The outcome of this week’s parliamentary elections in Egypt is a foregone conclusion, analysts suggest.
The ruling National Democratic Party has engineered the results in advance, conceding just enough seats to opposition parties to create a semblance of pluralism and to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood.
But while many liberal democratic groups have been co-opted or neutered, the regime is likely to confront a more serious challenge from beyond the urban political elites. A movement of potentially immense political significance is emerging from the current upsurge in labor militancy and creation of independent unions, observers suggest.
Independent labor groups are not only organizing strikes and articulating workers’ economic grievances. They are also rejecting the official union federations linked to the NDP and raising political demands, including the right to freedom of association.
“The Egyptian workers’ movement is a force with immense potential social and political power,” says Cambridge University’s Anne Alexander.
“Although a large proportion of the demands raised during these strikes have been economic … some groups of workers have started to make political claims, including calling for a rise in the national minimum wage, and demanding the right to organize freely,” she said.
Some democratic and civil society groups have tried to link up with the labor movement, taking on the role of “bridging the gap between civil society’s desire for democracy and workers’ demands for better pay and working conditions.”
But labor activists are wary of over-politicizing the movement and compromising workers’ grievances, which remain largely focused on socio-economic issues.
The upsurge in labor militancy over recent years “has been the most powerful movement for democracy in Egypt in more than half a century,” according to a report published by the Solidarity Center, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Metropolitan dissidents have hitherto stressed demands for constitutional reform and political rights, largely failing to address the priority needs of most Egyptians. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, has made political capital from providing food, health care and other social services.
This disconnect has disadvantaged the democratic opposition and alienated urban liberals from a potential mass base, says Amr Hamzawy, research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“As long as you are not able to break the gap between political demands and socioeconomic demands, you will always have scattered protest activities which do not mount in total to a big threat to the autocratic ruling establishment,” he believes.