Friday, December 14, 2012

Egypt: Tension, Conflict & Chaos Rein On Eve Of Vote


 With only a few hours to go until the polls open in the first phase of Egypt’s referendum on a proposed constitution, tension is high. Alexandria has become a symbol of this tension when a controversial local imam, Ahmed El-Mahalawy, urged worshippers to vote yes.

Mahalawy has a long history of urging sectarian attacks against Christians and non-believers. But even in his mosque he was challenged by a worshipper who was immediately set-upon by Muslim Brotherhood worshippers who beat him.

Ultimately conflict spilled outside the mosque, including the arrival of conservative Salafists with swords and knives. A gathering of anti-constitution protesters disarmed and beat the men and torched their cars before the riot police arrived. However, as we went to press the mosque was still surrounded after the imam took several protestors hostage and tortured them.

It was unclear if any of the protesters were still inside, several had been released. 

There were also other scattered reports of oppositionists being attacked and Muslim Brotherhood offices being vandalized. It’s clear that tensions across the country are extremely high.

This situation hasn’t been helped by the continuing inflammatory rhetoric by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including President Morsy, and their Salafist allies. Morsy made a speech denouncing the opposition as counter-revolutionaries. There has been talk of thousands of martyrs and death threats against TV news anchors.

It remains to be seen what will happen when the polls open but there is every possibility, given the shambolic way that the Brotherhood and Morsy have handled the present crisis up till the present, that chaos will be the order of the day.

The sense on the ground is that few preparations have been made and that there aren’t even enough neutral observers, let alone outside observers & NGOs, to guarantee a fair vote.

With the majority of judges boycotting supervising the election Morsy had to pass a law splitting the vote up into two dates. But even with this measure to ameliorate the pressure on the few that have agreed to supervise, it is possible that there won’t be enough. It’s not even clear if the government knows who will and who won’t supervise.

"The commission has published on its website the names of judges who are scheduled to supervise the referendum, but I assure you that among those names are 2,930 judges who decided to boycott the elections' oversight," said Judges’ Club spokesperson Shady Khalifa.
It’s entirely possible that people will show up at their polling stations – if they know where they are located – and won’t be able to vote or the poll will be unsupervised. The entire legal status of this constitution, rushed through by the Brotherhood and their allies, could be called into doubt.

There is every likelihood that the Brotherhood’s heavy-handed fumbling of this self-inflicted political crisis will haunt them and that even a formal victory in the referendum will lack legitimacy. Combine this with the looming austerity measures – announced and then withdrawn by Morsy this week – and there is a recipe for further social explosions.

Whatever else happens, the Brotherhood has badly damaged their reputation. It’s not clear how they’ll recover.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Egypt: Crisis Deepens As Mobilizations Continue


Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians mobilized across the country in opposition to the looming constitutional referendum on Tuesday. Short distances away, supporters of the president also mobilized in large numbers. The referendum is planned for this Saturday, December 15.

The exact numbers for either side weren’t yet available as this was written but it is clear that the political crisis hasn’t eased for President Mohammad Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails.

It did look at first like he might have been thrown a lifeline as the State Council Judges’ Club – sort of a union of judges - indicated that Egypt’s judges would oversee the referendum. However, general assemblies of judges’ clubs across the country soon voted by about 90% to refuse to supervise the vote.

FLIP FLOPS

The depth of the crisis was evidenced by constant flipflops and contradictory announcements by the government in recent days. At the weekend it was leaked by a presidential aide that Morsy would delay the vote. Then, apparently after the intervention of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, this was reversed and the vote would go ahead as planned though the original decree granting Morsy near-absolute power was rescinded.

On Sunday Morsy’ office announced a series of tax increases in line with the austerity plans required for Egypt to receive a loan from the IMF. Within hours, at 2am Monday, this was reversed with Morsy’s office saying that first there would need to be “societal consultations” on the taxes. Again, the rumours are that the Brotherhood, through their political wing, the Freedom & Justice Party, had intervened. The reason? It would be hard to win the referendum vote if their support base had just seen further dramatic rises in the price of numerous consumer goods, following on from recent eliminations of fuel subsidies.

Finally, on Tuesday, the Minister of Defense, announced plans to hold a “national dialogue” for unity on Wednesday inviting political groups, youth, sports figures, etc. without the consultation of the president. Then the president’s office said this was a mistake and wasn’t happening. Then the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would be attending followed by more confusion as to whether it was happening and who was behind it.

