January 25th marked the fourth anniversary of the start of the revolutionary uprising in Egypt in 2011. Demonstrations of a few thousand quickly grew into a mighty nationwide movement of hundreds of thousands and then millions that swept aside Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt dictatorial rule.
Despite massive use of tear gas and live ammunition, his security forces were unable to crush the revolt. Soldiers refused to fire on the crowds. Workers and students, young and old, women and men, Muslims and Christians united against the hated regime. Clinging to power for 18 days, Mubarak was eventually forced out as a general strike began to develop.
Although the working class played a key role in the demonstrations and occupations of Tahrir and other city squares, they mostly did so as individuals - not as an organised class. The working class did not have a mass party, rooted in the major workplaces and able to patiently explain the next steps needed to take economic and political power from the ruling class.
Instead, the regime gave itself a hasty makeover to change its appearance. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) jailed their former leader, Hosni Mubarak, and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, charged with authorising the killing of demonstrators and corruption. All three have recently been released - a sign that the ruling class now feels confident enough in their counter-revolution to allow this.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists have been arrested and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. However, the brutal reaction of police to this year’s relatively small anniversary demonstrations also shows anxiety by the regime. Armoured cars and barbed wire were used in Tahrir Square. At least 23 died and 97 were wounded.
Witnesses to the fatal shooting of a young mother, Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, were themselves arrested. She was shot and killed, apparently by security forces, in front of scores of people, while attempting to lay flowers commemorating those protesters massacred in 2011. Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh has since become a symbol of resistance to the Sisi dictatorship.
Zohdi El-Shamy, the vice-president of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, was detained overnight on suspicion of being involved in Al-Sabbagh’s killing, the reason apparently being that he appeared suspiciously "anxious" in video footage of the march. (Ahram Online 1.2.15)
Shooting demonstrators is a grim reminder of Mubarak’s final days. The regime senses that workers and youth who made the 2011 revolution feel disappointed and demoralised at the outcome, but have not been permanently defeated. It aims to intimidate any opposition to prevent it from growing.
Another grim reminder of SCAF’s rule were the deaths of at least 30 football fans after police, unprovoked, fired teargas and shot gun pellets on supporters waiting to enter a stadium in Cairo. While the full details of the Air Force Stadium Events on 8 February have yet to emerge, it should be noted that the Zamalek SC hard-core fans, the Ultra White Knights, were among those who fought hardest to oust Mubarak. Many were crushed last weekend, with the police being accused of using excessive force. Some apparently died from tear gas inhalation. This recalls the 2012 Port Said football massacre, in which over 70 Al-Ahly SC fans were killed. Zamalek Ultras regard last weekend’s deaths as an act of revenge by the state and they posted a statement on Facebook: “We do not need to defend ourselves because the truth is clear. We are attending the funerals of the victims of your tyranny. Save your paperwork, for your trials have failed to achieve justice. It is time to hold our own trials.”
After the January 2011 uprising, strikes and workplace occupations took place throughout the country as workers fought to win better pay and conditions, and to oust managers closely identified with Mubarak. Hundreds of new trade unions were organised, independent of the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Membership of independent trade unions grew from barely 50,000 to 2.5million within months.
Need for political movement
Tragically, left parties did not link the strikes to a political movement to win power from the ruling class that still holds on to its ownership of banks, industries and land. Instead, alliances were formed with liberals, who wanted democratic rights but not to break with the capitalist system. ‘Democratic constitution first - then elections,’ was their main campaign throughout 2011.
While it is correct to fight for genuine democratic rights, workers need these to be able to fight for decent pay, jobs and housing. Weak Egyptian capitalism could not afford any of these. Linking the fight for democratic rights with the fight for decent living standards, and offering a socialist programme of action to win these, could have built mass support from workers and drawn behind them the youth, many of the middle classes and urban and rural poor.
Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) mobilised support, despite their leadership, including wealthy businessmen, having held back from the struggle to overthrow Mubarak. However, the MB government of President Mohammed Morsi rapidly lost support as the economy worsened and democratic gains were attacked.
Many more strikes and protests took place. A mighty movement on June 30th 2013 – reputedly one of the biggest demonstrations ever recorded - led to the MB government’s downfall. Although sections of the ‘deep state’ were involved in whipping up opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, once again, power was in the hands of the millions on the streets. However the lack of a mass party to move forward to a workers’ government with a socialist programme allowed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to step in and fill the vacuum.
A sign of the confusion present among some of the lefts was that Kamal Abu Eita became Minister of Manpower and Labour. A leader of the landmark 2007 strike of property tax collectors under Mubarak, he was president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions until joining Sisi’s government.
Sisi bloodily repressed MB protests, leading to 2,500 deaths. Having dealt with the Islamists, he rapidly cracked down on strikers, protestors and many leaders of the protest movements that became so prominent before, during and after the January 25th 2011 revolution. Critical voices were jailed, including journalists, charged with being members of the MB and terrorists.
Sisi portrayed himself as a ‘strong man’ who would stop endless protests and get the economy moving again so living standards could rise. There were initially few strikes or protests, as sections of the working class, exhausted by protests and fearful of brutal repression, kept their heads down. There appears to be a mood of deep disappointment - and even despair among activists - after three years of upheaval, with little apparently to show for it.
Sisi regime will be challenged
But Sisi’s regime is not like that of the radical nationalist regime of Nasser in the 1950s and ‘60s. Nasser balanced Egypt between world super-powers – the capitalist USA and Stalinist USSR – while the world economy was growing. In those circumstances he was able to provide some significant reforms, improving living standards.
Economic growth increased from 2.5% to 3.7% in the final quarter of 2014. This is nowhere near the rate required to provide jobs for young people, decent wages for workers or decent public services.
In recent months there have been signs that workers are once again beginning to flex their muscles again. Twelve thousand workers at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company went on strike for a week in November; 6,000 workers at El Nasr Coke and Chemicals Company struck in December and 10,000 textile workers at the giant Mahalla factory struck for four days in January. (It was the Mahalla workers’ historic strike in 2006 that announced the entrance of the working class into the struggle against Mubarak.) These workers have long been seen as among the most militant and best organised. In all three strikes, workers won concessions.
Significantly, on 15th December hundreds of steel workers held a protest outside the Cabinet in support of their demands. The government dismissed the company chairman, as the steel workers had demanded, which will increase the confidence of workers elsewhere. Sisi’s claim to be governing on behalf of the Egyptian people will increasingly be seen to be hollow. Instead, his government will be seen as acting on behalf of big business, including the senior military officers that control substantial sections of the economy.
The coming year will bring more challenges for Sisi’s regime. The conflicts across the Middle East have led to dangerous instability in Sinai, where the Jihadist terror group ‘Sinai Province’, formerly Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has been active. They have transferred their support from Al-Qaeda to ISIS. A series of bomb attacks on 29th January left 29 dead. A trade union building in Port Said was one of the targets. Further terrorist attacks could threaten the modest revival of tourism that took place last year. Tourism from Russia is also threatened by falling oil prices and the growing Russian economic crisis, and continues to be hit by economic crisis in Europe.
Although Sisi still appears to have significant support, this will weaken and turn to open opposition as all the problems facing workers and youth continue. The working class has not been permanently defeated and will regain its confidence and willingness to fight for its class interests. The lessons of the past four years will be studied by workers and youth, with renewed determination to fight for the 2011 demands of ‘bread, freedom and social justice’. The task is to build a workers’ party that can link these demands to a socialist programme capable of ending the horrors of capitalism in Egypt and across the region.