The Libyan Revolution and the Arab Spring

The Libyan revolution began as did most revolutions in the Arab world, with protests against a cruel dictator. The protests grew large by mid-February and were especially large in Tripoli.[i] What quickly distinguished Libya from the rest of the Arab world was the brutality of the dictator’s counter attack and the response of the protesters.

By early March the democratic protest movement had transformed into a civil war. Exactly how and why this happened is still not entirely clear. Muammar
Qaddafi’s repression was deadlier than that of Syria’s Assad, or Yemen’s Saleh.[ii]  Protesters in several cities responded
to Qaddafi’s repression by finding arms and fighting back. In Benghazi armed
protesters battled Qaddafi agents, eventually driving them from the city.[iii] Several cities and towns in both eastern and western Libya were soon liberated.

The
decision to launch a territorial battle with the regime does not appear to be
made by anyone. Key defections in the Libyan military made it possible for the
rebels to hold most of the cities in the east. By early March Qaddafi had
suppressed most of the protests that had emanated from the plebeian districts
of Tripoli and recaptured most, although not all, of the territories in the
west. The revolutionary protests turned into a revolutionary war but there is
little evidence anyone planned it that way.

Regionalism? Tribalism?

This
turn of events has left many commentators, including many on the left, to
conclude the conflict in Libya is not a revolution but a tribal or regional
civil war. Such analyses, however, are based less in fact than in prejudices
about the Arab world.

Leftists
should be particularly hesitant to embrace arguments that the current conflict is
a reflection of Libya’s tribal divisions. The view that Arabs are more tribal
than national is, after all, a key component of Orientalist mythology. Libyan writer Alaa al-Ameri argues that Libyans’ sense of nationality has been stronger than tribal or regional
loyalty for most of the 20th and 21st centuries. She
explains how Qaddafi used his patronage system as a method of fomenting tribal
divisions. Now, however, Libyans are rising up, not against rival tribes but
against the regime. Western leftists should take her plea seriously. “By
labeling us as ‘tribal’ you effectively dismiss the notion that our uprising
has anything to do with freedom, democracy or human dignity. Do you place
narrow regional loyalties above these values? I’m sure you would reject any
such characterisation, and naturally so. Please do
us, as Libyans, the courtesy of allowing us the same human characteristics you
attribute to yourselves.”[iv]

The argument that
the Libyan revolution is essentially a regional struggle is equally problematic.
When the uprising began it spread to numerous cities in the west, the most
famous of which is Misurata. As of April 2, 2011,
however, government forces have still failed to recapture Misurata or Zintan (south west of Tripoli). Nor do any of the
rebels’ political demands have a regional quality. The Transitional National
Council calls for a united, democratic Libya with Tripoli as its capital.[v]

Who are the rebels?

This
question has been hotly debated both within the mainstream press and also on
the left. The fact that it is difficult to answer that question with any
precision is evidence of the revolutionary character of the current conflict.
As of now, no one individual or group is in control. Within Benghazi there is
the Transitional National Council. It consists mostly of elite forces, some of
whom were recent defectors from the Qaddafi camp. Their control appears to be
limited. They do not seem to direct the military campaigns, nor do they even
control Benghazi. The new Benghazi city council operates independently. And it
is unlikely that the TNC has any influence over revolutionaries in Misurata or Zintan.[vi]

Limited
in number, the rebel fighters have mainly been untrained volunteers. According
to Jon Lee Anderson “[t]he hard core of the
fighters has been the shabab—the young
people whose protests in mid-February sparked the uprising.” There are many
religious fighters among the volunteers as well but there is little evidence
that their goal is a theocracy. There is no method of compelling any of these
forces to fight. They do so because they believe in their cause and like most
protesters throughout the Arab world they consider life under the dictator no
longer tolerable.[vii]

