Egyptian working class organising and on the move – “a revolution within the revolution”

The euphoria amongst the Egyptian masses that followed the fall of Mubarak in February has disappeared. The hard reality of the situation – in which political, social, and economic conditions have barely changed – has set in. The revolution has not ended, however, but has, after a brief lull, transitioned from the streets to the workplaces. The working class in Egypt – the motor force of the revolution – is organising and is on the move.

As we have reported previously, the conditions facing the masses in Egypt have hardly improved since the departure of Mubarak over seven months ago. Since then, the revolution has continued, but has been increasingly differentiated along class lines. At the forefront of the struggles are the working class and the youth, those layers of society that have the most to gain from the victory of the revolution – and also the most to lose from its defeat. After a brief lull during the period of Ramadan, the masses are reasserting themselves once again, but now on a higher level, as the epicentre of the revolution moves from protests in Tahrir Square to strikes in key industries. In the process, the Egyptian labour movement is gaining confidence and is growing both in size and strength.

Public sector strikes

The events surrounding the “Correct the Path” demonstration on the 9th September (http://www.marxist.com/egypts-correct-the-path-friday.htm) marked the beginning of an intense period of workers’ struggles. The most prominent of these have been amongst hundreds of thousands of public sector workers in three sectors: teachers, transport workers, and health staff. The demands of the workers in these sectors are similar: for a minimum wage of LE1200 ($200), improved working conditions, and increased spending on services and infrastructure.

Egypt’s public sector teachers, who have been on strike since the beginning of the new academic term on the 17th September, are currently paid as little as LE700 (id="mce_marker"17) per month, with many having to take second jobs, such as private tutoring, to get by. The strike, which is the first amongst teachers since 1951 (when Egypt was still under British rule), escalated over the course of its first week, helped in part by the government’s attempts to pour cold water over it. Attempts by officials from the Ministry of Education to sow demoralisation by claiming that there was little support for the strike action amongst teachers ended up provoking the opposite response, with independent reports indicating participation of between 75-85% in the strike of Egypt’s 1.3-1.5 million public sector teachers.

Calls for a minimum wage of LE1200 are only one of many demands being made by teachers. Other demands include the release of a 200% productivity bonus that was promised to all public sector workers earlier this year, healthcare provision, and full benefits for those currently on temporary contracts.

The Independent Teachers’ Union, which is playing a leading role in organising and co-ordinating the strike action, has also made it clear that the strikes are not solely for the economic gains of the teachers, but also for the improvement of education for students. In an interview with Ahram Online, Abdelhakim Abdelbar, a high school maths teacher, stated that,

“The government does not provide enough desks and chairs for the students and they don’t provide enough pay for the teachers... How can I teach the students when they can’t find a place to sit?”

Students are sympathetic to the cause of their teachers. In the same article, Walaa Ahmed, a high school student said,

“I do understand that my teachers are in a tough position and that they are paid very low wages for the amount of time and energy they spend on us... I still come to school hoping they will start teaching soon. I don’t blame them for anything though; that’s what we had a revolution for.”

Workers in the Public Transport Authority (PTA) have been taking strike action in the same week. The PTA strike began on Sunday 18th September in one bus garage in Cairo. By mid-week the strike had spread to 20 of the 24 garages in the Egyptian capital, and by the end of the week there was not a single bus running in Cairo.

The demands of the transport workers – which include drivers, conductors, and mechanics – are for a LE1200 per month minimum wage, a lower retirement age, and investment in new buses and improved services. The 45,000 PTA workers in Egypt are currently on salaries as low as LE250-400; 10-hour shifts are not uncommon; and safety on buses is a big concern for drivers.

Over 2000 transport workers took their protests to the government cabinet headquarters on Thursday 22nd September where they were joined by tok-tok (small moped taxis) drivers and doctors, thousands of whom have been on strike for over two weeks demanding a wage, the LE1200 minimum wage. Doctors, nurses, and other medical staff in Egypt have consistently been on strike since May 2011, not only demanding improved wages, but also increased spending on healthcare services. Currently only 3-4% of GDP of public spending goes towards healthcare, but medical staff are calling for this to be increased to 15%.

