarak regime, the middle class abandoned the poor to their fate.  And when the poor tried to defend their rights, they found themselves attacked by the media and the military police.  The MB sided with its wealthy business backers by blocking a minimum wage provision in the public sector.  And the opposition National Salvation Front sought a deal with the IMF at the expense of the poor.

He recounted how the Russian democrats made the same mistake after the fall of the tsar in March 1917 during the brief reign of the Provisional Government.  He reminded Egyptian democrats that failure to address the Russian peasants’ concerns led to the Communist revolution in October, 1917.  I would add that I discussed the same issue in the 1990’s with the late Galina Starovoitova, a Russian democratic politician who was my teacher at an Ivy League university in the 1990’s.  Galina was my good friend, and I warned her that failing to provide a social safety net for groups adversely affected by the Russian transition to Communism would end up destroying Russian democracy.  Sadly, Galina was murdered 3 years later by the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin  in 1998.  Her death signalled the end of Russia’s experiment with democracy in the 1990’s and the beginning of a bleak period of Russian authoritarianism and genocide in Chechnya under Putin’s reign in 2000.  Egyptian secular democrats face a similar predicament today, and if they don’t move to address the legitimate issues facing the poor, then their efforts to build a more humane Egypt are bound to fail.

Egyptian history itself demonstrates this point powerfully.  In the 1930’s, during the golden age of King Faruk,”Over 60% of land under cultivation was owned by 6% of landowners, and a tenth of it by just 270 people….Meanwhile the landless rural majority suffered low wages and irregular work and lived without clean water, sanitation, and healthcare.  Bilharzia was endemic and infant mortality rates were among the highest in the world,” (Ades, A Traveler’s History of Egypt, 2007, p.312).   The gulf between rich and poor contributed to the rise of the MB and the fascist Young Egypt in the 1930’s.

For this reason, Egyptian secular democrats must begin addressing the concrete concerns of the poor if they want to maximize the chances of building a stable democracy that respects human rights.  Mohamed Atef, whose brother was murdered during the revolt against Mubarak in 2011, said he can’t afford to get married because of the high cost of living.  He noted that the price of 1 KG of potatoes quadrupled from 1LE to 4LE and demanded,”Where do I get this money? Where?”

Another protestor added that people have grown so desperate that they are now eating out of the trash.  A third protestor, who was missing two fingers, said that he struggled to support his wife, mother, and son from odd jobs such as painting. He said,”It just doesn’t bring in enough money anymore. What am I supposed to do?”

Economic desperation and poverty consistently leads people around the world toward hatred and fascism.  Therefore, Egyptian democrats must make an urgent commitment to tackling the problem of poverty in Egypt. The economic crisis is producing a political collapse and cannot be ignored any longer.


About the Author
Rachel's educational background includes a B.A. in international relations from Brown University; she has been an independent scholar, analyst, and researcher about Middle Eastern affairs for 12 years; Her focus has been on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt.