On 25 January 2011, an 18 day struggle began that toppled one of the Arab world’s longest-serving dictators, Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt.
Eighteen months later, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the founding party of political Islam, was elected president. After barely a year he was deposed by a military coup and the old order was restored under Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. In the space of four years, Egypt has traversed from Mubarak’s military Bonapartism through the so-called “Republic of Tahrir” to the current “Republic of Fear”.
The revival of workers’ struggle in Egypt a decade ago paved the way for the downfall of Mubarak. The 12 million-strong waged working class makes up about three-fifths of Egyptian society. Its composition changed as Egypt restructured from the post-colonial state capitalism established by Nasser to the neoliberal model embraced by Mubarak. The working class has become more diversified, ranging from agricultural labourers and textile workers to car workers in army-run plants, public transport and aviation. Women now make up a quarter of the waged workforce.
The turning point was the December 2006 strike by 24,000 textile workers at Misr Spinning in Al-Mahalla al Kubra. Other strikes followed, including by civil servants, postal workers, teachers, health workers and public transport workers. Strikers were assisted by the CTUWS, a labour NGO headed by Kamal Abbas, who had led the 1989 Helwan steel workers’ strike. The number of strikes doubled in 2007 and continued to increase until the revolution in 2011. There were similar increases in workers’ sit-ins, demonstrations and other forms of protest.
In 2007 an important strike was organised by tax collectors, and led by Kamal Abu Aita, a long-time Nasserist activist. The tax collectors developed a powerful strike committee, which coalesced into RETAU, the first independent union outside of the ETUF, the official labour front founded in 1957. ETUF officials in the 1960s had to be members of Nasser’s sole ruling party, the Arab Socialist Union. They continued as the “union” wing of the state bureaucracy under Mubarak, policing the working class as the Egyptian state reorientated to globalised neoliberalism.
Workers did not detonate the protests in Tahrir Square in January 2011, but the intervention of workers during the revolution was decisive in tipping the balance of forces against Mubarak.
Although there were only four independent unions before the fall of Mubarak, hundreds of new independent unions were formed. On 30 January 2011, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) was formed in Tahrir Square and soon claimed 1.4 million members in affiliated unions. Strikes broke out in earnest on 6-7 February, spreading across Egypt and involving 300,000 workers. Most were ostensibly fighting for economic demands such as contracts and wage rises, but a small number also pledged solidarity with the protests. They showed the regime no longer had the passive consent of workers.
Between February and October 2011, a great strike wave swept the country. Demands emerged to cleanse (“tathir”) workplaces of the old state managers. By September 2011, half a million workers were involved in collective action, including a national teachers strike and sector-wide protests. The CTUWS and other private sector unions broke from the EFITU and formed the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC) in October 2011.
By its founding congress in April 2013, the EDLC claimed 300 affiliated unions. The most powerful working class in the Middle East was beginning to develop the kind of organisation necessary to make its strength felt nationally. This was the great hope of the Arab Spring and one that rightly inspired socialists the world over to learn from and make solidarity.
These events are dealt with in some depth by Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny in their recent book, Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed Books, 2014).
Alexander is an academic at Cambridge University, while Bassiouny is an Egyptian journalist. They are supporters of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), which includes the British SWP and Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists (RS).
Alexander and Bassiouny argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “reformist” movement, akin to Western social democratic parties or Third World nationalist movements. They explicitly take their cue from Chris Harman, who wrote the infamous couplet: “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never”. In Egyptian politics over the past period, this meant an alliance with the Brotherhood (including the infamous Cairo conferences) and support for Morsi in the presidential election in 2012.
This perspective is political suicide for the Egyptian working class. The Muslim Brotherhood’s politics have nothing in common with social democratic reformism or with the secular national liberation movements that fought colonialism.
The authors deny that political Islam is reactionary and dismiss the argument that it has something in common with fascism — attributing such an analysis to Stalinism and equivalent to lining up with the Egyptian state’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood.
They conveniently forget that the founder of the IST Tony Cliff described the Brotherhood as “a clerical fascist organisation” in the Trotskyist magazine Fourth International in September 1946. They ignore the actual experience of labour movements under Islamist rule, whether it is the repression of the militant Iranian working class since the overthrow of the Shah, or the experience of Palestinian trade unionists under Hamas in Gaza.
Does the book contain a balance sheet on the political line advocated by the SWP during 2011-13? No.
At best there are some mild reflections — all of which hint that the orientation towards the Brotherhood was wrong and that a “third camp”stance independent of both the old state and the Brotherhood was the right stance. But nowhere do they make an explicit reassessment or draw political conclusions from it.
