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The Egyptian Revolution— reasons to be cheerful

The military junta wields power but the workers hold the key to change, says Sasha Simic

O n Monday, 28 November 2011 the Egyptian people began parliamentary elections in a process of bewildering complexity which will take up to three months to complete. The elections are for the lower house of parliament and were being held on different dates across the country. The first were held in Cairo and Alexandria. Giza, Suez, Aswan and Sohag are due to vote on 14 December and the final round which covers the rest of Egypt, will take place on 3 January 2012. The rules governing the elections are deliberately Byzantine and are designed to exclude many who were at the heart of the revolution. There is a bar on “class based parties” and a new political party can only win official recognition by announcing itself in the media at a cost of over £50,000.

Initial results indicate that the Muslim League's 'Freedom and Justice Party' have done well in the first set of elections but whatever the outcome, the Parliament it produces cannot form a government or select ministers. Executive power will remain with those who took it when Mubarak fell on 11 February – namely the 19 Generals who make up the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scarf) under the leadership of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussain Tantawi. The current elections – repeatedly postponed and delayed throughout 2011 - are aimed at forming a consultative council which will draft a new constitution under which the next elections will be held in 2013. But on 8 December 2011 Scarf announced that it, not the consultative council, would have the final say on that new constitution. The army and the people – 'one hand' was a popular slogan in Tahrir Square during the 18 day struggle to end Mubarak's dictatorship. Few can subscribe to its sentiments now. In the 10 months it has openly wielded power in Egypt, Scarf has proved no friend of the democratic ideals of the revolution.

The state of emergency which has been in effect in Egypt since 1981 and which bans strikes and protests remains unchanged. Over 12,000 civilians have been arrested, detained and tried before military courts since the fall of Mubarak - more than during all 30 years of his dictatorship. Torture in prisons is as endemic as it was under Mubarak and arrested women have been subjected to 'virginity tests' carried out by soldiers. Schoolchildren have been held in detention during the exam period – meaning they will have to re-sit each lost year when they are finally released. Scarf has adopted increasingly violent methods over challenges to its authority. It has authorised the use of live ammunition and tear gas against protesters in Alexandria, Cairo and Aswan in April, May, July and September. On 15 May, the junta marked 'Nakba Day' by authorising the use of live rounds on a demonstration surrounding the Israeli embassy.

November proved to be one of Egypt's bloodiest months the army employed live ammunition and two types of potentially lethal tear gas against protestors calling for Tantawi's immediate resigna- tion. By the end of the month 42 protestors had been killed, 2,000 injured and 49 deliberately blind- ed by the army in Tahrir Square alone. Scarf has tried to present itself as a legitimate ruler carrying out the will of the people. Its opponents are dismissed as 'trouble- makers'. But Scarf has a problem. The revolution was as much against what 30 years of neo-liberalism had done to the lives of ordinary Egyptians as it was against Mubarak. In 2000 the World Bank noted that 16% of Egyptians existed on less than $2 a day. By 2010 they accounted for 40% of the population. But Scarf, and its civilian supporters, are neo-liberals with a considerable stake in the economy. Samir Radwan, the finance minister appointed shortly after Mubarak's fall, began his tenure with the insistence there would be 'no change' in economic policy.

The authoritarianism and violence of the Egyptian junta, its attempts to stoke sectarian divisions between Copts and Muslims, and the transparently flawed election process have led some western commentators to question whether Egypt truly underwent a revolution at all in February. This fails to understand that revolution is not the act of a day but an unfolding process of retreats and advances. Leon Trotsky, who knew something about revolution, argued: “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at that crucial moment when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the groundwork for a new regime...The history of a revolution is...first of all the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of ruler-ship over their own destiny.”

This definition of revolution fits the Egyptian masses as if it was written exclusively for them. The Egyptian Armed Forces are the 10th largest in the world, yet despite the repressive powers at Tantawi's disposal, the Egyptian masses have won, and continue to win, amazing victories. As US secretary of state Hilary Clinton observed last summer, events in Egypt continue to be 'decided on the ground.' It was the power of the Egyptian 'street' which forced the government into opening the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian-Gaza border in the summer. It also ensured the government could not guarantee cheap Egyptian gas would continue to flow to Israel. Last August Hosni Mubarak was hauled before an Egyptian court on a sick-bed to begin his trial on charges of murder and corruption.

The ruling-order would have preferred Mubarak to die quietly in Sharm el-Sheikh but were forced to begin his televised trial – and the trial of his two sons – through the pressure of street protests throughout the country. Hope also lies with the continued existence of the popular commit- tees. These were created during the up-rising of 28th January to protect state property like the library at Alexandria and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Popular committees were also formed in urban communities across Egypt to protect neighbourhoods and to ensure milk and food supplies.

Three networks of popular committees continue to function, organising counter- demonstrations to abuses by the authorities. However, it is the growth of working-class organisation which offers the Egyptian revolution its best hope. It was working- class resistance to Mubarak, in the huge textile mills of the Nile delta, in 2007 and the stunning victory by 55,000 tax collectors in 2008 for better conditions, which heralded the revolution. It was the threat of strikes by textile and steel workers in early February 2011 which sealed Mubarak's fate.

In the months since there has been an explosion of working- class militancy and self-organisation which has challenged the rule of Scarf at every turn. Since Mubarak fell workers have organised 25 independent unions in manufacturing and industry, 28 organising clerical workers, 15 in transport, four in education, eight in the health sector and three in post and telecommunications. Workers in the cement industry and in brick-making formed unions and went on strike. In March a wave of strikes including textile workers, bus drivers, tube operatives, postal workers and tourist officials numbered some 85,000 workers.

In September 750,000 workers including airport staff, doctors, and workers in irrigation went on strike. They included 26,000 sugar refinery workers and 40,000 teachers, whose banners read 'Meet our demands or no school this year.' It is estimated that half a million Egyptian workers struck between late September and mid-October. Demands were not just for higher pay – although low pay is endemic. The still-new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions has called for a minimum monthly wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds. To date the state has only agreed, in principle, to 700.

Newly-organised workers, confident of their collective strength, have begun the process of expelling 'little Mubaraks' from their work-places, hospitals, and schools. These were either officially appointed political overseers from Mubarak's National Democratic Party, or 'just' obnoxious managers who made worker's lives hell before the revolution. Workers brought up on dictatorial structures in their workplaces as well as in their wider society are learning new co- operative and democratic ways of working. In doing so they are showing a way forward for all of us.

Victory is by no means assured. Tantawi and his cronies may well continue to dictate Egypt's future and subject its people to still more neo-liberalism, inequality and poverty. But there is every chance that the spirit behind the growing workers movement can take the Egyptian people down a better path. The revolution is far from over. The Egyptian revolution continues to inspire all who have had enough of neo-liberalism, Imperialism and the rule of the rich. The tens of thousands of public sector workers who took to the streets of Madison, Wisconsin in February 2011 in defence of trade union rights, were inspired by the Egyptian revolution.

The 'Occupy' movement which has mobilised millions across the planet against the systemic inequality of capitalism drew inspiration from the achievements of the Egyptian people. In overthrowing Mubarak and challenging the logic that produced Mubarak, the Egyptian people have put revolutionary change back on the political agenda. The Egyptians have given the world a model of what revolution means in the 21st century. It is happening in Egypt. It can happen here too.

Chartist 254 January/February 2012