The Socialist 2 September 2008 |
Join the Socialist
Inside Egypt: the land of the Pharaohs on the brink of a revolution
By John R Bradley
Reviewed by Jon Dale
A new book describing the disintegration of Egyptian society claims it is a country on the brink of revolution. As if to prove the author's point, the government has banned its sale.
A July 2007 opinion poll found that 87% of Egyptians were dissatisfied with the performance of their government - the highest number in 37 countries surveyed. Inside Egypt is packed with examples of why this is so.
But it is not a book of dry statistics detailing the plight of the poor and the wealth of the rich. Instead, through conversations with prominent and ordinary Egyptians, John R Bradley describes the developing crisis in this key US ally. He shows the disastrous effects of successive US governments propping up the repressive dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, now the third longest-ruling leader in Egypt's four thousand year history.
A historian tells him: "We had new regulatory laws that started to govern our everyday lives. Supposedly free education meanwhile led to no education. Free health care and social security led to no health care and no social security. In the midst of all this, creativity became a thing of the past. There's been an absolute downgrading in every aspect of all the things that could have led to the improvement of a city like Cairo. What are we left with now? Well, what floats to the top at the end? It's the shit."
Bradley himself blames many of today's problems on Colonel Nasser's seizure of power in 1952, when young army officers overthrew King Farouk. Some of the people he speaks to - writers, judges, scholars - have a "powerful wave of nostalgia" for the "liberal interlude in Egyptian politics from the 1920s through to the revolution of 1952."
Bradley clearly shares their rosy view of this period and wrongly describes Nasser's regime as "socialist". Nasser balanced between the Stalinist Soviet Union and the weak Egyptian capitalist class, nationalising some industries, particularly the Suez Canal. There was no democratic working-class control of society, without which there cannot be socialism.
That the main organised opposition movement to Mubarak today is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is due more to the failure of past workers' leaders than MB successes. Bradley relates how Nasser imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands of MB members. Many of those who survived fled to the Gulf States, where they became immersed in the Wahhabi ideology promoted by the Saudi royal family.
This was very different to Egypt's traditions of Sufi Islam. Nasser's successor, Sadat, invited the MB to return in the 1970s "to counter the Marxist opposition to Nasser's rule." But they brought back with them the Wahhabi intolerance of other views, especially of Egypt's sizable Christian minority.
The MB now has about 500,000 members. Bradley estimates that there are at least 12 million men and countless millions of women and children who participate in Sufi festivals, condemned by the MB as 'un-Islamic'. He argues that support for this Sufi culture has prevented the MB from growing rapidly.
Although they won a fifth of the seats in the rigged 2005 parliamentary elections, they have not made a real breakthrough since. 80% of the questions they have asked in parliament have been on culture and media, rather than the issues that Egyptian workers face daily such as poverty pay. Bradley suggests Mubarak may have deliberately engineered the 2005 election result. It suits him to point to the MB when talking to the US government, scaring it to continue propping him up. Bush has since dropped the talk of 'democracy' in the Middle East, that he briefly spoke of after invading Iraq.
Chapters describe the corruption and vile torture that keep Mubarak and his cronies in power. Corruption spreads to every part of Egyptian society, including the press and the tourist industry. Descriptions of torture in Egyptian police stations are all too familiar - the techniques are remarkably similar to those used by US troops at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad.
Only at the very end of the book does Bradley write about the 2007 "wave of industrial unrest involving tens of thousands of workers on a scale not seen in Egypt since the years leading up to the coup of 1952". It is a pity that his interviews did not include workers who took part in and led these unofficial strikes and factory occupations.
Bradley concludes by describing the dilemma for the next US government and offers it some advice. He argues that the $2 billion a year it gives in aid should be tied to progress on reform, with the threat that it will be diverted to grassroots projects that promote democracy. If repression continues, he argues, it will be the MB who picks up the pieces as the only organised opposition.
This is not the only possible outcome. There are now almost certainly more than 87% dissatisfied with their government. The workers and youth who have bravely stood up to Mubarak's thugs need to build new independent unions and join together to form a workers' party. Armed with a genuine programme of democratic socialism, this could win enormous support, challenge the regime for power and set an example for workers throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The land of the Pharaohs on, the brink of a revolution
John R Bradley
£14.99 + £2 p+p
PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD
020 8988 8789