Fahamu (Oxford)

31 May 2012

Egypt: The Working Class and Question of Organisation

The nascent trade union movement in Egypt will need to develop political structures for the voices of the working class to be heard in electoral processes.

'Who is the labour candidate in this presidential election?' This is a question I have been asked frequently in the past few days. My answer is 'no one'.

Despite the presence of left wing candidates in the race, including labour lawyer Khaled Ali, who by all accounts is the most experienced in labour organising among his counterparts (even when he repeatedly denies the accusation of being a 'socialist', and advocates a 'strong private sector' working hand in hand with a state-run public sector), neither Ali nor any other candidates can claim to speak for Egypt's working class, simply because the working class does not have yet formal entities, organisations, parties, and unions that can claim their representation.

In the industrial West and elsewhere in the developing world, there exist labour unions and parties that have a grassroots presence in the workplace and include millions of workers and civil servants in their membership. The rank and file members are engaged in daily struggles over improving work conditions via negotiations, agreements, or strikes against the management. The extent of grassroots support can always be measured by the degree of response to strike calls issued by those unions' or parties' leadership. If you are in the United Kingdom for example, and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) issues a call for a general strike on any given day, you can safely expect industrial actions to take place that day. If the TUC lends its political support in elections for a candidate, a party, or a movement, you can claim with some confidence a candidacy 'endorsed by workers'.

The above mentioned example does not mean that I am necessarily praising the politics of the TUC or the Labour Party. What I am trying to highlight is the existence of a machine or a structure that can mobilise the working class, articulate their demands, and claim their representation.

There is nothing of that sort here in Egypt yet. The industrial upturn, which has witnessed millions of Egyptian workers going on strikes or staging protests since 2006, is still lacking a national leadership that can coordinate the strikes, claim class representation, and raise political demands on behalf of the workers in the current political arena.

Though the socialist movement has gained ground steadily since the outbreak of the revolution, the socialists and the left collectively do not have enough of a presence among the working class to provide leadership.

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions, announced in Tahrir Square in the midst of the 18-day uprising, has grown to include more than 200 independent unions, with two million workers. Yet, the federation is still green, with uneven support. The federation has been active in 'intervening' in and 'extending solidarity' to strikes, but it would be a farce to give the federation credit for 'instigating' the industrial actions in the first place. Though the federation lent its support for the November 2011 mini uprising, its presence in Tahrir was largely symbolic, and included one tent and a banner.

The 11 February 2012 general strike call was another test for the federation's strength, yet it once again exposed its weakness. Though the federation endorsed the anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) general strike call, not a single strike took place. Strikes which occurred on that day were already scheduled in advance by the strike leaders, and we cannot credit the federation with this action.

Despite the presence of leftists in the leadership board of the federation, the political discourse followed by the leadership has been one of economism, separating the economic from the political in propaganda and agitation, which in effect is only hindering the maturity of the labour movement in terms of articulating a political programme.

The increased friction between strikers and the military police, which include crackdowns and military tribunals for strikers, means an increasing number of workers are turning against the army, even when they started their struggles over bread and butter issues. In cases like the harbours and airports, the strikers had clear demands about the demilitarisation of the management and the sacking of military generals and advisors who ran the business. Strikers in Suez also marched, calling for the execution of the National Democratic Party (NDP) tycoon who owns a ceramics factory and stands accused of involvement in the 'Battle of the Camel'. Gas workers smashed NDP billboards in downtown Cairo last week, demanding the return of the NDP local office building back to their company, since the NDP had taken it over illegally under Mubarak. Among the demands of the public transport strikers was the purging of the management of police officers.

These are some quick examples of an acute 'political' dimension that is taking shape in the strike wave, but the federation still fails to capitulate on politics and relate to it.

The federation is roughly one year old, and the unions under its umbrella are still incapable of providing representation and a unified political voice in the current revolution. This is not a pessimistic look at the future of the federation. It takes years for unions to build their support and cement the channels of coordination between the different sectors, but there will always be limitations on the extent of the revolutionary potential those unions have. Unions, at the end of the day, are built to 'improve' the conditions of exploitation, not 'abolish' exploitation once and for all - here is the task of the political party. As long as the most militant sections of the current strike - those who are leading the mass strikes in sectors in direct confrontation with the military - are not organised into a political party, you can expect the workers' voice to continue to be absent in the current political process.

Hossam El-Hamalawy is a journalist, activist and member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialist Party. 

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