Egypt: from people power to workers’ power

Solidarity looks at the way forward for the revolution that toppled a dictator

The beginning of 2011 saw revolutions unfolding across the Middle East. Masses of people, suffering decades of economic and political repression, have flowed out onto the streets to change their lives.

The tragic suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia sparked mass demonstrations, blockades and general strikes. Within days the movement toppled the US-backed, 23 year long dictatorship of Ben Ali.
Tunisia’s tiny population of 10 million people has inspired struggle across the Middle East. Mass people power in Egypt forced the 82-year old dictator Mubarak to finally step down. Egypt’s mobilisations have been the biggest since the 1940s. In 18 consecutive days of mass protests, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, marching on the presidential palace, state television buildings and other government installations.

Their courage and determination will inspire people across the world. Led by workers and radical youth, ordinary people are toppling brutal dictators without any support from foreign political powers or traditional political parties. It shows us that when united and resolved, we can determine the type of society we want to live in. Like people in Egypt, we can bring down governments and stand up to imperialist states and multinational corporations.The revolution is Egypt is not just about getting rid of a dictator, but going further to address the poverty caused by neo-liberal policies

The immediate focus of the struggle in Tunisia and in Egypt has been the removal of dictators and the political structures they used to dominate the country.

In Tunisia, while Ben Ali may have fled, many figures from his RCD party are still in power, including in the key posts of prime minister and interim president. In Egypt, although both Mubarak and his Vice President Suleiman are gone, the armed forces have taken power. The commander of the army, previous defense minister and Mubarak loyalist Hussein Tantawi, effectively heads the country.

What kind of revolution?

What is occurring in these countries is a political revolution—the reorganisation of the existing political system—not a social revolution. It allows for the overthrow of particular leaders and their power structures but leaves the wider economic and social system in place.

The same thing occurred in Indonesia in 1998. The Indonesian people overthrew the repressive; US and Australian backed dictator Suharto. Yet he was replaced as by his Vice President, B.J. Habibie, an integral part of the old regime. One of his first actions was to send the military in to end the student occupation of parliament. Most of the ministers who served in the old government formed part of the replacement one. This shift, which kept in place the Indonesian oligarchy and military establishment, was facilitated by the US so as to preserve “stability”. Four presidents and several corruption scandals later, life is still a struggle for the majority of Indonesians in a country where the majority live on less than $1 a day.

The experience of Indonesia has important lessons for the people of Egypt.

Even if Mubarak’s whole crew is thrown out, the Egyptian army, the US and Israel are looking for a stable “transition” to a figure like Mohamed ElBaradei. While backed by large sections of the opposition, this is a man who was initially refused to back the protests and poses himself as a “safe” alternative for the US. He recently told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is “rock solid”.

These political alternatives will not be able to meet the demands of the protesters.

The uprisings have not only been about the “political” issues of freedom and democratic rights. The mass mobilisations have also been driven by economic misery: crises, unemployment, terrible pay and working conditions, inflation and the increasing polarisation between the rich and poor.

The global economic crisis has cut export markets and pushed up food prices with inflation rates as high as 25 per cent.

Some 40 per cent of Egyptians already lived at or below the poverty line. Tunisia’s official rate of unemployment has been stuck at 14 per cent for the past decade. Youth unemployment is estimated to be around 40 per cent throughout the region.

Yet the 100 wealthiest families in Egypt are estimated to control 90 per cent of the country’s wealth. Like in Indonesia, these entrenched structural problems will not be addressed through mere political reshuffling.

ElBaradei captured this contradiction when he stated “if we are talking about Egypt, there is a whole rainbow variety of people who are secular, liberal, market-oriented, and if you give them the chance they will organise themselves into a government that is modern and moderate.”

But the masses of demonstrators are not for liberal, market-oriented and pro-US governments. This is what they’ve come onto the streets to abolish.

The alternative

Addressing the enormous economic inequality in Egypt will require a social revolution where the mass of ordinary Egyptian people fight to take democratic control of the billions of dollars in wealth controlled by a small minority.

The involvement of workers is vital to the revolution developing in this direction. As Egyptian socialist Hossam el-Hamalawy describes, “From day one of our uprising, the working class has been taking part in the protests. Who do you think were the protesters in [working class districts like] Mahalla, Suez and Kafr el-Dawwar for example? However, the workers were taking part as ‘demonstrators’ and not necessarily as ‘workers’.”

But when workers begin staging strikes and raising working class demands over pay or against greedy managers, they bring economic questions to the forefront.

As the revolution in Egypt has developed there has been an increasing number of spontaneous workers actions. At the Abu El-Subaa textile company in Mahalla, 1500 workers staged a demonstration blocking road access to demand their salaries and suspended benefits. This followed two years of repeated sit-ins. Seven thousand workers from five companies owned by the Suez Canal Authority, some staging a sit-in front of the company’s headquarters, called for a standardisation of wages across the company and improved treatment.

On January 25, an independent Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions was established for the first time in decades, attempting to generalise the spontaneous actions.

Crucially, the Federation is combining political demands, such as the removal of corrupt officials and managers of the Mubarak regime, and the return of money stolen from public funds, with economic demands for a minimum wage, health care schemes, permanent jobs and unemployment benefits.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described how working class mobilisation could lead to a process he called “permanent revolution”. As a revolutionary process develops, if workers begin to lead the fight for democratic change, the struggle could develop into one that leads to a socialist revolution that can pose an alternative to the capitalism system itself.

The confidence gained by workers in successfully bringing down a dictator can feed into confidence to organise at a workplace level to demand higher wages, or raise class demands about the seizure of wealth from officials and managers who have enriched themselves under the old regime.

At a handful of factories in Egypt, workers have already kicked out hated managers and begun running the factory themselves, such as at the Ghazl Meit Ghamr textile factory in the Nile Delta.

There have also been the beginnings of direct democracy with popular committees set up in Egypt to defend Tahrir square and other local areas from regime thugs. This kind of direct, popular democracy can pose an alternative source of power, and a new way of running society.

These are the kinds of initiatives that must be extended if the struggle is to become a successful social revolution—one based on running society through mass popular democracy according to need rather than for profits.

Workers can look to the soviets of Russia in 1917, the workers committees of Barcelona 1936 or the Shoras of Iran in 1979 for examples of this. These were set up both as a way of workers self-managing the factories and coming together across different workplaces to co-ordinate the struggle to take control of the whole society.

It is under this sort of workers control that the resources of the Middle East could be channeled into rebuilding society based on need: on healthcare and education not weapons systems, debt repayments or luxury lifestyles.

Carrying a socialist revolution to victory will require political leadership in the form of a revolutionary party arguing that workers’ councils can be the basis for a new way of running society. It will need to help generalise workers’ demands and confront the question of state power; and be clear about the danger posed if arguments are not won to break the army’s rank and file from the generals.

Revolution in Egypt has the potential to reshape the entire Middle East. The political repression and economic suffering that existed in Tunisia and Egypt exist all over the region; and the increasing struggle poses a very immediate threat to other Arab leaders.

In Tunisia and Egypt, people have learnt that the collective voice is powerful and can challenge the system. However there is a big difference between getting rid of a dictator and overthrowing the capitalist system.

Egypt is the most industrialised country in the region with the largest population. This means that it has the largest working class—a working class that keeps oil flowing through pipelines, which takes ships along the Suez Canal, a working class that on strike can have an enormous impact on global production. Tunisia also has a substantial industrial base.

The potential is there for much more developed workers’ organisation to emerge, whether in this round of struggle or the next. The bravery and commitment of the people who are fighting for change have opened up the possibility of permanent revolution in the Middle East.

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