Since the present pamphlet was written, events have been unfolding at an accelerated pace in the Middle East. After the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya has been engulfed in different kind of uprising, which may well end the dictatorship of colonel Gaddafi, but at the cost of a civil war. Unlike his opposite number in Tunisia and in Egypt, Gaddafi has chosen to use the fire power of his police and army against the protestors. According to one Libyan Human Rights NGO, at the time of writing, this has already caused up to 6,000 casualties. There has been a massive flood of refugees, both Libyans and foreign, towards Egypt and Tunisia, which has been threatening these two countries with a humanitarian crisis.
From the sparse - and often speculative - reports available in the media, it is impossible to know what is really happening in Libya. According to these reports "committees of opposition forces" have taken control of some eastern towns like Benghazi and parts of the west. But what is the political nature of these forces? Is their apparent success so far, due to the support they enjoy among the population? Or is it simply due to the political vacuum created by the partial collapse of Gaddafi's state machinery, as reflected by the growing number of regime dignitaries who are changing sides, like rats abandoning a sinking ship? While Gaddafi's bloody policy appears to be the last stand of a "mad" dictator, could there be any kind of logic in this madness like, for instance, the ability of his regime to rely on the support of a section at least of the population - for whatever reason, tribal or otherwise? Answering these questions is quite simply impossible from where we stand in Britain.
What is certain, on the other hand, is that the threat of a bloodbath in Libya is providing the imperialist leaders with a convenient means to divert attention away from their responsibility in shoring up all the bloody dictatorships of the region - especially those of the deposed dictators of Tunisia and Egypt, Ben Ali and Mubarak. Having branded Gaddafi's regime for so long as "terrorist", they can now try to claim the moral high ground, by trumpeting "we've told you so" and waiving the threat of economic sanctions, if not military ones - although the latter are unlikely in the present context of revolt in the Middle East. But what hypocrisy! As if Gaddafi's dictatorship, like Mubarak's, Ben Ali's and so many others, had not been, for decades, a valued asset for the imperialist powers, due to its murderous stability? As if, since US president George Bush lifted investment restrictions in Libya, most of the world's oil and gas majors had not been plundering the country - from the US groups Exxon, Conocco-Philips and Marathon, to the French Total, the Italian ENI and the British BP, Shell and BG group! And as if western governments had not allowed the sales of large quantities of weapons to Gaddafi's army - something that neither Labour nor the Tories make any apology for! Bloody and "terrorist" as it may have been, the oil, gas and money of Gaddafi's regime was good enough for western shareholders to grab!
Taking on the capitalist system of oppression
No-one should forget, therefore, that the imperialist powers bear as much responsibility for the "madness" of Gaddafi, as for the no less bloody repression of all the "western friendly" dictatorships of the region. They are all necessary cogs in the worldwide system of oppression without which the tiny capitalist classes of the rich countries would be unable to plunder the rest of the planet. And this is why there will be no "freedom", no "democracy" in the Middle East, nor in the rest of the world's poor countries for that matter, without overthrowing this worldwide system of oppression - that is, capitalism itself.
How this could be achieved, is precisely what the chain reaction which has taken place over the past two months in the Middle East illustrates. Not that the wave of protests which spread from Tunisia to Egypt and so many other countries in Northern Africa (Algeria and Morocco) and the Middle East (Jordan, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, and even Iran and Iraq), has changed anything so far, in the imperialist system of oppression. Where the dictators have gone, they have been replaced with their former generals and/or ministers, while the repressive machinery of the dictatorship was left intact, ready to be used by the next would-be strong man. Elsewhere, the ruling dictators have remained in place, so far, merely making a show of their preparedness to "mend their ways" in an attempt to defuse the unrest.
However, this chain reaction of protests spreading across borders in countries which have all be ruled by dictatorships for so long is, in and of itself, a demonstration of how the imperialist web of oppression could be unwound, if the protesters found a way of joining ranks in a common fight, behind common objectives, regardless of nationality or creed. After all, why should these divisions be impossible to overcome, when one of the main factors behind the protesters' despair and anger is the impact of the world capitalist crisis - with rising unemployment affecting large layers of society, including sections of the petit-bourgeoisie, and soaring food prices driving the poor even further into poverty?
As revolutionary communists, we believe that there is only one force in society which can provide such common objectives to the poor masses who form the majority of these countries' population, by bringing them together behind its own banner. This social force is the working class, or rather, the international working class.
This is why we have made the choice of devoting the present forum primarily to Egypt: not just because it is one of the pillars of imperialist domination in the Middle East, nor because it has one of the largest populations in the region, nor even because it saw the largest mobilisation in this year's wave of protests, but because it has the richest working class traditions in the region. As we will see, there is a lot to learn from the battles which were fought yesterday by the Egyptian working class.
British occupation and the birth of nationalism
Western meddling in Egypt and, more generally, in the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire to which Egypt was subordinate, goes back a long way. By the middle of the 19th century, London and Paris were running the Empire's state finances. Egypt was just as much under the thumb of Anglo-French predators. They had already turned the port town of Alexandria into a de facto colonial enclave. London dominated Egypt's trade and private banking, while France dominated Egypt's state procurement and public debt, providing it with loans to buy its weapons and to fund the construction of the Suez Canal and railway.
In 1875, the Egyptian state was finally threatened with bankruptcy. Prompted by a leading banker, Lord Rothschild, the British government bought back the 44% shares held by the Egyptian state in the Suez Canal Company - the rest being mostly held by French investors. But this "rescue" resolved nothing. Just a year later Egypt had to agree to a dual Anglo-French control over its state finances. By then, the boards of directors of the main Egyptian financial institutions, private and public, were filled with the top names of British and French finance, and the Egyptian government included several French and British ministers.
The subsequent brutal enforcement of tax collection - to pay for the state debt owed to British and French capital - triggered the threat of a nationalist coup. Riots broke out in Alexandria, directly threatening European facilities and personnel. At first, both London and Paris decided to make a symbolic show of strength by sending a naval task force off the coast of Egypt. In July 1882, the British fleet bombarded the Alexandria rioters. The resulting outrage in France forced the French government to back off, providing colonial hawks in the City with a golden opportunity - both to turn the screw on Egypt and to get a competitive advantage over its French rivals. London's Liberal government ordered British troops into Egypt, thereby breaking the back of the country's first nationalist movement.
Until the outbreak of World War I, Egypt retained an ambiguous status: while still formally a satellite nation of the Ottoman Empire, its territory was occupied by the British army, while the running of its state and economy was overseen by British and French capital. But once the war was declared in August 1914, this ambiguity was completely lifted. What little political freedom had existed before disappeared, press censorship and martial law were introduced and any expression of nationalism was banned. Then London got its Egyptian puppet regime to announce its unilateral withdrawal from the Ottoman Empire and to request respectfully Britain's "protection." And London generously obliged, to protect the interests of British capital - of course! In return, London hinted to the possibility of self-determination for Egypt, once the war was over. However, as we will see later, this was just a mirage.
The emergence of the working class
It is now time to talk about the emergence of a new social force in Egyptian politics, namely the working class.
It should be said that, according to archeologists, the appearance of an Egyptian working class goes back at least as far as the 12th century BC, under the rule of Ramses III! A papyrus document, now kept in an Italian museum, records a successful strike against the non-payment of wages by construction workers who were then building a necropolis for the ruling dynasty. This is said to have been the first recorded case of collective action by wage workers in history!
Of course it is well beyond the scope of this forum to delve so far into the past. The 19th century is quite far enough, because already by then, the working class movement had become an increasingly important factor in Egyptian politics. Not that, at that point, the working class was very large. By 1917, the number of workers employed in the production and transport industries was still only a sixth of the total working in agriculture. But, just as in every other colonial country, this working class was concentrated in the few cities around which the looting of the country was organised. This meant that while being directly at the receiving end of the colonial exploiters, it was also best placed to threaten the profits of colonial investors.
The Egyptian working class was a complex mix. A majority were former landless peasants. But a sizeable minority were foreigners: in 1907, 10% came from Europe, bringing their own working class traditions, and 5% came from neighbouring countries. This last group was to play a significant role as a living link between Egypt and the rest of the region, exporting Egypt's recurring political turmoil and reflecting in Egypt whatever popular mobilisation was taking place elsewhere.
Until the early years of the 20th century, no lasting working class organisation managed to survive. There were numerous strikes and ad hoc organisations created on these occasions, but repression wiped them out once the workers' mobilisation had subsided.