The
volunteer nature of the rebellion makes the fighting more chaotic and, on the
rebel side, deadlier. These shahab show little evidence of knowing how to fight, or use
weapons. Soldiers appear to race to the front lines in their personal vehicles
with minimal coordination or secure escape routes. Press reports depict scenes
of rebels firing missiles in the wrong direction and of failing to secure
mortar cannons to the ground before firing them, making proper aim impossible.
The TNC reported that some rebel soldiers fired wildly into the air on April 1,
2011 thus provoking a NATO strike which killed several rebels.[viii]

The
chaotic nature of the rebellion also provides grounds for hope. The Libyan
revolt has swept into motion masses of protesters and volunteer fighters who
are not under anyone’s control. Even the early protests in Tripoli appeared
somewhat spontaneous, with few identifiable banners or clearly planned march
routes. If they succeed they will have confidence in their own abilities to
organize and struggle, opening space for more progressive political
developments. If they are defeated such hopes will be snuffed out. While the
NATO powers will undoubtedly attempt to influence the politics of the rebels,
there is little evidence they have succeeded thus far.[ix]

The
diffuse character of the Libyan revolution so far should not surprise us. The
constellation of contradictory forces is typical of most revolutionary
processes. The Egyptian revolution of January25 to February 11 brought together
varying social forces whose only unifying demand was embodied in the
revolution’s principal slogan: “the people demand the end of the regime.” The
protests initially united capitalists frustrated by rampant government
corruption and youths and professionals who wanted an end to the police state. Hossam el-Hamalawy’s description
of people getting out of their Mercedes Benz cars to distribute water to
protesters is telling.[x] During
those heady days at Tahrir Square western media
attention focused on the roles of Mohammed el-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet neither of them proved capable of controlling
events. Only in the last three days did a strike wave break out which
ultimately forced Mubarak to step down. The aftermath of February 11 has
brought a military regime led by former Mubarak generals. They have set up an
electoral system which favors traditional, more conservative parties. On the
streets violence against women continues, as does anti-Coptic violence.[xi] And the military’s first priority appears to be to break strikes and institute
a counter-revolution. What is important, however, is that the protests and
strikes are continuing. Independent unions and left organizations have formed. By
defeating the dictator Egypt’s revolutionaries have opened the door to new
possibilities. Exactly where it will lead is impossible to predict.

The Rebels and
human rights

On
March 31, 2011 Wolfgang Weber published an article entitled,“Libyan
rebels massacre black Africans.” The article appeared on numerous websites
simultaneously. As the title suggests, Weber alleges that rebel forces have
engaged in repeated massacres of black Africans. He provides no footnotes or
other citations. He alleges that his primary source of information is an
article by the German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn from the March 22, 2011 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. A
search of that newspaper’s website yielded no such article, although several
other Heinsohn articles on unrelated topics did
appear. Nor did repeated google searches  produce evidence of such a Heinsohn article. And I have found no other references to it,
which is strange because Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is a
world-reknowned newspaper.[xii]

When
dealing with difficult subjects like this we need to be careful. We should be
open-minded enough to accept facts which may challenge our assumptions. At the
same time, it is irresponsible to engage in rumor mongering. From the scattered
bits of reliable evidence we can piece together a story that is not pretty. But
nor does it confirm the wild allegations promoted on numerous pro-Qaddafi, or
anti-rebellion websites.

Like
many petro-dictators, Qaddafi has relied on immigrant workers who come to Libya
for employment opportunities. They come from eastern and southern Asia, the middle east, and northern Africa. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity
Center estimates that sub-Saharan workers constitute as much as one-third of
Libya’s active workforce.[xiii] Estimates
vary, however. Precise demographic data is difficult to come by in a police
state. Under Qaddafi’s rule immigrant workers had no legal rights and were
barred from joining even the legally-constrained trade unions.

As
is often the case in countries with large numbers of migrant workers, there
have been periodic waves of anti-immigrant violence. Human Rights Watch has
tracked cases of mob violence against sub-Saharan Africans in Libya since 2006.[xiv]

The
outbreak of civil war in late February had particularly devastating effects on
immigrant workers. Entire cities have been vacated. Production in many areas
has shut down. HRW reports that thousands of migrants have been attempting to
flee Libya since the beginning of the conflict. Those whose home countries have
been willing to send rescue ships have been the lucky ones. Many others have
been trapped in refugee camps, living in terrible conditions.

Within
the camps several sub-Saharan workers have reported being victimized by mob
violence. So far the reports do not make clear who the mobs were, or whether
they have any connection to the rebel organizations. Nor, from the limited
number of reports, can we estimate how many have been killed. [xv]

There
is some evidence that some rebel fighters and authorities are guilty of racial
profiling and racial violence. Included among the testimony provided to Human
Rights Watch are accounts of beatings at the hands of rebel fighters. In reaction
to Qaddafi’s widely-reported use of mercenaries from Chad and Niger[xvi],
some Black Africans in Benghazi have been arrested on spurious evidence of
collaboration with the regime. Again, it is difficult to tell how widespread
this is. Most reports refer to a single event in Benghazi involving fewer than
ten people. But it would not be surprising if it occurred more frequently,
given the chaos of civil war, the primitive character of revolutionary justice
in general, and the racial bigotry which is undoubtedly still common-place.

A
March 29, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail article provides some details of the above-mentioned events. It also indicates
that the human rights situation has improved since mid-March. The TNC has
appointed human rights activist Mohamed el-Allagi as
its new Minister of Justice and has welcomed the involvement of HRW and the Red
Cross to improve its human rights record. Whether this is more PR than reality,
and whether el-Allagi will actually have power over
anything is yet to be seen.[xvii]

We
should be critically open-minded about these events. It may be that some rebel
forces have  engaged in reprehensible attacks. And we should have no illusions
that a successful revolution will end such attacks, any more than the Egyptian
revolution has ended religious or gender violence. What we can say with
confidence is that if the Qaddafi regime prevails it will reinstitute all of
the racist policies that have made immigrant workers second-class citizens, and
created the conditions for racial and ethnic conflicts. If the revolution
succeeds, there is at least the possibility of new political forces emerging
which can envision a different kind of social order.

Imperialism and the rebels

By
mid-March the Qaddafi regime had recaptured the offensive. Outnumbered and
poorly equipped the rebel armies were abandoning territory in central Libya and
government forces were closing in on Benghazi. A massive counter-revolutionary
assault, implying possible defeat for the rebel forces and a potential
humanitarian catastrophe was imminent.[xviii]

At this
point rebels in Benghazi loudly demanded a “no fly zone” to protect them from
Qaddafi’s air assault. On March 17, 2011 the United Nations Security Council
established a robust no fly zone under Resolution 1973. Someday the documents
of all the frantic discussions that must have occurred within all the capitals
of the great powers will shed light on the complex set of motives that led the
great powers to intervene. From outside the halls of power several motivations
seem probable: fear of a large flood of north African refugees into southern
Europe, a desire to influence rather than further alienate the Arab
revolutions, fear that civil war would disrupt oil flows out of Libya. Gilbert Achcar suggests the United States and the Europeans also
feared that a massacre in Benghazi would pressure them to impose sanctions on
Qaddafi, cutting off their supply of Libyan oil. One commonplace assumption
does not make sense, however. The imperial powers are not in this in order to
seize Libyan oil. Western corporations have had lucrative oil contracts for
years and there was no evidence of corporate pressure to oust Qaddafi before
the revolution began.[xix]

This
situation produced a gut-wrenching debate on the left. Leftists have correctly
been suspicious of the motives of the great powers, and skeptical that they
have any interest in promoting a democratic revolution in Libya. However, in
the third week of March the only options left were a victory of Qaddafi’s
counter-revolution or the prevention of that victory by western air strikes.[xx]

Trying
to find a way out of the conundrum of supporting the revolution while opposing
imperialist intervention some leftists proposed alternatives, none of which
were plausible. Achcar explains that providing
weapons to the rebels, while desirable, would not have avoided the problem. The
time frame was very short. And anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry require
training. In fact, to be effective, western arms would have to have come with
trainers and advisors. And they would have been targeted to those rebels the
great powers most preferred. In short, it would have been no less an
imperialist intervention.

British
socialist Kevin Ovenden proposed that instead of
western military intervention, leftists should have demanded Egyptian
intervention. In his response to Achcar Ovenden argues that the Egyptian military, pressured by
radical mass sentiment in Cairo, could have played a revolutionary role in
Libya. You only have to picture Egyptian flags,” Ovenden writes, “of the kind that fluttered in Tahrir Square, being waved in Benghazi rather than the
Tricolor and Union Jack to appreciate what the difference would be.
” It is
a beautiful image. It was also a fantasy. The Egyptian military, preoccupied
with checking the growth of the newly independent and militant labor movement,
was unlikely to attempt to internationalize the very revolution it is
determined to stop. Left forces in Egypt who raised those demands were more
than justified. And they may have contributed to political education within
Egypt. But it was never a practical solution to the crisis in Benghazi.

In
this context, however, it is worth noting one alternative that may not have
been able to relieve the pressure on Benghazi but would have been politically
useful. Had Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez expressed direct
support for the Libyan revolution they could have impacted the political
balance of forces within the rebel camp and within the middle
east
. Cuba and Venezuela, instead of France, could have been the first
countries to recognize the TNC. Instead of Qatar, they could have been the
first to open trade deals. They probably could have offered arms and trainers,
even if they couldn’t provide a no fly zone.

Instead
they offered equivocal statements. They opposed western intervention, supported
vague conceptions of Libyan self-determination, and never once supported the
Libyan revolution. Castro recounted Qaddafi’s allegedly progressive history and
how he had been repeatedly victimized by imperialism. Chavez doubted the
reports of Qaddafi’s brutality.
[xxi] In short the two most prominent
figures who claim to be revolutionaries and socialists made it clear to the
Libyan revolutionaries, and to revolutionaries throughout the Arab world, that
they were not on their side.
[xxii]

By
refusing to support the Libyan revolution Castro and Chavez have done yet
further damage to the image of socialism in the Arab world. This is especially
destructive because Qaddafi’s repeated use of socialist rhetoric has already
associated socialism with tyranny and corruption.  Their verbal intervention has made the work of socialists
that much harder.

Libya and the Arab spring

So
far the demands of the protesters in every Arab country are limited. They want
an end to the dictatorship and political freedom. In Bahrain, the protests
began demanding a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy. In Syria,
most activists originally called only for legal reforms, but more and more have
now demanded an end to Assad’s rule. Only in Egypt has a mass workers movement
erupted. But there is not yet a significant section of that movement raising
socialist demands.

What
makes these revolutions exciting is that masses of people are in the streets.
They are creating in practice the democratic reforms they demand. To the extent
they can force open their societies, break the power of the dictators, they
create new possibilities. In that context masses of people learn how powerful
they really are.

The
Libyan revolution began in much the same way. Unfortunately, it has taken on a
military character, which makes mass protests difficult. But the massive
plebeian character of even the rebel military is apparent from all reports. If
Qaddafi is victorious it will put an end to the revolutionary potential of this
moment in Libya. That will have a devastating effect on the masses of Libya and
a demoralizing effect on protesters throughout the Arab world. If Qaddafi can
be overthrown, however, then there is potential for a revival of mass movements.



[i] For a video of one of the Tripoli protests of February 28, 2011 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YgygsXWOYM

[ii] Human Rights Watch has documented the number of oppositionists disappeared
under Qaddafi. See

http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/03/30/libya-least-370-missing-countrys-east

[iii] Robert F.
Worth, “On Libya’s Revolutionary Road” New York
Times Magazine
, April 3, 2011

[iv] Alaa al-Ameri. “The myth of
tribal Libya.” Guardian.
March 30, 2011. Zionist leaders have similarly emphasized and attempted to
exacerbate tribal, clannish, and confessional loyalties among Palestinians in
order to blunt Palestinian nationalism. See Hillel Cohen, Good Arabs. (2010)

[v] On the question of regionalism see the debate between Juan Cole and Vijay Prashaud. http://www.democracynow.org/2011/3/29/a_debate_on_us_military_intervention

The New York
Times runs an interactive map of the Libyan rebellion which shows how
widespread it originally was in western Libya. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/25/world/middleeast/map-of-how-the-protests-unfolded-in-libya.html For the demands of the Transitional National Council see the recent essay by
Gilbert Achcar: http://www.zcommunications.org/barack-obama-s-libya-speech-and-the-tasks-of-anti-imperialists-by-gilbert-achcar

[vi] For a
description of relations between the TNC and other authorities see Worth, op
cit.

