Egypt protests continue in the factories

By Hossam el-Hamalawy:

Egypt’s striking workers won’t entrust the transition to democracy to the generals who were the backbone of the dictatorship

Egyptians hold a banner reading in Arabic ‘injustice has an end’ as they protest near the health ministry in Cairo on 14 February 2011. Photograph: Mohamed Omar/EPA

Since Hosni Mubarak fled from Cairo, and even before then, some middle-class activists have been urging Egyptians, in the name of patriotism, to suspend their protests and return to work, singing some of the most ridiculous lullabies: “Let’s build a new Egypt”, “Let’s work harder than ever before”. They clearly do not know that Egyptians are already among the hardest working people in the world.

Those activists want us to trust Mubarak’s generals with the transition to democracy – the same junta that provided the backbone of his dictatorship over the past 30 years. And while I believe the supreme council of the armed forces, which received $1.3bn from the US in 2010, will eventually engineer the transition to a “civilian” government, I have no doubt it will be a government that guarantees the continuation of a system that never touches the army’s privileges, that keeps the armed forces as the institution that has the final say in politics, that guarantees Egypt continues to follow the much hated US foreign policy.

A civilian government should not be made up of cabinet members who have simply removed their military uniforms. A civilian government means one that fully represents the Egyptian people’s demands and desires without any intervention from the top brass. I think it will be very hard to accomplish this, if the junta allows it at all. The military has been the ruling institution in this country since 1952. Its leaders are part of the establishment. And while the young officers and soldiers are our allies, we cannot for one second lend our trust and confidence to the generals.

All classes in Egypt took part in the uprising. Mubarak managed to alienate all social classes in society. In Tahrir Square, you found sons and daughters of the Egyptian elite, together with the workers, middle-class citizens and the urban poor. But remember that it’s only when the mass strikes started on Wednesday that the regime started crumbling and the army had to force Mubarak to resign because the system was about to collapse.

Some have been surprised to see workers striking. This is naive. The workers have been staging the longest and most sustained strike wave in Egypt’s history since 1946, one that began in the textiles city of Mahalla. It’s not the workers’ fault if the world hasn’t been paying attention. Every single day over the past three years there has been a strike in some factory in Egypt, whether it’s in Cairo or the provinces. These strikes were both economic and political in nature.

From the first day of the January 25 uprising, the working class has been taking part in the protests. However, the workers were at first taking part as “demonstrators” and not necessarily as “workers” – meaning, they were not moving independently. The government had brought the economy to halt, not the protesters, with their curfews, and by shutting down the banks and businesses. It was a capitalist strike, aimed at terrorising the Egyptian people. Only when the government tried to bring the country back to “normal” on 8 February did the workers return to their factories, discuss the current situation and start to organise en masse, moving as an independent block.

In some locations the workers did not list the regime’s fall among their demands, but they used the same slogans as those protesting in Tahrir and, in many cases, the workers put forward a list of political demands in solidarity with the revolution.

These workers are not going home any time soon. They started striking because they couldn’t feed their families any more. They have been emboldened by Mubarak’s overthrowal, and cannot go back to their children and tell them that the army has promised to bring them food and their rights in I don’t know how many months. Many of the strikers have already started raising additional demands, including the right to establish free trade unions away from the corrupt, state-backed Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions.

On Saturday I started receiving news that thousands of public transport workers were staging protests in el-Gabal el-Ahmar. The temporary workers at Helwan Steel Mills are also protesting. The railway technicians continue to bring trains to a halt. Thousands of workers at the el-Hawamdiya sugar factory are protesting and oil workers announced a strike on Sunday over work conditions. Nearly every single sector in the Egyptian economy has witnessed either strikes or mass protests. Even sections of the police have joined in.

At this point, the Tahrir Square occupation is to be suspended. We have to take Tahrir to the factories now. As the revolution proceeds, an inevitable class polarisation will take place. We have to be vigilant. We hold the keys to the liberation of the entire region, not just Egypt. Onwards we must go, with a permanent revolution that will empower the people of this country with direct democracy from below. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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