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Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution

New pro-labor coalitions are forming in Egypt, but can they reinvigorate a stalled movement for social justice?
 
 
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The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

To commemorate the first anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship, activists in Egypt called for a general strike earlier this month. But compared to the massive uprising of 2011,  the response on the ground was muted. The military regime that has succeeded Hosni Mubarak was predictably dismissive of the anti-government “plotters,” and even activists  acknowledged what seems to be a sort of protest fatigue.

But a year ago, when the Arab Spring was still fresh, labor activists were on the frontlines across Egypt, leading a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations. Today many ordinary Egyptians appear deflated or disilllusioned. With the new political structure  divided between Islamist factions and a military junta, the country may be drifting back toward the  familiar trade-off between democratic aspirations and political stability.

Reuters reported:

It was business as usual at Cairo's railway station and airport. Buses and the metro ran as normal and an official said the strike call had no impact on the Suez Canal...

"We are hungry and we have to feed our children," said bus driver Ahmed Khalil, explaining why he was not taking part in the labor action called by liberal and leftist groups, together with some student and independent trade unions.

"I have to come here every morning and work. I don't care if there is a strike or civil disobedience," he said.

The tepid response doesn’t necessarily suggest people have given up on systemic change, but it does represent the challenges of sustaining hope in the face of state oppression and economic crisis. At this stage, worker-led initiatives might again provide a vital boost, but activists haven’t yet channeled workers’ everyday grievances into a comprehensive political vision.

Noting that workers are often not politically organized, even if they're willing to strike, Hossam el-Hamalawy, journalist and organizer with the Egyptian  Revolutionary Socialists, told  In These Times:

The general strike was successful in the universities because of the existence of independent student unions and student groups on the ground that could mobilize for this. In the case of the workers, we do not have (yet) either an independent trade union federation or a labor party that could pull this together. General strikes cannot be organized via Facebook calls.

But labor was a vibrant force of dissent in Egypt long before the Arab Spring. Worker-activists were involved both in the nationalist movements of the early-twentieth century and later on, in struggles under the authoritarian rule that was enforced by the state union apparatus. When neoliberal policies took hold of the economy during the 1970s, workers confronted a convergence of capitalist exploitation and state repression, fraught with low wages, gender discrimination and crackdowns on labor organizing.

The upheaval that began last January was in some ways an extension of this tradition. In his research on Egypt's labor movement (published in an  AFL-CIO Solidarity Center report), historian Joel Beinin has documented hundreds upon hundreds of strikes and protest over the past several years. Uprisings often responded directly to workplace conflicts, with particularly strong mobilization in the textile industry and public sector. The pattern of wildcat strikes continued in 2011.

Still, more radical opposition movements haven’t deeply engaged the working class. Though groups like the Revolutionary Socialists  push class-struggle rhetoric and pro-worker economic and labor policies, their image is still affiliated with the intelligensia.

 
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