Egypt amidst bloody military repression,
Islamist reaction and workers’ struggles
(«Proletarian»;Nr. 8; Spring 2012)
After the February 1 killings at the soccermatch in Port Said (74 deaths, mainly among supporters of theAl-Ahly club of Cairo), the ultras, – supporters of the teams from the capital – who, throughout the events of last year had many times fought the forces of repression, have accused the SCAFof premeditated murder.
Therefore, with the support of various leftist parties and youth movements, they organized protests demanding the departure of SCAF, towards the parliament, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defense.
The Muslim Brotherhood – the main political party in parliament – reacted by calling on the SCAF to protect the parliament, accusing the protesters of being financed by foreign countries to spread disorder and vandalism and to destroy state institutions; they said that the “immediate departure of the SCAF (…) would lead to chaos in the country”. Police responded eagerly to this call by firing on the protesters, causing more than 12 deaths with hundreds wounded in Cairo and Suez...
THE BITTER VICTORY OF DEMOCRACY
At the end of last year, ten months after the popular jubilation accompanying the fall of Mubarak, the media around the world announced in bold headlines the “victory of democracy” in Egypt, with the first free elections which saw the triumph of the reactionary Islamist parties, and the bloody military repression of the occupation and demonstrations in Tahrir Square, which resulted in dozens of deaths.
If the enlightened bourgeois might experience some discomfort when countenancing these events, they can rest assured no doubt realizing that they are two interrelated, complementary aspects of the same phenomenon, that of the reinforcement of the bourgeois order which had been shaken by the events and struggles from the beginning of the year. This explains the moderation of the reactions to the bloody repression from Western governments that usually do not lose an opportunity to give sententious and hypocritical lessons in democracy to the governments of the so-called “periphery”: the restoration of political and social stability in a country of over 85 million people located in the heart of a strategic zone for world imperialism, has need of the combined action of democratic and religious opium, and fusillades by soldiers and paramilitary groups. Especially under the looming threat of labor unrest ...
UNITED AGAINST WORKERS’ STRUGGLES
Almost immediately after the fall of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who took the reins of power, issued a statement condemning industrial actions as endangering national security, on March 23 the new government appointed by the military banned meetings, demonstrations and strikes affecting the smooth running of public or private companies, the perpetrators face up to one year in prison and huge fines.
The spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood (traditional Islamic current which constituted the only real opposition force that was tolerated under Mubarak) in mid-February expressed its “understanding” vis-à-vis the position of the military leaders, accusing industrial actions of sapping the national consensus, while a prominent Salafi (far right islamist current) functionary called for an end to strikes and sit-ins of workers. In April the Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in Egypt, said that the instigators of industrial actions “violate the teachings of God” (1).
The campaign against strikes and workers’ struggles was relayed throughout the ensuing months by newspapers and television channels. When they were not reported as being manipulated by “counter-revolutionary elements”, the proletarians in struggle were accused of selfishly defending their own interests instead of thinking of the general interest of the nation. The media sought to shame them claiming that those demonstrators in Tahrir Square, had fought for their country: “All the slogans revolved around the meaning of freedom, as demonstrators set aside their demands and summoned forth the spring of liberty. They did not ask for a raise or a bonus. They looked at the wider context and at the nation as a whole. The contagion of narrow viewpoints did not spread among them, as it did among those who engaged in continuous, hysterical and vengeful corporatist demonstrations” (2). How the bourgeois adorn the proletarians with laurels when they set aside their class interests and do not “shabbily” seek to improve their lives at the risk of jeopardizing sacrosanct capitalist profits!
