Workers and Egypt’s unfinished counter-revolution

Egypt’s military marked the fifth anniversary of the revolution on 25 January with the murder of socialist activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. She was part of a group trying to lay a wreath in Tahrir square, where the revolution began. Her death, one of 18 people killed in protests on the day, was another sign of the counter-revolution and proof that the Egyptian army was never with the people.

If you want to understand the social processes and economic contradictions which led to the Egyptian revolution in 2011, read this book. It also explains why the military is back in charge and waging a counter-revolution, but never suggests this was the inevitable outcome.

Alexander and Bassiouny put class struggle back at the centre of the story, where it belongs. They show in detail how several years of rising strike activity opened the space for the revolution to come. The 2006 Misr Spinning strike in the Mahalla district was a turning point because it brought back the strike as the key tactic in workers’ protests.

Earlier parts of the book explain that this strike wave was a response to decades of unpopular neo-liberal policies. Previously Egyptians had lived under the Nasserist state model where an authoritarian and repressive state ruled in return for full employment and rising wages. The legacy of this model remains in the dominant role of the military and state-controlled trade unions. But by 2011 there was too much stick and not enough carrot to suppress discontent.

But the strike wave was not just born out of despair from privatisations and job cuts; it was possible because of rising confidence in both the workers’ struggles and the social movements. A new “culture of protest” saw rallies in solidarity with Palestine’s Intifada in 2000, protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Kifaya (Enough!) movement for democratic rights.

The relationship between political and economic struggles is a major theme of this book. The authors highlight that it is when political and economic struggles fuse that they pose the greatest challenge to the regime.

The growth of the independent trade union movement has been one significant expression of this. The 2008 property tax collectors strike led to the creation of Egypt’s first independent trade union Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETAU), posing a sharply political challenge to the state controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

RETAU was the first of four new independent unions, which formed a new independent union federation in Tahrir square in 2011. That year saw an explosion of strike activity, a massive expansion of independent unions, and some experiments in workers’ control of their workplaces.

Working class organisation

But ultimately, Alexander and Bassiouny argue, the working class has been limited by its lack of a political voice. It lacked an explicitly political organisation that could fight for class demands on the national stage. This meant it was unable to capture the growing disillusionment in the main beneficiary of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, this discontent was channelled by the military.

While the Muslim Brotherhood was the biggest and most organised opposition force to the Mubarak regime, the content of that opposition was bankrupt. Once in power, they helped revive the reactionary ETUF, whose executive was dissolved for organising the infamous thug attack on the protests in Tahrir square, the “Battle of the Camel”. Muslim Brotherhood members took positions in the new ETUF executive, along with members of the old ruling party. And they campaigned hard against calls for a general strike against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, whose powers they helped expand.

But this cowardly power-sharing deal only gave legitimacy to their future executioners. June 2013, when millions marched against the Muslim Brotherhood government, was one of the most contradictory moments in the revolutionary process. The legitimacy of the Brotherhood had declined, and a mass petition circulated for them to step down. But it was the armed forces that had the momentum. The police force went on strike, prompting fears of a collapse in the state. Without a clearly progressive party that was backed up by the force of working class strike activity and self-organisation, the power vacuum was filled by a military coup.

Today the counter-revolution has the momentum and the demands of January 2011 have not been met. But this also means the situation is unstable and the story far from finished. The authors suggest the “tathir” movement (which calls for the cleansing of all Mubarak-era personnel from official posts and workplace management) is still the most fertile ground for the revival of a challenge to the state.

Bread, Freedom, Social Justice is written in a somewhat academic style, and could be read alongside a basic introduction to the Egyptian revolution for readers unfamiliar with the events, such as Sameh Naguib’s The Egyptian Revolution: a political analysis and eyewitness account. But anyone fighting for revolution in the 21st century will find in it a wealth of ideological weaponry.

By Erima Dall
Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: workers & the Egyptian revolution
By Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny
Zed Books


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