As Solidarity went to press on 8 February, workers at the centre of Egypt’s economy, in the Suez Canal Company at the cities of Suez, Port Said, and Ismailia began an open-ended sit-in strike.
Over 6000 agreed that they would not go home at the end of their shift, but hold the workplace until their demands against poor wages and deteriorating health and working conditions met.
The strike will stop one of the world’s biggest shipping routes, and cause huge losses to business if it continues long.
Such battles are inseparable from the democratic revolt on Cairo’s streets. Denial of political freedoms, and economic corruption and denial to workers of the right to organise and to civilise conditions at work, are two faces of the same stifling dictatorship that has ruled Egypt for decades.
The sharp food price rises of the last six months, hitting much harder in Egypt than they do in relatively well-off Britain, will have been central in sparking the revolt. They come on top of a process since the 1980s of scrapping the food price subsidies which the poor depended on, trashing social provision, and “opening” up the economy to privatisation which has enriched a wealthy elite at the top and a relatively small middle class.
In the last two weeks Egypt’s workers, who have never before in history had a large independent trade union movement, have formed a new trade union federation.
The street revolt’s ability to break the spell of the fear on which the dictatorship relied opens the way for workers to organise and fight to improve their conditions. With workers organising and fighting comes the possibility of a new labour movement which will combine answers to economic exploitation with answers to political unfreedom.
The same in Tunisia. It is out of the headlines now. But underneath the attempts of the transitional government to restore quiet, workers there are striking, organising, and agitating to throw out old-regime authorities at local level.
We do not know how far and how fast the upheavals in the Arab world will spread. A demonstration had been called in Syria for 5 February, but that country’s political police, even more rigid and ruthless than those of Egypt and Tunisia, forestalled it. A rally has been called in Algeria for 12 February, and banned by the government. The organisers say they will go ahead.
All these regimes — Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, and others — have sat on their countries since the 1950s or 60s, allowing no room for democratic change, altering faces at the top only to install a chosen successor when the previous leader dies or becomes incapable.
Now politics is thrown open for the first time in many decades. The outcome will be shaped not only by the raw force of the people’s revolt, but also by the political battles between the different political forces now emerging.
There is the new workers’ movement. There are small groups of socialists, especially in Algeria.
There is the army. There are the old-regime figures trying to recycle themselves as democrats, like Suleiman in Egypt and Ghannouchi in Tunisia.
There are people like al-Baradei in Egypt, dissenters from the old regime but of a mild sort, tied in to international capitalist networks and interests.
And — the chief rival to the socialists and the labour movements at grassroots level — there are the Islamist movements, the movements whose fundamental political programme is to give (their interpretation) of ancient religious law force of compulsion over their societies, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Harking back to a mythical Islamic past, before capitalism, these Islamist movements have no answers to the social questions, but can win support. There is a danger that they will confiscate the revolutions and turn them into counter-revolutions on the model of Iran in 1978-9.
The Islamists, the old-regime figures, the upper-class dissenters, will all get help from rich and powerful people on an international level. The socialists and the labour movements will have to rely on our support. Let’s organise!
• Activists with the Middle East Workers’ Solidarity network are seeking contacts for an initiative in solidarity with the new Egyptian workers’ movement. Contact them via http://middle-east-workers.blogspot.com/ or email@example.com.