Thursday, March 12, 2015

Anne Alexander & Mostafa Bassiouny - Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers & the Egyptian Revolution

The overriding image that many people have of the Egyptian Revolution that began on January 25 2011 is of the thousands of people gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square. This "Republic of Dreams" was indeed for many commentators the Egyptian Revolution. While Tahrir Square was inspiring, "uniting Muslim and Christian, secular and Islamist activists against Mubarak's regime", it is only part of the story, and in fact, not the most important part.

This important recent book discusses the crucial role of Egypt's enormous and powerful working class during the Revolution. Mubarak's fall came, not through the masses in the squares of the major cities, but through the strike wave that spread early in the revolution. That is not to belittle the mass demonstrations. Without those mass actions there would likely have been no strikes, but putting the workers at centre stage enables us to both understand the dynamics of the revolution, as well as the successes, so far, of the counter-revolution.

Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny lay out the 20th century history of Egypt, describing the growth of the working class and its victories and defeats. This history is important - the process that brought Mubarak to power, also helped shape a workers' movement that was effectively an appendage of the state. While there have been enormous changes to Egypt's industry and its working class, and the neoliberal era has seen many of these, industry remains central to the economy. The authors write that
the last thirty years have demonstrated that the industrial working class remains central to the strategy of accumulation pursued by the Egyptian ruling class in the neoliberal era. It is a working class that has been restructured, and suffered some heavy defeats in the process, but not a class that is in the process of disappearing.
It is also a class that has seen significant victories and, in the early years of the 21st century in reaction to the changes imposed by neoliberalism, as well as wider political questions such as the anti-war and pro-Palestinian movements began to flex its muscles. The authors note, for instance, the way that neoliberal "reforms" impacted on education helped to shape radical demands by teachers during and after the revolution.
Ministry of Education newly qualified teachers have found it difficult to obtain permanent contracts. Tens of thousands are employed in hourly paid work as supply teachers, or teach classes in public schools for no pay at all, in order to be allowed the chance to compete in giving private lessons to the same children after... fee-paying lessons are largely institutionalised and essentially compulsory... with the school administration and the Ministry of Education taking a cut of the profits.. the example of the teachers' strikes since the revolution - which consistently linked demands to improve teachers' pay and conditions to calls for the banning of private lessons- demonstrates that this process is not an insurmountable obstacle to collective action... in the process of taking collective action, the teachers transformed themselves from agents of the market into a powerful force leading the fight for an education system for all.
The fact that the existing unions were an extension of the state bureaucracy meant that as workers' struggles grew, new, independent unions sprang up. Often these were lead by activists who wanted new forms of organisation, free of the limits imposed by the state, lead by the rank and file with a leadership held accountable to the membership. The authors trace the growth of these important unions, noting however the difficulties in sustaining these models of work-place and industrial organisation when struggle subsided, or under the impact of the counter-revolution, or even the actions of the international NGO and union movement which helped to impose a western model on the movement.

"The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions supports the demands
of the people's revolution and calls for a general strike of Egyptian workers,"
Photo by
The revolutionary process frequently led to those "drawn into the orbit of the workers' movement, adopting forms of collective action and organisation", such as fishermen, hospital doctors, tourist Nile boat operators and even mosque imams. One notable emergent union group, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions formed in Tahrir Square, and the authors note that while "they formed only a small fraction of the huge crowds, activists from the tax collectors' union, with their banners and trademark blue baseball caps, were very visibly an organisation in the midst of a sea of individual protesters."

As the revolution subsided, the lack of independent political organisations of the working class meant that reformists of various shades were able to move to the revolution's head. The authors note the process by which this happened, and how revolutionary demands were first used and sidelined. In particular, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood is discussed in detail. Vague suggestions by Morsi that the MB would "improve the conditions of workers and peasants" led to a number of promises. But as the authors point out,
Careful reading of the policies of Morsi's 'Renaissance Project' revealed a different goal: the articulation of a neoliberal programme clothed in the rhetoric of reform.
It is this that brought the workers movement and wider revolutionary activists back into conflict with Morsi and his government. A key question was Tathir, the cleansing of the old system of Mubarak's corrupt bureaucrats and followers. Tathir from below in workplaces - the sacking of a Mubarak era manager, or the changing work place conditions, or temporary workers' control opened up an opportunity for workers to see themselves differently and to see a new way of organising the system. The authors give a number of impressive and inspiring examples of when and where this process began. But there was an emerging and growing contradiction, fueled by the lack of mass revolutionary, working class leadership
Participation in the revolution transformed millions of ordinary people from passive victims of history to its makers, but they state they confronted on 25 January 2011 remained essentially intact. Meanwhile the legitimacy of the largest former Islamist opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, had already been badly damaged by the failure to achieve meaningful political and social reforms.. .This deepening contradiction helps to explain why on 3 July 2013, the Armed Forces under the leadership of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi... was able to intervene decisively and turn the Muslim Brotherhood's crisis in the face of an explosion of popular anger to the advantage of the core institutions of Mubarak's state.
The revolution in Egypt has been setback. But the authors are also clear that it is not over. One of the most important gains has been that hundreds of thousands of people have engaged in a political and social process which has changed them. This echoes the experiences of those in some of history's greatest revolutionary movements. Like Russia in 1917 or Paris in 1871, the authors note that one of the most important experiences for Egyptians has been the way in a minority of workplaces workers experienced direct democratic control,
"Its organic expression in workplace struggles has largely been based on the idea that workers' leaders should be elected delegates, not representatives; it fuses executive and legislative authority and breaches the separation between political and social struggles enforced by bourgeois democracy"
The revolutionary movement in Egypt will rise again. A generation of workers learnt invaluable lessons between 2011 and 2013. But one lesson that we can all learn, is that revolutionary organisation must be built today. Alexander and Bassiouny finish with the importance of that organisation in Egypt, but for activists everywhere, the building of socialist organisation must remain an immediate task if we are to build on the movements that will continue to arise as capitalism tries to make ordinary people pay the price of bosses greed.

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