Egypt's new unions reach out

Submitted by AWL on 18 May, 2011 - 10:56

Egypt

New political voices are emerging within the independent trade union movement which has exploded into existence since January. The unions themselves now have 250,000 members and have begun to organise groups of workers previously unorganised even by the old official unions — in fishing, street cleaning and farming.

A doctors’ strike in May was successful — with an 80% turnout — despite opposition from the leadership of the Doctors’ Syndicate (the leader of the Syndicate broke the strike).

The newly-formed Workers Democratic Party, which aims to be a political voice for the working class, has the support of some prominent leaders within the new unions. It seems to be an initiative primarily of the Revolutionary Socialists, a group with some links to the British Socialist Workers Party.

A more populist new group, called the Popular Alliance, has also been formed. It draws in some people who have resigned in disgust from the old, legal “leftist” party, Tagamu’, as well as a group called Socialist Renewal (which seems to have some links to the Counterfire — ex-SWP — group in the UK).

Egypt’s referendum, in March, on constitutional changes, resulted in a 77% majority in favour. This was despite a campaign for a ‘no’ vote by most of the organised forces involved in the revolution which began in January — with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The “no” campaigners had wanted a more radical revision of the entire constitution — and, many of them, more time to organise political parties before Parliamentary elections in September. The overwhelming “yes” vote probably expressed an urgency to move forward on most voters’ part — a paradoxical unease about continued military rule and a general endorsement of how the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have handled change since they got rid of Hosni Mubarak, after thirty years, in February.

Egypt’s current military rulers are still managing the transition. They are moving, on schedule, towards the first genuine elections since – at least – the Second World War. But they have repeatedly threatened to ban strikes – which continue to break out across industry – and have introduced a draconian “anti-protest” law.

The elections themselves have a bias against new working-class or radical parties even participating built into their rules. To form a new party, its organisers need five thousand signatures in two daily newspapers, and to fork out a million Egyptian pounds or more. Some new radical parties are refusing to pay a penny; but that probably means they won’t be able to stand in September.

The outcome of those elections remains unpredictable. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is for sure the largest organised force, has increased its slate to fifty per cent of seats (it had said it would only stand in a third). It isn’t fielding a presidential candidate.

For sure the Brotherhood’s backing of the timid constitutional changes in the referendum (which left intact Islam’s role in Egyptian law) was important in turning out the vote. And the Brotherhood, long the chief opposition movement, has positioned itself very close to the military government since Mubarak’s fall (when Essam Sharaf announced himself Prime Minister to the crowds in Tahrir Square, there was a representative of the Brothers beside him).

Their caution towards the elections is partly strategic — they don’t want to frighten the USA, so they say. But maybe they are less confident of sweeping the board than earlier assumptions would have it.

Since the beginning of the revolution, the Brothers have been facing big internal difficulties. A more radical — and, it would seem, at least in some cases more secular — young “wing” has challenged the old guard (while a hardline “anti-political” wing has also been challenging the recent leadership).

Libya

The military forces of Colonel Qaddafi have so far held on to power in the west of Libya around Tripoli, though Benghazi in the east remains firmly in ‘rebel’ hands. For those fighting Qaddafi, reports suggest, UN/NATO intervention remains popular, although there are frequent criticisms that these forces don’t ‘do enough’.

In Misrata, where Qaddafi has continued to bombard the city, apparently there is a clear link between levels of bombardment and NATO’s enforcement of its no-fly zone.

The Transitional Council in Benghazi seems to be a very mixed bag. There are former exiles — from a wide variety of political backgrounds, Islamist, liberal, and even self-styled anarchist — linking up with local people. The council is largely self-selected – so far there is no process of election, and criticisms are emerging regarding the transparency of decisions. Defectors from Qaddafi are prominent publicly — though on the street, reports suggest, there is much discontent on this score. Much of the basic organisation has been carried out by previously apolitical people — especially from the professional classes. (To be “political” under Gaddafi meant to support the regime).

In general, Libya has a less sophisticated level of political organisation than, for instance, Tunisia to its west or Egypt to its east. Qaddafi was and is a much more repressive dictator, and organised opposition within the country had been effectively crushed. There are no unions or leftist parties.

But in Benghazi there has rapidly developed the beginnings of a real democratic, grassroots based culture.

Qaddafi’s support seems, despite some western media accounts, quite small. Public demonstrations of loyalty in Tripoli are not very large. Still, he maintains a formidable apparatus of terror.

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