It has been a breathless week for Egypt’s military rulers as strikes and mass protests gain momentum.
On Thursday of last week the minister of labour was in marathon negotiations with textile workers’ leaders representing 22,000 workers at the giant mill in Mahalla al-Kubra.
The minister bargained desperately—narrowly avoiding a strike that would have brought out most of the textile sector.
On the Friday, up to 100,000 protesters packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
They gathered, despite the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood, to demand “the correction of the path of the revolution”.
Five feeder marches set off from the city’s working class districts to the square after prayers.
In the afternoon, thousands marched from the square in the direction of the Interior Ministry, the Constitutional Court, the state TV building and the Israeli embassy.
Within hours, head of state Field Marshal Mohammed Hussain Tantawi and his colleagues were fielding frantic calls from Washington and Tel Aviv. Protesters had stormed the Israeli embassy—triggering the evacuation of the entire staff.
The embassy’s archives, thrown out of the windows by protesters, mingled in the air with smoke from the nearby Giza Security Directorate, torched by demonstrators.
As the political crisis escalated, prime minister Essam Sharaf and his entire cabinet attempted to resign.
At the same time, 40,000 teachers were gathering outside parliament. “Meet our demands or no school this year” read their banners.
The generals turned to repression in a bid to reassert control. There were dawn raids to snatch protesters and a frenzy in the press attacking “thugs” and “rioters”.
The military council promised to implement existing laws against strikes and demonstrations, with live bullets—and revive Mubarak’s hated emergency laws.
But the strike wave rolled on. Some 26,000 sugar refinery workers joined the battle.
Hundreds of textile workers from the Indorama textile factory in Shibin al-Kom occupied the provincial governor’s office the same day.
Collective action from below has again knitted together the fight for national liberation with the struggle for social justice.
In the process, it has pitted the people against the generals in a battle to defend the democratic gains of February’s revolution.
The internal crisis generated by this clash is feeding a growing external crisis.
The web of alliances constructed by Israel and the US in the region is beginning to weaken.
Relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated sharply.
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to send the Turkish navy to protect future humanitarian convoys to Gaza and has expelled Israeli diplomats.
The contrast between Erdogan’s stance and that of the Egyptian generals was not lost on the Egyptian masses.
There was more than a sprinkling of Erdogan’s picture in Tahrir on Friday.
And it was the protesters, not Tantawi, who expelled the Israeli ambassador from Egypt.
“The tsunami begins,” read the headline in Israel’s Maariv newspaper on Sunday. “Now Egypt, our last significant ally in the region, is teetering
and collapsing before the masses.”
The latest rise in the workers’ movement is the key to the resolution of this struggle.
The last month has seen a qualitative shift towards co-ordinated national or sector-wide strikes in several key industries including the railways, post, education and textiles.
Many are winning serious concessions from the state
without walking out, prompting new groups to raise demands.
Although the current strike wave is driven by rising prices, workers’ horizons are much wider than the size of their pay packets.
Striking teachers want to see a renaissance of education, a minister elected by teachers and an end to private schools.
Mahalla workers are demanding investment to save the textile industry from collapse.
Key groups of workers are actively discussing ways to forge organisations that can further develop the strike movement.
“Enough empty promises” was the headline on a statement from the Democratic Workers’ Party.
It called for the foundation of a coordinating committee for a general strike.
Initiatives like this can unite the tremendous power of the Egyptian working class turning it into an instrument that can challenge the state.
It can bring the conclusion of the battle—against Mubarak’s generals—a giant step closer.