Egyptian working class needs to arm itself with a programme of extreme democracy, writes Eddie Ford
The achievement of the first goal of Egypt’s popular uprising – the removal of the hated dictator, Hosni Mubarak, from power – is something we can only welcome. Mubarak was clearly intent on remaining president until September – and then for an indefinite period as the power behind the throne to oversee the “orderly transition” that imperialism craves. Hence his typically arrogant appearance on state TV on February 11, claiming he was “delegating” some of his powers to the vice-president, Omar Suleiman. But within 24 hours Mubarak was gone – forced out by the militant resistance and anger of the masses in Tahrir Square and elsewhere throughout Egypt. Nor did the equally hated Suleiman end up as Mubarak’s replacement – he went too, if less dramatically.
Without the crowds demonstrating and protesting day after day, without the display of people power, then Hosni Mubarak would still be president today – have no doubt. His departure is a huge democratic gain that we celebrate along with the vast majority of Egyptians. Even more than that, communists regard recent events – and not just in Egypt – as an anticipation of the future, which will see further and greater democratic movements and revolutions in this region of the world. Just look at the protests now breaking out in Bahrain, with thousands setting up camp in the capital, Manama – making their own Tahrir Square and demanding basic democratic rights (some waving placards of Che Guevara), with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa offering each family in the country a cash pay-out of £1,640 in a frantic attempt to buy off discontent. And now Libya too has caught the democratic bug, experiencing an uprising in the eastern city of Benghazi, hundreds clashing with the police to demand the release of a prominent democracy campaigner and Gaddafi critic. The Arab masses are hungry for democracy, like their Iranian counterparts – who, inspired by the ousting of Mubarak, have once again taken to the streets in the largest anti-government protests for more than a year.
However, having said that, despite the initial victory of the Egyptian people the army is still in control and is issuing warnings against continued protests and strikes. Maybe Egyptian history repeating itself. So immediately upon Mubarak’s resignation the military high command suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament – with field marshal Mohammed Tantawi installed as acting dictator. Indeed, it was the army – coming under massive pressure from the Obama administration – that finally gave Mubarak his marching orders. Both US imperialism and the Egyptian military were horrified by Mubarak’s strutting TV performance and feared that his continued presence could plunge the country into “chaos and disorder” – that is, a continuation of the revolutionary upheaval. By telling Mubarak to go, the army top brass acted to defend its privileged position and preserve the regime as a whole. Mubarakism without Mubarak.
The ruling military council has declared that it intends to stay for six months or longer until the elections are held, and has imposed martial law. There will be no “swift transfer” of power to a civilian-led government nor an end to the 30-year state of emergency laws nor the release of political prisoners – and the military has retained Mubarak’s cabinet in its entirety. A committee, we are told by the military, will draw up “amendments” to the constitution which at some so far unspecified date will be put to a referendum. Albeit in a relatively non-violent way, the military removed virtually all protestors from Tahrir Square (though large demonstrations have once again begun there).
To provide camouflage army tops are holding meetings with assorted high-profile individuals – such as the Google executive Wael Ghonim, and the founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, Ahmed Maher – so as to give the appearance of being interested in alternative political views and meaningful democratic change. A fig-leaf. In reality the military, not unreasonably, hopes that US imperialism will prize such stability above all else and endorse a post-Mubarak Egypt that remains dominated from top to bottom by the old, military-backed order – albeit with a cosmetic constitutional change, and some new faces here or there. Or, in the words of prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, “there is no change in the form, method or process of work” – in fact, he added, “matters are completely stable” and the main task is to “bring a sense of security to the Egyptian citizen”. To this end, the military has issued a series of terse communiqués threatening retribution against the spreading “subversion” and “anarchy”.
In the brief few weeks of the uprising we have seen the working class begin to flex its muscles – finding a democratic space within which to operate. Hence the wave of strikes sweeping the country, as workers demand trade union rights, an end to corruption, anti-pollution measures and pay increases.
It is estimated that 40% or more of Egypt’s 80 million-strong population lives on less than £1 a day and are heavily reliant on subsidised foods – particularly bread, given that the price of staples such as rice and pasta have gone through the roof in recent years, plunging millions into poverty and desperation. The beginning of the week saw hundreds of thousands of workers go on strike from several industries and sectors – the (state-run) oil and gas industries, ambulance drivers, healthworkers, textile and steel workers, tourism, post office employees – even some police officers joined the strikes. Significantly, hundreds of Bank of Alexandria workers demonstrated outside its branch in central Cairo, urging their bosses to “leave, leave” – the same slogan used in the mass protests against Mubarak. The Central Bank of Egypt ordered all banks to remain shut following industrial action by staff at the largest, the National Bank.
Doubtless to the alarm of the regime, the officially recognised Egyptian Trade Union Federation and its bureaucratic apparatus is increasingly being side-stepped. Until last month, it was the sole trade union federation in Egypt, representing 2.5 million workers in 23 unions. But on January 30 a meeting convened in Tahrir Square led to the formation of the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, as an alternative pole of attraction to the state-run ETUF – which actually called on workers to support Mubarak, evacuate Tahrir Square, roll back the revolution and so on. The FETU’s first act was to call for a general strike in support of the opposition movement and to publish a list of demands on wages, welfare reform, workers’ rights, the release of opposition detainees, etc.
So Egypt is convulsed by massive protests against poverty pay and autocratic, bullying bosses – the mini-Mubaraks. With more certainly to come. As Kamal Abbas, head of the independent Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services, put it, “the question today isn’t ‘Who’s striking?’ The question is, ‘Who’s not striking?’” Abbas further remarked that the “success of the revolution” has “given everyone confidence to come out” and that “people are uncovering the scale of corruption” – which in turn breeds more anger and as a consequence more strikes and demonstrations. Yes, the Egyptian prime minister could not be more wrong – the situation is not “completely stable” – far from it.
Clearly taken aback by the scale of the strikes, the military council has balked so far at an outright ban – after all, that would rather ruin its attempts to present a democratic face to the world. Particularly given its talk about recognising the “legitimate aspirations” of the Egyptian people, etc. However, the military has called on “noble Egyptians” to see that these strikes lead to “negative results” and “damage the security of the country”. A violent response from the military to the strike wave is a distinct possibility, and thus the strikers – just like the Egyptian masses as a whole – should arm themselves in any way possible so as to defend themselves from the regime. Form workers’ self-defence units, as part of the wider struggle for a popular militia that will defend – and seek to advance – the democratic gains that have been made during the uprising. History and logic teaches us that the regime, whether in the shape of the military ruling council or a tame ‘civilian’ administration, will by one method or another do everything to claw back all the revolutionary and democratic advances we have seen thus far.