Egypt’s workers have the potential to play a decisive role in the revolution.
Networks of independent union activists were crucial in mobilising support for the 25 January protests that sparked the uprising.
The working class is probably the largest, and certainly the most cohesive social group in the country.
It has an undiluted interest in seeing the revolution continue and deepen.
Workers have been at the forefront of resistance to dictator Hosni Mubarak’s neoliberal policies.
That’s because the regime has worked tirelessly to strip away most of the material incentives it offered to previous generations in return for their loyalty.
The process of economic reform has made workers’ lives harder and broken the powerful ideological hold that encouraged them to identify with the goals of “national development”.
As a result, the idea that the state will meet their most basic needs—jobs, housing, healthcare and education—even if it refused to give them freedom, has been undermined.
That is why, since 2006, hundreds of thousands of workers across every sector of the economy have struck for better wages and conditions, or to defend their jobs.
They have included tax collectors, textile workers, and employees in the military industries and the Suez Canal.
A significant minority have led courageous, and in many cases successful, struggles to organise themselves independently of the state and the ETUF, the state-aligned, corrupt trade union federation.
The most significant example is the Property Tax Collectors.
This is an independent union emerging directly from the strike committee that developed when 55,000 low-paid civil servants struck in 2007.
Other important centres of independent union activism include the textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra.
They led calls for national strikes and protests for a rise in the minimum wage on 6 April 2008.
The networks of independent trade unionists continue to articulate political and class demands on the street protests.
They are agitating for the removal of the regime, a rise in the national minimum wage and for temporary workers to be made permanent.
The slogans on the streets since 25 January show that political and social demands are deeply intertwined in the consciousness of the demonstrators.
Chants of “Bread, freedom and human dignity” and “Change, freedom and social justice” show how the new movement has united the waves of protest in Egypt over the past decade into a powerful force.
This is focused on removing Mubarak and his regime.
Independently organised workers can bring the kind of power to the street protests that can finish the regime—making the slogan “social justice” a reality. Their involvement can deepen the revolution.
It is no surprise that some of the first reports of strikes taking place alongside the street protests have come from Suez, where the battles with the police have been particularly intense.
Steel workers there are reported to have declared an open-ended strike on Saturday until the fall of Mubarak.
Official union leaders live in a fantasy world
The struggles of the independent workers’ organisations stand in stark contrast to the ETUF official trade union federation.
This has worked hand‑in‑glove with the regime since the 1950s to crush workers’ protests.
Just three days before last week’s uprising began, Hussein Megawer, head of the ETUF, complacently assured an opposition newspaper that Egypt was, “completely different to Tunisia, where freedoms were repressed”.
In Egypt, he added, “The regime has given the people freedom of expression and the right to form political parties.”
It seems that the workers of Egypt do not agree.
Anne Alexander is the author of Nasser (£9.99), which is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.
Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk