Recent strikes show workers will resist

The death sentences passed on former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and over a hundred other Muslim Brotherhood members have been reported around the world. The widespread clampdown on all opposition to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime has been less reported.

By May 2014 an estimated 40,000 people had been arrested and prosecuted in the ten months of al-Sisi’s regime. Arrests have continued since then, the majority being supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood but many others are also now serving long jail terms. These include prominent activists associated with the 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak. Many journalists have been imprisoned.

Courts have banned both the April 6th Youth Movement and football ‘ultras’, fans with a record of organising to oppose Mubarak and the regimes that followed his ousting. Activists have been prevented from travelling abroad. Others have been arrested for possession of unlicensed books, such as a collection of poems by Shaima al-Sabbagh, an activist killed by police during a march in January.

The protest Law 107/2013 severely restricts freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Over 400 journalists have been sacked since the start of the year, many without explanation and undoubtedly due to their critical reporting. An Association of Laid-off Journalists has recently been formed and organised a protest.

Police stations are crammed with prisoners to 400% capacity. Prisons are 160-200% full. Torture is widely used again, as it was under Mubarak. In February a 27-year old lawyer, Karim Hamdi, died in a police station two days after being dragged from his home. Pictures of his badly bruised corpse caused such widespread outrage that two police officers had to be put on trial.

Women have experienced heightened levels of sexual harassment in public places, as well as in police stations if they lodge a complaint.

The right to organise in trade unions and the right to strike have both been taken away. The Supreme Administrative Court ruled on April 28th to criminalise strikes and penalise striking public workers. Three civil servants were forced into early retirement and 14 others were barred from promotion for two years after they went on strike.

The court added that, under Sharia law, strikes that lead to those benefiting from public services incurring damages are not permitted. (The new Conservative government in Britain also plans to restrict strikes in essential public services.)

Instead of building a massive movement in defence of workers’ rights, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) declared (on May Day), “Egypt’s workers reject striking and confirm their commitment to social dialogue with the government and business owners as a mechanism to achieve social justice and stability...” Many ETUF leaders are relics from the former Mubarak regime. Conditions have been difficult for the new independent trade unions that sprung up after the 2011 revolution.

Recent strikes

Yet workers’ struggles have continued despite these difficulties, although far fewer than after Mubarak’s downfall. A three-week strike at state-owned Egypt Gas began in early April after the company announced plans to cut wages by 20%. The strike led to the closure of many of the company’s offices and caused the firm “grave” profit loss. Sit-ins were held outside the gates of the company’s headquarters in Giza and on 26 April strikers entered the building and attempted to reach the offices of the Chief Executive. A striking worker was arrested and charged with “belonging to a restricted organisation”. He was released on bail after relatives paid 500 Egyptian pounds (US$66).

Also in April, Tourah Cement workers started a strike that lasted a month and a half. The 1,100 workers only agreed to go back when the company offered to pay the delayed annual bonus.

A worker at the military-owned Al-Arish Cement factory was seriously injured on 2 June. His workmates took him to the factory’s clinic but he received no treatment. Some then protested outside management offices. An armoured personnel carrier stormed into the factory firing shots, killing one worker and injuring another three. Workers went on strike in protest.

“We thought that the army would intervene to stand by our side, but they fired at the workers,” one worker told Daily News Egypt. “There are more than 1,000 workers who are overworked and living in harsh conditions.”

Lawyers across the country went on strike for a day on 6 June after a senior officer at a police station assaulted a lawyer with 25 years experience, resulting in a hospital visit for stitches.

Fear of ISIS used by regime

Although polls still seem to show 80% support for al-Sisi, workers’ experiences will inevitably undermine this. Contributing to his continuing support is a fear of growing right-wing political Islam, as witnessed in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as in Libya, where ISIS beheaded Egyptian workers. In North Sinai there have been increasing attacks on the security forces by the Islamist fighters from Sinai Province, who have switched allegiance from al-Qaeda to ISIS.

Al-Sisi labels the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, and any workers and youth taking protest action as members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He particularly uses the threat of Islamist violence to maintain support among Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who have seen the treatment suffered by Christians in Syria and Iraq at the hands of ISIS.

A consequence of the repression faced by the Muslim Brotherhood is a growing divide between its older leadership and some younger members. The current leadership hope to survive by keeping their heads down and avoiding direct confrontation with the regime, as they did in the days of Mubarak. Some younger activists see the impact of ISIS across the Middle East and North Africa and are increasingly attracted towards armed action.

Imperialist hypocrisy

One visitor to Egypt who will not be helping resolve these problems is the newly appointed head of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation - Tony Blair! He arrived in Cairo on 8 June for a two-day visit. The imperialist invasion of Iraq that he and former US president George W Bush launched in 2003, along with the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya, massively contributed to the region’s problems.

The region’s mass uprisings that started in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 and saw the overthrow of dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak, were magnificent examples of the power of the working class and youth. But instead of mass workers’ movements driving out the regions’ dictators and replacing them with full democratic and social rights - democratic socialism - workers lacked political parties with strong enough roots and a clear programme of action. Consequently, other forces won the leadership of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.

Hypocritically, the Western imperialist powers that ousted Saddam Hussein and bombed Gaddafi’s regime in the name of ‘democracy’ are now almost silent about al-Sisi’s counter-revolution. He was recently given the red-carpet treatment on a visit to Germany. Big business seeks to boost its trade and profits without the encumbrance of Egyptian workers having rights to fight for decent pay and conditions. Al-Sisi is also seen as a reliable ally against the threat from ISIS.

Despite the current counter-revolutionary situation, Egypt’s working class and youth will not have forgotten their experience in overthrowing the hated Mubarak regime. Digesting the lessons of 2011 will help clarify the way forward, in particular the result of leaving the capitalist state machine largely intact and under the control of former members of his regime. The powerful Egyptian working class will regain the militancy seen during the year that followed and can give a lead in the struggle for democratic socialism throughout the region.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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