Egypt: The class struggle takes centre stage

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The tide of rebellion in North Africa and the Middle East shows no sign of abating. The latest developments: demonstrations and clashes with the police in the Libyan city of Benghazi following the arrest of a lawyer involved in a campaign demanding an investigation into the brutal massacre of hundreds of prisoners after a protest in 1996. Qaddafi’s regime again displays its ruthless brutality – there are reports of snipers and helicopters firing into crowds, killing many; in Bahrain, thousands of demonstrators occupy the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, hoping to emulate the occupation of Tahrir Square. They raise slogans against sectarian divisions (“No Shia, no Sunni, only Bahraini”) and against self-appointed leaders (“We have no leaders”). At the time of writing, riot police have now cleared the area with considerable violence – many demonstrators have been injured and some killed. In Iraq, there have been new demonstrations against the price of necessities and the lack of electricity.  

But perhaps the most important development over the last week or so has been the explicit development of mass workers’ struggles in Egypt. As Hossam el-Hamalawy[1], put it in an article published by The Guardian on 14 Feb, the upsurge of the workers fighting for their own demands was a potent factor in the decision of the army to dispense with Mubarak:    

All classes in Egypt took part in the uprising. Mubarak managed to alienate all social classes in society. In Tahrir Square, you found sons and daughters of the Egyptian elite, together with the workers, middle-class citizens and the urban poor. But remember that it's only when the mass strikes started on Wednesday that the regime started crumbling and the army had to force Mubarak to resign because the system was about to collapse... From the first day of the January 25 uprising, the working class has been taking part in the protests. However, the workers were at first taking part as ‘demonstrators’ and not necessarily as ‘workers’ – meaning, they were not moving independently. The government had brought the economy to halt, not the protesters, with their curfews, and by shutting down the banks and businesses. It was a capitalist strike, aimed at terrorising the Egyptian people. Only when the government tried to bring the country back to ‘normal’ on 8 February did the workers return to their factories, discuss the current situation and start to organise en masse, moving as an independent block”.

An article by David McNally[2] on www.pmpress.org gives an idea of how widespread this movement has been:

“In the course of a few days during the week of February 7, tens of thousands of them stormed into action. Thousands of railworkers took strike action, blockading railway lines in the process. Six thousand workers at the Suez Canal Authority walked off the job, staging sit-ins at Suez and two other cities. In Mahalla, 1,500 workers at Abul Sebae Textiles struck and blockaded the highway. At the Kafr al-Zayyat hospital hundreds of nurses staged a sit-in and were joined by hundreds of other hospital employees.

Across Egypt, thousands of others – bus workers in Cairo, employees at Telecom Egypt, journalists at a number of newspapers, workers at pharmaceutical plants and steel mills – joined the strike wave. They demands improved wages, the firing of ruthless managers, back pay, better working conditions and independent unions. In many cases they also called for the resignation of President Mubarak. And in some cases, like that of the 2,000 workers at Helwan Silk Factory, they demanded the removal of their company’s Board of Directors. Then there were the thousands of faculty members at Cairo University who joined the protests, confronted security forces, and prevented Prime Minister Ahmed Shariq from getting to his government office”

We could add numerous other examples: about 20,000 workers in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra, more than 100 kilometres north of Cairo, who have re-launched a strike after a three-day break in the largest spinning and weaving factory in Egypt. Workers in the tourist industry, like the 150 who staged a well-publicised demo against their miserable wages in the shadow of the Great Pyramid; bank workers demanding the sacking of their corrupt bosses; ambulance drivers using their vehicles to block roads in a pay protest; workers who demonstrated outside the HQ of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation denouncing it as a “den of thieves” and “a group of thugs” and called for its dissolution – their words received instant verification as ETUF goons responded with beatings and missiles. The police have also been publicly protesting against the way they have been used against demonstrators, a clear indication of plummeting morale among the lower echelons of the force. No doubt there will be many more examples to be added to these.

As McNally notes, this movement shows many of the characteristics of the mass strike as analysed by Rosa Luxemburg:

“What we are seeing, in other words, is the rising of the Egyptian working class. Having been at the heart of the popular upsurge in the streets, tens of thousands of workers are now taking the revolutionary struggle back to their workplaces, extending and deepening the movement in the process. In so doing, they are proving the continuing relevance of the analysis developed by the great Polish-German socialist, Rosa Luxemburg. In her book, The Mass Strike, based on the experience of mass strikes of 1905 against the Tsarist dictatorship in Russia, Luxemburg argued that truly revolutionary movements develop by way of interacting waves of political and economic struggle, each enriching the other. In a passage that could have been inspired by the upheaval in Egypt, she explains,

‘Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle. . . After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle burst forth. And conversely. The workers condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting spirit alive in every political interval’”.

As both McNally and Hossam el-Hamalawy point out, the power of this movement was not acquired overnight. For the past seven years, it is the workers who have been at the frontline of resistance against the poverty and repression imposed on the entire population. There were a number of strike movements in 2004, 2006-7 and 2007-8, with the textile workers of Mahalla playing a particularly significant role, but with many other sectors joining in. In 2007 we published an article which already discerned the “germs of the mass strike” in these struggles, because of their high degree of self-organisation and solidarity. As Rosa pointed out, the mass strike is something that matures over a period of years – the struggles of 1905 which she wrote about had been fermenting in successive struggles over the previous two decades – and 1905 was also a bridge to the revolution of 1917.

