The Egyptian January 25th 2011 revolution was a hugely progressive event, leading to the overthrow of the brutal dictator Mubarak. Following on from the Tunisian mass movement of the poor and workers that overthrew the dictator Ben Ali, it showed that the masses can take to the road of struggle against oppression and to change society. These events set in train the ‘Arab Spring’ across the region.
However a mood of weariness has developed in Egypt among some activists and supporters of the revolution, disappointed at the lack of real change after two years of upheaval, massive demonstrations, bloody repression, strikes and occupations. Despite the bravery and determination shown by the mass of ordinary Egyptians, life for most workers and poor has not improved and for many, life has got more difficult.
An example of Egypt’s problems can be seen in yet another terrible rail crash that took place on 14 January. This was the fifth rail accident in the past six months, and the second at the same site, Badrashin. This time 19 were killed and about 120 injured, some critically. The train driver was detained for four days and a maintenance technician was also questioned. Protestors in Alexandria were arrested but those who should be charged with criminal neglect of the country’s rail service are former president, Hosni Mubarak, and the current Mursi regime.
Investment and maintenance in rail and other basic infrastructure has been neglected for many years. Under Mubarak, there were frequent disasters – rail crashes, capsizing ferries, collapsing and burning buildings. Meanwhile his cronies and corrupt government officials pocketed state funds that could have made life more tolerable for the majority.
Despite the second anniversary of the January 25th 2011 uprising, it is reported that Mubarak’s two sons, Alaa and Gamal, and their wives, still have at least 34 properties in Cairo, Swiss bank accounts holding approximately $300m and multi-million dollar stakes in Egyptian and international real estate and securities firms. Luxury houses in London, as well as London-registered companies, remain linked to Mubarak’s inner circle. The British government seems in no hurry to freeze these assets of their former friends. Meanwhile Hosni Mubarak has just won an appeal for a retrial.
The country is still dominated by an elite safeguarding the wealth and power of the ruling capitalist class. After the downfall of Mubarak and his immediate circle, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took on this role. After growing demonstrations and strikes, they stepped back. But in the absence of a mass party genuinely representing working people and the poor, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was able, in the elections, to become the largest party and President Mohammed Mursi won power. Mubarak, SCAF and the MB leaders represent different and sometimes conflicting wings of the capitalist class, but they all defend the same system.
The Egyptian economy is sinking deeper into crisis. Foreign currency reserves have dropped from about $36 billion to almost $15 billion in two years - "critical levels" according to the Central Bank, which stated that current reserves were barely sufficient to pay for imports of basic food and fuels. Standard and Poor ranks Egypt as the world’s tenth riskiest debtor country, with a 27% chance of default in the next five years.
The Egyptian pound has fallen sharply against the US dollar, from LE5.90 to about LE6.60 in a little over a month. This raises the price of imports and food prices have already gone up – bread by 20% or more, bananas by 100%, tomatoes by 50%.
Bread is subsidised by the state - each five-piastre loaf had 20 piastres subsidy in 2011. In 2012 the subsidy was 24 piastres. Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat, which increased in price on the world market by 35% during 2012.
Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $4.8 billion loan took place throughout last year, a deal being delayed three times. Linked to the loan is up to $6.4billion additional aid from the USA and EU. The loan is needed to cover the falling foreign currency reserves. The strings attached include cutting government spending on subsidies of basic foods, fuel and cooking gas. A new sales taxes and cuts to the number of state employees would increase inflation (currently about 10%) and unemployment (now officially 12%).
Last November massive protests took place against Mursi’s attempt to take dictatorial powers. Seeing the opposition that would follow the IMF deal, his government postponed it. Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said the government had agreed a "home-grown fiscal and financial programme" as part of the deal. "Because of the domestic situation we had to postpone that, so we are doing a quick evaluation. We are going to be back on track very soon," he said.
On 8 January, the Qatar government threw Mursi’s government an economic lifebelt, announcing it had lent $2 billion and given $500 million outright to help control the currency crisis.
Wave of strikes and protests
While some activists may be feeling exhausted and disappointed after the past two years, more workers and the poor are taking action to improve their lives, seeing that no significant improvement has followed the overthrow of Mubarak. During 2012 there were over 3,400 protests over economic and social issues, mostly strikes and occupations. This is nearly five times greater in number than in any year of the 2000s. More than two thirds of these protests occurred after Mursi’s inauguration as president on 30 June.
On the same day as the train crash, residents of the villages around Kafr al-Sheikh blocked the highway to protest against continuous power cuts. They stopped the protest only after the mayor promised to resolve the problem. In Sharqiya, hundreds of workers at the Rostex Company for Dyeing and Printing went on strike demanding pay and bonuses to match those at other companies. Farmers threatened to block roads in Giza in protest against factories dumping polluted water in the canals, contaminating their land. Teachers in Minya, with temporary contracts, staged an open-ended sit-in. “We were promised permanent contracts in a year, but it did not happen,” said one. Meanwhile in Ismailia, temporary workers at the hospital staged protests, also demanding permanent contracts and better wages.
Trade unions under attack
The Muslim Brotherhood has a long record of opposition to trade union activities. Physical and legal attacks on trade union activists have increased since Mursi’s election. Hundreds of workers have been sacked for trade union activities. Thugs have beaten many others. In September 2012 five union leaders at Alexandria Port Containers Company were sentenced to three years in prison for leading a strike of 600 workers in October 2011. This is the harshest sentence for strikers since Sadat was president. The case is currently under appeal.