As of Tuesday night, with protests continuing and at least one railroad blockaded by anti-referendum protestors in Mansoura and rumours that at least one district would bar voting boxes, the government announced that the referendum would go ahead. However, because of a lack of judges it would happen over two Saturdays. Strangely, they also stated that the vote results from the first half of the referendum would be announced before the second half takes place, fatally undermining the democratic credibility.

Into this volatile mix has been thrown Morsy’s decrees giving the military the power to arrest though later, in a partial reversal it was announced that those arrested would be tried in civilian courts. This won’t sit well with a population that has recently overthrown a military dictatorship. Nor will Morsy’s decree extending his control over the central bank at a time when his centralization of power has mobilized millions against his government.

No matter what happens with the vote - if it goes ahead - this government is now mortally wounded and the hopes of the revolution of 2011 have been revived.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rob Ford Shouldn't Be Removed On A Technicality

I've been thinking about this a lot since the decision came down to oust Rob Ford over a "conflict of interest" technicality a couple of weeks ago. I have a feeling that this might be controversial or get me into trouble so let me just start by saying that I'd love to see Rob Ford ousted. In fact, when I first heard the news, as I was working in a local coffeeshop, it improved my mood immeasurably. But, like a night on the town, eventually the hangover sets in and sobriety replaces the joy of intoxication. Of course Ford's terrible in pretty much every sense - he's a bigot, he's a neo-liberal service slashing bastard, a corrupt influence-peddler and he's incompetent. I could go on.

But the problem with Rob Ford being ousted for what is, really, a stupid technicality that doesn't begin to touch on his real crimes, is that he can portray himself as a victim. He could use that, horror of horror, to be re-elected. I mean, look at what they got him for - voting in a council meeting to reverse a fine of a few thousand dollars.

Now, he probably should have paid the fine. He has gone totally unpunished for his cavalier attitude to using his office for personal projects and for personal convenience - whether for his high school football team or getting landscaping done around the family business. But the vote of council was clearly and unequivocally in his favour, with or without Ford's vote. And nailing him for raising money - even on City Hall letterhead - for his football team is such small potatoes, with potentially politically damaging blowback, that it's a no-brainer to let it slide.

No, Rob Ford should be ousted by the people of Toronto - in an election or through mass mobilizations that force him to resign. And he should be exposed for the corrupt, dishonest, hypocritical and incompetent git that he is. Sadly, part of the problem has been a weak-kneed left on council - who only started to stand up to Ford when a right-wing liberal like Karen Stintz made a stand against Ford's hare-brained transit schemes (following him and brother Doug's hare-brained waterfront ferris wheel scheme). Prior to that they were cowed by bluster about Ford Nation.

Nor have most of the unions taken the opportunity to stand up to fight Ford. Garbage collection in the west end of the city was privatized without a peep by CUPE.

A stronger political opposition would easily expose Ford for what he is. A decision by a judge on a silly and petty side-issue won't. It will strengthen him. There, now I've said it: Support Rob Ford. With a better rope.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Egypt: Morsy Struggles To Get Out Of Crisis


President Mohammad Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he comes, continued to resist popular pressure with a half-hearted concession combined with more threats on Saturday.
A meeting was held at the presidential palace with “opposition figures” that mostly included his supporters and opposition figures who are marginal to the present movement. No central figures or opposition parties were represented, having boycotted the summit.

Afterwards Morsy’s Prime Minister announced that his constitutional decree would be mostly rescinded but that the contentious referendum on the constitution draft would go forward.

This threatens to split the movement by granting what had been one of the demands of the movement. However, as many activists pointed out, this concession is effectively meaningless since the decree was intended to insure that the draft constitution that was agreed in a marathon session of the Constituent Assembly went forward.

More worryingly, statements by the Brotherhood leadership indicated a continued hardline against protests, which has already led to hundreds of injuries and several deaths. Morsy’s aides also mooted the possibility of declaring a form of martial law if protests continued. The military also announced that it would enter the fray if the instability continued.

This is an indication that the military leadership will come down on the side of Morsy and the Brotherhood. After decades of repressing the Brotherhood this seems like an anachronism. But in reality it’s not surprising since the constitutional draft guarantees that the military will retain its status as a “state within the state”. They are granted immunity from democratic oversight, including of the military budget. It also allows the military to try civilians in military courts and does nothing to challenge the military’s enormous economic power. Some estimates have the military controlling up to 20 per cent of the Egyptian economy.