By 1908, however, unions aiming to organise workers on the basis of one industry, regardless of nationality and skill, began to develop, starting with tobacco workers. Cairo's tramway drivers soon followed, forming the first Egyptian-led union.
In 1908 too, the Nationalist Party was formed. It sought to address itself to the Europeanised urban middle-class. However, sensing that the emerging working class movement was a potential new audience, the new party got its young students to organise evening schools for workers, its doctors to hold free clinics for workers and its lawyers to help with the launching and running of unions. Of course, the nationalists did not see workers' unions as class organisations, but as organisations whose aim was to fight the social expression of colonial domination - a fight which, they said, would no longer be necessary once independence was achieved! In the meantime, they did their best to be co-opted by the leaderships of the unions in order to channel their activity according to their own nationalist agenda.
In 1909, the nationalists were able to capitalise on their efforts by setting up the first Egyptian union confederation - the "Manual Trades Workers' Union" or MTWU. By any modern standards, it was small, since its actual membership peaked at just over 3,000 in 1912. But the very idea of coordinating workers across industries was a powerful new idea in Egypt - or it would have been, had the MTWU really been a workers' union. However, in keeping with the nationalists' social outlook, it made no difference between wage workers and artisans or small businessmen as long as they were in manual jobs. Worse, as many as 40% of the seats on the MTWU's leading body were allocated to middle class nationalists, in exchange for twice the normal dues or a one-off substantial donation.
The 1919 explosion
For the most part, there was a lull in the class struggle until the end of World War I. In November 1918, the Egyptian bourgeoisie, which had given its full support to Britain's war effort, began to ask for its reward - i.e. self-determination. A delegation of big landowners and notables, led by a former government minister called Saad Zaghloul, requested to put Egypt's case for independence to the Peace Conference, due to open in Paris in January 1919. However, authorisation was flatly refused by the British High Commissioner.
This response was received as an insult by a whole section of the population, ranging from the Egyptian bourgeoisie to the urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie. It was met with a huge campaign of petitions across the country, asking that the delegation being allowed to go to Europe. The Wafd campaign, as it was called (Wafd means delegation in Arabic) soon gave birth to a new nationalist party - the Wafd party, with Zaghloul as its leader.
On 8 March 1919, the British authorities retaliated, arresting Zaghloul and three of his associates and deporting them to Malta. This sparked off an explosion of anger across the country. For several weeks, there were daily protests and confrontations with British troops and police in every Egyptian city, together with numerous attacks against British-linked buildings, installations and personnel.
By 1917, in fact, workers' struggles had already resumed, starting with a tobacco workers' strike. By 1919 a wave of strikes had commenced. Cairo tramway workers went on strike, followed immediately by all other transport workers in the capital. Within a week, railway workers from all over Egypt were also on strike over their own demands. They were followed by many other workers - in printing, electricity, the arsenals, the ports and the post office, among others.
As the companies resorted to all kinds of tricks in order to break the strike, including getting the army to fire on pickets, the strikers had to find, with the help of protesters, the means of protecting themselves and the means of ensuring that the strike remained effective - which resulted in much calculated sabotage, particularly in the railways.
However, this was not to the Wafd party leaders' liking. In an official statement they asked that "no-one violate the law, so as not to obstruct the path of all those who serve the nation by legal means" - which was certainly not much good for workers, nor in fact for protesters, who were being shot at by soldiers! Nor was it much use after the announcement made by the British authorities, that anyone found guilty by a military court of interfering with the operation of the railway, telegraph or telephone systems, would face the death penalty!
Despite British threats, the protest continued to gather momentum, which forced London to give in eventually. On April 8th, the Wafd leaders were released and allowed to travel to London in order to present their case to the British government. Street protests subsided, but not the strike wave. In fact, on the 15th April, government employees joined the strike. And it was only after the end of their strike, on April 23rd, that other strikers began to agree a return to work. In general, these strikes resulted in substantial gains. The Cairo tramway workers, for instance, won an 8h15min work day, sick pay worth 25% of normal wages and a significant pay increase for all.
Thus ended the first phase of the protest wave. But there was a lot more to come.
May-June 1919 saw another massive 4-week strike, this time involving workers in the industrial and service complex of the Suez canal, which included not just canal operations as such, but also many factories, repair shops, harbour facilities, etc. Out of this strike came the first real cross-industrial union, the International Workers' Union of the Isthmus of Suez, which aimed at organising all workers from the canal complex, regardless of skill, employer, industry or nationality. It was probably no coincidence that some of its most active instigators were Italian and Greek revolutionary socialists.
Then came a new large-scale explosion, in August, this time exclusively from within the ranks of the working class. It all started with yet another outbreak of anger from Cairo tramway workers, followed by tramway workers in Alexandria and Heliopolis. From there, the strike spread like wildfire to every industry and even many small workplaces. After the gains made by the Spring strikes, those who had not taken part in the movement, were raising their demands, and those who had been involved already found new demands or unresolved ones. Above all and for the first time, in every one of these strikes, the right to belong to a union was at the forefront of the strikers' demands and everywhere new unions were being created. Eleven days into this industrial mobilisation, the issue of the French-speaking Egyptian business daily La Bourse Egyptienne (the Egyptian Stock Market) carried the bewildered (and wary) headline: "it is raining trade unions!"
In fact the business press was right to be worried. The strike wave was definitely taking on a radical turn. In Cairo, a group of trade-union activists inspired by revolutionary socialist ideas had launched a trade-union resource centre modelled on the French revolutionary syndicalist tradition, which was designed to help with the creation of new unions and allow existing ones to coordinate their activities in the capital. Predictably the British authorities became obsessed with this resource centre and went out of their way to close it down - although they only succeeded once the strike wave was over.
After a month, most of the strikes were finally over. In most cases companies had made important concessions, although generally not on union recognition. The last strikers to return to work were those who had sparked off the strike. The tramway workers decided to end their strike on October 5th, after 56 days, thereby ending this strike wave. What came out of it, in addition to a sense of victory and strength among the strikers, was a large number of solidly-organised unions which were to play a decisive role in the next period.
A balance sheet of 1919
To conclude on the explosion of the year 1919, it is worth saying a few things about its political and social nature.
The main factor in these events was the coming together of anti-British and nationalist feelings, on the one hand, and social aspirations on the other. Nationalist feelings took on a social dimension as the protests became deeper, involving the poorest layers of the population, who voiced their resentment against poverty and unemployment. Conversely, the workers who went on strike blamed their conditions, to some extent at least, on Britain's system of colonial oppression.
During March-April, the street protests played a significant role in encouraging larger sections of workers to take strike action. But these strikes were not over nationalist demands - they were over demands directed against Egyptian as well as foreign bosses. In other words, in the midst of what amounted to a nationalist mobilisation, the working class was fighting with its specific objectives, albeit unconsciously, for lack of a political leadership capable of formulating clear common class objectives - i.e., for lack of a workers' party.
Conversely, the fact that workers were on strike played a significant role in reinforcing the street protests, both by allowing strikers to join the protests but, above all, by paralysing a whole range of economic activities, thereby making the situation far more difficult to handle for the authorities. There again, had a workers' party existed, it would have been able to use this demonstration of economic power by the working class to address the aspirations - both national and social - of the urban and rural poor masses, and to call on them to rally behind the working class in a fight for common objectives.
Besides, the mobilisation of the masses was not confined to Egypt during that period. There were parallel uprisings of variable importance across Palestine and, more importantly, in Iraq, the following year. Whether these mobilisations were directly related or not, we do not know. But a workers' party based on the working class of Egypt, the largest in the region, would have been able to formulate aims with which all the poor masses of the region fighting against their exploiters - colonial or domestic - would have been able to identify, regardless of nationality, language or religion. Something that no nationalist party or movement, could possibly do.
Eventually such a perspective was raised, but too late, after the mobilisation had already began to recede, in the manifesto issued in September 1920, by the "Conference of the Peoples and Toilers of the East" convened in Baku by the new Russian Soviet power.
The problem, of course, was that there was no workers' party in Egypt in 1919, let alone a battle-ready revolutionary party like the Bolsheviks had been in Russia after the February revolution. And not only did this prevent the poor masses of Egypt and of the entire region from using the opportunities presented by a potentially revolutionary situation, but it also gave the nationalists and, behind them, Egypt's corrupt bourgeoisie, an additional lease of life, paid for, to a significant extent, with the militant energy of the working class. And this was not to be the last time in Egypt's history.
