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Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: A report from Egypt

Here is an email Nagla Rizk sent to the Berkman mailing list. I’m posting it with her permission.

When we stormed the streets last January, we chanted “Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtema’eya” (“Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”). We knew exactly what we wanted: a better livelihood for all. At the time, Egypt was experiencing high rates of economic “growth”, a superficial sign of positive economic performance that did not trickle down to the masses. Part corruption part inaction, a 4-5% (or even the earlier 7%) growth rate was by itself meaningless as it did nothing to alleviate poverty or ease the merciless income inequality.

Equally serious was the iron grip on freedom of expression. In a typical Arab regime manner, Egypt focused on encouraging economic freedoms in the strictest neoclassical sense, while simultaneously continuing to harshly stifle political freedoms. Not surprisingly, Egypt fared relatively well on indices of doing business, while performed dismally on democracy and freedom indices.

The January chant, therefore, was a fierce cry against this asymmetry. More deeply, it was a cry for real development, one encompassing freedom of expression coupled with poverty alleviation and better income distribution. The cry of the masses reflected a street awareness of the complexity of development as human dignity and active citizenry — an enlightenment that the ruling elite lacked.

Ten months down the road, yesterday we chanted in Tahrir, “Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtema’eya” (“Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”). Why?

Bread and Social Justice:

No one expected bread and social justice right away. People wanted a roadmap, a plan, a timeline. They got none. Naturally, what emerged was a series of demonstrations and strikes by employees and workers whose demands were never acknowledged, let alone addressed. Rather than tackling the root of the problem or starting a dialogue with the protesters, SCAF chose to order them to go home. To add insult to injury, SCAF and its government portrayed them as the cause of instability, turning the rest of Egypt against them. Dividing Egyptians has been a repeated tactic by SCAF, supported by state media.

Meanwhile, the economy has suffered gravely. Tourism and foreign investments have been the obvious casualties. Egypt’s net foreign reserves have fallen from $36 billion in 2010 to $22 billion, its credit rating has been downgraded, prices continue to rise and the budget deficit to swell. The stock exchange has plummeted. The central bank has just announced it raised interest rates for the first time since 2009 to protect local deposits and the Egyptian pound. The rise in the cost of borrowing would lead to further contraction in the economy. As the state of street safety worsens thanks to SCAF’s incompetence, the economy continues to weaken.

Aggravating the situation has been the perception of the business class as allies of the old regime. This has put all members of the business community in one pot: the corrupt. The anti capitalist rhetoric (global really) has fed into calls for tighter regulation of the private sector within a general anti business environment. In addition to scaring away potential investors, the sad news is that several entrepreneurs and small business owners have closed down and workers have been laid off, compounding unemployment. Hardly any support would be expected from an incredibly weak government whose ministers are too scared to sign into backing businesses lest they should be seen as favoring the ‘corrupt’.

Egypt’s economy is in trouble. And as SCAF prolongs the transitional period, further instability is witnessed and foreseen.


The political atmosphere under SCAF is no different from Mubarak’s. Indeed, we are still under Mubarak’s emergency law of 30 years. So far, 12,000 civilians have been subjected to military trials. Currently our good friend Alaa AbdelFattah, the prominent activist and blogger, is detained by SCAF for refusing to answer as a civilian to a military tribunal. SCAF and Egypt’s police continue to torture detainees. Egyptian women detained by SCAF were subjected to virginity tests.

SCAF have also carried out unprecedented attacks on media, specifically attacking the premises of two television stations, both documented on video. SCAF have also exerted pressure on media content. Recently a prominent TV person withdrew his popular show in protest against SCAF’s pressure. And of course state media has continued to deliver false messages in support of SCAF.

On March 19, we excitedly participated in a referendum on 9 constitutional amendments to the 1971 constitution. The amendments were accepted by a 77% majority. Right after, SCAF dictatorially issued a constitutional declaration with 63 articles including the amendments with some editorial changes. This nulled the old constitution. Article 56 of the declaration gave SCAF their legitimacy as rulers of Egypt. This was not subject to a referendum.

On October 9, we wept witnessing the Maspero massacre, where SCAF vehicles brutally run down street protesters in scenes that moved the whole world. SCAF’s attempt to justify this act as carried out by civilians who stole military vehicles is laughable. If true (which it is not), such claim would illustrate the utter failure of SCAF to maintain security on the street. Additionally, attempts by SCAF and State TV to portray Maspero as a sectarian strife is another example of how SCAF labors to fuel divisions among Egyptians. No less is SCAF’s maneuvers to flirt with different political factions – first the Muslim Brotherhood and later the ‘liberal’ parties.

And now last week’s incidents in Tahrir and elsewhere in Egypt, particularly Mohamed Mahmoud Street. We have all witnessed footage of the atrocities of police officers shooting at Egyptians. SCAF representative and Minister of Interior have come out denying any shooting. This is an insult to Egyptians’ intelligence, no less than all SCAF crimes being investigated by committees assigned by SCAF themselves.

In short, we have a clear failure of SCAF to lead the political transition and to allow for proper management of the economy by an independent government. SCAF has ruled with an iron fist, with a very weak government in place. A mix of political naivite and the desire to protect own interests (they are a major recipient of US aid and a major economic player), SCAF’s amateur performance has brought to disarray the politics and economics of a very complex country.


As I write, Egyptians are divided yet again, thanks to SCAF’s insistence amidst this chaos to run elections on Monday and not two weeks later. Some want to boycott the elections. Among them are those who believe that voting will give SCAF legitimacy, which they refuse. Others believe their votes will be rigged in favor of SCAF’s interests. A third group is simply worried about the lack of security at the voting stations.

Boycotting the elections would be a grave mistake in my opinion. For the first time in years, we have a chance to choose representatives who would take us one step towards building a democratic state. It is our chance on the road to freedom.

The atmosphere in Egypt is now grim. Elections are around the corner while our people continue to be subjected to police brutality. Yesterday SCAF appointed a new prime minister who is refused on the street. Tahrir is coming up with an alternative. As I write now, a statement is being read on TV: revolutionary forces met with El Baradei who is willing to head a national salvation government if asked to do so by SCAF. And he would give up the nomination for presidency. No one knows what will happen in the next hour.

In the meantime, we continue to defy, mourn and hope. One thing we know: we should not again be storming out calling for bread, freedom and social justice.

Nagla Rizk
November 26th, 2011
11.42 pm

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