Egypt's revolution conquers new ground as strikes spread

Issue section: 
(363)

A massive new strike wave has thrown into doubt the hopes of Egypt's ruling army council (SCAF) that elections to parliament, currently planned for late November, would allow a return to stability and order.

The strikes have involved postal workers, teachers, sugar refinery workers, university staff, bus drivers, airport staff, doctors, workers from the irrigation ministry and many others. Economic demands and calls to dismantle the institutions of the Mubarak state machine that penetrated into every workplace are the twin drivers of the strike wave.

SCAF raced desperately to offer concessions to stave off a number of the strikes, some successfully - including a threatened strike by 22,000 workers at the giant textile mill in Mahalla al-Kubra. Nevertheless half a million workers struck between late September and mid October. New groups of workers have entered the struggle. The teachers' strike was their first national strike since 1951. It took the strike wave into towns and villages across Egypt.

Millions of Egyptians initially saw the army as the guarantors of the revolution's demands - for adequate wages, for an end to arbitrary arrests and trials, for the removal of Mubarak-era appointees. But the promises have not been kept and growing numbers of workers are no longer prepared to wait. For example, in June the finance minister said that a minimum wage had been set at 700 Egyptian pounds, but it has still not materialised. Many workers and labour activists are demanding the minimum wage is set at 1,200 Egyptian pounds. One of the protests called by striking teachers was entitled "The Grace Period is Over".

The growing scale of mobilisation from below is creating further fissures inside the Muslim Brotherhood. Teachers, for example, were historically central to the formation and development of the organisation (the founder of the Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, was a school teacher). Among the tens of thousands of striking teachers who protested outside the Cabinet Office in Cairo in early October were numerous Brotherhood supporters.

Elections to the Doctors' Syndicate, the first to be freely contested in 19 years, saw the Muslim Brotherhood lose its three decade long monopoly of the syndicate's national board. An independent list, backed by the left, did particularly well in elections to the syndicate's provincial boards, especially in key centres of the revolution such as Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia.

The army, or at least a section of it, faced with this growing threat from below turned from the carrot to the stick, launching an attack on a demonstration of predominantly Coptic Christians in Cairo in October and whipping up sectarian hatred. The bloody results, with at least 23 left dead, have fuelled a growing radicalisation of Egypt's sizeable Coptic minority - a shift from the past where the experience of oppression at the hands of the state fostered a retreat into communal isolation. The strike wave itself by uniting Muslims and Copts in workplaces across Egypt provides an important bulwark against attempts to stoke sectarianism.

The ability of SCAF to make significant concessions to workers is limited by the deteriorating economic situation. Economic growth in this year to June was just 1.8 percent and most of this was achieved before January when the economy was growing at 6 percent a year. In reality the economy is almost certainly contracting, yet some estimates suggest Egypt needs to grow by 5-7 percent a year just to absorb the 700,000 annual new entrants into the job market.

Collapsing foreign direct investment and capital flight have also helped erode Egypt's balance of payments, eating into the state's foreign currency reserves, which have fallen by a nearly a third since September 2010. This raises concerns that any sudden crisis could jeopardise the regime's ability to import sufficient basic food stocks to feed the population - a terrifying prospect for the generals. And inflation is still around eight percent, feeding workers' demands for pay rises.

The danger SCAF faces is that where it makes concessions these are too little and often turn out to be hollow, so breeding anger while also signalling weakness. But repression will only serve to further radicalise the population without being on a scale sufficient to destroy the revolution. The generals no doubt remain fearful that an all out confrontation with the revolution risks splitting the army along class lines - precisely their calculation back in February when they conceded to dumping Mubarak.

The revolution is far from over.