But despite all the talk of revolution in these countries – some of it honest if flawed, some of it part of the mystifying discourse of leftism which always seeks to banalise the very concept of revolution – this movement towards the future mass strike faces many dangers:

-          the danger of repression. Now that the massive protests have dispersed, the army which has ‘assumed power’ (in fact it was always there at the heart of it) is issuing urgent calls for Egypt to get back to work. After all, the revolution has won its victory! There have been hints that workers’ meetings will be banned. We already know that throughout the period when the army was claiming to be protecting the people, hundreds of activists were being arrested and tortured by this very same ‘popular’ institution, and there is no reason to expect that this kind of ‘quiet’ repression will not continue, even if head-on clashes are avoided;

-          the illusions of the combatants themselves. As with the illusion that the army belongs to the people, these illusions are dangerous because they prevent the oppressed from seeing who their enemy is and where the next blow will come from. But illusions in the army are part of a more general illusion in ‘democracy’, the idea that changes in the form of the capitalist state will change the function of that state and make it serve the needs of the majority. The call for independent trade unions which is being raised in many of today’s strikes[3] is at root a variant of this democratic myth: specifically, it is based on the idea that the capitalist state, whose role is to protects a system which has nothing to offer the workers or humanity as a whole, can allow the exploited class to maintain its own independent organisations on a permanent basis. 

We are a long way from revolution in the only sense it can have today –the international proletarian revolution. The authentically revolutionary consciousness required to guide such a revolution to victory can also only develop on a world scale, and it cannot come to fruition without the contribution of the workers of the most advanced capitalist countries. But the proletarians (and other oppressed strata) of the Middle East and North Africa are here and now learning vital lessons from their own experience: lessons about how to take charge of their own struggles, as exhibited in the strikes being spread from below, in the neighbourhood protection committees that sprang up after Mubarak unleashed the police and the dregs of society to loot their homes; in the daily ‘direct democracy’ of Tahir Squre. McNally again:

Developing alongside these forms of popular self-organization are new practices of radical democracy. In Tahrir Square, the nerve centre of the Revolution, the crowd engages in direct decision-making, sometimes in its hundreds of thousands. Organized into smaller groups, people discuss and debate, and then send elected delegates to consultations about the movement’s demands. As one journalist[4] explains, ‘delegates from these mini-gatherings then come together to discuss the prevailing mood, before potential demands are read out over the square’s makeshift speaker system. The adoption of each proposal is based on the proportion of boos or cheers it receives from the crowd at large.’”

Lessons too in how to defend yourself collectively against the onslaughts of police and thugs; in how to fraternise with the army; in how to overcome sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian, religious and secular. Lessons in internationalism, as the revolt spreads from country to country, taking its demands and its methods with it, and as proletarians everywhere discover that they face the same declining living standards, the same repressive ‘regime’, the same system of exploitation.

Perhaps most importantly, the very fact that the working class has affirmed itself so emphatically precisely at the moment of ‘democratic triumph’, after the departure of Mubarak which was supposed to be the true goal of the revolt, reveals a capacity to resist the calls for sacrifice and renunciation on behalf of the ‘nation’ and the ‘people’, which are always central to the bourgeoisie’s patriotic and democratic campaigns. Interviewed by the press over the past few days, workers in Egypt have frequently pointed to the simple truth that motivates their strikes and protests: they cannot feed their families, because their wages are too low, prices are too high, or they have no prospect of jobs at all. This is increasingly the condition facing the working class in all countries, and no ‘democratic reform’ will go any near alleviating it. The working class has only its struggle as its defence, and the perspective of a new society as its solution.

Amos, 16.2.11

 


[1] Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist who blogs at arabawy.org and has written extensively about workers’ struggles in Egypt over the past few years.

[2] David McNally is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto.The titles of his books give some clues to his general political standpoint: Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism, (Winnipeg 2005) and Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique, (London, 1999).

[3] See for example this document http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article20203. This looks like a serious effort by the workers’ movement in Egypt to develop its self-organisation through general assemblies and elected committees, while at the same time expressing an attachment to democratic and trade unionist ideas.

“Demands of the Iron and Steel Workers

1. Immediate resignation of the president and all men and symbols of the regime.

2. Confiscation of funds and property of all symbols of previous regime and everyone proved corrupt.

3. Iron and steel workers, who have given martyrs and militants, call upon all workers of Egypt to revolt from the regime’s and ruling party workers’ federation, to dismantle it and announce their independent union now, and to plan for their general assembly to freely establish their own independent union without prior permission or consent of the regime, which has fallen and lost all legitimacy.

4. Confiscation of public-sector companies that have been sold or closed down or privatized, as well as the public sector which belongs to the people and its nationalization in the name of the people and formation of a new management by workers and technicians.

5. Formation of a workers’ monitoring committee in all workplaces, monitoring production, prices, distribution and wages.

6. Call for a general assembly of all sectors and political trends of the people to develop a new constitution and elect real popular committees without waiting for the consent or negotiation with the regime.

A huge workers’ demonstration will join the Tahrir Square on Friday, the 11th of February 2011 to join the revolution and announce the demands of the workers of Egypt.

Long live the revolution!
Long live Egypt’s workers!
Long live the intifada of Egyptian youth—People’s revolution for the people!”

 

[4]Jack Shenker, ‘Cairo’s biggest protest yet demands Mubarak’s immediate departure,’ Guardian, February 5, 2011