Wave of strikes and occupations as workers fight for real improvements

Three weeks after he was sworn in as President of Egypt, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, announced his new Cabinet. Staying on as Minister of Defence was Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi – head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that had been ruling Egypt since Mubarak’s ousting 18 months ago. Tantawi had been appointed by Mubarak in 1992 and symbolised the attempt of the old regime to cling to power after Mubarak.

But only 12 days later President Mursi replaced Tantawi, his deputy and seven other generals of SCAF. Mursi also cancelled SCAF’s declaration in June that took legislative and executive powers from an elected president.

17 July 2012: Tantawi, Mursi, Anan

Mursi was not striking a blow for democracy against remnants of the old Mubarak regime. Instead, he appears to have reached a deal with these senior officers. Tantawi was awarded Egypt’s highest decoration, praised by Mursi and appointed a presidential adviser. It seems that senior officers have been assured they will not be prosecuted for bloody attacks on protestors during 2011 or for corruption, and that the armed forces’ business empire will remain intact.

Tantawi’s replacement is head of military intelligence Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi, who is also a member of SCAF. He attempted to justify the notorious ‘virginity tests’ used to assault and intimidate female protestors arrested by security forces during the uprising last year. (His stance may have endeared him to Muslim Brotherhood leaders opposed to women’s rights.) He trained for a year in the USA and, according to Sameh El-Essawi from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party: “has good relations with [the US], as well as contacts with Israel.” It seems likely that the US government were informed and gave tacit approval to these changes.

It is reported that younger officers were unhappy with how the defence ministry was being run and looking forward to the end of the military’s post-Mubarak political role. This disquiet was brought to a head following the attack and killing of 16 Egyptian border guards near the Gaza border on 5 August. Although still unidentified, the gunmen were widely reported to be jihadists, possibly linked to Al-Qaieda.

At the guards’ military funeral on 7 August, shoes were thrown at Prime Minister Qandil by mourners blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for allowing an Islamists’ attack. Mursi was warned that his safety could not be guaranteed if he attended, as he had planned to. However, it seems the generals have been more widely blamed for their failure to prevent the attack because they were concentrating too much on their political role. (Ahram 12.8.12)

Mursi has moved swiftly and taken advantage of this incident to strengthen the powers of the Presidency. He is now in charge of the process of drafting a new constitution and holds legislative power until a new parliament is elected. This should be within 60 days of the new constitution being approved in a referendum.

Power cuts and water shortage lead to protests

However, for the majority of Egyptians there are more immediately pressing issues than the struggle for power between different wings of the ruling elite. In the unbearable summer heat and during Ramadan, when electricity demand peaks, there has been a spate of power cuts and water supply failures. In mid-August a three-hour power cut brought the Cairo metro to a standstill. The metro is used by over 1 million people during rush hour. Much of the country has been hit by rolling 90-minute cuts, with some areas having no power for up to six hours and sometimes overnight.

Whole neighbourhoods have had their water supply turned off, forcing women to carry water for up to 15 minutes to their homes. It is the poorest areas that are affected, while wealthy areas still have plenty of water for their gardens and golf courses.

Electricity and water shortages have led to a wave of protests across the country. On 1 August, 17 strikes and sit-ins took place as communities showed their anger, and these have continued in villages, towns and cities. Main roads and railway lines have been blocked. In the Saft-el-Laban area of Giza the popular neighbourhood committee - formed at the time of Mubarak’s overthrow - occupied the local government building, saying they would stay until their water problem was solved.

In Beni Suef and Alexandria people have refused to pay their electricity bills in protest. The Socialist Popular Alliance Party has launched a “We will not pay campaign”, also linked to the massive heaps of rubbish uncollected in the streets. A campaign such as this could grow quickly, but should be linked to a clear programme calling for democratic workers’ control of electricity and water distribution, repair of leaking water pipes and massive investment in Egypt’s creaking infrastructure, including recycling water and sustainable sources of power such as sun and wind.