The fact is that the fall of Mubarak, which was preceded and to some extent prepared by the strikes of 2008, was followed by a new and powerful surge in proletarian struggles, despite all the anti-worker measures and campaigns. During the unprecedented wave of workers’ struggles in 2008, the number of strikers is estimated to have reached 240,000 (3). In February 2011, when the movement against the regime had reached the highest point, there were 489 “collective actions” of workers (the number of participants is not known) against only 42 in January. The number of strikers from March to August was about 400,000, a figure already very important for a country like Egypt, with little industry and where strikes are rare. But in September they are estimated to have increased to a figure between 500 and 750,000, more than all of 2008! In that month there were several large strikes sometimes involving the whole country as with the teachers’ strike ( 250 to 500,000 strikers) and six other major strikes involving about 160,000 workers, including the postal workers, the Transport Workers of Cairo, the workers in sugar refineries, etc., and strikes limited to a single plant or jurisdiction in which a total of tens of thousands of workers participated. Even if we do not have more recent figures, the movement has maintained strength and even amplified in October, despite the electoral campaign for the November elections: Egyptian workers have not been hit by the fatal habit of electoral truce!
These movements of struggle were directed or organized by new unions coming into existence outside or against the former official union, or even by true strike committees, sometimes coordinated at the regional level as in the case of teachers in North Sinai .
The most frequent demands are for wage increases (and the creation of a minimum wage), the permanent hiring of temporary workers, dismissal of particularly hated bosses, improved working conditions, ahead of demands of a more reformist nature such as increased state investment in a given sector, the re-nationalization of enterprises privatized in recent years or improvement of the Public Education service; these undoubtedly reflecting the still very real influence of bourgeois forces among the workers (especially in certain sectors such as teachers where the Muslim Brotherhood is very active and leads the union). What have really set the proletarians in motion, are the basic demands for their immediate needs for survival, after years in which wages have remained low as the cost of living was increasing.
REPRESSION AND ELECTIONS
The military authorities of the SCAF have worked since February to end the unrest by gradually returning to the good old repressive methods, after the “disappearance” of the police in the period which followed the fall of Mubarak.
Even before the latest events, more than 12,000 people had already been convicted by military courts under the Emergency Law that, until now, has been in effect since 1967 (4); the practice of torture continues in Egyptian prisons, and again in recent weeks there was the use of paramilitary thugs against workers and kidnappings of known activists. Furthermore the SCAF has not hesitated to unleash sectarian hatred. While the bestial repression of a demonstration of Copts (5) in Cairo on October 9 left 27 dead, the official media accused the Copts of attacking soldiers and they called on the people to defend the army against the Christians!
But a callous machination by the SCAF on the eve of the elections jeopardized the process. Little versed in the subtle art of the use of democratic opium, the military decreed “supra-constitutional principles” in mid-November to give the Army a special status above civilian institutions (the parliament and the government would have no control over the military budget, the Army reserved the right to change the future constitution, to dissolve parliament, etc.).
To oppose this decree, a day of demonstrations was organized for November 18, and was supported by the Islamist parties who were concerned about being robbed of their announced electoral victory and the regroupments issuing from the “revolution” in February; while the traditional left-wing parties like the Egyptian Communist Party, the Social Democrats, the Tagammu (which included the ECP, illegal at the time of Mubarak and the leaders of the official union), eternal flunkies of the regime, or the Wafd (pseudo-opposition party under the old regime), were refusing to support the call.
After tens of thousands of people began demonstrating peacefully in Cairo, the unleashing of a bloody crackdown leaving dozens of casualties among the demonstrators who wanted to reoccupy Tahrir Square, set this tinderbox afire. The next day, hundreds of thousands of people came out on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities to show their anger and shout their opposition to the government. But after negotiations with the military and the resignation of the Prime Minister, the Muslim Brotherhood, reassured that the elections would not be deferred, and that the SCAF promised to give power to civilians in the coming months, on Nov. 20 called on their supporters not to demonstrate.
The protests continued on the following days with slogans calling for the resignation of Tantawi (the head of the SCAF who is considering running for president), a civil government, etc..; neither the elections of 11/28 nor the continued repression (another 17 deaths in the last weeks of December) could extinguish the protest movement, proof that it expresses the depth of discontent in the country. But despite its numerical strength, the movement was doomed to impotence by the nullity of its petit-bourgeois democratic political demands: democracy, civil government of national unity and so on...
