Suez: Revolution or Salafism?

François Pradal

“I’m against Egypt becoming an Islamic state, but I would rather see a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government than have the military regime stay in place,” said Ghehareb Saqr. I met him in a Suez café, close to the entrance of the Canal from the Red Sea. Saqr, a militant communist, is in charge of air-conditioning at Misr-Iran Textile, where workers had just won a 10% pay rise after a three-week strike.
Ahmed Mahmud, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and leading candidate for the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Suez, echoed this: “I would rather see a democratically elected communist government than the military regime. The armed forces should answer to the government, the way they do in France, and should not have special prerogatives.” Mahmud, 60, had just been released at the end of a three-year prison sentence and was surrounded by young supporters. Asked about the protests in Suez and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which started again on 19 November 2011, he distanced himself from the national position of the FJP: “Although I am not calling for the square to be occupied again, I support the demonstrators’ demands and denounce the human rights violations. We must keep up the pressure on the military regime.”
He was less in favour of strikes: “This is not the best time [to strike], given that the economy has shrunk by 40bn Egyptian pounds. But the workers’ demands are legitimate.” The militants (of both sexes) around him were unconvinced: “People on poverty wages can’t wait.” What about the planned constitution? “It must include all Egyptians,” said Mahmud. “To protect Egypt’s national interests, we aim to build the broadest possible coalition, one that includes Christians.” Whether the FJP is motivated by a desire to unite, anxious not to cut itself off from Egypt’s young people (who are so eager for revolution), or opportunistic, it seems to have accepted that it must break with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and take part in the democratic process.
In December 2011 the election campaign was in full swing on Suez’s main thoroughfare, from the old colonial quarter of Port Taufik to Arbaeen Square, the equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Banners made from sheets hung between lampposts, palm trees and electricity poles. Candidates held meetings under awnings like those Egyptians put up after a funeral. Salafist and feloul (counter-revolutionaries who support the military regime, often former members of Hosni Mubarak’s party) campaign staff put up posters with photos of their candidates; though the only female candidate on the Salafist list (every party must have at least one female candidate) had her photo replaced with a picture of a flower.
One hundred and nine independent candidates were standing for two seats; 12 formations were contesting four more. Everyone was brandishing their party’s emblem: a pair of scales for the Muslim Brotherhood or a fanous (Ramadan lantern) for the Salafist al-Nour Party; a mobile phone, a house or a bottle of water for other parties. Apart from the Islamists, none of the parties that emerged from the revolution had managed to establish a foothold, and the older established parties had disqualified themselves. The left was not in the running -- the distinction between leftwing and rightwing is unclear, so similar are their policies. (In the end, the three Islamist parties won 78% of the vote, the four liberal parties took 14% and four feloul parties took 7%, while the Nasserist Party got less than 0.1%. The Islamists can therefore expect to take four or five of the six seats.) Individuals not parties “People follow individuals rather than parties,” said Nahed Marzuq. Although affiliated to the Socialist Popular Alliance, on the far left, Marzuq, one of only four female candidates, preferred to call herself independent. She explained that the key to winning elections was respectability: To be credible to voters whose views are both revolutionary and conservative, working-class and religious, combative and traditional, it’s best to be a local, and from a well-known family. This election was being fought between individuals who knew each other, who had demonstrated together, and had to start by gauging the degree of social influence they exerted. Few women or young people who had emerged during the revolution were standing for election. Yet a taxi driver told me: “I’m planning to vote for young people. Only they can stop things from going back to the way they were.”
There are two major lines of division in Egypt. The first is between the feloul and the supporters of the revolution, including those who have no intention of taking part in demonstrations. A young Nasserist candidate said: “The feloul and the Brotherhood have the same policies: They are conservatives, supporters of capitalism.” The second is between Islamists and non-Islamists. Nobody questions article 2 of the constitution, which identifies sharia as the “chief source of legislation,” but Clément Steuer, a researcher at the Centre for Economic and Legal Studies and Documentation (Cedej) in Cairo, said: “Only the Salafists make a distinction between citizenship and Islam, between Islamic and civil states. The debate centres on the principle on which society should be founded: Islam or citizenship?”
The biggest surprise in Suez was how well local Salafists did in the elections. With 51% of the vote (the highest score in this election; elsewhere they took no more than 25%), they outdid the Muslim Brotherhood. The Salafists have been established in Suez for many years and benefit from the prestige of a renowned preacher, Sheikh Hafez Salama. Now in his 80s, Salama was a leader of the resistance against Israel in 1967 and initiator of the jihad against Israel in the 1980s. In Suez, young Salafists commandeered the revolution: They were very much in evidence during demonstrations, even providing security for them. Suez paradox
Reda is a docker in the port of Sokhna, 45km south of Suez. He was unhappy, and had reason to be: When his father died, he had been forced to become the family’s breadwinner before he could finish school. He had been involved in the revolution as early as 25 January, and a bullet fragment had narrowly missed his right eye. The dockers’ strike had been unsuccessful: “All we gained was the use of two empty containers in the port: one for sport, the other for prayer.” An engineer had humiliated Reda by giving him tasks not in his job description; the powerful pyramid of power is still in place. Reda is married to the daughter of a Salafist co-worker, who houses him and takes part of his wages in lieu of rent, but his revolutionary views did not prevent him from voting for another Salafist sheikh, Mohammed Abdel Khaled: “Everyone in my neighbourhood likes him.” Suez is a paradox: The Salafists have triumphed in this most revolutionary of Egyptian towns, without taking part (initially) in the social and anti-authoritarian revolution. Does this mean the revolution and the elections are now separate issues?