By an ironic twist, the fact that the domination of the Egyptian political scene by the nationalists deprived the 1919 explosion of its revolutionary potential, actually paved the way for Britain's continuing colonial plunder of Egypt. It was not that the nationalist agitation subsided. It went on for another two years. But talks between London and the Wafd never got anywhere, as the Wafd insisted on complete independence, which Britain felt under no pressure to agree to.
Eventually, in February 1922, the British government unilaterally issued a so-called "declaration of independence" for Egypt. But this was a sham. Its provisions meant that British troops would stay, the Canal Zone would remain under London's control as well as all foreign investment and the future constitution would be written by British colonial bureaucrats with a British appointed king as its figurehead. Initially Zaghloul opposed it. But under pressure of heavy British repression, the Wafd finally gave in. In the 1924 election, it easily won a majority of the seats in the new British-designed parliament.
For nearly 3 decades, the Wafd was to dominate Egyptian politics. This was not just thanks to the constitutional arrangements it had agreed with Britain. Of course, the Wafd represented primarily the richest layers of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. However, in order to be respected by the British, the Wafd also had to maintain a certain social weight, by resorting to populist methods similar to those of the Nationalist Party before WWI - including among the poorest layers of society, especially within the working class and trade unions. But if it was at all able to maintain this base of support, it was due its origins - as a party born out of a popular mobilisation, in a situation which was far closer to a revolutionary situation than anything seen in Egypt since then and in the absence of a revolutionary party capable of allowing the poor masses to defend their own specific interests.
On to the next World War
The interwar period was marked by many limited skirmishes between the nationalists and the British and recurring unrest in the working class - both contained by regular use of repression.
By 1936, the Wafd finally obtained an agreement with London to settle some of the issues left unresolved by the 1922 "declaration of independence." The result was an Anglo-Egyptian Treaty which gave Egypt what it described as "full independence." But apart from the country being able to send a representative to the League of Nations (the predecessor of the UN), it did not change much. It provided that British troops would remain in the Canal zone for at least 20 years. Britain was to protect Egypt in case of aggression in return for having full access to Egypt's "strategic facilities" in case of war. The Treaty lifted Britain's control over the country's finances and foreign investment, but so-called British "advisers" to the Egyptian government were to look after the interests of British capital. Above all, the country remained as totally dependent on foreign capital as it had been before.
In the summer of 1936 the class struggle erupted again, with a 2-month strike wave, the largest since 1919. Its main cause was the fast deterioration in workers' conditions, especially after the 1929 crash. There had been a drastic fall in the real value of wages and material conditions had become much harder, especially in the new industries, like textile. The many factory occupations which took place during that summer - unusual in Egypt - probably reflected the degree of influence of the huge working class upsurge then spreading from Spain, France and Greece, to North Africa and Iraq.
After this strike wave, the screw of repression was tightened again, until all political and trade union activities were finally banned, by the re-introduction of martial law in September 1939. The state of war automatically triggered the provisions included in the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and reinforcements were sent from all over the British Empire (and later from the US) into Egypt, which soon became a hub for the Allied war effort in the Middle East.
Soon the Wafd was to put all its weight behind Britain's war effort, just as the Egyptian bourgeoisie had done during World War I.
The resurgence of communist ideas
Nothing has been said so far about communist activity in Egypt. This is because, in this respect, Egypt was an exception in the region. In every other country, both in the Middle East and Northern Algeria, communist organisations had emerged and played a role in shaping the fledgling working class movement. But not so in Egypt.
Not that communist ideas had been entirely absent. Several communist groups had been started after the 1919 explosion, by European intellectuals. While being driven underground by the anti-communist obsession of the British authorities, they were faced with a situation where the nationalist Wafd occupied the whole political space. As a result they failed to build lasting roots in the working class. By 1924, these communist groups had ceased to exist, due either to the repression or to demoralisation.
By 1936, communist activists were again able to play a significant role in the wave of industrial and urban unrest which swept the main Middle Eastern countries. But in Egypt, there was only a small group of isolated communist activists, with no experience, no link with the communist groups of 1920-24 and no contact among Egyptian workers. They were all Egyptian Jews, who had been won over to communism while studying abroad. Among them was Yusuf Darwish, who was to play a vital role both in the communist and in the trade-union movement, until his death, in 2006.
In 1939, the small group of activists around Darwish launched a clandestine communist group called New Dawn, with the aim to recruit and train communist activists from within the ranks of the most militant Egyptian unions. These activists focused their work around Shubra al-Khayma, a satellite town of Cairo where 20,000 industrial workers lived and worked.
Being trained as a lawyer, Darwish used the age-old tactics of the nationalists, by offering his free services to the General Union of Mechanical Textile Workers (GUMTW), a militant union which organised most textile factories in this area. However, unlike the nationalists, the aim of New Dawn was not to take over control of the union on behalf of its members, but rather to train a new layer of militant activists to be able to run the union themselves.
In 1941, the newly-elected leadership of the GUMTW, under the leadership of a worker called Mahmud al-Askari, who was now a supporter of New Dawn, embarked on a far-ranging new policy. The union began to provide more financial help to sick and sacked workers. It launched a whole programme of education for its members as well as a weekly paper, "Shubra", which was used as an instrument for education and agitation - especially in a campaign for a 10% cost-of-living allowance, which was successful. Above all, the GUMTW used "Shubra" to reach out to workers far beyond the textile industry and beyond the confines of Shubra al-Kayma. Under its influence, and with the help of New Dawn activists, new unions were formed in various industries in and around Cairo - in pharmaceutical warehouses, among steamboat workers, linen weavers, rubber shoe workers, etc..
New Dawn was not the only communist group to develop an activity during the war, although it was probably the most successful in terms of winning over workers to communism. Other groups also gained a certain influence, primarily among the ranks of young intellectuals and they too, were to have some influence in the events of the following period albeit on a different level. By combining their forces, the communist activists now had, potentially at least, the means to play a role in the events to come. Unfortunately, as we will see, the policy dictated by Moscow only served to disarm them, and by the same token, disarmed the working class, when the crunch came.
Another postwar explosion
By the end of the war, the dismantling of the war economy created an explosive situation across the Middle East. Social unrest broke out everywhere, with anti-imperialist demands being voiced on a scale reminiscent of the aftermath of WWI.
Egypt's particular role in the Allied war machinery had resulted in significant economic expansion. In addition, the maintenance of hundreds of thousands of soldiers stationed in the country created many jobs in agriculture and services. With the end of the war, there was a drastic fall in demand. Countless shops went bust, while farmers could no longer sell their products. Industrial production dropped. Hundreds of thousands of workers were faced with either ever more inadequate wages, due to wartime inflation, or the threat of losing their jobs, and usually both.
Politically, the Wafd was in a difficult position. By supporting the war effort despite its unpopularity, it had taken a big risk and despite its remonstrations to the British government, it had nothing to show for it. In order to regain some of the credit lost, the party leaders became more vocal in their demand for independence. As a result, London got the Egyptian King to dismiss the Wafd government and organise new elections in 1945 - which the Wafd decided to boycott. This election was probably the worst ever, in terms of ballot rigging, tampering with results, preventing the workers and poor from voting and vote-buying in the rural areas. It only served to discredit the royal administration which had organised this farce and its British patrons even more. Above all, it underlined the fact that the demand for full independence should remain at the top of the agenda.
A wave of unrest swept the country during the six months after this election. Rather than a tide of protest, similar to the popular explosion of 1919, it was a tide of strikes. What this wave had in common with 1919, however, was that both for the workers involved and for vast sections of the population - among its poorest layers as well as among the nationalist petit-bourgeoisie - these strikes were seen as a means to get back at the British colonial power and its royal puppet regime. So they were able to benefit from a high level of support across the population. Eventually, the authorities, which had been taken unawares by this upsurge of militancy, saw no answer but to resort to another wave of repression. The GUMTW, among other unions, was disbanded and banned. However, this was to prove ineffective. These unions had prepared themselves for such a move and they were able to carry on operating almost seamlessly.
In October 1945, martial law was finally lifted. Responding to a call issued by the former leadership of the GUMTW, activists from different unions came together to form a new, legal, working-class based political organisation - the Workers' Committee for National Liberation (WCNL) - together with a weekly paper called al-Damir (the Conscience) with Mahmud al-Askari as its editor. The WCNL's best-known members were supporters and members of the New Dawn group. Above all, it reflected the political radicalisation which was taking place within the working class. Hence, the preamble of the new organisation's programme stated: "The Workers' Committee for National Liberation believes that it is the duty of the working class, whose characteristics are in the process of maturing, to present to you a nationalist programme that seeks the liberation of the popular classes, which are the great majority of Egypt's inhabitants, from the yoke of imperialism and the oppression of internal exploitation." For the first time a working class organisation was clearly bidding, on a class basis, for the leadership of the struggle for national emancipation, in the name of the interests of all. Even if the WCNL still stopped short of aiming at combining the forces of the working class and poor masses across the Middle East, it was a big step forward by putting into question the so far unchallenged domination of the working class movement by nationalist forces.
However, the British authorities were quick to see the danger that the WCNL represented. Through a combination of provocation and wholesale repression, they managed to behead the organisation and to drive it out of existence before it had any chance of building up its influence.
Fighting the army and bigots
Although repression succeeded in containing the first strike wave, it did not prevent strikes from carrying on in many industries. These strikes and their repression by British troops fed, in turn, the development of nationalist unrest. One of the forces driving this unrest was another committee launched by communist activists, the National Committee of Workers and Students (NCWS), in which the unions involved in the deceased WCNL were also represented.
On 21 February 1946, this committee called for a general strike which was designated as "Evacuation Day" (meaning evacuation for British troops, of course). On that day, a giant rally of up to 100,000 protesters was held in the centre of Cairo. At the end of the rally, four British armoured vehicles ploughed into the crowd, killing and injuring several protesters. They were attacked and set on fire, prompting more troops to be called in. By the end of the day, 23 protesters had been killed and 121 injured. In response, the NCWS called for another general strike on March 4th, in which all 25,000 workers at the Mahalla al-Kubra Misr Spinning and Weaving Company downed tools. But in Alexandria, the British army attacked again, killing 28 protestors and injuring 342.
The government and British authorities were becoming very worried by the on-going industrial unrest, especially in textiles. Repression alone was obviously not working and in May, when another strike broke out in Shubra al-Kayma, triggered by the non-payment of wage arrears, press censorship was reintroduced, while the help of the Muslim Brotherhood was enlisted in order to break the strike.
This was the first time that the Brotherhood, whose existence dated back to 1928, was enlisted by the bosses and the regime against workers' militancy. Up until then, it had always made a point of presenting an image of benevolence to workers, including during strikes. Its welfare facilities were offered to strikers and its members played an active, albeit non-militant, role in trade-union life.
Of course, there was no such thing as a class in the Brotherhood's book. Their activity in the working class was just consistent with their aim to establish a presence in every social layer as part of their bid for political power. In this respect, they were no different from the Wafd and most other nationalist organisations. The main difference, of course, was the other lever that they used in order to support their bid - i.e. religion and the perspective of an Egyptian "caliphate" - and, as a result, the way they turned the reactionary behaviour demanded by religion into social necessity, which needed to be imposed by force if need be, particularly regarding the condition of women.
Whereas, politically, the Brotherhood considered the nationalists as their rivals, this was not the case when it came to their attempts to gain influence in the working class - quite simply because the nationalists were only interested in controlling the unions, not in winning support among workers. Besides, the Brotherhood and the nationalists had a shared dislike for workers taking direct action, let alone having a say in what action they were taking. The communists, on the other hand, were seen as a direct threat by the Brotherhood, due to their attempts to educate and win over workers to the communist programme, and help them to organise themselves using their own resources - and, of course, due to their atheism. As communist activity gathered momentum during the war, the Brotherhood increasingly recruited on the basis of anti-communism. After the war, they went further, by setting themselves the task of federating all the political groups on the far-right which saw communism as the main enemy.
It was therefore quite deliberately that, in May 1946, the pro-British prime minister Ismael Sidqi approached the Brotherhood for help against the strike in Shubra al-Kayma. Sidqi and his British advisers saw "reds" under every bed and wanted to "eradicate the communist threat". With the Wafd sulking in opposition and unlikely to help, given the wide support of its own social base for the strikes, the Brotherhood seemed a likely auxiliary, given its vocal anti-communism. To secure the Brotherhood's loyalty, Sidqi granted them a licence to print a daily newspaper, something which was difficult to get at the time.
The Brotherhood's role during the 10-week strike of May-July 1946, in Shubra al-Kayma, was to disorganise and demoralise the strikers, by all sorts of means - setting up a parallel union, circulating false statements from the strike leadership, beating up isolated strikers, etc., and acting as informers for the bosses and police. It was on the Brotherhood's information that most of the members of the clandestine strike leadership were finally arrested, which left the strikers without a perspective. By the beginning of July, 75% of the original strikers had gone back to work after signing a no-strike pledge and the remaining strikers who had not been arrested or sacked, followed.
This intervention of the Brotherhood in the strike was the beginning of a long collaboration with the state to undermine the working class movement.
The defeat of the strikers at Shubra al-Kayma was bound to have a demoralising effect across the working class, given the leading role played by workers of this town over the previous years. So the Sidqi government decided that the time had come to strike back. On July 11th, all organisations, papers and associations suspected to have any connection with communist or left nationalist groups, were banned. Their bookshops, offices, funds, etc., were confiscated. Hundreds of activists, in the working class and the intelligentsia, were jailed. The Congress of Egyptian Trade Unions, a union confederation which had just emerged out of the strike wave, was banned. And a new, wide-ranging anti-communist law was endorsed by the puppet Egyptian parliament.
This marked the end of a wave of industrial unrest which had been unprecedented in terms of the numbers of workers involved and the level of its organisation.
The army saves the bourgeoisie's neck
The repression of July 1946 did not mark the end of the industrial unrest however. Within a year, strikes restarted with a vengeance. The number of industrial disputes resulting in some sort of stoppage increased from over 14,700 during 1946 to over 15,400 in 1948. And this, despite more and more confrontations with the army and police. Even the 1,500 nurses who went on strike at one Cairo hospital, in April 1948, armed themselves with oxygen cylinders and other projectiles against the police. Obviously, the pro-British administration was losing the battle. Its authority was so discredited that it even had to face a strike by the very people in charge of enforcing its rule - the police!
The 1948-9 war in Palestine gave the regime a short respite. Before the Egyptian army marched into Palestine, in May 1948, martial law had been declared. 3,000 opposition activists were rounded up and put in concentration camps. Most trade unions, together with the communist and left nationalist organisations were paralysed, which brought the strike wave to an end. But it was always obvious that as soon as martial law was suspended, the dynamic of the postwar rebellion would re-emerge again.
In 1949, following Egypt's defeat in the Palestine war, which public opinion blamed on the king, his entourage, and their collusion with Britain, the Wafd was brought back into office, in an attempt to revamp the regime. Some degree of political freedom was restored and most political prisoners released.
In an attempt to pre-empt a resurgence of industrial unrest, measures were passed in favour of the working class: military order No 99 established a daily minimum wage and a cost-of-living allowance. Ironically, though, the result of these measures was a big increase in the number of disputes during that year, reaching a record level since the war, at over 18,800: since order No 99 did not include any provisions for enforcement, bosses just ignored it and workers had to strike to gain any benefit from it!
As in the previous postwar strikes, communist activists were able to play a significant role. By then, however, their policy had changed. The name their main organisation, the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL), reflected this change. While carrying on their organising work among workers and within the trade unions, these activists now aimed at building the broadest possible alliance behind a nationalist programme.
There was no more question of the working class taking the leadership of the struggle for independence and against exploitation, as had been the case in the 1940s. Rather, the working class was to be one component, among others, of this broad nationalist alliance fighting for an "independent, democratic Egypt". If potential partners of this alliance objected to workers putting forward their specific class interests, they would have to abstain temporarily - but how temporarily was never spelt out! Predictably this policy repeatedly led the DMNL into short-lived alliances with very strange bedfellows - like the right-wing Socialist Party (the new incarnation of the prewar pro-fascist Young Egypt) and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose raving anti-communism was occasionally tempered by an opportunistic turn or the reflection of internal faction fights. However, despite a policy which now amounted to placing the working class in the tow of the nationalist bourgeoisie, communist activists still managed to develop extensive working class activity and to help rebuild an even stronger trade-union movement.
Meanwhile, a new wave of nationalist unrest was developing, fed by the slow progress made by the Wafd in the renegotiation of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Eventually, faced with more and more protests in the streets against its government, the Wafd decided to make a last-ditch attempt at rebuilding its credit: in October 1951, the Wafd prime minister announced the unilateral denunciation of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and of the 1899 agreement which regulated the colonial administration of the Sudan.
