Anne Alexander, from the MENA Solidarity Network, is the co-author, with Mostafa Bassiouny, of the forthcoming book Bread, Freedom, Social Justice. She spoke to Amy Gilligan about workers’ movements and revolution in Egypt.
Originally published in the Autumn 2014 issue of the rs21 magazine
The book begins with a detailed look at the workers’ movement in Egypt in the period before the revolution. Could you say a little bit about what the effect of neoliberalism in Egypt meant for workers in Egypt?
One of the key arguments in the book is that since the mid-1970s the Egyptian ruling class adopted neoliberal policies which broke the previous ‘social contract’. During the rule of Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser the workplace was one of the key channels by which some kind of limited redistribution of wealth took place. Nasserism delivered significant material benefits for quite large sections of the working class. Trade unions were a conduit for channelling these benefits to workers on the condition they didn’t organise themselves independently, they didn’t go on strike and they took part in the project of building the nation.
Faced with military defeat by Israel in 1967 and the onset of world economic crisis, this economic model could no longer sustain the same levels of growth and accumulation, so the ruling class adopted new economic policies. There was an assault on welfare, breaking the social contract from above. This was then mirrored by workers breaking the social contract from below. For a long time workers tried to defend the old system, but then they formed their own means of mobilisation to defend themselves and started going on strike.
In February 2011 Mubarak called on the old trade union federation to defend him in a last ditch attempt to stop the revolution. The trouble they faced was the moment they tried to put their hands on the lever to bring this machine into operation, the mechanism jammed. When the trade union leaders tried to bring workers to join the attack by thugs on Tahrir Square, they failed miserably. In the final years of the Mubarak regime the government had already faced a wave of unofficial labour struggles. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the ‘official’ union, was used by Mubarak to repress actual labour struggles. The old trade union federation had been eaten away inside because it could no longer deliver the material benefits; it had signed its own death warrant.
What was it that meant workers began organising themselves?
Something shifted enormously in the 2000s for two intertwined reasons. The first is to do with the intensification of neoliberalism – workers were liberated from Nasserism to the extent that they actually didn’t see they should keep to their part of the bargain, so they went on strike. The other half of the equation is a wave of political protests. The political and economic struggles fed off one another. Actually the thing that starts it off is the wave of protests around Palestine.
It’s extremely important to understand that the relationship between the political and economic struggles. There’s a process of reciprocal action, as Rosa Luxemburg puts it, between them. Without the political struggles in the same period it’s very difficult to imagine that workers’ struggles could have taken off in the same way, but likewise without the changes at the level of the political economy it’s equally hard to imagine how the political struggles could have developed and flowered to the same extent – they were mutually reinforcing.
We argue the Mahalla strike in December 2006 had a transformative impact on the workers’ movement. Principally this was because the tactics of the state in dealing with the strike changed. They let the strike continue with about 20,000 workers occupying the plant. They then negotiated a settlement with representatives of the strikers. The old trade union bureaucrats who officially represented the workers were nowhere near this.
I think there are a number of reasons that mean it would have been difficult for them to do otherwise. There had already been a rising tide of political struggles before 2006 that had seen the emergence for the first time of a movement in the streets challenging Mubarak directly. Up until that point, challenging Mubarak had been seen as a red line you couldn’t cross. Between 2004 and 2006 there had been this cycle of protest which had mobilised thousands of people, which the regime found very difficult to deal with.
However, because the political and economic intertwine doesn’t necessarily mean they fuse. And one of the themes you can pick out in the pre-revolutionary period that becomes increasingly important after Mubarak falls, are some of the contradictions between the social and political aspects of the revolutionary process. For example, the connections between the political movements that are challenging the regime and the workers movement are very narrow. There’s almost no one who is attempting to relate to the workers’ movement and seeing it as a potential force for changing society and challenging the regime.
One of the things I remember from 2011 to do with the workers’ movements was the growth of independent trade unions. Did they emerge post-revolution or earlier as part of breaking the social contract from below?
The first independent unions emerged before the revolution. The first one was the tax collectors, union following their strike at the end of 2007. The tax collectors are significant because they transformed strike organisation into independent union organisation. It was quite a phenomenal achievement. By this point people had had experience of strike organisation but it had been very difficult to generalise the lessons because the strikes tended to be repressed really quickly. What was particularly impressive about the tax collectors was that they targeted the question of workers having independent organisation outside of the state. They were successful in doing it, I think, because the model they used was very close to the democratic and participatory way the strikes were organised.
