At the time of writing Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt since 1981, is still clinging to power. For sure, he won’t last long. Thousands of people are still in the streets of Egypt’s cities – as well as Cairo, huge protests have taken place in Alexandria, Suez and other cities – despite curfews, and despite a death toll of around 100 people. (Some reports put the numbers higher). Million strong marches are planned for Cairo and Alexandria on Tuesday.
The army is still in the streets, but has yet either to turn on the demonstrators – although there are reports of machine gun fire to disperse crowds in Alexandria - or the government. This follows the pattern of Tunisia, where the army’s refusal to shoot demonstrators was the signal for Ben Ali to flee the country, but where the army remained neutral, rather than decisively turn against the centres of political power.
Many commentators expect that the army chiefs will tell Mubarak to step down, or at least promise not to stand for a sixth term as president later this year, and promise that his son, Gamal, won’t either. (Egyptians have a great history of inventive slogans. Among those in the last few days was ‘Gamal, tell your daddy we hate him!’). Then there would be some kind of transitional government before elections are held. Whether that government includes, as in Tunisia, representatives of the old regime – and whether, then, opposition groups agree to join it, as many have done in Tunisia – would be the big immediate question.
After Friday January 28, when the scales decisively tipped and the demonstrations reached unstoppable proportions, and prior to the deployment of the army, the much-hated police vacated the streets. Many of them were then besieged in the Ministry of Interior, where there was armed fighting. One other consequence of the absence of police was that looting took place in certain areas, and local citizens formed ‘civil defence groups’ to defend their homes. (These groups were misleadingly called ‘vigilantes’ in much of the Western media). Although there were reports of bands of thieves from poorer districts robbing houses in richer suburbs, there have also been extensive eye-witness reports that the robbers were policemen.
This problem has been exacerbated by the escape of thousands of prisoners from four jails. Many of these were political prisoners, among them 34 recently-arrested members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But many were ordinary criminals, presumably some of them violent. It’s hard to know. (It was a last-ditch tactic of Saddam Hussein, during the invasion of 2003, to release criminals with the intention of causing further chaos. It doesn’t seem this is what’s happened in Egypt: the prisons were attacked by armed groups – though right now there is no information on who these groups were).
The protests have been marked by acts of solidarity from the sharing of food to the establishment of impromptu clinics to deal with the wounded and dying.
They have been marked, too, by the near absence of religious slogans. Indeed, according to one report, when a section of a Cairene crowd tried to raise a religious slogan, others drowned them out with ‘Muslims, Christians, we are all Egyptians!’ (which also rhymes in Arabic). About 10% of the Egyptian population is Coptic Christian, recently victim to increased sectarian attack, including a bomb on New Year’s Eve which killed 25 and wounded 200 in Alexandria. The chanting of anti-sectarian slogans is very significant.
This raises the question of the role and prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has been believed for many years that the Brotherhood, the largest organised opposition group, would win a fair election. The last election was blatantly rigged, and the Brotherhood, like many other oppositionists, including al-Baradei, boycotted it. As a result they lost the 88 MPs they had previously had. (The Brotherhood is banned, and the MPs were not officially its representatives. But everyone knew who they were).
Fear of an Islamist takeover has, supposedly, been the main thing driving Western support for Mubarak. It partly (by no means completely – see below) explains the mealy-mouthed hesitancy of American and British spokespeople about the current uprising. After several days of apparent silence, the Brotherhood announced it was supporting the protests. More recently, it has issued a statement to the effect that it wants to be part of discussions about a new government. (Other religious authorities called on people not to participate in the demonstrations; and the remnants of ‘salafi’ – radical Islamist – groups opposed them altogether.)
