The Left and The Workers Movement in Egypt’s Democratic Revolution

by Brian Slocums on March 21, 2013

Following an introduction to the political situation in Egypt, this is the second part of Brian Slocums’ analysis, focusing on the state of the Egyptian left.


One of the distinctive features of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia is the significant workers’ movements and traditions of left organization, including a small, but significant, far-left presence in these two countries.

The Egyptian Workers’ Movement

The political system established by Nasser after he seized power in 1952 had major corporatist elements, which sought to incorporate the different social forces into a network of state-controlled organizations such as the official Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU). At the same time, any force that could challenge the state for influence — such as the Egyptian Communist Party — was ruthlessly suppressed.

This structure survived the various mutations of the regime from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak. At the time of the 2011 revolution, the EFTU comprised 23 unions with a total membership of 2.5 million (out of a non-agricultural labor force of 18.0 million).

The function of the official unions was to contain workers’ demands and struggles. But this did not prevent periodic strikes from erupting and currents for greater autonomy developing within the EFTU. In 1990, a group of trade union militants stepped outside the framework of the official union movement to form the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) founded by former steel worker activist Kamal Abbas.

A major wave of strikes erupted in the period 2006-2009, when some 2 million workers took part in industrial actions in response to the erosion of their living standards under neoliberal economic policies. There is a direct link between this round of working-class struggle and the upheaval of 2011: the main instigator of the January 25 protests in Tahrir Square was the April 6 Youth Movement, an organization formed in solidarity with the strike of workers from the Misr Spinning and Weaving factory in Mahalla launched on April 6, 2008. (The Mahalla workers were prominent in both the January-February 2011 movement against the Mubarak regime and the current protests against the Morsi regime).

At the same time, opposition groups, including leftists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, worked within the EFTU to try and promote greater autonomy from state control, while other grassroots activists seized the opportunity to launch independent unions. The first of these was the Union of Real Estate Tax collectors (local government employees) , who waged a successful strike outside of the official trade union structures in 2007, and went on to turn their strike committee into an independent union. Their example was soon followed by health technicians and teachers.

The struggle against the Mubarak regime crystallized these developments. On January 30, 2011, a group of trade union representatives assembled in Tahrir Square to announce the creation of a new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), and on February 9 a wave of strikes began, encompassing all sections of the working class and delivering the final blow to the Mubarak regime.



Since the downfall of Mubarak, the movement for independent trade unions has flourished, with hundreds of new, enterprise-level unions being formed. Unfortunately, the EFITU federation split in October 2011 with a group of activists led by Kamal Abbas of the CTUWS departing to form the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC). So there are now two groups of independent trade unions — EFITU led by Kamal Abu Aitta, head of the tax collectors union, and the smaller EDLC of Abbas. It is not clear exactly what lay behind this division — it seems to have been in part a dispute about the international connections of the CTUWS (it is linked to international NGO networks and receives some funding from these sources). There were also differences over strategy: Abu Aitta focused on the need to build strong central union organizations while Abbas emphasised a “bottom up” strategy which prioritised the building of local union organizations. Between them, these organizations claim three million members, but an assessment by U.S. academic Joel Benin suggests that a figure around one million may be more realistic.

Koota iron and steel workers have reopened their factory under new management — theirs

Trade Unions Under The Morsi Regime

The Muslim Brotherhood and the administration of President Morsi share the corporatist social outlook of their Nasserite predecessors. This is reflected in the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Constitution which gives formal recognition to the right to form trade unions but specifies that unions are subject to close legal regulation by the state and that “only one trade union is allowed per profession.”

In several respects, workers’ rights have moved backwards under Morsi. The Minister of Labor in the first SCAF government, Ahmed El-Borai, announced in May 2011 that workers were free to form independent unions, a policy opposed by the EFTU. The Muslim Brotherhood has also consistently opposed a pluralist trade union structure, counterposing its own efforts to restructure the personnel of the EFTU, an approach that poses a serious threat to the independent union movement.

The Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored constitution effectively cancelled El-Borai’s reforms, a move which was reinforced by new labor legislation enacted by Presidential decree on November 25, 2012. In this decree Morsi retired all EFTU officials over 60, applying a formula that allowed for most replacements to be appointed by the Minister of Manpower. He also extended the terms of office of EFTU officials, which were due to end on November 27, by a further six months. This process will be directed by the Minister of Manpower, Khaled Mahmoud al-Azari, a Muslim Brotherhood member and former vice president of the EFTU.

The Morsi regime has also responded harshly to labor unrest, accusing striking transport workers of committing “treason” and prosecuting the leaders of independent unions for “inciting to strike”. In September 2011, they allowed an Alexandria court to sentence five leaders of port workers to three years in prison — the harshest sentences handed down for trade union activity since the Sadat years.

The independent unions, perhaps in part influenced by the opposition parties (Abu Eita is connected to the Nasserist Karama Party), but primarily responding to Morsi’s labor policies, reacted strongly to his Constitutional Declaration in November 2012 and joined the mass demonstrations in protest. What particularly infuriated them was that he issued the labor law amendments three days after his assumption of exceptional powers, thus pre-empting their ability to challenge his action in the courts.

Resurgence of Grassroots Activism

Since the end of the military regime, there has been a wave of activity by the organized working class, often involving militant forms of action and radical demands. There were some 2000 strikes in 2012 and hundreds of independent unions have been formed. Sit-in strikes are quite common, and two groups of workers in firms that have recently been shut down are restarting production under workers’ management.

There are several common issues facing workers’ organizations across the country:

  1. Wage demands, focused around a general demand across the trade union movement for a minimum wage of E£1200 (£120 or $180) per month.
  2. An end to the EFTU monopoly of worker representation and the right of all workers to form independent unions and take industrial action in pursuit of their interests.
  3. Regularisation of all workers contracts; many workers are currently employed on short-term contracts that allow employers to circumvent labor laws, giving workers no security.
  4. A common demand in firms that were privatized under Mubarak is for re-nationalization of the company.

The independent unions have also taken positions on many other issues: the need to extend social benefits to workers in the informal sector; opposition to the IMF economic package; solidarity with the Palestinians; and an end to collaboration with Israel.

 

Workers at Mahalla carpet factory on strike

 

Other Sections of Society

Social discontent is not confined to the organized working class. There have been multiple protests in popular communities over issues like bread supply; street vendors have launched protests over government regulation; and professional organizations — doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers — have launched struggles for independent organizations and wage demands (again often focused around the minimum wage).

But the biggest social explosion waiting to happen lies in the countryside. About one-third of the Egyptian workforce is employed in agriculture, and some 57% of the population live in rural areas. The Egyptian peasantry made some limited gains from land reform under the Nasser regime, but in 1992 Mubarak started to roll these back, allowing former landlords to reclaim their property. Resistance by villagers to these moves was brutally crushed by the police and by the landlords’ thugs.

Since April 2011, thousands of peasants have formed independent unions, including a women’s agricultural union, and farmers have mounted protests against what they describe as the “new feudalism.” There are a number of projects to build a national farmers organization, one of which, the Egyptian Farmers Union, has announced its intention to put up candidates for the forthcoming Assembly election.

There has also been a spate of clashes between the military and farmers over land seized by the army for military use. In some of these the army has hauled protestors before military courts, making use of the provision in the Constitution which authorises this, and handing out prison sentences.

The Socialist Left

The second area that I want to look at is the development of the socialist left over the past year and their role in the current political situation. I must here repeat the usual warning — this account is almost entirely based on English-language sources and is therefore limited in scope and detail.