Khaled is the leading candidate for the al-Nour Party in Suez. He is a chemical engineer, the secretary-general of an oil company and a preacher. Riding in his luxury car, he expounded conservative views: “I want to see sharia applied in full, to teach everyone the rules of Islam. Politics and religion are one and the same thing.” What were his views on tourism? “We prefer tourism for religious, scientific or health reasons.” And Egypt’s failing economy and massive unemployment? “We must make it easier for people to go abroad to find work, prioritise small-scale investment in services -- rather than consumption goods -- and large-scale investment in infrastructure: an underground rail link from Sokhna to Arbaeen, and shopping centres.” How would these be paid for? Khaled was evasive. How about the strikes? “They are mainly due to a lack of dialogue between partners, which could remedied by preaching. The right to freedom of expression is acceptable, but the disruption of economic activity is not. Freedom should have limits.” What about the Copts? “They will be judged in accordance with their own religion” (by Coptic tribunals).
Egypt’s Copts, of whom there are around 6,000 in Suez, have turned inwards, feeling abandoned by the rest of the world. Father Serafin of the Church of the Virgin Mary said: “Every day, we are subjected to insults from the Salafists. But our churches are not being attacked, and there is no violence. We are not afraid. We are not leaving.” Salafist promises The Salafist campaign began in the mosques, where the Muslim Brotherhood is not as well established. The message on Fridays is: “We have been oppressed for decades. We must therefore vote for those who will protect our religion, our jobs, our families and our standard of living.” The Salafists are not short of money; much of their funding comes from Saudi Arabia. They continued to campaign, illegally, offering voters food and making promises, right up to the doors of the polling stations on 14 December, when the first round of the elections took place. The Salafists scored their biggest successes among the poor, in deprived areas and in the countryside by appealing to Islamic identity, an approach less widely used by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, according to Alaa al-Din Arafat, a senior researcher at Cedej, “They may not have the same approach to politics, but there is a degree of permeability between the two. Many senior figures in the Muslim Brotherhood studied in schools run by Salafists, and preached in the same mosques in the 1980s -- which explains their Salafisation.”
More than half of Suez’s population of 600,000 live in its poorest neighbourhood: Arbaeen, where the local revolution started and fighters were recruited. Arbaeen’s streets are unpaved sand, its market stalls dilapidated, its houses unsanitary, unfinished or falling down. Rubbish is piled up in the streets. The water supply (not drinkable) is often cut off. The high population density is driving up the rents. The lack of public services makes life hard and around a third of the population is unemployed. The Suez Canal Authority companies say the local people are hard to control: They prefer to hire workers from the south, from the Nile Delta, or from other countries, who make up nearly 40% of Suez’s population.
Emad Ernest, a maker of documentary films on the towns along the Canal, said: “The water issue is symbolic of all the problems facing the people of Suez. Friends of Mubarak junior [Gamal] are pushing people out to make room for new industrial developments, the poorer suburbs are sometimes flooded with waste water from the beach resort at Ain Sokhna, the fishing has suffered from the harbour operations and pollution in the Red Sea and smallholder farmers in the surrounding villages find their irrigation canals drying up.” This was how Egypt’s single-party government punished a rebellious population who had never voted for it.
Corruption is rife: It’s how you get a driving licence, a diploma or a job. But the principal motive for revolt is persecution by the police. Ali, 20, who is studying to be a mechanic, had been in prison six times in four years: “I never found out why. I was too scared to get involved in politics. But the cops used to arrest me on the corniche road, in cafeterias, anywhere. Even though I had my ID card on me. I reckon the police were getting paid per person they sent to prison.”
The Suez area is one of Egypt’s biggest industrial centres, a 75 km-long strip between the Red Sea and the desert which is home to 79% of oil production and petrochemical and heavy industries, alongside naval dockyards and civilian harbours, cement and textile companies. The Canal is Egypt’s third largest source of income, after tourism and remittances from Egyptians working abroad. Profits have surged and reached a record $4.5bn in 2011. But who has benefited? Strikes shake Egypt
Throughout 2011 strikes on a scale not seen since 1946 shook Egypt. The strikes began seven years ago in the textile industry, at Mahallah al-Kubra; the movement that started on 6 April 2008 brought a fresh impetus. There is nothing surprising here: Privatisation, liberalisation of the labour market and insecurity of employment have sharply diminished worker power against a backdrop of accelerating inflation. In 2010, when steel magnate Ahmed Ezz decided to make 4,000 employees redundant and hire cheaper Asian labour, Suez rebelled. Ezz, who served in Mubarak’s government and was a close family friend, was one of the first sent to prison after Mubarak’s fall. On 8 February 2011 a strike broke out in the port, led by employees of Suez Canal Authority companies. On 19 February new (independent) trade unions signed a joint declaration.
