The gravedigger of dictatorship

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There have been many conflicting interpretations of events in Egypt. Anne Alexander argues that the working class is the key force in Egyptian society with the power to drive the revolution forward


Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

A few short weeks into the Egyptian Revolution the number of contradictory labels it wears is already growing with dizzying speed. In the Western media it is painted as a "flower" revolution - a heart-warming example of a leaderless "people power" movement. A considerable body of deluded neocon opinion in the US sees the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak as a confirmation that George W Bush was right to try to impose "democracy" on the Middle East through the barrel of a gun. Military analysts at Stratfor and a good part of the BBC's senior journalists seem to think it is an old-fashioned military coup. Other voices clamour for the recognition of the Egyptian Revolution as an internet-driven revolt or a sinister Islamist conspiracy.

This article takes a different perspective. I argue that the Egyptian Revolution demonstrates, with a force not seen in the Arab world for more than half a century, that the power that can liberate society from below lies with the organised working class.

The strikes which spread like wildfire across Egypt in the last days before Mubarak's fall suddenly made workers' power visible. Yet it was deeper and longer-term processes of both global and local economic change which fractured the Egyptian state and created the conditions for the revolt. In particular, the toxic chemistry between the neoliberal reforms, promoted by Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, and his cronies, and the backwash from the global economic crisis played the central role in breaking workers materially and ideologically from the regime.

Yet the first phase of the revolution - the 18 days of mobilisation on a scale recalling scenes from the 1848 revolutions or Russia in February 1917 - was also the product of Egypt's "culture of protest", nurtured by a decade of struggles between the state and the people in the streets. Western journalists and Barack Obama's advisers may have been surprised by the sudden eruption of popular anger against a "stable" ally, but anyone who had watched the ebb and flow of protests since 2000 - over Palestine, against the war on Iraq, for democracy and constitutional reform, for better pay and trade union rights, and against police torture - should not have been.

However, analysis of the dynamics of the uprising itself shows that the 25 January revolution was more than an aggregator of disparate political and economic demands. Rather the scale of mobilisation from below and the pressure it exerted on the state transformed and deepened the relationship between the economic and political struggles. In Mubarak's final days it was the deployment of workers' social power against the state, and in particular the strike wave which erupted on 8 February, which finally cracked the regime. The fact that the people were still in the streets as Mubarak was forced out of power opens up possibilities for further extending the revolutionary process, already glimpsed in the explosion of strikes in the week following the dictator's fall.

Fracturing the state

The junior army officers who seized power and overthrew the monarchy in 1952 set Egypt on the path to state capitalist development. Under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser they used the state's resources to found heavy industries, took control of the Suez Canal in order to finance the building of the Aswan High Dam, and built up manufacturing to supply Egyptian markets.

This economic strategy was connected to the creation of political institutions which sought to bind workers and peasants to the state. Workers were offered a social contract where in return for renouncing their political independence they could expect some gains, such as subsidised housing, education, other welfare benefits and relative job security. Nasserist rhetoric, particularly in its late phase, idealised workers for their contribution to national development. But the Nasserist state crushed independent workers' organisations and in their place built an official trade union federation which was subservient to the government.

The conditions which allowed Nasser and his colleagues to pursue this particular strategy for economic development had started to change by the late 1960s as ruling classes on a global scale began to search for alternatives to state-led development. After Nasser died in 1970, his successor, Anwar Sadat, broke with the USSR and by the end of the decade had sealed a new partnership with the US. Sadat pioneered a policy of "economic opening" ("infitah") in order to receive loans from international financial institutions.

During Mubarak's later years the process of infitah continued and deepened, with the imposition of a structural adjustment programme following the 1991 Gulf War. The percentage of workers employed in the state sector shrank from 40 percent in 1981-2 to 32 percent in 2004-5. However, these figures hide a more dramatic story of increased unemployment, rising job insecurity and the destruction of large parts of the welfare system. Between 1998 and 2006 the percentage of workers with an employment contract dropped from 61.7 percent to 42 percent while the percentage covered by social insurance fell from 54.1 percent to 42.3 percent during the same period.

Nasser constructed a political system which, despite some tinkering by Sadat and Mubarak, survived decades after his death. Although his successors did allow fake "opposition" parties to exist - so long as they remained weak and subservient to the ruling party - they did not fundamentally change the basic political system. Until the 2011 revolution, Egypt had a two-class electoral franchise, with workers and peasants voting for one set of parliamentary representatives and middle class "professionals" voting for another set. So the state-controlled trade union federation was not merely an instrument of social control within the workplace, where it sought to manage workers' discontent in the interest of the state, but also a giant electoral machine delivering pro-regime voters to the polling stations and turning out crowds of workers to cheer Mubarak and his cronies.

