Egyptian workers organize for political and economic rights

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by Andrew Pollack
On Friday, April 8, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square to demand that Mubarak and his clique be put on trial for their crimes. In the early hours of the next morning, the military savagely attacked those still in the square, killing two. But in a sign of the depth of the masses’ continuing pressure, on April 13, the military had to give in to demands that Mubarak and his two sons be arrested.
One of the chants heard before the army moved in was “Tantawi is Mubarak and Mubarak is Tantawi”, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the military council running the country.
A statement from the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt on the attacks pointed out that “the Military Council is the guardian of dictatorship and corruption. The attacks … put the Military Council clearly in the camp of counter-revolution. … Now is the time to get rid of them, just as the revolutionaries finished off Mubarak.
“After today nobody will be fooled by the slogan ‘the army and the people are one hand.’ For the past two months that the Military Council has held power, it has crushed protests and tortured demonstrators and dragged them before the military courts. … We must continue our revolution until the country has been cleansed and Mubarak’s Military Council has been removed from power.”
As Egyptian human rights lawyer Gamal Eid pointed out at a forum sponsored by Al-Awda NY, justice has yet to be served for the past victims of the Mubarak regime or for those newly framed up or repressed, and aid from solidarity activists in the U.S. is sorely needed. This task will become increasingly urgent as the battle over the shape of the post-Mubarak economy unfolds, likely leading to new clashes and repression.
On April 16, Reuters quoted several mainstream economists on how “growth” is only possible in Egypt if “populism” is set aside. Such growth requires leaders to “resist pressure from the very protesters whose rage has reshaped the region.
“‘The problem is how do you in short run satisfy the economic demands of the people who were in the streets protesting?’ said Mohsin Khan, the IMF’s former director for the Middle East. ‘My worry in the short run is the return to populist policy, back-tracking and undoing reforms’” (those reforms being privatization, cutting subsidies and services, etc.).
In a repulsive insight into the thinking of these bankers, World Bank head Robert Zoellick provided an amazingly callous and twisted account of how the revolutions began. He relegated the martyrdom of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who immolated himself after police seized his scales and slapped his face, to the outrage of a small businessman against government bureaucracy! Said Zoellick: “Keep in mind that the late Mr. Bouazizi was basically driven to burn himself alive because he was harassed with red tape.” Government, said Zoellick, should “quit harassing those people and let them have a chance to start some small businesses.”
Meanwhile, Egyptian workers are pushing ahead on both economic and political fronts. In April Labor Notes reported on the fight of Egyptian teachers, who have demanded the impeachment of the education minister. Abdel Hafiz, a leader of the 40,000-member independent teachers union, said protesting teachers have demanded the arrest of Mubarak, increased pay, better working conditions, and the right for teachers to organize independent unions.
Hafiz noted that despite Mubarak’s fall, the security apparatus “still controls everything in education.” The education ministry is still dominated by Mubarak-appointed officials, and political security still watches teachers. Hundreds of teachers were fired and transferred during the pro-democracy demonstrations, and the union is seeking their reinstatement. At the same time, the union is fighting to raise “abysmally low” salaries, and decrease class sizes (some classrooms have 90 students).
Similar struggles are spreading in other industries. In hopes of uniting them, as well as to deepen working-class leadership of the revolution, labor activists have begun organizing new worker-based parties.
The Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm noted calls for such parties since the outbreaks of strikes in the textile industry five years ago, and profiled activists involved in new formations such as the Democratic Workers’ Party. One obstacle is a ban on class-based parties in the interim constitution and the new Political Parties Law. But the paper said party activists were ignoring the ban, just as they have ignored the military council’s threat to ban strikes.
Kamal Khalil, a leader of the DWP and member of the Revolutionary Socialists, which is building the party, said he wasn’t concerned about regime interference: “We don’t want a party based on paper, we want a party based in factories and workplaces. … Whether or not the law allows it, we shall continue to work toward the establishment of the DWP.”
Hundreds have joined the party, including  many factory and transport workers. The party’s draft program demands radical agricultural reforms, rent/lease controls on farms, and governmental subsidies for seeds. It also calls for combating corruption and re-evaluating Egypt’s economic ties to Israel.
Kamal al-Fayyoumy, a labor-activist and textile worker at state-owned Egyptian Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, is another founding DWP member. He told the paper it was working with other labor groups to demand a minimum wage of $200 per month, for trade-union freedom, and improved working conditions. Workers in Mahalla are struggling to have privatized companies return to the public sector, he said.
Al Masry also reported on the Revolutionary Workers’ Coalition, which is not a party but rather an attempt to forge coordinated action among workers, farmers, NGOs, and parties “for the realization of the rights of all laborers, regardless of their political affiliations.” The coalition held a preparatory conference on April 8 and demanded the right to strike and form independent unions, a monthly minimum wage, and a maximum salary for administrators not more than 10 times the minimum wage.
Another profile of new workers’ parties, this one in Al Jazeera, noted that the formation of such parties comes at the same time as struggles for nationalization were picking up: “It has become a familiar scene in Egypt. Security forces attempted to hold back the crowd, but were swiftly overwhelmed by the chanting masses.
“The setting was a small, provincial courthouse in Shubra El-Kom, an industrial town 70 km north of Cairo, but the modest surroundings disguised a case that will shape the course of Egypt’s ongoing revolution. April 19 marked the latest showdown in a battle between the Indonesian owners of one of the country’s largest textile firms and their disgruntled employees.”
Furious over lay-offs, a lack of safety provisions and imposed changes in working hours, workers have called regular strikes since the Indonesian takeover in 2007. The workers’ lawyer said the current owners bought the company for $3 million when it was worth $174 million.
After the court postponed issuing a ruling until May 10, workers gathered outside and sang songs and yelled chants popular in Tahrir Square, such as “thowra thowra huta nasr” (“revolution, revolution until victory”). Workers are demanding the plant be renationalized, and hope victory will spark struggles for renationalization of all other major companies.
Another sign that the revolution continues to deepen is a meeting held in Tahrir Square on April 22 of popular committees from around Egypt. Al Masry Al Youm reported the meeting was intended “to inaugurate a prolonged coordinated effort.” Committees set up to provide security during the uprising on a neighborhood or factory basis are now dedicated “to protecting the gains of the revolution.”
The committees “engage in oversight over government committees and municipalities—which a majority on the square yesterday said should be dissolved.” About 5000 attended the event, named the “Inaugural Conference of Popular Committees for the Protection of the Revolution.”
“Representatives from different groups say that pro-Mubarak individuals are deceiving many by pretending to be a part of the revolution in order to escape punishment, or to maintain their power.
“Representatives from Suez, a city that saw some of the fiercest battles between protesters and government forces during the revolution, say that they are in place to counter the continued presence of corrupt officials in office.” Said one Suez activist: “We must stay formed, because all of Suez’s money is still being robbed by those running the public companies in the city.”
One participant said that Tahrir Square, site of huge demonstrations during the uprising, should “continue as a form of popular assembly.” Participants reiterated calls for speedy trials for corrupt figures and purging those still in public institutions. They demanded the end of military tribunals as well as the release of detained activists.
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.
Socialist Action News

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