Three years after January 25th revolution, workers need independent unions and a workers’ party

Three and a half years after the January 25th revolutionary movement swept out the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, a new president is about to be elected.

Mubarak’s ‘elections’ were shams with tame ‘opposition’ and rigged voting. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi may not need to resort to blatant poll fixing this time but the election is far from a genuinely democratic contest.

Al-Sisi is predicted to win a big majority of the votes cast. Until formally announcing his candidacy in March, the Field Marshal and commander of the Armed Forces was Minister of Defence. He and the military derailed a mass movement in 2012 against the increasingly authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood regime. Al-Sisi used brutal repression against both MB supporters and a section of the Left.

The only other candidate is Hamdeen Sabahi. In the first round of voting of the 2012 election, he gained almost as many votes as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and Mubarak’s former minister, Ahmed Shafiq. Sabahi describes himself as the candidate of the revolution and has a long record of struggle against Mubarak’s dictatorial regime.

There is no doubt who the ruling class want to win. Al-Sisi’s campaign had spent 12 million Egyptian pounds (LE) by 14th May (or US $1.7 million). In contrast, Sabahi’s campaign has spent under LE100,000 ($14,300) and, according to the campaign director, has not received any donations from businessmen. Even this underestimates the financial difference between the two campaigns. Al-Sisi’s campaign manager has said “most companies would cut the advertisement prices when they learn that it is for Sisi.”

Al-Sisi has been deliberately vague when it comes to his programme, even claiming this was for reasons of “national security”! He has given enough clues to show he will attack the living standards of workers and the poor. “I urge Egyptians to work harder, and I call on everyone to bear the responsibility with me. The country is everyone’s responsibility.” He asked Egyptians to “tighten their belts, share sacrifices and be patient until things improve”. Improvement, he predicted, will take two years.

Poverty and economic collapse

More than a quarter of Egyptians live under the official poverty line of about US$570 per year. Two years is a long time to wait without enough money to feed a family, or in an overcrowded home without basic amenities, electricity and water shortages and without decent health care or education. What ‘sacrifices’ are big business and senior military officers making?

And what is the likelihood of real improvement in the next two years? Industrial production has fallen nearly 20% since last year. Inflation was 9.8% in April 2014. 13.9% are officially unemployed. 850,000 new jobs for young people are needed each year. Al-Sisi calls for thousands to be provided with carts so they can sell vegetables! It was the 2011 suicide of a desperate young vegetable seller in Tunisia that ignited the revolutionary Arab Spring.

There is no prospect of lasting improvement in the economy after three and a half years of turmoil. Tourism, a major source of employment, has plummeted. Foreign investment remains below its pre-2011 level.

In a recent opinion poll, 87% thought “security and stability” the most important issues, followed by the economy at 56%, health 35%, education 34% and infrastructure 32%. (www.youm7.com/).

International Monetary Fund loans always impose intolerable burdens on the poor. Al-Sisi is looking to an alternative source of finance from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, whose reactionary rulers fear and detest both the Muslim Brotherhood and an aroused working class.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been heavily repressed by the state since June 2013. 16,000 have been arrested and 2,500 killed. 1,100 were recently sentenced to death after a farcical trial. This gives a warning, of the course, of the sort of repressive action a future al-Sisi government could take against workers in struggle.

Repression against workers

In March, the head of the Post Office Authority announced strike leaders would be sued for instigating illegal stoppages. The next day five leaders of the striking Post Office Union in Alexandria were taken from their homes by police at dawn and held on charges of forming a terrorist cell. Post workers immediately organised a demonstration outside the main post office.

Also in March, 23 union leaders at Cleopatra Ceramics in Suez were summoned to the local army headquarters. They were threatened with charges of terrorism and that their wives and children would be brought to the military base unless they resigned from the company.

The factory owner — a former Mubarak ally — had been in conflict with the workers over a 2012 agreement on a pay rise, overtime pay and food allowances. He said he was forced to sign the contract under duress, after employees barricaded him inside the factory overnight. With state backing, he now feels strong enough to try to break the union organisation he had been forced to accept after Mubarak’s downfall.

Workers will not give up their newly-won gains of independent trade union organisation without a struggle. At the Egyptian Propylene and Polypropylene Company, in Port Said, workers went on strike on 28th April after three local union activists were arrested when they went to a police station to give notice of a strike, as required by the anti-union laws. “The army and police are stronger than us,” said a post worker at a protest in Cairo. “But our movement will spread in the face of this government.”

Bus drivers, rubbish collectors, dockers, doctors, pharmacists, steel and textile workers have all held strikes, factory occupations, sit-ins and other stoppages over the past several months.

Al-Sisi’s opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi, has promised to improve living standards especially for slum dwellers, and to increase the monthly minimum wage to LE1200 ($171). However, restricting himself to the confines of capitalism limits Sabahi’s scope for a programme of real change.

Some of the youth movements that arose during and after the struggle against Mubarak, such as the April 6th Movement, have called for a boycott of the election. Muslim Brotherhood supporters are also boycotting it.

Sabahi is a ‘Nasserist’, but the international situation is very different from when the president Nasser carried out significant reforms in the 1950s and 60s. The Soviet Union has disappeared. World capitalism is not enjoying a 25-year boom but struggling to recover from the worst financial crisis for eighty years. There is no possibility of a new Egyptian government being able to provide significant and lasting jobs and rising living standards, if it remains within the confines of capitalism.

Basis for democratic socialism stronger

The Egyptian working class is much bigger than during Nasser’s time and more people now live in cities. The basis for a struggle for democratic socialism is far stronger. Sabahi supported al-Sisi during the military takeover of government when the June 30th demonstrations of up to 25million people forced Morsi out. That was an opportunity for a government of workers and the poor to take power - had there been an independent workers’ party with mass support putting forward that strategy.

The vital tasks facing socialists are to build the independent trade unions and a workers’ party based on them, with a programme linking workers’ needs with the need for democratic socialism and raising workers’ confidence in their power to change society.

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