At an ideological level too, the legacy of Nasserism outlived its creator by several decades. Workers' identification with the goals of state-led national development could be seen even at the sharpest moments of class struggle. Workers' resistance did explode from time to time - for example in Mahalla al-Kubra in 1984, at the Helwan iron and steel plants in 1989 and in Kafr al-Dawwar in 1994. But rather than withdrawing their labour and stopping production, workers generally chose to stage "work-ins" - a gesture meant to signify that they, unlike their leaders, were still committed to a vision of common sacrifice for the sake of "the nation".

The reforms of the 1990s and beyond fractured the Nasserist system on several different levels. Privatisation removed hundreds of thousands of workers from state industries and transferred their bonuses and workplace-based welfare benefits to the bank accounts of private shareholders. Deprived of its role in channelling welfare to workers, the state-run trade union federation rotted from within. It continued to mobilise voters for ruling party election rallies and to harass and intimidate workers who attempted to organise resistance from below, but in large areas of the country its organisational structure was a hollow shell of "paper members" and a handful of self-serving bureaucrats.

In late 2006 a strike by around 25,000 textile workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra opened the gates to a prolonged wave of workers' mobilisation. Strikes spread rapidly from sector to sector, and among some groups of workers, particularly the Mahalla textile workers and the property tax collectors, took on an explicitly political character, demanding the right to organise independent trade unions and calling for an increase in the national minimum wage. The widespread adoption of strikes as a weapon, rather than work-ins, was a testimony to the shift in workers' consciousness.

It is important to understand that these developments are not simply the result of local factors, but are intimately connected to global processes. The imposition of neoliberal economic reform programmes on variants of state capitalist regimes has been played out across the world. Short-term shocks have also played a central role, particularly the international rise in food prices which was driving workers' protests against the spiralling cost of living even before the onset of the global economic crisis.

Holes in the wall of dictatorship

The strike wave of 2006 erupted into a context which had already been changed by popular protest. Although compared with the millions of demonstrators who took part in the 25 January revolution the numbers of protesters were often relatively small, the ferment in the streets since the second Palestinian Intifada in late 2000 marked a dramatic shift in the Egyptian political landscape. The first really significant breakthrough came in 2003, when tens of thousands of demonstrators took control of Cairo's Tahrir Square in protests against the US invasion of Iraq, punching "a hole in the wall of dictatorship", as one Egyptian socialist activist put it at the time.

Further holes appeared in the dictatorship over the following few years. In 2005 a loose alliance of radical Nasserists, liberals and socialists - supported by some elements in the Muslim Brotherhood - launched a campaign opposing Mubarak's renewed candidacy for presidency and his attempts to hand power over to his son, Gamal. Street protests crystallised around the slogan "Kifaya - Enough!" and began to draw in growing numbers of young people. Today it is hard to remember what an unusually daring step this was for the small forces of the radical opposition groups. They were publicly crossing the "red line" preventing criticism of the president.

The following year saw a revolt by judges incensed at the regime's blatant election-rigging and persecution of those who spoke out against it. Hundreds of judges in full official regalia marched through Cairo in protest at the disciplining of two reform-minded members of the Court of Cassation. The sense of the state at war with itself was palpable, as riot police beat judges on the steps of their club building and tear-gassed lay supporters of the judges' campaign.

Rising levels of workers' struggles intersected with a revival of youth activism in 2008, which saw the regime face its biggest challenge before the 2011 revolution. A call for a strike by textile workers at Misr Spinning in Mahalla was taken up by networks of youth activists. A Facebook group supporting the Mahalla workers and calling for a general strike in solidarity gained around 70,000 members. On 6 April 2008 the actual strike in Mahalla was aborted by the police, but their attack on demonstrators touched off a near-insurrection in the town. Meanwhile, the "Facebook strike" found an echo in large demonstrations on most university campuses and shuttered shops across the capital. The final surge of protest before 25 January came in the summer of 2010, when the murder of a young internet activist, Khaled Said, by the police provoked demonstrations of thousands in his home city of Alexandria.

It would be easy with hindsight to plot a smooth upward curve of struggle from 2000 to 2011. In reality, these waves of protest were mostly discontinuous, with one set of demonstrations petering out, or being beaten off the streets, a few months before the eruption of the next. The gap between the economic demands raised by workers and the highly political claims of largely middle class professionals calling for constitutional reform was, some argued, a sign that attempts to unite opponents of Mubarak were doomed to failure.

The spell of fear

Despite this, Mubarak's last decade played a crucial role in his downfall. It was on these disparate protests that a generation of activists from different political traditions - Islamist, Nasserist, liberal and socialist - learnt techniques of political organisation. In the space of these ten years the radical opposition groups acquired sustained experience of organising protests, maintaining activist networks and building tactical alliances across different political traditions. Above all, they collectively broke the spell of fear around street politics which the regime had enforced for more than a generation.

Of all the protests, it was the strike wave which established a dynamic of what Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg called "reciprocal action" between the economic and political struggles against the regime. As Luxemburg observed during the 1905 Revolution in Russia, the interaction between economic and political struggles could not simply be understood as a linear progression from bread and butter economic demands to the political question of state power. The process of reciprocal action could be seen at work in a pendulum motion between political and economic struggles, she argued, where "after every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth". However, in the case of workers' struggles, their social power and collective organisation invested even their everyday battles in the workplace with a political dimension which opened up new horizons for further political action.

Egyptian workers took by storm the same rights which other "political" campaigns for democracy had been forced to abandon under pressure from the state: the right to assembly, the right to protest, the right to free speech. The strike wave carved out spaces for discussion and organisation in thousands of workplaces across the country, driving the struggle deep into the fabric of Egyptian society.

After 25 January 2011 processes which developed over a decade - wresting control of the streets from the police, protest demands directly challenging Mubarak, the increasing interaction between economic and political struggles - were suddenly compressed into the space of days. The opening moves came from opposition activists who seized the opportunity created by the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia to call for nationwide protests. A Facebook group calling for the demonstrations, "We are all Khaled Said", named after the activist murdered by the police in Alexandria in summer 2010, gathered hundreds of thousands of members.

An alignment of the radical opposition groups took shape, bringing together revolutionary socialists, liberals, democracy activists, Nasserists, independent trade unionists and eventually the Muslim Brotherhood. Protest organisers agreed a new tactic to beat police blockades: a range of different assembly points, rather than one central march or rally.

Early on 25 January it was clear that the scale of the demonstrations was greater than anything Egypt had witnessed for years - possibly decades. First a dozen, then a hundred, then thousands of holes were punched in the wall of dictatorship. Tens of thousands of people poured through them: in Nasr City, Giza and Shubra; in Alexandria, in Mansoura, in Suez, in Assyut.

Over the following days the demonstrations gathered pace. Friday 28 January was the movement's first major test. The police locked down the city centres, and the regime shut down the mobile phone networks and the internet. Protesters used mosques as rallying points and marched to retake the streets. Estimates of the numbers on the streets ran into hundreds of thousands, as huge crowds of demonstrators battled with the police. Mubarak sacked his cabinet, withdrew the police from the burnt-out shells of their police stations and deployed the army. Local popular committees sprang up across the country to protect homes and neighbourhoods from attack by thugs, many believed to be policemen in plain clothes. Further demonstrations over the weekend culminated in a "march of millions" on Tuesday 1 February, which finally wrung grudging concessions from Mubarak. In a televised speech he said he would not stand again for election and promised to rewrite part of the constitution.

The regime struck back on Wednesday 2 February, mobilising its plainclothes thugs to attack demonstrators in Alexandria and Cairo. Demonstrators in Tahrir Square faced a surprise assault by columns of attackers armed with stones, knives and Molotov cocktails, riding the horses and camels which normally give tourist rides near the Pyramids. For two days the battle for the square raged back and forth, but eventually the demonstrators gained the advantage. Hundreds of thousands again marched the following Friday, this time labelled "Departure Day". Meanwhile the regime hunted desperately for potential partners in a "dialogue". Some of the opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, sent representatives to meet Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly appointed vice-president and former spymaster in chief. Sections of the ruling class, including figures such as businessmen Ahmed Bahgat and Naguib Sawiris, began to openly back some of the demonstrators' demands, while attempting to position themselves to play a political role in the expected "transitional period".

Still tens of thousands held their ground in the streets and, despite the violent rhetoric coming from the regime's spokesmen and hired reporters, new people began to come. Families with young children mingled with the crowds in Tahrir Square and a young couple were married there on the Sunday afternoon.

