Workers in Egypt: Key to Saving the Arab Spring

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. is using every weapon in its arsenal—military, diplomatic, financial, etc.—to try to turn the Arab Spring into a Washington Winter, an endless night of continued poverty enforced by dictatorships.

But Egypt’s workers, who initiated the process leading to the mass Arab revolt with their strikes five years ago, have moved back to the fore. Protesters have returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo, with a continuous presence since July 8. Militant actions and strikes have also been held in Suez, Alexandria, and elsewhere as a result of months of stonewalling of demands for economic justice, political rights, and prosecution of corrupt and murderous regime figures.
Broad coalitions of labor and revolutionary groups backing the Tahrir sit-ins issued statements calling for prosecution of Mubarak regime figures and all those involved in the killing of the martyrs of the revolution and the corruption of the regime. They demanded an end to military courts and freedom for the thousands jailed by the military.
They also demanded the revocation of the anti-strike and anti-demonstration law, recovery of the nation’s stolen money inside and outside the country, a rise in the minimum wage and a cap on executives’ salaries, and linking wages with prices.
But the military has made clear its intention to maintain its grip on power on behalf of Egypt’s wealthy. Since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has combined token reforms, meaningless cabinet shuffles, and selected firings and prosecutions of corrupt and criminal officials with repression, imprisonment, and warnings to the country’s workers that strikes would be crushed.
As a result, illusions in the military, based on its having left the dirty work in January and February largely to the police, are quickly dissipating. Growing numbers of workers in Egypt realize that the real showdown with the old regime, and the ruling class it protects, is yet to come.
The military is fully aware of this change in consciousness and watches with fear the growing return to the squares. This means that the danger is very real that they will crack down soon, and hard, against the protests.
The military has turned for help increasingly to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which only late and reluctantly joined the protests in January and February, and is now joining the chorus that is howling denunciations of workers who dare to strike. Other voices in this choir are those of major media and business figures, who blame workers fighting for long-delayed justice and equality for the economy’s supposed downturn. (Fortunately, the youth of the Brotherhood have split off in repugnance toward their leadership’s betrayal of the revolution.)
The July 17 New York Times reported that the Egyptian military has openly declared it will maintain itself in power come what may, issuing a declaration giving it “a broad mandate to intercede in Egyptian politics. … The military plans to adopt the document on its own, before any election, referendum or constitution sets up a civilian authority.”
Egypt’s military is fueled by $1.3 billion a year given by the United States, making it second only to Israel as a recipient of U.S. military aid. (This compares to only $250 million in economic aid—which, of course, as with all aid to neocolonial countries, is itself skewed towards business-friendly projects.) Yet SCAF has been baiting its opponents with allegations of foreign funding!
And this is the same military whose head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, met on July 26 with General Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command to talk about how to continue cooperation with the United States vis-à-vis Israel and to expand cooperation throughout Africa.
The masses of Egypt know that U.S. aid to the military is intended both to maintain Egypt’s wealthy in power, and to guarantee Egyptian support for U.S. policies in the region—first and foremost support for Zionism. They have also not forgotten that the tear-gas canisters fired at them during the January-February revolt were made in the U.S.
The same issue of The Times reporting on SCAF’s intention to stay in power profiled in its Business Section a program jointly sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the Agency for International Development, and the Chamber of Commerce, along with internet corporation heads, to foster “entrepreneurs” who will supposedly solve Egypt’s unemployment problem.
This program is, of course, just one example of the broader effort to maintain U.S. economic dominance, an effort analyzed by Adam Hanieh in his article “Egypt’s ‘orderly transition’? International aid and the rush to structural adjustment.”
Hanieh describes how Obama has reshuffled a small part of Egypt’s massive debt to the United States, a maneuver that comes with the usual strings attached, i.e. IMF/World Bank-style demands for greater openness to Western corporations and less spending on workers’ needs. The net result will be greater—not less—indebtedness, more privatization and deregulation, and greater opening of Egypt’s markets and investment opportunities to Western corporations and banks. This at a time when demands are flourishing for the renationalization of privatized companies and more, not less, public provision of jobs and services.
Mass movement revived
An article in Ahram Online by Mostafa Ali describes a visit to Tahrir Square and the revival of self-organization for security, sustenance, and health care, to give haircuts or to provide artwork. He notes that the current round of occupation of Tahrir was a reaction to police use of tear gas to disperse a peaceful protest by families of the martyrs of the uprising.
Ali describes the Egyptian media’s attempt to characterize those sitting in as “wreaking havoc, shutting bridges, attacking our army and on and on.” He also mentions two tents in the square used by TV and radio workers “involved in a campaign to purge state media outlets of corrupt managers who forced them to tow government propaganda for years.”
This dialectic between workplace struggles and the broader political movement is superbly analyzed by Anne Alexander in her article, “The growing social soul of Egypt’s democratic revolution,” published in the British journal International Socialism. Alexander shows how the current stage of struggle in Egypt mirrors the process described by Rosa Luxemburg after Russia’s 1905 Revolution—that is, how a nationwide general strike became the inspiration for struggles in individual workplaces, which in turn strengthened national political struggles.
Luxemburg wrote: “Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes. … With the spreading, clarifying and involution of the political struggle, the economic struggle not only does not recede, but extends, organizes and becomes involved in equal measure. Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action.
“In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political center to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilization of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places; and thus the economic and the political factor in the period of the mass strike, now widely removed, completely separated or even mutually exclusive, as the theoretical plan would have them, merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is precisely the mass strike.”
The key task of revolutionaries immersed in such a dialectic, Alexander points out, drawing on Leon Trotsky’s analysis of 1905 as well as Rosa Luxemburg’s, was to reinforce this dialectic, to make the ties stronger, more political, more deeply rooted in mass organizations, so that each pole of the dynamic reinforces the other in a building process ending in the seizure of power by the working class.
In contrast, without the development of this dynamic, the revolution as a whole must fail, a point at the heart of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which made clear that the bourgeoisie was no longer capable or even interested in leading a democratic revolution (i.e. one that fights for the kind of political reforms demanded in Tahrir Square, Suez, and Alexandria).
Further, should the revolution fail, for lack of a strong enough bourgeoisie to take the reins (especially given its dependence on imperialism), the most likely regime to come to power would be a Bonapartist one, i.e. one loyal to capitalism but relying on military strength to substitute for an incompetent and impotent capitalist class. And in an imperialist world, such a Bonapartist regime inevitably follows the dictates of Western capital (however much, as in Syria, Libya or pre-invasion Iraq, the Bonapartist dictators bend to mass pressure and issue fake anti-imperialist demagogy and grant haven and funding to resistance groups).
This stark choice—between a thoroughgoing proletarian-led revolution, and a regression to dependence on imperialism (and its local cop, Zionism), supervised by a Bonapartist regime—is exactly the one confronting Egypt.
To illustrate the Egyptian version of the dynamic outlined by Luxemburg, Alexander gives numerous examples from various industries in which workers have ousted their boss and taken partial or full control of their workplaces to run them democratically. These include museum employees, airport workers, bus drivers and mechanics, nurses, porters and doctors, railroad and textile workers, civil servants in the Ministry of Finance, and so on.
Given the interpenetration of state and society under Mubarak—i.e., every corporate executive, plant manager, or government office supervisor was a craven lackey of the central regime and dependent on it for his or her job—the struggle of workers in their offices and factories to remove the old bosses also strikes a political blow at the remnants of the regime which still run the country. This, again, is why these struggles must be coordinated, solidarity spread between them, and political demands formulated that make explicit the common threads between workplace and nationwide struggles.
That is exactly the task that the Democratic Workers Party (DWP), and the Revolutionary Socialists who lead it, have set themselves. An example of how they seek to do so is by broadening participation in the struggle for a nationwide minimum wage and for caps on bosses’ salaries. This relates back to the anger at rising food prices, which was a key spark of the revolution, while building on individual struggles for higher wages in particular workplaces.
Another example of this interaction between the local and the national came in the doctors’ strike, the first since 1951 and, says Alexander, the biggest single instance of coordinated national strike action since the revolution, “as it was observed by 65 to 75% of hospitals in Cairo and Giza, and 90% of hospitals in the provinces. Although the initial motor for the strike was doctors’ own demands for better pay and conditions, the activists leading the strike …  argued for and won the position that the strike should articulate wider demands for the improvement of the health system.”
A crucial set of organizations furthering this revolutionary dialectic are the Popular Committees to Defend the Revolution. First formed to provide security and to organize defense against police attacks during the initial uprising, they are now organizing neighborhoods to demand local services, the right to elect local officials, to fight inflation, etc. And they do so with the same democratic methods found in the new workplace committees and independent unions. The committees have also held national gatherings and started a newspaper to coordinate strategy.
As a means of uniting and further radicalizing all these struggles, the DWP promotes its own program. Key planks in it include “the restoration of national dignity in the face of Zionist-American projects in the region; re-nationalizing the looted companies and land, the development of their administration with popular oversight, and expansion of the public sector through investment in strategic projects; creation of a constitution that serves human rights, citizenship, and freedom of expression, and the establishment of a parliamentary republic recognizing the freedom of political parties, trade unions, the media and based on the election of all leadership positions starting from local government (the election of village mayors, town mayors and governors) to all educational and research institutions and public services; development of the health service, education, and housing away from the logic of profit; raise the minimum wage to the level that would meet basic needs (at least 1500 pounds) with a link to prices.”
Revolutionaries have also been forced to seek leadership of struggles that on the surface have no connection to class issues, such as battles against recent sectarian attacks by some Salafi Islamists on Christian individuals and institutions. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the benefits accruing to Egypt’s rulers and their military enforcers from such divide-and-conquer attacks.
The Salafists’ reactionary role, of course, does not stem from their Islamic beliefs. In fact, participants in the convention of the Revolutionary Socialists speak of the widespread participation of devout Muslims in the front ranks of workers’ struggles. It is a product rather of the Salafists’ (and the Muslim Brotherhood’s) class composition, which includes predominantly urban bourgeois (especially in leadership or funding positions), along with traditional and modern petty bourgeois, and large sections of the poor. Such a composition is the classic recipe for an organization that vacillates between the pressures of those above and below—and ultimately turns toward the former, at least in the absence of a working-class rebellion strong enough to sidetrack or split it and thereby win over its poorer members.
On the verge of a crackdown?
Despite their savage attacks, the military has still refrained from wholesale armed assaults on protesters and strikers, and has on occasion even backed down in the face of popular demands such as around prosecution of the regime’s worst criminals. But such concessions have been made grudgingly and often, in the end, withdrawn.
The military is fully aware of the revolt spreading throughout factories, offices and neighborhoods, and know that an all-out assault would do more than anything else to reunite the country’s working masses and lead to a final battle—one for which the military might not yet feel itself ready. On the other hand, it cannot afford to wait too long as the mutually reinforcing dynamic of struggles continue to grow.
Evidence that a crackdown may come sooner rather than later appeared in late July and the first days of August. On July 22, military police beat protesters in Alexandria demanding quicker prosecutions. The next day, a march of tens of thousands on SCAF headquarters in Cairo was similarly attacked. Socialist blogger Hossam El-Hamalawy reported that protesters chanted “beautifully rhymed slogans” (the lyrical creativity of protesters is taken as a point of pride throughout the region). They denounced Tantawi, SCAF, and police torture, and called for social justice, bread and civil liberties.
Wrote El-Hamalawy: “As we approached Abbassiya [the part of Cairo where SCAF headquarters is], we started receiving news that the military police and the army special forces have blocked the road by the Nour Mosque with machine-gun-mounted armored vehicles and barbed wires. We also received news there were ‘thugs’ preparing Molotov cocktails and swords awaiting us. (The army had been inciting against the march in the days before, accusing protesters of being thugs and foreign agents.)”
They soon confronted rows of soldiers and Interior Ministry security forces. As protesters stood their ground, men with swords and knives attacked, and stones rained down on them. Clashes went on for hours. “We were besieged: the army and the police on one side, while the thugs blocking our way back to Tahrir. Scores were injured and detained.”
And as we go to press, on Aug. 1, soldiers have cleared Tahrir Square of the family members of revolutionary martyrs and others who had set up a protest encampment there. Several protesters were injured.
We can’t know for sure when the more general crackdown will happen. If it occurs soon, U.S. supporters of the Egyptian Revolution must be ready to mobilize. If, in contrast, the final confrontation is delayed for weeks or months, we must use the intervening time to educate supporters of justice and equality in the U.S. of the need to support our sisters and brothers in Egypt, to strengthen the ties first forged when workers in Madison, Wisconsin, rebelled.
Our responsibility in this respect comes not only out of solidarity, but especially because we live in the country whose military, economic, and political power is the main prop of the Egyptian regime.
And such solidarity is crucial not only for Egypt. That country, like Tunisia, has had the most advanced organizing by workers, which, combined with the size of its working class, makes it socially and politically key for the region. A setback in these two countries would demoralize those fighting for freedom and social justice in the rest of the region.
But the Egyptian example is precious to saving the Arab Spring also because of the working-class-based political example it sets. This is an example sorely needed in other countries where, despite heroic turnouts Friday after Friday for months on end, clearly articulated political alternatives to the ruling regimes have taken shape slowly and incompletely (although it is encouraging to see the persistence of neighborhood-based committees in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, which have repeatedly defied calls for compromise by “official” opposition parties).
The worst example, of course, is in Libya, where a mass uprising has virtually disappeared as an explicitly pro-imperialist “opposition,” led by middle-class professionals and ex-Gadhafi figures, is collaborating with the genocidal U.S./NATO bombardment of the country.
Supporters of the Arab Revolution must organize and mobilize to demand: U.S. Hands Off Egypt! End All U.S. Aid to Egypt’s Military! U.S. Corporations and Banks: Hands off the Egyptian Economy! Cancel Egypt’s Debt! End the Criminal War Against Libya!  Solidarity with the heroic workers of Egypt!
> The article above was written by Andrew Pollack, and first appeared in the August 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.