Egypt and Lebanon: Two Strikes, One Reality
On April 6th a general strike was called in Egypt. One month later, on May 7th, another one was called in Lebanon. The causes were the same in both countries: calls for an increase in the minimum wage and improvements to workers” statutory benefits and also to protest against the neoliberal, IMF-friendly, pro-Western political attitudes of the respective governments. The responses of the Egyptian and Lebanese governments were the same, although with different results: attempts to defuse the protests with repression, confronting the people and increasing the minimum wage as a last resort. The media account of the two strikes was the same too: minimizing the effects of the protest in government and international media, while the few media that can be described as independent in these countries reflected the strike calls” success.
Workers in Egypt have staged a series of protests against Hosni Mubarak”s pro-Western, neoliberal IMF-friendly regime for a long time now. In April a general strike took place which the government tried to stop with “preventive detention” of the main labour leaders and important leaders of political organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. The measures were accompanied by an impressive police deployment which still failed to prevent the strike holding fast for three days in places like Al-Mahallah Al-Kubra, a town located on the Nile Delta, for years the visible head of workers” protests in Egypt.
Together with the direct repression (hundreds of detainees, starting with imprisonments almost a month before the strike was held, along with police deployment in the main streets and squares of principal cities like Cairo and Alexandria) action was taken on three fronts. On the labor front, serious penalties were threatened against workers in Egypt”s civil service. On the student front, universities were forced to set examinations for the day of the strike so as to weaken the street protests and stop students joining the workers. On the media front, newspapers, radio stations and government and allied television channels joined forces to slander and satirize the protest organizers.
The strike call was made by makeshift means, from traditional pamphlets via e-mails and word of mouth so as to evade repression. Few official or allied media dared to mention the demands. The protest was against the government”s neoliberal, IMF policies and made clear the strike”s social and political reasons. Among the main reasons, “rejection of price increases, the need for education for our children, for adequate transport, hospitals that care for our health, medicine for our infants, a fair courts system.” Other demands were, “we don”t want murderous police officers or police torture – no more arrests, corruption and bribery.”
Despite all the Mubarak government”s efforts, the strike was successful. That day, Cairo was a capital brought to a standstill. The students of at least two universities, Hilwan and Al-Azhar, refused to follow the government order. They neither attended classes nor sat exams. (1) Prestigious professional associations, like that of the lawyers, joined the protest and offered their services to the 140 people detained for participating in the strike. The Left, represented by Kefaya movement and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood supported the strike unconditionally.
But complete success was achieved in Al-Mahallah Al-Kubra. Textile workers have been the front rank in the struggle against the Mubarak regime (2) and the government was especially anxious for the strike to fail there. (Textiles here are the most important productive activity employing 20,000 workers). Police prevented the night shift of Al-Mahallah Al-Kubra”s main textile factory from leaving, so that they might continue working on the day of the 6th (strike day) without interrupting production. Police took over the area”s main streets but failed to stop 6000 workers meeting and confronting the forces there to repress them. This resulted in 331 workers detained and 60 wounded. A video bears witness to the combativity of the workers and can be seen on YouTube. (3)
The success of the strike encouraged the political opposition to call another stoppage for May 4th but this did not have the same following. Along with another increase in the repression (70 groups of the Central Security Forces mobilised in the striking districts in addition to those still there from the April strike) (4), one has to include government conscience buying : they rewarded Al-Mallah Al-Kubra workers who stayed out of the April strike with a month”s extra pay. Curiously, they also rewarded the workers who did go on strike, but with a fortnight”s pay. For the remaining workers, right on the eve of the second strike call, a 30% rise in the minimum wage was announced.
Something similar to what happened in Egypt also happened in Lebanon. The General Labour Confederation called a general strike for May 7th with similar demands to those of their Egyptian colleagues. The main demand was an increase in the minimum wage. But the strike also carried a political message: the neoliberal, pro-Western, IMF-friendly government of Fouad Siniora wants to privatize a large part of the public sector (telephones, airport, water and health, among others) and that is unacceptable to Lebanese workers. The forces that support the government, grouped in the March 14th coalition, opposed it arguing that it was a political strike. The opposition forces grouped in the March 8th coalition protected it.
In January 2007 Lebanon experienced a massive general strike. On this occasion, it has been a majority strike but not so widespread. The least biased media reckon support at 80%, with total support in main reference points like Beirut and Bekaa. The reasons: the government approved an 82% increase in the minimum wage from 300,000 Lebanese pounds to 500,000 – about 320 Euros. Companies threatened workers with dismissal if they supported the strike. (5) The March 14th political parties and their allied labour unions called on their supporters not to support the strike, arguing that its objectives had been achieved and that the strike was political. It is worth remembering that the CGT wanted the minimum wage set at 960,000 Lebanese pounds (about 610 Euros) arguing themselves that the cost of living in recent years had increased to intolerable levels for the great majority of the population, especially basic items like bread, milk, rice, sugar, meat and so on. (6)
The success of the strike moves in Egypt and Lebanon would not have been possible without an event unimaginable until two years ago: Hizbollah”s victory in the war against Israel. From the very moment that the Arab peoples, from Morocco to Iraq, realised that a political-military movement”s daring and determination could breach imperialist strategy, fear began to run up the backbones of the area”s regimes, making their nervousness ever more obvious to their peoples.
