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Egyptians are being held back by neoliberalism, not religion

Rachel Shabi

21mohamed-morsi-010.jpg

'President Morsi is not, as he claims, trying to protect the revolution but wants to protect the interests of an entrenched elite at the expense of everyone else.' Photograph: Mohammed Hossam/AFP/Getty Images


President Morsi claims the opposition is an anti-Islamist elite. In fact, he is losing support because of his economic policies

December 21, 2012


Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters have tried to frame the current crisis in religious terms, casting opposition to their speedily drafted constitution as the petulance of an anti-Islamist, liberal elite. Media analysis has often replicated this theme: in one corner stands Brotherhood-propelled President Mohamed Morsi who has the supposed blessings of a religious population. And in the other corner, the "secular" opposition, banging on about small details of a constitution that isn't that bad. Such wrongheaded analysis prompted Egypt expert Dr HA Hellyer from the Brookings Institution to politely request that western media "knock it off".

But the result of Egypt's first referendum on the constitution (a second referendum takes place this Saturday, in districts that have yet to vote) has exposed some of the real sticking points. The referendum had to be split into two stages because so few Egyptian judges agreed to supervise it. And for all its legendary mobilising powers, of the votes cast the Brotherhood wasn't able to get more than 57% for its constitution. Not long ago, the Brotherhood could rely on voter support reaching over 70%. And less than a third of the electorate turned out though that might be because of the long queues and the difficulty in voting. In an atmosphere of mistrust and mismanagement, allegations of vote-rigging are rife.

But if Egyptians are, as results indicate, losing faith in the Brotherhood, it isn't because the organisation is Islamist, but because it has so far been rubbish at ruling. Many believe the Brotherhood has kept its promises to power, but not to the people. Crucially, President Morsi's economic policy has deepened the neo-liberalism that brought so much misery during the Mubarak era and was a key component of the uprising against him.

This economic stamp is all over Morsi's policies, both before and as a part of the proposed constitution which was completed in a one-day marathon, by an Islamist-dominated assembly, after Christian, liberal and female members walked out. In early December he announced an end to fuel subsidies so household bills for gas cylinders and electricity, for example, are set to spike.

Meanwhile, an IMF loan of $4.8bn currently being negotiated is conditioned on what has been described as the biggest wave of austerity cuts since 1977 when subsidies on staple foods were removed in one crippling hit, prompting the "bread riots". Today the plan is to reduce public spending, cut subsidies, increase tax on basic goods, and devalue the Egyptian pound. This package was delayed because of the current turmoil. But why should Egyptians swallow such a Shock Doctrine-style deal, when one of the key tenets of the revolution was a call for social justice?

Meanwhile, the proposed constitution reveals more of the Brotherhood's conservative economics. It has a clause that pegs wages to productivity. It stipulates that only "peaceful" strikes (whatever that means) are allowed. It keeps military interests intact and invisible to public scrutiny in a country where the army is thought to own anything from 10% to 45% of the national economy (nobody knows for sure because it's all so secret). It is all more evidence that Morsi is not, as he claims, trying to "protect the revolution", but wants to protect the interests of an entrenched elite at the expense of everyone else. Indeed, this year a Bloomberg report referred to the wealthy, controlling echelons of this Islamist group as the "Brothers of the 1%".

Small wonder, then, that the factory-dense city of Mahalla declared itself an independent state, in protest at Morsi's anti-union laws. Since he came to power there has been a wave of strikes; not just factory stoppages but also health worker strikes and consumer protests at eroding public services. And Egypt's rapidly growing independent unions have been mobilising nationally against the constitution, using its trampling of social justices as the hook.

All these concerns have come on top of the constitution-driven attempts to erode personal freedoms, especially for women and minorities, and give religious clerics the final say over legal rulings all through a process that disdains plurality and vital consensus-building. This, rather than any knee-jerk hostility to Islamists in power, is what prompted such large and widespread protest across Egypt. But while his economic policy makes Morsi unpopular on the streets, it is precisely what makes him acceptable to the west: power-serving economics coupled with a foreign policy that doesn't rock any regional boats, crucially with Israel. Using standard paternalistic filters, the US is banking on the idea that the Brotherhood's religious credibility will underwrite its reactionary politics, thereby maintaining the status quo. In this sense, the American administration doesn't really care if it's a Mubarak or a Morsi in power, as long as these interests are preserved.

It is true, of course, that the Brotherhood still won majority support in the first referendum although that might be as much about public desire to put an end to this constitutional crisis.

But the drop in support for the Islamist group shows that Egyptians won't be fobbed off any more and therein lies the power of the revolution. Post-uprising polls reveal that Egyptians are more concerned with work, housing, health, security and public services than with the pantomime identity politics of Muslim Brotherhood versus the liberals.

The results of the referendum show that the opposition, as it grows more focused and more organised, might be able turn popular concern for these issues into real political mobilisation, which could gain momentum in the parliamentary elections slated for early next year. Then the Brotherhood might find out that with such disregard for the Egyptian people, its credibility, garnered during those hard, repressive years in opposition, can easily be squandered.



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