Sharaf's resignation is not enough for Egypt

With a military monopoly, neither political commentators nor ordinary Egyptians are willing to predi

It's not the first time since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February that demonstrators have returned to the streets, but this latest wave of protests, and the authorities' violent response, is by far the most significant. The crowds are more numerous and angrier, the crack-down more bloody than on previous occasions, and the timing is crucial: parliamentary elections are scheduled for 28 November.

On Monday, the cabinet led by Prime Minster Essam Sharaf tendered its resignation to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). SCAF has yet to accept, but the resignation of the civilian government is unlikely to appease the protesters on the streets of Cairo and other major cities. Their real target is the military, accused of human rights abuses and of concentrating political power in its hands, and with every life lost the demonstrators' position becomes more entrenched.

The trigger for the protests, which began on Saturday, was the publication of a draft document outlining the principles of the constitution, under which the military and its budget could be exempt from civilian oversight. But since February, concern has steadily mounted that the military (which after all has played a crucial role in Egyptian politics since the fifties) is monopolising political decision-making, and anger has built over continuing human rights abuses -- an Amnesty International report released on Monday concludes that Egypt's military leaders' human rights' record is worse than that of the Mubarak regime.

Heba Morayef, a researcher for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, described the atmosphere in Cairo on Monday night as "very raw and very angry." Regardless of whether or not the cabinet's resignation is accepted, "it's not going to make people go home," she says, as the chants in Tahrir Square called for the resignation of SCAF head,gu Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Despite calls by the US on Monday for the parliamentary elections to go ahead as planned, Morayef believes that it is more important that the military comes up with "confidence building measures, such as ceding power to a national unity government composed of representatives from across the political parties, or a presidential council." The elections may have to be delayed to allow this to happen, she believes.

For Morayef, the latest clashes may have been tragically violent, but they aren't necessarily destructive for Egypt's transition process. "It can only be good because things have been so bad so far. This wasn't planned for, but it is forcing a confrontation over military rule. I'm happy at the sustained in anger in a way, because the military thought it could just keep things ticking along as it was", she says.

In Alexandria too, the atmosphere is "very angry", according to English teacher Mohamed Ansary, although he is keen to emphasise that outside the demonstrations life is going on as normal. The response to Sharaf's resignation has been positive, but he agrees it is not enough. "People are happy, because the people on Tahrir Square expected a lot from Sharaf, but he was just a tool for the military. But the main issue is not Sharaf, it's the Supreme Council and they want it to leave."

He fears that unless the government regains control or delivers real concessions, they will have a "big problem" on Friday, traditionally the day that has seen the largest anti-government demonstrations. He has yet to take to the streets, although he may do if the "situation deteriorates". Unlike Morayef, however, he is suspicious of any attempt to delay elections, suspecting that the current unrest may have been deliberately stoked by secularists afraid of a potential Islamist victory.

Having been outpaced by events on the street, neither political commentators nor ordinary Egyptians are willing to make any predictions, and it's still not clear how the SCAF will react to the latest events. It's rare that the political future of a country is decided in hours rather than months or years, but today is one such occasion. The demonstrators may be forcing a change to the political agenda, but just as in February, Egypt's future and its hope for democracy depends on the military's response.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.