By Anne AlexanderSimon Assaf
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Class, power and the state in the Arab Spring

This article is over 9 years, 11 months old
This month marks the third anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution. Simon Assaf examines some key lessons while Anne Alexander spoke to three Egyptian revolutionaries.
Issue 387

At the forefront of the Arab Spring were the movements that took to the streets in vast numbers. The revolutions drew in diverse social forces – workers organisations, youth movements, left wing parties, liberals as well as Islamists – that have over the past three years battled to put themselves at its head. The revolutions have revealed the shortcomings of the established opposition parties, as well as the ability of the state and old ruling classes to adapt and survive. They have thrown up powerful street movements, but also forces of sectarianism and reaction.

How the uprisings developed were determined by the role played by the organised working class. The success of the first stage of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia was the result of an alliance of the street and the factory. There could be no victory in Tahrir Square without the insurrectionary strikes that swept the country in February 2011, and spread into the military factories. In Tunisia, thought less dramatic, it was the UGTT union federation’s call for a general strike that convinced the ruling class to dump dictator Ben Ali.

Similarly in Bahrain the largest trade unions, organised into the General Federation, called for strikes in support of the mass demonstrations gathering at Pearl Roundabout. The federation, which represented some 25,000 workers in 70 unions, includes those in the key aluminum and oil industries. But on the eve of the strikes unions leaders reached a disastrous compromise with the al-Khalifa regime, allowing the king time to marshal a counter-revolution with the help of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In Libya, Syria and Yemen the working class did not become central to the uprisings, leaving the street movements to battle it out in an uneven war with the state. It is the role of the working class acting “as a class” – through strikes and so on – that is fundamental to understanding how these revolutions developed, and their potential to develop further.

The growth of trade unions since the revolutions has been phenomenal – with strikes even breaking out in Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This development points to the potential growth of working class organisations over the next period. This is a massive step forward for a class that is beginning to rediscover its power and act in its own interests.

The explosion of independent union organisations in Egypt, where it is most developed, underpins this trend. The hundreds of new unions express the militancy of an insurgent working class that has become relatively free from direct state repression. Yet unions hold a certain position under capitalism – in negotiating between capital and labour – that also limits their role.

These unions have wrung concessions, but they also imposed a limit on workers’ militancy. In Egypt the unions, which are based on basic factory floor organisations, have still to throw up a party to represent their general political interests. The giant textile mills in Mahalla al-Kubra was one of the centres of the uprising, yet workers there are keenly aware that the survival of their industry is dependent on global market and the continued backing of the state.

A key independent union leader has joined the Egyptian military government in order to contain this militancy, while in Tunisia the UGTT is leading attempts to negotiate between the Islamist government and its opponents, rather than represent the demands for social justice.

Writing in 1917, Lenin noted that the radical unions that flourished in Russia’s February revolution quickly created a layer of bureaucracy that both expressed the militancy and contained it. Unions represent workers’ interests under capitalism, not its overthrow.

Social changes
It is important to reiterate the deep social changes that have swept the Arab world over the past few decades, and place the growing working class in this social context. Unlike 30 years ago, the Arab world today is overwhelmingly urban. It is projected that by 2020 over 70 percent of the region’s population will live in the cities – some 280 million people. This urbanisation has markedly shifted social relations by increasing the dependence of people on the labour market for a livelihood.

Peasants may be able to survive as subsistence farmers out of the direct product of their own labour, but workers have to sell their labour power. Even in the countryside, where once there were small isolated villages, there are now agribusinesses that are tied into global production.

The cities themselves are made up of complex “popular” classes – street peddlers and shopkeepers, low-level public sector officials, factory and office workers, military conscripts and unemployed graduates. What they have in common are poor working conditions, low wages, little social protection, insecure contracts and few prospects for advancement.

Economic development has also created a modern Arab capitalist class that is integrated into a global system. Over half of the wealth of the Arab world is sitting in Western banks, the majority of it is concentrated in the hands of a minority of ruling families. This class merges into the military and state institutions. Egypt’s military is also an industrial powerhouse, as were those in Syria and other states. This trans-national Arab bourgeoisie has grown in power and wealth, and represents distinct interest apart from those of its populations. The gulf between classes has widened dramatically with the introduction of neoliberalism.

The revolutions, where successful in the early phases, were able to topple figureheads, they have not dismantled the system of rule and repression. But they pose a fundamental challenge the ruling classes and its interests. It is in relation to these changes that the governments that emerged out of the Arab Spring need to be understood.

