The struggle that lies ahead in Egypt

February 28, 2011

Mostafa Ali reports from Cairo on the direction of the revolution since Mubarak was toppled--and the challenges facing workers and revolutionaries in a new era.

TWO WEEKS after the ouster of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians continue to celebrate their historic victory.

On February 18, millions of people took to the streets of all the major cities to commemorate the one-week anniversary of Mubarak's departure. In Cairo alone, as many as 3 million people danced and chanted in and around Tahrir Square for over 10 hours.

The protesters honored the martyrs of the revolution and called on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power after Mubarak's ouster, to fulfill the democratic demands of the revolution--such as dismissing the cabinet led by Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq which was appointed by Mubarak in his last days in power; dissolving the secret police; lifting all emergency laws; and freeing all political prisoners.

The uprising unleashed on January 25 catapulted Egypt's working class into action, and it continues to organize and put forward its own economic demands.

Immediately after Mubarak's fall, hundreds of thousands of government and public-sector workers started to organize a bold wave of strikes, sit-ins and protests to demand higher wages and the dismissal of overpaid, corrupt CEOs, many of whom are members of Mubarak's much hated National Democratic Party (NDP).

Workers at a factory in Suez strike following the successful revolt against Mubarak
Workers at a factory in Suez strike following the successful revolt against Mubarak

Private-sector workers are also taking action for similar demands. Strikes are taking place daily in cities such as 6th of October and 10th of Ramadan, where massive international investment and high levels of exploitation have produced the conditions for resistance.

The combination of these political and social struggles have won some important concessions from both employers and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in the weeks following Mubarak's fall.

For example, the Supreme Council suspended the old undemocratic constitution and appointed a committee made up of law experts to amend it along more democratic lines. The cabinet froze the assets and ordered the arrest of a number of businessmen and former ministers close to Mubarak. The assets of Mubarak and his family were also frozen.

Striking workers have also won significant concessions on wages and benefits. Public-sector officials and different ministries agreed to raise wages and to grant permanent status to thousands of workers who had been laboring under temporary contracts.

Also, workers in a number of places have forced out unpopular and corrupt CEOs. For example, 24,000 workers for the Misr Spinning and Weaving Co.--the country's largest state-owned company--in the industrial city of Mahalla el-Kubra struck on February 17 to oust the company's CEO and won.

BUT SO far, these struggles have proven insufficient to force the ruling Supreme Council to concede important democratic demands or address larger workers' grievances.

For example, on February 23, the Supreme Council replaced 11 ministers in the cabinet appointed by Mubarak, but refused to change the cabinet in its entirety. It has released more than 230 political prisoners, but refuses to free hundreds of others. The military has also refused to end the emergency laws against political dissent, leaving that decision to a future elected government.

The Supreme Council and its cabinet have taken an increasingly hard line against workers' protests and demands. The council refused to meet the popular demand of setting 1200 pounds as a national minimum wage. Plus, military leaders and the government media launched a propaganda campaign accusing striking workers of elevating their "narrow" and "sectional" demands over the national interests. The council continues to issue warnings to workers not to strike and to poor peasants not to reoccupy land they were forced off of.

In several instances, the new rulers have attempted to break strikes and arrest strikers. For example, on February 22, the army arrested seven strikers in Adamiya Port in Suez. That day, an army tank killed an elderly woman who was among protesters attempting to free the arrested strikers.

In response to the council's attempt to stall on the demands of the revolution, various forces, including coalitions of youth, independent unions and socialist organizations, have called for continuing mass protests in Tahrir and elsewhere in the country every Friday to keep up the pressure. On February 25, more than half a million people came to Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of the Ahmed Shafiq cabinet.

In addition, socialists and the left are organizing popular committees to defend the revolution in factories and in city neighborhoods and villages--the goal is to mobilize forces that can confront the regime on a local basis. In Cairo alone, 16 such neighborhood committees have been formed and are active. Socialists have printed thousands of bulletins titled "Egypt the Revolution" with the aim of recruiting new members.

The fact that the majority of the political and economic demands of the January 25 revolution have yet to be met is a reflection of the fact that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces--not revolutionaries or organizations representing revolutionaries--ended up on top after February 11.