During that war, the streets of the Arab cities, regardless of religious or party affiliations filled with placards on which the figure of Hizbollah”s Secretary General accompanied that of Nasser the former Egyptian President and Che along with a unanimous resounding cry, “No Peace without Justice!” A cry that forced the neoliberal, pro-Western, IMF-friendly Arab governments to dust off old programmes and plans with the one approved in 2002 on recognition for Israel in exchange for a withdrawal to the 1967 frontiers and a few other things. A plan which once more sleeps the sleep of the just, now the initial shock has passed. But the cry for Justice referred not only to the Palestinian question, but to daily life, an improvement in living conditions, rejection of neoliberal policies and revealing again the great frustration at corruption, bribery and government arrogance.
While the reactionary governments resumed business as usual – in Jordan, for example, celebrations of Israel”s 60th anniversary have been permitted while Palestinian demonstrations remembering the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophe, have been repressed – the region”s peoples and their organizations reacted. The clearest case is that of Hamas in Palestine but also there are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan. Like other Islamic organizations in other Arab countries, they are moving closer to leftwing organizations in their respective countries. However tactical it may be, as that alliance consolidates, it is going to mark a new Middle East, a Middle East of its peoples, not the one dreamt of by imperialism and its acolytes.
Come what may and at whatever cost, that is something imperialism wants to avoid. The strategy is to internationalize the crisis – calling on the right to intervene, that was invoked in Haiti to justify the despatch of troops there, and to add another role to UN troops already in the region. That other role would be NATO”s, operating at the margins of the international body, turning into the enforcement arm of imperialist interests throughout the world. The French troops of UNIFIL have carried out exercises against “terrorist objectives” in Lebanon while UNIFIL itself has done the same in the zone next door to the Shebaa Farms, occupied by Israel.
The general strike in Lebanon has been followed by an impressive show of force by Hizbollah which has come to control the Muslim area of Beirut, making clear in the most concrete way the weakness of a government that only survives thanks to help from neoliberal, pro-Western, pro-IMF Arab regimes along with their European and US patrons. It is obvious that the Lebanese status quo has changed radically and that the seat of real power is Hizbollah.
Hizbollah has pounded its fist on the table. One cannot talk of a legitimate government in a country where the economy is adrift, where the only prescription offered is hardline IMF, neoliberal policy, a country whose national defence strategy is incapable of responding to Israeli aggression and where electoral law – inherited from French colonialism – favours Christians, who only represent 35% of the population.
The reason for what happened in Beirut was the government”s threat to remove Hizbollah”s surveillance system from Beirut airport. To be exact, from the airport”s landing strips. The illegitimate Lebanese government regards it as illegal, along with Hizbollah”s communications system. However, that network was vital for the triumph over Israel in the 2006 war.
As regards the airport, the system was installed on the certainty that strips one through seven would be used by Israel for a lightning raid against resistance installations at the end of April, a raid which was, in the end, cancelled. This, common knowledge in Beirut has also been mentioned by Robert Fisk in his reports (8) where he wonders, like most of the Lebanese population, whether the Lebanese government is not playing Israel”s game by proposing to dismantle that system. The speculation turns especially around Druze leader Walid Jumblat who is considered the main ally of Israel and the US in Lebanon.
What happened makes the reality clear : the power of Hizbollah can only be stopped by foreign military intervention. The forces that prop up the Siniora government, whose supposed military support has dissolved like sugar in a cup of coffee, openly plead with the imperialists and their allies (the famous “international community”) “to intervene so as to end the coup”. (9)
In order to save the Siniora government, they are beginning to talk about setting up an air bridge in which Saudi Arabia and Jordan will participate with Egyptian and US support. The forever inoperative and ineffective Arab League, so loath to meet to solve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the illegal, inhuman Israeli, European and US blockade is now ready to meet urgently, arguing that what is happening in Lebanon puts the region at risk. They mean, their governments.
So the internationalization of the Lebanese crisis gathers momentum. But here Hizbollah is strong, the airport is in Hizbollah”s hands. So where then will they site their air bridge if the incipient interventionism of the reactionary Arab countries does not want to risk an open confrontation with a group that has demonstrated its power? There is only one alternative, in the north of the country where NATO is proposing a base near Qleiat, close to Tripoli where the Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp is sited and close, too, to the northern frontier with Syria. The base would accommodate a helicopter squadron and NATO special forces. (10)
It is ever more obvious that the presence of US warships, NATO plans and UNIFIL manoeuvres are all components moving in one direction: preparations for a new war with the aim of completely defeating the opposition forces and especially Hizbollah as a political and military actor not just in Lebanon but in the Middle East too.
That is something progressives the world over must seek to avoid. In Lebanon, leftwing organizations like the lay Sunni organization, the Independent Nasserite Movement (Morabitun), say they are “fed up with being hijacked, making Sunnis part of something that does not represent us and does not express our values”, expressing its recognition of Hizbollah and referring to the group led by Saad Hariri and Fouad Siniora himself. The Maronite Christian organization, the Free Patriotic Movement, regards as culprits both the UN Security Council and the so-called international community, for supporting a government that “marginalizes the majority of its people”.
Hizbollah has not sought the government”s defeat but rather a government of national unity reflecting the real composition of the country. Even ignoring what has been said by other progressive Lebanese organizations, like the Communist Party, the leftwing should note that the Lebanese people”s struggle against a pro-Western, pro-IMF neoliberal government is of great importance for the whole region not just Lebanon.
-Alberto Cruz is a journalist, political analyst and writer who specializes in international relations.