The Islamists currents were most capable of taking advantage (despite their conservatism) of the elections that followed the first wave of popular uprisings. The Islamists are not a monolithic bloc, but rather loose alliances that at different points can be pulled in different directions. At the top their organisations melt into the bourgeoisie, at the bottom into the ranks of the poor.

Writing in 2011, Phil Marfleet noted: “When the movement began in January [2011], the Muslim Brotherhood refused to back protests. Only when the scale of events and the involvement of Brotherhood members became clear did its leaders adopt a position of equivocal support. As the revolution has progressed, hundreds of thousands of its members and supporters have engaged in demonstrations and workplace actions, causing increasing tension within the organisation.”

Having found themselves lagging behind the street at the outbreak of the revolts, they nevertheless had well-rooted organisations and were able to take advantage of elections that followed. Yet the demand for social justice – one of the root causes of the revolutions – remains unfulfilled.

The main aim of the Islamists is to break into the ranks of the ruling class, rather than overthrow it. Beneath the radical ideology of Islamism there is a deep commitment to capitalism. The Islamists wished to copy the Turkish model, where the AKP government balanced a commitment to neo-liberalism with reforming the old military dominated regime.

Once in office Islamist parties attempted to dampen and sideline the struggle, and in many cases injected the poison of religious sectarianism. They kept unchanged the laws against the right to strike, as well as other repressive legislation. They set out to prove that capitalism was safe in their hands.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood were accused of “riding the state”, wanting to displace the Mubarak-era millionaires with its own. In Tunisia the ruling Islamist party was unequivocal in carrying on with neoliberalism and quickly cut a deal with global capitalist institutions such as the IMF. In Syria and in Libya the Brotherhood sought to position itself as the middleman of the revolution, attempting to cut deals with foreign powers over the heads of the grassroots leadership that emerged out of the uprisings.

Egyptian revolutionary socialist Sameh Neguib wrote in February 2013: “The problem for the Brotherhood and for the liberals is that they cannot even start taking limited steps to ease the impact of the crisis on ordinary people without breaking the deal with the army and big business. That populist road is closed because the world has changed. [When the global economy was growing] during the 1950s and 1960s there were opportunities for reformist and populist policies that don’t exist today. Without genuine progressive taxation, they can’t spend money on hospitals, schools, housing or create new jobs. They are even refusing to renationalise the corrupt monopolies which were directly connected to Mubarak.”

All the Islamists organisations that blossomed in of the Arab Spring reaffirmed their commitment to the free market and to neoliberalism. In return they had to prove that they could control the street. When Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood failed, the army moved to dispose of them. The struggle had begun to pass them by because these were not “Islamist” uprisings, but one for freedom, bread and social justice.

Youth movements
One of the main driving forces of the revolutionary wave is the role played by young people. It was the youth who poured into the streets in huge numbers during the revolutions and directly confronted the forces of the state. Hostile to the tired and worn out rhetoric of Arab nationalism, they drew their inspiration from other global movements, as well as emerging local struggles.
The 6 April Movement in Egypt drew inspiration from the 2008 strikes in the Nile Delta. It drew in wide layers of disaffected youth, students and the unemployed.

The movement played a central role in the Tahrir demonstrations. Yet its advantage also contained drawbacks. Following the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak it found itself in an unequal struggle with the Islamists as well as the re-organised state. Similarly, the Rebel Movement (Tamarod) that was key focus to the rebellion against Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood government in June 2013, cut a deal with the military that spearheaded the coup.

Emerging forces of the counter-revolution then sidelined the Rebel Movement. The experience has been similar in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The strength of these movements is their connection to the wider struggle, but were suppressed when they became isolated from the mass of people.

The prime expression of these youth movements is the web, and the Arab world has seen internet usage grow a thousand-fold over the past few years. New ideas, information and “online activism” were available to a generation of activists that up until ten years ago had few opportunities to counter censored information pumped out by state-run media.

The growth of access to the internet became (and remains) an important tool for organising the loose ranks of activists who spearheaded the early demonstrations. But the internet became limited once uprisings took on a popular form (and the state turned it off). The question of control over the airwaves became a vital focus for the demonstrations. One of the bloodiest street battles in Tripoli during the first days of the 17 February uprising was over the control of the state TV building; in Egypt protests (and massacres) took place near the state broadcasting building at Maspero. Silencing the state broadcasting became paramount for the revolutionaries.