[vii] Jon Lee
Anderson, “Who are the rebels?” New Yorker, April 4, 2011. For a more
analytical description of the rebel forces see Nicolas Pelham’s “Libya in the
Balance.” MERIP, March 15, 2011. http://www.merip.org/mero/mero031511.

[viii] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/04/20114354942249240.html.
There is evidence that discipline may have improved over the past week: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110401/ap_on_bi_ge/af_libya

[ix] Marwan Bishara, “Libyan Karzai? Chalabi? Forget It.” http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/2011/03/2011328194855872276.html

The recent
TNC ceasefire offer is also interesting in this regard. It requires that
Qaddafi withdraw his military from the central cities and allow peaceful
protests. It does not suggest a power sharing agreement. Qaddafi, not
surprisingly, refused. See Phyllis Bennis’ opinion
essay: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/04/201142131720113248.html#

[x] “The
Egyptian Elite and the Egyptian Revolt: Video Interview with Hossam el-Hamalawy.” http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1022/the-egyptian-elite-and-the-egyptian-revolt_video-i

[xi] On anti-Coptic violence see http://www.copts.com/english/?p=1096Nesrine Malik’s analysis of the complexities of women’s roles in
the Arab revolutions is worth reading: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/02/arab-women-protesters

[xii]For the
Weber article see:  http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/mar2011/rebe-m31.shtml.
If anyone can find a link to the Heinsohn piece
please post it in the comments section.

[xiii] http://www.solidaritycenter-dz.org/b5.php

[xiv] http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/03/02/libya-stranded-foreign-workers-need-urgent-evacuation

[xv] The International Business Times of March 1,
2011 had some fragmentary information. http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/117665/20110301/libya-africans.htm.
Al-jazeera also produced a video report on some of
the victims of racial violence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNA8z5G-Xmk

[xvi] Worth
interviewed some of these mercenaries. Op cit.

[xvii] . http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/africa-mideast/in-a-rebel-prison-any-african-is-a-mercenary/article1960597/

[xviii]On March
17, 2011 HRW warned of an imminent threat to civilians. http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/03/17/libya-benghazi-civilians-face-grave-risk

[xix] http://www.israeli-occupation.org/2011-03-24/gilbert-achcar-libya-a-legitimate-and-necessary-debate-from-an-anti-imperialist-perspective/

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] For an example of one of Castro’s statements see http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/Perspectives_1/article_7662.shtml

For a video
of Chavez’s infamous “No me consta …” speech see http://www.marthacolmenares.com/2011/03/01/video-no-me-consta-que-gadafi-sea-un-asesino-ha-dicho-hugo-chavez/ On the same site is an earlier speech in which Chavez
compared Qaddafi to Simon Bolivar. 

[xxii] While
their statements do not explicitly endorse the counter-revolution, they have
created the impression throughout the middle east that
they do. Castro and Chavez have now had six weeks to correct that impression
and failed to do so.


Egyptian labor: "The link between the struggle of the workers and the struggle for democracy is absolutely crucial"

These remarks were delivered to a recent meeting of the Solidarity National Committee to introduce a discussion on the Egyptian labor movement.

Egyptian labor confronts neoliberalism

This presentation could go back centuries because Egyptian labor history is so rich. I’m going to do a quick run through of some points which relate to the current labor uprisings. In a certain sense, what’s been going on with the Egyptian workers movement over the past month or so is a reaction to developments that have been building up for three and a half decades within Egypt.

