On 23 March the Egyptian state passed a law banning strikes and demonstrations. How many people, reflecting on the upheavals there in January and February, thought that it had turned out to be just an '18-day wonder'?
In reality, the events that led up to the resignation of Mubarak were not just a flash in the pan, but had roots going back years and involved forces that are still intact today. For a start it should be underlined that the removal of Mubarak came about after working class action. For all the activities by the many social strata gathered in Tahir Square, it was workers' strikes that convinced the dominant faction of the Egyptian ruling class that it had to dump an unpopular figure.
As we said in an article first published online in mid-February “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.” But also, as we said in ‘What is happening in the Middle East?’ published in mid-March, referring to the various recent movements throughout the region, “we can characterise them as movements of the non-exploiting classes, social revolts against the state. The working class has, in general, not been in the leadership of these rebellions but it has certainly had a significant presence and influence.”
So, although the working class in Egypt is a powerful force it is not the only non-exploiting class. And all sorts of ideas that have been floated in recent years as offering 'alternatives' to Mubarak still have the potential to be employed by the ruling capitalist class.
Observations from the barricades
In a complex situation there will always be a range of explanations available. In late 2009 Zed Books published Egypt: The Moment of Change. Earlier on this year Zed re-publicised the book in the light of events saying that “With many of the chapters written by Egyptian academics and activists who are now on the very first line of the barricades, this is the one book that has all the answers.” The 'answers' are familiar enough – opposition to 'neo-liberalism', support for reforms – but some of the observations give a good impression of the complexity of the situation.
The book describes how there were, for example, many competing currents in the opposition to Mubarak but they were able reach a consensus: “People with radically different aspirations – ranging from the secular socialist state to the Islamist theocracy – have agreed on the need to end Mubarak's rule” (p98). The way the opposition operated allowed for groups with “different ideological leanings, class interests and long-term projects to work together” (p98). This was indeed the view of an opposition that saw the removal of Mubarak as the number one priority. Although the working class has shown its strength and ability to organise outside the official unions, it would be wrong to ignore workers' many illusions. At the moment the possibility of free trade unions or the potential for post-Mubarak capitalism are particularly significant. In the past there were also illusions in what the state could offer. There have been “Popular slogans like 'In the days of defeat, the people could still eat' (raised by strikers in 1975) or 'Nasser always said “take care of the workers” (heard in 1977)” (p71) which show the hold that modern myths and ideology can have. There is a claim that during a 2005 strike “workers believed that they and the broader public were the real owners of the enterprise, not the state mangers” (p78). Although this is just an impression by the author, it does correspond to ideas that many workers have accepted from state capitalist demagogues.
The actions of other groups in society show the situation in which workers find themselves. In 2006 when dissident judges who had criticised corruption and malpractices were taken to court a crowd chanted “Judges, judges, save us from the tyrants” (p99). Whatever the social makeup of the crowd it clearly had illusions in the possibility of an independent judiciary, in the legal process rather than in a struggle against the state.
The book outlines another incident where in 1986 “thousands of police conscripts abandoned barracks and marched on Cairo and Alexandria, destroying many hotels, shops and restaurants in protest against their slave like conditions.... the regime was compelled to bring tanks onto the streets to defeat what was in, in effect, an uprising of peasants in uniform” (p32).
In 2007, alongside protests over food shortages were protests over shortages of drinking water. “For several months demonstrations across the Nile Delta involved large numbers of the country's poorest people in what Cairo newspapers called a 'revolution of the thirsty'”(p32-3).
Overall, all the expressions of protest, all the actions by different social forces are described as “different forms of contention.” These include “social movements, revolutions, strike waves, nationalism, democratisation, and more” (p101).
What makes a revolution?
The listed forms of 'contention' cover a wide range of phenomena. When groups of workers struggle they can inspire others, one strike leading to others until a whole wave of strikes has unfolded. This is not a workers' 'policy' but an expression of the solidarity and the common interests of the working class. When workers struggle they come up against nationalist and democratist ideas that can only undermine the struggle for their own interests. When the social movements of other strata emerge workers have to relate to them, while appreciating that the class dependent on wage labour is the only class that can challenge capitalism.
The working class has only two weapons, its consciousness and its capacity for organisation. Every question it faces has to be seen in terms of the development of consciousness and the implications for its self-organisation. How does the working class organise? What ideas assist the development of the struggle and which hold it back? What institutions and ideologies does the ruling class use against workers' struggles and the development of its consciousness? How do workers relate to other non-exploiting social strata? And, as we are now inundated with glib references to 'revolutions' as just another 'form of contention', what is a revolution in reality?
Over the last couple of decades all sorts of social phenomena have been called 'revolutions', despite the fact that capitalist rule has nowhere been overthrown and the capitalist state is entrenched everywhere. If we take a contribution from someone who could draw on the experience of a real revolution, that of Russia in1917, Lenin's remarks on revolutionary situations are particularly relevant. “For a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the 'lower classes' do not want to live in the old way and the 'upper classes' cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph”(Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, 1920).
If we look at Egypt we can see that, for all the changes that have happened and are promised for the future, the ruling capitalist class remains secure in its position. The nationalist, democratist and Islamist opposition have their differences, but they do not challenge the rule of the bourgeoisie. As for the working class, it has shown its strength, especially in contrast to other strata, but is not yet challenging the rule of its exploiters. As everywhere else in the world, the more we see outbreaks of workers' struggles, developments in the organisation of the struggle, and evidence of the discarding of illusions, the more we can look forward towards mass strikes and open confrontation between the working class and the ruling bourgeoisie.