Yet the importance of the internet is also less marked among the wider population. Resent research has shown that some 70 percent of Arabs still get their news from state TV, only 3 percent from newspapers, and 4 percent from the web. The question of “information” is also a question of power. It is not enough to create alternative news outlets, but to also silence those controlled by the state.

Why class is central
In 1848 Karl Marx wrote: “No class of civil society can play this [revolutionary] role without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternises and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative, a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the claims and rights of society itself, a moment in which it is truly the social head and the social heart.”

The growing power of the Arab working class makes it possible for it to lead the other popular classes because of its centrality to the process of production. The social changes mean that the nature of the revolutions are marked by deep antagonism between an urban population and a ruling class integrated into global capitalism. Marx argued that when the working class acts in the interest of the all the oppressed, it places itself as the “social heart and social head” – leading the other popular classes.

The fundamental part of revolutionary process is that the working class must make itself “fit to rule”. What this means on the ground can be simply the question of bread. An average family lives week-to-week, sometimes day-to-day. Amid the uprisings, and waves of strikes that paralysed sections of the state, the question of everyday life imposes itself. Workers create wealth in the form of goods and services, how this is wielded to keep the revolution alive, and deepen it, becomes a basic question for survival.

But control over production and distribution is only the first step, the institutions thrown up by workers in the revolution have also to create and alternative government, and dismantle the state which is a tool of ruling class rule. The revolutions have shown glimpses of what these revolutionary institutions look like.

Institutions of revolution
These have emerged in different ways. In Syria the national uprising that drove out the state in the summer of 2012 threw up local committees, also known as revolutionary committees and revolutionary councils. These were popular in nature, often set up by activists that attempted to put liberated towns and cities under some form of democratic control.

Although their efforts were at times haphazard, they attempted to deal with huge problems that they were inadequately armed to undertake. But the struggle teaches, and many of these committees were successful. But as the civil war drained its resources, so they became weaker. With the regime still in control of banks and deadly military force, insurmountable problems began to develop – such as the payment of wages and pensions, reopening schools, and so on.

As well as this, thousands of the revolutionaries were sent to the front, many dying in the battles that followed. This left behind weakened local revolutionary forces, leaving the liberated cities and towns susceptible to criminal gangs, and in turn the arrival of foreign backed Islamist formations that in many cases pushed aside the revolutionary councils.

The tragedy of the Syrian revolution was both the absence of the centrality of the working class, and the lack of revolutionary party. The organisations that grew spontaneously during the uprising could not form an effective national leadership. Instead exile groups, Islamist and reformist organisations dominated the official “opposition”.

Disconnected from the struggle on the ground, they sought international support (from the West and other Arab regimes) that politically weakened the revolution. The exiles were not concerned with deepening the revolution, but displacing the coterie around dictator Bashar Assad. Their idea of the revolution was limited, and deeply compromised.

Similar local bodies appeared in the early stages of the Tunisian revolution, as well as in Libya. In Yemen committees sprung up to further the “anti-corruption” revolution that sought to drive out supporters of the old regime from positions of power. These were not soviets, or workers’ councils, that concentrate the power of the working class acting independently and in its own interests, nor were they seen in many cases as a replacement to the already existing institutions.

They were concerned with the immediate needs of the struggle, and often drew in representatives of other classes. Yet within these basic institutions lay the possibility and potential to develop as alternative popular institutions to the state.

Revolutionary socialists
For revolutionary socialists the revolutions pose the question of “permanent revolution”, of the real possibility of the struggles “growing over” into more fundamental social transformation. This cannot happen in a vacuum, but is dependent on the political development of the working class that is engaged in a wider social struggle for change.

The main demands of the revolutions remain the same, yet the established political parties are unable to meet them. The governments that emerged remained committed to the policies of its predecessors, while the harsh economic conditions that underpin these revolts have become sharper.

The radical left wing organisations that are mushrooming in the Arab Spring remain far too small to alter the course of events, yet their influence is growing, both inside the youth movements and in the working classes. The revolutions have exposed the limits of Islamists, and have shown that a few changes at the top are not enough. The Egyptian military coup in June 2013, and the march of reaction across the Arab world, is a harsh reminder that the ruling classes and the state have survived the 2011 uprisings.

