Egypt's activists face an impossible choice

Forced to choose between an Islamist and an ex-general, optimism is fading among Egypt's young.

I could see the tears in her eyes.

"We must go back to the streets. The revolution did not happen for this."

In a visit to Cairo earlier this month, I heard direct the frustration of those whose courage and commitment helped end Egypt's dictatorship last year. The choice for Egyptians in this week's Presidential run-off between Mohammed Morsi, representing the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party, and Ahmed Shafiq, a remnant of the Mubarak regime, was not one the young activist could stomach.

The veteran dissidents of the Mubarak years were more reflective. "It is not what I would have chosen, but it is progress. If you had told me five years ago that we would have had an election in Egypt where 90 per cent of the vote was divided between five candidates, I would not have believed you."

Later this week, the people of Egypt return to the polls for the second round in their presidential elections. Many have described the choice they face as impossible.

The first round eliminated, in a poll characterised by its closeness, the centrist candidates. In a febrile political environment, the last two weeks has seen the sentencing of former President Mubarak to a term of life imprisonment but the acquittal of his sons on corruption charges. The latter decision prompted a return of mass demonstrations to Tahrir Square. The frustrated youth who brought revolution to Egypt are deeply afraid that the revolution is in danger.

"Whatever happens, Shafiq will win," one voice warned me. Snatched conversations on the street with those in uniform, and there are many of them, testify to the continued importance of the army in Egyptian politics. They see their jobs, their status and their futures under threat. There is a profound, broadly-held scepticism that the military will ever allow their role to be subject to democratic scrutiny. Until they do, the capacity of Egypt to operate as a democratic society will be constrained to the point of impotence. Real power will stay with the army.

"My real fear is that the Brotherhood will cut a deal with the army," another experienced dissident voter told me. "The deal will be made before the election and the Brotherhood and the military, the two parties with organisation, will deliver it." The price will be limits to progress in the revolution - on military control, on women's rights, on real accountability.

There is little optimism in the air. The ambitions of Tahrir Square, so heady in the spring of 2011, seem distant now.  But In a nascent democracy, there is much to be done. New political parties, with distinct ideologies, need to develop and to learn to organise. Those I spoke to in the Freedom and Justice Party, which relies heavily on the organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, are deeply suspicious of international co-operation of competitor parties.

What are they afraid of? Democracy requires different parties and new political activists are eager to learn from those with a democratic tradition. The sooner those with power learn this, the quicker confidence in Egyptian democracy will build.

A new generation has formed a new government in Egypt. But governmental power in Egypt still has limits: the army allows government to operate and government operates with the army's consent. This fundamental obstacle to full democracy in Egypt remains. It will not be overcome by this week's election. But, if full and stable democracy is to come to Egypt, the army, its budget and its power must be placed under democratic control.

That ambition is one which many Egyptians I spoke to share still. They know that is an ambition that will be difficult to realise and one that will not come quickly. But many who spent years in prison under President Mubarak see that steps forward have been taken. More steps are needed, but the political prisoners of the past are still political activists today. They are impressively determined that the journey to democracy will continue - beyond the election this week which gives them a choice they find difficult to bear.

An Egyptian protester holds a crossed out portrait of presidential candidate and former premier Ahmed Shafiq. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman