Joel Beinin is Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University, USA. He has written extensively on workers’ movements in the Middle East, including for the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center. He spoke to Solidarity about the prospects for Egypt’s new workers’ movement.
Workers were critical in bringing the reluctant generals to the decision to ask Mubarak to step aside (or force him out, it’s unclear). They also continue to play a role by engaging in strikes since Mubarak’s departure.
But there isn’t a nation-wide leadership of the workers’ movement, despite the fact that it has been developing on the basis of local mobilisations around economic issues for over a decade. So while it is clear that a large element of the working class opposes in practice much of the neo-liberal program that has been put in place since 1991, there is no national network and no significant political party that can put forward a programme that credibly speaks in the name of any large sector of the working class. This may change. I hope it does. But that’s the state of affairs now.
Workers, like most others, have a strong interest in the democratisation of Arab societies. It is also possible to promote, as some groups of Egyptian workers have been since 25 January, demands like a national monthly basic minimum wage of £E 1,200.
Certain kinds of anti-corruption demands also have a specific working-class component. For example, workers demanded the dismissal of the CEO of the public sector Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra, the largest textile enterprise in Egypt, on the grounds of corruption. And they won this demand after a three-day strike.
The main threat continues to be, as it has been for at least two decades, the neo-liberal economic restructuring of Egypt and Tunisia (this is much less an issue in Libya and Yemen).
The business cronies of Gamal Mubarak, the son of the former Egyptian president, people like the steel magnate Ahmad Ezz, have been dealt a strong blow. But they will not disappear so easily, and it is very possible to imagine that once “stability” has been re-established they, or others like them, will return.
I am no fan of the Muslim Brothers, who have historically opposed independent working-class organisation of any sort (usually on the grounds that it is communist). But the Brothers are no longer a unified organisation with one coherent outlook.
One current of thought among the Brothers thinks it is important to protect the national economy of Egypt. That would result in policies that would to some extent protect the livelihoods of working people.
Anything perceived as intervention by Europeans and North Americans in Egyptian politics can be a liability; perhaps this is somewhat less so in Tunisia. The European Trade Union Federation and the International Trade Union Federation have supported the right of Egyptian workers to organise independently and they have protested repressive actions taken against the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Studies and its general coordinator, Kamal Abbas. It’s impossible to know exactly what impact that has had. But the government did reverse the closure of the CTUWS after a year of international protest.
My view has been that the more the names of leaders and the more the details of various labour struggles are known outside Egypt, the more protection they will have from government repression.
Disseminating accurate news of what is happening with workers and their supporters and putting the working-class component into the general story of the popular uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt, since the corporate media — including Al Jazeera — have largely ignored or marginalised it, is probably the most useful thing to do.