Winds of change blowing as grass roots activists get organised


Right across society, Egypt’s young guard is agitating for a truly democratic system of governance, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

THE POPULAR uprising that toppled Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak is rapidly becoming a broad-based political, social and economic revolution which is putting pressure on the military, in power for 60 years, to usher in a genuine transition to multi-party democracy.

Some Egyptians speak of two models for the “new Egypt”. They want the military to follow the example of the Turkish army and withdraw from the political sphere. They also argue that the country should adopt Brazilian measures to help the poor.

Pressure on the generals is being exerted from different directions. Political parties co-opted or banned by the Mubarak regime are reforming and new ones are being established with the aim of contesting free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections. There is a struggle between old guard figures and the newly assertive young for control of established parties — the liberal Wafd, Muslim Brotherhood, nationalist Nasserites, communists and independent leftists. Old guards tied to the military are losing out to young guards who seek to align their parties with the democracy movement that brought down the Mubarak regime.

Secondary school students have formed a movement calling for revision of the Egyptian educational system. Women’s organisations are demanding equal rights and full representation in government and civil society. Journalists are calling for an end to restrictions on the media and removal of editors and board members who toed the government line under the Mubarak regime.

Scholars, preachers and students at Egypt’s ancient educational institution al-Azhar University call for its liberation from 1,000 years of government control. The turbaned revolutionaries insist that Sheikh al-Azhar, the university’s rector and the world’s leading Sunni jurist, and other senior figures should be elected for fixed terms rather than appointed for life. The clerics also advocate the re-establishment of the institute for scholars of ijtihad (independent judgement on religious issues). If these dramatic demands are granted, progressive reformers could seize the initiative from the Saudi-supported regressive elements who have dominated discourse in the global Muslim community in recent decades.

Teachers, civil servants, university professors, lawyers, judges and workers in the country’s public and privatised industries are venting their fury at officials, inept managers and rampant corruption. Tens of thousands of workers in the textile industry, communications firms, iron and steel plants, hospitals, universities, military industries and the Suez Canal have gone out on strike, first to support the democracy movement and then to claim higher wages and better working conditions. Workers are calling for the dissolution of the government’s Egyptian Trade Union Federation. On Wednesday several unions established an independent association.

Mass and organised labour action give the democracy movement the economic muscle to exert pressure on the generals who have, so far, only slowly and grudgingly met the movement’s demands. One Cairo commentator argues tourists will not come; foreign firms will not invest; Egyptians living abroad will not transfer funds; and international donors will not offer aid for Egypt’s transition to democracy as long as such protests and strikes continue. Eventually, he said, the generals will have to concede the demands of the revolutionaries.