Pham Binh has already provided an account of the activity of the left around the May 2012 Presidential election. As he noted, there is a large number of socialist groups and combinations, many descended by some route or other from the Egyptian Communist Party — the most important of which historically is Tagammu, an opportunist formation par excellence (it’s hard to find a political force that they haven’t been allied with at some time or other). But their habit of losing themselves in constantly shifting alliances has led to their marginalization.

My impression is that the most important of the socialist groups at the present time is probably the Popular Socialist Alliance, a group founded by dissident members of Tagammu in March 2011. They put up a candidate in the May 2012 Presidential election, who received a derisory 40,000 votes, but they were in the early stages of formation — at least they gave it a shot. Their candidate Abu al-Ezz al-Hariri had won a seat in the People’s Assembly earlier in the year as part of the Revolution Continues Alliance. Since then, the group has been reinforced by a merger with the Egyptian Socialist Party and the Socialist Renewal Current (a split from the Socialist Revolutionaries; see below). They appear to have recently held their first congress. They rejected an invitation from Morsi to participate in “National Dialogue” and seem to have joined the National Salvation Front, following its boycott line with respect to the upcoming Assembly elections.

The Revolutionary Socialists (RS) are the only significant independent organization that can be regarded as part of the international revolutionary left. They consider themselves a Trotskyist organization and are linked organizationally to the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who have played a significant role in their development.

Originating from a group of left-wing students formed in the 1980s, they played a role in both the student movement and the Palestinian solidarity movement of the 1990s, often working with the Muslim Brotherhood Youth. In 1995 they and the Muslim Brotherhood Youth initiated a Free Student Union. They claim to have developed particularly cordial relations with the MB youth after they were the only left organization prepared to defend the right of female students to wear the headscarf on campus.

This distinctive perspective has been reflected in their political analysis, which has rejected the primacy of the Islamist/secular divide in Egyptian politics, and led to them to call for a Morsi vote in the second round of the Presidential election, citing the slogan “Sometimes with the Islamists, Never with the State,” originally formulated by SWP leader Chris Harman.

While a relatively small organization, they were centrally involved in the Tahrir Square protests, where their cohesive structure allowed them to play an important organizing role. They have a number of prominent members in the media and the legal profession, which gives them a fairly high public profile and an ability to forge links with the emergent workers movement.

It was largely at their initiative that a project was launched on May Day 2011 to form a “Democratic Workers Party” (since rebadged as the “Workers and Peasants Party” in a possible attempt to circumvent the Egyptian law prohibiting parties based on class or, ironically, religion). Despite some initial success in recruiting members, including a number of prominent local labor activists, this initiative does not seem to have gotten off the ground.



All these factors should have put the RS into a privileged position for bringing some sense to the opposition’s strategy for challenging the Morsi administration. And indeed they did participate in the anti-SCAF demonstrations called by the Muslim Brotherhood and have refused to support the National Salvation Front because of the presence of Mubarak “remnant” groups within it. But their limited political weight and the polarization of the conflict between the opposition and the Morsi regime seems to have eliminated any space in which they could project an alternative line. My interpretation of their most recent statement available in English is that they are retreating into a workerist comfort zone, avoiding the big questions of national politics in favor of local work to support popular struggles and build their organization. I’m not sure I can blame them — it may be the best that a small revolutionary group can hope to do in the current situation.

Some Theoretical Reflections

We have had considerable discussion on The North Star on how to understand the character of the Egyptian revolution and its trajectory. Both Binh and Joseph Green have propounded a “stages” approach, characterizing the current stage as “bourgeois-democratic”. I have expressed both partial agreement and partial disagreement with this approach, so I would like to conclude with a few theoretical reflections which connect these discussions to the information I have provided above. (I may amplify some of these point on my own blog.)

