Austin Mackell (of The Moon Under Water) is an Australian journalist based in Cairo who reports on Egyptian politics, the labour movement and life on the street. In February he was arrested in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra while reported on an attempted general strike of workers. I spoke to Austin on the 30th of May; this interview will appear in Green Left Weekly.
What are the latest developments with the Presidential elections – what do the first round results show, and is it clear who will be contesting the second round?
The first round of the elections show that the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the old regime, the felool, are still able to out-compete the revolutionaries in terms of an electoral process.
The winner by a small margin was the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Morsi, and second was Ahmed Shafik, who was Prime Minister under Mubarak appointed at the very last minute of his regime's life. It looks now like the final race will be between those two candidates, which is a huge disappointment for the revolutionaries.
There was a left-wing secular candidate called Hamdi Sabahi, who was written off by many people as an outside because he didn't have the resources and infrastructure many of the other candidates had – he came in third. Considering that he was also competing for the vote with Abul Fotouh, an Islamist who had split from the Brotherhood towards the moderate side who was also considered a revolutionary candidate – those two between them, if they'd had a combined revolutionary vote they would have had a clear lead.
Of course many of the revolutionaries boycotted the first round. I wonder if they are questioning that seeing how close Sabahi came to winning it.
Secondly, now there's a much stronger call for a boycott as well, since it's the Muslim Brotherhood versus the old regime. There's been some controvery over some revolutionaries saying to back the Muslim brotherhood because at least they aren't from the old dictatorship, while others are saying no, they already have control of the parliament, handing them control of the presidency as well would be handing over too much control at the formative stage. In any case, most revolutionaries, in terms of people who have been active on the streets, are still saying the street is where the battle has to happen for the next few years – that's the position of the April 6 youth movement. That's why they didn't contest the elections, they say that you don't have elections during a revolutionary phase, the revolution has to be more complete.
Who is exactly is Hamdi Sabahi? What does he stand for?
Sabahi is the founder of the Dignity party; he was an MP under President Mubarak, he won a seat in 2005, though he's credited as being one of the few voices of resistance in that parliament asides from the Brotherhood. He really ran as the poor man's candidate. His party is Nasserist; carrying on the spirit of pan-arab socialism would be his root ideology, although it's moderated and the message is much more populist and nasserist than ideological
How widely was the boycott observed?
It's hard to know how widely it was observed; it's clear that the turnout was lower than the parliamentary election, which some revolutionaries have called a victory because it means the population is losing faith in SCAF's electoral process. But you could also make the argument that that was simply the result of the Salafi candidate Abbou Ismael being disqualified ahead of the poll. Because the Salafists didn't have a candidate to vote for – some voted for Abol Fotouh, or for Morsi, but you can imagine a lot of them were a lot less motivated to vote not having a major Salafi candidate on the ballot. This would also explain why there was what's been considered a majority secular vote, if you add up Sabahi, Shafik and Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister, which people have been using to say Egyptians have turned to secular candidates. But you can question that because the Salafis may have been sitting out as well.
That has probably been a bigger boycott (although it may not have been phrased that way) than the active calls for a boycott from Tahrir Square and the revolutionary youth networks around it. However, that being said, now that it's a race between Morsi and Shafik you might see a much bigger boycott in the second round.
What is the situation with Tahrir Square and the revolutionary layer? Is the Square still occupied?
There's basically a constant occupation now in Tahrir Square with people protesting – earlier today they had at least a few hundred there protesting due to allegations of fraud by Shafik. In fact, there's been reports of fraud by both Shafik and Moussa as well as the Brotherhood by April 6 and various news outlets as well. But the general impression is that there was a lot of small irregularities but not necessarily enough to have influenced the vote. It doesn't mean there was a concerted plan to rig the campaigns, but perhaps just the kind of dirty campaigning you see everywhere.
Some people are protesting of that – a lot of them, Sabahi's supporters – but the Square's been pretty much permanently occupied since the clashes of the Occupy Cabinet incident in early December. All throughout 2011 there was an ongoing struggle for physical control of the Square, and now it seems the army and the police have pretty much given up on it. The protesters were allowed to keep the central island with tents, as well as the space in front of the central administrative building the Mogamma.
So the revolutionary youth won that space in those clashes, and actually now we've seen the latest clashes taking place outside the ministry of defence, which occured just before the elections. There were numbers of Salafis demonstrating because their candidate Abbou Ismael had been disqualified, actually on the basis that his mother was an American citizen – which some were disputing, claiming there's a conspiracy against him, etc etc.
Either way his supporters went down to protest the decision at the electoral commission, and they were joined by secular supporters and opponents of the SCAF as well; there were 11 deaths reported there, in the final week before the election. There is still definitely real tension on the streets and the possibility of more of these battles – particularly if Shafik wins, I might add.
I should add that the significance of protest moving to the MOD is that the protesters are moving more into more confrontation – we've got Tahrir now and that's great, now let's move on the next seat of power, seems to be the idea.
Is the Brotherhood taking out the presidential election likely to change the balance of power or weaken SCAF's hold over the country?
