In this short interview, Wael Gamal discusses the unfulfilled promises and demands in post-revolution Egypt. Since February, the powers that be in Egypt, symbolized and represented by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, had promised or agreed to implement a number of policies and decisions that comport with the spirit and demands of the protesters. These demands centered primarily on a a range of issues from salaries to food prices and housing. Wael discusses succinctly what the expectations were and how, at best, very little has been delivered, even when it came to issues that require a simple decision or decree. He ends by pointing out the social forces that, ultimately, can bring pressure to bear on the situation in Egypt—and they are not political parties
[This interview is transcribed below by Hanna Petro]
Bassam Haddad (BH): I would like to ask you about the promises that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) proposed or agreed to implement, promises which remain unexecuted as of yet.
Wael Gamal (WG): After the revolution, there were a number of essential demands submitted as part of the political economy agenda. Among the essential demands of the revolution was the principle of social justice. Bread, meaning nourishment, was a fundamental demand as well.
Therefore, there was a sort of unanimity about a number of economic demands, including the establishment of a minimum wage, which reposed on a court order, as well as the maximum wage, revision of the tax code, and an expansion in spending on health and education. All of these demands, which were articulated after the success of the revolution which toppled the Mubarak regime, received ample positive feedback among Egyptians, even among the political powers that be and business leaders.
SCAF leaders and its government led by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf have vowed, on more than one occasion, to implement a few of these measures, starting with, for example, the minimum wage and maximum wage. But as of yet, this promise has not been kept. Several time limits have been given to no avail.
Sharaf’s government first cancelled the real estate tax, which is levied on the rich, then reinstated it when it came into a bind, after Hazem Beblawi rose to the position of Finance Minister as the government came to realize it could save the budget between three and four billion Egyptian pounds. The same thing happened regarding the incremental tax; a new bracket was to be implemented. In Egypt, there is a flat tax rate of twenty percent levied on profits and wages. The addition of a supplemental bracket at twenty-five percent was first proposed as part of Samir Radwan’s budget, but has not been carried out.
What is more dangerous is that despite International Monetary Fund approval [sic], the first phase of the budget had a deficit of about eleven percent with a slight increase in spending on health and education. After backing away from an International Monetary Fund loan of three billion dollars (the equivalent of eighteen billion Egyptian pounds of public expenditure funds), SCAF took an even larger loan so that it could reduce the deficit from the eleven percent decided upon during the first budget phase to eight or six percent. The budget was thus transformed from one with increased spending on social projects to an austerity budget.
Also, there is the government backing of high-energy consuming industries like ceramics, steel, fertilizers, and cement. These are all monopolistic industries controlled by members who mostly belong to the dissolved National Assembly. There is a consensus that this backing, which stems from the pockets of poor Egyptians, is unjustified, whether politically, economically, or on any other level. These industries have not been affected and their margins of benefit remain unchanged. The government has said that it has called for the revocation of the backing of high-energy consuming industries several times, but its support remains standing.
My explanation for this substantial weakness on the level of the political economy is that the government of Sharaf and SCAF remain clearly biased toward the business class. They do not intend to involve themselves in any confrontation with these interests, which were inherited from the previous regime. Therefore, there is a certain degree of paralysis regarding the political economy from a social perspective or to expand spending that includes a redistribution of wealth and income in Egypt for the benefit of the poor.
We can compare this paralysis, hesitation, and uncertainty with the decisiveness, determination, and intensity that began when the decision to criminalize sit-ins and strikes that specifically make social demands. Several workers on strike were referred to military tribunals. But the strength and momentum of their social movement thwarted the decree, which became impossible to implement as the number of strikers surpassed several hundred thousand and hailed from different sectors and all corners of Egypt.
BH: Ok. What kind of organizing does the current situation command at the level of political parties, civil society, or progressive groups that come into formation? What can you do as citizens from all walks of life? What is possible to do now?
WG: I think that there are a few parties that adopt these social demands; some are on the left; others are on the center-left. Still others refuse to adopt these demands. A few days ago, there was a dialogue with one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a business man. He said that some of the economic reforms that were put in place during the Mubarak era were praiseworthy [sic]. Specifically, he mentioned the Minister of Trade and Industry, Rashid Mohammad Rashid, praising his perspective, which, according to him [the MB leader], encourages foreign investment and freedom of trade.
But my own assessment is that fundamental roles will not be played by parties, which maintain an important role of course. Instead, the fundamental role, the driving force of stakeholders will be the only force capable of exerting pressure on SCAF and its government for the rapid implementation of these socio-economic demands: `eish, horeyyah, karamah insaniyyah (bread, freedom, social justice) [sic].
This social force is the presence of striking workers, employees, farmers, and professionals, hundreds of thousands of whom participated in last month’s strikes. Some of the currently persisting strikes are the only entities capable of generating a continuity of demands for the revolution on social and economic fronts and to impose this agenda by means of direct and legitimate popular action.
It is the parties’ duty to bring about the crystallization of these demands and to defend them, especially in light of looming elections that might constitute a good opportunity for organizing the masses and for the political legitimation of these demands, which might appear to be only economic in nature for some. In fact, these demands relate to the redistribution of wealth in this country. This is not simply an economic procedure, but an initiative that is at the heart of the political and democratic processes in Egypt.