I think the first thing to note about the Egyptian revolution is how much there is to be done to complete the construction of democracy and move forward to produce real social gains for the mass of the population. To take four of the most burning issues:

  1. Dismantling the bloated third element of the “power triangle” underpinning the authoritarian order — the security forces. It has been estimated that the security forces in Egypt involve nearly 2.0 million people — 400,000 in formal posts (many of them conscripts) and a further 1.5 million hangers-on, informers, and paid thugs.
  2. Overcoming the deep inequalities that permeate Egyptian society. This is a society in which sections of the urban upper middle class have affluent lifestyles, even by Western standards, while 40% of the population subsist on less than $2 a day, living in shanty towns on the edges of the main cities. Some three million people live in Cairo slum districts alone, without running water, electricity, or sewage. So far, the poor have had little benefit from the revolution (one source suggests that activists deliberately refrained from trying to mobilise them, for fear of what they would do once in the city centers). Unless this social divide is bridged, there can be no democracy in Egypt – the poor will remain trapped in patronage and clientalist networks run by upper class politicians, deprived of a political voice of their own.
  3. It is necessary to build effective popular organizations for the working class, the peasantry, and the urban poor so that their interests can be properly represented.
  4. A fully functioning democracy cannot be established until the military and its economic operations are brought under civilian control.

It’s possible that all of these things could be dealt with by democratic processes, given the will and given the time. But they certainly will not be addressed by the Egyptian bourgeoisie.

This is not the work of a few months but of many years and perhaps decades. In that sense, it seems not inappropriate to talk about a democratic “stage” for the Egyptian revolution. We can get some useful concepts for understanding the character of this “stage” by drawing on Lenin’s ideas from 1905 — particularly of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” — although Lenin’s scheme was never fully elaborated because the course of the revolution did not put it on the order of the day, either in 1905 or 1917. Moreover, this concept needs to be updated for the 21st century.

The program necessary to fulfill the potential of the Egyptian revolution cannot be confined within the mould of a “bourgeois revolution.” A “bourgeois revolution” is precisely what Morsi is carrying out (or would carry out if the opposition would let him): the creation of a political order that will be based on hollow democratic forms but in which the power of bourgeois wealth trumps the popular will. That cannot be seen as the completion of this “stage” — either for socialists nor even genuine democrats. The programme for fulfillment of the spirit of Tahrir will thus include both radical democratic demands and an array of social measures. For that reason, the concept of “bourgeois democracy” is inappropriate for encapsulating the objectives even of this stage — I prefer the term “popular democracy.”

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh March 22, 2013 at 4:38 pm

The main reason I like Lenin’s stages approach to understanding revolutions is because it helps avoid the main mistake I see Trotskyists making, which is to treat every revolution as could-be/would-be socialist revolution; when that inevitably fails to materialize, these revolutions are discussed as aborted socialist revolutions when socialism was never even on the cards.

I think there’s some confusion or ambiguity in Brian’s formulations regarding the issue of “bourgeois revolution” and “democratic revolution.” Lenin drew a sharp distinction between the socialist and democratic revolutions and explained that the class content of democratic revolutions, whilst always bourgeois or capitalist, could vary enormously depending on the classes (industrialists, financiers, peasants, petty proprietors) involved. His point was that socialists and the working class could not maintain a neutral attitude towards the outcome and boundaries of democratic revolutions, that working-class interests necessitated fighting for the most freedom and the most democracy in democratic revolutions even though such revolutions fell well short of socialism or proletarian rule:

“Democracy is of enormous importance to the working class in its struggle against the capitalists for its emancipation. But democracy is by no means a boundary not to be overstepped; it is only one of the stages on the road from feudalism to capitalism, and from capitalism to communism.” — Lenin, State and Revolution

What I would like to hear more from Brian on is why he thinks Lenin’s notion of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” is a useful/relevant idea for today’s Egypt. I guess that would involve a great discussion and analysis of Egypt’s peasantry? (A nit-picking disagreement on this point; Lenin claimed in 1917 that the February revolution inaugurated the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” so I don’t believe it’s true that Lenin “never fully elaborated” on this concept “because the course of the revolution did not put it on the order of the day.” )

