On February 11, the masses of Egypt, joined by Arab peoples in many other countries, were in the streets celebrating the removal of the hated dictator Mubarak. This victory was accomplished due to the resoluteness of a powerful mass movement, culminating in a wave of strikes and factory occupations. The revolutionary struggles in Egypt and Tunisia stand as an immediate source of inspiration for workers and youth fighting oppression in Iran, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria and Yemen. For people everywhere, it signifies that even a key agent of the imperialists can be brought down by mass struggle.
Nevertheless, the ouster of Mubarak was only a first step. His removal from power was in essence a preventative military coup, removing some prominent figures in the dictatorship but leaving intact the military, police and state bureaucracy that were the core of Mubarak’s dictatorship. The military tops were anxious to get rid of Mubarak so that their power and privileges could be maintained. Their timing was determined by an outbreak of working-class militancy that threatened to radicalize the movement and to raise demands that would threaten the profits and prerogatives of Egypt’s capitalists and their imperialist backers.
The military, with its funding, training and supplies tied to the Pentagon, is committed to maintaining Egypt’s key role in the imperialist domination of the vital Middle East. Egypt sits along key shipping routes – the Suez Canal, the Straits of Tiran and the Red Sea. In addition, after thirty years of privatizations by the regime, imperialist corporations now have significant direct interests in the super-exploitation of Egyptian workers. The Egyptian military also keeps the local imperialist power, Israel, “secure” on its southern flank – a widely unpopular collaboration. Any significant extension of democratic rights in Egypt would endanger all these interests.
That is why Barack Obama, although he made occasional noises about endorsing democracy, waffled in public over the masses’ demand that Mubarak must go. Imperial rule demands “stability” even if under brutal dictators. After Mubarak’s fall, Obama went out of his way to hail the “non-violence” of the mass protest. In reality, the movement won its victory only through heroic self-defense – first from police assaults and then in a day-long battle against the regime’s cops in street clothes and other hired thugs. These enemy forces were temporarily defeated and cowed, but not crushed.
If the masses let down their guard, the military brass will likely engineer a new government with some civilian figureheads, perhaps with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and middle-class elements from among the protest leaders, to maintain the domestic and international status quo. It has already announced its intention to quickly reform the constitution and offer it to the population for a Yes or No vote; thus the mass of Egyptians will have no real role in fashioning the future of their country. Alternatively, the military could turn to counterrevolutionary violence: it is already threatening to confront workers on strike. The one force that can stop these plans and present a genuine alternative is Egypt’s working class.
The Egyptian workers have a militant history. Their wave of strikes beginning in 2006 cracked the regime’s aura of invincibility and made the current uprising possible. Beginning in the textile spinning complexes in the city of Mahalla al-Kubra, strikes rocked Egypt for the next year and a half, with repeated factory occupations and local general strikes in Mahalla. These actions were emulated in other industries and cities. Workers shook off the state-run unions in the official Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and began forming their own organizations to govern the struggle, the basis for new, independent unions. Inch by inch, the workers began to assert the democratic rights to free speech and assembly denied Egyptians by the military regime.
By April 6, 2008, the police succeeded at compelling the workers back to work. Later that year, the class struggle flared up among the property tax collectors, one of the lowest-paid sectors of the civil service. That struggle continued into 2009 with repeated sit-ins, not only around wage demands but also for recognition of their newly-formed independent union. By laying claim to government buildings, the tax collectors also asserted the rights of free speech and assembly – this time in the heart of Cairo.
By 2010, Egyptian workers’ struggles had taken a distinctly political turn. No longer asking concessions from their local employers only, they were now demanding that the state enact a minimum monthly wage as well as an end to the privatization schemes. In a country with tremendous income inequality, such a demand for a minimum standard of living for all workers is a direct attack on capitalist profits. In the last four years of struggle, Egypt’s workers have proved that it is possible to mobilize against the regime in ways that once were unthinkable. This year, two weeks of “people power” were not enough to bring down Mubarak, but three days of a workers' strike movement forced the question.
Now that Mubarak is out, it is essential that the workers continue their class struggle and extend it. For the Egyptian revolution is at a dangerous turning point. The prominent figures seeking to represent the masses who are now negotiating with the dictatorship are acting according to bourgeois class interests and those of imperialism. Professional diplomats like ElBaradei, and the imams, businessmen and landowners like those who dominate the Muslim Brotherhood, all can be satisfied by opening more space at the top of Egyptian society. Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whom the media proclaimed to be the hero of the revolution, has expressed his satisfaction with the army’s procedure. “I felt like we were all one and that we all want what's best for Egypt,” Ghonim wrote after his initial negotiating session with the military rulers. “As an individual I feel that Egypt is in honest hands and that we are truly on the right path to achieve democracy.” (Washington Post, Feb. 14.) No wonder these types were eager for the workers and poor to leave the streets and return to their old lives of quiet suffering as soon as possible.
