The We Want to Live campaign: Impoverishment is a political choice
 
 

“A strange thing happened. We woke up on November 3 to find that the purchasing power of the Egyptian pound had dropped from LE1 to 1.40, meaning my salary had fallen from LE2,000 to 849. What can I buy with that? I don’t know.”

Karam Abdel Halim, the head of the Independent Union for Workers at Suez Canal Authority Clubs, is speaking from the podium to an audience that has gathered for the mid-January inaugural meeting of the Popular Campaign Against Policies of Impoverishment, alternatively known as the We Want to Live campaign. The campaign is the first of its kind to contest the economic policies marshaled by the government and Central Bank of Egypt and their effect on large swaths of the country’s society.

Created by a number of worker and professional unions and associations in addition to several political parties and movements, the campaign has asserted in its founding statement that it aims to work toward “the pursuit of social security for Egyptian citizens, specifically those toiling.”

The November 3 decision to liberalize the foreign exchange rate and reduce fuel subsidies is at the heart of the issue, according to Abdel Halim and the others who spoke at the first meeting. After the government and the Central Bank introduced the economic measures hours after one another, the price of a variety of goods, including basic commodities used daily by the majority of Egyptians, soared.

Inflation rose to 24.3 percent in December, the second highest it has been in the last 25 years, only trumped by the rate in 1992. And, while the Egyptian government has presented its policies as technocratic means that are necessary to curtail the budget deficit and determine the Egyptian pound’s fair value, We Want to Live campaigners insist that the economic decisions have been purely political and come with clear winners and losers, the latter of which in recent months has been the majority of Egyptians.

The IMF loan

The November 3 decisions stem from the Egyptian government’s desire to secure final approval from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a three-year, US$12 billion loan – a measure pursued to shore up the country’s depleted foreign currency reserves. The loan was finalized on November 11 but has yet to receive the parliamentary approval required by the Constitution. In response, the government rolled out the first round of a series of monetary and fiscal decisions that will have significant social implications.

The impact of these decisions was felt instantly. There was a sharp increase in the price of finished imported goods, those domestically manufactured but reliant on imported components as well as in sectors tethered to petroleum products.

“Welcome to Egypt, the country of poverty and deprivation.”

We Want to Live’s founding statement struck out against the inevitably of these decisions, describing them as, “a vicious and unprecedented attack on the living conditions of the toiling Egyptian.” The policies, it continues, “are the consequence of the regime’s bias to business interests.”

“Welcome to Egypt, the land of safety and security,” the campaign rhetorically asks whether the loan has “refreshed” citizens, before proceeding to enumerate the economic problems that have continued despite the agreement: rising inflation, high rates of employment and poverty, legislation that introduced an onerous value-added tax and commodities shortages.

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At the video’s conclusion the sign present throughout changes to read, “Welcome to Egypt, the country of poverty and deprivation.”

The campaign also issued a response to the IMF’s staff report and recent praise of Egypt’s performance, saying that the Egyptian government’s commitment to all of the loan’s conditions is increasing the burden on citizens, whom the IMF is taking lightly.

Akram Ismail, one of the founders of the campaign and a founding member of the Bread and Freedom Party says the campaign is trying to mobilize resistance to economic decisions that are implemented without discussion with the wider public and to protect vulnerable segments of society.

The average citizen has taken up politics again due to the wide effect the policies have had, Ismail says. “After June 30, the citizenry charged President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with every decision, including the management of the economy. However, citizens have discovered that the ‘reform’ policies Sisi’s regime has adopted aren’t in their interest.”

An eye on Egypt’s economic future: A history of the IMF’s intervention in East Asia and Latin America.

Despite the clear anti-loan discourse the campaign has adopted, its members insist that their goal is not tied to any immediate or short-term gain, such as reversing the subsidy cuts or reversing the liberalization of the exchange rate. Rather, the campaign is adamant that it will pursue any social welfare issue that it comes across.

Reinvigorating politics

“Together we will struggle for fair wages, for insurance, for free unions, for the right to find work, housing and healthcare for all of the needy,” the campaign’s founding statement reads.

These are just some of the socio-political goals We Want to Live has proffered. It is a mandate that also aims to enforce constitutionally mandated GDP-to-budgetary allocation ratios for healthcare, education and scientific research.