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Brian S. March 22, 2013 at 8:28 pm

@Binh On the question of Egypt: I think there are several aspects of the ideas that Lenin was developing in 1905 that that have a bearing on political situations like those of Egypt:
1. the understanding that there are variants of “democracy” and that the interests of the oppressed classes can best be advanced by pushing the democratic struggle to its limits (and to some extent beyond – something Lenin did not address as clearly as Trotsky). That seems to correspond to the tasks that the mass movement should be addressing in Egypt.
2. the understanding that the bourgeoisie will not support the democratic struggle beyond certain narrow limits and will compromise with reaction rather than see effective empowerment of the masses. (that’s one way of looking at the role of the MB and Morsi in Egypt)
3. the conclusion that the struggle for “deep” democracy must therefore be the work of the “popular classes”, and that this will involve class alliances (while Lenin focused on the role of the peasantry, for obvious reasons, he does not confine the revolutionary coalition to them but includes “the radical, republican intelligentsia and the corresponding strata of the petty bourgeoisie in the towns.” Here I think Lenin is clearer than Trotsky).
However this leaves several major questions unresolved – in particular what the programmatic limits of a “popular/revolutionary democracy” would be. And it’s a framework that needs substantial translation to fit modern contexts (Egypt has gone through a form of socio-economic “bourgeois revolution” under Nasser – so we’re in a significantly different game to that of Tsarist Russia.) A serious analysis of the Egyptian peasantry and rural society would be a necessary part of that translation (I tend to see these sort of agrarian relations based on capitalist landlordism as “hybrid” – ie a fusion of the capitalist and pre-capitalist – which could have political implications.)
I agree with what you say about the Trotskyist tendency to oversimplify and over-compress the passage from democratic to socialist tasks – but a strict “stage” theory is simply the mirror image of this: what we need, at the risk of sounding clichéd, is a more dialectical conception (and there are some aspects of Trotsky’s work which are open to this.)
On the historical questions: we have skirmished a bit around these before, and some day must engage properly. I think the debates around the 1905 revolution were more complex than is often acknowledged (even by the participants), and all of them had serious blindspots. So far I’ve only glimpsed this through the accounts of people like Solomon Schwartz. But I’ve realised that Day & Gaido’s translations in “Witnesses to Permanent Revolution” are now available in an edition that doesn’t require a second mortgage. So I hope to have an enlightened rethink. (In the meantime however: Lenin’s 1917 attempt to reconcile RDDPP with the April theses doesn’t compute – it looks to me like Lenin trying to justify his shift in position -including to himself).

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PatrickSMcNally March 22, 2013 at 9:22 pm

On the last point, I’ve always understood this to mean that Lenin saw the RDDPP as being launched with the February Revolution, but no longer viewed it as a prolonged stage. The October Revolution was thought to be the point when the RDDPP was surpassed. My impression is that Lars Lih seems to suggest that Lenin may have eventually had doubts about whether the October Revolution had really catapulted things successfully beyond the RDDPP point, but I would have to review more closely what Lih says to be sure if that’s what he meant.

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Brian S. March 23, 2013 at 1:40 pm

@Patrick: Lenin’s stated view in April was that the The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”was the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry already accomplished in reality.” But this was a period of “dual power” and the P&P side of that power was only a month old,and in the hands of the Mensheviks. So where was the “revolutionary dictatorship”?
The second notion is more serious. In my view the tasks of RDDP were being carried out retrospectively under NEP – until Stalin cut the process short.

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Mohsen Ebrahimi March 22, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Very informative article.

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Brian S. March 23, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Thank you.

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Ross Wolfe March 23, 2013 at 12:58 am

The slogan adopted by the official leadership of the Revolutionary Socialists, “Sometimes with the Islamists, never with the State,” originally formulated by SWP leader Chris Harman, makes no sense whatsoever in connection with a call to vote for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sometimes with the Islamists? Never with the State? Aren’t you calling for members of the RS to install the Islamists into a position of leadership within the State? Truly idiotic.

