It is six months since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and in that time, although intense struggles have continued throughout the Arab world, especially in Libya and Syria (probably the two most repressive Arab states), as yet no other dictators have fallen.
Egypt remains, however, central to the future of these revolutions: it is the most populous Arab country, with the most developed political culture. In the last six months, a whole range of new political parties have come into being; extremely sophisticated political and ideological debates have taken place; and the most important, if not the first, genuine workers’ movement of the Arab “East” has come into being.
On 8 July, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, symbol of the January revolution, was reoccupied by protestors in a new “day of rage”, and many of them are still there. The demands of these new protests reflect the growing impatience of the mass movement with the military government that removed Mubarak. Key revolutionary demands have not been met — most important, the repeal of the Emergency Laws that have been in place since Mubarak came to power, in 1981 — or, like the prosecution of the Mubarak family and others from the old regime, are proceeding only very slowly. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled Egypt since February, has inevitably proved unable to address the profound underlying economic issues which underlay the revolution. Mass unemployment continues; workers have very low wages and are often not paid at all.
The military government, indeed, has introduced new repressive laws — and has continued to arrest activists — some 10,000 — many of whom are tried by military courts even though they are civilians. The abolition of this system is another demand of recent protests.
But the army’s ability to impose its will is curtailed. New repressive laws were used to arrest workers from the Petrojet company protesting outside the Ministry of Petroleum. The workers were tried in a military court and found guilty – but only received suspended sentences.
One issue which was studiously kept out of the July demonstrations, however, was that of the constitution — debate about which had dominated national politics for the previous few months.
Parliamentary elections had been scheduled for September — though they have now been delayed. The new parliament will select a 100-member body to draw up a new constitution.
Most of the liberal-left, and more radical forces, have argued against this system, insisting instead that the constitution be written before elections. Their concerns have been three-fold: first, to make sure that newer parties have time to organise properly (especially in local areas) before elections take place; second, that the new constitution clearly defines the army’s role, ensuring that it withdraws from politics; and finally — connected to the first — that the Muslim Brotherhood, the best-organised political party and likely to be the largest in parliament, isn’t able to dictate the new constitution.
The Brotherhood, which has been extremely close to the military government, eventually decided to support the July protests.
If one feature of the broad movement now is a growing impatience with the SCAF, the other is growing divisions within the movement itself. Some of the youth movements which emerged during the revolution are suspicious of, or hostile to, political parties as such.
In Tahrir Square, for example, some semi-anarchist groups tried to prevent a meeting being held by the Workers Democratic Party — on the grounds that political parties are the problem.
But this event perhaps underscores another, deeper division — activists’ attitudes to the continuing struggles of the new workers’ movement.
What tipped the balance in February was escalating national strike action – especially in the Suez canal area, with its key economic role. Strikes have continued unabated since; and an entire, new labour movement has been born.
Perhaps 150 new, independent unions have been created. Some of these are relatively small caucuses in huge workplaces; but many are mass unions in the most important industries and workplaces — such as the textile plants in Mehalla al-Kubra north of Cairo and the Suez Canal. Some workers who were not even organised by the old state-run unions are part of this new movement.
In Sadat City, on the outskirts of Cairo, a largely non-unionised workforce was one of the lures provided by the state to foreign investors. Now 50,000 workers — in textiles, iron and steel, and ceramics — are represented by eight new unions and a city-wide labour council, which have joined the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions.
In the Suez Canal itself an extremely militant strike has been going on for six weeks — involving sit-ins and confrontations with the army. Workers in subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority have been demanding parity with their public-sector equivalents (a 40% raise), bonuses and better benefits.
The bourgeois parties, and some of the revolutionary youth movements, hold that these workers’ demands and struggles are divisive and “sectional”, and should be restrained in the “national interest”. The truth is, for a worker who has not been paid in two months, “restraint’”is impossible.
As yet the new workers’ movement, although it has proven itself a real force in national politics, has no political voice of its own. There are initiatives in that direction, notably the already-mentioned Workers Democratic Party (whose main activists seem to be from the Revolutionary Socialists group, but which does include important workers’ leaders).
Such initiatives are very new, and financially-restrictive laws make it unlikely they will be able to participate in the forthcoming elections.
Polls still suggest the Muslim Brotherhood will be the largest group in the parliament — although one poll, at least, indicated the Brotherhood could only rely on 15% of the vote. The Brothers — anxious to reassure, in particular, the Obama administration, have promised not to field candidates in more than 50% of seats. (The elections involve an extremely complex system, part of which is PR).
In practice it’s not clear what this will mean. The Muslim Brothers have officially formed a party — the Peace and Justice Party; but there are in total five parties which have emerged from the Brotherhood in the past months (in addition to the Centre Party — a split in the 1990s). These new parties seem to be at serious loggerheads with each other, indicating, perhaps, a crisis in the movement.
The most significant of these is the Egyptian Current Party, formed by 4,000 (mainly) youth expelled by the central leadership. These are Brotherhood activists who were involved, for instance, in protests against Israel’s war in Gaza and who have been, it seems, influenced by the secular left.
They believe in a separation between religion and politics, which represents an enormous break with the politics of the parent movement.