The fall of Mubarak was prepared by an upsurge of strikes in Egypt, over several years since 2004. It has been followed by a greater upsurge, exceeding anything ever seen before in the region.
Soon after taking over from Mubarak, the army told journalists that it would ban strikes, and then made a public call for strikes to end. In fact it has not been able to stop the strikes. It has not even been able to keep Tahrir Square clear of demonstrators.
The activity reported in the mainstream press — the Tahrir Square demonstrations, the Facebook agitation, the discontented middle class — is important. But the heavy artillery of the revolution in Egypt, little reported by the mainstream media, has been the working class.
On 30 January, a new independent trade union federation was formed, challenging the old state-run fake “unions”. In the last few days we have reports of new parties being formed in Egypt, based on and aspiring to represent the working class.
These parties are making their way in a country where working-class politics of any sort has been stifled and repressed for over half a century. There was a Communist Party, a small but real revolutionary workers’ party, in the 1920s; but like Communist Parties elsewhere it fell victim to Stalinism, and in 1965 it voluntarily dissolved itself into the ruling party, then called Arab Socialist Union.
The way forward for the new workers’ parties will thus be difficult. But they can draw on a working class much bigger than before the 1960s, and with a recent rich experience of struggle.
Egypt has the biggest working class in the Arab world. Workers’ movements in Egypt can cross-fertilise with rank-and-file movements in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, to its west, where real (though conservative and bureaucratic) trade-union federations, and larger elements of a political left, already existed before the recent upheavals.
To shape the new order in the Middle East and North Africa, the workers’ movements will have to vie with other forces.
Everywhere, the bulk of the old ruling machines remains intact. Junior members of the old regimes will come forward, offering a more democratic gloss, but keeping democratic concessions to a minimum and the basic neo-liberal course unchanged.
In Egypt the main opposition force existing under, and semi-tolerated by, the old regime, was the Muslim Brotherhood, a group aspiring to an “Islamic state” and long hostile to the working class. The upheavals in Egyptian society have also created ferment within the Brotherhood.
At the end of February a section of the Brotherhood’s youth declared a plan to stage a sit-in protest demanding the dissolution of the Brotherhood’s two leading committees and the “modernisation” of the movement. Some Brotherhood people have openly proposed the scrapping of its historic aim of an “Islamic state”.
That ferment must create openings to win over to secular, democratic, and socialist politics people who may have backed the Brotherhood when it looked like the only voice of political opposition to Mubarak. Another hopeful sign is something that hasn’t happened. Although the Israeli Embassy in Cairo is in the city centre, and the police would neither have been interested nor able to stop protesters, at no point in the street activity so far have anti-Israeli demagogues been able to divert the demonstrations to attack the Israeli Embassy rather than the rulers of Egypt.
The value of all openings depends on the strength and energy of the forces which can seize those openings. There are tremendous openings now for the birth of a lively workers’ movement across the whole region, and for it to play a central part in winning democratic rights and achieving social improvements. Our solidarity can make a difference. Let’s organise it!