This move was enthusiastically welcomed, including amongst workers, but not necessarily in the way the Wafd had hoped for. In addition to numerous demonstrations of support in the street, workers took initiatives of their own. Telephone and postal workers launched a boycott of British military bases. Dockers and repair workers along the Suez Canal went on strike for over 4 months, against Britain's military presence, stopping all traffic through the Canal. Most spectacular was the impact of a call by the Wafd government inviting Egyptian workers employed by the British military facilities of the Canal Zone to resign, with the promise that they would be provided with public sector jobs instead. 66,000 of the 71,000 workers concerned answered this call. But when the promised public sector jobs failed to materialise, the same workers were heard again in the streets, this time to protest against the government's failure to deliver.
Meanwhile, anti-British resentment was expressed in a wave of guerilla and terrorist attacks against British facilities and sometimes individuals. These were mostly uncoordinated, but some groups did have a role in organising some of these attacks - the Socialist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the far-right, and some Left breakaway groups of the Wafd, at the other end of the political spectrum. The situation became so tense that when, on 25th January 1952, British troops attacked a police station in the Canal Zone, apparently on the basis of false intelligence, killing 50 police and leaving many injured, Cairo exploded. Riots broke out, everything British was attacked and part of the wealthy business district was turned into ashes.
The regime responded by dismissing the Wafd government, reinstating martial law and carrying out another wholesale round-up of activists. This ended the unrest, for now, but only increased the regime's discredit among public opinion. Part of the army hierarchy itself was fed up with the corruption and spinelessness of the monarchy. In July 1952, a clandestine group of officers, calling themselves the Free Officers' Movement staged a coup d'état and a Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) took power, under the leadership of a general Naguib. The army thus took power in order to restore order, in a situation which was threatening to become too dangerous for the ruling class.
Nasser and the working class
The RCC was a political mixed bag. It included a few supporters and members of the DMNL, Muslim Brotherhood and other nationalist groups. It included future president, Anwar Sadat, for instance, who was a sympathiser of the Muslim Brotherhood. Whereas the RCC's number 2, Colonel Abdel Nasser, had been in contact with both the DMNL and the Muslim Brotherhood, using both organisations according to his needs. In fact Nasser's attitude was probably a good reflection of the real state of play. The role of the army hierarchy was to defend the existing social order and it was prepared to use all forces available to achieve it - but it would allow none of these forces to become too strong.
Within a year, the RCC regime was to be shored up by the formal abolition of the monarchy, which was replaced with a secular republic, and the abrogation of the 1923 constitutional monarchy. In June 1953, while Naguib remained president, Nasser became the regime's real strong man, as prime minister. The following year, with American backing, the RCC got Britain to sign a treaty providing for the complete withdrawal of British troops from Egypt within 20 months. The same year, the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been trying to mobilise popular support against the regime's secularism, was banned and some of its leaders executed.
The RCC's outlook was rather simple. First, the army wanted full recognition by the world's main powers. So, right from the word go, the RCC kept a finger in every pie - in the British, American, Russian and French embassies. Second, it wanted to consolidate the support it enjoyed amongst the population, but without this costing too much to the Egyptian bourgeoisie. Last, the RCC wanted to use its control of the state machinery to develop an industrial infrastructure which would bolster Egyptian capital.
Regardless of the large-scale nationalisations which it carried out later, the new regime was not hostile to private industry, nor even to foreign investment, quite the contrary. Paradoxical as this may seem, it was precisely because they knew that the Egyptian bourgeoisie could not manage without foreign investment that the military carried out large-scale nationalisations of foreign companies. Indeed, it was only by using state funds, that an ageing industrial infrastructure, in which foreign investor would not invest, could be modernised. The state also had to undertake the re-organisation and rationalisation of heavy industries and infrastructure as a prerequisite for attracting new foreign investment at some later point.
The nationalisation of the Suez Canal itself, in 1956, was really part of this same strategy, even if it appeared as a reaction against the unexpected withdrawal of loans promised by the western powers, in the context of one of the many crises of the Cold War. On this occasion, Nasser's anti-imperialist rhetoric against Britain and France, appeared clearly for what it really was - nationalist posturing - when Washington intervened on his side to stop London and Paris from retaliating with air strikes. Nasser gambled correctly - assuming that he did not already have assurances to this effect from Washington - that the US would see favourably the end of the Anglo-French control over the Canal. In any case, this nationalisation was conducted with all due respect for capitalist interests. The Canal's shareholders were immediately compensated for all their shares, which were repaid at their pre-nationalisation price on the Paris stock market. Clearly, Nasser did not want to upset the big imperialist investors!
Likewise, the regime's land reform, which redistributed some of the land of the largest properties over and above 200 acres, involved compensation for all the big landlords who were affected, many of whom made a nice packet out of lands which they could not otherwise have sold.
In other words, the "socialist" label that Nasser gave to his regime had nothing to do with its social nature, and everything to do with a populist attempt to shore up support amongst the population. Likewise, Nasser's "pan-Arabist" language, promoting a common identity shared by all Arabic-speaking populations, was never aimed at uniting the region against the looting of imperialism. Rather, it was aimed at backing up Nasser's bid for Egypt to be recognised as the region's power broker by the major powers and, by the same token, at shoring up his nationalist credentials in Egypt.
As regards its attitude to the working class, the regime was anything but sympathetic. One of its first acts was to clamp down on a textile strike, executing two strike leaders and giving long jail sentences to several others. The regime's view was that class conflict was unnecessary in what it called a "people's republic". As Nasser explained at the time: "It is impossible today to raise the standard of living of workers. In order to do that we need to give them money, and to do that it is our duty to increase production by creating industries." A statement which can be compared with those, almost identical statements made recently by the Egyptian generals who took over from Mubarak this February.
To all intents and purposes, Nasser's 17-year rule was a dictatorship. Political opponents were in an out of prison, subjected to torture when they were inside and to constant persecution when they were outside. In particular, more often than not, communist activists were obliged to express their support for the regime from within the jail and concentration camps in which they were locked up. This was a mad policy on their part, but it was the policy dictated by Moscow's interests in the Cold War and apparently no other considerations mattered.
It should be said, though, that neither the regime's harsh repression nor its demagogical attempts at wooing the working class in general, and trade-union activists in particular, succeeded in reducing the scale of the industrial unrest. After the coup, the strike movement exploded as never before, to the point where, in 1953, the number of disputes was 5 times higher than in 1946. It took almost another decade before industrial militancy really went down, by the early 1960s.
The explosion of militancy which took place during the 15-year period following the war was rich in all sorts of opportunities for the working class. Especially as two of its main phases - the first in 1945-47 and the second in 1953-58 - were really part of more general tidal waves which hit most countries in the Middle East. In such a context, the region's working classes might have had the collective strength not only to kick out imperialism from the region, but also to get rid once and for all of its reactionary regimes and their military machineries. This did not happen, not due to a failure on the part of the working classes, but due to the fact that the communist organisations which still claimed to carry the flag of the October revolution, bowed to Moscow's diktats and chose to align themselves behind the nationalist forces of their respective countries.
Sadat's alignment behind the US
Anwar Sadat, who took over as Egypt's leader on Nasser's death in 1970, had been his vice-president and a figurehead of the regime's right wing. His rule marked a departure from the previous non-aligned policy, whereby Nasser sought to play on the tensions between the two camps of the Cold War in order to get advantages from both.
After the near collapse of the Egyptian economy following the defeat in the "Six-Day War" with Israel, in 1967, the Soviet Union had come to Egypt's aid. But the Soviet economy was no match for Washington's capacity to pour military aid and channel foreign investment into Egypt. In this context, and certainly under the pressure of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, Sadat chose to shift more of Egypt's eggs into the West's basket. He thus began preparing the way, by implementing the so-called "infitah". Politically, this involved allowing opposition political parties to organise themselves and then instituting multi-party elections every 6 years. Economically, the "infitah" meant the beginning of a privatisation programme, and an opening up to Western investment.
However, this pro-western policy did not stop Sadat from playing the nationalist card, to counteract the political discredit that his so-called reforms inevitably brought with them. In 1973 he decided to send troops across the Suez canal to retake the Sinai desert - lost to Israel in 1967. Thus, along with Syria which wanted to retake the Golan Heights, he precipitated the 4th Arab-Israeli war (the so-called "Yom Kippur" war). However this time the war ended in a stalemate, even if, unlike the "Six-day war", it was not an outright defeat for Egypt.
Sadat's "heroic victory" over Israel - as he portrayed it - failed to rebuild his credit in the eyes of the population. Generally the working class was totally opposed to the "infitah". When the oil companies took the opportunity of the Middle Eastern crisis of the 1970s to raise prices - the resultant unemployment and huge hike in living costs unleashed the accumulated anger of the working class against the regime. In the eyes of the poor population, Sadat was eroding the, albeit limited, social gains of the Nasser era.
In 1976 and particularly 1977, there were massive anti-government riots, known as the "bread riots", after Sadat removed the government's price controls on bread. More or less at the same time poor peasants began to fight against his regime's concessions to big landowners which were in the process of unravelling Nasser's 1952 land reforms by removing the upper limit on the size of land-ownership. The Islamic parties accordingly took advantage of the situation - adopting a populist and nationalist language - accusing Sadat of paving the way for foreign domination if not re-colonisation. Sadat replied with repressive measures, curtailing the rights of these Islamic parties, but also curtailing the rights of the Coptic religious organisations and clamping down on the left.
With the fall the Shah's regime in Iran in 1979, the US lost its main Middle Eastern watchdog, but Sadat's regime in Egypt was soon to replace it. Egypt now became one of the world's largest beneficiaries of US military aid. In return, US president Carter got Sadat to sign the first Camp David Agreement - the first significant rapprochement with Israel which returned occupied Sinai to Egypt. Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel and was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin.
By that time, however, Sadat had made himself a political pariah at home. Unconcerned, he even invited the deposed Iranian Shah to spend his dying days in Egypt and gave him a state burial. A section of the military, probably under the influence of one or other Islamic group springing ultimately from the Muslim Brotherhood, if not the Brotherhood itself, organised his assassination. He was shot to death on 6 October 1981 during a celebration of the Suez crossing of 1973 - and several foreign dignitaries were killed and injured alongside him.
Hosni Mubarak, who took over and proceeded to hunt down the assassins and conspirators, placed the country under an Emergency Law, under which is has remained ever since. This allows for the random arrest and indefinite detention of anyone without trial or charge. Mubarak has used it as a blunt instrument, not only against the Muslim Brotherhood but also the Coptic Christians, and any other critics of the regime including, of course, communist activists.
Since assuming power and in apparent direct violation of Egypt's constitution, for what it is worth, Mubarak never appointed a vice-president. Not, that is, until a few days before he was forced to step down this February after 30 years of his dictatorship! Indeed, he was grooming his son Gamal as successor, having styled himself as the country's ruling dictator by right. But now they are, of course, both gone.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
By the time this year's protests broke out, the largest organised opposition force in Egypt, by far, seemed to be the Muslim Brotherhood.
Like in the rest of the Middle East, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt has fed on the growing abyss between the abject poverty of the majority and the arrogant wealth of the privileged. It has fed on the discredit of the regime, its corruption and its spinelessness in front of imperialism - which was particularly blatant, in the case of Egypt, due to Mubarak's open support for US policy. Finally, it has fed on the discrediting of all the secular political forces, nationalist and communist, due to their support for the military regime since the 1950s.
In the absence of a countervailing political force coming out of the working class, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to occupy an existing political vacuum and has gone from strength to strength. This is not least because of its policy of creating welfare institutions amongst the poor and providing the help which the state can or will not provide. Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood has won this support, not because, but despite its general political orientations. After all, it made no secret of its support for privatisation, for the restitution of the holdings of large landlords or the vast expansion of commercial farming at the expense of small farmers - policies which are all among the causes of the poverty that the Muslim Brotherhood claims to be fighting against! While speaking of an Islamic state, in which women would be banned from standing for president and in which a council of clerics would supervise government, the Muslim Brotherhood appears first of all as a pro-capitalist party.
It began to participate in elections in 1984, even if it has to run its candidates as independents or as part of coalitions with other opposition parties, because of the banning of religious parties. It also gained domination of several influential professional bodies like the lawyers' journalists' and engineers associations as well as the doctors' and physicians' bodies from the mid-1980s.
However, from the beginning of the 1990s some Islamic youth organisations came under the influence of radical Islam, forming underground terrorist cells - like Gamaa al-Islamiya - which carried out bombing campaigns, largely directed against foreign tourists. The killing of 175 people between February 1992 and August 1993 provided Mubarak with a pretext to enact an anti-terrorist law, extend further the state of emergency and clamp down on the Brotherhood.
But, in the end, this did not prevent the Brotherhood from gaining ground even in the regime's institutions. In the 2000 parliamentary election, 16 of its "independent" candidates were elected, and 88 in the following election, in 2005.
By the time of the December 2010 elections Mubarak had amended electoral rules to try to exclude any real opposition - or at least make it impossible for it to gain any seats. As a result, the opposition parties decided to boycott the election. In the end, the ruling National Democratic Party's official and its unofficial candidates won 93.3% of the vote, even though less that a third of the candidates standing officially under the NDP's banner were actually elected - a record low. A report on this election described it as "vote rigging with a touch of elections." It went on to say: "If the iconic image from the 2005 elections showed elderly female voters climbing makeshift ladders to enter polling stations blocked off by police but staffed by judges, the defining image from 2010 was a surreptitiously shot four-minute video of a voter-free polling station in the Bilbays district of the Delta province of Sharqiyya. Two poll workers calmly filled out ballot after ballot, stacks of which were then carried off by other civil servants to be stuffed in boxes off camera."
Next to the Muslim Brotherhood, other opposition political forces have emerged over the past decade. But none of them seems to have built a significant base of support, so far at least.
In 2004, for instance, a movement called "Kefaya!" (meaning "Enough!") was set up, mainly by left-wing intellectuals, to call for free elections and Mubarak's resignation. Al Ghad (the liberal "Tomorrow Party") which was also formed in 2004, by Ayman Nour, faltered, after Nour was jailed for 3 years on trumped up forgery charges - probably because he dared to challenge Mubarak in the 2006 presidential election. The April 6th Movement, which was given credit for its electronic fly-posting of this January's protests, was started in 2008 by a young left reformist engineer (he now supports the former director of the International Atomic Agency, Mohamed El Baradei) via Facebook, in the name of generating support for the workers in Mahalla al-Kubra's textile factories, who were planning a strike on April 6th over wages, following the huge rise in the price of bread. In 2010, when it became obvious that the elections planned for that year would be rigged, most opposition forces joined together under an umbrella organisation set up by El Baradei, including intellectuals from Kefaya and some Islamists.
Workers stand up to Mubarak
In the course of the 30 years of Mubarak's dictatorship, the working class has never remained silent. In the 1980s and 1990s many strikes took place against privatisation. But the last six years, beginning in late 2004, has seen an even stronger and more prolonged wave of strikes, culminating in the escalation which finally put paid to Mubarak on the 11 February.
What is the current context? Egypt is the most populous country of the region but it also has the largest industrial working class - 4.5 million (17%) of a total workforce of 27 million. Out of a population of over 80 million, 16.3 million live below the poverty line of $2 per day. This is 21.6% of the population - and it is an increase of 5% since 2000. Unemployment is running at 9.7% officially, but unofficially it is probably five times this number. The minimum wage was increased only last October after a protracted battle, to the derisory amount, equivalent to £40/month, while workers asked for a minimum of £200 as a living wage.
Up until this last year, which saw the formation of the independent unions of tax collectors and science and medical technicians, there were no recognised independent trade unions - the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) having always acted as a controlling arm in order to prevent any disruption of production.
This means that the over 3,500 strikes in the last decade have all been "illegal". In 2007, strikes peaked at around 200 per month. In the course of 2010 probably as many as 600 protests, including stoppages, sit-ins, and street protests took place. There have been road blockages and boss-nappings as well as hunger strikes. In May 2010 over 1,000 held sleep-in protests outside the parliament building until forcibly dispersed by the police. Last August, for the first time since 1952, 8 workers from a military factory in Helwan were put in front of a military tribunal for protesting about unsafe working conditions - after a string of explosions in the factory had killed a worker and injured several others. Probably thanks to the publicity this caused they were acquitted.
It is the textile town of Mahalla al-Kubra which has been the scene of some of the biggest strikes since 2006. After striking in December 2006, the 24,000 Misr workers struck again in September 2007, occupying the Nile Delta town's mammoth textile mill, establishing a security force to protect the factory premises, and threatening to occupy the company's administrative headquarters. After halting production for less than a week, they won a bonus equivalent to 130 day's pay.
In 2007, strikes spread from textiles to makers of building materials, Cairo subway workers, garbage collectors, bakers, food processing workers and many others. In the summer of 2007 the movement widened to include white-collar workers, civil servants and professionals. The single largest collective action of the entire strike movement was the December 2007 strike of some 55,000 real estate tax collectors employed by local authorities. After months of public demonstrations, they struck briefly and won their demand for wage parity with their counterparts employed directly by the Ministry of Finance. The elected strike committee of the tax collectors effectively turned itself into an independent trade union.