A bitter balance sheet: dozens dead, thousands of arrests so that “democracy” might triumph in the form of an alliance, at least temporarily, between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, giving the victory in the elections to the religious parties on the right and far right (6) ...
But this victory does not mean the end or the mitigation of the class struggle in Egypt, nor the stabilization of the political situation which would be its consequence. Feeble Egyptian capitalism can not afford to give satisfaction, if only in a temporary and limited way, to the workers, it can not ensure employment for the enormous mass of unemployed, permanently supplied by the rural exodus. It can only survive in international competition by oppressing its proletariat to the maximum, imposing low wages and poor living and working conditions. Its economic and social difficulties, compounded by the workers’ struggles and the return of tens of thousands of workers who had left to find work in Libya and elsewhere, the collapse of tourism, not to mention other casualties of the international capitalist crisis (decreased opportunities in the textile industry, decline in traffic of the Suez Canal, reduced foreign investment, etc.), leave it no choice. It can not afford, as in the richest capitalist countries, to maintain a range of social shock absorbers to quell social tensions (and indeed these countries themselves now have fewer means!); the subsidy in the price of staple foods, which is a fundamental element in avoiding a social explosion is already a burden which it aspires to get rid of as soon as possible ...
In service to the national capitalism, Egyptian democracy, born under the most reactionary auspices, can only continue the repressive and anti-worker tradition of the previous regime.
Tough battles thus await the proletarians of Egypt; to carry them out under the best conditions, it will be necessary for them to separate themselves from the interclassist national-religious sludge and to organize themselves on independent class bases. The first elementary but gigantic step was taken spontaneously: serving as an example to the proletarians of the whole world, the Egyptian proletariat came bravely into struggle, undermining a seemingly all-powerful regime; however it still has many difficulties to overcome, many experiences to accumulate, to thwart the efforts of those who want to drag it back to its previous forced docility.
As for the following step, the organization of a class party to go beyond the horizon of the immediate struggle and engage in combat against capitalism, it will have to do be done in close liaison with the proletarian vanguard of other countries, especially those of the dominant capitalist countries, when they are able to break their own fetters which have paralyzed them for decades.
As difficult as this path may seem, as distant as that goal seems, this perspective is objectively opened by the global capitalist crisis, which inevitably undermines all the equilibriums from the previous period. The future belongs to the proletarian struggle, in Egypt as elsewhere!
(1) “Striking back at Egyptian workers”, MERIP Reports No. 259 (Summer 2011).
(3) These are the figures given by Anne Alexander, Al Ahram (English edition), 12/16/2011; these are the figures of the Egyptian NGO Awlad al-Ard which regularly publishes statistics on strikes (we do not know on what basis they are established).
(4) A partial lifting of the law was officially announced by the SCAF on 01/24/12, on the first anniversary of the revolt Against Mubarak. But repression and killings of demonstrators are still going on.
(5) The Copts are a Christian minority, representing about 10% of the population, which counts among its members an influential fraction of the bourgeoisie; as such, they serve as a convenient scapegoat.
(6) The second round of elections took place in mid-December in the rural provinces of the south with a much higher participation, it confirmed the results of the first round where the Muslim Brotherhood had received at least a third of the votes, Salafi’s Nour party more than a quarter, followed much further behind, by two bourgeois parties; the “Free Egyptians” who with the support of big capitalists, could afford a flashy campaign that allowed them garner nearly 15% of the votes, and the Wafd, the old traditional party of the democratic bourgeoisie, based on what is left of patronage networks: 7%.
A third and final round was held in January, then it will be elections to the senate, and finally, according to the promise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tantawi, presidential elections should be held in June, denoting the formal transfer of political power from military to civilian.
But even if that promise is fulfilled, the political weight of the army which is a first-rate economic power in Egypt, will remain prominent.
The abstention rate was, it seems, about 40% of registered voters; despite all the incentives to vote, in some cities a boycott order was particularly closely followed: this means that the majority of citizens then shunned “the first free elections”...
February 6th 2012
International Communist Party