Egypt is in the grip of a huge strike wave that marks a sudden and dramatic deepening of the revolution. Tens of thousands of workers have walked out of offices, factories, textile mills, ports, hospitals, schools and universities across the country. Even police officers are demonstrating.
These strikes erupted in direct defiance of the army’s call for workers to end strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations.
They have the potential not only to transform Egyptian society, but also to threaten capitalism itself.
Hosni Mubarak dreamed of transforming Egypt’s economy into “the Tiger on the Nile”.
His government privatised state industries, kept wages low and slashed meagre social security provision in a drive to make Egypt a prime spot for global investment.
Foreign and Egyptian companies made huge fortunes on the back of low wages, terrible working conditions and the suppression of trade unions.
All the world’s economic powers bought a stake in Mubarak’s Egypt. Now their interests are under threat.
Egyptian workers have huge potential power. Some 8 percent of the world’s seaborne trade passes through the Suez Canal.
The two cities at each end of the vital waterway, Suez and Port Said, were key centres of the uprising.
US interests are directly under threat. The largest chunk of US investment in Egypt is tied up in the petro-chemical industry, including the strategically vital SuMed pipeline that runs along the banks of the Suez Canal.
This pipeline carries 2.5 million barrels of oil a day.
It is part of a network that links Saudi Arabia’s new Red Sea oil terminals, built to bypass the unstable Persian Gulf.
The potential power of this movement also has a direct impact on Israel—which depends on Egypt for one quarter of its natural gas.
This gas is pumped to Israel along a pipeline that crosses the northern Sinai coast and
El-Arish, the biggest Egyptian city close to the Gaza Strip. It was here that rebels fought armed battles to drive out state security troops on the eve of Mubarak’s departure.
This strike wave drew its momentum from the decisive role played by organised workers.
The mass insurrectionary strikes which first erupted on Sunday 30 January—the so-called “day of normality”—were in direct response to attempts by regime thugs to crush the revolution in Tahrir Square.
Workers who walked out in solidarity with the “youth of Tahrir” also issued economic demands, many of them long-standing disputes over pay, conditions and bonuses.
Now they are demanding the sacking of bullying foremen, corrupt managers and bosses with ties to Mubarak’s ruling party.
This workers’ movement reaches into the heart of Egyptian society. The new working class organisations that have sprung up to represent tax collectors, bus workers, railway workers, teachers, airport staff, cabin crews, textile workers, street cleaners, hotel workers and so on, have the potential to change social relations in Egypt.
They could also transform the role of women.
Tens of thousands of women work in the giant textile mills in the Nile Delta. They live on poverty wages—despite operating advanced and modern mills that produce much prized luxury cotton for the US market.
These women were key to the dramatic wave of strikes and occupations in 2007. Now they are raising equal pay.
This strike wave is a deepening of a revolutionary process. The insurrectionary mass demonstrations destroyed the physical control of the state. Now the rule of capital itself is being challenged.
How these strikes will develop is uncertain, but the Egyptian revolution is full of surprises. It can go beyond simply deposing a tyrant to deposing a tyrannical system itself.