Private sector

Striking workersRecent strike action has not been confined to these three sets of workers. Elsewhere in the public sector, postal workers, civil aviation staff, and university professors have also been on strike. Meanwhile, strikes are increasingly taking place within the private sector, with the textile workers in Mahalla, who have taken action consistently over the last six years or more, once again at the forefront.

Amongst these strikes of textile workers were 1000 from the Wool Production Company and 3000 from the Nasr Company for Fabric Dyeing, both of whom were demanding payment of overdue bonuses and increased incentive payments. Also of note were 700 textile workers at the Indorama Shebin al-Kom Textile Company, which was privatized in 2007, who blocked highways and occupied the governorate headquarters in order to demand the re-nationalisation of the company, along with improved working conditions and wages.

Elsewhere, over 20,000 workers at the Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving, the largest textile mill in the Middle East, called off an open-ended strike that had been planned after their demands for increased bonuses and food allowances were met.

Mohamed al-Attar, a veteran labourr activist at the Misr Company, summed up the mood amongst workers in an interview with the Egyptian news website Al Masyr Al Youm:

"All of Egypt's workers from Aswan to Alexandria are exploited and under-paid. The interim government and SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] should set a just and adequate minimum wage, for workers in all sectors of the economy, which is in keeping with rising living expenses.”

"Workers are tired of empty promises. Workers gave the authorities seven months to address these common grievances and have seen little to nothing in terms of actual reforms. We are reaching boiling point.”

Strikes have also been seen elsewhere in manufacturing, including 1,200 workers in Ideal Zanussi (a kitchen appliance maker) factories, who have been protesting over money they are owed as part of the LE2.7 billion sale of the company to Swedish firm Electrolux, and thousands of workers in sugar refineries in Luxor, who have been striking in order to purge the company’s management of officials from the old Mubarak regime. On Friday 23rd September, the Ain Sokhna port at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal was shut due to strike action, costing the Dubai company that owns the high-tech port id="mce_marker" million per day. After four days, the port workers won all their demands.

Co-ordination

One of the most impressive characteristics of the recent strike action is the co-ordination between different sectors. One notable example is that of the strikes at the American University in Cairo (AUC), where students, cleaning staff, university drivers, and 170 security staff took joint strike action for a week before winning their demand. Workers at the AUC were striking primarily over wages, demanding LE2000 per month, along with improved working conditions and shorter hours, whilst students were calling for a cap on tuition fees, which are rising well above inflation.

Initially the AUC President refused to negotiate with either the student or worker representatives, but this provocative stance only led to an increase in the size and militancy of the student-worker strike. After a week, however, the AUC issued the following statement:

"The American University in Cairo reached an agreement today with the Independent Syndicate representing AUC custodians, landscape workers, and security guards, and with the Student Union representing students. The agreement provides better salaries and employment conditions for workers, more transparency on processes and procedures affecting the AUC community, and more opportunities to engage students in the University’s annual budget process."

In addition, the AUC management promised to "provide the AUC community, including students, with a detailed version of the University budget."

Another example of co-ordination was seen at the protest outside the cabinet headquarters on Thursday 22nd September, where striking doctors and PTA staff were joined by workers from Unionaire, a manufacturer of air-conditioning units, who were taking action due to the dismissal and transference of jobs. In addition, workers were demanding profit shares that they are owed due to the Unionaire’s status as an Egyptian joint stock company.

Of course these struggles are rarely (if ever) mentioned in the bourgeois media. For these liberal commentators, the Egyptian revolution – and the “Arab Spring” in general – were only ever movements for bourgeois democracy. The continued struggles by workers and youth in Egypt, along with the mass movement in “democratic” Israel are therefore of great confusion to these so-called “experts”, who prefer instead to ignore reality when it does not conform to their nice theories about society.

Independent trade unions

One of the most important developments since the beginning of the revolution, which is now beginning to bear fruit, is the growth of the independent trade unions. These newly formed unions have played a pivotal role in the organisation and co-ordination of the different struggles and strikes, and have almost entirely been formed since the 25th January movement started.

