- September 21, 2007
Egypt: Worker militancy shows pressing need for political voice
This strike wave has brought thousands of workers into defensive struggles, but in many circumstances workers have taken the offensive, striking for better pay and conditions. The last political period has been characterised in Egypt by a growing confidence and consciousness of the working class, a process which has coincided with the mainly intelligentsia-led, pro-democracy movement.
The strikes have involved tens of thousands of workers. In December 2006, 27,000 workers struck in Ghazl El-Mahalla – Egypt”s largest state-owned textile factory. In February, 21,000 textile workers in three factories in the Northern Delta region took industrial action.
Since December there have also been smaller, but also important, strikes in cement factories, poultry factories, the Cairo subway building works and, most recently, a successful three-day sit-in by 400 workers at the Suez Fertilisers company. Many of these have been caused by foreign companies buying, or preparing to buy, nationalised factories.
It has been estimated by the Egyptian newspaper al-Masri al-Yawm that around 226 sit-in strikes, work stoppages, hunger strikes and demonstrations have occurred during 2006.
In the spring, industrial action peaked with 56 industrial incidents happening in April alone. The workers in these workplaces, quickly realised that working for privatised industry will mean a reduction in conditions, especially safety, and a cut in wages.
The Egyptian working class has faced years of neo-liberal attacks as the Mubarak regime has tried to make Egypt more appealing to foreign investment by driving down wages and making workers conditions more “flexible”. With growing competition from markets in China, Brazil and India, Egyptian capitalism is falling behind, with the Egyptian working class footing the bill. This is with a background of extreme political and social repression, where vote rigging and arresting of opponents is common.
Political opposition of any kind, including striking and the formation of independent workers” organisations, is illegal.
The Committee for a Workers International (CWI, the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) calls for the end to all the cuts in conditions, safety and pay. It also calls for the end of privatisation – which ultimately leaves workers at the mercy of multinational companies who put the acquisition of profit above the needs of the workers.
Role of working class
The Egyptian working class, along with Iranian workers, is the biggest in the Middle East and therefore, potentially, the most powerful group of people in the region. Egyptian workers have a long history of struggle and unlike other areas of the region, the most recent struggle has been separate from religious groups and sectarian divisions.
With most of the anti-neo-liberal and anti-imperialist movements in the Middle East being led by nationalist Islamist groups, it is important that Egyptian workers have entered into struggle independently. But, with the corrupt official trade unions in league with the ruling class, and with the religious organisations and middle class pro-democracy groups unable to take up the workers” demands, there is a crisis of working class leadership.
The most obvious opposition organisation is the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the oldest and largest political Islamic groups in the Middle East. In the 2005 presidential elections, and despite being forbidden to stand, they managed to get 88 candidates elected as independents.
The elections for the upper house this year saw a decrease in the Muslim Brotherhood”s vote. However, this is probably due to vote rigging and mass disillusionment with the Mubarak regime and not a decline in their grassroots support.
The Muslim Brotherhood recruits followers from all classes. Although they have an anti-imperialist and pro-democratic reformist outlook, they do not hold the ideas or programme to organise working-class struggle.
In fact most of their leadership comes from the middle class, many being businessmen, small factory owners or shop keepers. These elements, taken from the more prosperous sections of society are obviously hostile to the idea of industrial action, leading to the Muslim Brotherhood giving very lukewarm support to the striking workers.
The Muslim Brotherhood have the support of many who want to see an end to US imperialism and the ravaging of Egypt for raw materials and goods by foreign, mostly US, companies. However, they are not based in the working class and have not organically grown through struggle like trade unions and workers parties have.
Despite the recent successes of industrial militancy and the current paralysis of the state, there is a possibility the strike wave could take a step back. These battles, could be picked off by the management and the state security apparatus. The lack of a national, principled, fighting leadership could also mean the movement may lose direction, leading to disillusionment.
However, a mass party of the working class could put forward a national, and even an international programme to combat neo-liberalism and offer an alternative to all the workers and the poor in Egypt.
A combined workers” movement of this kind could challenge the undemocratic regime of Mubarak and the vile privatisation policies of Egyptian capitalism.
The challenge for socialists in Egypt is to fight against neo-liberalism and imperialism on a working-class basis; linking the struggles in different factories and workplaces to the global situation; and putting forward the goal of creating a workers” and farmers” government that would implement a socialist programme of workers” control of the commanding heights of the economy and genuine workers” democracy.