The Predictable Course of the Egyptian "Revolution"

The following article was written in October as workers’ strikes were increasing. Since last Friday the situation has changed again and a new wave of demonstrations has engulfed the country. The reason for this is as noted in this article that the fall of Mubarak was actually the only way for the military to remain in charge. The military hoped to do a deal with the Islamists for some kind of constitutional regime which would allow the Muslim Brotherhood to gain a major role in parliament whilst the military’s independence was guaranteed by the constitution. This has alarmed not only the young middle class liberals who first took to Tahrir Square in February but also the Islamic fundamentalist Salafist movement which has until now been given a free hand to attack Christians by the regime. Realising that the stitch up would also freeze them out they took to the streets on Friday. They have since been joined by the young secular liberals in a temporary alliance against the army. This time too the Army has been unable to shield behind the notion that it is the real representative of the nation as it has used brutality against the occupiers of Tahrir Square over the weekend (although it was noticeable that those Muslims praying in the square on Sunday were left alone by the troops who drove everyone out.) The square was then reoccupied after night fall by thousands more. The courage of the young demonstrators has been once again put to the test with police deliberately aiming rubber bullets at heads as well as using live ammunition. The Ministry of Health reports that 23 have died already and doctors report that many others have been blinded. 1500 have been injured. All this is along way from the working class who are still facing an uphill struggle to maintain an existence and have as yet no independent programme of their own.

Plus Ça Change

The old French proverb that the more things change the more they stay the same has become a cliché but you could say the same thing about the false hopes the popular movements have raised in the Arab world. Nowhere is this more evident than in Egypt.

Let’s recall that Mubarak was not toppled because over 800 people had been killed by the security forces. He was finally replaced by the Army leadership under Tantawi because the working class had finally taken their own course of struggle and were going on strike demanding higher wages. Fearing for their own profits (the Egyptian Army is also a big capitalist player), the Army not only ousted Mubarak, but immediately brought in a decree banning strikes. Anyone going on strike can be hauled before a military tribunal and summarily gaoled. And yet the world’s press hailed this as a step towards democracy!

Indeed the general international press view of Army rule is that they are on the right course but “lack political experience” and are bumbling towards democratic elections. And they are supported by the West. Leon Panetta, the new US Defense Secretary visited Cairo in the first week of October and according to the Washington Post stated:

I really do have full confidence in the process that the Egyptian military is overseeing. I think they're making good progress.

The only threats to this admirable project are Islamic extremism and “strikes”.

Drumming Up Sectarian Strife

This is a total travesty of what is really happening. The Armed Forces do not represent any “revolution”. They are in continuity with Mubarak who was also installed by the Armed Forces. To buttress their rule they are actually either working with or using the Islamists. The recent attacks on Egyptian Christians are not spontaneous sectarian violence but state-orchestrated violence aimed at inciting sectarian massacres. As Ahdaf Soueif reported in the Guardian on October 11th the confrontation between peaceful protestors (Christian and Muslim) after the destruction of a Coptic Church led to at least 25 deaths (some say it was much higher). But this

... was no sectarian violence. This was the army murdering 25 citizens - with 310 still injured. It seems clear that the soldiers believed they were being attacked by Christian protesters. And it's also clear that they were set up to believe this. State TV issued a call for Muslims to "protect the army" - then three broadcasters dissociated themselves from TV "policy". So who is setting this policy?

As she pointed out in the same article this is not new. Last December an attack by “Salafists” (Muslim extremists), sometimes known as Wahhabis, on a Coptic Church in Alexandria which led to the murder of 21 Christians was actually organised by Mubarak’s Ministry of the Interior. The attempt to stir up sectarian fighting was a desperate attempt to hold on to power. In fact throughout his rule Mubarak skilfully played on the West’s fear of Islamism to garner support for his dictatorship in Washington and Europe. At the same time he actually carried on a fluctuating dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the occasional imprisonments of its leaders the latter were in constant touch with the Mubarak regime which sometimes even cooperated with them to widen its own base. The Muslim Brotherhood thus did not encourage their supporters to take part in the Tahrir Square demonstrations last February. Today it is as before. The Army is inciting violence against Christians either through unleashing Salafist gangs on them or carrying out the violence themselves. Scores of witnesses have recorded similar experiences of the violence of the state with troops shooting at demonstrators. The most graphic is perhaps that of Hani Bushra on Facebook (1). Far from being sectarian fights, the demonstrators have united saying “Christians and Muslims are One Hand” and are calling for the overthrow of the military regime, or its leader, Tantawi.