It could be that the Brotherhood – which was founded in 1928, and has been a significant force in every stage of Egyptian history since – was simply taken off-guard by events. (It has been suggested they have deliberately kept a low profile, but that seems highly unlikely). It could be, therefore, that their presence will grow in the coming weeks. Or it could be that their influence is much less than had been imagined; that votes in an election don’t translate into real support. It is true that the big protests on Friday began after prayers, and hundreds of people have prayed together in Tahrir Square. It would seem, though, that most have not; and in any case, religious feeling in itself isn’t the same thing as support for Islamist politics. Far from it.
For sure there are other groups active in the current uprising – even if it is true, which it seems to be, that overall the movement is spontaneous and without specific leadership. As in Tunisia, within the spearhead of the protests were unemployed or underemployed students, some of whom have been mobilised since 2008 in the April 6 Youth Movement, a group which began on Facebook to build support for a coming major strike by textile workers in the Delta town of Mehalla al-Kubra.
And most significant of all, on the afternoon of Sunday January 30, representatives of groups of workers who have been fighting for independent trade unions over recent years came together in Tahrir Square to announce the formation of a new union federation, independent of the state, and to plan for a general strike. (See box). Up to now, only tax collectors, who won a major strike a couple of years ago, had won recognition of their union independently of the state-run federation. The new unions are an enormous step – and the presence in the uprising of working-class militants who recognised the need to take it here and now something of very great significance indeed.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for sure, by the standards of Islamist movements, have evolved in a legalistic and ‘bourgeois’ direction. They are political movement which has renounced violence, and wishes to participate in the political process. On one level, this evolution is no mean feat, given the competition it faced from much more radical Islamist movements in the 1980s and ‘90s (such as Jihad, one of whose leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri, went on to be Osama bin Laden’s right hand man). It is true that in part these militant jihadi groups were crushed by the state – which is one of the things giving Mubarak the sense that he can ride the storm, no doubt. But it is also testament to the Brotherhood’s experience and popular roots.
In recent years the Brotherhood has been prominent, in particular, in protests against the Iraq War, and Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza. It seems some sections of the left, including the far left, have made a turn to joint work with them, and more of an orientation towards their base. In and of itself (if it’s true, for instance, that many young Brotherhood activists aren’t particularly religious, but are attracted to them more because of the political issues around which they are mobilised), that might make sense – it’s hard to know from this distance.
But it would be a mistake to lose sight of who the Brotherhood is. It remains an organisation with a programme for a religious state (even if they are prepared to share power); the political programme it announced a few years ago declared that no Christian or woman could be president of Egypt. Socially, it is a conservative movement. It sees its legitimacy as coming from God, not the people. It would be foolish for leftists to trust it to act as a democratic force.
And it has, fundamentally, no economic programme, certainly not a radical one. This could prove decisive in the weeks ahead.
Underlying the current uprising, along with hatred of the dictatorship, are profound social and economic grievances. The Muslim Brothers have no answers to these questions. The emerging workers’ movement, on the other hand, may be able to develop them.
The workers’ movement has a long history in Egypt. At the time of the so-called ‘Revolution’ of 1952 which brought the current regime to power (Mubarak is the third main leader of the regime, after first Nasser then Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981), there was a powerful strike wave. The new regime quickly crushed the strike and executed its leaders.
As the Nasser regime moved, after 1956, towards ‘Arab Socialism’, full employment and an improved standard of living were targets of policy. Genuine trade unions were not. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation is an arm of the state, its role to raise productivity and whip up support for government policy.
When the regime shifted towards the West with the policy of ‘infitah’, or openness, under Sadat in the 1970s, it didn’t change its relationship with the workers. The state unions stayed in place. There were strikes – and in 1977 a near-insurrectionary movement when Sadat withdrew subsidies on food – but the regime continued its pro-Western orientation. It was the principal reason for its peace treaty with Israel in 1979 for which Sadat was assassinated by Islamists, bringing Mubarak to power.
In the eighties conflict with the regime shifted to the Islamist groups, though there were big workers’ struggles at the end of the decade. (One of the leaders of sit-in strikes at the Iron and Steel Co in Helwan, south of Cairo, in 1989, Kamal ‘Abbas, went on more recently to help found the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), which is the source of information about the new federation.)
But the big resurgence of the workers’ movement began in 2004. For example, ‘During 2007 strikes spread from their centre of gravity in the textile and clothing industry to encompass building material workers, transport workers, oil workers in Suez, ad many others. In the summer the movement broadened to include white collar employees and civil servants.’ (Joel Beinin, The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, Washington DC, Solidarity Centre, 2010).
There was a big movement at Misr Spinning Co from 2006 to 2008 – the impetus for the formation of April 6 Youth Movement, mentioned above – a huge plant employing 25,000 workers. Residents supported the struggle. In 2008, the security forces prevented the workers from striking.
Between 1998 and 2010 “over 2 million workers... 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.” (Beinin, Foreign Policy, May 1 2010).
This big wave of workers’ strikes last year is part of the background to the revolution now.
The strikes included a campaign for a minimum wage of LE 1,200 ($215) – a demand emerging from the Mehalla al-Kubra strikes. The official rate, set in 1984, was only $25 – although in March last year Nagi Rashad, a worker at the South Cairo Grain Mill and a leading figure in the workers' protest movement, won a court decision which theoretically guaranteed the setting of a new, fair minimum wage.
The strikes and sit-ins are usually opposed by the official unions at national and local level. Often strikers call for the sacking of union officials, or for government recognition of the unofficial structures – strike committees – formed in struggle. Before this weekend, only tax collectors had won this right.
There are real signs, then, that an already combative and politically sophisticated workers’ movement will make its mark on unfolding events.
Tony Blair, speaking from Switzerland at the weekend, seemed to remember fondly working closely with Mubarak in the Middle East peace process. Obama has gone a little further in trying to distance himself from the obviously-hated dictator, though still has not openly called for Mubarak to step down. Indeed, the confusion of the US Administration, lurching from confidence in the regime’s ‘stability’ to recognising the ‘legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people’, was little short of embarrassing.
The West has good reason for anxiety about Mubarak’s successor. The United States gives Egypt $1.5 billion in aid a year (al-Jazeera regularly puts the figure at $2 billion) – 1.3 billion of which is military aid. This is a mind-boggling sum. Of course the US is very concerned that all that hardware could land up in the hands of its opponents. Israel, also, is worried about the consequences of almost any new government, which would be likely to take a different attitude to policing Egypt’s border with Gaza; Netanyahu right now is urging his colleagues to keep quiet.
That such a vast amount of aid to a poor country with growing inequality is purely in arms is a damning indictment of the world in which we live. If Obama is worried about anti-American feeling in Egypt he could do worse than simply give the entire sum - $1.5 billion – as food instead of tear-gas canisters, guns, tanks, and jet aircraft. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen.
There is no doubt that Western fear of militant Islam is one factor in backing Mubarak. But it’s not the only one. The US is unlikely to look kindly on a radical development which remains secular, either. As working-class and popular struggles begin to address the economic issues underlying the current protests they will not find allies in Washington or London.
But as in Tunisia, this, the world recession since 2008, is the background to what is happening. It has its own, independent causes, of course; but much of what is driving people onto the streets of Cairo and other cities are the same concerns as drove protestors in Athens, or Paris – or London. Already these are events which have transformed the Middle East. They could also be of ‘world historical’ – global - importance.
We urgently need a socialist movement – a working-class based movement which fights for justice, equality, and an end to exploitation and oppression across the planet. It is out of mass struggles from below like those now in the Arab world, that such movements can emerge and grow. Socialist revolution is not immediately on the agenda in Egypt; but out of this immense explosion of popular anger an independent workers’ movement, and a socialist current with in it, can emerge. We need to do what we can to help.
Useful resources: Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) (http://www.ctuws.com/Default.aspx) - site apparently suspended at the moment by the government.
The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, by Joel Beinin (http://www.solidaritycenter.org/files/pubs_egypt_wr.pdf) - downloadable book.