The working class continues to play a central role in the country’s still-unfolding revolution
Tens of thousands filled Tahrir Square on April 1, emphatically demonstrating the utter failure of prolonged attempts by Egypt’s military government to demobilize and demoralize the pro-democracy movement.
Fifteen thousand people, according to the state news agency MENA, already attending the Friday Muslim prayers in Tahrir Square, were joined later in the afternoon by twice as many protesters jamming the central Cairo plaza according to Agence France Presse. In what was called “The Friday for Rescuing the Revolution,” protesters demanded bringing to trial deposed President Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, ending the official state of emergency and releasing all political prisoners.
In fact, important sections of the population continue to call for serious and fundamental democratic reforms, going far beyond the transparently shallow changes to Mubarak’s discredited constitution recently suggested by the top generals.
Nonetheless, the military did successfully cast the March 19 constitutional referendum as the best chance to stabilize the economy and to move more quickly toward civilian rule, thus producing very large voter turnout and approval.
This despite the fact that many leading democracy activists attacked the government’s amendments as a tepid rewrite of a few clauses in the dictator’s carried-over constitution, minus any additional firm guarantees of civil liberties.
The Egyptian Center for Trade Union & Worker Services (CTUWS), a leading advocate of the newly-formed Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions (EFITU), produced a leaflet urging people to vote against amendments that were the very same “previously proposed by the deposed President Mubarak….[and] to demand a new constitution that lays the foundations for a new Egypt.”
The CTUWS also organized “a ‘Vote No’” demonstration of around 3,000 students, human rights activists and trade unionists in Tahrir Square on March 27,” according to representative Tamer Fathy in a phone interview from Cairo.
Furthermore, the AFL-CIO-supported Solidarity Center (SC) in Washington DC pointed out that “yes” numbers were boosted significantly because separate votes were not allowed on any of the nine proposed amendments. “It was all or nothing, they were presented as a package,” SC program officer Erin Radford told me.
The opposition in Egypt actually sought a whole new alternative constitution that could be developed by a broad cross-section of the movement.
“But in the end,” Fathy admitted, “there was insufficient debate. The government was successful in rushing the whole discussion and making it unclear. People thought they were voting for a little bit more democracy so it passed overwhelmingly.”
Reforming the constitution while banning strikes?
Even more dangerous than this apparent constitutional deception, however, is last week’s proposal by cabinet ministers to ban strikes and protests. It includes onerous fines and grueling prison terms for any violations. This draft legislation is now under serious consideration by the ruling Supreme Military Council.
If eventually ratified and enforced, all organized government opposition would be silenced. These ominous threats have, as a result, accelerated demands to suspend the state of emergency in effect since 1981 and under which such restrictions could legally be enacted. This was one of the central demands of those assembled on April 1.
Clearly, the Military Council continues to walk a delicate political tight rope. But, surprisingly, they have proven to be quite adept and quick on their feet, unlike the clumsily inept Mubarak who provoked intense anger by his arrogant and imperial intransigence.
On the one hand, the Supreme Council desperately attempts to demobilize and malign the reform movement either through malicious accusations of economic sabotage or through actual physical threats.
At the same time, the ruling Council periodically concedes a number of important reform demands, many of which are prudently announced several days before major protests.
For example, just a few days before April 1, Mubarak’s whole family was placed under house arrest and a travel ban imposed on the ruling National Democratic Party chief, the former presidential chief of staff and the former parliamentary speaker.
After rebellion comes confidence
In the country’s large industrial and commercial sectors, incredibly massive organized protests involved significant sections of the working class and poor. Their participation left a larger political footprint than other recent social explosions in the Middle East.
“You cannot understand events in Egypt today without understanding the absolutely critical role of the working class — both before, during and after the Tahrir Square events,” according to prominent labor-rights attorney Khaled Ali, who spoke from Cairo in a February 18 Democracy Now televised interview I attended.
“For example, there is absolutely no doubt that the isolation of the students and young people in the Square was ended once workers began conducting strikes and protests, about 30 – 40 a day throughout the country during the revolutionary Tahrir days and in the immediate days following. The role of the working class was absolutely decisive to our victory,” concluded Ali.
Massive working class involvement in the rebellion has provided much-needed confidence for its participation in the next stage of the revolution.
Allies and antagonists
The immense national unity of the January 25 Freedom Movement is now realigning as bloody battles to end corruption and dictatorship give way to public discourse on how to reconstruct “a new Egypt.”
This shift means other changes in the social dynamic different from the rebellious Tahrir days. Allies in the streets are now sometimes antagonists in the debates. It could not be otherwise. The alliance of a whole country during time of war could not possibly be maintained when deciding exactly how the nation should take shape in time of peace.
Consequently, different classes, sectors and strata of society that stood shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir, Alexandria and in the Suez, are now quite naturally each promoting their own specific social, political and economic programs.
Democratic rights won by the revolution have allowed this immensely important debate to occur openly and the results will determine whether revolutionary gains will be limited to the business sector and upper classes or extended also to the working class and poor majority. Extensive participation by working people in the national dialogue is, therefore, absolutely critical.
But it is not guaranteed.
Parliamentary forms in all countries, not just Egypt, are almost exclusively restricted to the rich and powerful who can buy influence, construct pliable parties and mount expensive national election campaigns.
The democratic organization of this debate and the participation of the working class and poor is, therefore, only assured to the degree that they organize themselves independently, recognizing they have interests separate and apart from the power structure that remains largely intact from the Mubarak era.
“The revolution’s goals of democracy is also about building civil organizations like trade unions because they are truly working in a natural and instinctively democratic way by involving people fully,” the CTUWS’s Fathy told me.
“Democracy should be a means to achieve our social goals. It is really about people and how they organize themselves to improve their lives.”
Judging by the large turnout and overwhelming approval numbers during the constitutional referendum, the army was successful in sidetracking discussion away from self-organization of the people and into the safer and more familiar terrain of parliamentary reforms where, as noted earlier, the traditional elite can more easily reassert themselves through their existing political parties and economic structures.
For example, the rarely-enforced minimum wage is still only a paltry $74 a month after recently seeing its first increase since 1984, where it remained at $6.50 a month for 26 years.
Millions continue to languish in poverty, forced to work several jobs in the informal sector as street vendors or in one of the Qualifying Industrial Zones, exclusively reserved for U.S. companies where wages are low, benefits non-existent and unions severely repressed.
But, on the other hand, the steady presence of independent unions is growing stronger each day. Teachers, healthcare workers, textile workers, transport workers, tax collectors and other sectors continue to form unions, breaking from the government-controlled official union and joining the independent union federation, EFITU, only just formed on March 2.
“We are concentrating most on organizing the working class because we know that ultimately this is the only way to gain our share of democracy and a decent standard of living,” Fathy declared.
“Workers here have no experience with free and independent unions, it is all new to us. But we are very, very happy with our progress so far.”
As long as the debate on Egypt’s future continues with full participation of an organized working class and its allies among the poor, students and middle classes, so also will the revolution’s social, economic and political goals stay on track and become more possible to achieve.
Carl Finamore is Machinist Local Lodge 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. His highly-recommended 10-minute video of labor’s role in the Egyptian revolution is available here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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