These developments go all the way back to 1974 when Anwar el-Sadat started an assault on the so-called Arab Socialist state welfare policies of the Nasser period. This is the program that he referred to as the “open door policy.” Sadat negotiated with the IMF and World Bank and eliminated subsidies for foods and created huge openings for foreign investments, and joint ventures. That proceeded apace until 1991 when Mubarak unleashed a much more aggressive assault on labor through economic reform and structural adjustment programs that he instituted in coordination with the IMF. This undertook the privatization of more than 300 publicly- owned firms. The issue that came up with privatization is that these firms all had payrolls that, from a capitalist standpoint, were padded. You wouldn’t make profit as a private corporation with such large payrolls. So rather than simply do wholesale layoffs they offered generous retirement funds of about the equivalent of $10,000, which is enough for an Egyptian worker to buy a small business and survive. The state could afford to pay for this at the time.

The Global Recession begins

But then as the global recession began – and it began in the less developed countries several years earlier than it began in the United States – they decided they couldn’t do that anymore. Mubarak made two important changes that are important background to recent developments. The first, in 2003, they passed the Unified Labor Law. That does important things. It solidifies under Egyptian law the total control by the Egyptian Trade Union Federation over all Egyptian unions and establishes this as the only legal union federation. This is a state-controlled union federation. The head of the ETUF would sometimes double as the minister of labor for Egypt and all members of the leadership body were handpicked by members of Mubarak’s New Democratic Party.

The second thing it does is create a category of worker who is a worker on a fixed-term contract. This basically means that they don’t have permanent employment but are there for a set amount of time. In many cases this means that their terms are constantly renewed and they are in fact full time permanent workers, sort of the way corporations here sometimes hire temp workers and just keep them on as temp workers over and over again.

What’s important about that is not just that they don’t receive benefits but that they are legally barred from joining the union, even the ETUF. Then Mubarak realizes that he has to go for a much bigger assault on labor and he dissolves the cabinet, reshuffles the cabinet – this is the government which was overthrown just a few weeks ago. He actually dissolved it, at the end of January. What that cabinet does is start to introduce layoffs in order to privatize these firms.

So for the next five years, a whole wave of strikes start to break out. There are different estimates out there, probably something like three thousand strikes took place over that five year period involving over two million workers. Almost all of these strikes were wildcats and were opposed by the ETUF.

There were many efforts in the course of this to form independent unions. In the private sector these efforts didn’t succeed in the sense that they didn’t establish unions that were recognized by the employers. In the private sector, especially, you should understand that the heart of this labor protest is in the area of Mahalla (north of Cairo, near both the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea). Mahalla is the center of Egyptian textile workers and there are hundreds of small, medium and even some large sized plants. The largest is the Misr Spinning and Weaving Plant which also has one of the most militant histories of strike activity including a major, major strike that was just won this past week.

As I said, there were all kinds of efforts to win unions for these plants which are really kind of semi-private, semi-public. They have private management but the army still has the ultimate say on labor-management relations and policy within them.

Gender dynamics of the strikes

One thing that’s interesting that we should try to understand is the gender dynamics of these strikes, especially among the cotton and spinning workers. One thing that happened as a result of Sadat’s rollback of Nasser’s limited agrarian reform is that a lot of women from rural areas started moving to town to get jobs in small to medium sized factories. And in the cotton and spinning industries the factories are gender segregated – of course that is for right-wing and chauvinistic reasons. However, it has an interesting effect. It puts women in factory work, together, in such a way that there are no men around all day long. These women develop a culture of starting to socialize their complaints, have dialogs without any men there telling them “shut up, this is not your place.”

They begin to organize, and they become among the most militant of the factory workers in Mahalla because of this. They start to take up issues which are not just workplace issues but issues of sexual harassment. We’ve been hearing in the media about some of the widespread sexual harassment which is a huge issue in Egypt and many of these same women start raising demands about the right to file a complaint against people who grope them on the street and have the police do something – because generally speaking it gets filed and nothing is done. But sexual harassment is a form of labor discipline in these factories as well. Typically plant managers deal with women who are organizing in the plant by sexually assaulting them in an effort to discourage further organizing. The issues get mixed.

