Socialist Worker

Workers at the heart of the Egyptian Revolt

Anne Alexander reports from Cairo on the ongoing revolution and talks to trade unionists about the role of the workers’ movement

Issue No. 2244

Members of independent trade unions protest in front of the headquarters of the corrupt Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions  (Pic: Hossam el-Hamalawy)

Members of independent trade unions protest in front of the headquarters of the corrupt Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (Pic: Hossam el-Hamalawy)

There was a deceptive sense of normality in Cairo when I arrived there last week. At the airport, groups of tourists discussed the temperature in Luxor and arrangements for their tour. Roads were full of the usual traffic.

But signs of the colossal shifts that followed the toppling of hated dictator Hosni Mubarak soon emerged.

The tanks that sat on every major intersection during the uprising have disappeared. A plastic sign swung from the rear view mirror of my taxi, commemorating the martyrs of the revolution.

The radio announcer interrupted a traffic bulletin to read the number of a special hotline for drivers facing thugs on the Cairo ring road. These are the same gangs who set upon demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The revolutionary processes unleashed by the uprising against Mubarak on 25 January are deep at work.

Accounts of the revolution in the Western media celebrating the “Facebook revolution” rarely acknowledge them. Yet each turning point in the uprising sets new social and political processes in motion.

The first came days after the initial protests on 25 January.

Already, tens of thousands of people had braved tear gas and bullets to join demonstrations calling for the downfall of the regime. Battles raged in the streets as security forces attempted to crush them.

The regime shut down the internet and mobile phone networks, and mobilised tens of thousands of riot police with live ammunition. Yet the number of protesters kept growing.

Hundreds of thousands protested as they saw the regime’s control begin to crack. Within days, millions were marching. Most of them were not the highly-educated, English-speaking bloggers and tweeters. They were ordinary Egyptians: teachers, office workers, construction workers and students.


Street battles ebbed and flowed. The regime conceded control of the streets by withdrawing the police, but mobilised thugs to try and take back Tahrir Square.

Protesters built barricades, armed themselves with stones, and fought back. As the thugs retreated, the crowds swelled again over the weekend of 5-6 February.

The uprising against Mubarak took on a new character—a celebration of revolutionary unity between Muslims and Christians in a struggle against dictatorship.

Still the uprising hung in the balance. The police vanished after 28 January, but the army took their place. Although the soldiers never turned their guns on the crowds, people noticed that they stood aside to let pro-Mubarak thugs attack.

On 8 February, mass strikes began.

Workers began to use their collective power to raise their own demands.

Like ripples from a stone dropped in the water, a wave of strikes washed through the country, gathering force as it went. Within a few days, at least 300,000 were on strike. This was a crucial moment—it brought the revolution from the streets into the workplaces.

The army council forced Mubarak out on 11 February, but the strikes continue.

Another process interweaves with it—what activists in the 1974 Portuguese Revolution called “saneamento”, or cleansing. This is a popular struggle to remove the “little Mubaraks” who had made life a misery.

On Sunday 20 March, hundreds of workers blocked the road to the Cabinet offices, demanding among other things that their corrupt bosses are kicked out.

This process extends into the institutions of the state, where pressure from below recently forced the new prime minister to announce the dissolution of Mubarak’s hated security police.

Generals in the army council are starting to put figures from the old regime on trial, and have frozen the assets of big businessmen associated with it.

Some of these manoeuvres are attempts to deflect popular anger away from those parts of the old regime that remain unchanged by the revolution, such as the military leadership itself.

But there is no doubt that this is a process driven from below.

Yes vote in referendum

Egyptians voted in their millions on Saturday on amendments to the constitution—including limiting the presidential term.

Despite a lively “No” campaign supported by activists from a range of opposition forces—including liberal figures like Mohamed el Baradei, the revolutionary left and the independent unions—the vote was 77 percent yes.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s support for the amendments and the publicity campaign on state TV for a yes vote played a crucial role.

However, it is the rising tide of social struggles sweeping workplaces and poor neighborhoods where the next phase of the revolution will be decided.

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