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Brian S. March 23, 2013 at 7:31 am

The formulation in my piece was not strictly accurate: while this slogan defined the framework in which the RS approached the Islamists in this period, they did not actually invoke it in their call for a vote for Morsi: http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=28595
(And Harman’s phrase should be looked at in its fuller context “Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, ‘with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never’. ”)
Nonethless I don’t think Ross’s reasoning is correct – the democratic election of one political office in a period of revolt against an authoritarian state machine that is weakened but still intact cannot be accurately described as placing that democratic element “in a position of leadership within the state”. Rather it is a step in (at least partially) destabilising the military state, as subsequent events in Egypt showed.
In my view the RS call over the elections was correct -the election of Shafiq would have stabilised the military state, and set the popular struggle back. But their analysis of the MB as if it were some sort of social democratic formation was confused.

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Pham Binh March 24, 2013 at 10:56 am

Written by my Egyptian friend whom I discovered posting videos of herself denouncing Mubarak on YouTube in 2009 before it was cool:
http://commentmideast.com/2013/03/egypt-elites-all-colours-still-control/

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Brian S. March 24, 2013 at 11:43 am

An interesting post: I certainly agree with the main theme of concern about the violent turn the conflict between the revolutionaries and the MB has taken. There are some very disturbing accounts which suggest that there is a real spiral of violence developing that can have dangerous consequences. But I blame the opposition, who could and should have channeled this rebellious spirit.

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Pham Binh March 25, 2013 at 9:24 am
Brian S. March 26, 2013 at 8:51 am

Thanks very much for the link, Binh. This is a very important article, and I would encourage anyone interested in the Egyptian revolution to take a look at it. Its broadly consistent with my account above, but provides much richer details.
I didn’t mention the Revolutionary Democratic Coalition of left groups in my piece because I thought it was unlikely to have any real significicance – and this article confirms that.
Its also a good illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of the Revolutionary Socialists: on the one hand it shows that they are in touch with the mass movement and have a generally balanced appreciation of its contradictory nature; on the other hand, they tend to be somewhat tailist and don’t elaborate a consistent alternative line. This is expressed most clearly in their attitude towards the elections – they show that the present confrontationist strategy is a dead end; and they suggest that there is widespread disillusion with the Morsi regime. The obvious conclusion would be that the forthcoming elections are a key opportunity to channel this discontent and weaken the regime at its strongest point – its claim to democratic credentials. But instead of doing that they just capitulate to the abstentionist sentiment of the liberals and the “revolutionaries of the street”.
A couple of points from their account that I would emphasise:
1. They confirm that the current polarisation has served to unify the MB and freeze the development of the contradictions within its ranks – one of the major downsides of the confrontationist strategy.
2. They illustrate one of the most interesting features of the Egyptian revolution – the “secular” pole and intense hostility to the MB is not the prerogative of one social layer: this is not a case of a secular urbanised elite in confrontation with an Islamist popular coalition. The hostility to the regime cuts across all social groups – age, class, and gender. Indeed, recent reports indicate that many of the anti-Morsi demonstrators are coming in from the peripheral shanty towns. (a fact that may contribute to the violence). Economic concerns are certainly becoming more important in the protests.
For a vivid, graphic presentation of the “street revolutionaries” case see
http://egyptianchronicles.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/mosireen-presents-why-riot.html
(But note the fervent democratic spirit presented by “Saedeya” at 4:21)
For an informed account by a western journalist see: http://tahrirsquared.com/node/3669

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Pham Binh March 26, 2013 at 3:25 pm

The Cliff trend is notorious for vacillating/tailing in the manner you describe. I think it’s related to their total rejection of anything approaching a program or a strategic outlook to guide their political work.

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