Support Egypt's unions

Submitted by Matthew on 2 November, 2011 - 8:59

By Clive Bradley

As winter draws in, the most important single achievement of the “Arab Spring” is the powerful new labour movement that has emerged in Egypt.

Last month (on 14 October), 149 new, independent unions launched a Democratic Labour Congress at a conference in Cairo. Prior to the January 2011 revolution there were only three independent unions (only one of them very big); otherwise Egypt’s workers belonged to a state-run federation whose contribution to events in Tahrir Square was to help organise attacks on demonstrators.

The Congress follows months in which new unions have been formed — in the public and private sectors — amid an unprecedented wave of strikes. In the last month alone, there have been strikes by textile workers, telecom workers, port workers (whose actions were decisive in the removal of Mubarak by the regime back in February), lawyers, judges — and, very significantly, the police.

Thirty thousand low-ranking police officers have been on strike around the country, demanding the “cleansing” of the force — which is generally hated, and which all but collapsed during the January revolution — and better pay. In the Red Sea town of Hurghada, hundreds of striking cops stormed security headquarters, forcing officials to smuggle their chief out the back door.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has introduced extremely repressive new laws to curb protests, and has arrested 10,000 or more activists since the fall of Mubarak; troops have been used against strikers. But still the army is unable simply to assert its authority.

Parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for September, are to start this month. Presidential elections have been postponed until next year. There is widespread impatience with the slowness of the army to step aside and allow civilian rule.

The forthcoming elections pose a vital question. Before the revolution, it was widely believed that in any fair elections the Muslim Brotherhood would win a comfortable, if not overwhelming, majority.

Like most oppositionists they boycotted the last — blatantly rigged — elections; in the parliament before that, although the party was at best semi-legal and had not contested seats openly, it had 20 per cent of the MPs.

The Brotherhood, for sure the best-organised political group in Egypt, has established a new party to contest the elections — the Freedom and Justice Party — which in turn has tried to set up a broader coalition. Almost all the other parties originally involved in it (which ranged from the old-style nationalist Wafd to more extremist Islamists) have walked out. The FJP has broken initial Brotherhood promises to field candidates in no more than 50% of seats. Its leaders claim this is only because of the complex voting system, which includes both seats elected by proportional representation and first-past-the-post — that is, they still don’t expect to win an outright majority.

According to a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, “I think all Islamists combined will get around 35 percent of the vote; 25 percent will go to the Muslim Brotherhood.” (quoted in Al Masry al Youm, 19/10/11). That’s a lot — probably more than any other single party — but well below pre-revolutionary guesses.

Perhaps more significant, despite public opposition from the party’s own president, the FJP will not compete under the Brotherhood’s usual slogan “Islam is the solution” (instead they promise that “We bring good for Egypt”). This goes with a general toning-down of the movement’s Islamist message — for now, at least. Assertive Islamism has for sure contributed to hostility towards Egypt’s very large Christian population (see below), which the Brotherhood is anxious to disavow.

The Brotherhood has stood very close to the ruling military over the course of the year. In general, indeed, their record is politically conservative: they were slow to support the January protests.

An interesting possible barometer for Brotherhood support is recent elections in the Doctors’ Syndicate — which the Islamist movement had dominated for many years.

Just prior to the election results in October, the Brotherhood held a self-congratulatory press conference, and almost the entire Egyptian media announced a Brotherhood landslide. It turned out this was completely wrong. As Al Ahram reported: “The [secular, opposition] Independence List stunned all observers by winning solid majorities... in 14 out of 27 governates, and trounced the Brotherhood in a number of places they never dreamed of losing.” (20/10/11). One place the Brotherhood was “trounced” was Ismailaya, where the movement was founded in 1928. The Independence List won 14 out of 16 seats in Alexandria, and in Cairo won almost 80% of the vote.

Why? In May there was a doctors’ strike. The Brotherhood-run syndicate didn’t support it, and denounced the strikers. Prior to that, although most doctors are very poorly paid (one of the demands of the strike was for a minimum wage of LE 1200) the Brotherhood had failed — for years — to fight to improve wages and conditions. Often, rather than fight for doctors’ rights, the Brotherhood simply pushed their own Islamist agenda.

The Independence List did particularly well where the May strike was especially solid.

The Brotherhood still has overall control, but the political complexion of the union has been radically changed.

It’s hard to know how far this pattern will repeat itself. But although the situation among doctors has its own peculiarities, it is surely not unique.

The Brotherhood has taken a turn towards organising within the labour movement — that is, the new independent unions; revealingly, their plan is to target the least militant sectors with the least history of struggle. This is hardly surprising: the Brotherhood includes employers who have seen strikes in their enterprises.

But the Muslim Brothers face intense competition also from their right. The ultra-conservative salafi movement has started to organise politically for the first time — and in July held an enormous rally in Tahrir Square which clearly rattled the Brotherhood. Old “jihadi” — violently “militant” — Islamists (recently out of jail) have launched their own political party, also.

The emergence of these groups (many of whom overtly opposed the January-February protests) have spurred the millions-strong sufi movement (mystical Muslim groups outside “official” Islam) to declare their own Egyptian Tahrir Party. As its founder told Al Masry al Youm: “Salafis hold whoever does not subscribe to their ideas as a non-believer. For them, Sufis, Shia and unveiled women are non-believers. Hence the need for a moral party that would make people feel safe.” (5/9/11)

Of particular concern is growing tension — whipped up by the government and the official media — between salafis and Coptic Christians. A dispute in Upper (southern) Egypt last month led to the burning down of a church. A protest of mainly Copts, but which included Muslim supporters, was violently attacked by the police, leaving 25 dead and hundreds injured — the worst clashes since the fall of Mubarak.

So far the new workers’ movement has not begun to develop its own political voice, though there have been moves to try by some activists. There is no workers’ alternative standing in this month’s parliamentary elections.

But the situation remains very volatile. Over the coming months there will be a pressing need for a working class unity, and working class answers to Egypt’s severe social and economic problems — and to maintain the struggle for democracy and freedom. International solidarity will be vital.

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