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  September 18, 2012

Anti-US and Labor Protests Challenge Egyptian President

Lina Attalah: President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood trying to navigate US alliance and growing economic crisis
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Lina Attalah is the founder of Mada Masr. She is the former Managing Editor at Egypt Independent (formerly Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition). Lina studied journalism at the American University in Cairo. Before joining Egypt Independent, she wrote for Reuters, Cairo Times, the Daily Star, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. In 2005, she worked as radio producer and campaign coordinator with the BBC World Service Trust in Darfur, Sudan. She also worked as project manager for a number of research-based projects with multimedia outputs around the themes of space, mobility, and intellectual history. Lina is particularly drawn to border areas, where human geography issues of conflict and desire are rampant.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

What were the forces behind the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo? What motivated the protesters and new labor protests in Cairo?

Now joining us to talk about recent developments in Egypt is Lina Attalah. She's the chief editor at Egypt Independent. She used to write for Reuters and The Christian Science Monitor. She's a regular contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Lina.


JAY: What sparked these protests? Opposition to U.S. foreign policy's always there. Most of the people that probably attacked the embassy had never seen this film that was supposed to cause all of this. I mean, how much was it outrage over the film? And how much is it—is about the internal struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood, who I guess is seen in the eyes of many people, and especially some of the more radical Islamists, as collaborating with the U.S.? And did this action kind of corner the new president, Morsi?

ATTALAH: At the beginning of the protests which took place on Tuesday of last week, you could sense from our coverage from the protests that people were generally feeling humiliated and insulted by the film, which at that point had gone viral on YouTube. So there is a high sense of mobilization based on the sentiment of feeling humiliated, that the Prophet was portrayed in a blasphemous way. And that moved a lot of the anger in these protests, to the extent to which there was an organizational aspect to these protests, as in [incompr.] Salafi groups sending off their followers to basically express this anger, but to also, like you said, corner the movement, whether it was President Mohamed Morsi that—he cannot just let an incident like this pass, regardless of the, quote-unquote, good relations he is maintaining with the U.S. This is debatable.

But also it is very important to understand that by Wednesday, when the protests also took a more violent turn and became another clash with Egyptian security forces, it became a platform for everyone who has an issue with police, who has feelings and sentiments towards the police department [incompr.] in the rockthrowing at police. So by Wednesday also, while the sentiment of humiliation from the film remained to a certain extent, it was more of a battle zone that is very reminiscent of the previous battle zones that Cairo was between protesters and police forces, and it's definitely sparked by the excessive use of force by police.

JAY: Now, this all came at a time when President Morsi was negotiating a billion-dollar bailout package with the Obama administration, which included debt relief and other forms of aid. And in the American press, at least, this was seen as President Morsi essentially coming to an accommodation with the United States to be part of the—one of the newspapers called it the American foreign-policy orbit. Is that creating divisions within either the Muslim Brotherhood or within the Islamist movement in Egypt?

ATTALAH: There are more radical elements within the movement [incompr.] never agree of the pragmatic lines that the group takes sometimes, and particularly that the president has to be in a position of taking, now that he's at the helm of the state.

But the extent to which these divisions are showing in public discourse is debatable, at least within the group. We know that there is opposition from outside groups, particularly the radical Salafi groups, who were essentially behind the protests that took place next to the embassy on Tuesday.

But also, the extent to which Morsi is anxious about taking these protests and their concerns into consideration is really debatable to this extent. We do not think that there is enough to pressure him to reconsider the nature of the rather organic relationship Egypt has maintained with the U.S., which is the legacy of the Mubarak regime, and before him the Sadat regime, and so on.

JAY: Right. And the protests have more or less died down now in Egypt, have they, over the film, at least?

ATTALAH: Yeah, they have died down, and that's also after a very staunch police crackdown over the protesters. So, yeah, at least as far as the film is concerned, there are no longer protests.

JAY: And the billion-dollar deal, aid package, that's expected to go ahead. There's been some suggestion that it might be delayed because of these events. But does it seem, from what you can see, this deal is going to go ahead?

ATTALAH: The administration in Egypt, although they took delayed steps in responding to the events by presenting guarantees to the U.S. administration, it's—Egyptian takes responsibility to protect embassies.

Right now what seems to be the line of the Morsi administration is to go back to the apologetic tones in order to also negotiate the mounting pressure that a lot of U.S. institutions are putting over Egypt, especially Congress, and especially ahead of the U.S. elections. So Morsi seems to be back to his pragmatic line after raising his discourse a little bit in the aftermath of this film, and that's mostly in order to pursue these economic talks at a time when the Egyptian economy is deteriorating, as we all know.

JAY: And speaking of that, there's—labor protests have started again. What's happening with that?

ATTALAH: We have been having throughout the weekend a series of labor actions across-the-board. They include particularly public sector employees, such as the school teachers and university administrators, but also they include public transport, include workers, like bus drivers, and also seasonal workers affiliated with the ministry of agriculture. So it's protests across the board over better working conditions, as we know, as you heard.

The extent to which they have been disruptive is relative to the sector in question. In the case of the teachers, it's been more of a widescale protest, and it's also building on the growing protest movement within the sector since last year. They've been having the highest number of labor actions [incompr.] 2011, and it's continuing. For the first time in the history of the Egyptian government, the state is basically responding to these protests by saying there is no way we can respond to these economic demands, because there are financial issues, there are financial burdens, and the state is in no way able to respond to these demands.

So it's quite—it promises of a lot more instability, and because basically the Mubarak regime's strategy has been to respond to labor protests by granting at least some temporary economic privileges to tame the movement and to make sure it remains depoliticized. But amidst a lack of economic options or economic solutions that can be granted by the state right now, this could potentially lead to further politicization of the movement, which can be very detrimental to the Brotherhood and the rule of President Mohamed Morsi.

JAY: Now, one of the things people obviously hoped for with the downfall of Mubarak: there'd be more democratic space, less repression. Recently there's a teacher, a Coptic Christian, was sentenced, I believe, to six years in jail for—on his Facebook page he was accused of insulting Muhammad and also insulting President Morsi. What's that case about, and how significant is it?

ATTALAH: The case, like you said, is of a Coptic man who posted some texts that were deemed blasphemous to Islam and also to the president, and the young man was basically also reacting to the protests that were taking place in Cairo and that were also taking a highly sectarian profile, since a lot of those who were protesting next to the embassy were also insulting Copts and saying that they should leave that country. So the atmosphere was very—was fuming, and basically this young man was responding to that in his post.

The reaction of jailing this young man is really problematic, because to tie back to the labor protests and to the lack of economic options, if the Morsi administration is not going to be ready to make at least some political concessions when they are unable to grant any economic concessions, then it's going to be very hard for that administration to carry on with the project to rule the country. So I think even from a pragmatic perspective the apparent lack of interest from the Morsi administration in providing for political rights and freedoms and liberty can be extremely detrimental to his rule.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Lina.

ATTALAH: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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