There is an enormously democratic process at the heart of strike organisation. What is difficult is translating that from this transient, very intense process associated with the strike into something that can be generalised across a longer time period as union organisation.
So in the period since 2011 what has been the situation with the independent unions? What has changed? Are the independent unions still playing a role?
The first thing that happened on the fall of Mubarak was an enormous explosion of independent union organising. People had just overthrown the head of state and they wanted to see radical changes in their workplaces. In some places, independent unions really took over running the workplace, doing things that weren’t imaginable before Mubarak had fallen. There’s a very powerful dynamic between strike organisation and the growth of union organisation in the strongest independent unions.
There were problems with the independent unions, which have in many ways not lived up to their promise or potential. Problems of organisation continue. Despite large growth at workplace level, connecting things up beyond the workplace or between workplaces has been much more difficult. At a federation level things quickly ended up with quite bureaucratic competition between different union leaders.
The other thing that became clear in 2011 was the lack of connection between the developing revolutionary movement and what was happening in the workplaces. The revolutionary movement was centred around street mobilisation and didn’t find a way of relating to workers’ demands in a way that could integrate the social and political struggles.
And so come November 2011 there was a massive wave of street protests and occupations, but the mechanism for connecting up the political and economic sides of the struggle didn’t seem to work in this case. By contrast, in February 2011, a wave of strikes played a key role in finishing off Mubarak. One of the reasons was the prospect of parliamentary elections, but there were also problems that developed in integrating the social and political demands so, with the exception of the very small forces of the revolutionary left, very few people in the wider revolutionary movement seriously took up workers’ demands, or vice versa. It wasn’t the case that workers weren’t involved in the street protests, but they weren’t there in an organised way as workers.
Kamal Abu Aita embodies this tragedy very well. He was the key leader of Egypt’s first independent union, that had a strike which helped transform the organising landscape of the workers’ movement, but became Sisi’s minister of labour. He watched Sisi massacre people before eventually resigning in the face of a massive strike wave against his own policies.
With the positions Sisi has taken over Gaza, what response has there been in Egypt?
The scale of the counter-revolution in Egypt has meant that the state has launched a massive anti-Palestinian campaign. I don’t think that most Egyptians necessarily agree with this rhetoric, but the space in which big protests around Palestine can happen is not really there at the moment.
It is, however, important for the opponents of the military regime because it’s a way they can try and connect with wider layers of people again. It has given people a space to do something political that can help rebuild confidence. Take the convoys that have been organised to Gaza by the secular activists. They have been able to go round workplaces and neighbourhoods to collect medications and donations. It’s been almost impossible for people to do anything like that for a while. Any small space that opens up is very important.
Ideologically it exposes absolutely clearly the failure of the revolution to break down the iron heart of the old regime: the state, army, secret services, media and judiciary. Those were the core institutions around which the forces of the counter-revolution were able to rebuild capacity and go on the offensive. It’s precisely those institutions that are lined up with the assault on the Palestinians. You couldn’t have a clearer example of why there’s an organic connection between the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the struggle against the Arab regimes.
I think people will draw conclusions from this. They will look at what the pro-Sisi people are saying in the media about Palestine. And they will look at what they’re doing within Egypt. They will look at the fact that they can’t put food on the table this month and think about the promises that were made last year. It’s another thing that can add to the hollowing out of what popular support the counter-revolution had. However, that doesn’t automatically translate into people reorganising themselves as a revolutionary movement.
What can we do, practically, in terms of solidarity with the repression taking place in Egypt?
There are lots of things people can do. Writing letters for people on trial and collecting signatures for statements makes a huge difference to individuals. All the people I’ve spoken to involved in the defence campaign for Mahienour el-Masry are convinced that her sentence being reduced to 6 months is a result of the big international campaign for her.
We need to do more of this sort of things for people who are not known like Mahienour. When we pick out individual cases, we’re trying to shine a light on the others. People need to realise that actually taking the time to write a letter or phone the embassy to give them a hard time can make a physical difference to the treatment prisoners receive in jail.
Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny will be launching their book at 7pm 28 October, Khalili Lecture Theatre, SOAS, Russell Square, London – sign up here