That's very difficult to know – it's certainly going to change the balance of power. What the relationship between the brotherhood and the military will be like and how it'll evolve is really difficult to know. People are talking about some kind of deal being made between the Brotherhood and the SCAF – there's probably been all kinds of deals made, but I don't think that there's a marriage between the two about to take place where we see them unite as the stable new elite, although something like that may evolve. Really we're in a period when making predictions is a good way to look stupid; if you look at the polling during the last election votes fluctuated wildly in the days before the elections. Things are really in flux here, there aren't established political forces like we're used to dealing with in Australia. There is the brotherhood and there is the military but there's this huge chaotic force at work in the political sphere as well of the revolution.
How has the labour movement related to the elections?
The one thing that was clear after the parliamentary elections was that until now the labour movement as a whole hadn't emerged on scene as any sort of political force. But with the emergence of Sabahi as such a strong candidate, there's certainly evidence that this is on the cards in the future. This was a suprise to many here, including people like me with an interest in the labour movement, as we didn't see anything like this gaining support in the parliamentary elections – but there's clearly an affinity for labour in Sabahi's platform, in what he's standing for. We don't know how real that would be if he got into power, of course. His candidacy underlines the new dynamics which are starting to emerge – there are the candidates like Moussa and Shafik, whose primary qualifications are having served in the old regime, and whose popularity has its own reasons like name recognition – but if you remove them from the equation you have the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic conservatism on the right and then Arab nationalism on the left, and then you have a candidate like Abol Fotouh in the middle who is some kind of mix of all of those. So this is a political spectrum very similar to ours – although with such population and poverty in Egypt there's a lot more space for leftward movement, which is exciting.
Did any radical left forces make a decent showing in the results?
That depends how you define "radical" – there was Khaled Ali, who was seen as the revolution's candidate. How radical his rhetoric exactly would be I'm not clear on – I haven't seen many of his speeches translated – but my impression is he's been seen as the candidate of the revolutionary youth, so radical in that sence, although certainly not as far to the left as the Revolutionary Socialists, who didn't field a candidate, and who now have gained a lot of ire for their leadership figures suggesting Morsi should be backed to prevent the return of old leadership.
But the candidate on the left of note was Sabahi – and his platform was significantly to the left. The difference between Sabahi and Shafik or Moussa was much bigger than the difference between major left and right candidates in any western elections, so the revolutionary situation has already opened up more democratic space than we already have in the west. His platform was explicitly about wealth redistribution; instead of following the line being tossed around by the IMF for cutting or "targetting" subsidies, he's talking about the need to expand subsidies and providing more services. His success has come as a surprise, and it changes the political landscape. Of course the success of Shafik and Morsi were also suprises and much more unpleasant ones.
What is the latest with your case? Has the regime indicated if they are going to press the charges?
We're still not clear whether we'll be taken to court or not; what we've got are preliminary charges – the Egyptian legal system is modelled on the French, so it doesn't really mirror Australia's. The charges are with the prosecutor's office, who is then meant to decide whether it goes to court or the case is archived. That's been the case for the last 3 months, and there hasn't been any real progress – we've heard of paper moving from one office to another, so we don't know when to expect any resolution.
Are you free to travel and report?
To an extent – my passport was taken when I was arrested, and it's being held along with my laptop and camera and other stuff, so it makes it quite difficult to move around. In the initial period after my arrest I was quite nervous when moving around of being recognised in the street as the spy from TV; I was kicked out my apartment and my neighbourhood has sort-of turned against me after our story was flashed on state TV. It's already been made quite difficult for journalists in general, foreign journalists in particular, by virtue of all of the media about foreign conspirators and such. And if I were in the situation where I had to explain myself to a large group of people why I don't have my passport, what I'm doing, etc etc – it's a situation which might complicate things with the case. But the main thing is that I'm not allowed to leave the country while this is going on – I can't travel home to Australia or anywhere else, which is an inconvenience. But there's a veiled threat in all of this; we're very confident we would win if the case went to court, but however improbable it is, this notion of 5 to 7 years sentence is in the back of your mind; it makes it hard to live a normal life, let alone work or move around.
What do you have to say to Bob Carr and the Australian government?
I wish Bob Carr would take a more active interest in the case. He's been very standoffish and hasn't responded to any of my friends, family or supporters – even through the union, I was only able to get what looked like a form letter our of him saying they can't interfere with the Egyptian legal process. On the other hand, the motion introduced by Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon to the Senate was passed calling on the Australian government to ensure due process was followed. I don't know how much information Bob Carr has about the case; you at Green Left probably are quite aware that what is happening is anything but due process. From the beginning this is an act of political thuggery, not a matter of law an order. The Australian government should have the gonads to speak out on that, as it should have for all of the human rights abuses committed by the Egyptian forces and all of the remnants of the old regime. But there's a silence on that, as there is on so many other issues, because Washington says to be quiet about it, so we do.
My case is nothing compared to what happened to people like David Hicks or Mamdouh Habib. Habib was brought to Egypt – he didn't come here of his own free will but was "rendered" or kidnapped here, and tortured for 6 months. He has alleged the Australian government was complicit in that, and they certainly still haven't cleared their name of that. You can see that today with the case of Julian Assange, or with our case here – the government certainly doesn't hold the rights of it's citizens as its first priority.