To continue this quote from Joel Beinin, writing months before the revolution: “Since 1998 over 2 million workers have participated in more than 3,300 factory occupations, strikes, demonstrations, or other collective actions protesting low wages, non-payment of bonuses, wage supplements, and social benefits, and private investors’ failure to uphold their contractual obligations to their workers.” (Source)
The workers, in short, have been the life and soul of the revolution, restoring dignity to the Arab world.
Defying a recent military order forbidding strikes, workers throughout the country keep taking to the streets, launching 40 to 60 strikes per day. In response there has been a concerted attack against them by the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even some of the revolutionary youth. Demanding an end to the strikes, they blame the workers for the collapse of the economy. This accusation, far from true, reflects an attempt to play down the workers’ role in the revolution. The economy’s collapse, after all, was caused by the regime itself, which stole from the public coffers and is now trying to steal the revolution too.
We talked by telephone about this and other issues with four central activists of the Egyptian revolution: Attorney Khaled Ali, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights; Hamdi Hussein, director of the Socialist Horizons Center in the textile town al-Mahalla al-Kubra; film director Bassel Ramses; and Ala Kamal, a leftwing activist living in Cairo.
In March 2010, Khaled Ali won a court decision ordering the president, the prime minister, and the National Council for Wages to set a “fair” minimum wage that would reflect the cost of living. Envisioned was a monthly wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds, about $200. “Nobody can deny the role played by the youth in igniting the revolution, when they called for the demonstration of January 25,” Ali says, “but it would be wrong and simplistic to think they are the revolution’s leaders. The workers were the ones who paved the way. It was they who kept the embers glowing until the uprising was finally sparked. Like any revolution, the Egyptian revolution has special causes and a particular background. In addition to the political, economic and social demands, this background enabled us to hold our ground in Tahrir Square for 18 days despite all the difficulties.”
Ali adds: “The workers were the ones who stood at the forefront of the longest struggle, which began in 2004. Their movement combined trade union demands with political demands, shaking the foundations of the regime. Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in the strikes and demonstrations, facing suppression, arrests and dismissals.”
One of the weaknesses of the workers’ struggle, Ali concedes, was to give up the leadership of the revolution. “It’s true that the workers took part in the uprising from the first day, as an independent group, but they were swept along, like everyone else, by the media’s presentation of the shabab [the youth] as the revolution’s leaders. Moreover, some of the political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, turned their backs on the workers’ demands. On the other hand, they continue to strike, and they are determined to achieve their demands despite the enormous pressure to return to work.”
Hamdi Hussein says he strongly opposes Sheikh Al-Qardawi’s call for the workers to go home. “Nobody has the right to insist that the workers cease their struggle,” Hussein says. “Even the army’s position will not stop them. Strikes will continue until the army announces that it will uphold the revolution’s principles and respect international treaties on workers’ rights.”
Khaled Ali: “Some of the activists and parties are making deals with the army behind the scenes. For the workers, though, the revolution is not just about changing leaders. It’s about improving living standards and obtaining social justice. The workers demand tangible steps that will ensure their future. As long as this basic demand is not met, the revolution will continue. The workers’ protest is the best way to ensure its success.”
The old regime prepares a comeback
The workers’ protest is not limited to the economic sphere or sectarian demands, as has been claimed. The protest aims to secure the achievements of the revolution and prevent the return of the old regime. Many activists and organizations note with concern the army’s attempts to adopt the revolution’s slogans while retaining the regime’s foundations, including the emergency laws and the secret services. Most of the political prisoners have not been released.
Cosmetic changes in the government and public institutions fail to convince the people of the army’s good will. Everyone knows what would likely happen if the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were to cease and if apathy were to take over. The Egyptian army is no less corrupt than Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. It still controls some 15% of the economy, while its officers enjoy extensive privileges that were granted by the old regime.
“We don’t trust the transitional government,” says Khaled Ali, “and we’re not satisfied with the way the army is handling the transition. There are fears of a counter-revolution which will wipe out our achievements. The changes made by the transitional government are insufficient. After the masses have discovered their power, especially the workers, they will no longer agree to be cheated.”
Hamdi Hussein affirms that when reactionary forces tried to nip the revolution in the bud, it was the workers who returned to the arena. Foremost among the reactionaries were elements of the regime who hastened to appear in new attire. “They are making a great effort to rebuild their power while bribing those in need,” Hussein says. “They are compelling those with scant means to sign in as members of a new party whose impudent name, it seems, will be ‘January 25.’ These leaders are surrounding themselves with bodyguards. There are rumors that the Chief of Staff Sami Anan will be appointed to head the new party. The army lets its members meet on the premises of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), even though the army said it would confiscate that property and return it to the state. Forces concerned about these developments are meeting to discuss a possible response, and so the Friday demonstrations continue.”
According to Bassel Ramsis, there are rumors that Hossam Badrawi, appointed as secretary-general of the NDP at the start of the revolution but dismissed a few days later, will set up a new party with Wael Ghoneim, a Google engineer who was among the first of the youth to call for revolution.
“The army is on one side and the popular uprising on the other,” Ramsis says. “The army, led by General [Mohammed Hussein] Tantawi, represents the previous regime, the remnant of those who were close to Mubarak. The army is completely subject to American and Israeli dictates, so it doesn’t really want change. It wants to clip the wings of the revolution. The army won’t do us any favors. Any steps it takes will be due to pressure from the street, according to the balance of forces.”
