The Egyptian February – class conflict sharpens
(15 February 2011)
After 18 days of intense confrontation, Egypt continues to boil. On the surface, it seems that things are returning to normal, the centre of Cairo looks almost as if there had been no conflict, the urban landscape looks as before. However, you d not have to look far to see that life has completely changed. Every day there are literally hundreds of items of news that just a month ago would have been sensational. Most importantly, the last few days have seen the outburst of dozens of strikes, involving tens of thousands of workers and civil servants.
I was away from Cairo for just a week, but coming in from the airport I heard the long speech of the new prime minister, Akmed Shafik, on the radio. Basically he was saying, "The revolution has won, we should now all return home and get back to work for the good of the country". The new head of the provisional government was practically begging people to be patient, explaining that it was impossible to satisfy all the demands to increase wages, improve work conditions and so on. This seems to have an effect on a layer of these who are already shaken by events. My taxi driver commented "now people want everything straight away, but we have to wait". Only a minute later, however, he was cursing the long windedness of the speech, "he’s trying to get the first cut of the cake" he complained.
We did not go far into the city centre before we ran into a traffic jam, caused by workers from the university hospital blocking the road in protest. Only when I was able to buy an opposition paper did I grasp the scale of what was happening – there is literally a wave of strikes and protests. Bus drivers, communication workers, the post, metro, education, bank staff, railway workers, oil workers, street sweepers, electricians, agricultural workers, metal workers, staff from the atomic sector. … even the staff of the Egyptian contingent of the UN peacekeepers are protesting. In some places, hundreds of workers, in others tens of thousands are involved in these actions. This is already becoming a major challenge to the bosses and their system; these workers are not satisfied with a mere change of faces, names and rhetoric.
Because of this, the military have already demanded in their statements that these "untimely" strikes and protests are ended. They claim they are harming the economy and "national security". Now that Mubarak has gone and some of the demands of the uprising are formerly at least being implemented (the Parliament dissolved, a ‘new constitution’ is being prepared and elections ‘promised’), there are clear signs of class divisions deepening. Many of those people, who until a few days ago were still supporting Mubarak, are now singing praises to the ‘25th January revolution’, and part of those who took part in the uprising now demand that other protests should end.
For the liberals and Islamists, the revolution is ‘over’ but for the Left it is only just beginning. On Sunday, workers at the biggest metal factory in Heluan went on strike. The army blockaded the entrances to the factory and left activists, including comrades from the CWI, were only able to speak to part of the workers, mainly those on "temporary" contracts, who were also kept out of the plant. These bursts of workers protests are happening everywhere. They are happening spontaneously, they are unco-ordinated, but even so, workers often win their basic demands or gain some form of promise to meet them. But, so far, these struggles are not connecting up. The co-ordination and unity of these protests is one of the most important tasks for the left.
As soon as the wider layer of workers entered struggle, the nature of their demands changed. The main question is how to change the situation facing workers for the better, guarantee their rights now that the old regime has been broken. How can the budget be raised and wages increased? "It’s necessary to nationalise any factory that breaches workers’ rights, return the wealth robbed from the people by the old regime, urgently set up committees of workers to control and manage these plants" says one leaflet drawn up by workers activists and revolutionary youth. Tens of thousands of these leaflets have already been distributed at 16 factories and they are having a positive effect.
The army has very quickly moved from being "neutral" and turned into a gendarme. The regime has come to terms with the changing faces at the top, arresting some and making changes to the constitution. But there is nothing that frightens the regime more than a threat to their profits and private ownership. It is not surprising that, so far, the army’s actions have met with the approval of the Americans, Israeli and Egyptian bourgeoisie.
But already the rule of the generals is leading to big protests amongst workers and radical youth. On Friday 18 February, there was a call for another "million strong" protest calling for an end to the 30 year state of emergency and guarantees of workers’ rights and the right to protest.
Already Takhrir Square has changed; it’s almost as if nothing had happened. Hundreds of volunteers over a few days cleaned the area with the approval of the provisional government and opposition media. The whole city is covered in red, black and white flags; there is a feeling of "national pride" and "national unity". These ideas are actively pushed both by the former and new functionaries of the regimes, but also many of yesterday’s "revolutionaries" from the liberal and Islamist camps. They cannot believe that half of their demands are being implemented and now all they need is to wind-up the revolution, before it becomes dangerous to the continuation of capitalism.
The opposition to the regime is becoming a more clearly class-based opposition. The military have taken power and they are backed by the owners of industry, who are afraid for their wealth and profits. They are trying to prevent the revolution spreading through the factories, the poor quarters of the cities and villages. But workers are beginning to understand that it is necessary to keep up the struggle, and not sit and wait for their situation to improve.
For this, it is necessary to urgently unite all the workers’ organisations, independent trade unions, Left parties and groups with a clear strategy and programme for socialist change.
It seems now that in Egypt, nothing is impossible! Confidence in their own strength is pushing workers into struggle. It was workers, together with the unemployed and youth, who were the main driving force behind the protests that finally overthrew Mubarak, and they should not allow the ruling class and its lackeys in the regime to take that away from them.
To end the "crisis", the new provisional government is attempting to push through the new constitution and to organise elections, as quickly as possible. But their new constitution and new parliament will fundamentally change nothing in the lives of the working class, students and unemployed. Yet it is the sections of society – the vast majority – that can set up their own rank and file structures, unite them and establish a revolutionary constituent assembly in the interests of the majority.
The repressive apparatus of the regime is under pressure. In the last few days, there have been protests by the police. As in Tunisia, the Egyptian police are demanding better work conditions, and have declared that they were not responsible for the blood letting. Now the lower ranks of the army and police are clearly sympathetic to the uprising. The generals will not find it so easy to get them to repress any more protests. In the province of Beni-Suef, the authorities even tried to move against a protest by the police, using organised criminal gangs, just as in the same way as they mobilised thugs against the protests in Tahrir Square two weeks ago. But these new developments only demonstrate how weak the authorities are.
Workers are demonstrating their strength. In these eventful days, when the pace of events has been incredible, they have shown that they can decide their future and influence events throughout the region and the whole world. But without uniting their forces, with a clear socialist programme and strategy, fundamental change will not take place. Time is ticking away, the revolution will not wait!