What has been Mursi’s response? He said, “We are aware of all the problems occurring in the country, and everything that the people are going through.” However, he warned that the security forces would not tolerate protestors who blocked roads or committed other actions that “adversely impacted national productivity”. (Ahram Online 13.8.12)

Strikes growing

Mursi is under pressure from his big business backers to crack down on strikes and this will lead to increasing confrontation with workers and the poor. In recent weeks there has been a wave of strikes and occupations as workers have fought to improve pay and conditions, or to replace temporary contracts with permanent ones. After a fall in strikes during April and May, Mursi’s election in June was a trigger for workers to move into action without waiting for him to deliver much-needed improvements.

Four days after he was installed as president, 1500 Ceramica Cleopatra workers demonstrated outside the presidential palace. 24,000 textile workers at Mahalla struck only two weeks after the election. Hundreds of Torah Cement workers occupied the plant in July demanding that their temporary contracts be made permanent. Many have been on temporary contracts as long as 17 years. Workers took solidarity action in support of all three of these disputes, either at other plants in the same company or, as at Torah Cement, permanent workers supporting those on temporary contracts. 1500 Sukari Gold Mine workers went on strike for nine days demanding reinstatement of 34 sacked colleagues, including leaders of the independent trade union. There are now 800-900 independent trade unions formed since the January 25th 2011 uprising.

Illusions in any of the ruling elites are falling rapidly. Combined with an increasing class consciousness around issues to do with high living costs and power cuts etc., this could well translate into mass solidarity strikes if one big workforce takes the lead.

Mursi was careful to appoint a government in which the Muslim Brotherhood did not appear to have a majority. Twenty five of the thirty five ministers are so-called ‘technocrats’ or from the old regime. He hopes that they will share the blame for his government’s inevitable failure to meet the hopes of its supporters, let alone the other three quarters of Egyptians that did not vote for him. But by removing Tantawi and other ageing generals and strengthening his position, Mursi has removed another possible scapegoat. Already there has been a fall in support for the Brotherhood since the election and this fall will quickly increase as it becomes clearer to workers and the poor that their needs are not being addressed.

Bread subsidies threatened

The last government awarded public sector workers a pay rise and Mursi has raised armed forces’ pay. But there is no money in the state budget to cover these rises. The bread subsidy accounts for 6 per cent of all government spending and is projected at LE16 billion in the 2012/13 state budget, compared to LE10.8 billion of 2011/2012. With sharply rising global prices, Egypt will be hit hard as it imports more wheat than any other country.

Foreign currency reserves are around $15.5 billion — enough to cover only three months of imports. The last government was discussing with the IMF a $3.2 billion loan. The new finance minister now says the value of the loan could rise to $4.8 billion. The IMF will demand massive cuts and the government has already made plans to slash fuel subsidies by 27 per cent.

The most important task facing revolutionary workers and youth in Egypt is to further build the confidence of the working class in its own strength. Organising, strengthening and building independent trade unions, and also going on to create a mass workers’ party, can unite workers together to fight for their interests. A programme that meets the needs of the masses on the pressing issues of jobs, low pay, lack of good quality affordable housing, free healthcare and education could rapidly gain support. Hamdeen Sabbahi’s Nasserist campaign in the presidential election, where he came third, showed the potential for this.

New revolution for workers needed

This programme should be linked to the need for a democratic socialist planned economy with nationalisation and workers’ control of all the big corporations and banks. The wealth produced by the majority could then be used for the benefit of all, instead of it being stolen by the capitalists and their military and political defenders.

A genuinely democratic socialist society would have nothing in common with the bureaucratic dictatorial regime that eventually produced Mubarak. The popular neighbourhood committees that started to develop after January 25th, together with democratic workplace committees, could redevelop and expand on the basis of new revolutionary upsurges and be the basis for genuine democracy, linking these together at local, regional and national level. A democratically elected, genuinely revolutionary constituent assembly could draw up a constitution that would defend the rights of all, including religious and national minorities.

In the course of fighting for such a socialist programme, the balance of forces in society would change. All defenders of the existing order would increasingly be forced together in opposition to the growing movement of the masses, led by the working class. Such a movement would overcome sectarian divisions. A majority government of workers and poor would act in the interests of the majority in society, and be a powerful example for workers and the poor throughout the Middle East, North Africa and across the world.

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