May 4th – President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday - was eagerly anticipated by many opposition activists. The Egyptian President, in power for 27 years, governs a country where people die in bread queues, food prices are rocketing and where millions live in poverty. But life could not be better for the wealthy elite around Mubarak and his son, Gamal.
April 6th 2008 marked a new development in the opposition to his regime. A strike called for that day by the Mahalla textile workers was turned into a call for a one-day general strike by political activists, and widely circulated on the internet. A Facebook site was set up and 73,000 signed up to it. This was spread further by text messaging. The government inadvertently publicised the strike by broadcasting and publishing warnings against participation, with threats of the law against anyone who did.
Although the Mahalla workers’ strike was called off at the last minute by some of the leaders of their previous strikes, and in the face of a massive security forces operation, reports indicate thousands of workers around the country took strike action. The streets of Cairo were unusually quiet, with many parents keeping their children off school. Demonstrations occurred at several universities. Police attacks against strikers and demonstrators in Mahalla led to many arrests, with a number of dead and injured.
So far, this year, there have been 900 protests in Egypt. April 6th was a sign of these developing into a wider movement against the regime. The last time generalised protests took place was during the 1977 bread riots, which were also caused by rising food prices and which nearly brought down Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Fearful of the movement growing, on 28 April Mubarak announced a 15% pay rise for public sector workers and called on private sector employers to pay the same.
Encouraged by the strength of the workers’ movement glimpsed on 6 April, and also by the obvious fear of the regime that a widespread strike movement allied to student protests and demonstrations might develop, a further call for a general strike on Mubarak’s birthday was made. A new Facebook site got 20,000 signed up. These are likely to be mostly young and middle-class. It is significant that they are looking towards the strength of the working class. This follows the tremendous strike wave over the past two years.
However, the limitations of the movement, at this stage, were also shown. As well as staying away from work, protestors were asked to wear black clothes, not shop for three days and hang Egyptian flags from their windows. It was hoped that such actions would show wide support, without giving security forces the excuse for violence. Also, although a Facebook site can quickly spread an idea among a layer of youth, only 8% of Egyptians have access to the internet.
In the event, few signs of action on 4 May were reported. There do not appear to have been strikes or widespread student protests. Unlike 6 April, the streets of Cairo remained as busy as usual.
Workers desperately struggling to feed their families, faced with brutal state repression, will not risk everything on the basis of a general call from cyberspace. A clear strategy is needed, as well as detailed tactics. Trusted and respected workplace leaders are required, who build confidence that striking and confronting Mubarak’s thugs can lead to victory. Committees of struggle, democratically accountable to workers, need to be built, and measures taken to defend strikers and their leaders. A workers’ party is needed to link struggles in different workplaces and to put forward a socialist programme, mobilising not just thousands but millions of workers to challenge Mubarak and his wealthy backers for power.
The main political opposition at present remains the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), but their position appears to have been weakened by the events of the past month. They refused to support the 6 April strike, which started from the Mahalla workers’ strike threat and was then broadened out by political activists. The MB leaders, mostly professionals and small businessmen, are caught between the pressures from capitalism against workers’ action and pressures from their younger members, influenced by the mood developing in the middle class and universities. In the past few months, there have been protests by doctors, dentists, lawyers and journalists.
The leader of the MB parliamentary bloc, Saad Al-Katatny, announced on 22 April, four conditions to participate in any protest called for by opposition forces. He stated: “We will not participate in any protest unless those four conditions are fulfilled: there is agreement among all the political forces on the protest; there is a unified agenda; a precise time, and the results of the protest are known in advance. This will guarantee the success of any national strike without chaos or problems.”
The MB leadership must have come under pressure, particularly from their younger student members, because they announced, on 29 April, that they were supporting the 4 May strike, while calling “on those participating in the strike not to turn peaceful protest into chaos.” As one Egyptian commentator wrote, they sleep when the people are awake and wake up when the people are asleep!
According to a new book (Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution, by John Bradley) the MB have 500,000 members and the support of about another million adults, out of a population of 78 million. Although this could be an underestimate, it does seem that Mubarak exaggerates the MB’s importance to frighten his backers in the US government.
Nevertheless, the lessons of the Iranian revolution show that even a powerful working class can be crushed if it stands back and allows a religious movement to lead political opposition to the regime. The Egyptian MB, however, could split along class lines, but the Egyptian working class must take the lead in the movement that is unfolding. The young activists, searching for ways to overthrow the hated Mubarak government, must link up with working people.