The decisive factor in this equation, says Ramsis, will be the workers. “They are the guarantee of a real revolution, because they link the protests and demonstrations for their rights with the political demand to bring down the regime. This is the time for real achievements.”
Responding to claims that the strikes are harming the national economy, Ramsis asserts, “Empty words! Those threatening the economy are the same thieves and corrupt leaders who controlled Egypt and robbed its coffers.”
We first met Ala Kamal in Spring 2008 when we visited Egypt to report on the extensive strikes in al-Mahalla al-Kubra (See our article.). In a recent telephone conversation, he said that the current strikes demanding freedom of association are greatly advancing the revolution. “Nobody has the right to tell the workers to go home. Nobody knows what the new government will look like, or whether it will meet their just demands. The workers’ fundamental problem is that they have no political leadership and no party to organize them. The same is true for the farmers and the poor. The only force that has no influence on the constitution, because it has nobody to represent it, is the workers. That is why the strikes must continue.”
All four of those we interviewed agree that the present events amount to a rebirth of the Egyptian nation. “We were about 250,000 people standing round the Presidential Palace,” Kamal says. “This is a place I wouldn’t have dared to pass earlier for fear of being shot at by a guard, who wouldn’t even bother to determine my identity. The only thing that can compel the army to meet the nation’s demands is the continued presence of the masses in the street.”
Hamdi Hussein notes that the regime has begun to meet some of the demands. “One achievement is the decision of the military council to dismiss the chairman of the board at the Misr Weaving and Spinning Company, located in the textile city of El Mahala al Kubra. [Founded in 1927, Misr Weaving employs 27,000, making it one of the largest factories in the world—A.A.Z.] In his place the council appointed engineer Ahmed Maher, who is popular with the workers. “As a result, the workers in this large factory went back to their jobs. Another important step was the dismissal of Labor Minister Aisha Abdel Hadi. The chairman of the official labor union, which is closely tied to the hated regime, has also been sidelined.”
The army, the Muslim Brotherhood and the workers
Like most of the political and trade union people, Hamdi Hussein takes a neutral, even positive view of the army. “At this stage, it would be wrong to oppose the army figures. Among them there are respected people with clean hands. We don’t want to create a rift in the army. I hope it fulfills what it has promised. The political forces and the workers must protect the army from a counter-revolution carried out by elements of the old regime.”
Khaled Ali agrees: “To oppose the army would be to break up the state. This is not in our interest.”
Hamdi Hussein also refers to the way in which recent events have influenced political organization. “There are currently three new leftist parties,” he says. “They agree that the elections should be postponed beyond the six months set by the army. Everyone knows that the Muslim Brotherhood has the best organizational framework, but if we grant more time, the left-wing and liberal parties, and even the remnants of the regime party, could organize better to run in elections.”
Capitalist forces, says Ala Kamal, have enormous power to apply pressure, and they rely on the ruling military council. In contrast, the shabab coalition, despite its enthusiasm, is apolitical. Some of the youth coalitions view politics as “dirty.” However, there will be no choice but to organize politically in order to secure the changes so far achieved. The revolutionary forces will need to negotiate over the constitution and the composition of the regime, creating power centers in the form of political parties.
I asked Khaled Ali about the place of the Muslim Brotherhood in the revolution and about the tacit agreement, on the part of the Americans, to its participation in the new Egypt. Ali replied that media pictures suggesting the Brotherhood’s control of the street are far from correct. “On the first Friday after the fall of Mubarak [February 18],” he recalled, “a demonstration was held in Tahrir Square in which Sheikh al-Qardawi appeared. The media presented this as if the Muslim Brotherhood had taken over the Square, and it emphasized the praying. Yet on that day four million people demonstrated. The Muslim Brotherhood made up perhaps 20 percent. An additional 10 percent belonged to other political forces, while the rest were citizens with no political affiliations.”
“We should not rule out the possibility of a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army,” Ali added. “Clearly this would endanger democracy. Most of the Egyptian nation is still religious, so it can be persuaded to accept the Islamic model. It’s true that America now grants legitimacy to the existence of an Islamic party, but there’s a difference between that and handing them the regime. It’s not at all certain that the Egyptian nation would agree to such a regime, after all we’ve sacrificed for the revolution.”
Recently Ali gave an interview to the independent American radio station, Democracy Now. In it he explained that the workers were behind the first democratic victory, when they compelled Mubarak to recognize their right to free association. “The greatest achievement was setting up the tax clerks’ union, after which came the teachers and others,” Ali said. “The establishment of independent unions undermined the dominance of the official trade union, which was controlled by the regime. The workers’ achievements shook up the regime’s standing and paved the way to its downfall. The workers were the ones who first demonstrated in the streets. They were suppressed by force. They sacrificed themselves without claiming to be the leaders of the revolution.”
The natural ally
The establishment of a workers’ party in Egypt has become an urgent task. For fear of a counter-revolution by the army or the Muslim Brotherhood or even Mubarak’s National Party, or some combination among the three, the political organization of workers is crucial to ensure democracy.
The middle class, which sacrificed much in this astonishing revolution, faces the task of choosing an ally at this critical juncture. If these young, educated people choose the army and the Muslim Brotherhood (who are also part of the middle class), the result will be the foreclosure of freedom. However, if they choose their natural ally, the working class, they will discover a powerful partner in protecting the achievements of the revolution and in building a new democracy.