The constitution draft also permits the repression of the media, including the arrest of journalists and shutting down media. It also effectively outlaws independent unions by forbidding any industry from having more than one union representing workers – meaning that the state controlled unions cannot be challenged.

The Brotherhood leaders also used sectarian attacks on the Coptic Christian minority in their press statements.

The main opposition organizations, however, continue to call for mobilizations before the referendum, set for December 15. The fact that Morsy is turning to the military is a sign of how desperate they are to contain the present crisis. Likewise the attempts at partial concessions. 

If the mobilizations can deepen and spread – as they seemed to do on Friday with demonstrations even in rural areas that have historically been Brotherhood strongholds - the slow and partial retreat of Morsy and the Brotherhood can become more pronounced. If nothing else it will ensure a large “no” vote in the referendum that will lay the basis for future struggles to extend the rights of woman, minorities and workers.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Egypt: Between Victory & Danger

The situation is moving fast in Egypt and it's hard to get a sense for what is happening on the ground. News media is reporting that President Morsy, 24 hours after saying he would change nothing, has agreed to postpone the constitutional referendum scheduled for December 15. 

No details have yet emerged, and it may well be a headline-grabbing claim covering up an unacceptable half-measure, but this marks a significant shift in tone. If Morsy climbs down on this demand and the other main condition for talks with the mainstream opposition, led by former UN Atomic Energy head Mohammad El Baradei, it could be a very big victory for the opposition. Based upon past experience, the former looks more likely.

Simultaneously, there is news that the Muslim Brotherhood has put out a general mobilization call for its members to come to a mosque only a few kilometres from the presidential palace where tens of thousands are demonstrating against President Morsy. Some have said that they are being kitted up with helmets and more in preparation for an attack.

But the level of tension is so high in Egypt at the moment that it is hard to know what is true, what are rumours and what are outright lies.

Earlier there were statements from media outlets that the military council was meeting without President Morsy, leading to fears of an imminent coup. But the army quickly denied this was happening.

There were also reports that Mahalla, the important industrial city and birthplace of the revolutionary movement, had declared independence from the "Ikhwan" (Brotherhood) state. Likewise in Alexandria, Egypt's second city. But these seem to be stunts by activists to make a point and get media attention - and not any sort of real insurrection.

What is clear most of all at this point - besides the incredible squandering of good will by Morsy and the fantastic mobilizations and rebirth of revolutionary energy - is that the tension and polarization of Egypt are so profound that rumours are flying fast and furious. Every action, every misstep or half-heard whisper in this volatile climate is being blown up and transmitted by a thousand (or more) tweets across the country and around the world.

The pot is on the boil in Egypt and this isn't over by a long shot.

Egypt: "A Real Uprising Against The Muslim Brotherhood"


“Red Card Friday” Protests Draw Hundreds Of Thousands Across Egypt

The opposition to Morsi has sustained its momentum and spread deeper into Egypt with perhaps hundreds of thousands protesting in cities and towns across the country.  

The picture that Mubarak and now the Muslim Brotherhood try to paint of political opposition is that it only exists to any extent in Cairo. “Tahrir is not Egypt” is a slogan that has been used many times since the January 25 revolution in 2011.

And it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood has historically been very strong in many provincial and rural centres of Egypt.

But that support may be in decline if the spread of protests is any indication.

Not only are there major demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and the militant union town of Mahalla where the movement that led to Mubarak’s overthrow began in 2008. Today there were also demonstrations of hundreds and of thousands in smaller centres.

There were, for instance, demonstrations in villages in the province of Beheira, historically a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. In Sharqiya, President Morsi’s hometown there were major clashes between oppositionists and MB supporters near his family home.

In Damietta farmers burned images of Morsi. The farmer syndicate leader walked out of the Constituent Assembly after they failed to include the rights of farmers. There have also been protests at the Morsi’s failure to pass a law forgiving debts for Egypt’s poverty stricken farmers.

As Egyptian socialist journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy tweeted: “Egypt is witnessing a real uprising against the Brotherhood.”

Egypt In The Balance


Between hope & civil war?
Egypt has become a country of duelling demonstrations and rising civil conflict. Today, Friday December 7, tens of thousands demonstrate in iconic Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace demanding that President Morsi rescind his decree granting himself extraordinary powers and to cancel the divisive constitutional referendum scheduled for December 15. Thousands more demonstrate in Alexandria, Suez, Mahalla and around the country. This follows three other major demonstrations that have mobilized hundreds of thousands of Egyptians against the decree.

