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Egypt: Workers’ Struggles, Trade Unions and the ‘Left’

Workers’ struggles were an important aspect of the Egyptian upheaval from the start. While the world media focused on the political demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, mass protests and strikes erupted, especially in Alexandria and other provincial cities, over such everyday issues as wages, conditions of employment, managerial corruption, bread supply, shortage of housing and grossly inadequate municipal services. For example, people living in the Al-Wahat oasis in the Western Desert expressed their anger at the contrast between the huge sums being spent on tourist amenities, including a luxury hotel carved into the mountainside, and the neglect of their own needs (New Left Review 68, p. 24).

State of insurgency

This remains the pattern today. The run-up to the military takeover at the end of June saw a wave of strikes and protests. In March six cities – Port Said being worst affected – were ‘in a state of virtual insurgency, paralysed by mass civil disobedience and ongoing battles between protestors and security forces’ (Brian Slocums, thenorthstar.info, 5 March). Altogether there were some 2,000 strikes in 2012. One Egyptian activist, Hossam El-Hamalawy, argues that Morsi’s evident inability to ‘stabilise the street’ was one of the main reasons for his removal (jadaliyya.com).

Although many grievances are specific to a particular firm or locality, certain demands are being pursued across the country:

- a minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (£120 or $180) per month

- the right to strike

- the right to organise independent unions to replace the state-controlled unions of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU) inherited from the Mubarak regime

- regularisation of contracts for the many workers on insecure short-term contracts

Workers in firms privatised under Mubarak often demand their re-nationalisation. Other demands concern the special problems of workers in the ‘informal sector’ (who get no social benefits) and residents in ‘informal settlements’ – that is, officially unrecognised shanty towns (who get no municipal services). There is widespread opposition to the economic package imposed by the IMF.

Trade unions under successive regimes

There were several attempts to form independent trade unions under the old regime (in 1990 and during the strikes of 2006—2009), but only the current upheaval has made it possible openly and systematically to organise an independent trade union movement. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) was established in January 2011.

In October 2011 a group of activists broke away from the EFITU to form the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress. So there are now two groupings of independent trade unions, claiming three million members between them. The reasons for the split are unclear.

The electoral victory of the Moslem Brotherhood was a setback for this process. The military government that succeeded Mubarak had accepted the right of workers to form independent unions, but Morsi tried to reassert state control of the unions by reviving and reforming the EFTU.

Striking transport workers were accused of ‘treason’; officials of independent unions were prosecuted for ‘inciting to strike’ with five from the port workers’ union sentenced to three years in prison. The independent unions responded by joining the movement to unseat Morsi.

There is some question concerning how independent the EFITU is of the current military regime. El-Hamalawy accuses its leaders of compromising with the generals, suspending strike action and encouraging workers to increase production. He attributes this to the influence of Nasserite ideas, which make them vulnerable to ‘patriotic’ appeals.

Making sense of the Egyptian ‘left’

The last three years have seen a profusion of new and revived political organisations in Egypt. Quite a few of them claim to be ‘left-wing’. Keeping track of these groups and parties is difficult due to the speed with which they change their names, split and merge, and enter and leave alliances. To add to the confusion, in some cases several different English translations of the same Arabic name are in circulation. Moreover, differences inside a single organisation are sometimes at least as significant as differences between organisations.

That said, it seems possible and useful to make a few distinctions.

First, there is a divide between an ‘old left’ and a ‘new left’. The old left draw inspiration from the initial period of the post-colonial state, when Egypt was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Under the old left can be placed openly Nasserite groups like the Democratic Arab Nasserite Party and the National Progressive Unionist Party (Al-Tagammu), and also the revived Egyptian Communist Party.

The ‘new left’ groups are really ‘new’ only in the Egyptian context, as they model themselves more or less directly on ‘left-wing’ tendencies that have long existed elsewhere. The Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the Egypt Freedom Party resemble the European social democratic parties – that is, they advocate very mild reforms within capitalism in the name of ‘social justice’. The Socialist Popular Alliance Party (formerly the Socialist Party of Egypt) appears to be a more ‘left-wing’ version of the same thing – that is, the reforms they stand for are a little bolder.

There is also a Trotskyist organisation called the ‘Revolutionary Socialists’, which has close links with the Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain.

The Egyptian Popular Current, created after the 2012 presidential elections by the ‘left’ candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, seems to be an attempt to bridge the old and the new left. It too uses ‘social democratic’ language while at the same time appealing to Nasserite nostalgia (Nasser’s son Abdel Hakim is involved with this party).

Allying against the ‘main enemy’

Another important division concerns the strategy that the ‘left’ should adopt in dealing with the other three major forces within Egyptian society:

a) the state and the military institution as its core

b) the Moslem Brotherhood and Islamists in general

c) private business and the parties that represent its interests.

The crucial questions for Egyptian ‘leftists’ are these:

1) Which of these three is our ‘main enemy’?

2) Should we seek to ally with the other forces against the ‘main enemy’?

A few purists insist that the state, the Islamists and private business are all enemies and the ‘left’ should consistently oppose them all. But most Egyptian ‘leftists’ do not consider this a realistic stance.

There is also a view that gives clear primacy to economic issues and asserts that the cultural divide between secularists and Islamists is of secondary significance. The main enemy is therefore private capital and the ‘left’ should not cooperate with pro-business liberals like the Free Egyptians Party. This too seems to be a minority view.

The ‘old left’ and especially the Egyptian Communist Party traditionally follow a line that equates Islamism with fascism. This makes the Islamists into the main enemy. The ‘old left’ is willing to support a military crackdown on the Islamists (Sabbahi publicly expressed his support on 5 July). Part of the explanation may be that the Nasserites as well as the ‘Communists’ fully identify ‘socialism’ with state capitalism. And Nasserism itself, after all, was a movement of army officers.

Much of the ‘new left’ also consider the Islamists the main enemy. However, this approach is rejected by the Trotskyite ‘Revolutionary Socialists’, who identify the state as the main enemy. Their slogan is: ‘Sometimes with the Islamists, never with the state’.

Curiously enough, this stance reflects the influence of Chris Harman of the British SWP. In his book The Prophet and the Proletariat, an Arabic edition of which was distributed in Egypt by the local Trotskyists, Harman argues that ‘socialists can take advantage of contradictions within Islamism’ and ‘on some issues we side with Islamists against imperialism and the state’ – examples of such issues being the Gulf War and the ‘struggle against racism in Britain and France’. In the current Egyptian context this means that so-called socialists must defend the Islamists against the state – and themselves against the Islamists! (Harman’s book is available online at www.marxists.de/religion/harman)