The bourgeois and pro-capitalist champions of democracy are willing to deal with the military junta without insisting beforehand on basic democratic demands like lifting Mubarak’s 30-year-old state of emergency decree, freeing all his political prisoners, allowing full trade union rights and defending the equality of women. Instead of calling for a popularly elected Constituent Assembly, they are willing to allow the military to write the constitution and set the rules for elections. The acts of these bourgeois opposition figures confirm Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution: only the working-class and poor can be relied on to continue the fight to overthrow the dictatorship and win democracy for all Egyptians; only they have no interest in maintaining the capitalist society that the military defends. The workers will carry out the masses’ democratic demands by leading the socialist revolution that will create a workers’ and peasants’ government under a workers’ state.
The reason for the bourgeois treachery is that they know that genuine democracy is incompatible with the needs of Egyptian capitalism and the imperialist powers. In a time of economic crisis, with the world sliding toward another Great Depression, capitalism cannot offer a better life to the masses it has impoverished. Aside from temporary concessions to quell mass struggles, capitalism can only worsen poverty and exploitation. In dominated and exploited neo-colonies of the Middle East, Egypt above all, the struggle for democracy threatens the capitalists’ vital interests, because the masses will use democratic freedoms to fight to better their lives and to oppose policies that cater to Israeli and U.S. imperialism.
Mass struggles have already come close to threatening the economic and military needs of the imperialists. The Suez Canal workers who went on strike during the February uprising could enforce their demands by shutting down the canal, a vital artery for world shipping. They could also show their solidarity with other targets of imperialism by barring the canal to the vessels ferrying war material to the hated U.S. occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, the Egyptian masses abhor Mubarak’s complicity with Israel’s imprisonment of the people of the Gaza ghetto. If they win the democratic rights to assemble and protest, the masses could tear down the wall and end the blockade of Gaza, a move that would undermine imperialist Israel’s overall oppression of the Palestinians and thereby call into question its very existence as an apartheid state.
For these reasons, the specter of democracy haunts the imperialists, their Egyptian capitalist allies as well as the other rulers in the region. They all know the masses will not be satisfied with minor democratic reforms but will build on their victories in struggle to make far greater challenges to the system itself.
While the mass struggle in Egypt today has proved too great for the state to crush, that balance cannot last forever. The forces of the ruling class, as well as the imperialists who rely on them to keep order, will inevitably turn to repression when they think they can and must. Workers’ socialist revolution is the only hope of avoiding severe defeats, including counterrevolution, as well as the only solution to the problems faced by the workers and the poor. The Egyptian masses’ struggle will either triumph as a socialist revolution by the working class that spreads the revolution throughout the Middle East, or it will suffer a bloody defeat.
Workers and poor people (semi-employed and unemployed workers as well as impoverished vendors and others from more middle-class occupations) account for the overwhelming majority of protesters on the streets, but at first they mostly participated simply as part of “the people,” without emphasizing specifically working-class demands. That changed in the last days, with the formation of a new federation of independent unions, and the militant struggles by tens of thousands of textile workers in Mahalla, and of strikes and workplace occupations by factory and service workers in every city across the country.
As an indication of how some workers have advanced beyond pure trade unionism, striking iron and steel workers of Helwan (an industrial suburb of Cairo) demanded not only the end of the regime and the dismantling of the ETUF, but also the “confiscation of public sector companies that have been sold or closed down or privatized … and the formation of a new management by workers and technicians,” along with the “formation of workers’ committees in all workplaces to monitor production, prices, distribution and wages.” It was also left to these workers to raise the demand for a Constituent Assembly that the bourgeois “democrats” ought to stand for. Their manifesto called for “a general assembly of all sectors and political trends of the people to develop a new constitution and elect real popular committees without waiting for the consent or negotiation with the regime.” [ www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article20203]
The experience of struggle against the Mubarak dictatorship has given workers a sense of the tremendous power they have when united in collective action. Likewise, the compromising and anti-worker role played by various opposition leaders is already providing powerful confirmation of the revolutionary socialist perspective. Those lessons will be lost, however, if the revolutionary strategy is not put forward clearly and openly.
Many observers hailed the “leaderlessness” of the uprising centered in Tahrir Square, even though there was significant organizational leadership by youth groups inspired by the years of workers’ struggles. But a revolution demands political leadership, and the middle-class and bourgeois elements are taking it in the direction of supporting the military’s “transition to democracy.” The working class has to do more than provide powerful backing for democratic reforms – it has to fight for its own and the masses’ needs. As long as the revolution is promoted as being in the interests of all classes, it will be limited to narrow democratic changes at best. If revolutionaries do not build working-class leadership of the struggle, power will by default fall into the hands of those with the greatest resources, the bourgeoisie.
