In July a wave of strikes in Egypt was a clear reminder that the end of Mubarak and the arrival of Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has meant no change in the conditions in which people live and work. The involvement of 24,000 workers in the state-owned Mahalla Misr Spinning and Weaving Company and the spread of the strike to seven other factories in Alexandria and Mahalla, alongside other protests and demonstrations, show that the working class is still capable of taking militant initiatives. The repression by the state, in Suez with tear gas fired at workers of the Cleopatra Ceramics company, in South Sinai, with live ammunition to disperse protesting health workers, also demonstrate that the current regime behaves in the same way as its predecessor. The fact that the army was not brought in against the Mahalla workers is testimony to the regime’s appreciation of their history of combativity.
While the army is not deployed at every opportunity, it is not the only weapon of Egyptian capitalism. Under Mubarak the official unions were widely recognised as just another arm of the state apparatus. Alongside workers’ struggles some 200 independent unions have emerged, claiming to represent 2.5 million workers. Although these unions are not yet officially authorised they still function in the interests of capital rather than labour. The concern with democracy and legality, the sectoral limitations, and all the other means used to undermine and divide struggles are characteristics of unions everywhere.
But if workers have illusions in the new unions, there are also illusions in the new government, and in the possibility of change through parliament and elections. For analysts outside Egypt there are many questions debated. Does the Muslim Brotherhood have an understanding with the army? Is the MB in conflict with the army? Is it only a matter of time before the army gets rid of Mursi? Inside Egypt, the degree to which different factions of the bourgeoisie act together or are divided is of interest, but, for workers, what is more important is seeing that their class interests are in conflict with all factions of the ruling class.
In this the voice of leftism plays a harmful role. Among the usual variety of views among the leftists there are many who describe what has been happening in Egypt since early 2011 as a ‘revolution.’ In this the Muslim Brotherhood is portrayed as an ‘alternative’ and the post-Mubarak state a step forward. In material from the ‘Revolutionary Socialists, Egypt’ that has been published by Socialist Worker there are many statements calculated to mystify reality for the working class. “The Muslim Brotherhood represents the right wing of the revolution. It is not the counter-revolution. … since 11 February 2011 the Brotherhood has been a conservative organisation. But Shafiq [the ‘military fascist candidate’ in the presidential election] is the counter-revolution. That is why we are mobilising for protests against the military coup alongside the Brotherhood” (19/6/12). The leftists take their sides, and, as usual, it is not with the working class.
Whatever happened to the Arab Spring?
There is no ‘revolution’ in Egypt, but there has been much unrest which can only be understood in an international context. The term ‘Arab Spring’ was used in early 2011 to describe a whole range of phenomena. In Tunisia and Egypt we saw workers’ struggles alongside a wider social protest which was more vulnerable to democratic illusions. In Syria, whatever popular protests there were to start with, there is now an inter-bourgeois war which has drawn in a number of imperialist powers. But also in the Middle East in 2011 there was the largest wave of protest in the history of Israel over housing and other aspects of the cost of living.
So what has happened to these movements? In Syria there is war. In Egypt the struggle of the working class is still a factor in the situation and a potential threat to all factions of the bourgeoisie. In Israel the movement split, so that some protests demanded that the ultra-orthodox not be exempt from military service, in opposition to the concerns of others which are still focussed on real social issues. In July, on the anniversary of the first 2011 protests in Israel, there were divided and much smaller demonstrations. At one demonstration a small businessman set himself on fire and died a week later. There followed a whole wave of attempted self-immolations. In late July an army veteran succeeded in killing himself. These futile individual actions show the extent of the diminution of the movement.
Elsewhere in the region, there were anti-government protests in Sudan in June and July. These, typically, were dispersed by the police or fired on with tear gas. It is significant that when the state is concerned with war the population is protesting about its conditions of life.
So, in the Middle East, the movements of 2011 have not been repeated on anything like the same scale in 2012, even though the Egyptian example shows that the combativity of the working class is still intact. But, as we said above, social unrest can only be understood in an international context. That means not just the region but the world. In movements from India to Turkey, in Greece and in Spain, we have seen the struggles of the working class in response to capitalism’s austerity regimes. But we have also seen the obstacles workers face in their struggles. Repression, nationalism, illusions in democracy, and the sabotage of the unions are found everywhere. And what is seen in the Middle East more clearly than anywhere in the world is the threat of war. Ultimately the struggles of the working class will not only be against material deprivations, but against a system which has the drive to imperialist war at its heart.