Interview with Hani Serag, Egyptian democracy activist and part of Peoples Health Movement.
This interview was done before Morsi issued a series of decrees giving him sweeping powers, triggering a new nationwide uprising in Egypt.
Amandla!: Has Egypt’s Arab Spring really been a revolution?
I am not very much interested in classifying it, if it was a revolution or uprising or whatever. I wouldn’t go for the classification based on whether it changed the state or not. It’s enough for me that at some point, in one day, we had more than 16 million people in the streets after decades of oppression. And that it wasn’t a one man show. This means a fifth of the Egyptian population was on the streets, with all of its diversity – the workers, who had been on waves of strikes for ten years to change their living standards, the political party activists, civil society organisations and foundations, professionals including health workers, people form the rural and urban areas, etc. It was very popular. After 18 days in the streets we reached our first goal, which was that the head of the regime fell down.
A!: What is your take on the army?
Everybody in Egypt is very grateful to the army at this point. The people’s mistake was that they were very tired and very happy at the same time and they wanted to go home to celebrate and to stop. ‘Enough! We’ve done it.’ But everything was still to be done. I was very much against the army, even if it protected young people on the streets and it guarded the revolution. They shouldn’t have taken the lead in the transition period. My dream was to continue in the streets and to try to find any kind of mechanism to have consensus for a presidential council to lead the country. The army cannot lead: they aren’t politicians. It was very sweet to people, talking on Facebook and using completely different tools of communication to reach everybody, even the youth. But this is deceiving. We’ve seen in Egypt that when the army is in charge, they aren’t very keen to build civil life, civil society or democracy.
A!: What was your involvement in Tarhir square?
HS: I was a part of the movements long before the revolution to a great extent, especially in defending the ‘right to health’ and opposing privatisation in the public health sector. We were seeing more withdrawal of the state for service provision. In Egypt we have very basic facilities owned by the medical insurances, which means that they are maintained by the premiums people are paying. The new law is trying to make each facility work as financially separate facilities. We were very active against that. It was a part of the protests and strikes happening everywhere in Egypt. I think we put the right to health and healthcare at the top of the demands, which was true before and during the revolution. In Tarhir square nobody can say that he or she played a significant role of leadership. It was quite spontaneous. People were all together. Everybody tried to do as much he or she can.
A!: Was your medical knowledge required?
HS: Yes, in many cases, even though the figures that are given about the number of injured and deaths were quite misleading. I wouldn’t say that it was a bloody revolution. Lots of young doctors took responsibility for establishing mobile units for health and emergency.
Everybody has access to healthcare in Egypt. Our health infrastructure is huge and is comparable with very advanced economies. We have more than 5,000 public health facilities with good geographical coverage. However, they are not functioning. We have the infrastructure, but we don’t have the system.
People go to the public hospital and nothing is done – no physicians, no treatment – nothing. They have to go to the private sector. Doctors are being recruited, with no salaries. The last salary I received was 100$ a month. Most doctors now have jobs in the private sector to be able to live. Added to daily oppression, there was a deterioration of basic services in education and health. This resulted in waves of strikes among employees in the public sector, the workers and the students. These waves were increasing, constantly, until it reached the uprising.
A!: Tell us more about the situation in Egypt politically and economically?
Sadat (in office between 1970 anand 1981) wanted to move Egypt from the Eastern camp to the Western camp during the Soviet War. He started exporting our people to the oil countries to create a new class- as you do if you want to move to a market economy. This new financial elite came back with completely different values. Values which were new to Egypt, known as Whhabism, a form of Islamic fundamentalism. At the time, Egypt was considered to be a socialist state. It had had waves of communism because of the attachment to the Eastern camp. One way for Saddat to get rid of the communists was to allow the rise of fundamentalism to counter the wave of ‘communism’. Socialism became a synonym for anti-religion. It wasn’t perceived as an economic phenomenon but as anti-religion. During Mubarak’s time, after the collapse of Soviet Union, we went through the Structural Adjustment Programmes which significantly increased poverty in Egypt and widened the gaps among classes. One of the factors for our uprising was that the oppression reached a level that young people couldn’t tolerate anymore, on top of all the neo-liberal challenges. They felt like they had nothing to lose. The revolution didn’t come out of nowhere. It was very economically driven. Even if the media tried to concentrate more on the democracy aspect of it. Why were there uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen? There is oppression and non-democracy everywhere in the Middle East: why not in the Gulf?
A!: How do you explain the very poor participation in the elections?
HS: I was very pleasantly surprised because the participation in the parliamentary election was around 50%. I never imagined before that my vote had value, because we didn’t have proper elections – the result was known beforehand. It was 50% turnout for the parliament and 40% for the presidential election. The Muslim Brothers completely rushed the voting process as they didn’t want anyone else to have time to organize.
In Parliament, the political Islamic current got more than 60% and this was not a surprise, for many reasons. 1) The Muslim Brothers have been working for 80 years and are very well organised and well funded 2) They were already part of the game of the old regime. One of the reasons to justify the oppression of the masses and the behaviour of the old regime was the rise of controlled fundamentalism for the West. The Egyptian regime needed to show that there is no choice—it is the current regime or another Iran, so they integrated them. 3) In Egypt you have 40% illiteracy with religion in the background. It wasn’t a surprise that the opposition, including the young people who initiated the revolution, were not organised enough to win the elections. People have different realities and calculations to take into account, and elect an individual they relate to. The Muslim Brothers were very effective in that way.
Furthermore, there wasn’t a strong coalition from the progressive opposition. The guy from the Muslim Brothers got 25% of the votes, which is very low, one fourth, and they won the elections not because they were stronger this time, but because the other contesting candidate was from the old regime. Most people who gave their voices to the Muslim Brothers did so to prevent the other candidate from being elected.
A!: What now?
In a way they are losing their popularity, which is a very good chance for others to act. The Muslim Brothers won’t fight for economic change, simply because they don’t believe in socialism or even a social democratic kind of state. They are very neo-liberal. More than ever Islam is accepting of the gaps between the classes, this is why they have a very engrained concept of charity. This is what the Muslim Brothers want: “we will try to divide social measures based on the charity measures we do.” They aim at raising 60 billion a year as a second source which will not be in the Egyptian national budget. This is very scary as it gives them powers they do not deserve. They have lots of strong businessmen who are very connected to the oil producing countries. They applied for a 4,8 billion loan from the IMF. This is rubbish as it will not be used to replace the negative balance in the budget.
The Muslim Brothers are afraid of fighting corruption and taxing the rich because they don’t want to demotivate investors. This is the debate: do we need thieves or investors? We need to have some principles to be able to build. Without values we will not move on. We have the money in Egypt to restructure everything, not just to get a certificate from the IMF. This only encourages international trade agreements which is ultimately what the Brothers want, and to be engaged in the global arena as much as possible.
A!: Will there be a second revolution?
We need to be in the streets and we need to mobilise people but in a different way, people are tired of occupying the squares. There is the feeling amongst a lot of people that the coming revolution, if it comes, will be violent. It will depend on the behavior of the Islamic groups. It will not be peaceful because of two things: people have been waiting for this for a long time and secondly, it will have component of hunger if the economic policies we have right now continue. The poverty level and the gaps between the rich and the poor are widening. It is our duty to provide alternatives for health care, education, and social services and to mobilise people around it – not to continue criticising the Muslim Brothers only.