America’s missed opportunity in Egypt

There’s no reason to believe that the uprising will bring radical Islamists to power – so why isn’t

Hosni Mubarak's days are numbered as the president of Egypt, and possibly as a living human being. The 80 million people of Egypt are not going anywhere; the struggle for democracy and fight for a better life goes on. After Mubarak is gone, the world will have to deal with the reaction of thousands of protesters who were injured, killed, arrested, tortured on the street while the leaders of the international community were issuing empty, meaningless statements and taking no action except to support this ailing regime in its fight against its own people.

The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who have taken to the streets since 25 January are not political activists or full-time dissidents. They are also not the Islamists who have long been portrayed by the media as Egypt's largest opposition and the only real threat to the regime. It was thought that any change in Egypt would automatically bring to power radical Islamists whose masterplan is believed to be the application of sharia (Islamic law) and the destruction of Israel. This is why the US government has always given unconditional support to the authoritarian regime of Mubarak and his party.

The protesters who took to the streets to challenge the country's brutal security forces did not risk their lives to apply shariaa or wipe Israel off the map. I should also point out that the protesters also had no interest in stoning adulterers to death. Their demands were for a job with a decent income, an end to the 30-year-long emergency rule, safe roads and public transportation, fair elections and a police force whose role is to protect rather than intimidate them.

Despite an endless number of international human rights reports condemning Egypt and giving the country a very poor ranking in the various global freedom and transparency indices, Joe Biden, the US vice-president, unashamedly refused to describe Mubarak as a dictator and said he should not step down . President Barack Obama himself described the Egyptian dictator as a "friend of the US" and a "force of stability in the region".

The Obama administration, especially Hillary Clinton, keeps using the word "reform" instead of "change" when commenting on the situation in Egypt. What the Americans fail to understand is that Egyptians are willing now to sacrifice their lives for change and don't want reform; they simply want Mubarak to step down and they want his regime to remove itself. Law and order will not be restored until this happens.

The problem is that international and domestic media reports about Egyptian politics have always been coated with a great deal of cynicism. The people of Egypt have for far too long been denied basic democratic rights based on dangerous misconceptions promoted by the regime itself. First, that free and fair elections would lead to a sweeping victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and hence would lead to instability in the region and a new threat to Israel. And that the consequences of democracy in Egypt would also involve the "ethnic cleansing" of the country's Coptic Christian minority and the introduction of stoning and and other barbaric punishments.

But let's take a look at the role of the main "religio-political" groups in the 25 January protest and following protests. Many Salafist groups have denounced the uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood was until the last minute reluctant to participate in the protest movement. Even the Coptic Church urged its followers not to participate in Tuesday's protests.

Nonetheless, it was still the country's biggest protest since the 18 January 1977 upheaval – despite the absence of Egypt's main religious groups and institutes. During the protests, it is worth noting, no one chanted "Death to adulterers" or "Down with Israel". There were no Qurans or crosses on display – instead, protesters were peacefully chanting "Freedom, freedom" and waving the Egyptian flag.

For far too long, people inside and outside of Egypt have turned a blind eye to the regime's human rights violations due to their fear of the country's Islamists and, in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The misconception that Islamists are waiting in line to seize power was based on the Brotherhood winning 88 seats (20 per cent) in the 2005 parliamentary elections. But many observers believe this number was carefully decided by the Mubarak regime itself to send a message to western superpowers about the supposed threat from Islamists – in order to resist the Bush administration's pressure to democratise the country further.

The number was big enough to scare everyone they wanted to scare, but still not big enough for the Brothers to drive any real change in Egyptian politics. Interestingly, the regime "allocated" no seats at all for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2010 elections, by which time US pressure – under Obama – had reduced.

It's true that Egypt has seen growing conservatism and even extremism during the past three decades, in what has been described as a soft Islamic revolution. However, this growing trend has found a fertile ground to grow in the regime's oppressive environment and systematic policies of impoverishing its people, such as its determined refusal to enforce a fair minimum wage despite a court ruling to that effect.

It seems, however, that the wave of Islamophobia, or in this case "Islamistphobia", that hit the world after the September 11 attacks drove many to turn a blind eye to their ideals of freedom, liberty and human rights, including President Obama, who has always raised the banner of change and liberty but has been a great deal softer with the 82-year-old Egyptian despot than his predecessor.

If Washington continues to support "reform" rather than "change" in Egypt, it gives way to Islamists to present themselves as the only saviour to the Egyptian people, and risks having a confrontational, radical Islamist regime and a populace full of bitterness towards a nation, the United States, that refused to support the struggle for basic human rights, and chose instead to support a dictator who committed countless crimes against his own people.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.