Egypt: what political voice?

Submitted by Matthew on 22 February, 2012 - 11:36

Pete Radcliff visited Cairo earlier this month. He reports on the political situation facing democracy and trade union activists.

The massacre at the football stadium in Port Said on 1 February is widely believed to have been consciously planned by the Egyptian Security forces — an attempt to divide the democracy movement by a brutal attack on a more socially isolated but physically militant section. But it has produced the opposite effect.

The massacre of over 70 Al-Ahly fans, or Ultras, first led to huge street protests in Cairo and other cities and then spread far wider, involving students, the urban poor and trade unions across Egypt.

Ever since the results of Egypt’s Peoples Assembly elections became clear (a date for the Presidential election has yet to be announced), revolutionaries have had to grapple with how to maintain their movement. The new Assembly is dominated by Islamist parties.

The greatest weakness of last year’s popular dissent was the illusion it had in the military. Those illusions have pretty much disintegrated. But the hated Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) remains in control, and that is both powerful and brutal.

In the four days of protest between Tahrir Square and the Ministry of Interior which followed the football massacre, 11 were killed, 30 were partially or fully blinded and an estimated number of 2,000 required hospital treatment. Last October 28 Coptic Christians were murdered following protest. 45 were killed in the days following November protests about compensation for those injured at the beginning of 2011. There were 17 deaths and brutal attacks on women protesters on 16 December 2011.

Prior to this month trade union and democratic activists in Egypt saw their future being threatened by continuing brutal rule by SCAF, operating Mubarak’s anti-union laws, and by the oncoming ideological oppression of an Islamist government, whilst the west looked on seemingly with approval. The trial of Mubarak has been a joke. The trial’s result and verdict planned for 22 February is expected to lead to a trivialisation of his crimes and a light sentence.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the election front of the Muslim Brotherhood, had until 8 February made few criticisms on the delays to the Presidential election. Needless to say, the FJP made no criticisms of the election process that barred parties based on class. It made less and less criticism of the corruption of the army and the continuing plundering of the economy by the military.

But then the FJP shares with SCAF a fierce hostility to secular trade unions and the democratic activists who have organised against religious attacks on the country’s one million, mainly poor, Coptic Christians.

Meanwhile Egyptians have watched as negotiations with the US over aid led to an $1.6 billion aid package of which $1.3 billion is to go directly to the military!

The worsening situation undoubtedly led to many Egyptian democrats taking their stand alongside the courageous youth who took to the streets after the football massacre.

It was an opportunity to focus and bring together those opposed to the sabotaging of the struggle that started a year ago. Much they did in the same way as last year — taking the issues into the suburbs of Cairo and other cities of Egypt.

The Egypt Revolutionaries’ Alliance — which brings together over 50 political groups, along with university and school students and, most importantly, independent workers’ unions — made a call for civil disobedience to start on 11 February, the anniversary of Mubarak’s resignation. The call was made with varying degrees of clarity and confidence. Trade union activists were more guarded about what was possible.

The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, formed five days into the 2011 revolution, has made huge strides over the last year.

At its conference in late January this year 293 unions registered, representing two million Egyptian workers. But many of the newly organised workers haven’t had the strike experiences of those coming out of the disputes of 2008. Whilst the unions have often given a sense of an identity to many Egyptian workers, they have yet to see themselves as a collective force, particularly in a political arena.

The trade unions are now demanding proper full-time contracts for full-time work, a minimum wage of LE1,500 per month, a maximum wage of not more than ten times the minimum, the official recognition which is still denied them, a trade union liberties law, the purging of corrupt officials from state institutions and companies, and the re-nationalisation of privatised companies. Mubarak's cronies continue to profiteer in these privatisations, often asset-stripping and closing down the previously nationalised sites and selling the land to speculators.

A strike on 11 February was successful in a number of areas. It appears to have reinvigorated a number of disputes. At the Ain Sokhna port dockers launched a sit-in on 9 February and then an indefinite strike on the 11th with threats by the workers to take over the port if their demands weren’t met.

But the (general) strike call did not have the popular appeal of last year, when there was a clear link between the call to bring down Mubarak with the everyday problems, the extensive corruption and oppression that Egyptian workers faced. This year, with elections already held and the unpalatable result, many Egyptians were confused what the call for “civil disobedience until SCAF steps down” meant. Is it a call to bring forward the presidential elections? Is it a call to replace the state and the incoming government with something else? If so what?

Not surprisingly both SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood are making the most of the “failure”, as they see it, of the civil disobedience call. Although the strength of the post 2 February mobilisation did frighten them and push them into calling for the presidential elections to be brought forward, the Brotherhood used the street battles with the regime to strengthen their hand in their negotiations with SCAF for who is dominant in the new regime.

On 17 February other parliamentarians in the People’s Assembly (PA, the lower house of parliament) made initiatives to harness the street movement. Three MPs — of the Free Egyptians, the Social Democratic parties, and the Revolution Continues coalition — plan to form a “revolutionary council”. “Around 14 coalitions and movements including the April 6 Youth Movement asked us to lead a revolutionary council," MP Abu Hamed told the Daily News Egypt.

Whether such initiatives have been called for by the protestors and whether they could lead to giving a clearer political focus for Egyptian workers remains to be seen. At present these councils are intended primarily as an adjunct, giving the democratic protestors a more credible body through which they can assert themselves politically. The parliament is widely seen as “old conservative men” by protestors but the parliamentarians do not see these revolutionary councils as any alternative to the the parliament. And an alternative governmental force is needed!

The economic crisis gripping Egypt is severe. International capital is virtually boycotting Egypt. Foreign investment plunged from $6.4 billion in 2010 to $0.5 billion last year.

Tourism, on which 15 million Egyptians depended, has collapsed with a reduction by over 30% through 2011. 50% of Egyptians live on or below the poverty level. SCAF claim that they have reduced this but that claim is not credible. The issue of who governs, who can end corruption, poverty and violent attacks of the state is crucial.

There have been developments in building revolutionary and socialist ideas. The Revolutionary Socialists have clearly built well, primarily amongst students.

Some of their activists at times speak on behalf of the labour movement, organising as they do along with independent unions in the Workers’ Democratic Party.

But they are limited by the views of their main backers, the SWP in the UK. Hence they refused to back the struggle for Libyan democracy and are leaving the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists to make the loudest popular protests over Syria. With their blanket opposition to all Israelis, they fail to distinguish their politics on this issue from Islamism or old-style Arab nationalism.

During the February battles, but probably before, there have been obvious tensions between workers and more optimistic students. There is an urgent need for revolutionaries in Egypt to make clear slogans rather than rhetoric.

The workers movement is still new but it needs to develop quickly. It needs to ensure that its popular base and its understanding of the issues of concern to Egyptian workers links with the wider movement of students, unemployed and others.

It means organising, as the Ain Sokhna port workers threatened to do, to “nationalise” by taking control of their workplaces. It means attempting to build the organisations that can defend the street protestors from the slaughterous onslaughts of SCAF and appealing to the dissenters in a predominately conscript army.

It means clarifying a programme of working-class liberation that is clear on solidarity with all workers and democrats in the Middle East and North Africa.

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