The creation of the independent unions through the course of the struggle is the perfect answer to those cynics on the left who claim that workers cannot – and must not! – enter into struggle before they first reach a certain (un-measureable and unmentioned) level of organisation. The reality is that the working class enters into struggle due to the necessity imposed by objective conditions, not due to the baton waving of these “revolutionary conductors” who sit on the fringe of the movement and imagine that they can set the tempo of the masses, bringing workers into struggle at their whim like sections of an orchestra. As Rosa Luxemburg points out in her pamphlet on “The Mass Strike”:

“The attitude of many trade-union leaders to this question is generally summed up in the assertion: ‘We are not yet strong enough to risk such a hazardous trial of strength as a mass strike.’ Now this position is so far untenable that it is an insoluble problem to determine the time, in a peaceful fashion by counting heads, when the proletariat are ‘strong enough’ for any struggle...

“...The rigid, mechanical-bureaucratic conception cannot conceive of the struggle save as the product of organisation at a certain stage of its strength. On the contrary, the living, dialectical explanation makes the organisation arise as a product of the struggle.”

These new unions are called “independent” to contrast them against the old state trade unions, the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), which were originally set up by Nasser in 1957. For decades, these unions acted not as tools of struggle for the working class, but as instruments to control the working class and channel their struggles down safe manageable roads, much like the modern day trade unions set up by the Communist Party in China. As Haitham Mohjamedein, a labour lawyer and advisor to several independent trade unions, explains in an article entitled “The road to trade union independence” on Ahram Online:

“Since its creation in 1957, the government controlled GFTU has opposed demands by workers and their movements, condemning strikes and sit-ins and informed on labour leaders. The main role of the trade union was to ensure the subservience of labour to government, and later on, private business as well...

“...GFTU approved the privatisation of state-owned enterprises which laid off hundreds of thousands of workers because of blatantly corrupt deals and wasted public funds. It also actively participated in the suppression of labour protests against the privatisation process.”

Nevertheless, for decades these unions were the only mass organisations available to workers, and therefore revolutionaries were forced to work inside them, as the Bolsheviks did with the police trade unions in Tsarist Russia.

Only four independent trade unions existed before the fall of Mubarak in February. The first of these, formed by the Mahalla textile workers, was created in 2006 during a series of strikes by workers at the textile factories. Other independent unions included the tax collectors’ union and the journalists’ syndicate.

These independent unions played an important role in the 25th January movement, and in the wake of Mubarak’s departure on 11th February 2011, over half a million Egyptians, including workers, farmers, and pensioners began forming their own syndicates and trade unions. Many of these new unions were in key sectors, such as transport and healthcare, and are now linked together in an “Independent Trade Union Federation”, with an estimated 150 separate unions and syndicates.

In the months following the 11th February the balance of power shifted from the old GFTU, which had played the role of suppressing the protests and strikes in the first weeks of the revolution, to the new independent trade unions. Whilst building their new unions, workers agitated and struggled for the break-up of the old GFTU, until, on 4th August 2011, the Minister of Labour, Ahmed Al-Boraie, declared the GFTU to be dissolved.

Since then, the Independent Trade Union Federation has gone from strength to strength, and has played an extremely important role in co-ordinating workers’ struggles and strike actions, both across regions and across sectors. In addition, the Independent Federation has played an active part in the movement, mobilising its members for protests and putting forward a militant programme of economic and political demands.

Political demands

Thousands of PTA workers and healthcare staff, including 3000 medical technicians who are on strike, returned to protest outside the cabinet on Sunday 25th September, following on from a protest by teachers at the cabinet on Saturday 24th September that continued the revolution’s calls for “social justice” and “human dignity”. The teachers’ protest was estimated to be over 10,000, with workers attending from all over Egypt and parents joining in support. Cabinet ministers responded by calling an emergency meeting to discuss the demands of the three sets of striking workers.

The workers participating in these protests raised political demands, linked to their economic demands. For example, Al Masry Al Youm reports that, “Abdullah Mahmoud Ibrahim [the treasurer of the Independent PTA Union] said that since the revolution it became evident the state had a lot of money, but that officials in the regime were stealing it.”

Corruption within the higher levels of the public sector is still rife. State bureaucrats treat the public sector as their very own honey pot that they can dip into at any time – always at the expense of the workers. Transport workers within the PTA cited corruption as one of the causes for their strike. In particular, they mentioned how the social insurance that is deducted from their pay checks ultimately ends up in the hands of state officials, and is often used to line pockets of strike-breaking policemen.

