Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution
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Beinin told ITT that, since civil society was so suppressed under authoritarian rule, many workers today--
aren't used to sitting down and talking about politics and the country in a reasoned, logical kind of way... What they do is they [say], "Our management is corrupt, it was a crime to sell this public sector enterprise to these private investors who then reneged on their contractual obligations anyway--things like that. They don't usually say, "The problem is, the IMF and the World Bank are trying to shape the Egyptian economy along vicious, vulture, private-sector capitalist lines."
In the process of building a grassroots political movement, he noted, “There's been this problem of trying to get workers in general to believe that there is a broader problem than whatever the issues are at their workplace.”
While workers are consumed with immediate problems of economic instability and unemployment, labor activists struggle to find unity as organizations jostle for representation in the fractious post-Mubarak political landscape. Meanwhile, reactionary political forces and state violence have narrowed the public sphere for dissent.
Yet new pro-labor coalitions are emerging--across sectors, political communities, and even national boundaries (though collaboration with international civic groups remains intensely controversial). In a report on a recent Egyptian trade union conference, Ben Moxham of the UK-based Trades Union Congress observed promising diversity among the participants, including women and rural workers:
What impressed me greatly is that these folks aren’t waiting for some legislative silver bullet to deliver a union movement to them. They are going out there and making it under laws that haven’t changed since Hosni Mubarak owned the country.
Kamal Abbas, leader of the advocacy group Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, reflected with cautious optimism on the prospects for strengthening independent unions and worker-led movements in a June 2011 interview with Toward Freedom: “The challenge now that the revolution has succeeded is to be able to build a society of social justice.”
Months later, that vision is shadowed by a creeping sense of frustration and futility, especially among struggling communities that, for now, are more focused on survival than on political ideals. Egyptians haven’t given up on their revolution, but to bring people back to Tahrir Square, labor and activist groups need to rekindle faded solidarity on the ground level, before the counter-revolution stamps out its last embers.
Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.