Mursi has made more moves to weaken trade union opposition to his government’s austerity plans. Three days after his November 2012 announcement grabbing dictatorial powers, Decree 97 was announced, amending trade union law. It removes all members of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) executive board who are over 60 years old (mostly Mubarak supporters). They are to be replaced by the candidates who received the second-largest votes in the last national union elections, which were in 2006! As those elections were rigged by the old regime, many opposition candidates were prevented from standing, so many executive members were returned unopposed. Decree 97 gives Mursi’s minister the power to nominate new executive members where there was no runner-up. This could result in around 150 MB members being installed in the leadership of the ETUF.
On top of this, the Shura Council (upper house of parliament) has begun drafting a law restricting strikes and demonstrations. This is based on the highly restrictive Law 14 of 1923 – from the British colonial repression following the 1919 uprising against its occupation.
There will be growing opposition from workers to the MB regime, with strikes and occupations set to grow. These will be over economic issues like pay, jobs and conditions and increasingly over political issues like trade union rights and renationalisation.
The ETUF still has some four million members, particularly in public sector industries, including huge factories with militant traditions, such as Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla and Helwan Iron and Steel. Workers are reluctant to leave the ETUF, despite often corrupt leaders, because pensions and other benefits are linked to membership. But as the history of Mahalla and other workers shows, these workers will struggle with great determination to win their aims. The battle to win control of their unions will continue to grow.
The new independent trade unions, of which there are now about 1,000, have about 2.5 million members. A number have organised big strikes, including the property (real estate) tax collectors, Cairo public transport workers, dockers, doctors and teachers, although some of the unions are small. Unfortunately the independent unions are now split between two federations – the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress.
Independent working class party needed
What is still missing is a political voice for workers. An indication of the potential for a genuine mass workers’ party was seen during the first round of the presidential election, when nearly 21% voted for the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, who was regarded by many as the ‘left wing candidate’ and who came third, with 4,820,270 voters. There has been no shortage of new political parties over the past two years, along with more-established Islamist, liberal and Nasserist parties. The National Salvation Front (NSF) brought together a number of parties opposing the political Islamists in response to Mursi’s power grab. Its main leaders are Mohamed El-Baradei, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, and Hamdeen Sabbahi. The Socialist Popular Alliance Party is the smallest party in the NSF, where its presence will impede the development of an independent workers’ voice.
The lack of working class influence in the NSF was shown when Amr Moussa issued a five-point programme calling for a one-year political truce between the opposition and Mursi. He proposed forming an emergency cabinet including representatives of all political currents led by Mursi, a moratorium on strikes and forming a committee of constitutional experts to review the disputed parts of the new constitution.
The Socialist Popular Alliance could have walked out of the NSF at that point and explained the need for an independent working class party, calling a conference of trade union and community activists and socialists to discuss the building of such a party.
A smaller left party, the Workers and Peasants Party (WPP), founded by the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) in 2011, has also fallen into the Popular Front trap of allying with forces that defend capitalism, in the Democratic Revolutionary Coalition. Last September, the WPP leader, long-standing RS member Kamal Khalil, argued that any coalition was possible except “for whoever allied with SCAF, was party to Mubarak’s regime or was against the revolution.”
“We’re going through a dangerous phase that demands the unity of all national forces and not just the left,” said Khalil. He announced the DRC’s intention to unite with both Sabbahi’s and El-Baradei’s parties.
“We will unite on the streets and during elections. From now there is no ’I’ but ’us.’ This is a starting point for a democratic coalition against the classist rulers,” said Khalil, stressing that unity will be based on the goals of the revolution rather on an ideological basis. (Ahram Online 19/9/12). This sort of call was not new; last May, the RS supported Mursi in the second round of the presidential election and then called on the MB to form a multi-party “presidential coalition”.
Taking joint action with liberals in concrete struggles to defend democratic rights is one thing, but uniting with them in broader action, such as elections, undermines working class confidence, giving the message that the working class is not strong enough alone to challenge the rule of the right wing Islamists or of capitalism. It leaves the leadership of opposition to Mursi to the likes of El-Baradei and Moussa, who have little appeal to workers and the poor. El-Baradei is widely seen as remote from the lives of ordinary Egyptians, preferring to spend time meeting world leaders or in his Austrian home. Moussa is tainted in many eyes by his role in a Mubarak government, not to mention the recent call for a one-year ban on strikes.
An opinion poll six months after Mursi came to office found that 63% were satisfied with his performance. This number is falling, but to win the poor away from the right wing Islamist parties the working class must have its own party with a programme meeting the needs of workers and the poor. This should include a struggle for genuine and lasting democratic rights, including full trade union rights, as well as the demand for a LE1200 minimum wage, wages linked to the cost of living, a massive house-building programme, investment in education, healthcare and public transport. Nationalisation of all the banks, privatised companies and major corporations would allow democratic planning of the economy. Cancellation of the debts to foreign banks and governments and an appeal to workers throughout the Middle East, North Africa and beyond would be needed for solidarity with a democratic socialist government in Egypt.
After all the heroic efforts of the working masses over the past two years, it is still the case that a ‘second revolution’ is needed before the problems facing Egypt’s workers and poor will be solved. The next revolution must have socialism as its aim, the working class organising to take power and drawing behind it the poor, both in cities and the countryside. The Islamist parties would split along class lines, as would the armed forces, if such a movement is built.