The same has happened at the Mahalla Misr factory. In November 2007 they initiated regular meetings with representatives of other public- and private-sector firms to prepare the basis for establishing a new independent trade union federation outside of the official state-run ETUF. It was these same textile workers who took the initiative when bread prices rose to ridiculous levels in 2008 to demonstrate against these soaring prices - 10,000 workers, many of them waving loaves of bread, with support from their families and local merchants, demonstrated across the town on February 17th.
Then Mahalla workers prepared for another strike planned for April 6th. However, as it has become known since, a small group of activists had used a Facebook page to publicise the Mahalla workers' plan and call a "general strike" against food prices on the same day. Whether it was this initiative, dangerous at best under conditions of heavy repression, which made the police paranoid or not, no-one will ever know. But the fact was that the Mahalla workers were confronted with a huge police mobilisation. There were violent confrontations in the town during which police used live ammunition, shooting dead 3 people including a 15-year old boy. Between 500 and 600 people were arrested at random and detained. Detainees were mistreated and some were tortured. Eventually 49 were held and put on trial in August 2008, and the court eventually found 22 guilty, sentencing them to 3-5 years in prison - for demonstrating over the price of bread!
The creator of the April 6th Facebook page, Ahmed Maher, was kidnapped by state security officers and allegedly tortured in the wake of a second "internet" call for a general strike on May 5th. The May 5th call for a general strike was generally held to be a failure: Cairo's empty streets reflected the fear which had been created by televised Interior ministry threats against anyone taking part in protest action. Both April 6th and May 5th, demonstrated the limits of computer-led political activism at least at this point in time: it failed as a tool for mobilising Egypt's population - the vast majority of which do not own a computer. Mobile phones may of course be a different matter.
One of the biggest strikes of 2010, which began on 10 December, was not among textile workers, however. 70,000 truck owners and drivers struck against licencing fees and demands by the transport ministry that all semi-trailers be converted into full trailers at owners' expense by August 2011. The truckers forced the government to back down on the rise in license fees, at least. Having similar hopes, microbus taxi drivers and owners also went out on strike.
How it all happened
Let us summarise, at this point, the events leading to the resignation of Mubarak on 11 February.
Inspired by the so called "Jasmine" uprising in Tunisia which began on 17 December, activists in Egypt decide to call for a "day of rage" on Monday 25th January. Obviously the choice of day is political: it is a national holiday commemorating the anniversary of the murder of Egyptian police by British troops, on 25th January 1952. The aim was to put the protest movement under the banner of "national unity beyond class divisions", right from the start!
In Cairo they march to Tahrir Square. Protests are mirrored in all the main towns and cities apparently aided by Facebook and Twitter fly-postings. Bloody clashes take place with the police. By this time people are shouting for Mubarak to go. US president Obama declares that the Egyptian government should "demonstrate its responsiveness to the people of Egypt". By the 28th, riots are taking place and over a thousand people are injured while Muslim Brotherhood members in particular are being targeted for arrest. Mubarak announces that he is dismissing his government but refuses to step down. During the weekend protesters come to Tahrir Square standing their ground as troops fire into the air and try to disperse them.
Mubarak however makes a concession. He announces he has, for the first time, appointed a vice president. But it is a former spy chief, Omar Suleiman, nicknamed Sheik Al Torture - being known thus for having squeezed a confession out of one political detainee to the effect that Saddam Hussein was training members of Al Qaeda, this confession under torture being one of the many fabrications used to justify invading Iraq!
By the 31st, the White House is getting edgy. Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman says that the crisis in Egypt is "not about appointments, it's about actions... They have to address freedoms that the people in Egypt seek." The EU calls for free and fair elections even though none are due until the presidential election in September. On that day, 250,000 gather on Tahrir Square alone.
Opposition groups now call for a "million man march" and a general strike on Tuesday 1st February. Mubarak then states on Tuesday that he will not stand for re-election in September - although he insists he will stay in place until then. However he now announces that the food subsidies will not be cut, while the prices of basic commodities will be reduced. But at the same time the regime tries to scramble Al Jazeera's signal and cuts off the internet.
Meanwhile, the army is surrounding the protesters, but not actually preventing them from protesting. De facto, the army is controlling the protest and preventing it from extending too far. In fact, in Cairo, it keeps the protest more or less "kettled" and surrounded by tanks within the bounds of Tahrir Square - even if protesters are free to come and go. And then it shows how neutral it can be: it stands by, doing nothing, when pro-Mubarak thugs enter the square, including some on horses and camels, who are intent on harming he protesters, and do so, setting about them with sticks, and knives and also guns. Planes fly in low over the protesters' heads, without firing. Clearly, they are not there on a parade, but rather to remind the protesters of the overwhelming fire power in the hands of the military.
On the 4th February, the leadership of the NDP resigns including Gamal, the son Mubarak was grooming to take over from himself.
By 5th February, the UN estimates that 300 have been killed across the country. On the 6th, the Muslim Brotherhood which Mubarak had initially blamed for the protests, makes an official statement that it has decided to participate in a dialogue round, in order "to understand how serious the officials are in dealing with the demands of the people". The banks reopen for 3.5 hours.
On the 7th, the crowds are once more swelling Tahrir Square, turning it into a tented camp and refusing to budge until Mubarak goes. The banks remain open, but schools, many public workplaces and the stock exchange remain closed. Suleiman now makes threats, demanding that protesters should leave, while announcing a few reforms.
Two days later, the government releases 34 political prisoners. Everyone had been expecting Mubarak to resign on the evening of the 10th, but in fact he only explains once more that he will not step down and that he is a true patriot who wishes to die on Egyptian soil - which just infuriates the crowd even more. The following day is Friday and many more hundreds of thousands flock to the streets and squares up and down the country. Suleiman then announces that Mubarak is resigning and that power is being handed over to the army.
A seamless transfer of power
In Egypt, just as before in Tunisia, there was a clear pattern in the policy of the repressive machinery of the state. After the protests reached a certain scale, there was a division of labour between the police and the army. The police was in charge of beating protesters and shooting at them, while the army looked on, and its general staff made it known more or less officially that it would not use its weapons against protesters.
Since both armies are closely linked to Washington, with a large contingent of US advisers to oversee their operations, it is likely that this similarity is not accidental and that it originates from the US advisers. For obvious reasons. US strategists are unlikely to forget what happened to the Iranian army, in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown by a mass uprising. At the time, the army was used against the demonstrators for days, in bloody street battles, using machine guns and tanks against unarmed demonstrators. The result was two-fold. In Iran, as in Libya today, whole groups of soldiers deserted and joined the protesters. And by the time it was decided that the Shah should go, the army hierarchy was no longer sure that it could trust its own troops. So, whatever credit the army generals might have had among the protesters before the uprising, this was completely gone by the time the Shah was overthrown - with the exception, maybe of the Air Force, which was of no use in policing the streets. This meant that, in order to preserve the bourgeoisie's social order, its repressive machinery had to be reinforced by paramilitary forces, which could only be provided by the Islamic revolutionary guards, which meant, in effect, the handing over of political power to Khomeini, lock, stock and barrel.
With this experience in mind, the policy followed by the army in Egypt becomes far more comprehensible. Having stood outside of the fray and given the protesters plenty of opportunities to feel - albeit misguidedly - "protected" by the army's tanks, the members of the Army's High Council were able to take over seamlessly from the dictator. Never mind that Mubarak himself was one of their number and that these generals had enforced his bloody rule for so long! Never mind either that for decades the Egyptian generals have been the fingers of imperialism's long arm in the Middle East! Posing as "generals of the people", since they were at the head of the "army of the people", the Army High Council felt that its authority was so unlikely to be challenged that it could afford the luxury of praising Mubarak's "services" to the country in its first public statement. And what an admission this is of the political objectives concealed by these uniforms!
In fact, it did not take long for the generals to shed some light on the task they had set themselves. They started by warning that anyone creating "chaos and disorder" would be dealt with. However, this was easier said than done. On Monday 14th, due to the demonstrations that were being staged by bank workers, the army had to cave in and call Monday a "bank holiday", while protesters were left alone. Then they had the police gathering outside the Interior Ministry to demand higher pay and other protesters demanding the release of political prisoners and the end of the 30-year long state of emergency.
