Egypt’s workers in revolt

Review of "The Egyptians: a radical story"

The Egyptians: a radical story • By Jack Shenker • Published by Allen Lane (2016), £15.99

On 3 February the mutilated body of Italian student Giulio Regeni was found in a ditch. The military regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi denied involvement in the torture and killing of Giulio, blaming his death on members of a criminal gang who were subsequently executed. But evidence has since emerged of Giulio’s arrest by the security services on the day before his disappearance. Jack Shenker, former Egyptian correspondent at The Guardian, demonstrates why the regime would target Giulio, a Cambridge University student researching independent trade unions in the country.

Shenker’s book is written from the perspective of ordinary Egyptians, the millions who rose up to overthrow Hosni Mubarak in January/February 2011. He emphasises the central role of workers, not only in 2011 but throughout the recent history of Egypt. Weaving together narrative, anecdotes, eye-witness testimony and analysis, the result is a readable, detailed and very useful account of a process of revolution and counter-revolution which is not yet finished.

In his introductory comments, Shenker makes the point that a revolution is not an event but is built on a “heritage of resistance”. He shows how the spontaneous uprising against Mubarak, which erupted on 25 January 2011 and resulted in him fleeing the country 18 days later, was rooted in previous struggles, in economic and social processes which were inextricably linked to the interests of international capitalism. It was also the consequence of an evolving popular consciousness which eventually “connected the dots of political and economic injustice”.

Communal resistance, rural revolts, struggles by students, youth, feminists, intellectuals and minorities were all important but it was the workers who played the critical role. Every category of workplace became involved in what Shenker calls “the largest social movement seen in the Middle East for half a century”. In the decisive period before Mubarak fled, workers in the transport, petrol, steel, fertilizer, cement, textile and printing industries were just some of those involved in what was essentially a general strike. Tahrir Square was the focal point of the revolution, an important symbol of its spirit and the struggle for a different way of life. But those commentators who focused exclusively on the square ignored the crucial revolutionary struggles which were taking place in the factories, farms and schools.

In the preceding years there had been movements for democracy and against state repression, an important feature of the 2011 revolution. But, for Shenker, “the first strand, and arguably the most critical, was the fight back by workers against the structural violence and redistribution from poor to rich that accompanied neoliberalism”. First came the ‘liberalisation’ introduced by Anwar Sadat after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, reversing the latter’s land reform. Public assets were privatised creating a crony capitalist class around Sadat while subsidies for the poor were cut back. Within three years 80% of the population were worse off.

Under Mubarak, who came to power following the assassination of Sadat in 1981, ‘market fundamentalism’ and ‘structural adjustment’ dramatically sped up this process. Farmers were forcibly evicted from their land to make way for luxury housing and shopping developments, resulting in one million without land (a third of the rural population) and 1.5 million without homes. Mass privatisations enriched an elite of powerful families close to Mubarak and consolidated the military’s control of important economic interests. Fifteen million were living in absolute poverty as subsidies for the poorest were slashed and taxes on the rich reduced.

In the workplaces, unfettered neoliberal ‘reforms’ meant the proliferation of temporary contracts, restrictions on the right to strike and the destruction of health and safety regulations. Wages fell from 50% of GDP to less than 20%. This was spurred on by rapacious international investors, the World Bank, USAID (at $1.3bn, Egypt became the second highest recipient after Israel) and the IMF, which three years before the revolution was praising Egypt as the “top Middle East reformer”.

Through descriptions of the various struggles waged by ordinary people, often in the face of brutal repression by Mubarak’s state forces, we get a vivid picture of how consciousness was transformed. Protesters risked beatings, arrest, torture and even death, yet resisted the effects of neoliberalism. Community and rural movements erupted mainly over local grievances and injustices – land grabs and forced evictions, protests over reductions in subsidies on basic goods, inadequate services, infrastructure and housing, environmental destruction.

These were fragmented and isolated, confined to a particular village or local area. Sometimes they were defeated, sometimes resistance led to temporary victories, but they were all preparation for the battles to come: “Each struggle has made us more aware of what we’re capable of”. Shenker shows how these protests became more political, how direct confrontation with the security forces broadened consciousness about the state regime as a whole. Tactics were honed in individual battles and eventually became generalised in the revolutionary movement itself.

Notwithstanding state repression and economic restructuring, and the negative effects of these processes on collective action and the ability of workers to fight back, resistance continued, albeit sporadically. Certain sections of workers maintained an important economic clout – dockers, Suez canal workers, and in the communication and logistics sectors. Shenker shows how protests and strike action began to rise – a tripling of strikes in 2004; five incidents a week in 2006; not one day without a labour protest somewhere in the country in 2007. Most of these battles were short, triggered by sectional and individual workplace grievances. Towards the end of Mubarak’s rule, however, the strikes lengthened requiring new methods of struggle, organisation, coordination and solidarity. Strikes became more generalised, politicised and anti-regime.

With the state-controlled trade union federation (ETUF) siding with the bosses and the regime, some workers formed strike committees and elected leaders, but when the strike ended these committees normally folded, too. Then, in 2007, tax collectors formed the first independent trade union, followed by postal workers, teachers and others. In the period immediately following Mubarak’s downfall, up to 2.5 million workers were organised in around 800 organisations.

