The assemblies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the beginning of the year, in the period before the departure of President Mubarak, inspired subsequent assemblies and protests in Spain, then Greece, Israel, and most recently, in occupations and assemblies in cities across the US. However, the most important force in the movement in Egypt was the working class, the decisive factor in the removal of Mubarak. Strikes across the country on the 8th, 9th and 10th February showed the strength of the working class.
This was not a revolution, as the army has remained firmly in charge of the country ever since, doing everything that would be expected from a repressive state, including the introduction of a law banning strikes. But the workers were not crushed, as has most recently been shown in a new wave of strikes from the beginning of September.
There have been strikes of tens of thousands of textile workers in a number of locations. There have been strikes by a large proportion of 100,000 doctors. In about half of Egypt’s hospitals some 200,000 health technicians have been on strike. Some 4,000 dockworkers struck in a port on the Suez Canal. More than 50% of the country’s 1.7 million teachers have been on strike. This, their first national strike since 1951, has also involved a number of occupations of government buildings. In Cairo 45,000 bus drivers, mechanics and ticket collectors have been on strike. Some joined teachers’ protests at the cabinet headquarters.
Typically the strikes have been over the concessions that were made in February and March not being subsequently upheld by the bourgeoisie. Al-Masry Al-Youm (15/9/11) headlined with “Unfulfilled economic and political demands keep Egypt’s labourers furious” and wrote “the recent resurgence of widespread strikes, analysts say, reflect a deep disillusionment with the democratic transition process, with workers feeling more and more that improving their economic and political conditions were but hollow promises from the revolution.” Material conditions are at the heart of the moment with incomes falling behind inflation. Food prices, for example, are up 80% since January.
Since Mubarak left there have been at least 130 new unions formed in Egypt. This is not unexpected bearing in mind the role that the official unions played before, as an integral part of the state machine. The new ‘independent’ unions are already proving themselves worthy successors, suspending strikes prematurely and undermining the developing movement with propaganda for a more democratic capitalism in Egypt.
One of the main dangers awaiting the working class in Egypt is that it will embrace the new unions because of a false idea that they are somehow different from the old state-run unions. Also, wider illusions in the merits of a democratic state as a replacement for the current military regime could undermine future struggles. There have recently been widespread demonstrations to “Reclaim the Revolution”, Sean Penn notably in attendance in Tahrir Square. These demonstrations, while opposing the current government, focussed on the recent announcements of a timetable for elections. A state decree says that voting will be staggered over a six-week period, with a new parliament assembling on 17 March 2012. Opposition parties, whether liberal or Islamist, complained about many of the details and that they hadn’t been consulted. A danger for the working class is that it could be drawn into a conflict between the military and democratic factions of the bourgeoisie. The latest wave of strikes shows a strength that could be further developed; so long as it is not diverted down the democratic dead-end.