The military rulers of the Council ousted Mubarak in order to preempt the possibility of the political revolution transforming into a social upheaval that could have begun to threaten the entire capitalist social and political structure.

The Supreme Council itself is an integral part of the Egyptian capitalist class. It is composed of Mubarak-era generals who benefit from the existing class system in Egypt. The military controls around a quarter of the economy, including a gigantic arms sector, construction, factories, agricultural land, hotels, and on and on.

There's no doubt that the Council understands it has to make serious economic and political concessions to revolutionaries and workers in order to stabilize the system. But the aim of the Council in making these concessions is to slow down and control the pace of change in order to give itself time to divert the revolutionary moment, while simultaneously reorganizing and reorienting capitalism in Egypt.

This is why the Council insists it won't make any fundamental economic changes regarding wages and pensions in the short term. The generals say they plan to leave these and other issues, such as the emergency laws, to the new parliament.

Meanwhile, the Council is reorganizing the discredited police to resume their functions. The military rulers made it clear that they plan to "reform" these hated institutions, but have no intention of disbanding them.

The Council also tested its ability to rein in the protests--and failed. On the night of February 25, the army attempted to push out 1,000 demonstrators who occupied Tahrir Square past the midnight curfew set by the army. Military police and masked army special forces used electric batons to beat and disperse protesters, and arrested 20 of them. The soldiers also destroyed a statue built by revolutionaries to commemorate the martyrs of the revolution.

But due to a huge public outcry against the army's violent tactics--and accusations that the military is now doing what the secret police used to do to nonviolent protesters--the Council issued a formal apology, saying its soldiers acted on their own. The detainees were released, and the Council issued orders not to interfere with 1,000 people who reoccupied Tahrir Square the next night. And in a gesture of good will, Presidential Guard units built a replacement statue for the martyrs.

THERE IS no doubt that everyone in Egypt who wants to push this political revolution toward more victories will face great challenges in the coming period.

One of those challenges will be to confront the attempt by the ruling class and the Supreme Council to end this revolutionary moment with the least amount of concessions to workers and peasants.

Another connected challenge is that sections of the middle classes which supported the ouster of Mubarak are now calling for workers and activists to end all protests, so people can go "back to work" to rebuild the economy. The army is consciously mobilizing these middle-class forces through its media campaign with the hope of winning them to its side against the strikes--it will take some anti-corruption measures and implement some parliamentary reforms to placate them.

Slowly, some sections of the Muslim Brotherhood, old liberal opposition parties and the remainder of the NDP are lining up behind the Council's project. The Brotherhood, for one, has declared its intention to form a political party, and tacitly allowed some of its members and supporters to join the cabinet and the committee to reform the constitution. Liberal newspapers such as Al Masry Al Youm, which played a key role in building opposition to Mubarak's rule, are now calling on readers to trust the army and oppose strikes.

Some youth groups formed after Mubarak's fall, such as the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, continue to call for weekly Friday protests, but are too focused on advising the Council on better ways of achieving political and parliamentary reforms, rather than building solidarity for the workers' demands.

In this context, some revolutionaries in Egypt have grown impatient and frustrated. It is clear that the forces of counter-revolution are busy plotting against change--and equally clear that, while the military is unable at this point to disperse the Tahrir demonstrations, those mobilizations alone are insufficient to win more concessions from the Council.

Here, it is important to point out, as revolutionary socialists in Egypt are now arguing, that that while street protests are very important in order to pressure the regime, much more is needed to win the democratic demands of the revolution.

And crucially, the social force that can take the struggle to its next stage is in motion. Through all the attempts by the Council to dispel the revolutionary moment and the vacillations of middle-class forces, strikes and mobilizations by the working class have kept the revolution's spark lit.

The Egyptian working class is the key to the revolutionary movement that started on January 25 accomplishing its goals of social justice and political freedom. The sheer social and political weight of Egyptian workers and their militant potential--which is on display every day--provides the revolutionary movement with its best hope.

Therefore, it is important for all revolutionaries to support the struggles of workers in Egypt, ideologically and materially. Solidarity with the independent unions, the new Workers Democratic Party and every strike is necessary to strengthen the revolution in Egypt, and continue the wave of revolt that is sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East.

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