Teachers and doctors at these protests were calling for the heads of the ministers of education and healthcare, respectively, to resign, whilst employees from the transport workers were demanding the removal of any officials in the PTA who were members of the NDP (the now defunct party of Mubarak). These demands have been raised throughout the public sector, where workers see the same old bureaucrats in positions of power, reflecting the presence of the old regime at the top of the state in the shape of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The current strikes and protests are also politicised by the fact that they openly break the law and defy the Military Council’s rule. Strikes were nominally made illegal by the SCAF back in April following the initial phase of the revolution for “the national interest”, whilst protests were formally banned with the re-introduction of emergency laws in the wake of the protests at the Israeli embassy on the 9th September. In addition, the SCAF has stated that it will not negotiate with any groups of public sector workers whilst strikes are taking place; however, the workers are putting this statement to the test through their determination.

These examples demonstrate what the Marxists have explained on many occasions: that the struggle for economic gains is at the same time a political struggle; in the epoch of capitalist decay, the fight for economic demands and political rights are two intertwined and inseparable threads. The fight for even the most basic economic reform will lead the workers into a head on collision with the existing state apparatus. In turn, democratic rights, such as the right to organise and strike, will not – and cannot – be simply granted from above by the bourgeois state, but must be wrestled from the grasp of the ruling class through the process of struggle. The right for workers to organise and strike is not won through parliament, but is, paradoxically, won through the working class organising and striking.

No way out for the Military Council

Sep 12 AUC_strike - Photo: Maggie OsamaSep 12 AUC_strike - Photo: Maggie Osama This brazen and open defiance of the SCAF and its strike ban marks an important turning point in the revolution. It demonstrates that the working class, who played the leading role in toppling Mubarak, have lost their fear once again. The working class, once it is organised and fearless, is an unstoppable force.

The revolution has opened the floodgates of expectation for the Egyptian workers and youth. The more serious bourgeois commentators understand the severity of the situation now facing the regime in Egypt as a result. The Washington Post describes the recent wave of strikes as “a revolution within the revolution”, going on to say that “the change has left Egypt’s ruling military council appearing caught like a deer in the headlights.”

This is an accurate portrayal of the situation that the military rulers find themselves in. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, seemingly with no way out. Some members of the regime will argue that the reforms cannot be afforded and that to grant any concessions would open the way for further demands. They will demand that the protests are suppressed. Others within the SCAF will argue that open repression will simply aggravate and inflame the situation even further, and that reforms from above are needed in order to avert revolution from below. Both sides are correct.

The Washington Post elaborates on this contradictory dilemma that confronts the military rulers:

“The military council is being forced to calculate whether a crackdown on the strikes would simply ignite more unrest, while lending truth to charges that little has changed since Mubarak fell in February...

“... ‘The genie is now out the bottle,’ said Magda Kandil, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies. ‘Now that fear is gone, the workers are demanding more. It’s become a culture of opportunism where they believe that strikes will result in an economic benefit, and the strikes are becoming more widespread, more difficult to contain. This is not what the economy needs right now.’...

“... ‘On the one hand, there is economic panic and their gut instinct is to use repressive means,’ said Heba Morayef, Egypt representative for Human Rights Watch. ‘But there is also a political recognition that they can’t afford to completely crack down on these strikes.’”

Precarious economy

Indeed, the Egyptian economy is in a precarious state. The budget deficit is as high as that of Greece. An article on Al Masra Al Youm (http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/498033) highlights the weakness of the economy:

“Egypt's economy, which sailed relatively unscathed through the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, was heading back towards annual growth of 6% before the uprising erupted, analysts say.

“Now it has been knocked back hard. The economy grew by 1.8% in the year to30 June. The government has said it may expand by 3-3.5% in the 2011/12 fiscal year, nowhere near the 6% which economists say is needed to create enough jobs to lower unemployment.”

The problem facing the economy is that both investors and tourists have been frightened away by the revolutionary events. In particular, investors are worried and uncertain about what the future holds in store. They want reassurance from the military rulers that businesses will not be made to pay for the demands of the masses, as the Al Masra Al Youm article points out:

“Egyptian firms, many facing strikes and other pressures to raise pay, in particular want assurances that economic policy will not become more populist. They fear the government could hike taxes on firms and introduce legislation or administrative steps to push up wages as it tries to placate protesters angry at the deep divide between rich and poor.

