Mass party needed to unite workers, youth and poor around socialist policies
In a small stationery shop in Cairo last week, four young men expressed disappointment at the results of the revolution. “What have we got out of it? I was there in Tahrir, but now I’ve lost my job,” said one, explaining that his employer lost business when General Motors cut back investment in Egypt after the revolution.
Round the corner in a café, another four young men also discussed the situation after the revolution. “You see a lot more people reading newspapers now,” said one. “People want to know what is happening and are discussing politics all the time.”
“The revolution is not over,” said another. “A few faces changed but the old regime is still in place.”
Such discussions could be repeated across Egypt, as the results of the first few months after the momentous ‘January 25th uprising’ are considered. On the one hand, there is a growing sense of disappointment that life has not got better, particularly for workers and the poor. On the other hand, people express increasing frustration and anger that the speed of change is not faster.
Workers are starting to organise political parties, but there is not yet a mass party, with members in every major workplace, neighbourhood and university. Such a party could explain the current situation and point the way forward, uniting ‘the disappointed’ with ‘the determined’ around a programme of action.
On Friday 27 May, there were huge demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. Hundreds of thousands showed their growing impatience at the slow pace of change, and a sense of anxiety that the gains of the revolution could be slipping away as the ruling class regroups around the new government.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been making friendly overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), at present the best-organised political organisation. In return, the MB leadership are supporting SCAF’s attempts to push back the workers’ and social movements. Both issued statements before 27 May, condemning the planned demonstrations, with the MB saying that they were being organised by “secularists” (code for atheists). Despite these warnings, hundreds of thousands attended. Significantly, many MB youth members also participated, reflecting the pressure from other youth movements.
Music TV channels do not usually have much, if any, political content, but Mazika is showing pop videos depicting the revolution. In one, the singer is attacked by police, tortured and threatened by dogs in jail, before huge crowds successfully bring down Mubarak. The final captions, against pictures of Tahrir Square packed with demonstrators, are ‘SCAF salutes the courage and heroism of Egyptian youth’ and ‘We salute the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.’ Large corporations are attempting to sanitise the images of the revolution, using them as backdrops for advertising slogans for products from mobile phones to Coca-Cola.
There had been a lull in the number of strikes, as many workers felt the new government should be given a chance. SCAF, the MB and media commentators argued that strikes were damaging the economy, which needed to rebuilt after the upheavals of the revolution. A law passed on 24 March which criminalises strikes and protests was not implemented while the strike figures remained low. Under this law, strikers can be arrested, imprisoned for a year or more, and fined from £E30,000-500,000 (about £3000-50,000). Those promoting strikes or protests but not participating in them can be imprisoned and fined up to £E50,000.
But SCAF’s warnings are starting to wear thin and strikes and protests are growing again. Thousands of workers are getting organised in new independent trade unions that are rapidly being set up. The Minister of Civil Aviation described a threatened air industry strike as “unpatriotic…This is against the nation’s interests and threatens the aviation system.” Nevertheless, EgyptAir pilots, cabin crew and air traffic controllers protested outside Cairo Airport against corruption, the imposition of retired Air Force officers as managers and for more equal distribution of wages.
Other workers protesting and striking during this past week include Egypt Aluminium, Nasr Car Company, Ministry of State Antiquities and even actors. Five Petrojet workers were arrested on 7 June by military police after a sit-down protest in front of the Ministry of Petroleum, and charged with illegal gathering. They have been referred for military prosecution rather than to a civilian court.
On 8 June, the government announced that the strike ban would be enforced from now on. The right to strike is only permissible, it seems, so long as workers don’t try to use it!
Meanwhile, hundreds of homeless have been staging a sit-down protest outside the State TV building for days. One of them drowned when he fell into the River Nile while washing his shirt, after protestors were banned by the authorities from using nearby washrooms. These homeless are mostly the families of construction workers and microbus drivers who lost wages during the revolution and who were then driven out of their flats in El-Nahda and El-Salam by landlords and hired thugs. They have been living in tents in appalling conditions since February. “The tyrant corrupt government left and is now replaced by another one,” one homeless father said. It seems some government flats have been allocated to those who already had housing after bribes were paid, so that the extra flats could be rented out.
The government has announced an increase of the minimum wage from LE400 £E700 a month, as well as a 15% increase in public sector wages. These improvements are a product of revolutionary struggle, but are still completely inadequate. On 11 June, hundreds blocked traffic protesting for a decent minimum wage of £E1200.
While workers and the poor desperately need improved living standards to make life tolerable, many leading activists in the youth and political movements are drawing up a campaign around the slogan, ‘Constitution First’. They are demanding a new constitution before elections are held, fearing that the MB has a head start on all other parties and, if it wins the forthcoming election, could then fix the new constitution to its advantage.
SCAF and the MB are quite happy to see campaigning get stuck in a constitutional quicksand, rather than a workers’ and youth movement campaign around the question of who controls the wealth and real power in society. Nevertheless, parliamentary elections seem likely in September and it is important that an independent working class voice is heard.
Tagammu, formerly a workers’ party committed, in words, at least, to socialist change, has been largely discredited by its failure to mobilize against the Mubarak regime. The Egyptian Communist Party is rebuilding, but has a mostly older membership. New parties include the Democratic Workers’ Party and Socialist Popular Alliance, both involving socialists and independent trade unionists. The newly formed Egyptian Socialist Party mainly consists of academics and middle-class professionals.
A real ’united front’ of genuine Left parties at the elections would challenge the better-financed, pro-big business parties and the MB, with a programme including a decent minimum wage of £E1200, massive house-building, a big increase in spending on health to provide free health care for all, as well as democratic demands. A call for a government of workers and the poor would expose all the other parties who defend the rights of big business to continue to exploit the majority of the population. Within a united front of left parties, Marxists would also argue for a clear socialist programme to take the revolution forward.