Strikes

It was on Tuesday 8 February that the balance of forces shifted again - this time decisively against Mubarak. A ripple of strikes spread from a few workplaces - the Suez Canal service workers, telecom workers in Cairo and the Helwan steel workers were among the first - gathering force as it washed across Egypt. By 9 February the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights estimated that up to 300,000 workers were on strike across 15 governorates. From hospital technicians and cement workers to postal workers and textile workers, they occupied and struck, raising a potent mixture of economic demands and support for the revolution.

Delegations of striking workers now joined the crowds in Tahrir Square, and outside the presidential palace and the radio and television building by the Nile. Amid swirling rumours that he would resign, Mubarak made a final televised statement on Thursday 10 February but still refused to step down. Small numbers of army officers could be seen addressing the crowds in Tahrir Square. One officer telephoned Al Jazeera to resign live on air and announced that he had joined the "people's revolution". While the army commanders met for hours behind closed doors, the crowds swelled again. Cairo seemed poised on the brink of a final insurrection.

The edifice of the state finally cracked on 11 February. The senior army commanders took power and removed Mubarak from office.

Three key things stand out from the story of the 25 January revolution. Firstly, the 18 days of confrontation were shaped by many of the same dynamics of protest as the previous decade, but operating at a deeper level and across a much shorter timescale. Protesters seized key areas of the major cities, particularly Tahrir Square, and turned them into strategic assets for the revolutionary movement. Tahrir Square, with its self-organised security committees, scavenged barricades, volunteer medics and street sweepers, sound systems, tents and banners, became - like the hundreds of occupied factories over the previous five years - liberated territory. It was a place to debate, but also an organising centre from which activists went out to win arguments for bringing factories, offices and neighbourhoods into the revolution.

Defence of this space rested not only on the sheer weight of numbers, but also on political organisation. The Muslim Brotherhood youth activists, for example, played a central role in protecting the square from attack by the government thugs and at the checkpoints around the perimeter. Yet the Brotherhood did not dominate the space inside but rather remained caught within its own contradictions - held in balance between its young members' identification with the broader revolutionary movement and the aspiration of its leadership to strike a deal with the state. That equilibrium not only helped to keep the streets open for protest but also created a space in which, despite their smaller numbers, voices from the revolutionary left have reached new audiences and won new recruits.

Secondly, however, if the revolution had only remained in the streets, even in the numbers which came out after 25 January, it is uncertain whether this would have been enough to cause the state to crack from above. Just as during the previous decade's struggles for democracy and reform, the alliance of different social and political groups mobilised for change did not make a breakthrough until the revolution crossed from the political to the social domain, going from the streets into the workplaces and rousing workers to take collective action, fusing their own demands with the wider goals of the movement. Moreover, the cracks in the regime's machinery of political and social control which allowed this process to take place did not simply appear on 25 January, but rather have their origin in the long-term impact of neoliberal reforms on the structure of the Nasserist state.

Finally, there is the question of the role of the military. In essence, what the mass movement from below achieved was to force one part of the state - the Armed Forces High Command - to cut out the cancer that Mubarak had become in order to save the state as a whole. This is clearly not the same as the mass movement seizing power on its own behalf. Nor have the armed forces disintegrated either vertically, with splits appearing between rival commanders, or horizontally, along class lines as the Russian army did in 1917. Yet it would be a mistake to see the removal of Mubarak as simply a coup d' état, or to underestimate the difficulties military rulers face if they try to demobilise the revolutionary movement by force. The situation is fundamentally different from that of 1952, when a small circle of junior army officers acted after the mass protest movement had temporarily exhausted itself. The streets were empty when Nasser led his forces to seize the palace, radio station and barracks. Here the turn towards the social struggle again becomes crucial. In February 2011 the revolution had already entered the workplaces before the military acted. In 1952 one strike by textile workers at Kafr al-Dawwar threatened the new military regime and it was crushed by the army. A week after Mubarak's fall hundreds of workplaces were on strike, including the giant Mahalla textile plant with its workforce of 24,000.

If there is to be real change for the millions in Egypt, and not just the millionaires like Naguib Sawiris and Ahmed Bahgat, the revolution needs to deepen further. Organised workers are becoming a social force within the developing revolutionary movement, and they have consciously deployed their collective social power to achieve the movement's first political goal: the removal of Mubarak. In only 18 days Egyptian workers have travelled further down the road to human liberation than their parents and grandparents managed in a lifetime. But there is much still to do: kicking the ruling party's henchmen out of every workplace and neighbourhood, building independent unions and, above all, creating new institutions of workers' democracy which can start to act, at least in embryo, as alternative centres of state power.