But the Arab world is also fundamentality different to three years ago. The revolutions have proved the power of the masses, and across the region the long dormant working class is building up its class organisations. The demand of permanent revolution, once the call of small groups of revolutionary socialists, is now finding an expression among a wider layer of people, as it begins to fit the experience of the past few years.

President, Independent Union of Workers in the Cairo Drinking Water Company

After 3 years of revolution and political unrest, workers have not benefited. On the contrary they have suffered a lot of damage, particularly in the private sector where large numbers of workers have been sacked. They have not got their jobs back despite many attempts, as the bosses are stronger than the government at the present time.

This is also the reason behind the failure to issue a law on trade union freedoms, and to add insult to injury, the quota system which guaranteed a minimum number of workers and peasants would be elected to parliament has been abolished in the new Constitution from the next parliament. I was one of a delegation which made a statement on behalf of the workers’ movement calling for this quota to be kept in place until we have strong trade unions to defend workers rights.

There are many obstacles to implementing workers’ demands. The government is always working against us, and in the face of an unjust Labour Law, and none of the trade unions are strong enough. We hope that this situation will change in the coming period.

The struggle for social justice and political freedoms are closely connected. Political decisions shape the fight for social justice around issues such as the battle to link wages to rising prices, and to raise the minimum wage. We’ve been robbed of the right to demonstrate, on the grounds that the country is experiencing a wave of terrorism, despite the fact that the law doesn’t specify whether it is targeting political protests or workers’ protests.

Workers’ organisation has developed in several phases since the revolution. In 2011 we saw a massive expansion of the independent unions, but since then there has been a decline and some of the enthusiasm has waned. The appointment of Kamal Abu Aita as Minister of Labour has led to a big downturn in the numbers of independent trade unionists.

Student struggles are crucial as students are the children of workers. They are the real fuel for the revolution. The problem is that there isn’t any co-ordination between the student movement and the workers’ movement, and they both work in different ways. There is no way to connect them in struggles on the ground except through the third revolution.

Revolutionary socialist doctor

The greatest gain that we have made during the course of the revolution is the ongoing exposure of the meaning and the depth of the regime. So the famous chant “the people demand the downfall of the regime” is expanding from the mere person of the dictator Mubarak to a broader and wider meaning of his whole regime.

The greatest failures are the lack of an organised revolutionary front in a political or economic sense, and the continuing split in the revolutionary camp between Islamist and secular currents.

We have recently had the Doctors’ Union elections, where the battle is mainly political between those supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and those secular parties in alliance with the military and General al-Sisi. Mona Mina, one of the leaders of the doctors’ strikes and leftist “Stalinist” defected to the regime’s side after 30 June, taking the Doctors Without Rights movement sharply to the right.

DWR is the biggest organisation of doctors outside the Muslim Brotherhood and had a good reputation for fighting for doctors’ rights even before the revolution. Meanwhile, the healthworkers’ movement is at its lowest ebb since the 3-month long national strike between October and December 2012 under Morsi’s rule failed in its goals to win a rise wages and increased spending on health.

Overall, the past year has seen sharp changes in protests: Egypt was number one in the world for the number of protests and strikes, but after the massacres at Raba’a al-Adawiyya and Al-Nahda Square, the movement dropped almost to zero.

Now, however, the movement is back on the streets, with ten thousand steel workers on strike and many more examples.

As for the revolutionary left, we are converting into a revolutionary party. We are all very busy and very exhausted. In many ways we are advancing but at the same time we are threatened because we are becoming a force and the regime is noticing that.

Independent Union of Workers in the Cairo Public Transport Authority

These are difficult times for workers as we have not won our demands from the January Revolution for freedom and human dignity. Social justice is at the heart of the revolution, but the obstacle in the way of achieving this is that workers have not been able to trust any of the four governments we have had since January 2011.

The recent student uprising gave confidence to workers again after a period of quiet, fear and caution following the unjustified use of violence to break up the sit-ins at Raba’a al-Adawiyya and Al-Nahda. Workers began once again to strongly demand their legitimate rights.

For example, I was among a group trade unionists and activists, such as the former presidential candidate Khaled Ali and the labour lawyer Haitham Mohamedain, who took part in a protest in front of the Ministry of Labour calling for the return of sacked workers to their jobs on 29 September.

Since then we have also seen the strike by the steel workers, which is still ongoing. We in the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress and the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services are standing with them in their struggle.

God willing, the workers’ movement will recover its self-confidence, and it is the students’ movement which is giving us that confidence.

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