Ten years ago this week, huge crowds massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding that dictator Hosni Mubarak resign. Days later, on 11 February 2011, he was gone.
Tahrir’s mass protests were a highly visible part of the movement that forced Mubarak out. But a key part of the revolt was workers’ action.
In the run-up to the revolution, strikes and sit-ins had shown that resistance to the dictatorship was possible. Textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla staged a series of militant strikes from 2006.
The 2011 uprising began on 25 January and mass strikes erupted on 30 January. Workers struck in solidarity with the “youth of Tahrir” but raised their own demands too.
Workers’ action took the revolution to a new level because it posed a different kind of threat to the ruling class.
As Socialist Worker reported at the time, “The 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.”
In the first week of February, some 300,000 Egyptians were on strike.
The regime was scared, and hoped that sacrificing Mubarak would quieten the struggle. In fact, it spurred it on. People realised their own power—and wanted to fight for wide-reaching change.
In the days and weeks after Mubarak’s fall, hundreds of thousands of workers took action.
This involved bus and rail workers, ambulance drivers, textile workers, health staff, port and post workers and many more. Tourism workers demonstrated by Giza’s pyramids in Cairo over pay. Telecom Egypt staff blocked roads.
The strikes, sit-ins and protests defied an army call for workers to stop taking action.
Workers wanted rid of the “little Mubaraks” that dictated life at work. One health union member said, “In every hospital there are protests against the management. Sometimes it only takes a day to make the director leave.”
Workers developed new ways of organising. The Federation of Independent Unions was founded in Tahrir Square on 30 January.
People in dozens of sectors set up new unions.
Workers’ control became a live issue. Some workers organised committees and ran things in defiance of the bosses.
Egypt’s Iron and Steel workers demanded private firms be confiscated and run by “a new management by workers and technicians”. They called for a “workers’ monitoring committee in all workplaces monitoring production, prices, distribution and wages”.
They also wanted a “general assembly of all sectors and political trends of the people to develop a new constitution and elect real popular committees”.
All of this posed a direct threat to bosses’ control and suggested there could be a completely different way of running society. And the impact went beyond Egypt.
Some 8 percent of the world’s seaborne trade passed through the Suez Canal, and global ruling classes invested heavily in Egypt.
The biggest US investment was in the petrochemical industry, including the SuMed pipeline which carried 2.5 million barrels of oil a day. Egypt’s workers were threatening bosses across the world.
They were able to do this because workers create the profits that capitalism relies on. And the fact that they could take charge of production is what really terrifies rulers everywhere.
That’s why they united to crush the revolt.
The revolution didn’t bring about workers’ control or socialism. But it showed the huge power that workers have and their potential to run society in the interests of the majority.