EGYPT: Anger Approaches Boiling Point
By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani
CAIRO, Oct 9 (IPS) - Public disaffection with the government appears to have reached an all-time high.
"There's no denying that popular anger towards the government is rising across the board," Nabil Abdel-Fattah, assistant director at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. "The political friction has become palpable."
A rockslide last month that killed scores of people in a Cairo shantytown became another provocation for rising anger. It was a disaster for which many held the state indirectly responsible.
More than 100 people were killed when a rockslide in eastern Cairo Sep. 6 flattened dozens of makeshift homes in the densely populated shantytown Dweiqa. The government bore no direct blame for the disaster, but the incident threw a spotlight on the state's long-standing inability to cope with the proliferation of "informal" -- and often structurally unsound -- housing in and around the sprawling capital.
"The spread of informal housing is a long-standing problem," said Abd al-Fattah. "The Dweiqa incident served to further infuriate the poorest segments of society, already fed up with what is seen as a policy of official apathy to their plight."
According to Hamadeen Sabahi, founder of the leftist Karama opposition party, there are currently ten million Egyptians -- to whom the government doesn't provide any services -- living in shantytowns like Duweiqa. If the problem isn't solved, he said, "it will eventually lead to a spontaneous, popular explosion."
In the wake of the disaster, Sabahi, who is also a prominent member of parliament, proposed taking half the annual budget earmarked for ministerial offices and allocating it for construction of low-income housing for the urban poor.
"But until now, the government has completely ignored the proposal," Sabahi told IPS. "It's as if it cares nothing about public welfare."
This was not the only recent incident to adversely affect popular perceptions of President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the NDP-run government, which is composed largely of powerful businessmen.
In early August, senior NDP member and business magnate Mamdouh Ismail was acquitted of manslaughter for the death of more that a thousand people in 2006, when a ferry he owned sank in the Red Sea. The verdict was greeted with public outrage, particularly among relatives of the victims who saw the decision as proof that Egypt's corporate and governmental elite stand outside the law.
Cairo's image suffered yet another blow when contracting tycoon and high-ranking NDP member Hisham Talaat Moustafa was accused of involvement in the killing of Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim, who was brutally murdered in Dubai in late August. Although the case has yet to go to court, the accusation has compounded the aura of corruption surrounding the ruling party.
"These incidents have re-ignited the long-simmering issue of coupling business interests with authority, and how this practice inevitably leads to the spread of government corruption," said Abd al-Fattah.
All the while, the government's failure to protect the public from rapidly increasing inflation -- which continues to soar month-on-month -- has also fed frustration. Rising food costs were felt with particular acuteness in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslim families traditionally break daylong fasts with generous meals.
According to some estimates, as many as 40 percent of Egypt's 80 million people already live around or under the poverty line, meaning they survive on a dollar a day or less. "With prices of most basic goods higher than ever, huge numbers of low-income families are no longer able to get by on their limited means," said Abd al-Fattah.
Commentators say these factors have combined to fuel unprecedented popular exasperation with a government widely seen as incapable of providing public welfare.
"The government has been unable for the most part to meet the basic needs of large portions of the population," said Abd al-Fattah. "And it appears to lack the political will to deal effectively with the serious problems afflicting the Egyptian public."
Sabahi concurred, noting that "the inflation, the ferry ruling, the murder charges -- all have led to a state of overwhelming public anger." He added: "I don't know if President Mubarak even realises the extent of frustration on the street."
Sabahi went on, however, to say that many Egyptians were also fed up with a political opposition seemingly incapable of challenging the status quo. Although Egypt's parliament is dominated by the NDP, roughly a fifth of the seats in the assembly are held by independent and opposition MPs.
"People may have lost all faith in the government, but they have hardly granted it to the opposition either," said Sabahi. "The government has failed across the board, but the opposition, too, has failed to rally public discontent and bring about political change."
In mid-August, both chambers of Egypt's bicameral parliament -- the People's Assembly and the consultative Shura Council -- were damaged by fire. Although the cause of the blaze was ruled accidental, many Egyptians were hardly sorry to see the seat of Egypt's "multi-party" government in flames.
"Many Egyptians expressed satisfaction in the wake of the fire," said Sabahi. "And I suspect that some would have even preferred that parliament had been in session at the time."
The situation has led some commentators to make predictions of an imminent governmental shake-up. Abd al-Fattah pointed to recent speculation that Mubarak planned a major cabinet reshuffle either before or after an annual NDP conference scheduled for November. According to Sabahi, though, such a change would represent little more than a "superficial and temporary" solution.
Commentators also note, however, that the high tide of popular displeasure has been accompanied by a newfound openness in public criticism of the government.
"People are angry, yes," said Abd al-Fattah. "And, notably, both in the independent press and in everyday conversation, people no longer seem to be afraid of expressing this anger." (END/2008)