Rebuilding Workers’ and youth struggles

It is three years since Egypt’s senior military officers pushed into the vacuum created by the downfall of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi following the 17million-strong June 30th 2013 demonstration.

Former Head of the Armed Forces, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi imposed a regime that has attempted to turn the clock back with a crackdown on opposition. Democratic gains won by mass demonstrations and strikes during the 2011 revolutionary convulsions have been attacked. In many ways, state repression is now harsher than towards the end of former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

The rights to free speech and a free media are continually undermined. Egypt is one of the worst countries in the world for journalists’ arrests. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested in April and sentenced to two years in prison. They were protesting against two Red Sea islands being handed to Saudi Arabia with the slogan, “Egypt is not for sale”. The street protests had been bigger than expected.

On 1 May 2016 security forces stormed the journalists’ syndicate (union) headquarters and arrested two journalists they accused of inciting those protests. Amnesty described this as "the most brazen attack on the media the country witnessed in decades." The syndicate president and two other leading members were later arrested, accused of “harbouring fugitives”. Three thousand journalists demonstrated in response.

On 28 June a well-known TV host of Lebanese origin, Liliane Daoud, was arrested at her home, forced to leave her husband and daughter, allowed to take just her passport and purse and immediately deported. Her show, The Complete Picture on ONTV, was one of very few to allow opposition figures to speak on air. A month previously, ONTV had been taken over by steel owner Ahmed Abu-Hashima.

The day before Daoud had been put on a plane to Beirut, passport control prevented a prominent female activist from flying to Beirut. Mozn Hassan founded a group, Nazra for Feminist Studies, and was due to attend a human rights meeting.

Since 2011, over 18,000 people have been tried before military tribunals instead of civilian courts. Torture in prisons is widespread. Supporters and members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, pro-democracy campaigners, and liberals and socialists who played prominent roles in the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, have all been targeted.

The Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research’s May poll showed 79 per cent approving Sisi’s performance, down from 90 per cent at the end of his first year in office. Support was lowest among young people - 61 per cent of under-30s said they would re-elect him. However, the response rate was only 46 per cent. It would be unsurprising if many who oppose Sisi chose to keep their views to themselves at present, given the level of state repression.

The regime has reason to fear its support is waning. Inflation has risen from 10.1 per cent in 2014 to 12.3 percent. Tourism, one of the biggest sources of employment, was 47 per cent down in March 2016 compared to twelve months earlier. The number of Russian tourists fell 99 per cent after a Russian airliner was brought down by a bomb over the Sinai desert in October 2015. Continuing austerity in Europe and the (until now) unexplained crash of an EgyptAir plane into the Mediterranean in May have also depressed tourism.

Poverty and unemployment, inadequate public services and lack of housing show no sign of improvement. State corruption was estimated to cost the economy LE600billion (£51billion) in 2015. Hisham Geneina, the Chief Auditor who produced this figure, was subsequently arrested on charges of “disrupting public disorder and harming national security”!

Workers’ strike and protest

A growing number of strikes in recent months show workers starting to regain their confidence to fight back. There were 493 workers’ protests in the first four months of 2016, 25 per cent more than the same period a year ago, according to Democracy Meter, an Egyptian NGO. The 1117 protests in 2015 compared to 1651 in the first half of 2014 alone.

Workers have struck to win back unpaid wages and bonuses, such as the Egyptian Holding Company for Land Reclamation and bus drivers of East Delta Transportation. Alexandria shipyard workers staged a sit-in over unpaid wages and were confronted with military and security force units and then locked out. Some conscripts were sent in to do workers’ jobs. Twenty six workers face military prosecution, because the Armed Forces own the shipyard. On 1 July their trial was postponed for the fourth time. The sole prosecution witness, a military intelligence officer, wrote that he was unable to attend.

There have been victorious strikes against police and management surveillance, such as Egypt Foods and Koum Hamada textile workers, where 18 workers were suspended, accused of inciting the strike. Eight thousand workers were on strike for six days, returning after the suspensions were lifted, the Chief Executive Officer and some other directors were dismissed and the strike days were counted as holiday.

Nile Cotton Ginning Company workers held a protest in front of Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo, demanding renationalisation of the company that had been privatised twenty years ago. Workers’ economic demands are becoming political demands on the government and senior armed forces officers.

The state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) is attempting to outlaw the independent trade unions that developed in the final years of Mubarak’s regime and which rapidly grew after his downfall. The ETUF accuses them of inciting strikes, jeopardising national security and being financed by US and European money. The ETUF leadership itself is part of the former Mubarak state machine and has been re-appointed without election by Sisi.

Giulio Regeni, the murdered Italian student, who had been researching on independent trade unions, had written an article published after his death. “The unions’ defiance of the state of emergency and the regime’s appeals for stability and social order - justified by the ’war on terrorism’ - signifies, even if indirectly, a bold questioning of the underlying rhetoric the regime uses to justify its own existence.”

School students resist security forces

There have also been significant school student protests in recent weeks, attacked by security forces with pellet shots and armoured vehicles. Thanaweya amma exam papers [General Certificate of Secondary Education required for university admission] have been repeatedly leaked, causing the exams to be postponed or even cancelled.

“We just want to finish [these exams],” one 18-year old said. “The leaks are their problem, not ours. Why should we pay for their failures?” Two other 18-year olds said, “We don’t care [what the police do], there can be no hesitation – this is our future. If they get rid of us today, we’ll come back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after… We will keep escalating until something happens.” (Mada Masr 27.6.16)

This generation entered their teens as Mubarak was being brought down by revolutionary struggle with mass demonstrations, strikes and occupations. Together with workers and others who took part in that struggle, a movement needs to be built for independent working class political organisation, democratic rights and a socialist programme to transform the lives of all those suffering under sick Egyptian capitalism.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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