Riots over wages and rising prices have shaken Egypt's government, analysts say, but the absence of strong opposition groups means the unrest does not yet threaten its survival. Thousands of workers and youths clashed with police in the town of Mahalla El-Kubra this week. Two people, one aged 15, were shot dead and 111 police and protesters were injured. More than 300 protesters, including two bloggers, were detained.
The riots were the culmination of more than a year of strikes by workers at a giant state-run textile factory for better wages, which sparked a nationwide wave of copycat labour protests unseen since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. "Mahalla is one cell of an Egyptian body suffering from the same diseases," said Ibrahim Issa, the outspoken editor of the independent daily newspaper Al-Dostur. "The credibility, legitimacy and the grip of the regime are eroding," he told Reuters.
But some analysts say even the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, cannot mobilise enough support to threaten the government. When the group unexpectedly won nearly one fifth of the seats in the parliament in 2005, authorities launched a crackdown on its leaders and financial networks. They also disqualified its candidates from this week's local elections. "The first way for opposition groups to make political gains would be through the ballot box, but elections in Egypt are not free," said Mustapha al-Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University. The government denies rigging elections.
The second way is to engage in a confrontation with the authorities. (But) the state is still powerful and capable of oppression on a large scale," he told Reuters. "I do not see an easy exit from this situation." Other parties such as the leftist Tagammu and the liberal Wafd are too weak to pose any threat to the ruling National Democratic Party even if they were granted more freedoms, analysts say. The Brotherhood has repeatedly said it is not seeking an open confrontation with the government. "The Brotherhood is not capable, and has no desire, to assume power because the legacy it would inherit would be heavy and the transition of power would be difficult," said political analyst Diaa Rashwan.
The prestige of the ruling establishment has also been shaken by a public outcry over shortages of subsidised bread for the urban poor. At least 11 people have died since February waiting in long bread queues, some from heart attacks and one woman hit by a car. Opposition parties and some media have called on President Hosni Mubarak to sack Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif for his failure to ensure supplies of subsidised bread, seen in Egypt as a basic function of government.
Mubarak, in power since 1981, named Nazif as prime minister in 2004 to stimulate an economy suffering from low investment, high unemployment and only modest growth. Since then, foreign direct investment has jumped from less than $1 billion in 2003 to $7.8 billion in the second half of 2007 alone. The economy grew at 7.1 percent in 2007, the fastest rate in at least two decades.
But inflation is also growing. Figures from the government statistics agency show urban inflation hit 12.1 percent in the 12 months to February. Prices for dairy goods rose 20 percent, vegetables 15 percent and cooking oils 40 percent. Analysts say they do not see Mubarak, who will turn 80 in May, embarking on radical reform to ensure a more equal distribution of wealth, or to revamp a dismal education system to sharpen the skills of the workforce. The only successor under serious discussion is his politic
ian son Gamal. Both father and son denies any plans for such a succession. "Most likely this thing (the unrest) will continue," Rashwan said. "Where would it lead? this is an open question."
* Published in the KUWAIT TIMES on April 10, 2008. Alaa Shahine writes for Reuters.