Strike waves and independent unions

Historically speaking, the one group of workers in Egypt who were successful prior to the current upsurge in organizing an independent union and breaking from the ETUF were the property tax collectors. There are about 65,000 of these people in Egypt. Understand that their social power is quite strong. This is a corrupt, military dictatorship which does not just mean you have a general in charge, you have a half a million strong army whose income is based in the semi-private, semi-public sector. Part of the income they get is from these tax collections all around the country. So when these tax collectors went on strike it meant that one of the state’s main sources of revenue was being choked off. The other thing that gave them strength was that they were not privatized at all. They were totally public sector. They were not dealing with an employer who had to look at whether their firm could survive if they gave into some of the workers’ wage demands. So they were successful both in their strikes back in 2007 and in forming an independent union which got legal recognition and was the only one to do so. They got that by going out on strike several times.

There were other public sector workers who tried it, one in a category that doesn’t really exist here but the closest way to describe it would be public school clerical workers. The labor system is different in the public schools there than it is here. There is a whole sector of clerical staff that runs the examination system. When they go on strike it means that students can’t take any kind of exams that would be required for graduation. So they are basically able to shut down the school system. They tried many times but did not succeed in getting recognition.

Out of that period of 2007-2008 came an effort among the Mahalla textile workers to organize a much larger strike set for April 2008. They wanted to demand a minimum wage. This was essentially a political strike even though it was over an economic issue – they were challenging the state, not just demanding an increase for themselves. They were going on strike, or planned to go on strike, to demand a nationwide increase in the minimum wage for everybody. The strike didn’t actually happen and there are disputes as to why. Joel Beinen’s argument is that the military sent police agents into the factories, shut the factories down in Mahalla to prevent it from happening. There are other accounts as to why it didn’t happen. But there was a strike solidarity committee formed out of this called the April 6 Movement that came to play a key role in organizing the protests in January and February.

A couple things are important to understand. The labor upsurge of the last three days of Mubarak’s reign played a big role in forcing him to finally step down. The massive pro-democracy movement, that very broad pro-democracy movement, plays a role in helping to open a space for these strikes to happen after a year or so in which strike activity had been on the downturn since 2009. Some of these strikes are simply workers who feel emboldened to protest and so they go on strike for immediate issues in their workplace. Some take up the larger issues of “Mubarak Must Go” but not all of them did.

The continuing struggle

What’s key to understand, though, is that the level of working-class activity of those last three days of Mubarak didn’t end with Mubarak leaving. The strikes and struggle for independent worker rights continued. The property tax collectors’ union launched an initiative to form a much larger, independent union. Here you have a statement from Kamal Abu Aita. Jane Slaughter interviewed him for Labor Notesnot too long ago. He basically calls for an independent union but also raises some of the larger political issues. I’ll give you a couple of the phrases:

“The British and American governments make a lot of noise about democracy and stopping the violence but the bullets which are killing us are made in the USA. This message must get out. The regime cut off our communication, but workers solidarity is stronger. It shows that we can make a more humane future together.”

So, this is not explicitly socialist, but it is very, very revolutionary. And it does see workers’ mobilization as the key. Now they claim to have about two million members – this is an organization that formed a couple of years ago. So, obviously, exciting stuff.

Most recently, just this past week, those same Misr Spinning and Weaving workers went on strike and again their demands were both immediate and also larger political demands. They went on strike, the army kept telling them to get back to work, they didn’t listen, finally the army came in on February 19 – just a few days ago – and came to a settlement with them. The settlement was, first, the army agreed to fire their boss. That was one of their top demands, that their boss be fired. Again, it goes past narrow demands to the idea of who should be controlling this factory. They got a 25% pay increase, and they got paid for the days they were on strike!

Then, they issued this declaration. This is from the largest factory in Egypt: “We, the 24,000 striking workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, on February 16 2011, declare that we refuse to continue being forced to be members of the governmental trade union federation. Hence we demand that the company administration stop deducting from our salaries subscriptions [that’s dues check-off] that are paid to the General Union of Spinning and Textile Workers [which is a member of the ETUF]. We the workers of Misr Spinning and Weaving are hereby joining the new independent federation of trade unions created on January 30.” So, this is still going on – and there was another, the workers at Ghazl, another factory near Misr, went on strike on Thursday.

