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“The Muslim Brothers support the status quo”

In Egypt, a multi-phase parliamentary election began in late November. Voting took place amidst violent protests against the military council that has been running the country since Hosni Mubarak resigned as president on February 2011. The Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, more rigid religious radicals, became the strongest forces in the first round of the elections. Hans Dembowski discussed matters with Yasser Alwan, who has been observing the protest movement on Tahrir Square from the very beginning. Violence re-erupted soon after this interview.

Interview with Yasser Alwan

What is going on in Tahrir Square today, 14 December?
There are still some people in the Square, but the protest has been petering out for a while. To be honest, I don’t see the point in demonstrating right now, and most people in the Square don’t really seem to be protestors. It’s palpable that they are informants for the security forces or members of the secret services, the basic idea is to discredit the revolutionary movement.

But at the end of November and earlier this month, the protests were serious.
Yes, absolutely, they were just as serious as before Mubarak resigned in February. If anything, they were even more determined. It was safe to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, but in one place – a street that leads to the Ministry of Interior – the police used tear gas, pellets and even live ammunition to disperse people. Going in there was dangerous, but nonetheless, young men kept doing so. And others organised the infrastructure they needed, from food to medical care. This loss of fear in view of dreadful violence has certainly scared the military council and the security forces. Some 50 people were killed, and many more were wounded. People simply will not tolerate abuse by the security forces anymore. There were big demonstrations in Alexandria, Suez and other places too.

What was the reason for this new wave of protests?
The protests escalated after the police used brutal force to remove a small group of demonstrators, perhaps 150 all in all, from Tahrir Square. This happened the day after a huge rally which had been dominated by Muslim Brothers and Salafis on 18 November. The people who stayed overnight were members of the “Families of Martyrs” group and those who had been injured during the January uprising – and none have seen any compensation for their suffering, as was promised. Another mobilising issue was a draft document that proved that the military council wants to keep the defence budget secret in the long run and also wants the privilege of appointing the defence minister. In other words, it wants to stay in power no matter who is elected.

Egypt got a new cabinet; does it make a difference?
No, not really, they are basically all Mubarak cronies. But what does make a difference is that the protests forced the former cabinet to resign. Before, there was a popular joke that said that the government was so powerless – in contrast to the military council – that it couldn’t even resign. In fact, many ministers tried and failed to do so. The military leaders now understand that they cannot impose everything. They probably feel relief at the moment, but they will have to come to terms with the fact that they cannot cling on to power for ever, and that military affairs will not remain a domain all to itself.

Who supported the protests?
Many, especially young people from different backgrounds did. But it is more important to point out who did not support the protests: the Muslim Brotherhood, as an organisation, told their followers not to take part. The Salafi organisations took the same stand. But as individuals, some Muslim Brothers and some Salafis did take part in the protests. The reason their leaders spoke out against participation was that they did not want the elections to be postponed. They did not want to clash with the military leadership because they knew they would do well at the polls. And they did.

In the first round of the elections the Muslim Brothers’ party got about 40 % of the vote, and the Salafi forces combined got about 25 %. Does that frighten liberal and left-leaning people?
Yes, it does, and we don’t even know what the Salafis want. They have been around for a long time, but they were apolitical. I had a meeting with one of their leaders, and it turned out that he hoped I would teach him how to reach out to the people. He wanted me to help him develop a politically expedient rhetoric. But I still don’t know what he wants to achieve, apart from not scaring away potential voters. It is obvious that their religious ideas are very rigid, a lot like the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia. They definitely receive money from Saudi Arabia. But their political agenda is not clear.

Will the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis team up?
I think they are more likely to clash. The Muslim Brothers have been around for 80 years, they are good at the political game and will outsmart the Salafis.

Together, the Islamist forces are likely to get a majority in Parliament and, accordingly, in the Constituent Assembly. They look posed to shape Egypt’s polity for years to come.
Well, I don’t think so. Anybody who is strong in Parliament now will be politically burned by the time of the next elections. Whoever forms the government now will not be able to deliver what the people expect and need. People have very high hopes and are simultaneously desperate. Inflation is bad, so it is becoming harder and harder to make ends meet. We’re in a world economic crisis. An elected legislature will not be able to do much about basic bread and butter issues. It won’t even be able to raise salaries or institute a minimum wage – very basic demands. And so far, politicians are not challenging the economic status quo. The Muslim Brothers pretend they can improve people’s situ­ation, but ultimately they support the status quo. And so do the other forces that will be strong in parliament. They will have their squabbles with the military council over political issues – the clash about military privileges is coming for sure. But in terms of people’s livelihoods, it will not make much difference.

What issues really matter?
Well, a really hot topic is revisiting the shady privatisations of the Mubarak era. Actually, the courts have re-nationalised some of those companies, but the government has so far refused to enforce these rulings. Another issue that worries people is violent crime. Personal security has deteriorated. The reason is probably that the police aren’t doing their job, quite deliberately, and our military leaders certainly prefer that people live in fear now in order to blame insecurity and crime on the demonstrations and strikes.

How is economic frustration making itself felt?
We’ve seen an unprecedented wave of strikes all over the country in August and September. In Cairo, for instance, the transport workers union pretty much closed down traffic for a while. They succeeded in sacking a top manager and getting some money from long established rules on profit sharing. Egyptian workers are supposed to benefit when a company does well. But in the past, no money was ever disbursed. Strikes like that achieve little victories, and thus encourage others to go on strike too. Protests and strikes are likely to erupt any time again.

Why did the left and liberal forces do so poorly in the elections?
They have not been around for a long time; most of their political organisations are not even six months old. They ob­viously do not have much hold on the Egyptian public, and their influence is limited to the urban centres. In the long run, the Democratic Workers Party may prove different thanks to its strong links to the trade unions. But it is not an official party yet and has not played a role in the elections.

Were the elections fair?
Monitors, including those from the Carter Centre, an organisation run by former US President Jimmy Carter, report that there were a lot of minor violations of rules, but compared with what was previously called elections in Egypt, the elections were fair. No deaths were reported, for instance.