By Mike Whitney
“The revolution in Egypt is an expression of the will of the people, the determination of the people, the commitment of the people….Muslims and Christians have worked together in this revolution, as have the Islamic groups, secular parties, nationalist parties, and intellectuals….In fact every sector has played part in this revolution: the young, the old, women, men, clerics, artists, intellectuals, workers, and farmers.”
— Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah
The real story about what’s going on in Egypt is being suppressed in the US because it doesn’t jibe with the “ain’t capitalism great” theme that the media loves to reiterate ad nauseam. The truth is that the main economic policies that Washington exports through bribery and coercion have ignited massive labor unrest which has set the Middle East ablaze. Mubarak is the first casualty in this war against neoliberalism, but there will be many more to come. In fact, Mubarak’s resignation is probably just a sop to Egyptian workers, hoping that they’ll follow the military’s advice and sheepishly return to their sweatshops so fatcat CEOs in Berlin and Chicago can extract a few more farthings from their labor. But that probably won’t happen, because the 18 days in Tahrir Square has had a transformative affect on the consciousness of 80 million Egyptians who’ve suddenly “had enough”. The people have awaken from their slumber and now they’re ready to rumble.
The revolution started long before the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and it will continue for a long time to come. Workers everywhere are rebelling against the miserable conditions, slave wages and “privatization”, the crown jewel of neoliberalism. The privatization of state industries in Egypt is the proximate cause of the current uprising. It’s led to a general slide in living standards to the point where people would rather face a policeman’s truncheon than endure more-of-the-same. Here’s an excerpt from Foreign Policy which helps to explain what’s going on:
“In the sprawling factories of El-Mahalla el-Kubra, a gritty, industrial town a few hours’ drive north of Cairo, lies what many say is the heart of the Egyptian revolution. “This is our Sidi Bouzid,” says Muhammad Marai, a labor activist, referring to the town in Tunisia where a frustrated street vendor set himself on fire, sparking the revolution there.
Indeed, the roots of the mass uprising that swept dictator Hosni Mubarak from power lie in the central role this dust-swept company town played years ago in sparking workers’ strikes and grassroots movements countrywide. And it is the symbolic core of the latest shift in the revolution: a wave of strikes meant to tackle social and economic inequities, which has brought parts of Egypt to a standstill.
More than 24,000 workers at dozens of state-owned and private textile mills, in particular the mammoth Egypt Spinning and Weaving plant, went on strike and occupied factories for six days in 2006, winning a pay raise and some health benefits. Similar actions took place in 2007….
“After Mahalla in 2008, the first weaknesses in the regime appeared,” says Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. “Nothing was the same in Egypt after that.” (“Egypt’s Cauldron of Revolt”, Anand Gopal, Foreign Policy)
Compare this story to the narrative that appears in the US media, that the revolution was triggered by Twitter-happy “twenty somethings” text messaging their friends while buzzing around Cairo. It’s utter nonsense. This revolution has working class roots, which is why the establishment press refuses to explain what’s really going on. Any talk about “class” is verboten in US media because it tends to reflect poorly on the deep-pocket robber barons who created the greatest extremes in inequality in the history of the world. Here’s more from Michael Collins at The Economic populist:
“Egypt began a series of reforms in the 1990’s that stacked the deck against workers and farmers. The government sold off the large state enterprises. New owners had little incentive to keep people in jobs or jobs in Egypt. The government enacted new measures to protect large farmers, with peasant farmers left on their own.
When conservative Prime Minister, Ahmed Nafiz, took power in 2004, the situation became desperate. With the help of a new anti labor law, pressure mounted on Egypt’s industrial workers. The ETUF had little to offer in support and frequently overruled the votes to strike of local chapters….
The same labor movement that staged the 2006 strike and a follow up in 2007, called for a national strike on April 6, 2008 to raise the nation’s minimum wage and protest high food prices. Mubarak’s government sent in police who took over the factory in hopes of preventing the strike. Conflict broke out with violence on the part of police toward the union members calling for the strike. Police arrested workers. Trials, convictions and prison sentences followed quickly. Other members continued to protest.
An Egyptian writer noted, “In the 6 April uprising, the demands of the workers and the general population overlapped. People called for lower food prices as workers called for a minimum wage.”
In addition, the April 6 Youth Movement emerged as a key player advancing the aims of the national strike. This is the same organization that has been central to rallying crowds throughout the country.” (“Forces Behind the Egyptian Revolution”, Michael Collins, The Economic Populist)
See? This isn’t about removing a despot. It’s about class warfare, of which no one will speak in western media.
The revolution signals the rise of organized labor and a frontal assault on the Washington Consensus and the race-to-the-bottom regime that has pushed Egyptian workers to the breaking point. This didn’t happen overnight; these forces have been coalescing for a very long time and now the tinder has been lit.
