By Anne Alexander
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Workers and the Arab revolutions

This article is over 8 years, 1 months old
On the third anniversary of the Arab Spring the revolutions stand at a crossroads. Over the next three months Socialist Review will be exploring the politics and development of these popular revolts. Anne Alexander open this series with an assessment of the nascent workers' movements in Egypt and Tunisia.
Issue 386

“The Russian bourgeois revolution of 1905-07…was undoubtedly a real people’s revolution, since the mass of the people, its majority, the very lowest social strata, crushed by oppression and exploitation, rose independently and placed on the entire course of the revolution the impress of their own demands, of their attempts to build in their own way a new society in place of the old society that was being destroyed.”

(Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1918)

Workers’ struggles have played a key role in the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions at every stage. Despite the greater prominence in the media of the battles for the streets and the iconic status of Tahrir Square, events on the factory floor and in government offices have been just as important in shaping the revolutionary process.

Although political demands for an end to dictatorship and democratic reforms appeared to dominate, these political revolutions always had a large “social soul”, to borrow the phrase of American socialist Hal Draper. Organised workers led a social rebellion from below, which challenged the neoliberalism of the authoritarian regimes and their successors.

Yet the past three years have also revealed the weaknesses in workers’ organisation, and the barriers which must still be overcome, before the working class in both countries can realise its potential to lead a real “people’s revolution” of the kind that Lenin argued for in 1917.

The contradictions in the relationship between the social and political souls of the Arab Revolutions were sharply expressed in the crisis of 30 June and its aftermath. In Egypt an immense popular mobilisation against the Muslim Brotherhood and its president, Mohamed Morsi, was channelled into an outburst of nationalistic fervour by the military, and a leader of the independent unions joined the government.

In Tunisia the UGTT trade union federation led mediation between the Islamist government and its opponents in the National Salvation Front, attempting to contain, rather than develop, anger over the government’s failure to deliver on the revolution’s promise of social justice.

The role of the workers’ movement has been pivotal at three phases in the revolutionary process. The revolutionary crisis which began in early 2011 was the culmination of years of rising protests and strikes. Moreover, in both Tunisia and Egypt, localised uprisings in key industrial areas in 2008 provided a dress rehearsal for the events of 2011.

Workers’ intervention in the 2011 revolutions was also critical in determining the outcome of their initial phase. In Tunisia local general strikes, led by regional officials of the UGTT union federation, converged finally into a nationwide shutdown on 14 January. As crowds surged through Avenue Bourguiba in the centre of Tunis, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali met with Abd-al-Salam Jarrad, the UGTT general secretary. “Can’t you call off the strike?” Ben Ali pleaded with Jarrad. “If I tried to, my members wouldn’t listen”, Jarrad replied. Within hours Ben Ali was boarding a plane for Saudi Arabia and exile.

In Egypt workers feature prominently among the casualties of the street battles which raged after 28 January. The riot police sought to drown the developing insurrection in blood, and working class neighbourhoods became battlegrounds. Yet it was not until workers used their collective power in the workplace that Mubarak’s fate was sealed.

A wave of strikes which began over the weekend of 5-6 February eventually brought an estimated 300,000 workers out nationally by 11 February, the day that the military stepped in and removed the president from office.

Collective action by workers also played a critical role in derailing the governments which came to power in the wake of the dictators’ fall. In Egypt a wave of strikes involving up to half a million workers in September 2011 helped to precipitate a crisis for the ruling military council in November 2011 as millions took to the streets again under the same slogans which they had raised in January.

This time, however, there was no fusion of the political and social modes of the struggle. Despite calls by activists in Tahrir Square and leaders of the independent trade unions, there was no repeat of the decisive wave of strikes which pushed Mubarak over the edge in February. The military successfully diverted hopes of quicker political and social change into the ballot box, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Islamist Salafist Nour Party as the main beneficiaries.

Another attempt to call a general strike against military rule in February 2012 was also aborted by a combination of threats of repression and the active intervention of the Muslim Brotherhood, which mobilised its activists in the workplaces to argue in favour of giving the newly-elected parliament a chance to deliver reforms.

However, counter-revolutionary forces seeking to rebuild the damaged institutions of the old regime were also gaining strength and confidence. In June 2012 the military shut down the Islamist-dominated parliament, but allowed the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, to win the presidential election in a nail-biting contest with Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister.

Morsi’s eventual fate underlines both the strength and weakness of organised workers within the revolutionary process. Their strength can be seen in the inability of successive governments to rein in strikes. The high levels of struggle in the workplaces reflected both workers’ frustrations at the failure to meet their demands for improved wages, better job security, and dignity at work, and their confident expectation that collective action will win results.

As every wave of street protests has subsided, a new wave of strikes has grown in its place. The constant cross-fertilisation of protest from streets to workplaces and back again has been a formidable barrier to counter-revolution.