On the other side of town, the Muslim Brotherhood – from which Morsi hails and was a long-time senior leader – along with their ultra-conservative Salafist allies demand that Egyptians obey the “legitimate” president. They have massed outside the independent TV stations that are concentrated in one area of Cairo, demanding “unbiased coverage”. There were reports that they had stormed the buildings. Last weekend the MB and their allies mobilized hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their support for President Morsi and for Sharia law.

Beyond mere protesting, the conflict has quickly escalated to violence – people on both sides have been killed and likely thousands have been injured. It’s not clear who started the street violence first – scattered reports have suggested it was MB members attacking opposition protests – but there can be no doubt that the cause of this conflict lies squarely with Morsi and with the Brotherhood and their allies.

For months Morsi’s government has conciliated with the military and the old Mubarak apparatus, permitting torture and military trials of civilians to continue, restricting labour rights, refusing to recognize independent unions and more. They have bent over backwards to accommodate the wealthy, including agreeing an IMF loan that will lead to terrible austerity.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD CONSTITUTION

It is now clear that Morsi’s and the Brotherhood’s main goal was to pass a constitution that enshrined the principles of their organization as the main guiding principles of Egypt. The attempt to window-dress it with a few belated and minor concessions to the demands of the revolution – in particular re-trying those cops and regime officials who were acquitted of murdering revolutionaries – didn’t wash.

In some ways this isn’t surprising. The MB leadership were always very hesitant supporters of the revolution, holding back their members from participating in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in the lead up to the February, 2011 revolution. It was only when the movement threatened to surpass and leave them behind that they threw their weight behind it reluctantly. Still, at every opportunity, they backed away from confronting the military, sought to conciliate with them and even met with the SCAF to work out a deal to reduce social tensions.

But it seems that Morsi and the MB leadership are too used to being the only organized opposition in Egypt. When demonstrations and rioting exploded onto the streets of Egypt they were caught off guard. They have handled the emergence of a mass opposition movement with utter incompetence and heavy-handedness.

The decree that granted Morsi extraordinary powers – more even than Mubarak was permitted – was written up without even consulting Morsi’s vice president let alone major opposition figures. Nor has Morsi shown any ability to compromise or seriously dialogue with the opposition that exists. At each step, when he hasn’t simply disappeared from view, he has escalated the tension.

His response to the unprecedented protests and strikes by judges was to speed up the already discredited constitutional process. The Constituent Assembly, undermined by the walk-out by pretty much everyone who wasn’t an Islamist, cranked out the constitution in 48 hours. It became clear that the intentions of the MB and their Salafist allies were to enshrine their agenda in law. Post-factum offers to talk about how the constitution might be changed after it is accepted have been taken as insults by the opposition.

The straw that may have broken the back of Morsi’s legitimacy, and which threatens to plunge Egypt into civil war, was the MB’s call for protestors to go to the “cleanse” the area around the presidential on Wednesday, even though an opposition sit-in of several hundred was camped out there. When an MB spokesman was asked by the media about the possibility of violence he replied “whatever happens, happens.”

Unsurprisingly it led to a major conflict with the result that seven people died, including a well-known reporter who supported the revolution, and over 700 were injured. The explosion of fury across the nation led to the torching of numerous Brotherhood and Freedom & Justice Party – the MB’s political party – offices.

The anger was made worse by the fact that the MB/FJP blatantly lied about what was going on. As their members were beating protestors with clubs and fists, and later with pellet and shot guns, they claimed that it was the other way around. They claimed that the dead, primarily opposition protestors, were all MB members. Official statements, including from Morsi claimed that all the violence was from the opposition side, hinting at a dark conspiracy that reminded many of Mubarak’s tactics for silencing dissent.

All of these missteps and escalations by the MB have now made it very difficult to pull Egypt back from the brink of major civil conflict. The spirit of the revolution – bread, freedom and social justice – is embodied in the opposition movement. But unlike Mubarak’s regime that could mobilize little, the MB have a large base of supporters who they can mobilize and who believe fervently in their organizations and their leadership. Street mobilizations alone will probably not be enough to defeat, convince and demoralize this deeply rooted organization. Ultimately, a real victory will require the same kind of strike action by workers that brought down Mubarak.
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