In its 5th public statement, the Army High Council, added some more threats, not just against "chaos and disorder" in the streets, but against strikers. Now was the time to return to work, it said, in the name of working towards "affluence" for all. Never mind the long-standing demands of the strikers and the greed of their exploiters, against which they came out on strike, like so often in the past. Now is the time for workers to bite the bullet say the generals. Although they do not dare to add, that the alternative is for workers to get one in the head - not yet! So what has really changed?
While various groups are having "talks with the army" or preparing self-importantly to "negotiate" with it, it appears that nothing is coming out of this. A committee of judges and lawyers to advise on changes to the constitution, including limits on the length of the presidency, met on the Wednesday 16th February and a newly formed 19-member "Council of Trustees of the Revolution" claims it will open dialogue with the military on the transition to democracy. So far, all the Army High Council has said is that it will organise elections in six months for both parliament and the presidency.
On the rest, it has not yielded one inch. And the composition of its "new" government, which was announced on February 24th, is revealing. In addition to half-a-dozen names of past Mubarak appointees, it features a host of characters straight out of big business circles, including, for instance, a minister for trade and industry who is also CEO of one of the country's largest chemical companies, whose temporary workers are currently on strike in order to win permanent status!
No wonder this seamless transition from Mubarak's rule to that of his generals has taken place with the benediction of the rich countries - and first to give his blessing was David Cameron, who wasted no time in rushing to greet the new strong men. As far as the strategy specialists of imperialism are concerned, this is the best of all possible worlds, particularly for the USA which relies so heavily on Egypt as its regional watchdog. Whether this "alternative" to Mubarak will be as stable as they hope, though, is another matter.
Revolution? Pending questions
Was this outcome inevitable and have all the cards been played yet? These are the questions that come to mind and deserve to be answered.
To begin with, one should be under no illusions. In a class society, democracy is a mirage. Like all mirages, it only appears as a possibility to those who are desperate to see it. But in this society, where huge state machineries are there just to protect the privileges of a small minority of exploiters against the overwhelming exploited majority, democracy can only exist for the rich themselves. This is true in the rich countries, where bankers and shareholders have the right of life and death over our jobs and living standards - but where they can at least afford the colossal sums devoted to election campaigns, advertising, etc., just to give us the illusion that we have a say and a stake in their system. But it is, of course, far more the case in the poor countries, where the tiny numbers of very wealthy are facing huge numbers of jobless and over-exploited, who cannot be conned into believing that they have anything else to lose but their chains.
The truth is that, whether in Egypt or here, those for whom democracy means social and political freedom for all, and who really want to fight for that, have no alternative but to fight for the overthrow of the class system itself. Replacing one dictator with another, or one parliament with another, cannot deliver the goods.
During the protests in Egypt, many commentators, Egyptian and otherwise, insisted on the unity of the movement, and on the fact that, for instance, no-one had a word of criticism against the army. Of course, in any mass movement unity is strength. But unity for the sake of unity is a weakness, because it only conceals the objective fractures in the movement which, at one point or another, are bound to come to the surface - something which the movement has to be prepared for.
The issue of the army was a case in point. As an institution, the army is what it is, an instrument - in fact the main instrument - of repression of the privileged classes. This has to be starting point. A "people's army" is, therefore, a contradiction in terms. And those who insisted on giving credit to this idea, either had huge illusions in the role of the army in this society, or else they had a very precise agenda - i.e., to protect the existing social system at all costs.
Not that an army can never change sides, or at least part of it. Of course the generals usually do not, but the soldiers and junior officers can. After all, this was exactly what happened in Russia in 1917, in Germany in 1919 and Hungary in 1956, among other instances. Soldiers can become so alienated by the regime they are supposed to defend and so enthused by the protest, that they make the conscious (and dangerous) choice of disobeying the orders of their senior officers and joining forces with the oppressed. However, this is not something that happens by itself. Soldiers do not change sides light-heartedly, if only because they risk jail sentences for desertion or disobedience, if not the firing squad. They will only change sides if they are convinced that the other side will be able to protect them - i.e., that it has a reasonable chance of gaining the upper hand. Winning over soldiers to the side of a mass protest requires a specific policy and, in any case, a clear consciousness of the difficulty of the task - not just being enthused by the sight of soldiers hugging the kids of protesters on their tanks! It also requires that the masses of protesters are morally prepared to arm themselves. Short of being prepared to do this, the demonstrators cannot convince the soldiers that they will protect them when they defect.
To go back to the issue of unity, it served another purpose during the mobilisation in Egypt - as is often the case, in fact. Unity under the Egyptian national flag was, much like in 1919 and the 1940s, a means of obscuring the different class interests which existed among the protesters. For us, revolutionary communists, the aspirations of middle-class graduates to be able to make a career in the state machinery without having to belong to the ruling party is certainly legitimate. But, in our view, it ranks far below the need that the working class and poor masses have to challenge the social parasitism of the wealthy and their state, which is the main cause of their exploitation and poverty. With respect to Mubarak's regime, the benefits that can be drawn by the middle class from a change of regime are much more substantial than those that can be drawn by the working class, which are very limited - that is, unless many more other conditions are imposed. And these conditions were not formulated in the protests.
The need for a revolutionary working class programme
Yet, the working class was very present in the protests. Except that in order to be there, workers had to go on strike first - which required a lot more effort, and taking a lot more risk, than it did for students and professionals. So, the strike wave took some time to develop. But it did develop.
By 9th February, organised workers were turning up on the square calling for Mubarak to step down but also calling for better pay. The union of tax collectors appeared with a banner as did other independent unionists and the new independent union federation which had just been launched. At the same time, 2,000 textile workers in Helwan were demonstrating, calling for the dismissal of the CEO, the dissolution of the company union and better benefits. Contractor workers were on strike at the Helwan cement factory demanding permanent contracts and better conditions. At the Helwan Coke factory, 4,000 workers were staging a rally in front of the company, demanding wage rises, permanent contracts for temps. They hailed the Tahrir Square mobilisation and called for the press to cover their protest!
In fact all over the country workers were joining their demands and actions to the calls for Mubarak to go. In Suez, in particular, 6,000 canal workers from 5 service companies owned by the Canal Authority staged a sit-in over low wages and poor working conditions. Workers at the Suez steel company staged a sit-in demanding that sick workers be supported. 3,000 National Railway employees sat on railway lines disrupting services and threatening not to move unless their demands were met on wages and incentives. Workers in two military factories announced a strike, which the minister of military production tried to transform into "official leave" - resulting in clashes in the streets.
On 10th February, there were still more strikes. Workers at the Mahalla textile complex had now padlocked their factory buildings demanding that the minimum wage issue be settled and announcing their support for the anti-government protests. Thousands of public sector employees were on strike in Alexandria, despite the announcement by the newly formed government that it will raise public sector wages by 15% to try to placate the protests.
Subsequently, there were new strikes starting every day and this did not stop after Mubarak had gone. On 17th February, the Egyptian paper, Almasralyoum complained : "why have worker protests persisted while the mass rallies that fuelled Egypt's 18-day uprising have largely come to an end?". It noted that between the February 12th and 14th, between 40 to 60 labour protests had been recorded every day, all around the country. The paper added that the army's "instruction" to end strikes was unlikely to be followed.
But now what? The strikes are continuing, new ones are starting and workers are faced more or less with the same reactionary bosses, police and administration as before. Yesterday's middle-class apostles of "unity" at all costs have now gone back to minding their own business(es). Only a small minority bothers to turn up to demonstrations in Cairo. And the working class is left to fight on its own by the very protesters who yesterday, denied that class interest should express themselves.
If there was ever a reason for the working class to have its own independent banner and policy in such circumstances, this is one. But it is not the only one.
The Middle East has been sliced up by centuries of colonialism, into countless artificial states, all reduced more or less to the same degree of poverty, all subjected to the same imperialist plundering and all under the yoke of similar "western-friendly" - or at least, "business-friendly" - dictators. Imperialism has turned the whole region into a powder keg in which a revolutionary explosion in one point could set alight the whole region and change the entire future, not just of the Middle East, but of mankind.
But only the working class can provide the revolutionary ferment necessary for the whole region to rise up. Because, by contrast with the nationalist interests put forward by the petit-bourgeoisie, no matter how radical, the interests of the working class are international by nature - the nature of capitalist exploitation does not change from one country to another. The international dimension of the class struggle is written all over the banner of the working class. But it still has to be raised in Egypt. Not all is lost though. It can still be raised while the masses are on the move and are still conscious of their collective strength. In any case, this is the only real option available for the Egyptian working class and poor.