While the campaign’s statement does not state novel goals – elements of which are conspicuous in the programs and literature of Egyptian leftist and liberal parties – Moheb Abboud, the president of the Independent Teachers Union, says that a “serious campaign” that integrates a political groups into a social movement is long overdue.

“Many parties, even some right wing ones, say we need to go out into the street and engage with the masses at large and tie our causes to theirs, but we have never seen any priority given to such talk, nor intention to do so in their actions,” Abboud tells Mada Masr. He adds that one of the campaign’s major goals is formalize the relationship between social demands, like fair working conditions, wages, insurance and pensions, and political demands related to elections and democracy.

“Social demands are not factional,” says Abboud. In his eyes, the sharp rift between what is social and what is political is made most manifest in politicians’ engagement with unions. When politicians need workers’ votes, Abboud says, they show interest in their problems. Otherwise, that support dissipates.

Ismail notes a similar divergence, arguing that Egyptian politics is focused on nationalist issues, like sovereignty over the Tiran and Sanafir islands and issues of political freedom. However, the Bread and Freedom founder contends that this manner of conducting politics ignores what he says is an issue of crucial importance: the social conditions which are organically linked to political conditions.

“It’s a grassroots campaign that isn’t dependent on parties or movements whether political or unionist.”

While insisting that he is not belittling other political issues, Ismail says that social issues are a crucial part of politics and one of the campaign’s main goals is to end the division between these political spheres.

As to who will suture this gap, Youssef Shaaban, a campaign activist and Revolutionary Socialists member, argues that it is not the task of We Want to Live’s leaders but the people, who he says are it’s base.

“It’s a grassroots campaign that isn’t dependent on parties or movements whether political or unionist. The campaign is open for anyone,” Shaaban tells Mada Masr.

Abboud points to the overwhelming presence of workers and professionals from unions and associations as evidence of the campaign’s grassroots nature.

“The campaign is truly formed from the base of society. I expect many to engage with it, as it directly addresses people’s suffering and wants to support them in resisting their poor living conditions,” says Ismail.

But the campaign is also aiming to link itself to the battles of other groups and campaigns, to address any activity related to socioeconomic grievances in Egypt, says Suzanne Nada, a human rights lawyer and founding We Want to Live member.

“The campaign is active in issues ranging from the government’s failure to collect garbage in Alexandria, saving Egypt’s textile industry and cases of the imprisonment of workers union activists to the economic problems facing sugarcane farmers in Luxor and the possible consequences of amending home rental laws. In short, we are active in ‘hot’ issues related to social justice.”

To pursue this end, Nada says that the campaign is adopting a diverse array of qualitative and quantitative methods, as much as widening its geographic reach, as illustrated by the establishment of We Want to Live committees in the governorates of Alexandria, Suez, Ismailia, Luxor and Damietta.

On the qualitative side, Nada says We Want to Live will contact any group facing social injustice, including workers and professional unions and peasant and fisher associations, and then work to spread awareness of their plight by holding conferences and interfacing with the media and relevant state institutions. But the campaign will also act as a way to create knowledge and policy, with Nada saying that it aims to hold education seminars on political and economic rights as well as workshops on how to organize and set up cooperatives, while also working with those affected to put forward policies to address the source of social injustice.

Equally, the campaign will attempt to provide and solicit support for individuals facing unfair trials and harassment at the hands of Egypt’s security forces.

Cognizant of the challenges ahead, Ismail acknowledges that Egypt’s civil society is weak, especially under the current state-led crackdown, and says that he does not expect the struggle for social justice to be an easy or simple task that can be won overnight. However, he says the work being done by civil society will continue and is now crucial due to increasing social hardship.

“This stage of social struggle is important. It is an episode in an ongoing series of grassroots actions for the rights of Egyptians, and one we cannot sit out,” Ismail says.

The groups involved in the creation of the We Want to Live campaign are many and include unions, NGOs, political parties and organizations: Egyptian Union for Petrol Workers, the Regional Federation of Delta Unions, the Egyptian Teachers Union, the Sugarcane Producers Union, the Front to Defend Journalists and the Rights of Citizens, the Journalists Syndicate’s freedoms committee, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, the Popular Current Party, the Bread and Freedom Party, the Karama Party, the Strong Egypt Party and the Free Egyptians Party.

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Osman El Sharnoubi