A fifth of Egypt's 80 million people live under the official poverty-line of US$2 a day, and a large proportion only just above it; the economic hardship they are suffering has worsened as a result of the sharp rise in inflation and food -prices. Most Egyptians are too young to remember the bread riots of 1977, which resulted in successive governments subsidising food-prices. But president Husni Mubarak, who came to power in 1981 after the assassination of president Sadat, must remember them well. This would explain his strong reaction to the recent riots and strikes, driven not only by the sharp rise in food-prices and inflation, but also by the people's dissatisfaction with his government's corrupt and oppressive political record, which has been made even worse by his determination to pass his power and position to his son, Gamal.
Mubarak ordered the military and police to bake bread in their factories and then distribute the loaves widely to bring to an end the scarcity that contributed to the rise in prices and the resulting riots. But since Egypt has been under an official state of emergency throughout his long rule, this use of the armed forces caused suspicion, rather than consolation for the people. The suspicion was reinforced when Mubarak also ordered the army and the police to arrest rioters (particularly those belonging to the Ikhwan), which demonstrated convincingly that his main motives were political.
More than 800 members of the Ikhwan were arrested; on April 15 a military court sentenced 25 of them, all high-ranking, to long prison-terms. Its third-ranking leader, Khayrat Shater, got seven years. Most of those sentenced were given between three and ten years in jail. Their convictions and sentences are unlikely to be set aside or reduced on appeal, which will also be heard by a military court. This explains why the Ikhwan's leaders are considering whether or not to appeal, as Abdul-Munim Maqsud, the coodinator of the Ikhwan's defence committee, admitted after the announcement of the conviction and jail-sentences.
More significantly, the Ikhwan is impressed by neither Mubarak's show of muscle nor the court's cooperation with him, and regards the convictions as directed against the whole country, not only against the Ikhwan. As Assam al-Iryan, the head of the Ikhwan's political wing, has confirmed, the court's decisions will not persuade the Ikhwan to give up its defiance; it will continue to challenge the regime's unconstitutional and criminal attempts to retain power. That defiance must be encouraged by the university students' country-wide demonstrations, organised to support the Ikhwan in the face of the "judicial war" declared by the military courts against it.
In fact, the arrest of the 800 Ikhwan leaders occurred in connection with the elections on April 8 for the local councils. The arrests – along with the administrative disqualification of some Ikhwan candidates and a decision to ignore court-orders for others to be reinstated – were designed to decrease the number of Ikhwan candidates standing in the local-council elections. As a result, the number of Ikhwan candidates standing was reduced to 20 from the original 5,000 whom the Ikhwan had wanted to contest the 52,000 local seats. Understandably, the Ikhwan called upon Egyptians to boycott the elections.
But whether this call influenced the attitude of voters or not, very few turned out. In fact, there was little point in anyone's showing up to vote, as 90 percent of the seats were set aside to be contested only by members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). It is true that local councils have very little power, but a constitutional amendment, introduced by Mubarak to protect his power, provides that candidates for Egypt's next presidential election must first be approved by at least 140 local councillors. As a result, those candidates standing for the presidential poll in two years' time will not include members of political parties such as al-Kifayah and the Ikhwan, and the NDP will dominate the show. A few candidates from small parties allied to the NDP will be allowed to stand to show that the contest is open to all that meet the constitutional stipulations.
In these circumstances, Mubarak is certain to be returned to the presidency for a sixth term in two years' time. But he is 80 years old and widely believed to be ill, and it is therefore possible that he will decide to step down at the end of his term and nominate his son Gamal as the NDP's official candidate. Since Gamal already oversees the party's affairs on behalf of his father, there is little doubt that it will accept his candidacy and that the local councils will endorse it.
According to analysts, Egyptians are not known for their opposition to their rulers; Mubarak is therefore confident that whatever course of action he takes will succeed – especially if it is backed by a combination of bribery and intimidation. But any assessment of the Egyptian people's current reaction to their rulers must take into account recent economic and political developments, which have made them very angry. The combination of increasing inflation and low salaries has made even middle-class Egyptians poorer, and the government's backing forIsrael against Hamas has infuriated almost all Egyptians. Public reactions to the celebration of Mubarak's birthday on May 4 may provide further indications of how strong that anger is. Political activists have called for a strike on that very day. What will come of it time will tell.