Saud Omar, a senior union figure at the Suez Canal Authority who stood as an independent candidate in the elections, coordinated this unprecedented strike with the new trade union organisation formed in Cairo: “Wages,” he explained, “ranged from $130 to $5,220 and bonuses from less than 20 cents to $13,000.” But the workers’ demands also related to the right to strike, compensation for accidents at work, the renationalisation of their companies, and minimum and maximum wages. “In February, April and July, the management promised pay rises and better working conditions, but nothing was delivered. So we went on strike again. It was like Mubarak’s speeches on the lines of ‘I hear you, but I’m staying’.” The forms of industrial action varied: walkouts, sit-ins, flying pickets. But the repression was the same.
The government passed two new laws: the first, in March, threatened any worker taking strike action with prison; the second, in June, allowed strikes, on condition that there was no “cessation of activity.” In Suez the movement was strong enough to prevent anyone being put in prison or fired. In July, with the support of the revolutionaries, the workers secured a restructuring of pay scales, a 40% rise and better bonuses.
The strike movement has spread to other sectors. Its victories are built either on the establishment, at local and national level, of an independent trade union organisation, or on the importance of the companies affected, vital to the operation of the Canal, a strategic resource. But the strikers have never attempted to blockade the Canal itself, possibly fearing the army, which guards it. Wahid el-Sirgani, who pilots ships from Suez to Port Said, emphasised that the workers are proud of the Canal. They may be asserting their rights, but they also regard themselves as protectors of Egypt’s national interest. Liberties restored
Another, less quantifiable, achievement of the revolution is regained freedoms: freedom of speech, organisation and movement, and also, for itinerant traders, the freedom to trade without having to pay prohibitive bribes. On 28 January 2011 the police were chased off the streets and nobody now seems afraid of being arrested, even if the state security service is still watching: “They could come back,” said the liberal candidate Talaat Khalil, the day after 70 Islamists were arrested.
But there are still problems: Prices are high, unemployment is rising and there is no work for young people, even if they are highly qualified. Mohamed, 20, who is studying business, said: “The revolution is over. Now I want a job and a house. I want to be able to get married and be treated with respect, and not have to sweep up in a shop to earn my living.”
On 28 November 2011 television presenter Medhat Eissa, a candidate for the centrist Justice Party and a close friend of Mohamed El Baradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, arrived at the corniche road angry: Canal company employees had intercepted a shipment of tear gas from the US, the same gas that was said to have killed several demonstrators in Tahrir Square; the employees had been arrested. On hearing of the arrests, demonstrators had gathered at the port. Eissa said: “In February, the army were telling us ‘Stand up, you are Egyptians!’ Now it’s ‘Stand up so we can get a better shot at you!’ We have only got 10% of what we were demanding. This revolution is a process that will take five or even 10 years. We can’t stop while the regime is still in place.”
The core reason for the revolt is the issue of bringing to justice the officers responsible for the deaths of so many young people. “None of the non-commissioned officers accused of murder have been tried,” said Amin Dashur, spokesman for the victims’ families. Most have been allowed to return to duty. As far as the justice system was concerned, they had acted in self-defence. But the victims’ families have all refused the compensation offered and their anger is growing. Some could take the law into their own hands if nothing changes.
“The revolution draws its strength from the martyrs who remobilise the people,” said a lawyer with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. On 20 June 2011 the release of the police officers accused of killing demonstrators in Suez triggered a second revolution. And in July the fight to obtain recognition for these martyrs converged with the re-occupation of Tahrir Square and the rise in trade union activity.
Even if they seem to be well coordinated, from Cairo to Suez via Alexandria, the revolutionaries are not a majority. Mohamed Mahmud, 33, a member of the 6 April Movement and of the Justice Party pointed out: “Revolutions have always been instigated by minorities. Twenty million Egyptians took to the streets, but 70 million stayed at home.” What about the SCAF? “When things calm down, it will collapse. We held out against Mubarak, and we won. We held out against the prime minister and we won. Every time we confront the Council, we make them back down. One day, we will overthrow them.” Once the elections are over, the parliament, which will be mostly Islamist, will surely have more authority to speak on behalf of the people than the demonstrators in the street. “The ‘Brotherhood’ would not have been able to stand for election without Tahrir Square: they get their legitimacy from the revolution. There are tensions between young activists and senior members, between the Brotherhood and the party. The people will take to the streets again if they feel they have been betrayed.” Activists here are afraid of nothing. Their optimism and their tactical instincts seem formidable. In Suez, the revolution continues. Translated by Charles Goulden François Pradal is a journalist. © 2012 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global