Their political weakness was most clearly apparent around the crisis of June and July 2013, when Morsi was overthrown by the armed forces in the wake of a huge popular uprising. For, instead of the popular revolutionary movement benefiting from the Brotherhood’s crisis, it was the military which seized the opportunity to turn the course of events in a counter-revolutionary direction.

The shape of the workers’ movement differs greatly in Egypt and Tunisia. On the surface, Egypt has seen the most dramatic changes during the revolution. There were only four independent unions in January 2011. The only legal unions were those belonging to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was staffed at its upper levels by bureaucrats from the ruling party, and was a key part of the state apparatus.

Today ETUF still exists, but according to some estimates, around 1,000 independent unions have been founded. There are two major federations of the independent unions, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) and the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC).

Yet these national leaderships for the independent unions have been largely ineffective in coordinating action on the ground, instead playing a role similar to an NGO or campaigning group in lobbying for new legislation to protect workers’ right to organise.

The small layers of union officials at the heart of the independent union federations are only weakly connected to their workplaces, with one of the most important figures in the independent unions, Kamal Abu Aita, taking the post of Minister of Labour in July 2013. In the context of the military’s bloody crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Aita’s political role was clear: to calm workers’ anger over unmet hopes of social change with promises of reform.

In Tunisia, by contrast, the situation is different. With around 680,000 members, the UGTT union federation remains by far the biggest organisation of the working class, just as it was before the revolution.

In the years before the revolution the federation’s leadership had been pulled close to Ben Ali on occasions, although unlike Egypt, the lower levels of the union bureaucracy and the rank and file were able to assert their independence from the state and force the leadership to break with the regime in January 2011.

When the elections which followed the overthrow of Ben Ali brought the Islamist Ennahda party to power, the UGTT found itself increasingly drawn into confrontation with the government. The battle lines were initially drawn over Ennahda’s neoliberal economic policies. Yet it appeared to be developing rapidly into a political struggle, with the UGTT acting as the backbone of opposition to Ennahda, counting much of the base of the left wing Popular Front within its ranks.

Gangs of thugs, apparently affiliated to the Islamist party, attacked the UGTT’s offices in December 2012, prompting the federation to call for a political general strike, the first since 1978.

The general strike never happened after the UGTT’s leadership reached a last-minute compromise with the government. Over the following months, even as the political conflict between Ennahda and the Popular Front coalition sharpened with the assassination of two of its leaders, Chokri Beleid in February 2013 and Mohamed Brahimi in July, the federation returned to another of its historic roles: as mediator in times of political crisis.

By the autumn the UGTT was playing a leading role in facilitating negotiations between Ennahda and the opposition parties following its proposal for a road-map towards creating a caretaker government.

Thus, despite their surface differences, one of the key issues which has emerged in both Egypt and Tunisia is the question of the trade union bureaucracy. Union officials in both countries balance between workers on the one hand and employers and the state on the other, seeking to contain the social and political struggles within narrow limits of reform, and attempting to prevent cross-fertilisation between them.

In Tunisia, unusually, the UGTT also mediates between all the mainstream political parties, acting in a particularly direct manner as one of the guarantors of the state.

What is to be done?
The central problem facing those who want to continue and deepen the revolution in both countries is that the state has changed little since the fall of the former dictators. This is particularly obvious in Egypt, where the repressive institutions of Mubarak’s regime – the military and police – have recovered from much of the damage inflicted in the early stages of the revolution.

Yet despite the difficulties, there are many reasons for hope. The enormous resilience and creativity of workers’ organisations in both Egypt and Tunisia at their base – despite the occasional treachery of their leaders – holds the key.

The collective democratic experience of organisation at a workplace level is a precious resource which can sustain the popular revolutionary movement, even at times when the streets have been taken by hostile forces.

Critically, organised workers remain the only group among the wide ranks of the poor and oppressed capable of halting both the machinery of government and the wheels of production. One of the most striking features of the past three years in Egypt has been the scale and depth of struggles by workers to “cleanse”‘ the public sector of their corrupt bosses from the old ruling party.

While these struggles have often taken place in isolation from each other, they show that hundreds of thousands of Egyptians understand far better than mainstream politicians – whether of the Islamist or secular variety – that revolutions are struggles to re-make the state, not to compromise with it.

The chants of January 2011 for “bread, freedom, social justice, work and dignity” expressed a perfect unity between social and political demands. In practice, workers have been asked repeatedly to choose between social and political rights.

They have faced either a neoliberal (and increasingly authoritarian) form of parliamentary government under the Islamists, or military rule combined with vague promises of social reform. It is clear that by such means they will win neither bread nor freedom.

What is to be done? Creating an independent political voice for workers most deeply shaped by their struggles in the two revolutions is more important than ever. Rooting revolutionary organisation in the workplaces, which is capable of shaping and eventually leading the battles in the streets, has a new level of urgency after the events of 2013.

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