The revolution unleashed a flourishing of activity and self-organisation. Youth took control of the streets from the security forces, some workers chased out the ‘little Mubaraks’ – bosses and managers friendly to the regime – and challenged army control of their workplaces. A minority went further. In the Manshiyet-el-Bakri hospital in Cairo, workers kicked out the manager and for a period controlled the hospital. As often happens in a revolution, the most downtrodden were inspired into action, with domestic workers forming their own independent union and street vendors fighting for their rights. Rural dwellers seized back land, the homeless took over empty buildings, residents formed neighbourhood committees, and ‘revolutionary art’ blossomed. Tactics were improvised, such as by the residents who defended their area by pouring scalding water on security forces. Neighbourhood committees comprised both women and men, and were set up to defend female protestors against sexual assault, a notorious weapon of repression used by the regime.

“Revolutions always involve counter-revolutions”, states Shanker. He refers to the main weaknesses of the movement when he says that “revolutionary visions” did not “for the most part involve the capturing or replication of state power”. Organisations were “loose, dispersed and flexible”, “horizontal”, creating “new spaces in the cracks” without challenging the state apparatus. According to Shenker, the failure to create mass political parties was partly due to the difficulties of organising under the Mubarak regime.

Consequently, when the revolution erupted, a revolutionary or independent party with roots in the working class and poor did not exist. The need to construct such a party did not form part of the consciousness of the mass of those involved. “Not attempting to seize state power directly for themselves, revolutionaries have… afforded elites time and space to regroup after each cycle”. The counter-revolution asserted itself in three main waves: around the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; then through Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood; thirdly, via the military regime of el-Sisi. The faces changed but the state remained.

For the vast majority of Egyptians, socio-economic issues are their primary concern. Since 2011, the wealth of the billionaires has increased 80% while five million more people have been plunged into poverty. The price of low-grade fuel has increased 78% and electricity bills have gone up 30%. Thanks to privatisation and ‘business friendly’ laws, the economy is open for business to multinational vultures. Gulf firms control 50% of the milk market, 45% for sugar. The army tops continue to enrich themselves through their economic control of marine transport, oil, renewable energy, ports, dockyards, fertilizer production, computer hardware, etc – industries forming at least 40% of the economy.

Shenker shows how Morsi and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, most of them businessmen, had no interest in following an alternative to the neoliberal economic path. The trigger for the mass movements against Morsi was his move in November 2012 to seize ever more political powers. But continuing economic inequality and hardship meshed with growing authoritarianism and state repression. This provoked the explosion of unrest which culminated in July 2013 in three days of protests, involving up to 17 million Egyptians – possibly the biggest demonstration in history. Workers were preparing for a general strike.

The military coup which followed was, Shenker explains, “regime change from above to stop revolution from below”. Because the revolution “didn’t offer anything more cohesive and substantial”, the military was able to win popular support by “hijacking revolutionary tactics and language”. This support included Abu Eita, leader of the independent trade union federation, who was incorporated into the government as labour minister, the Tamarod youth organisation, and sections of the political left.

Shenker asks whether “Eygpt’s clock can be simply rolled back to the Mubarak era”. Some commentators say that this has already happened. In many ways, the repression under el-Sisi is worse than that of Mubarak. Thousands have been killed and tens of thousands jailed and tortured, not only Muslim Brotherhood supporters but also trade unionists and revolutionary youth. Yet there are clear signs of the erosion of el-Sisi’s precarious social base. State repression is brutal but also arbitrary and indiscriminate, lashing out even at footballers and comedians. This, according to Shenker, is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

The obituaries of the Egyptian revolution have been written prematurely. Many revolutionaries are indeed tired, and repression has taken its toll on the workers’ movement with a decline in protests in 2015 – an average of three a day, about half the level of 2014. But there have been important struggles recently among lawyers, doctors and journalists. The beginning of March saw a strike wave involving public-sector workers. “It’s impossible to predict the final spark that will set a clash alight”, writes Shenker.

In April, a deal to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia led to a protest of around 4,000 outside the journalist union HQ, with the slogans ‘Egypt is not for sale’ and, significantly, ‘Sisi out’. Fifty-one of the demonstrators have been imprisoned but it is clear that wholesale repression will not be able to hold back the movement. What can el-Sisi deliver to the people? asks Shenker pointedly. Egyptian capitalism is in dire straits and cannot be saved by money from the Gulf states. Unlike Nasser, Sisi cannot offer material gains, just more austerity, which will once again fuel the engine of revolution.

Mainly descriptive, The Egyptians makes no attempt to present economic or political alternatives. Nor does it really address the prospects for religious sectarianism or right-wing political Islam (ISIS declared the Sinai to be part of the ‘caliphate’). Its main strength lies in its ability to articulate the aspirations of ordinary Egyptians, to explain the motivating forces which propelled so many into revolutionary action, and the transformative effect that mass struggle had on the outlook of those involved.

Millions have become aware of their collective strength, of their potential to shape their own lives. That psychological imprint cannot be erased easily. Most importantly, Jack Shenker has brought to the fore the workers’ movement, the force which has the potential for unity and for building the organisations – including an independent political party – necessary if the revolutionary process is to be brought to a successful conclusion.

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June 2016