I think a couple of things. First, the link between the struggle of the workers and the struggle for democracy is absolutely crucial. The purpose of that dictatorship was to keep the workers movement under control and to keep it subordinate to the state. We should not be trying to separate or downplay what some might call “bourgeois democracy.” This is absolutely crucial for a workers movement to regenerate in Egypt.

As far as I can see, I don’t get the sense that any of the socialist left is that well rooted in these rank and file worker rebellions that have developed. What this movement needs, it seems to me, is time. You have a whole new generation of worker activists who are learning about their own collective power and drawing all kinds of political conclusions. The struggle to keep that space open and prevent the repression that the military is, at every minute of every hour planning and plotting to re-institute, is going to be crucial.

Concluding remarks

One thing this whole Middle East crisis raises for us is a call for us to re-evaluate the whole concept and terminology that people have been using here of “bourgeois democracy”, the whole notion that there is some kind of basic interest that capital has in even formal democracy. I think that’s historically wrong. If you want to talk about 1848, and draw that lesson, that’s not what their basic interest is. There is no group in the United States that got even the right to vote without struggling against the state for decades to get it. And that’s true in England too, and it happened a couple hundred years after the transition to capitalism.

Why is that relevant? It’s not just a theoretical point. It’s relevant to Egypt because I just don’t see any evidence of an independent capitalist class that wants to see some kind of neoliberal transformation where you have a multiparty system without the rule of the army. I don’t see any evidence at all. It didn’t come out in the street protests if it exists.

The main agency of the neoliberalism in Egypt was the Mubarak regime. It is the military. And it’s not at all clear that you could ease the military out of power without a revolutionary assault against it. I don’t see a model – some people have pointed to Turkey as a model – I don’t see a model where the military survives as a corrupt system of patronage and privilege combined with joint ventures with international capital. I don’t seem them able to maintain that in a multiparty system. I think the prospects for democracy come from these little events where the military says go back to work and the workers say no. The military says to the youth and middle class protestors, go back home and the protestors say no. Then the army is afraid to give the command to do anything about it because they don’t know if the soldiers will obey the command.

So you have this very tense situation and there are a lot of ways it could go, a lot of scenarios. One scenario is the military figures out a way to re-install the military dictatorship. That’s probably the most likely and worrisome of all the scenarios. Now, related to that, one thought I’ve been having over the past couple weeks I’ve been thinking about this presentation is that people on our side, in my opinion, are very very fortunate that there is no Soviet Union right now. There is no legacy of Stalinism there to step in. Because what that means is, you have the possibility for some of these working class activists who are clearly interested in revolutionary ideas to be in a position to think, “well, what do we do now?” without this terrible model that says “what you do is you seize power and establish a one party state and totally discredit the name of socialism to everybody both in your country and around the world.”

And that gets back to what I’m saying – it’s going to take time. We don’t know where it’s going and there are all kinds of possibilities that aren’t foreseeable right now as far as where it’s going to go. But I think what we’ll need to be looking for is to try make these ties – and Labor Notes is already doing it – with these independent trade unionists. And there are a lot of people who Erin was referring to who are already in touch with Labor Notes, they are already being interviewed for articles, I suspect some of them will probably be at the next Labor Notes conference, they’ve already sent messages to Madison, one of them sent pizzas to Madison. So the fact that these two revolts are going on at the same time means that there’s this incredibly practical form of real internationalism that we haven’t seen within the lifetime of anybody in this room.

We haven’t seen this kind of actual working-class solidarity where workers in different parts of the world are communicated with each other. That’s different. We’ve seen what the Left used to call internationalism, which is support for struggles in different countries. That’s not the same thing. Because we are in this post-1989 period we are talking to people who are trying to reinvent what it means to be a revolutionary socialist now. Is there actually something you can do in Egypt other than keep struggling and hope that struggles break out elsewhere so there’s something to relate to? It’s not at all clear. But where we are at.