“ ‘The question is how do you pay for social justice without harming business to the extent that in a free market economy, investment stops and job creation stops?’ said Taher Gargour, deputy CEO of ceramics firm Lecico , who negotiated worker pay rises this year that ended a series of strikes.

“The longer uncertainty over this issue persists, the longer companies will hold off on investment, sapping the economic growth that is needed to improve mass living standards.”

Indeed, the Military Council have tried to reassure investors that Egypt is “business friendly”. The anti-strike laws can be seen as one such assurance. However, such laws are only ink on paper, backed up by armed bodies of men. In the final analysis, it is the struggle between the classes that will determine whether such laws can be applied in practice.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has repeatedly told striking workers that there is no money for their demands of improved wages and increased spending on public services. Workers, however, are acutely aware that there is plenty of wealth in the Egyptian economy; unfortunately the vast majority of it ends up in the pockets of the regime and multinational company executives, not in the hands of the masses. As one striking maths teacher put it: “They're saying the country and the ministry have no money, but we all know how much money they have and what they do with it.”

Demands by striking workers fully recognise where the wealth of the nation is going, with calls to root out the corrupt members of the old regime who are still sitting in positions of power within the state and the public sector. In addition, the demands for a national maximum wage and re-nationalisation of privatised industries have been frequently made by those on strike, indicating that control of the economy and redistribution of wealth are key issues for workers.

The real problem with the Egyptian economy, however, is not simply a lack of investment or a disparity of incomes; these are merely symptoms of the fundamental contradiction within the Egyptian economy and the world economy as a whole: the private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. The nationalisation of these commanding heights – the banks, key industries, and infrastructure – under democratic workers’ control is the precondition for investing in education, healthcare, and transport, and for eliminating the inequality within Egyptian society.

Swim or sink

The revolution is like a swimming shark: it must keep on moving forward or it will sink. The workers are currently on the offensive; they have the regime on the back foot. The recent wave of strikes has filled the workers with confidence and has given the labour movement a sense of its own power. This burgeoning labour movement must not lose its momentum; to do so will lead to demoralisation and confusion amongst the masses, and would give the military rulers the opportunity to re-organise and move in to crush the workers.

There are already indications of this process taking place. The Independent Teachers’ Union called off the teachers’ strike on Sunday 25th September for a week after the cabinet agreed to look into their demands. This deflation of the strike has caused splits amongst the teachers, with some staying out on strike in defiance of the union leadership. Such decisions to call off strike action – that is otherwise escalating – could prove costly.

Many in the Egyptian labour movement are now talking openly about the possibility of a general strike, organised and co-ordinated by the nascent independent trade union federation. In an interview with Ahram Online, a labour movement journalist gave the reasoning behind the prediction of a general strike in the coming period:

“Mostafa Bassouni spoke on the scope of the strikes, stating that since the end of Ramadan, more than half a million workers have gone on strike. He also believed that this was the beginning of a general strike to come.

“‘The first sign of the coming general strike is the size of the current wave. The second sign is that workers have been planning these strikes ahead of time – at times weeks in advance. We are no longer just seeing knee jerk strikes,’ the labour journalist stated.”

A general strike would be an enormous step forward for the revolution and, in a situation fraught with such heightened contradictions as are seen in Egypt, where not an inch of reform can be granted to the masses without them taking a mile more, a general strike would pose the question of power point blank.

The formation of the independent trade unions and their pivotal role in the recent wave of strikes has been an incredibly positive development in the revolution. The task now is for these strikes and independent unions to broaden out; to increase in size and scale; to bring in new layers of workers; to expand to different areas and sectors; and to co-ordinate and concentrate this force to break capitalism at its weakest link and overthrow the regime once-and-for-all. A mass strike of such a scale would, in turn, provide an incredible impetus to the revolution in Tunisia, to the revolutionary youth in Libya, and to the mass movement for “social justice” in Israel.

The workers and youth in the Middle East and the Maghreb do not need to place their futures in the hands of nationalists, religious fundamentalists, or agents of imperialism. The revolutionary masses in Egypt and elsewhere should place their trust in nobody but themselves, for they alone have the power to bring about the solution to the problems they face: a socialist Egypt as part of a united socialist states of the Middle East and North Africa.