In Egypt, Tahrir Square has become a symbol for grass-roots democratic organisation, with mass movements holding daily plebiscites on strategy and programme, with an unquenchable thirst for political discussion, and a vibrant sense of the power of ordinary people when they lose their fear. Local communities, in the absence of the police, have organised their own defence.
There have also been some instances of workers taking over their workplaces and beginning self-management. Left-wing Egyptian blogger Hossam el Hamalawy (who is close to the British SWP) told an interviewer: “I received a report about a textile mill owned by a company called Ghazl Meit Ghamr in Daqahliya, which is a province in the Nile Delta. The workers there have kicked out the CEO, they have occupied the factory and are self-managing it. This type of action has also been repeated in a printing house south of Cairo called Dar El-Ta’awon. There as well the workers have kicked out the CEO and are self managing the company.
“There are two other cases in Suez, where the clashes were the worst with the security forces during the uprising. The death toll is very high in Suez, we don’t actually know the real death toll until now.
“In two factories there, the Suez Steel Mill and the Suez Fertilizer Factory, workers have declared an open-ended strike until the regime falls. Other than that we have not seen, at least to my knowledge, independent working class action.” (http://www.occupiedlondon.org/cairo/?p=300)
Workers have taken action against representatives of the state-run trade union federation — calling for its leader to be prosecuted on charges of corruption. A new, independent union federation was on 30 January declared after a meeting in Tahrir Square which involved representatives of workers across Egypt, including the three already-existing independent unions (tax collectors, health technicians and pensioners).The new union federation has already won wide support from the international labour movement.
As we go to press on 8 February, the uprising in Egypt is entering its fifteenth day. Thousands of people continue to occupy Tahrir Square; every day there are demonstrations across the country.
Although there are reports of some return to normality, Egypt remains paralysed, and in particular paralysed politically. Breakdown has come in attempts by the regime — now in effect run by Vice-President Omar Suleiman, although Hosni Mubarak still refuses to step down — to establish formal negotiations with the opposition, including the still-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Even the attempt is a huge shift in the dictatorship’s policy. Less than a week ago it attempted to break the protest movement’s will by sending its thugs — some of them, surreally, on camels — into Tahrir Square. Goons caught by protestors had police ID on them. There were two days of fighting. In the end the pro-regime forces had to withdraw, and something of the previous carnivalesque air returned to downtown Cairo.
The pro-government thugs had to be permitted access to the Square by the army. The army’s alleged sympathy for “the people” was in danger of being discredited. It moved quickly to recapture its previous image as the nation’s “most respected institution”.
The army has essentially run Egypt since the “Revolution” — in fact a coup — of 1952, and continues to do so. Now, under increased pressure from the Obama administration (Egypt gets more military aid from the USA than any other country bar Israel, and the Egyptian army has close links with the US military), the army and the regime know they must try to negotiate an “orderly transition” and string along the uprising so that it runs out of steam.
None of the principal leaders of the revolt — the various youth movements which have mainly co-ordinated action, or high-profile liberal figures such as Mohamed al-Baradei — participated in the talks this week. On the contrary, they criticised the negotiations both for not representing the protestors, and for falling short of the basic demand that the President must step down immediately.
Suleiman has given no indication, yet, that he will improve on Mubarak’s current promise not to stand for re-election, and guarantee that his unpopular son will not be a candidate. Talks were intended to “discuss” elections, which is not the same as holding them.
The Muslim Brotherhood says it agreed to meet the government only to hear what it had to say, not to negotiate anything. It quickly withdrew.
That the talks with representatives of the Muslim Brothers were plainly sanctioned by the United States is significant: Washington has moved from a policy of supporting the dictatorship in order to keep Islamism at bay to one of trying to draw in and tame the Brotherhood.
For the moment, there is stalemate. Suleiman, the former head of the security services (who led the near-destruction of the most extremist Islamist movements in the 1990s), is very unlikely to turn towards wholescale repression. Al-Jazeera calls him “the CIA’s man in Cairo”; and at least for now such a policy would be unacceptable in Washington. If Suleiman can’t find a way to manage the transition Obama wants, presumably there will be pressure for a further shift at the top of the regime.
Underlying everything that has happened in Egypt and across the Middle East in recent weeks is the economic crisis and deepening, and highly visible, social inequality. Mubarak is hated also for the “crony capitalism” which is endemic and blatant. “Experts estimate the net worth of Mr. Mubarak and his family at between $40 billion and $70 billion,” according to the Voice of America. “They say the Egyptian president has much of his wealth in Swiss banks or tied up in real estate in New York, Los Angeles and London... Mubarak’s wife, Susan, and their two sons, Gamal and Alaa, are also reported to be billionaires.”
The Brotherhood has no answers to the social inequality. The workers’ movement has the power to create answers. We must lend it every support we can.