The Egyptian people have forced their hated ruler, Hosni Mubarak, out of office. Through mobilising massive numbers of people onto the streets, workers taking action, and refusing to back down in the face of tiny 'concessions', the uprising has won its first main goal. They now face a fight for Egypt's future.
The centre of the mass demonstrations has been Tahrir Square in Cairo. The Square has become a symbol for grass-roots democratic organisation, with mass movements holding daily plebiscites on strategy and programme, with a 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.
The people of Egypt revolted against a dictatorial regime which for 60 years (30 years under Mubarak) has denied them political freedoms, and denied workers the right to organise and to improve conditions at work. Egyptians faced huge unemployment and rises in food prices, which accelerated over the last six months. This followed a process since the 1980s of scrapping the food price subsidies which the poor depended on, trashing social provision, and “opening” up the economy to privatisation which has enriched a wealthy elite at the top and a relatively small middle class.
The US and UK governments, having backed Mubarak for years, are now hypocritically welcoming his fall. William Hague tells the Egyptian government that it should "listen to the demonstrators", while at the same time his own government ignores the massive protests by students and their supporters.
Workers Rise Up
While the situation in Egypt is headline news, the mainstream media do not tell us much about workers' involvement. Despite repression, workers have been building organisation and action in Egypt over the last ten years, and are now playing an increasingly important role in the uprising.
Workers in the Suez Canal Company have been holding an open-ended sit-in strike. Over 6,000 agreed that they would not go home at the end of their shift, but hold the workplace until their demands against poor wages and deteriorating health and working conditions were met.
Railway technicians in Beni Suef are striking, and other cities' railworkers have blocked tracks in support. Bus, oil, telecoms, textiles, chemicals, printing, pharmaceuticals and other workers are walking out, striking or sitting in. Some workers have taken over their workplaces, kicked out the bosses, and begun to manage production themselves.
By Friday, when Mubarak resigned, there was in effect a general strike, involving Cairo transport workers, doctors and nurses, steel workers, and the 25,000 or so textile workers at Egypt's largest factory in the town of Mehalla al-Kubra - and many others. The workers have been fighting for the end of the dictatorship, and their own economic demands.
A New Trade Union Federation
The official trade unions in Egypt are "state unions", so closely linked with the regime that they can not and do not effectively represent and organise workers. There is only one legally recognised trade union centre, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which has close relations with the NPD, Mubarak's party. The ETUF has the power to control the nomination and election procedures for trade union office, and no strikes can take place without the permission of two-thirds of the ETUF board.
Egypt's workers have rejected the yoke of the state unions, and on 31 January declared a new trade union federation. The new federation is demanding:
* the right to work and “unemployment compensation”
* a minimum wage no less than 1200 LE; a maximum wage not exceeding ten times the minimum wage
* fair social security, including the right to health care, housing, education, pensions and benefits
* workers' right to organise without legal restrictions
* freedom for all detainees imprisoned after January 25th.
The new, independent federation has been welcomed by the TUC and the International TUC. We need to do all we can to support it. Mubarak is gone, but Egypt's future is not yet decided. The Muslim Brotherhood is strong, and will want to steer Egypt towards becoming an Islamic state.
In Iran in 1979, a hated dictator was driven out by a mass uprising. But although democrats and workers' organisations were central to that uprising, it was the Islamists who took power afterwards, with disastrous consequences for working-class organisation, democracy, women's rights and sexual freedom. Egypt's revolution can have a better outcome if the worker's movement prevails. We must support it.