Standing quietly away from all this is the Moslem Brotherhood which expects to become the largest party in the upcoming elections. They have basically entered into a tacit alliance to support the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Global Economic Crisis

And the SCAF need all the support they can get. The global economic crisis which brought about the revolts in the Arab world has not gone away. Tourism has declined, exports have declined and no-one, domestic or foreign, is rushing to invest in Egypt. Before 2007 foreign direct investment in Egypt amounted to $13 billion a year. It dropped to half that after the financial bubble burst but that was still better than most places. Since the fall of Mubarak money is now flowing out of the country. So much for the support for democracy from capitalists! As a result of the lack of capital the military is having to use up its foreign reserves at an alarming rate. According to Al Arabiya in July

Egypt has an escalating public debt of more than 80.5 percent of its gross domestic product. It is unable to make comprehensive economic reforms until a more permanent government is seated in September. Meanwhile, the country’s foreign reserves have now fallen to $28 billion from $36 billion in February because it has been desperately using up its foreign currency holdings to stabilize inflation (2).

As usual it is the working class which has had to bear the brunt. Here is one example from Al Arabiya.

Like many Egyptians, textile factory worker Magdi el-Aleemy expected the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak to change his life. It did, but not for the better.
The firm where he worked for 10 years, like so many other businesses in Egypt, was pummeled when the economy nosedived as investors fled and orders dried up. Aleemy lost his job.
“The revolution did nothing for us,” said Aleemy, standing with dozens of others protesting outside his old factory gates in Mahalla el-Kubra, north of Cairo. “We will stay here until or demands are met,” he said, drawing a roar of support from others.Expectations were sky-high when Mubarak was driven out in February. For many, it signaled an end to policies they said lined the pockets of rich elite at the expense of ordinary Egyptians. Workers expected a swift economic dividend.

Workers’ Resistance

Having seen their wages eroded for years they are understandably ready to fight back. According to Egyptian academics strikes have doubled since the fall of Mubarak. Like everywhere else the workers involved face the usual propaganda broadsides from the ruling class media that they “should be patient” or that they are “selfish” or “unpatriotic” (a big charge in a country where nationalism is evident everywhere).

In response the military began by trying to make gestures. To calm matters in the summer they raised the minimum legal wage from 422.80 Egyptian pounds to 708 in July. But this has just been ignored and some are struggling just to get paid at all. The official line is:

The protestors have legitimate demands, their salaries can’t meet their needs, but we don't have resources to pay them,

as Finance Minister Hazem el-Beblawi told reporters after opening a session of Egypt's collapsing stock market. But the myth that the military are not using the same repression as Mubarak (put about by papers like Al Arabiya) has been exploded in recent weeks.

Since Ramadan ended more than a million Egyptian teachers, doctors university teachers and public transport workers and others (including even the students at the American university who have been joined by other university workers) have gone on strike, despite the anti-strike law. These have intensified this month. The bus drivers took to blockading the government ministries forcing the Cabinet to agree to double their wages. This would have met the strikers’ main demand until they found out that not only did the Public Transport Authority both have the money for such an increase but were proposing to reduce their wages still further.

After Friday prayers on October 7 thousands descended on Tahrir Square calling not only for the military rule to come to an end but also for “bread, freedom and social equality”. The military have not only threatened to implement the anti-strike decree but are actually resorting to greater brutality. Dirty tricks unsurprisingly abound. Dr Ahmed Atef, leader of the hospital doctors’ association trying to win a minimum wage “disappeared” last Tuesday (11 October). On 15 October according to Al Ahram a group of about 300 workers at the Mega Textile Factory who were marching to the local governor’s office to complain about their treatment were attacked by men in plain clothes (later seen in police uniforms). A taxi was driven into a group of workers seriously injuring a young girl who remains in a coma. 7 workers (6 male, 1 female) have been arrested (rumoured to be tortured) and held in custody accused of riotous assembly and … damaging the taxi. The same group of workers who have been on strike 6 times in the last 4 years were earlier menaced by Bedouin with automatic weapons (another old Mubarak era trick). The Turkish owners of the factory are trying to break any sign of solidarity amongst the workers by sacking anyone who tries to support the new independent trades union they have formed.

As we go to press the strikes continue but so increasingly does the repression. The Egyptian working class may have unconsciously sparked the overthrow of Mubarak last February but there are small signs now of a conscious recognition that what they need is more than democracy. It is still too early to say where this will lead. At the moment many have illusions that new independent unions will provide and answer. Already 200 have been set up with half a million members (but 4 million workers still remain in the state unions presumably from fear of being sacked). There are more radical voices within the movement who see the unions as struggle organisations rather than the bureaucracies in cahoots with the state we know so well here. They may yet learn very quickly that a struggle organisation is one thing but a permanent body negotiating the price of wage labour is another. With the military clinging on to power until the end of 2012 there is plenty of scope for that, as well as a widening and brutal conflict. And the Egyptian working class are set to learn a great deal more in the course of that ...




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