If it is to move forward, the limits of Egypt’s “popular revolution” must be transcended: the heroic efforts so far must be built on to move toward a conscious struggle for the working class to seize power. That requires cohering leadership by a revolutionary socialist political party of the most far-sighted and determined workers and youth, a party prepared to win the support of the masses in seizing leadership of the struggle from the pro-capitalist figures that currently dominate it. A revolutionary party has the opportunity to grow quickly in Egypt today, but doing so demands that socialists fight under their own banner and politically confront the pro-bourgeois forces they were allied with in the struggle to oust Mubarak.
One step that revolutionary-minded workers and youth could take is to fight for an orientation towards a political general strike to win both economic demands (a living minimum wage, decent wages for all, full union rights) and democratic demands (ending the state of emergency, freeing all political prisoners, freedom of speech, the press and political association, equal rights for women, etc.). A general strike can win immediate demands – and it can also lead to the creation of factory committees, councils of workers, the unemployed and other unrepresented sectors of society. It would be a tremendous leap forward in building the strength of the class as a whole and the revolutionary consciousness of its most advanced members.
There is no reason to accept the middle-class and bourgeois leaders, secular and religious, who are now compromising with the military regime. (The latest is the influential Muslim cleric Yussuf al-Qaradawi, exiled by Mubarak, who returned home and gave the traditional Friday sermon in Tahrir Square February 18; he too demanded that strikers go back to work.) Fighting for a Constituent Assembly is the best way to expose the fraud of the current negotiations. The fight for this and the other democratic demands can fortify the alliance of the working class with all the oppressed, as well as demonstrate the inextricable conflict between genuine democracy and capitalist rule. This military regime has already proved it cannot be trusted; revolutionaries must demonstrate through struggle that no bourgeois alternative can fulfill the masses’ aspirations.
Marxists understand that the role of the police is to enforce law and order on the general population. They can be expected to remain stubbornly loyal to the dictatorship, and the working class will have to disarm and disband them by force. The rank and file of the military, on the other hand, are conscripted from the working class and peasantry and do not expect to be ordered to repress their brothers and sisters. The soldiers’ identification with the masses’ struggles make them an unreliable force when the ruling class chooses to resort to repression. A prime task of the Egyptian revolution is to split the army, dividing the sympathetic soldiers from the officers loyal to the ruling class. In Libya, in the face of massacres of protesters by government forces in the city of Benghazi, there have been reports of soldiers going over to the side of the protesters.
The example of the working-class and poor masses becoming more organized in their struggle, building councils of democratically elected leaders, can have a great effect on the ranks of the army. Revolutionaries should encourage the ranks of soldiers to organize councils of their own and to fight for the right to elect their own officers. Fears among soldiers that officers appointed from above will order them to repress the masses can make such ideas particularly appealing. Revolutionaries should also call on the soldiers to help arm the workers’ organizations to defend themselves against attacks by the police and other counter-revolutionaries. The experience of struggle within the army will go a long way to proving to the ranks of soldiers that they must overthrow their officers’ chain of command and join the working-class struggle.
Rank-and-file soldiers will be even more willing to break the chain of command if they see a powerful working-class struggle, a clear program and a revolutionary leadership that gives confidence in the class’s ability to advance the revolution and to lead the working class in seizing state power – all with the goal of building a new society of abundance and freedom. For this, a vanguard revolutionary party of the working class is again necessary.
In 1917, the Russian working class overthrew the Tsar, but it allowed bourgeois politicians to hold power. Lenin’s bold declaration, “No Support to the (capitalist) Provisional Government,” helped the workers embrace the perspective of socialist revolution. Today, the Egyptian working class needs its leaders to assert loudly, clearly and unceasingly that socialist revolution is the only solution. Just as the necessity of revolutionary leadership was demonstrated by the Bolshevik Party in 1917, the deadly consequences if the workers do not create a revolutionary leadership was seen in the Iranian revolution of 1979: then the workers’ organizations chose not to fight for power but instead to back “anti-imperialist” reactionary leaders – who led them into the death trap of counterrevolution.
The fate of the Egyptian revolution is intimately linked to the upsurge that is growing across North Africa and the Middle East. Freedom and a decent life for the mass of Egyptians will be possible when imperialism’s client states are overthrown, including the racist colonial-settler state of Israel. Socialist revolutions throughout the region would establish a federation of workers’ states, including a Palestinian workers’ state on the whole territory that is now Israel and Palestine. This would maximize genuine international cooperation and the pooling of resources, the only solution to the misery of the workers and poor. The speed with which the Tunisian masses’ uprising spread across the Arab world shows the potential for this strategy to succeed. Building internationalist revolutionary parties is the key.