Alexander and Bassiouny say that from the perspective of the majority of working-class voters “the story of electoral politics in the first two years of the revolution was one of growing disillusion with the Muslim Brotherhood and the increasingly urgent search for an alternative”. The Muslim Brotherhood “mounted a ferocious campaign against calls for a general strike against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on 11 February 2012”.
In February 2012, Muslim Brotherhood MPs intervened in four strikes (by petroleum workers in Alexandria, workers at a fertilisation factory in Aswan, chemical workers in Fayyum and another in Aswan) to suspend the strikes. The Brotherhood collaborated with old state officials to revive the ETUF as a competitor with the independent unions, and from February 2012 began drafting new trade union legislation aimed at stamping out the new independent labour movement.
In the first round of the presidential election in June 2012, there were no workers’ candidates. The Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahy most closely identified with the revolution and came third. Morsi narrowly won the first round, ahead of Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, meaning a second round would be necessary. The authors admit that in protests just after the elections, the mood on the protests was “violently antagonistic to the Muslim Brotherhood, and many revolutionary activists raised calls for a boycott of the run-off”.
Alexander and Bassiouny muse in retrospect on the “difficult dilemma for voters”, while claiming the Muslim Brotherhood presented a programme aiming to win the votes of workers and poor with appeals for “social justice”. They do not mention, never mind account for, the position they advocated at the time, which was for Egyptian workers to vote for Morsi.
Their tendency has no difficulty in explaining why workers should not vote for either bourgeois party in the US, or indeed in countless other states where no workers’ candidate is running. They provide no explicit reasoning why Egyptian workers should vote for an Islamist candidate from a bourgeois party, with a bourgeois programme and at the time in close coordination with the military.
In light of subsequent events, it is not difficult to see why socialists calling for a vote for Morsi was an epic mistake. They admit that “workers had every reason to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood-led government”. Dozens of trade union activists were victimised under its rule. In August 2012, shortly after his accession to power, the Brotherhood intervened in a long-running public transport workers dispute, arresting its leaders. Police dogs were set on a peaceful sit-in by Portland cement workers in Alexandria in April 2013.
Morsi’s “Renaissance Project” articulated “a neoliberal programme clothed in the rhetoric of reform”.
The new president rushed through a new constitution, strengthening the powers of the executive, the military and Islamist influence throughout the state. The new constitution was hostile towards the right to organise, expanded the state’s intervention into unions and boosted the ETUF labour front. Massive protests commenced, with leading unions such as the EIFTU calling for a vote no in the referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood increasingly used its own thugs to attack anti-government demonstrations.
The end was predictable. The military brutally reasserted its power in a coup, ousting Morsi on 3 July 2013. The military intervened after the opposition Tamarud protest movement collected millions of signatures on a petition against Morsi, with millions of protesters taking to the streets. In a cruel twist, Kamal Abu Aita, the RETAU leader accepted the role of Minister of Labour in the post-Morsi cabinet appointed by the armed forces in July 2013. After repressing the Brotherhood in August 2013, the military has consolidated its rule, with the election of al-Sisi as president in May 2014.
The book rightly criticises those liberals and Nasserists who have allied themselves with the military, repressing not only the Brotherhood but other democrats, socialists and trade unionists. But they do not reflect on the boosterism by the SWP-front campaign MENA for Abu Aita before his betrayal. He is dismissed as a Nasserist and a trade union bureaucrat — criticism that was noticeably lacking when the SWP brought him to Britain in the summer of 2011 and used his denunciations to scupper efforts to build an Egypt Workers Solidarity campaign.
Alexander and Bassiouny argue that the Egyptian working class is socially and economically powerful, but politically weak. They are right that workers in Egypt have lacked a political voice — the problem is that the kind of politics they advocate is partly responsible for this absence of independent working class political representation. Their ideal appears to be a revolutionary organisation that leads “the people”, Muslim and Christian, secular and Islamist, against the state, as in January 2011.
They itemise the kind of revolutionary organisation they believe is necessary: workplace organisers; activists who are “revolutionary leaders of the people”; cadres who think like a state (deploying their resources carefully, learning lessons and utilising the balance of class forces to their advantage); activists who think beyond the existing state; and internationalism.
Missing from this entirely is the ideological front of the class struggle, the battle for working class consciousness, for a world view juxtaposed to the various bourgeois and other reactionary ideologies. In Egyptian conditions that would mean clear demarcation from Islamist currents, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Missing is any real conception of working class consistent democracy, whether it is within the existing labour movement, or the future state or indeed the revolutionary workers’ party.
And absent too is the political front, where the worker-revolutionaries intervene in elections to develop an active, educated cadre. Alexander and Bassiouny conceive of the party as an organisational machine, rather than as a democratic collective of self-conscious permanently active worker-persuaders.
The IST botched the test of the Egyptian revolution; this book shows they have not faced up to their failure.