This is a struggle for workers rights and political power as much as it is about wages and conditions. Mubarak’s resignation has emboldened the people and strengthened their resolve to affect real structural change. This is their chance to shape the future, which is why Washington is so worried. This is also why US-backed NGOs and their agents were actively trying to depose Mubarak, because they believed that by removing the tyrant, they could appease the masses and send them merrily back to their factories and sweatshops with a pat on the head. But that’s not the way it’s playing out. Workers seem to know intuitively that Mubarak is just replaceable cog in the imperial mechanism. So far, they have not been placated, subdued or co-opted, although the Obama crew and their junta-leader Tatawi will undoubtedly keep trying. Here’s an excerpt from an interview Mona El-Ghobashy, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, on Democracy Now which adds a bit of context to what’s happening in Cairo:
“There’s a pre-history to this revolt. Egyptian politics didn’t begin on January 25th. In fact,….Egypt has actually been gripped by a rather extraordinary wave of social protest since at least 2000. This is by no means new. It’s by no means post-February 13th. This is something that’s been happening and peaked in 2006 and 2007, which lends the protest that broke out among civil servants, police officers and other state employees yesterday—it lends it an extra weight. … What this shows is a convergence of the old style of protest with a completely changed political environment. That’s the significance of it….
So, for us to be able to really understand the significance of what’s happening today, we have to link it to the fabric of Egyptian politics starting in 2000, for simplicity’s sake, but protests actually occurred in the 1990s, as well. One of the largest protests was a quarry workers’ strike in 1996 that really shook the country at the time. Of course, nobody remembers this now.
But again, the point I want to emphasize is, we are entering in a period, as Issandr mentioned, a real revolutionary moment in Egyptian politics where this constitution and parliament are suspended, but at the same time we have this roiling social structure where almost each and every sector of the population is taking to the streets, grasping the political opportunity afforded by the change of the regime, but they are doing this because they already know how to do that. They know how to encamp on the streets. They know how to negotiate with the government ministers. They know how many people to put on a street corner to make sure that the government minister comes and talks to them on the street corner. That’s why this is significant, not because this is a rebirth of Egyptian politics after February 13th.” ( Mona El-Ghobashy, Democracy Now)
The Obama administration isn’t “pulling the strings” in this revolution, in fact, they’re hanging on by the skin of their teeth. The US has very little control over events on the ground and all of their efforts are focused on “damage control”. That’s why Obama continues to make his silly pronouncements every day, cautioning protesters to remain peaceful and invoking the words of Martin Luther King to calm the waters. But no one’s paying any attention to Obama. He’s completely irrelevant. Nor do they care that Hillary Clinton wants Congress to allocate more money for “to bolster the rise of secular political parties”. Whatever for?? The horse has already left the barn.
The Egyptian military isn’t in control either, which is why they keep issuing conflicting communiques–one minute celebrating the triumph of Tahrir Square and the next minute threatening a crackdown if people don’t return to work. Once the military commits to a given-strategy, and starts mowing down striking workers en masse, then the real revolution will begin and a new political reality will begin to emerge. Nothing galvanizes the attention or stirs one’s class roots more than blood in the streets.
And, there’s no set-way to conduct a revolution, no blueprint for success. Every revolution is different, as unique as the aspirations of the people involved. Rosa Luxemburg realized this when she said:
“The modern working class does not carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory; the modern workers’ struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight… That’s exactly what is laudable about it, that’s exactly why this colossal piece of culture, within the modern workers’ movement, is epoch-defining: that the great masses of the working people first forge from their own consciousness, from their own belief, and even from their own understanding the weapons of their own liberation.”
The Egyptian people have avoided a full-blown confrontation with government forces with impressive nimbleness. But the threat of a crackdown is still very real. Workers have laid out their demands, and in this new environment of political activism, it’s unlikely that they will back down until they achieve their goals. They’re not taken-in by Mubarak’s departure. They know that the “new boss, is same as the old boss”. As the Center for Trade Unions and Worker’s Service’s states in their manifesto, this isn’t just about “decent wages” or “medical care” any more. Egypt’s working people “refuse to live a life of humiliation.”
From the Center for Trade Unions manifesto:
“….300 young persons have paid with their lives as a price for our freedom and to free us from the humiliation of slavery that we suffer from. And now the road, the path is open for all of us….
Freedom is not just the demand of youth only ….we want freedom so that we can express our demands and rights … so we can find a way to monitor the wealth of our country, the result of our hard work that is being stolen … and so we can re-distribute with some sense of justice … so that different sectors of society who have been oppressed can get more of what it is owed to them so they don’t have to needlessly suffer from hunger and illness.”
The Egyptian people want what’s owed to them—their freedom, their dignity, and a fair share of the pie. And it looks like they might get it all.